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‘We owe this charity to ourselves’ – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

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Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Date: 5 November, Fourth Sunday before Advent

The teaching at the end of our second reading today sounds lovely – and it almost sounds easy: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’.

But down the centuries we know that those who have truly lived this ethic do so at great personal cost. It is not the way of the world.

The way of the world seems to say: ‘hate those who hate you and do to them, as they’ve done to you’. That feels like the reality of our world.

Writing about the suffering of Christ the contemporary poet NS Thompson talks about the ‘Silent Messiah’ and the love God ‘interposed’ on the cross. And that sounds the right word to describe the way love is called to intervene in the cycles of violence and hatred in our world. Without the remarkable people who interpose themselves between hatred and revenge, rage and retribution, I think our world would be in an even worse state than it is today. We see it in the lives of the twentieth century martyrs including Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Esther John. People whose love and faith led them to interpose themselves in situations of division and hatred.

But I’m sure that these people, and the many more whose names we don’t know, would acknowledge the importance of the people who loved them and prayed for them. Christians are never alone, and it reminds us that even when we aren’t able to be in these situations, it’s vital that we support the people who are. There have been moments in history when hope has broken through in ways that are both surprising and inspiring.

In the year 1076 AD, the Muslim ruler of present-day Algeria wrote to Pope Gregory VII. He wrote because there were Christians in his Kingdom and they needed a Bishop to support them – and he asked the Pope to supply one. The reply from the Pope is remarkable, and hopeful, and includes the following:

‘The Almighty God, who wishes that all should be saved and none lost, approves nothing in so much as that after loving Him we should love our neighbour, and that we should not do to others, what we do not want done to ourselves.

You and we owe this charity to ourselves, especially because we believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way, and daily praise and venerate him, the creator of the world and ruler of this world’.

For me, the key phrase in this unusual communication is that ‘we owe this charity to ourselves’.

In other words, that violence and endless hostility diminishes us as much as the people we oppose. It is a rare glimmer of hope in an age when, like today, violence linked to religion is a cause of so much concern to everyone. Those who persist in seeking peace in such situations, recognising that ‘we owe this charity to ourselves’, are needed in our world more than ever.

We have seen that peace can grow in the most unpromising places. Northern Ireland and South Africa offer two examples. They are not without problems and challenges today, but they are much better places than they were during the most intense times of conflict. Children go to school – people have access to basic supplies and the freedom to travel.

Jesus knew the cost of placing himself in the midst of hatred. He knew that healing isn’t some kind of soppy well-wishing, but a task that requires tremendous resources. In our reading we heard how, when he healed, ‘power came out from him’. There is no doubt that absorbing the pain of others, and putting right the wounds of the world, demands all the strength God can give us.

In our final hymn, which we shall sing in a few moments, we are reminded of all the saints who have gone before us. Like the vision of Daniel, the words capture that place of perfection and peace to which we are called. There the saints and martyrs are dressed in dazzling brightness, and attired in God’s truth. Woe, anguish and tears have ended, and they have found the peace which the world could not give.

We are bidden by God to love our enemies – because endless hatred resolves nothing. To live Christ’s story means to seek healing and, sometimes, to interpose ourselves to bring cycles of suffering to an end. Along with the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, we recognise that endless conflict is a kind of insanity. Because we are all one people, sharing this small planet, and we owe this charity to ourselves.

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