To bless the world

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Sunday 14th June 2020 (1st Sunday after Trinity)
Exodus 19.2–8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5.1–8; Matt. 9.35—10.8

In the last few weeks white people like me have been given a big kick up the backside. Some of us who’ve been speaking about ‘justice’ for years have been challenged: do we really mean it, and what will we do about it?

On 25th May a black man called George Floyd was killed by police in the United States, the latest in a long string of victims of an over-militarized and racist police. People began to protest, and we thought, ‘Good for them – things need to change over there.’

But then the protests spread here. Many of us didn’t initially understand why. ‘Surely we’re nowhere near as racist as the United States? What are they protesting about?’ One of my friends suggested it was just part of the constant flow of American culture across the ocean – unthinking imitation with no real justification. A passing fad.

But we do have a problem here, although it’s a little less obvious. Black people are more likely to be arrested or become a victim of crime, and, when arrested, more likely to be on the receiving end of police violence. Black children are more likely to live in low income and materially deprived households, black people are less likely to be in employment, and the average black household is significantly less wealthy than the average white household.

What it’s like to be black in the UK came home to me last week. Four years ago I met a mother to talk about the funeral for her 34-year-old black son, who’d been shot at a party. Last Monday I met that same mother to talk about the funeral for her 21-year-old black son, who hanged himself after the mental health services he’d been using were disrupted by the lockdown. Young black men are more likely to be the victims of violent attacks, and young black men are more likely to have mental health problems. These lives matter.

There are lots of Bible passages I could quote to underline that social injustice is a religious issue: the concern with the poor and oppressed that runs through the whole Old Testament, Jesus’s command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, Paul’s teaching that ‘we are members one of another’ (Romans 12.5) – and today’s readings, which point us towards the idea that we, like Israel and the apostles before us, are meant to bless the world.

Israel wasn’t alone among ancient peoples in thinking that they’d been chosen by a particular god, singled out for his special protection and blessing. One of the primitive forms of this found in the Old Testament is the doctrine of the ‘inviolability of Zion’ – the idea that because God protects Jerusalem, no harm can ever fall on it. That’s quite an easy theory to test, and in the early sixth century bc it was tested. Jerusalem fell, the leaders were carted off to Babylon, and the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah became part of the Babylonian Empire.

And while the Jews were in exile, they did some thinking. What is Israel’s purpose? If God’s not going to protect us from every misfortune, what has he chosen us for? One answer that they came up with was the idea that Israel was supposed to be a blessing for the whole world. This idea appears in Genesis, where Abraham is told, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12.3) It’s there in Isaiah, where the servant of the Lord is told, ‘I will give you as a light to the nations.’ (Isaiah 49.6) And it’s there in the part of Exodus we heard today, where God tells the Israelites, ‘You shall be for me a priestly kingdom.’ Through Israel, his kingdom of priests, God will bless the whole world.

It’s similar in our gospel reading – Jesus chooses the twelve apostles, not as a promise to keep them safe or to give them the best seats in the kingdom of heaven (although, if you remember, that’s what James and John wanted). No, Jesus chooses them for his mission: to proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”, to cure the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers, and to cast out demons. They are chosen in order that they may bless the world.

Neither choice, of Israel or the apostles, seemed very promising. Israel was a small people stuck between some of the biggest empires around, who were for ever wanting to swallow it up into their territory. The apostles were a rag-tag group of fishermen, tax collectors, freedom fighters, and nobodies who consistently misunderstood Jesus’s message, and included those who would deny him and betray him. It’s amazing the church ever got off the ground!

But, like Israel, they weren’t chosen because they were worthy, they were just chosen. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel in his farewell conversation with his disciples:

You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last […]. (John 15.16)

As the Church, we too have been chosen to be a blessing to the world. What does that mean in the context of racial inequality?

Those of us who are white may have heard the statistics and story with which I began this sermon and thought, ‘That’s very sad, but it’s not caused by my racism. There’s clearly a problem, but it’s one for the police, the government, employers to sort out. I always treat black people very nicely.’ But racism doesn’t just mean nasty people being nasty. Racism includes all the unconscious biases and prejudices that white people absorb by living in a white-majority society, and the indifference many of us feel towards people who aren’t like us. Racism isn’t sustained by a small number of powerful racists – it’s kept alive by white indifference, and the subtle biases and prejudices that many of us harbour. Jesus sent out the apostles to ‘cast out demons’ – casting out the demon of racism requires changes on an institutional level, but it also requires us to delve into our own hearts and see what’s lurking there.

The apostles weren’t perfect. Peter, the leader of the apostles, denied Jesus three times and then wept when he realized what he’d done. He went on to declare his love for Jesus, spread the gospel, and died for Jesus in Rome. We all slip up. We all have habits of thought and behaviour we’d like to leave behind. At the moment white people are being asked to examine our patterns of thought and behaviour to uncover things we’d rather not think about but which affect other people’s lives.

Some of us have come to this cause rather late. For many years we’ve ignored the experiences of those we live, work, and worship with, and we’ve naively believed that the struggle was more or less over. We’re sorry, and we must do better. We must stand with those who are crying out, and we must examine ourselves. In that way we can all bless the world as we’re meant to.

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