Sermons from St Faith's

Fred Nye: Christian Aid Week 2007

I guess the greatest barrier to faith is, and has always been, the problem of pain. How can a good God stand idly by when so many of his creatures suffer intolerable burdens of disease, destitution and misery? And for us Christians at Eastertide there is an even more poignant question: what has Our Lord’s death and resurrection actually achieved? Have human beings gained in love for each other as a result? Looking at our world, at Auschwitz and Cambodia and Rwanda and Iraq and Darfur there doesn’t seem to be much evidence, does there? ‘Two thousand years of saying Mass, and all we have is poisoned gas’.

During this Christian Aid week we have to try to come to terms with these questions. What is the point of trying to share the burdens of our neighbours in the developing world? Will sacrifices on our part really do anything for them? Can a few well meaning and soft-hearted Christians change the world, or human nature?
I would like to suggest that for Jesus’s first followers, and for the early Church, this sort of question would have been empty and meaningless. During Our Lord’s ministry, miracles happened: lepers were cleansed, the blind received their sight, sinners were forgiven, outcasts accepted and the hungry fed, – there wasn’t the slightest doubt that Jesus could change things. And the early Christians continued these great acts of God both within and outside the growing Church, acting (as they put it) in the name of Jesus. So what’s gone wrong? Were those early Christians a bunch of deluded, miracle-happy enthusiasts? Or have we got it wrong – are we the ones who are deluded and disillusioned?

Christianity should be a powerful, liberating and incarnational force for good in the world. That it so often falls short is glaringly obvious – but why should this be? There are I think three main reasons.

First, we have lost faith in ourselves. The world is indeed a complex and frightening place. It is a very tempting option to stay at home, and not to ‘go there’ -  both literally and metaphorically. It’s very tempting not to get involved in the mess and degradation of the world’s poverty and cruelty. I could easily both shock you and sicken you this morning by spelling out the full horrors of so-called ‘life’ in the slums of Freetown, or by cataloguing the unspeakable atrocities of the Civil War in Sierra Leone which led to such abject misery. But rather I want to tell you about the commitment and courage of a group of 11 schoolteachers from Sefton, who visited Sierra Leone recently under the auspices of the Waterloo Partnership. Some young, some not so young, they mostly had no previous experience of a poor country or its hardships – and they went out with not a little trepidation and foreboding. But despite all the degradation and the poverty:- once they had met, talked to, and understood the teachers and pupils of Waterloo Sierra Leone, they became totally inspired by the courage and good will they encountered there. Most of those teachers can’t wait to visit Sierra Leone again, and one or two have booked their flights already. If they were not so before, they have become effective ambassadors for the cause of World Development.

Of course it’s not possible for all of us to have the overseas experience  of those teachers But we can, all of us, find out more about how our poorer brothers and sisters are forced to live, we can share with them some of the good things we enjoy, and we can become ambassadors on their behalf. Made ‘a little lower than the angels’ we are called by God to be fully human and never less than human. We need more faith in ourselves.

And we need to have faith in those whom we serve overseas. I am always disheartened by the commonest excuse for not giving to the Christian Aid appeal ‘there’s so much corruption over there, you don’t know where the money is going’. Of course, crooked and unscrupulous political leaders in any country have always been able to misappropriate public funds  - and the poorer the country the easier this is. But more telling is the criticism that poor people themselves can misuse resources. And this is where we need to borrow some of Our Lord’s forgiveness, compassion and understanding of the human condition. We must understand that in conditions of abject poverty what motivates people is the need to survive. To a mother trying to feed her starving child, school paper and a pencil have more value when they are sold for the next meal than when they are used in education for a future which may never happen. The world is in a mess, and we and our poorer neighbours are caught up in that mess. We cannot always pretend that our sort of rules must apply to everybody, or that we can only give so long as we count every penny of the cost.  I do not remember Our Lord involving himself in that sort of calculation.

And there is perhaps one other matter on which our faith falls short. Those early Christians realised that without the human presence of their Master among them they were vulnerable to doubt, fear, prejudice and conflict. And so it is with us. Left solely to our own devices, we quickly become the victims of indecision, caution, misunderstanding and internal strife. Without Our Lord’s guidance, without his love and his values we will achieve little, either here or overseas. Could it be that we have lost that intimate relationship with the Spirit of God so richly enjoyed by the early church? Have we forgotten that God-given inspiration which reaches out to the best that lies within each one of us , and to which that godward inner self yearns to respond? We only have to love a very little in order to respond to the world’s needs, we only need to respond a very little to receive the reward and inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit:- who can and does do great things, very great things.
Faced with the tragedy and intractability of the world’s problems we need to be of good courage. To respond generously and effectively we need faith in ourselves, faith in those whom we try to serve, and faith in the Sprit of God who has the power to change everything. And as a prayer, and particularly as a prayer for Christian Aid week, we would do well to use those unforgettable words from Wesley’s hymn – ‘O thou who camest from above, the fire celestial to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart’.

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