Monday, 2 March 2015

On burning books and people

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
1st March 2015 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here: 

Mark 8.31-38  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." 

The News Media this week reported that
            ‘Isis militants have … ransacked Mosul library,
            burning over a hundred thousand rare manuscripts and documents
            spanning centuries of human learning.’[1]

I am well aware that in a world of internet-beheadings
                        and other less visible atrocities,
            this is just one more tragedy amongst so many others,
but for this book-lover at least, it is heart-breakingly symbolic of the depths
            to which human beings can sink.

As I read this news story this week,
            I found a quote I’d thought I’d forgotten coming to mind.
It’s from a play written 1821, by the German writer Heinrich Heine,[2]
                        and it’s about the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition.
Heine said, ‘Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.’[3]

Ironically, his own works were themselves on the list of books
            destined for the Nazi book burning purges of the twenthieth century.

And, again and again, through human history,
            we have seen it to be true,
            on every side of the political and religious divide,
            that where freedom of expression is smothered,
                        and independence of thought is extinguished,
            so the destruction of persons inexorably follows.

Words become flesh,
            and both are burned.

From the Spanish Inquisition to IS militants,
            from Farenheit 451 to Orwell’s 1984,
book burning has functioned as a potent tool of suppression and control.

One of the earliest examples is found in the Old Testament,
            in the book of Jeremiah,
Where the King Jehoiakim of Judah seeks to silence the words of the prophet:

Jeremiah 36:22-25  Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him.  23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.  24 Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments.  25 Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them.

One of my great treasures is a photograph of the front page of John’s Gospel,
            taken from the first edition of William Tyndale’s New Testament.
It was given to me by my College Principal, a certain Brian Haymes,
            when I left my time at Bristol Baptist College.

Tyndale was the first person to translate the Bible into English
            from the original languages,
and he is the person Melvyn Bragg once called,
            ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England’

There are only three copies of Tyndale’s first edition in existence,
            because they were seized as they entered the country,
                        and burned in bonfires in London,
            overseen by Cardinal Wolsey and Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London.
In scenes which could come straight from Wolf Hall,
            six thousand of his New Testaments were burned
                        on the steps of Old St Paul’s Cathedral,
            despite Anne Boelyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts
                        to reconcile Tyndale to the King.

One of the three surviving copies ended up in the library at Bristol Baptist College,
            but is now in the possession of the British Library,
            who have it on permanent display just up the road from here at St Pancras.

When he heard that his Bibles has been burned,
            Tyndale famously remarked ‘no doubt they will burn me too, if it be God’s will.’
And sure enough, a few years later,
            he was caught, and burned at the stake.

You see, books are more than words,
            they are ideas made flesh,
they create worlds,
            and invite us to enter into the worlds they create,
            and to start living those worlds into reality.

Books are dangerous,
            words are inflammatory,
and ideas are incendiary.

And supremely this is true in the stories of the word-made-flesh.

When God speaks words of salvation and restoration,
            he speaks them in the person of Jesus,
and the written records of those stories of Jesus
            make these words real to us in our world also.

This was the insight of Tyndale,
            that the words of Jesus might take on fresh life
                        in new languages, in new cultures, in new ways,
            not restricted to Latin, or Greek, or Hebrew,
                        but rendered in English, so that everyone might hear them,
                        from the scholar to the plough boy in the field.

And this is why people burn books,
            and it is why people burn people.

They do it because world-shaping ideas must be suppressed,
            if those who seek to hold power are to be free
            to shape the world in the way that they want it to be.

And nowhere in literature do we encounter a more inflammatory idea
            than that which we meet today in our reading from Mark 8.

This, truly, is a text to turn the world upside down,
            and it is as inflammatory now
                        as it was when Tyndale first translated it into English
                        nearly five hundred years ago.

Just as Tyndale knew that his act of academic rebellion
            against the religious control of the scriptures
            had put him on a course which would end in his own death,
so here in Mark’s gospel we meet Jesus facing the future with a similar certainty,
            as he too takes his stand against the religious and political powers-that-be,
                        and sets his face towards the cross,
            knowing that he is starting down a path that can only end in his own execution.

‘Deny yourself’, says Jesus to his disciples, and ‘take up your cross’
            and in so doing he calls those who would follow him
            to similarly set their faces towards the cross.[4]

The link between words and death is made:
            as words become actions,
            and actions challenge power,
            and power retaliates in defence of its privilege.

Of course, the cross was not a religious icon in first-century Palestine.
            No-one wore the crucifix as an item of jewellery,
                        or gazed upon it as an item of devotion.

The phrase Jesus uses here, so moving rendered for us into English by Tyndale as               ‘whosesoever will follow me let him forsake him life
                        and take up his cross and follow me’
            was no metaphor for personal anguish or pious forbearance,
            in the way it is sometimes used in the contemporary world.

Crucifixion, at the time of Jesus, had only one connotation:
            it was the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome
            for those who were marked out as political dissidents.

As we all know, we still live in a world
            where violent and visible execution
            remains a potent tool of those who would seek to intimidate others.

There are those who still seek to silence voices and mute narratives
            in the interests of asserting dominance and control.
And there are those who seek to do so through the burning and desecration
            of anything that dares to speak an alternative reality into being.
Whether that be ancient Islamic texts in a library in Mosul
            or aid workers seeking to negotiate peace and protect the innocent,
            or civilians wanting to quietly get on with their lives,
            farming their farms, taking their tubes and buses to work…

Such terrorism plays to our deepest fears

The thing is, none of us wants to lose our lives:
            we are afraid of the bomb on the bus,
                        the outrage in the shopping mall, the man in the street with the knife.

It sometimes seems as if the terrorists’ greatest symbolic weapon
            is the ability to persuade people to sacrifice their lives for their cause,
                        taking others with them.

It is here that we hear Jesus’ potent words as he set his own face to the cross,
            inviting others to do the same:

35For those who want to save their life will lose it,
            and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 
            37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Does Jesus sound like a terrorist here?
            Taken in isolation, he could certainly start to sound like it.
But of course, this is not a sound-bite of incitement to violence.

There is a fundamental difference
            between the faithful disciple who carries their cross to its bitter conclusion
                        rather than compromise their calling,
            and the suicide bomber who carries their cross strapped to their chest
                        intent on taking others with them.

Crosses were a common enough sight when Mark wrote his gospel,
            since there was a Jewish insurrection under way.
And in contrast to Judean nationalists
            who were recruiting patriots to ‘take up the sword’ against Rome,
Mark’s Jesus invites his disciples to ‘take up the cross.’

And this action of taking up the cross
            is to be understood as an action of self-denial,
                        understood not in terms of private asceticism,
            but in the context of a political trial.

Under interrogation by Roman state security forces,
            anyone who admitted allegiance to God rather than the emperor
would face in charges of subversion,
            because this was a world where Caesar alone claimed Lordship.

‘Self-denial’, in this context, is therefore about costly political choices.,
            And it is in this world that Jesus speaks words
            that restate the matter another way.

It turns out that if one attempts to ‘save one’s life’ by denying Jesus
            then one is actually losing grip on what it is to be truly alive (8.35)

And conversely, to live - and die - ‘for the sake of Jesus and the gospel’
            is truly to experience ‘life’ in all its fullness…

So, what does, ‘deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me’ mean for us?
            How do these ancient words reach down the centuries to us?
            How do they translate into our language, our culture, our world?

In many ways, our situation is not so dissimilar to that of the first century.

Like the early followers of Jesus, we too live in an imperial society
            that has stretched its political and economic arms around the globe,
                        seizing the resources of the many to the benefit of the privileged,
                        and overriding the self-determination of other peoples along the way.

In such a world, what does it mean for us to deny ourselves,
            take up our cross,
            and follow the executed and living Jesus in our context?

To avoid this question is to refuse to encounter
            the powerful challenge of this text in our contemporary world.
To turn from its critique of our lives and our culture
            is to burn the words of live that call us to a new way of living,
            and which challenge, once again, the dominant power structures
            of the world in which we live.

‘taking up our cross’ has specific political and personal implications for us all,
            and we cannot afford to ignore them,
            lest we lose our grip on true life along the way.

Taking up the cross does  not mean
            shouldering the personal burdens put before one in life
            and carrying on in the hope of heavenly rewards.

The language of ‘it’s just a cross I have to bear’
            is a misreading of what Jesus is doing here…

The call to self denial does not mean
            the negation of experience, selfhood, human rights, or physical integrity.

Rather, denying ourselves, and taking up our cross,
            is about challenging the self as the centre of our universe.

In this language, Jesus calls us out of life centred on individualism and self-interest
            and into life lived in the reality of God’s love.

The call to take up our cross and follow Jesus
            is a call to walk in a path of radical love,
            that challenges all oppressive power structures,
            wherever they may be found

For some of us at least, this can lead to danger and even the possibility of death,
            because we live out this call in the midst
            of overwhelming forces of greed and violence
            which take no long-term prisoners
            and which fight back viciously when challenged.

Suffering, in the form of persecution,
            is not something any of us should seek out.
But we must recognise that for many who follow Jesus in our world,
            suffering unto death is the consequence of their discipleship.

For those of us in the relatively safe and affluent West,
            we must never turn our faces from the suffering
                        of our sisters and brothers elsewhere in the world,
            because when we look away, leaving them to the flames of persecution,
                        we turn our faces from the burning of the words of life,
                        and become complicit in the evil that would silence love.

To ‘take up the cross’, then, is to resist systems and structures
            that cause or perpetuate injustice.
It is to rebuild systems
            grounded in justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

It is to resist the rampant and seductive narratives of nationalism
            which tell us the old Lie;
            Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori
It is never a beautiful thing to die for one’s country,
            for one’s sect,
            for one’s tribe.

It is to make our voting choices in the forthcoming General Election
            on the basis of values of justice, equality, and care for the poor.

Did you see the Bishop’s letter recently?[5]
            I didn’t agree with all of it, but, they said:
"The privileges of living in a democracy
            mean that we should use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully
            and with the good of others in mind, not just our own interests."

The letter goes on to say that:
"In Britain, we have become so used to believing
            that self-interest drives every decision,
that it takes a leap of imagination to argue
            that there should be stronger institutions for those we disagree with
            as well as for those 'on our side.'
Breaking free of self-interest
            and welcoming our opponents as well as our supporters
            into a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities
            is, perhaps, the only way we will enrich our almost-moribund political culture."

Or, as Jesus might have put it, ‘deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me…’

And the thing is, wholehearted commitment to this way
            is the path to true life;
whilst not choosing this path is to choose the path of death-in-life.

So where now does Jesus call us to take up the cross and follow him?

Where in our lives are we called to resist self-negation,
            the culture of violence, the lure of consumerism, the justification of injustice?
And what are the possible consequences for us of following this path?

Another way of putting this might be to ask,
            what do we most fear?
It may be in our deepest fears,
            that the path to the cross through self-denial may become apparent.
And this will be different for each of us.

This is no one-scheme-fits-all ideology
            where we all behave the same, think the same, and vote the same.
But we do walk forwards towards the cross in community with one another.

Mark’s Jesus did not call people to walk the path of discipleship alone
            but to do so in loving community.
Bound to one another through disagreement and difference
            every bit as much as we are bound to one another
            through our shared commitment to the path of Jesus Christ.

What do you most fear in life?
            Illness? Poverty? The mocking voices of others? Uncertainty?
What do you most fear?

What does taking up your cross, and denying yourself mean, for you?

I’m going to close by quoting from a sermon by Sarah Dylan Breuer [6]
            This was a sermon that she wrote to her congregation,
                        so I’m going to steal her words, and let her speak to us.
            She says:

‘This is a powerful congregation.
            We have power by virtue of our education,
                        our relative wealth in the world,
                        our privilege in society, our voice.

‘It can be very tempting -- all too tempting –
            to seek nothing more than charity.

‘Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place
            in which we release some portion of our resources
            in order to get more power.

‘We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy,
            that gives us the illusion of control,
            and then we give away just enough to feel generous
            without seriously compromising our privilege.

‘The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that.

‘Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have
            -- both the worldly power we've got
                        because of our skin color, our gender, our social class,
                        our education, our birth in one of the most powerful nations in the world,
            and the spiritual power we have
                        as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit
            -- and then to let all of that pour out –
                        “let justice roll down like waters,
                        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)
            -- to empower the poor.

‘We are called not only to make sure
            that the most marginalized have a place at the table,
            but also to recognize whose table it is.

‘The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ,
            who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel [reading ]did not,
that true power is made perfect in self-giving love,
            that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross.

‘And the symbol of humanity's brokenness,
            of power corrupted to become domination,
            becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.

‘Thanks be to God!’

Also used in shortened form at Informal Church 7/10/2012

[2] Almansor
[3] Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen
[4] Parts of what follow draw verbatim from ‘Say to this Mountain’ by Ched Myers et al.

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