Monday, 29 November 2021

Mortal, can these bones live?

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
5th December 2021, 11.00am

The Valley of Dry Bones engraving by Gustave Doré

Ezekiel 37:1-14   
John 11:1-3, 11-13, 17, 21-22, 32-40, 43-44  
Over the last few weeks, this congregation has had a bit of a run
            of services to give thanks for the life of friends who have died.
These have been good occasions:
            appropriately sad, but also with time to remember
            and to re-tell the good things about those who are no longer with us.
We have had laughter as well as tears,
            and rightly so, because a life well lived is worth celebrating,
            even as we mourn its ending.
But our engagement with the mystery of death
            has also reminded us that there are no easy answers, and no quick solutions.
As C S Lewis memorably put it, the death of a loved one is an amputation,[1]
            and although time can bring some healing,
            the loss remains forever a part of us.
Well, our two lectionary readings for this morning,
            invite us to face the reality of our own human mortality.
Let’s start with the Old Testament,
            and this week we find ourselves with the prophet Ezekiel.
He was a contemporary of Jeremiah who we heard from last week,
            but whereas Jeremiah had remained in Jerusalem,
                        writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to seek the welfare
                        of the city to which they had been exiled;
            Ezekiel was one of those exiles,
                        and his job was to interpret God’s word
                        for those people who had lost everything.
Many of them would, I am sure, have been personally bereaved,
            they would have lost family and friends during the Babylonian invasion.
But their grief and loss was more than personal, it was structural:
            because they had lost their city, their society, their homes, their futures.
And so in Ezekiel’s vision, we are confronted with a horrific scene:
            It’s the aftermath of a war, and the vision is of the site of a battlefield.
Ezekiel sees an open mass grave, with the bones of so many bodies,
            lying intermingled and bleached by the sun,
            stripped clean by the carrion.
It is hard to read this passage,
            without thinking of the killing fields of more recent years.
            From the war graves of Flanders and the Somme
                        to the European death camps of the mid twentieth century,
                        to the massacres of Bosnia and South Sudan;
            mass death, and mass burial,
                        remain a tragic and traumatic part of the human story.
So many lives lost,
            so many hopes and dreams cut short.
A few years ago Liz and I visited Cambodia,
            and we went to one of the killing fields sites just outside Phnom Penh.
As we walked around we could see scraps of clothing and fragments of bone
            eroding out of the dry soil:
testimony to the shallow mass graves
            of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
A valley of dry bones is both the literal reality
            of the aftermath of a battle or massacre,
and also a fitting metaphor for the people
            who have suffered at the hands of others.
And as Ezekiel wanders in his vision around the field of bones,
            it speaks to him of his people:
                        taken from their homeland, into exile in Babylon;
            the victims of an ethnic cleansing
                        from which it seemed there was no way back.
For Ezekiel, death had come not just to a person, but to a whole nation.
            In a terrifying precursor to the holocaust,
                        the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision
                        are the bones of his fellow Jews,
            broken and cast aside
                        by the nationalistic ideology of another nation-state.
And in the midst of this vision of devastation,
            Ezekiel hears the voice of the Lord,
                        asking him a question:
            ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’
And in this question, we are taken to the central question of human mortality.
            Is death the end?
            Does death get the final word on life?
These same questions echo through the story of the death of Lazarus,
            as we encounter Jesus living the personalised agony
            of the death of a dearly loved friend.
And the questions are the same:
            Is death the end?
            Does death get the final word on life?
            Mortal, can these bones live?
The story of Lazarus is a long one,
            continuing even beyond the end of this morning’s reading,
and within the structure of John’s gospel
            it is the seventh of seven signs of the kingdom
            which reveal to the reader
                        the nature of the new world that is coming into being through Christ.
And it’s as if the author of John’s gospel
            invites us to enter into the detail of this story,
                        to spend time with those who are affected by the death of Lazarus,
            and to share with them in their range of responses.
One of the books which I have turned to again and again over the years,
            is a study called On Death and Dying,
                        which was published in 1969
                        by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist.
In this, she proposed that those faced with a diagnosis of a terminal illness
            typically experience grief in five stages.
These five stages of grief, as they have come to be known,
            can also often be seen in the lives
            of those who have experienced a bereavement,
and although they shouldn’t be thought of as a programme to work through,
            and people experience in them in any order,
                        often returning to different stages over a period of time,
            many people have found them a helpful guide
                        to what they find themselves experiencing
            as they are brought face to face with the reality of death.
I have often thought that Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief
            can be seen in the various responses of the people around Lazarus,
                        in John’s story of his illness and death,
and I think it’s worth our while spending a bit of time with them today,
            as we enter into these to texts of grief
            from the books of Ezekiel and John.
Kübler-Ross suggests that the first stage of grief is often that of denial;
            these are the ‘it simply can’t be true’ feelings,
                        where we keep expecting the person to just walk through the door,
                        or we convince ourselves that we can still hear them speaking.
The disciples do just this when Jesus tells them that Lazarus had died.
            He breaks it to them gently, using the euphemism of sleep for death,
                        telling them that ‘our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.’ (v 11)
            And the disciples grasp onto this and respond with hopeful denial of the reality,
                        ‘Lord,’ they say, ‘if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right’ (v.12).
            And so Jesus has to tell it to them plainly,
                        ‘Lazarus,’ he says ‘is dead.’ (v.14)
Kübler-Ross says that
            ‘Denial is usually a temporary defence
            and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance.’[2]
But what this acceptance brings with it
            is often the next stage in the grieving process,
            which for many people is an experience of anger.
Anger is an emotion that is hard to control or to predict,
            we don’t know where it will strike, or in which direction.
Some people become angry at the doctors
            that have been caring for their loved one,
convincing themselves that with better care
            things could have been different.
Some people become angry at themselves,
            blaming themselves for letting their loved one down.
Some people become angry at the person who has died,
            furious with them for leaving like this,
            for depriving them of the future that had been planned together.
Some people become angry at God, or at their friends or family,
            desperate for somewhere to direct the blame for the loss they have suffered.
All of which can seem quite negative,
            as if these feelings of anger are something to be avoided,
            or to be ashamed of, or to feel guilty about.
Which is why I find it so helpful and interesting,
            that the character in the Lazarus story who exhibits anger,
            is none other than Jesus himself.
When Jesus sees Mary and the other Jews weeping over Lazarus’ death,
            we are told that he was greatly angered, greatly agitated. (v.33, 38)
Some Bible translations have tried to downplay the extent
            of Jesus’ emotional response to the death of his friend,
                        and our own NRSV describes him as being
                        ‘greatly disturbed’, and ‘deeply moved’.
But whilst some may not like to think of Jesus
            exhibiting raw anger in the face of death,
the reality of the words that John uses here to describe Jesus’ response
            are more indicative of uncontrolled anger than anything else.
And it’s not just Jesus,
            some of those around him are angrily looking for someone to blame,
and so they say loudly, with accusation in their voices,
            ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man
            have kept this man from dying?’ (v.37)
Anger is, it seems, part of the human response to death;
            it is an appropriate and natural emotion
                        in the face of tragic loss.
The next stage of grief which Kübler-Ross observed
            is that which she called bargaining.
She sees this as a helpful stage
            in the process of moving towards acceptance,
            and says:
            ‘If we have been unable to face the sad facts in the first period,
                        and have been angry at people and God in the second phase,
            maybe we can succeed in entering into some sort of an agreement.’[3]
She uses the example of a teenager,
            who has been told that they cannot spend the night at a friend’s house.
Initially they may be angry and stamp their feet,
            or lock themselves in their bedroom,
            temporarily expressing their anger towards their parents by rejecting them.
But then they have second thoughts,
            and coming out of their room they start volunteering
                        to do tasks they’d never normally do,
            in the hope that if they are especially good this week,
                        maybe they’ll get what they want next week.
And maybe we’re not so different in the face of death:
            we construct deals, or ultimatums,
            and address them to God, universe, and ourselves.
‘If only this… then that…’ is the pattern.
            If only I can have another year with them,
                        then I’ll be a better person…
            If only the doctors could have done things differently,
                        then they’d still be with me.
            If only you’d been there Jesus,
                        my brother would not have died.
So says firstly Martha (v.21)and later Mary (v.32).
            If only, if only, if only…
The bargains and the regrets intermingle in the mind of the bereaved,
            and we imagine a world where reality is different,
            and we construct scenarios that would bring that world into being.
Kübler-Ross notes that
            ‘most bargains are made with God and are usually kept a secret’[4]
And she suggests that they are usually motivated by quiet guilt.
Where Martha and Mary are different
            is that they speak their bargaining aloud:
they offer to Jesus the their wish that the world was different,
            and he receives their plea,
offering them comfort and compassion,
            as they move towards acceptance of their brother’s death.
But there is another difficult stage yet to speak about,
            and that is the stage Kübler-Ross identified as depression.
For many of us, the experience of staring death in the face
            creates within us a void of emptiness that simply will not leave us.
So great can this void become
            that our own existence ceases to matter to us in any meaningful way.
The Psalmist in the Old Testament,
            knows this experience well.
In Psalm 130 he says,
            ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. 
                        Lord, hear my voice!
            Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!’
And we meet this uncontrollable sadness in the Lazarus story,
            and again it is Jesus who embraces his humanity most fully.
In what is known as the shortest verse in the Bible,
            John tells us that ‘Jesus began to weep’ (v.35).
He is overcome by sorrow and sadness
            to the point where uncontrollable tears from a grown man
            is the entirely appropriate response to the death of his friend
                        and the grief of all those who loved him.
But it’s not just Jesus who weeps,
            Mary does so too, as do Lazarus’s other friends (v.33).
The adage that ‘big boys and girls don’t cry’,
            is one which, it seems, can be set aside
            in the face of the depression of bereavement.
But eventually, says Kübler-Ross, if the grieving process is healthy,
            the depression can begin to lift, and give way to the final stage,
                        which is that of acceptance.
She says that if a person has enough time,
            and has been given some help in working through the other stages,
they will reach a stage where they are accepting of the reality of death,
            neither angry nor depressed.
In the Lazarus story, Martha seems to be moving to this stage
            by the time they come to open the tomb where they have laid Lazarus.
Some time has passed,
            and she is concerned that the body will already have started to decompose. (v.39)
She has, to some extent at least, come to accept the reality of her brother’s death,
            and recognises the natural processes at work
                        in a body that has been laid in the ground.
And then,
            and then…
Up until this point, this has been a story of death much like any other.
            The stages of grief are all there,
                        the characters all behave as they should,
                                    including Lazarus, whose life has ended.
But then, the most unexpected thing in the world happens,
            and Jesus calls Lazarus back from the grave.
The point of the story suddenly comes into focus:
            Is death the end?
                        Does death get the final word on life?
            Mortal, can these bones live?
Yes, it seems that they can!
            In this story, at least, death is not the end,
            and it does not get the final word on life!
It is at this point that the story of the death of Lazarus
            stops being a carefully observed study on grief,
and becomes something else altogether.
It becomes what John intends it to be within his gospel:
            a sign of the kingdom of God.
It is a story that reveals something profoundly important to us,
            about the nature of the new world that is coming into being,
                        through the person of Jesus Christ.
The point of the resurrection of Lazarus
            is that when God is involved in the story of someone’s life,
            death is never allowed to have the final word.
This has been true in the story of Lazarus’ death,
            it will be true in the story of Jesus’ death,
            and we are invited to realise that it will be true for us also.
The calling forth of Lazarus from his tomb
            prefigures Jesus’ own dramatic desertion of the grave
            later in the gospel story.
Just as Lazarus died, so Jesus will die,
            and so, I am afraid to say, will each of us, in our turn.
Symbols of death are all around us as I speak:
            From the cross on the wall behind me,
                        to the bread and wine before us on the Communion Table,
            bodies break, blood is spilled,
                        and mortal life comes to its end.
It’s not always recognised these days
            that death is at the heart of the Christian faith.
We tend to devote far more time focussing on life in all its fullness,
            than we do confronting the reality of death.
And in this, of course, we mirror the world around us,
            which consigns death to the specialists,
            and dangles the goal of eternal youth before us all.
As seventy becomes the new fifty,
            we pursue the dream of health and activity into old age,
            and we deny to ourselves the truth of our own mortality.
It was once the case, before modern medical advances,
            that death was a regular reality for all people.
Death occurred primarily in the home,
            and it was not unusual to sit with the body of a family member who had died.
These days, we confine death to the hospitals,
            and many of us have never been with a dead body.
Within the medical profession, death has become the great enemy,
            to be avoided at all costs.
And we focus our energies on keeping people alive,
            even sometimes beyond the point where death would be more appropriate.
Christianity, with its focus on death at the heart of its faith,
            can bring a different perspective on death,
            which we can offer as a prophetic witness to the world.
And that perspective is this:
            Death is no longer the mortal enemy of humankind.
            Death’s power over people is broken,
                        because in Christ we find the hope of resurrection;
                        in Christ we find the promise and hope of eternal life.
It’s important that we don’t confuse ‘eternal life’ with ‘living forever’,
            they aren’t the same thing at all.
‘Eternal life’ is a quality of life that endures beyond the grave,
            and it comes as the gift of God, given through Christ Jesus.
‘Living forever’ is simply an attempt to deny the mortality of humanity,
            and is ultimately always going to founder in the face of death.
Even Lazarus, called forth from his tomb, would die again.
            And it may well be Lazarus about whom Jesus has to scotch the rumour
                        that he is going to live forever,
            in the last few verses of the gospel (21.21-24)
The Christian doctrine of resurrection is not, contrary to popular opinion, 
all about the afterlife; 
and 'eternal life' can't simply be reduced 
to ‘pie in the sky when you die’. 

Rather, they are about living the eternal value of each day, 
so that all that is good in life is not lost.
Eternal life is eternity in each present moment,
            it is, as William Blake put it:
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.[5]
God is love, and God is eternal,
            and at our life’s conclusion all that we have ever been,
                        from young child, through strong adulthood,
                        to infirmity and helplessness,
            is swept up within the love of God
                        and held in God’s eternal loving embrace.
This is the Christian perspective on eternal life,
            and it is Christ’s gift in the face of death.
It is no coincidence that so many Christians in the medical profession
            are so involved in palliative care and the hospice movement.
In Christ we are enabled to face death without fear
            because we know that it does not get the final word.
And so back to Ezekiel’s vision, where we hear the word of the Lord
            to those who have been taken hostage by the power of death,
            and it is a word that echoes down to our own age with startling clarity:
Mortal, can these bones live?
            Is death, ultimately, all that there is?
            Is all lost, in the face of death?
Mortal, can these bones live?
There is a west African proverb,
            which says that when an elder dies a library is burned.

But that is not the Christian perspective,
            because within the love of God in Christ,
                        nothing that is good is ever lost,
                                    each moment is of eternal value
                                    to the Lord of all eternity.
Mortal, can these bones live?
            Yes, we may answer, they live eternally.

[1] C S Lewis, A Grief Observed
[2] On Death and Dying, pp.35-36.
[3] On Death and Dying, p. 72.
[4] On Death and Dying, p.74
[5] Auguries of Innocence

Thursday, 25 November 2021

The Gift of Hope

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
28 November 2021

Jeremiah 29.1-2, 4-14
John 14.22-27

The news this week, of 27 refugees
            including children and a pregnant woman drowned in the English Channel,
            having risked everything in a desperate search for a new life,
is yet another reminder to us that people-displacement
            as a result of violence and exploitation
            is a very real and tragic part of our world.
It is my firm belief that our society should be a place
            where the refugee finds welcome and support,
and that as Christians our scriptures offer us ample justification
            for arguing that this should be the case.
As we begin the season of Advent this week,
            we will be addressing the theme of hope,
and I think we are called to hope for a better world,
            to hope for a country where strangers are made welcome,
to hope for communities where generosity displaces selfish motives,
            where inclusion displaces prejudice;
and for that hope to become within us a deep longing,
            which drives us, in our actions and interactions,
            to be part of creating the world in which we long to live.
If you, like me, found yourself horrified and appalled
            that people should die like this, within sight of our shores,
then we need to be asking ourselves what we are going to do about it?
What actions can we take to build a world
            where the outcome for refugees seeking a new life away from war
            is not death in the English Channel?
As a church we are a key member of the West End Welcome project,
            and I know many of you have been praying for Fatima and Amina
                        over the last couple of years since they arrived with us
                        from the refugee camp in Iraq.
            And I also know that many of you have provided practical support
                        to them during this time too.
We should not underestimate the impact of our welcome and generosity
            to those who have come to our part of London in this way,
and we will continue to welcome and support others in similar ways.
The welcoming and integration of refugees into our society
            through community schemes such as West End Welcome
not only helps the refugees themselves,
            it builds a culture of acceptance, of generosity,
            from which we all benefit.
But of course, small-scale acts of assistance, significant though they are,
            are only part of the bigger picture.
From our voting decisions in local and national elections,
            to our engagement with charities and NGOs that advocate for refugee rights,
there are many ways that we can seek the welfare
            of those who are exiled to our city.
Which brings me to Jeremiah,
            and to an ancient but compellingly contemporary story
            of exile, people-displacement, refugees, war, and violence;
and the question of where God is to be found in the middle of it all!
Our reading today from the book of the prophet Jeremiah
            picks up the story of Israel’s history,
                        some 100 years on from last week’s reading from Isaiah 9,
                        and the creation of Israel’s messianic expectation.
If Isaiah saw that the writing was on the wall for Jerusalem and its temple,
            by the time of Jeremiah the walls had come tumbling down.
Jeremiah was a prophet living in Jerusalem,
            and he witnessed the destruction of the city at the hands of the Babylonians.
What happened was that in 597BCE,
            the army of King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem,
and carried off the newly-crowned Israelite King Jehoiachin into exile,
            along with a whole bunch of nobles and prophets,
            including Ezekiel and other elite members of the Jerusalem establishment.
In his place, Nebuchadnezzar installed a puppet king called Zedekiah
            onto the throne in Jerusalem,
expecting him to keep the Israelites in check and pay their taxes.
However, about ten years later, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon
            and sought an alliance with Egypt to secure independence for Jerusalem.
To say Nebuchadnezzar was unimpressed would be an understatement,
            and in 587BCE the Babylonians swept in to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple,
and to carry much of the rest of the population of the city into Exile in Babylon.
So, among the ruins of Jerusalem,
            Jeremiah the prophet wrote to the exiles in Babylon.
He had been counselling Zedekiah to submit to Babylon,
            but had been ignored;
and so he then wrote to those who have been deported
            with a similar, and perhaps surprising, message.
He told them not to rebel,
            not to seek to harm their enemies the Babylonians.
Rather, he said they should seek the welfare of the city where God has sent them.
And there is a key point here that I think we need to hear very clearly,
            if we are to get to grips with what it means for us to live faithfully in our world.
None of us should ever think of ourselves as natives.
            We are all, theologically speaking, exiles.
Our true eternal home is the Kingdom of God.
            Our only King is Christ,
            as we proclaimed last week at the feast of Christ the King.
All other homes and rulers are secondary and temporal.
            They may be long-term, but they are not permanent.
However, this does not mean that we should seek their downfall or destruction.
The theologian William Willimon  uses the phrase ‘Resident Aliens’
            to describe the people of God in the world.
He says we are not to think of ourselves
            in terms of being part of this tribe, or that tribe,
but rather as a people with a different allegiance,
            that leads us to work for the good of the whole world.
Listen to this quote. He says,
We reject the charge of tribalism,
            particularly from those whose theologies
            serve to buttress the most nefarious brand of tribalism of all
                        —the omnipotent state.
The church is the one political entity in our culture
            that is global, transnational, transcultural.
Tribalism is not the church determined to serve God rather than Caesar.
            Tribalism is [any political state], which sets up artificial boundaries
            and defends them with murderous intensity.”
― William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony
It is often said that the definition of being a ‘Londoner’
            is simply being someone who lives in London,
            regardless of where you were actually born and raised.
There is a tension here:
            I am Simon from Sevenoaks,
            but I am also Simon the Londoner.
And I think that this tension
            of being both an integral part of a city,
                        but also significantly distinct from it,
is at the heart of what Jeremiah is trying to say
            to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.
It is their home,
            but it is not their ultimate place of belonging.
Their eternal home, their place of deepest belonging,
            was in their holy city of Jerusalem;
but the place where they were going to live out their lives was Babylon.
And so their calling before God
            was to work for the good of the city
            to which they had been sent as exiles.
We too need to hear this calling.
There is a lamentable history of Christians dis-engaging from society,
            retreating into their holy huddles
                        to focus on the purity of their worship
                        or the correctness of their doctrine.
The Jews in Babylon could so easily have taken this path,
            but this was not, said Jeremiah, their calling.
And neither is it ours.
It is entirely appropriate for the people of God to enter the world of politics,
            whether through election
            or through non-partisan organisations such as Citizens UK,
to seek the welfare of the city to which we have been sent as exiles.
But there is a flip-side to this, too.
For all of our calling to work for the good of the city,
            we must never lose sight of the fact that we are only here as exiles.
However, if some strands of Christianity
            have disengaged from seeking the welfare of society
            in their quest for moral and doctrinal purity;
others have gone to the opposite extreme
            and sought to create society after their own image.
The legacy of Christendom, with church and state fused into one entity,
            is still very much with us.
And I think that those of us who seek to be faithful followers of Christ
            in this country, in this city,
need to resist the temptations of longing for a return
            to the so-called ‘Christian Country’ of previous generations.
As Baptists, we were founded on the principle of religious freedom for all.
Our founding father, Thomas Helwys,
            argued against the idea of a ‘Christian Country’,
facing imprisonment for writing to the King
            to suggest that the freedom to choose one’s religion
                        was an essential human right,
            and that it should be for all, whether Baptist, Muslim, or Jew.
We are exiles, we are called to be never fully at-one
            with the city to which we are called;
even as we work for its welfare,
            even as we pray for it,
believing that in the welfare of the city we will find our own welfare.
We have to recover, or possibly discover,
            our identity as the people of God.
Not in a way that isolates us from others,
            and certainly not in a way that gives us permission to dominate others,
but in a way that frees us to live differently,
            according to the priorities of the Kingdom of God.
And what we also need to discover
            is that this freedom is a freedom to truly live:
to enter into the life of the world,
            to build houses, plant gardens,
            and take action for the common good.
As Stanley Hauerwas puts it in the book Resident Aliens:
The loss of Christendom gives us a joyous opportunity
            to reclaim the freedom to proclaim the gospel
                        in a way in which we cannot
            when the main social task of the church
                        is to serve as one among many
                        helpful props for the state.
 - Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony
And so we come to the most famous verse from Jeremiah Chapter 29.
            It’s a verse which has starred
            on a thousand fridge magnets and coffee cups:
Jeremiah 29:11
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD,
            plans for your welfare and not for harm,
to give you a future with hope.
This is, surely, the ultimate expression of faithful hope.
To those in exile, to those living in darkness,
            to those who feel they will never truly belong:
God says that there is a hopeful future.
But this verse of hopeful promise
            has to be heard alongside the command
to work for the good of the city to which we have been sent in exile.
It is not some get-out-of-jail-free card,
            to be cashed in when things get difficult.
It isn’t an excuse to abdicate our responsibility for our actions in the world.
Rather, it is an invitation to enter into a way of living in the world,
            where we are free from the deep existential worries
that beset those whose lives are judged
            by the prevailing standards of society.
Stanley Hauerwas again:
That which makes the church "radical" and forever "new"
            is not that the church tends to lean toward the left on most social issues,
but rather that the church knows Jesus
            whereas the world does not.
In the church's view, the political left
            is not noticeably more interesting than the political right;
both sides tend towards solutions
            that act as if the world has not ended and begun in Jesus.
Those of us whose citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven,
            those of us who are exiles to this world,
            who live as resident aliens in our society,
are invited to discover the freedom
            that comes from not having to answer to the demands of the world.
The pressures that drive so many people,
            pressures of materialism, militarism, and economic exploitation;
the pressures that oppress so many people,
            pressures of racism, sexism, and homophobia;
these pressures do not own us, and neither do they constrain us.
            We are judged not as the world judges,
                        but by Christ who loves us.
So to those of us who live as exiles in this strange land,
            called to work for its welfare but never to let it own us,
Jesus echoes the message of Jeremiah,
            offering us a word of hope, a word of peace.
We heard it earlier in our reading from John’s gospel,
            when Jesus said to his disciples:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
            I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
            and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14.27)
Through Christ we receive the gift of hope,
            through Christ we are gifted the gift of peace.
Through Christ we are released from the troubles and fears
            that drive so many to acts of hopeless self-destruction
            and violence towards others.
As we work for the welfare of the city to which we have been sent in exile,
            we discover within ourselves
            the capacity to love, to hope, and to embody peace;
because these are the gifts of Christ to us,
            and through us they are Christ’s gift to the world.
So as we welcome the stranger,
            advocate for the dispossessed, and include the excluded,
we are living into being
            the truth that Christ has planted deep in our hearts:
that in Christ there are no strangers, in Christ none are excluded,
            in Christ all are worthy of equality.
This is the gift of hope, and it is ours to receive, and ours to give,
            as we pray and work for the welfare of the city
            to which we have been sent in exile.