Friday 3 November 2023

Bonfire of the Vanities

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 5th November 2023

1 Kings 18.17-39
Today’s Bible reading from the Lectionary
            stopped one verse too early, in my opinion.
Where we left the story, was where every Children’s Bible
            and every Sunday School class leaves the story:
with the glorious fire from heaven descending,
            and consuming the offering that Elijah had faithfully prepared,
while all the people fall on their faces
            and worship the Lord as God.
My question is, do you know what happened next?
            Let me read the next verse for you.
1 Kings 18.40
Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.”
            Then they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon
            and killed them there.
And my question for us this morning,
            in a world of killing, is this:
Who does God want to die?
Who does God want to condemn?
Today is the 5th November, it’s bonfire night, a day of fire and death,
            a fitting day for the lectionary to give us the Bible reading
            of Elijah’s great bonfire on Mount Carmel.
Say the old nursery rhyme with me if you know it:
Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Various versions of this rhyme are available,
            and it has its origins in a poem by John Milton,
            better known for his epic poem Paradise Lost;
but the point is always the same,
            which is that on Bonfire Night in England
we gather to joyfully burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes,
            remembering his treasonous act of conspiring to blow up the King.
The real Guy Fawkes was executed at the age of 35 in January 1606,
            just down the road from here in Westminster.
He had a distinguished military career,
            but became involved with a small group of English Catholics
            who planned to assassinate the Protestant King James.
His fate is well known, although ironically,
            he died by hanging and not by burning.
But in celebration of his failure to overthrow the King,
            Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires on each 5th November,
provided that (and I quote)
            "this testimony of joy be carefully done without any danger or disorder".
It’s good to know that health and safety legislation
            was alive and well in the early seventeenth century!
In fact, so keen were parliament
            to ensure that Guy Fawkes treachery was not forgotten
that an Act of Parliament was passed,
            which designated each 5 November as a day of thanksgiving
                        for "the joyful day of deliverance",
            and this act remained in force until 1859.
Guy Fawkes Night bonfires were accompanied by fireworks from the 1650s onwards,
            and it quickly became the custom to burn an effigy on the bonfire,
sometimes of Guy Fawkes himself,
            but also sometimes of other popular villains, including the Pope!
This "guy" as it came to be known,
            is of course these days normally created by children
            from old clothes, newspapers, and a mask.
But the real Guy Fawkes has had an interesting afterlife:
            being hailed variously as a traitor, a martyr,
                        a political rebel, and a freedom-fighter.
As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero.
Actually, the 2006 film V for Vendetta,
            in which a vigilante rebels against a right-wing dystopia
                        while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask,
            has led to a resurgence of sympathy for Fawkes;
and the adoption of the same mask by hacker group Anonymous
            has contributed to this,
with Guy Fawkes, in many people’s eyes,
            now being viewed as a figure of righteous anti-authoritarianism:
            more folk-hero than folk-demon.
And so we come to today, to ‘Bonfire night’ 2023,
            and I wonder who you might imagine on the bonfire this evening.
Probably, I’m guessing, NOT the Pope!
            Maybe not even Guy Fawkes himself…
But I wonder, in our world,
            who the good people of England might vote to put on the bonfire?
Who is the demon that you would like burned away?
            Maybe some global political tyrant?
                        Some figure of popular hatred?
            Maybe someone convicted of a terrible crime?
There are those living in our city this day who are scared for their safety
            because others have been publicly threatening them.
We live in a world of antisemitism and islamophobia,
            of racism and fear of the other.
We live in a world where some people believe
            that God is telling them to kill other people.
Just this week I attended the Mayor of Camden’s interfaith reception,
            and we heard how people in the communities of our borough
                        are living with fear,
            afraid to walk the streets of our city
                        because their clothing, or skin colour, or facial characteristics
                        might mark them out as targets of violence.
And so I will repeat my question:
            Who does God want to die?
Who goes on our altars of sacrifice
            to be consumed by the holy purifying fire from on high?
And I’m sure some of you will be answering:
            ‘Well, no-one! All we want is for the killing to stop!’
And good for you – I do too!
            Except my question is, do we?
A commitment to absolute nonviolence is very hard to maintain,
            as Remembrance this coming week will remind us.
Sometimes, even the most liberal and pacifist among us
            longs for the violent and aggressive enemy to be defeated,
            which usually means that it is their turn to die.
And so I will repeat my question:
            Who would you place on the fire?
In Florence, on Shrove Tuesday in 1497,
            supporters of the local Dominican friar
collected thousands of household objects
            and burned them in the public square.
This ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, as it came to be known,
            was focussed on objects that might tempt one to sin,
including vanity items such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses,
            playing cards, and musical instruments.
Other targets included books, manuscripts of songs,
            and artworks including paintings and sculpture.
This theme of burning items to purify society
            has a long tradition in both history and literature.
From Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451,
            which depicts a dystopian McCarthyite America
                        where books have been outlawed
                        and "firemen" burn any that are found,
to the real book burnings in Nazi Germany
            and the ideological repression in the Soviet Union;
burning to purify is as much a part of our contemporary world
            as it was in ancient Israelite society.
Even within our own British Baptist family,
            we are beset by arguments about purity:
                        who does God approve of?
                        And who does God condemn?
The divisions around LGBTQ inclusion divide us into camps…
            and in a situation that is analogous to the stand-off
                        between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Ashera on Mount Carmel,
            there are many praying fervently
                        for God’s purifying fire to descend once more.
But, and I’ll ask again,
            who does God want to condemn?
In a world of killing, where societies and communities
            assuage their collective guilt by scapegoating the vulnerable,
                        by marginalising the marginalised,
            we urgently need an answer to this question.
And it’s a question that runs through the Hebrew Bible,
            as story after story explores the idea
of whether God is for one group and against another,
            or whether God is for all people but against evil.
This is an important distinction,
            because it decouples the issues of evil and purity
from a fixed association
            with specific groups or communities of people.
Within the Hebrew Bible,
            there are some who believe that holiness
                        is the distinctive preserve of that subset of humanity
                        known as the people of God,
            and that the role of religion within the Hebrew society
                        was to maintain the purity of the people of Israel,
            whilst opposing all those who do not worship the Lord as they worship.
We saw this division last week
            in our sermon on the religious wars
            that divided Israel into north and south after the death of Solomon.
But there is a counter-tradition within the pages of the scriptures,
            which asserts that the purpose of calling one people
                        to be set aside as God’s people
            is not to condemn the rest of humanity, but to bless it.
This is the tradition that casts God’s people as a light to the nations,
            a beacon of hope in a dark world.
And which of these traditions we embrace is important,
            because it tells us something profound
                        about how we see ourselves as the people of God in our time,
                        and in our context.
Are we called by God to become those ‘set aside’,
            those who condemn the world by our purity,
            who show the world the wages of sin by our holiness?
Certainly, many Christians have taken that view,
            standing with Elijah in the light of holy righteous fire,
while those who relate to God differently
            are condemned before their eyes.
But this, friends, is not the path to God that I embrace,
            it is not the Baptist way, or at least it shouldn’t be,
            and it is not the Bloomsbury way either.
We stand in a tradition that resists those
            who would tell other people whether they are acceptable to God or not.
We stand for freedom of religion,
            for an open path to God that creates space
            even for those with whom we want to disagree.
The early Baptists went to prison for their refusal to say the creeds,
            and this is why we resist creedal forms of religion
                        that tell people what to believe
                        and condemn those who believe differently.
The early Baptists were at the forefront of religious freedom,
            with Thomas Helwys famously writing to the King
demanding freedom for not just Baptists like him,
            but for Muslims, Jews, and atheists too,
before dying in Newgate prison because King James,
            yes the same King James who executed Guy Fawkes,
had decided before God that he was the sole determiner of religious orthodoxy
            and that all who disagreed with him were worthy of punishment.
But who does God want to condemn?
Did God want the prophets of Baal and Ashera to be put to death?
            Did God want Guy Fawkes to be executed?
Did God want King James to perish in an explosion?
            Did God want Thomas Helwys to die in prison?
Did God want the vanities of Florence burned?
            Did God want the books of Nazi Germany burned?
Did God want more than 1,400 Jewish people
            to die in a terror attack at the hands of Hamas last month?
Does God want the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza
            to be displaced and bombed?
Does God want the Israeli settlers in the West Bank?
            Does God want the Palestinian suicide bomber in a market place in Jerusalem?
Does God want Putin to successfully annex Ukraine?
            Does God want the Ukrainian defenders to liberate their country?
Does God want the Taliban to rule Afghanistan?
There are those who would say a resounding ‘yes’ to each of these,
            although I suspect there is no-one who would say ‘yes’ to all of them.
But my suspicion is that God wants none of this,
            and that those who claim to kill in God’s name are always wrong.
In fact, I suspect that those who kill are always wrong,
            even when they do so for the very best of intentions.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on his participation
            in the plot to assassinate Hitler,
couldn’t convince himself that killing even such a tyrant as Hitler
            was within God’s will, commenting
When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility,
            he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else.
He answers for it...
            Before other men he is justified by dire necessity;
            before himself he is acquitted by his conscience,
                        but before God he hopes only for grace.’
The fire from heaven on Mount Carmel
            did not consume the prophets of Baal and Ashera,
            it consumed the wood of Elijah’s offering.
The killing was all Elijah.
Those who claim to act on God’s behalf,
            to speak God’s words, to interpret God’s will, are not always right.
This is as true for the saints and prophets in scripture as it is for us.
If we are seeking God’s will in our troubled times,
            I think we need to look first to God’s revelation in Jesus,
who resisted the path of violent struggle
            and welcomed those whom others would exclude.
In Jesus’ parables, he often mentions fire as an agent of God’s judgment,
            and a careful reading of these reveals that God’s judgment
                        is always against the principalities and powers of evil,
                        the structures and systems of oppression.
It is these that God’s fury burns away.
God’s anger is never directed to people,
            but always to those ideologies and philosophies that make people less
            than the beloved human beings they were created to be.
God’s love for humanity is absolute,
            just as God’s judgment on evil is absolute.
Last week, Udoka introduced us to a poem,
            and I want to close today by reading it again:
“At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?”
― Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic

No comments: