The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      26th January 2020
Longing for Liberation
Ayla Lepine

READINGS:
Isaiah 9.1-4
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Matthew 4.12-23

Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, is worried. “More and more we seem to be having trouble connecting our historical knowledge with our moral choices today,” he said. “I can imagine a society that understands history very well but does not draw any conclusion from this knowledge.” This year is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Shoah, the Holocaust, is the uttermost depth and most raw edge of evil, unimaginable in scale. The Council of Christians and Jews has produced a prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day. It was launched in the House of Lords a few days ago, and read by the Bishop of London. It includes these words:
…we affirm that every life is loved by You and sacred.
Yet, during the Holocaust too many failed to stand together with their neighbours. Oppression stains Your world and contradicts Your love.
So we pray that You will inspire us now as we stand together on this day in the love that we know of God in Christ Jesus.
Let us commit to remembering…
This week, South Hampstead Synagogue is marking this anniversary with a series of events, including a virtual reality exhibition in which technology allows audiences to step into photographs taken by Jewish people who put their lives at risk to document what they saw around them. The exhibition’s aim is to encourage ‘critical thinking on racism and hatred today.’ South Hampstead Synagogue was daubed with antisemitic graffiti on 29 December. You might remember that day – stars of David and the numbers 9/11 in bright red spraypaint appeared on shopfronts along the street, stretching between Hampstead tube station and Belsize Park. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the clean-up operation to take place. There was high-profile public outrage, as well as genuine shock. Here? These streets? Here. These streets. Our parish. We wrote to every local rabbi, to JW3, and to Jewish friends, expressing concern, sorrow, and solidarity. We held a prayer service and lit candles. We received replies of gratitude and appreciation, and these relationships are vital in our shared community life together. We are called to love our neighbours. We are called to weep with those who weep. We are called into sacred relationship with our Jewish sisters and brothers. 
During the war, the Quaker Dr Elisabeth Abegg moved to Berlin and worked tirelessly to provide support for Jewish people in hiding, from obtaining forged ID to offering food, and hosting groups secretly in her home. Every Friday she invited Jewish fugitives to share a meal. One said, ‘For two hours we could…forget we could no longer live like human beings.’ What is it to be a human being, alive, and yet be denied the right to be fully human? Most of us gathered here will never know. There are many in the world today who are experiencing their own hellish version of this oppressive truth. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, unjustly imprisoned in Iran since 2016. LGBT people in Zambia facing a literal life-sentence in prison just because of who they love. And the list goes on. As the American writer James Baldwin put it, ‘We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.’
God asks us to love our enemies. This is one of the most daunting and indeed potentially manipulative aspects of Christian life. God inspires us to love. God does not force us to be doormats. God desires freedom. God does not endorse oppression. As St Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘there should be no division among you.’ Know first that you are Christ’s beloved. Leaders and teachers who rise up in communities forged by that knowledge are all shaped by it. In Christ, there is no arrogance. In Christ, there is no competition. In Christ, there is no division. These things – division, arrogance, competition – are so insidiously prevalent in society that it is little wonder that, as Paul puts it, ‘the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ Following Jesus, who insisted upon love to the point of death and beyond, to bring us all into God’s Kingdom because of sheer grace, can look ridiculous. Truly, utterly outrageous. Our God was murdered by an oppressive system of distorted power. Why worship him? Because of love. Because of liberation. Because now the door of heaven is open to everyone. Everyone.
When Jesus saw Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and invited them to follow him, he didn’t run a background check. Were they from the right family? Were they straight? Were they white? Did they have the right politics? All we know is that they were fishermen. And they definitely weren’t white. We’re also told that they listened to Jesus, changed their lives, and trusted him.
One person who changed her life and trusted Jesus is Alice. She and I were at the same theological college in Cambridge. Last year, Alice and her partner Coral were civilly partnered. They live together with their greyhound and Alice serves her congregation as a deacon, preparing for priesthood just as I did here. Alice and Coral are gay. Whoever you are, however God has made you, you are made in the image of God, and you, like Alice and Coral, are loved and cherished by Jesus, who invited the apostles to change their lives for the sake of love.
This week the Church of England’s bishops issued a statement about civil partnerships and marriage. Whether you’ve been following the story or not, I want to say two things. One: no matter who you are, no matter who you love, you are welcome here. Your friends are welcome here. Your partners are welcome here. Your relatives are welcome here. All of them. Without exception. Welcome. As the Anglican priest K D Joyce put it, ‘The church is lucky when LGBTQ people are willing to enrich it - we're not lucky that the church has decided to “let us in”.’
I’d also like to offer a poem written for Alice and Coral’s ceremony:
The Light of Each Other, by Jay Hulme
My friend sees God in all that we do,
In the trees so green, and the sky so blue,
In the glow of the rainbow devotion drew
In the air between her and her wife.
And I smile at her as she sits in a pew,
Drawing more from this sermon than I ever knew,
And she reaches her hands out, her faith fresh as dew,
And I see God in their love, and It's wondrous and true.
Now, I'm not a believer, so I never did see
The light of God in the sky and the tree,
But I see it in them, and the spaces between
What the Bible has said, and what others believe.
For they know God is love, and carry him closer,
In arms stretched out in their shared devotion,
For faith is belief in the light of another,
And they shine with the light they reflect from each other;
Seen from a distance, in sun and in shade,
God shines through the seams of the life that they've made.
Amen.

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