The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      5th September 2021
Evensong Trinity 14 2021
Jan Rushton

Evensong Trinity 14  2021   Exodus  Sermon on Mount 2 Prayer
Readings: Exodus 14.5-31;  Matt 6.1-18
This evening alongside our second section of readings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount’, 
from the Old Testament we have the rather troubling story of the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt led by Moses.  
In its violence, particularly troubling as we contemplate the violence and potential for violence that is now Afghanistan.  
The story of the crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites on dry land as the seas part, the Egyptians drowning as they pursue them - 
drowned by the hand of God. A tribal god defeating the gods of another, and yes exploitative, superpower.
This story is central to Judaism.  It was deeply important two hundred years ago, for the enslaved peoples of the New World struggling for their freedom.
Down the centuries it has played a significant and important part in liberating people in chains of varying orders. 
Liberty is a central theme of the bibilical text. So, what of the violent details of this story?
For me, this story as told us this evening, doesn’t feel too far away from the gratuitous killing of a defeated enemy, a scenario we are praying will not happen in Afghanistan right now. 
Could not the God who hardened the hearts of the Egyptians, moved them to pursue their escaping workforce, could not this God have parted the waters for the people of Israel - 
and then swiftly closed them again before the Egyptians arrive? Their pursuit will be thwarted.  The Israelites will escape.  No one need die.
Instead we hear that God drowned the Egyptians for his own glory!  What kind of God is this?  The God of vengeance?  The God of the Taliban?
Islam is an Abrahamic faith also rooted in these stories as much as is the Christian faith.  We need to understand the context of this story, grapple with the mindset of three thousand years ago.   
From a historical perspective it is likely a group of Semitic people left Egypt crossing the Sinai desert at some point around the formation of a federation among the hill tribes atop the west bank of the Jordan valley.
But the majority of historians also agree that these stories, originally transmitted as folk tales around the camp fire, most scholars agree that the written texts recorded so many centuries later, cannot be taken as an accurate record of what actually happened.
Likewise the intentions projected onto the person of God.  In a polytheistic age, and at a time when violence was regular and constant, each tribe - including Israel, understood themselves 
to have their own gods supporting them, gods whom they worshipped - and placated to keep on their side. Gods who would go before them, fight in battle for them, 
victory proving their superiority over other gods. In this setting the ultimate source of everything that happened 
was seen to be the will of their particular god. Thus, while Pharaoh would certainly not have wanted to lose his workforce, his will to pursue the Israelites is seen as instigated by Israel’s God.
As equally his defeat.  The glory of your god mattered in decisively defeating your enemy; triumphing over them - vital to your survival.
The final edition of this story, compiled centuries after the events in question, was written to attest, challenge faith that the Lord God of Israel alone, 
directs the course of history.  It is the seminal event in Israel’s confession of faith.  The miraculous, 
affirmation of the absolute power of God behind all Israel’s affairs.
But something extraordinary began to happen among the Hebrew people. Gradually in progressive revelation they came to an utterly new understanding of God.
By the time of the exile in Babylon, in the beautiful cadences of the prophet of second Isaiah, (chapters 40-55) we have the beginnings of a deeply loving - motherly, and monotheistic God.
God who - mostly! does not wreak vengeance and destruction on enemies - for ALL are his children, every tribe and every nation:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem!   Do not fear for I have redeemed you! 
I have called you by name, you are mine.
I am about to do a new thing, I, ... who blot out your transgressions.
I have swept away your sins like mist ....
Can a woman forget her nursing child?  
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you ....
I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands, 
your walls are continually before me.
Do not fear for you shall not be ashamed;
The holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, 
the God of the whole earth he is called.
And in the coming of Christ, in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, a remarkable further extension of God’s revealed purposes:  
Love your enemy;  do not judge one another - that you may not be judged;  pray in this way: forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Accompanied with the stern warning: If you do not forgive others, neither will the Father forgive you your trespasses.
No room here for punishment or gloating, or glory in the demise of others.  We are not to conduct our spiritual life to be seen as holy by those around us.
And we do know that those who quietly practise goodness and love, without drawing attention to themselves, can have an incredible impact on the tenor and tone of their community.
Everyone just feels that little bit better - they are not sure why!
As Europe entered the Dark Ages in the fifth and sixth centuries, it was the Christians who had been the iconoclasts, destroying everything that was not believed to be of Christian origin.
And the Muslim world which salvaged, in particular, the classical learning of the Greeks.
Based on the value the Koran sets on education, in eighth century Baghdad, the world's largest city at the time, the Abbasid Caliphate set up a new institution, the House of Wisdom.
A great centre of intellectual learning and debate, where Islamic scholars with wide-ranging cultural backgrounds were given the task of gathering together from across the world 
all the known classical texts and to translate them into Syriac and Arabic - thus preserving them for posterity.  Out of this venture came major developments in science and mathematics.
And the following six centuries became known as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’ - without which there would have been no Renaissance in Italy and Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Tragically we learn that progress is not inexorable. In March 2001 the Taliban controlling large swathes of Afghanistan, blew up two of the largest known statues of the Buddha, giants carved into the rock face at Bamyan. 
Blew them up because they were deemed idols.  A precious world heritage destroyed for ever.
If we do not guard our knowledge and understanding, the Church too, may slip back into superstition and narrow-mindedness.
As has been the story down the centuries.  We have our own iconoclastic destructions - littered across the face of our land - England. We need to know something of our history.
We pray for the people of Afghanistan - and for her new government, the Taliban. For those so desperate to leave, we pray for them as they arrive amongst us as refugees.  
Please God, we do not disappoint them. Make us eager to welcome them.  Remembering that there, but for the grace of God, go you or I.
And let us pray for our Church, that we too, do not slide backwards into fundamentalism.
Let us talk with one another. Open our ideas to the enlivening of other minds, other perspectives.
Keep a loving open mind.  There will always be things we do not understand.  Engage our Muslim colleagues, neighbours, friends.  
Pray that we might be God’s light in this dark world.
And hear this Archbishops - we vitally need 
Highly educated, deep-thinking theologians. 
We need educated church leaders.
Without whom we too, will slip back into a new dark age.   Amen.
Bidding Prayers
Almighty God, we pray for the people of Afghanistan - 
and for her new government, the Taliban:
raise up from among them wise leaders with understanding and compassion, 
and deep care for all their people, men, women and children; 
teach us each one what it means, what it takes, to build peace with one another, 
to refrain from a fundamentalist belief that we are right, and others are wrong;  
we pray for our own government in all the decisions which lie ahead 
as we seek to rescue those left behind who risked their lives to support our armies; 
we lift before God all who are bereaved, in despair and terrified, families rent asunder; 
we remember the dying and the dead; praying for the hospitals and for the medics who staff them; 
for the NGOs and aid agencies, for wise decisions as they look forward 
and consider how to support this country still facing famine; 
we pray for those now safe because they have left, 
but are now refugees having left everything behind; give wisdom to those who receive them among us, 
those who serve in government and in local authority; and many church communities including our own;
that provision might swiftly be made in housing, education and employment;.  
giving thanks for the response of the Church, and asking for wisdom;
we pray for our archbishops, Justin and Stephen, for our bishops, Sarah and Rob, 
for Jonathan our Area Dean, and for all the clergy who seek to faithfully 
share the gospel of the love of Christ. 
We pray for the Living in Love and Faith discussion groups being planned for this autumn, 
and for all who will lead them; give us hearts genuinely open to hear another point of view;
lead us by your Holy Spirit that we do not ourselves, slide backwards into fundamentalism.
we pray for the Muslim communities of our land, our Muslim colleagues, neighbours, friends;
in this difficult time we pray for peace amongst all people, 
for growing understanding and friendship; and especially we pray for the imams 
who teach in our mosques, that they might be enabled to set forth the best of their faith;
for our Church we pray for all those considering ordination at this time, all those in training now, 
and those newly ordained deacon; bless them in all they have learnt and will learn; 
and make them a blessing to their churches; we give thanks for our new curate Graham, 
and in our deanery, Helen at Emmanuel, West Hampstead, Rupert at St Mary’s Primrose Hill, 
Lara at St Luke’s Kentish Town;
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for ourselves, for a deeper understanding of Jesus Sermon on the Mount, 
for his radical teaching which turns hierarchy upside down; 
for our Church and our bishops as they contemplate both their 
radical vision for the future, and the response there has been to it; 
we pray for the people of our parish here in Hampstead 
and our mission to enable them to experience the love of God in which they are held; 
we pray for our vicar, Jeremy, and all the decisions which lie ahead 
concerning our life together as we move into a time of greater freedom from Covid restriction; 
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Almighty God, strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and in sorrow 
we may know the power of your presence to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen

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