Preacher The Revd Alan Sykes
As you may have noticed, we are in the midst of the party conference season. Perhaps as a matter of principle you try not to notice such things but the fact remains – whether we like it or not – politics is important. It’s easy to be cynical about politicians but they affect our lives.
It’s a bit of a generalisation but what voters really care about is what happens to them and to their families – and then perhaps what happens to their neighbourhoods and then to their country. In general we the voters don’t care overmuch about, say, foreign policy.
You might say that that contention is contradicted by the Brexit vote back in June. The country was consumed by the debate and the debate was fundamentally a matter of foreign policy.
But the main issues – the economy, immigration, sovereignty – were all about what happens here in this country. The debate was only as it were technically about foreign policy. The essence of it was domestic.
Concern with the domestic is predictable. Indeed it’s understandable. Human beings are limited creatures, rooted in a particular place. It’s only natural that we should care more about what is close to hand and less about what is more distant.
If your next door neighbour breaks a leg, that’s big news in your household. It’s big news among your neighbours. But if, say, the Daily Telegraph were to carry a story about an obscure farmer in some distant province in China breaking his leg, you’d wonder why they were bothering to carry such a minor story.
It’s inevitable. We have a perspective. We see things at a particular time and from a particular place. Perhaps we couldn’t cope if we didn’t have our own particular perspective. We would be overwhelmed.
God doesn’t have a perspective. For God nothing is closer or further away. Everything is known equally – and known inside and outside.
Or look at it another way, God’s perspective is all times and all places. It’s a totally different mode of being.
Sometimes, reading the Bible and especially the Old Testament, you’d think that God only cared about the people of Israel. That would be a profoundly false reading.
The people of Israel wrote the Bible and they do sometimes seem obsessed with their own problems, even with their own status as a chosen people. They expend far more ink on themselves than on others.
Perhaps, sometimes, they get to thinking that God cares for them more than he does for the Egyptians or the Assyrians or the Aramaeans.
But that was a misperception. Because God doesn’t have a perspective, he cares for all people equally and the Bible writers at their best know that full well. The care that God has for all cannot help but bubble up from time to time in the Bible’s pages.
God may have chosen the Israelites but only as a sort of vanguard to help bring all people into union with him.
Let’s take a look at our Old Testament reading. Naaman suffers from leprosy and is an Aramaean – a general in the army of the king of Aram, an area to the north of Israel. So he’s not an Israelite. Actually he’s an enemy of the Israelites, at least from time to time, as our passage makes clear.
Now Elisha the prophet does behave a little oddly, it has to be said. He doesn’t even bother to speak to Naaman, even though Naaman has come to his house and is waiting outside. He sends a message instead. All a bit impersonal, you might say.
Well, maybe so, but the point is that Elisha the prophet of God heals the general of the enemies of the people of God. So this story is one of those instances that bubble up in the Old Testament by which we receive a hint that God is the God of all humanity not just of the chosen few.
In New Testament times the Jews didn’t get on with a number of people – the Romans, for one. And they also had a pretty contemptuous attitude towards their neighbours the Samaritans.
There are a number of passages in the gospels in which the Samaritans are shown in a favourable light. The parable of the Good Samaritan springs to mind. And in today’s gospel reading a Samaritan leper is not only healed but is also the only one of ten healed lepers who returns to give thanks – and so meets with Jesus’ approval.
And there we have another sign that God’s care and concern extends beyond the boundaries that we are prone to erect. We can and should draw the lesson that the love that we are exhorted to extend to our neighbour is meant to extend to all people in all places.
But I reckon this puts us in something of a quandary. Being people of perspective, viewing things at one time and from one place, is it even possible – reflecting the care and concern of God – to extend our care and concern to all people in all places and indeed at all times.
Are we physically and psychologically capable of such love?
One of the signs of spiritual maturity is the recognition of our limitations. We have limited abilities, limited strength, limited knowledge, limited insight, limited time. We are subject to a whole host of limitations, that mean we simply can’t do everything.
Well, here are two thoughts in response to that perhaps unwelcome reality: first of all, we can do far more together than we can as individuals and it’s important to stress that. Admittedly, even collectively, we can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing. Something may not be everything but it’s always better than nothing.
And secondly, it’s a question of opening ourselves up to the love of God. Then his way of looking at things will become our way of looking.
God doesn’t expect us to do everything, to solve every problem – but, if we as individuals open ourselves up to the love of God, he will show us what it is that we are called to do as individuals and he will give us the strength to do it.
And, just imagine, if we as a society were to open ourselves up to the love of God, who knows what we could achieve through our collective action and, yes, even through our politics.