Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
First of all, I’d like you to cast your minds back to the floods in early December – not the current spate, the ones about a month ago.
Now, I have a question: where did they happen? No need to answer. It was more or less a rhetorical question. Not only rhetorical but also something of a trick question. I suspect that the vast majority of you, if not all of you, thought immediately of the floods in Cumbria. I know I would have. They’re the ones that attracted the headlines in our media.
But, at the same time as those events taking place in Cumbria, there was some even more serious flooding in and around the city of Chennai in India. Chennai used to be called Madras.
In these Indian floods over 280 people were killed and yet we heard next to nothing about them in the media – certainly by comparison with the floods in Cumbria.
This imbalance of media coverage as well as the imbalance of the Church of England’s apparent concern prompted the following letter in the Church Times:
Considering that Madras and Carlisle are linked dioceses, it has been noticeable that much of the Church of England’s attention has been only on the Carlisle floods. Recalling also comments after the Paris shootings, is there a pattern emerging where lives in the West are valued more than lives elsewhere?
In answer to that question it would be repugnant to say that, objectively, an Indian or a Chinese life doesn’t have exactly the same infinite value as a British or European life. It could not possibly be otherwise.
But on the other hand I’d guess that it’s part of our universal human experience that events have interest for us on two counts: their gravity and their proximity.
So, for instance, if I were to break my leg descending the steps of our pulpit today, I’d like to think that that event would be of some interest to my friends and neighbours – and possibly to this congregation.
But, let’s be honest, I doubt if it would be of much interest to, say, a peasant farmer in the depths of Yunnan Province in south-western China.
And that in a way is how it must be. If that peasant farmer were passionately concerned for everyone throughout the world who ever broke a limb or was seriously ill or indeed in any kind of distress, it’s difficult to see how he could possibly cope in any useful way with that knowledge and that concern. He would probably be overwhelmed by it.
It follows, I think, that we as individuals are not called on to take upon our individual shoulders the sufferings of the whole world. Given the amount of suffering in the world, that would simply be impossible – both practically and psychologically.
That doesn’t mean that we are called on to be indifferent to the suffering that anyone endures. Nothing could be further from the Christian truth.
But it does mean that we have to be realistic – just so long as we don’t take realism as an excuse for indifference.
We are in the great scheme of things small creatures, who inevitably have a perspective. It means that, from where we stand, we see some things closely and fairly clearly, and other things more distantly and hazily – if we see them at all.
For us that’s a fact of life – but it’s not a fact of life for God. God doesn’t have a perspective or an angle or a particular location. He sees all things with infinite clarity and in their eternal context. God cares infinitely for someone who breaks a leg whether that person lives in Cumbria, Chennai, China or Richmond. Thankfully, God does not have the limitations that we have.
The church, I have no doubt, should have shown greater concern for our brothers and sisters in Chennai. But no individual, no organisation has unlimited time and energy. It seems to me that there’s a real dilemma here about how we should allocate our resources given that they are not infinite. I don’t pretend to know the solution.
When I was young and impressionable, I was a fan of the singer Bob Dylan. In about 1964 he wrote a song called God on our Side. It was an anti-war song and ridiculed the way in which sometimes we have in the past assumed that God was on our side in a war and definitely not on the enemy’s side. After all, we were right and they were wrong – obviously.
In a similar kind of way it was possible for the ancient Jews to imagine that God loved them more than he did other people – like the Romans or the Amalekites or the Assyrians or the Egyptians. They could get to thinking that God was on their side and not on the side of the Romans, the Amalekites and so on.
But God doesn’t have that kind of perspective. The Jews weren’t special – or rather they weren’t any more special than any other people. God chose them because he saw something in them that meant that they could play a role in the drama of redemption.
So I suppose you could say that they were special – but not more loved. That’s the key thing.
The truth is that God is on everyone’s side. We want to be specially loved, specially favoured, so we don’t always recognise the fact but it’s the plain truth.
And that, I believe, is the main lesson that we draw from the story of the Epiphany.
Three wise men come from the East so that they can pay homage to Jesus. But they’re not Jews. They are gentiles.
Once upon a time the Jews could be excused for thinking that they were God’s special favourites. After all, God had chosen them from all the peoples of the earth.
But in their heart of hearts they knew that that wasn’t quite right. Certainly they were blessed, but all the other nations of the earth were blessed as well because of them. The prophets, some of them, some of the time at least, had realised that.
And so three exhausted foreigners arrive in Bethlehem guided by a star. And nothing, either for them or for the rest of the world, would ever be the same again. God’s blessing on all people was, is made manifest.