Sermon for Proper 13

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

Before I begin, I would like to make a brief apology, which is that I will be referring to these papers in front of me rather more than I would like.

The reason I have to apologise is that I had worked out what I wanted to say today – I had done my reading, thinking, praying and even a lot of the writing, and then something happened this week that stopped me in my tracks.

If you follow the news you can’t have avoided the increasing number of reports of violent attacks happening across Continental Europe. The truck attack in Nice, the shooting in Munich, a machete attack and suicide bombing also in Germany. And then this week the murder of the catholic priest Fr Jacques Hamel in his church in Rouen, slaughtered by Islamist extremists as he was saying Mass.

As I said, something happened this week.

‘Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”‘

Disagreements between brothers and sisters seem to be as old as the Bible itself.

You’ll all remember the Old Testament story of Joseph and his coat given to him by his father. Joseph’s brothers were so jealous that he was his father’s favourite that they planned to murder Joseph and threw him in a well. Then seeing some passing merchants they sold Joseph into slavery. Their own brother. It was years later before the brothers were reconciled with Joseph.

Joseph’s own father Jacob had a twin brother called Esau. Now, Jacob tricked his older brother Esau out of his father’s inheritance. Esau was so furious at Jacob that he vowed to kill him, and Jacob fled into exile. Again, it was many years before they were finally reconciled.

And Jacob’s father Isaac, well we’ll come back to him.

Even before Isaac, way back almost at the beginning of the Bible you’ll find the story of Cain and Abel. The two brothers, the first two brothers in the Bible, fell out over who had given the best offering to God. Cain’s jealousy at his brother boils over into murder. There was no possibility of reconciliation for these two.

Let’s come back to the story of Isaac.

Isaac, the father of the brothers Jacob and Esau, had a brother. Not a full brother, but a half brother. That half brother’s name was Ishmael. Isaac and Ishmael’s father was that great figure of the Old Testament, Abraham.

Isaac’s mother was Abraham’s wife Sarah, but Ishmael’s mother was Sarah’s servant girl called Hagar. Abraham and Hagar had had the boy Ishmael when Sarah thought she was too old to have a baby, giving Abraham Hagar in her place. But, God being God, didn’t leave things there and some years later Sarah had a child with Abraham, the boy Isaac. And, eventually, Sarah became so jealous of Isaac’s older brother Ishmael that she persuaded Abraham to abandon Ishmael together with his mother and drive them into the wilderness.

Now, tradition has it that these two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael went on to be the founding Fathers of two great Nations and faiths. The younger brother, Isaac, went on to be the Father of the Jewish people and the ancestor of Jesus Christ, and our spiritual ancestor as well. The older brother, Ishmael, was the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and the Father of the Islamic faith.

Just five days ago in the church of St Etienne in Rouen, the 85-year old priest Fr Jacques Hamel was saying Mass in front of a small congregation. Two attackers who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State entered the church. An 86-year old parishioner was stabbed, seriously injuring him. And the attackers cut the throat of Fr Jacques as he knelt at the foot of the altar, killing him.

Pope Francis described Fr Jacques as a casualty in a piecemeal war that has been going on for some time. The Pope did stress, though, that this was not a religious war and that all religions want peace. And only this week 70,000 Muslim clerics at a gathering in in India issued an official message condemning terrorism and terrorists.

It is not religions themselves that cause wars, but their followers, or perhaps I should say so-called followers who hijack religions as an excuse for war. And these conflicts around religion are almost as old as religion itself.

According to the Biblical account, those brothers Isaac and Ishmael were never fully reconciled with one another. They are only mentioned as having met once again, to bury their father Abraham when he died. Perhaps there was reconciliation in that moment of grief and mourning. What a lesson that would have been for us now, but we will never know.

Many people are already declaring Fr Jacques Hamel to be a martyr. We worship here in the church of St George the Martyr, but we don’t often have cause to think about what we mean by the word martyr. Fr Jacques was killed because of his Christian faith and for no other reason, and without seeking his own death. That, in the eyes of the church is what makes somebody a martyr.

I found out something new and truly surprising this week in the days following Fr Jacques’s death. I was reading a short tribute to him written by a Benedictine Nun of Holy Trinity Monastery in Herefordshire. In it she described how the nuns had “prayed for the perpetrators, that they might be forgiven, for the wounded that they might recover, but for Fr Jacques, who was murdered at the altar, there was only the Te Deum.”

The Te Deum, for those who do not know it, is a great Christian hymn of praise. It is that hymn which begins “We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.” It will be familiar to those of you who remember said or choral Matins.

The barbaric slaughter of a priest seemed a strange, wholly inappropriate, time to be saying or singing a great hymn of praise to God. Surely, solemn prayer for his soul and respectful mourning were more appropriate?

The nun continued in her tribute “Fr Jacques joins the long line of those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood. He did not choose to die, he was murdered; and he was murdered simply and solely because he was a Christian. He is thus a true martyr, and it has long been the custom of the Church, when hearing of martyrdom, to praise God by singing the Te Deum.”

This still struck me as odd and difficult to get my head round. Perhaps when we sing our final hymn today you could imagine singing it in response to hearing of the news of someone who had been murdered because of their Christian faith. It jars. Deeply. The first four lines of that hymn:

Alleluia, alleluia!
Hearts to heaven and voices raise:
sing to God a hymn of gladness,
sing to God a hymn of praise.

Why does the Church, and this nun, single out those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood? Why does she single out those we call martyrs? Well, surely because part of Christ’s own witness involved the shedding of his blood. Jesus Christ, God come among us in human form, was slaughtered on the cross by those he came to save. The same Christ called on his followers to take up their own crosses and follow Him; to give their lives for Him, in whatever way that took. Those who have had their lives taken away because of their faith in Christ have been given a special place by the Church as those prepared to pay the ultimate price for their faith; their life.

The next two lines of our final hymn seem more appropriate to me:

He, who on the cross a victim,
for the world’s salvation bled,

If the story of Jesus Christ had ended there on the cross, there would be no Te Deums being said or sung for Fr Jacques. And yet, there are.

If Christianity tells us anything about death, it is that it is not the end; death is not the last word. After Jesus had been killed on the cross he was laid in a tomb, but on the third day after he had died the tomb was empty. The stories from his followers were that Jesus who had been dead was now alive, that he had walked again with his followers, spoken to them, eaten and drunk with them, and blessed them.

The Love of God is stronger than death. The Love of God is still stronger than Death today.

I think perhaps this is why Fr Jacques will have Te Deums said and sung for him. Fr Jacques’s death will not be the end for him. Fr Jacques will see God and Jesus. His witness to Christ in the manner of his death assures him of that. And what of those who murdered him? In God’s vast Love and Mercy they will come to know what a horrific thing they did. And they will be reconciled with Fr Jacques, as will Cain and Abel and all those who couldn’t be reconciled in this life, even Isaac and Ishmael.

Jesus Christ, the King of glory,
now is risen from the dead.