A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on September 5, 2021 by Revd Richard Carter

Reading for address: Luke 17.11-19

While I was on holiday I read a remarkable book called Apeirogon by Colum McCann. It is a novel but based on the true friendship of a Jewish Israeli Rami and a Muslim Palestinian Bassam. Both of them are fathers and both of them have lost a daughter tragically and brutally in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and that is what brings these fathers together across the divide. Out of the enormity of their grief and pain both of them come to the same realisation that there can never ever be an answer in hatred, brutality and the escalation of revenge. It is a book made up of many fragments- like a collage or tapestry of many voices- and through those many fragments we come glimpse the complex interweaving of the stories and memories we experience and tell in our search for truth. You don’t read Apeirogon so much as feel it, as the particular tragedies of Bassam and Rami are lived out in an ever-present moment of loss- forever repeating like a constantly rewinding video within- this is the trauma of horrifying loss but also, because nothing can ever be the same ever again, the realisation that this is the defining moment of their lives.

For all its grief, Apeirogon is a novel that buoys the heart. The friendship of Bassam and Rami is a thing of great and sustaining beauty. There’s a picture of the two of them, asleep on a train in Germany, travelling from one speaking engagement to the next. They lean against each another, Rami – the older man – supporting the smaller Bassam as he sleeps. These two, who should according to prejudice be sworn enemies, discovering a tenderness and grace born of shared suffering. This, the novel suggests, is ultimately the only way to overcome conflict: something as simple and easy as friendship, as the acknowledgement of a shared experience, as human as respect and yes- love. “This will not be over until we learn to talk to one another and understand one another” And they keep on telling their stories again and again- stories which cross all that divides because they tell of our common humanity, the horror of violence that destroys lives and two fathers’ longing for an end to the hatred and prejudice: for the agony of their grief has removed all the barriers between them.

The Guardian in their review wrote this “It could have been maudlin, tawdry, exploitative, trite. Instead, it’s a masterpiece, a novel that will change the world” and you don’t hear that very often.

In one of the fragments we read of an exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. In 1932 Einstein wrote to Freud with a question that must be still within all our hearts. He wrote that despite the profound hope of the greatest moral and spiritual leaders from Christ, to Goethe and Kant- no-one has been able to stem the war and savagery of human beings. The essential question Einstein wanted to ask was why? Is it possible for humankind ever to become resistant to the psychosis of hate and destruction thereby delivering civilisation from the constant fear and menace of war and violence? In September 1932 Einstein received a reply from Sigmund Freud. Freud wrote that he doubted that anyone would be able to ever supress humanities most aggressive tendencies. He wrote “it is easy to infect humankind with war fever, and humanity has an active instinct for hatred and destruction.” What was needed was “to establish, by common consent, a central authority that would have the last word in every conflict of interest.” Beyond that he said that “anything that creates emotional human ties between human beings, inevitably counteracts war.” What had to be sought was “a community of feeling and a mythology of the instincts.”

I write this at a time when we are all overwhelmed by the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. The political narratives we have been told over 20 years of creating a safer freer world- unwinding and falling apart so graphically on our news screens in front of us. Our hearts reach out to the people of Afghanistan- after all the suffering and fear they have lived through- plunged back again into the harsh nightmare of all that many had prayed they had escaped. Sometimes no words are adequate. We long for solutions- to create a better story- to find the redemption. At the moment we behold the human pain and the cost of violence and can only bow our heads before such suffering. Like Simon of Cyrene, or the women of Jerusalem, or Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross we witness the incredible courage of those who have chosen to bear witness- and to continue to be the eyes, the voices, the hands, the hearts of compassion and justice. I think of those women in Afghanistan speaking out for the sanctity of human rights. And of those forced to flee or leave behind all that they love. And here in this country can this community of feeling, this witnessing of our shared humanity and connectedness- can this change us too? Can this transform our fear- open us up across our own borders and divisions?

Brother Roger who founded the Taizé Community in France- a community which has always sort to live a parable of unity and become a visible sign of reconciliation and peace: believed that Christian community should be a well spring of hope. Roger constantly sought this opening up to the other- this universal heart that he saw in Christ. He often quoted St Augustine “Choose to love and say it with your life.”

On the afternoon of the day he died 16 August 2005 Brother Roger called one of his brothers and said to him: “Note down these words carefully” There was a long silence as he attempted to find the words to express what was within him and then he began:

“To the extent that our community creates possibilities for the human family to broaden…” and then he stopped there leaving his sentence open. “To the extent that our community creates possibilities for the human family to broaden.” It seems a question, a longing, a hope. A hope that is entirely possible and in which every single person can participate and yet a hope too that is limitless: to broaden the human family. A family- a unity built on mutual sharing, love and commitment, a family that broadens beyond, region or tribe or colour, or nation- a family which actually includes all of creation and our common home and does not oppress. I quote these words of Roger because they echo the discovery of Rami and Bassam as they discover a shared humanity, indeed echo the words of Freud writing to Einstein -what is needed is a community of feeling, indeed this widening of the human family is at the very heart of our own call to be community and to be the witnesses of Jesus Christ. The barriers we create are the barriers of our fear, they lock us in, they tempt us to fear or hate the stranger- to make war on the alien- to put them to death outside the city wall.

Let us look to Christ look at his challenge. Here in today’s Gospel two healings. Remember that each of these healings is not just a healing of an individual it is parable for all people both then and now. These miracles are also the miracles that can be our healing too. A woman comes to him who is a Gentile. A woman- to Jesus a man, a Gentile who for a Jew is considered unclean, unfaithful, underserving. Look how Jesus echoes the prejudice and hostility of his time: “It is not fair” he says “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” Is she no more worthy of healing and grace than a scavenging dog. Yet it is this woman who confronts prejudice just as those brave Afghani women confront the prejudice of oppression today: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs..” And now we see the human family broadening- she too and her beloved daughter are part of the miracle of Christ’s love. This woman has challenged segregation and oppression and revealed a God whose love is not restricted to a chosen people but whose healing is for all. The miracle is a revolution- it is saying the love of God and the miracles of God’s love knows no boundaries- we are all God’s people. Each person is diminished by the pain of another person and enriched by the life of another and if our church is not living this connectedness with all humanity then God forgive us and help us for we have lost Christ the Word who became flesh and lived among all of us.

And then today we read a second miracle I want you to see this miracle again as a miracle for us all. A miracle to all those who are locked in. Locked down by fear or impediment unable to communicate who you truly are. Feeling that deep within our hidden selves for whatever reason we cannot be truly free. And Christ recognises our secret pain and anguish and touches us. With his touch he opens our ears, with the kiss, as intimate as the saliva of his mouth he frees our tongue. And looking up to God he says “Ephphatha” that is be opened. Open up. Open up your body, your life, your heart to the wonder of God, to your neighbour to your world. Open up. For too long we have been locked up, closed down, bent over yourself, fearful. Now it is time to extend the human family. And I wonder if we can imagine those words spoken not just to ourselves but to all those who long for the life of God in all its fullness. “Ephphatha.” Be opened. Open up to your neighbour. Open up to the one who you have locked out or locked down. Open up the fear that has cowered you and left you in hiding. Open up to those who are rejected and lost. Open up a religion that has not given us the life that Christ intended but often imprisoned and condemned. Open up the paths of human friendship and interaction. Open up the heart of hope. Open up death itself to the miracle of God’s eternal love.

Ultimately you see this is our faith this is our hope. We believe in the one who opens up his arms on a cross but also opens up the tomb and goes before us. Who violence, and betrayal and even death could not defeat. We believe in a love stronger than death and in a light that the darkness can never snuff out. It is Christ who goes before us and calls us his church not to self-defensiveness but to open up, to be his open door. Is this not our calling here at St Martin’s and the miracle of the calling we have seen during lock-down. Are we not witnessing this “Ephphatha”-this opening up- the God who is opening up his community of inclusion and welcome to all people. “Ephphatha” are we not seeing the breadth of his love- Christ’s being with, Christ’s Nazareth. Are we not ourselves witnessing the opportunity of our human family to broaden in a way we never dared or dreamed possible?