Sermon preached at Saint Matthias’ Church, 13th February 2005
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only. ” Matthew 4:11
There was a temptation of Friday morning not to write this sermon, to stick to things that were safe and familiar and non-controversial. As I have prefaced certain sermons before, I do not expect you to agree with me, only to think about what is said.
I was in Belfast at 5.00 on Thursday, driving to meet friends for tea prior to a meeting on Thursday evening. The traffic lights at the end of the Westlink turned red just before I got through to turn onto the M3 to cross the River Lagan. Suddenly a group of about 30 placard waving people appeared—women and children along with a smattering of hard looking men. They formed a line across the road and faced the traffic with their placards. It was a Sinn Fein protest claiming that the report of the International Monitoring Commission was seeking to criminalise all 342,000 people who voted for Sinn Fein. A handful of policemen were present, but did nothing except stand and watch. I got out of my car and went to complain to the officer in charge.
“If I stood in the road and blocked the traffic, you would arrest me”.
“I would”, he said.
“Well, why are these people allowed to do as they please?”
“It’s the policing situation. I haven’t enough men and they bring the women and children so they take photographs and accuse us of brutality if we attempt to do anything.”
“They are bullies”, I said, “thugs and bullies”.
“I agree with you, —but there is nothing I can do”.
He did nothing. We all sat for half an hour while Sinn Fein were allowed to paralyse the city of Belfast.
They have mounted a sustained campaign in recent years calling for the dismantling of every institution they disliked, the most prominent the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Far from satisfying them, each concession has only brought more demands. When the new institutions have not pleased them in every way they have embarked upon new campaigns of denigration, as with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the International Monitoring Commission, which Martin McGuinness is now dismissing in pejorative terms as ‘three spooks and a lord’.
There has been a two-pronged approach. On one hand there is the Sinn Fein we encounter, the Sinn Fein who read the Irish Times, the respectable figures in smart suits taking part in public life and presenting themselves as reasonable and democratic; on the other hand we have the reality of Sinn Fein at street level of threats, intimidation and actual violence.
We face the reality of a party that believes itself to be the heir to Irish history and the legitimate successor to those who proclaimed the Republic in 1916—it has no intention of going away or being bought off with concessions.
There was a much more sinister nationalist party in the Germany of the 1930s who followed a two pronged approach, respectability at official and public level while engaged in violence and intimidation at street level. The churchgoers in that country thought they would go away or that they would be satisfied with the concessions that were made.
I read a book last year called ‘For the Soul of the People’, it was about the Protestant Church in Germany in those times. The church that had about two-thirds of the German population as members failed to take a stand against the National Socialist Party as it rose to power and became progressively more evil in its actions. A small number of pastors were brave enough to oppose Hitler and broke away to form what they called the Confessing Church, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller, but the majority of good Protestant Christian people got on with their own private lives and stood silently by while the worst crimes in the history of mankind were committed. Partly they thought the other side, the German Communists, were a worse threat than the Nazis; mostly they just felt that they were Protestants and that politics had nothing to do with them.
The Lent Gospel reading addresses the attitude that we can avoid hard questions. It presents us with three temptations faced by Jesus during those forty days in the wilderness and as we face the political scene brought to us on the RTE news, I think we are faced with two of those temptations.
Jesus faces the temptation to turn the stones into bread – to be sensible, to put his own comfort first, to take his ease, not to take on unnecessary hardship. Isn’t that our reaction when faced with the things we see in the news? Let’s be sensible and get on with our own lives, let’s not contemplate inconvenience or difficulty. How easy it is to put ourselves first, to take the bread and avoid any hardship.
Jesus says in response to the temptation that we don’t live on bread alone, that there are other things in life. Don’t we need to remind ourselves that there are more important things in our country than our own personal comfort?
Jesus is offered authority over all the nations, if only he will bow down to Satan. What a temptation: to have authority, and all you have to do is to compromise your principles a bit, to let go of a bit of your integrity. There are echoes of such temptation in the peace process—let’s let go of our principles, let’s not call killing ‘murder’; let’s not say the men who shot Garda Jerry McCabe are criminals; let’s not call racketeering ‘crime’; let’s turn a blind eye to what goes on in certain places.
Jesus is stern in his response—only God is worthy of worship and service, there can be no compromise with lies and deceit. It demands courage to call things as they are—courage that we need to show in holding onto the principles of truth and integrity.
The Church of Ireland has been like our sister Lutheran church in Germany was, we have stayed out of politics. We have got on with our own lives. We have succumbed to the temptation to take our ease, to choose bread instead of stones, and the temptation to compromise and accept an authority that is based on bowing down to evil.
There is the temptation to do nothing. Following Jesus this Lent means doing something, it means getting involved in politics before the politics come to us.
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”