Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 9th November 2008
‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve ’ Joshua 24:15
“Choose whom you will serve”, says Joshua., not “choose whose side you are on”. It is an important point, service and side-taking are very different.
We live in a world where we are urged to take sides. I bought America Alone by the right-wing Canadian writer Mark Steyn during the summer. Steyn sees the rising tide of Islam as a threat to Western values. He is confrontational and deliberately provocative in what he writes:
“. . . it’s not about race; it’s about culture. If 100 percent of your population believes in liberal pluralist democracy, it doesn’t matter whether 70 percent of them are “white” or only 5 percent are. But if one part of your population believes in liberal pluralist democracy and the other doesn’t, then it becomes a matter of great importance whether the part that does is 90 percent of the population or only 60 percent, or 50, or 45 percent. Which is why that question lies at the heart of almost any big international news story of recent years-the French riots, the attacks on Danish embassies and consulates over the publication of cartoons of Mohammed, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Turkey’s membership in the European Union, Pakistani riots over Newsweek’s Koran-down-the-toilet story. Whenever I make that point, lefties always respond, “Oh, well, that’s typical right-wing racism.” In fact, it ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a “social conservative.” When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple extra wives, and keep my head down”.
Steyn is in no doubt; the world is divided into us and them. If you believe in the old values of freedom and individual liberty, there is only one choice, there is only one side to take, our side is the right one. Reading Steyn’s book, there was a memory that nagged away at the back of my mind..
One summer, a few years ago, we stayed on a campsite about forty miles north east of Paris. It’s a pleasant part of France, forests, rolling farmland and small towns. It’s hard to imagine that events of world importance once took place in this tranquil location. We were just outside of the town of Compiegne; close to a forest clearing where, ninety years ago this Tuesday, 11th November, a railway carriage was the scene of the signing of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end. The countryside around was dotted with cemeteries, both French and German, each of them a silent witness to the horrors of the four years that preceded the Armistice.
The village in which we stayed, Vic-sur-Aisne, had a French military cemetery on its northern outskirts. One evening, close to sunset we wandered up to look around the cemetery . The French tend to have white crosses rather than headstones marking their graves, meaning it is much easier to spot graves of men who were not from a Christian background.
We walked between rank upon rank of crosses. Sometimes there would be a headstone with a Jewish Star of David inscribed upon it; sometimes there were headstones with no religious symbols, France has been a secular country for a long time. At the top of the cemetery there were lines and lines of headstones, it seemed strange—who were these men? When we got to the graves it became apparent, each of the stones had what we assumed to be Arabic script at the top, because each of the men had Arabic names. These were the graves of Moslems who had died fighting in the French army, ‘Mort Pour La France’.
These graves don’t fit in with Mark Steyn’s worldview, they didn’t fit in with the view of history with which I grew up. The Moslems in our view of history were the bad guys, the Turks were Moslems and the Turks were our enemies. Yet, here in this anonymous corner of northern France, were the graves of dozens and dozens of Moslems who had died in the trenches on the Western Front, fighting for our side.
It is troubling when history is not straightforward; it’s much easier to think in terms of their side and our side, but the choice in the Bible is not about taking sides, it’s about serving God. ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’, says Joshua. If we follow the story of the people of Israel through the Old Testament, we see the choice of serving God often conflicted with taking the side of Israel. Follow the story of Elijah, follow the story of Jeremiah, read the words of Amos, and we see people who choose God before their side; we see a history that is far from simple.
The world as Mark Steyn sees it is a much simpler one in which to live. For him there is America standing by itself, and there is Europe that has gone over to the other side; no grey areas, them and us.
But it was the “them and us” mentality that filled the green fields of France with white headstones. The men who came out of the trenches at Christmas 1914 to meet each other in No Man’s Land, who sang carols and played football together, discovered there was not much to differentiate them from us. The generals were horrified; they needed men who hated their enemies; they needed to demonise the other side. They wanted people who took sides, not people who made choices.
We are called to choose. ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’ says Joshua. Do we choose to serve, or do we choose to take sides? They are very different choices.
Choosing to serve means choosing the way of Jesus, choosing the way of truth and the way of peace, even when those choices are not popular. Choosing to simply take sides means not asking awkward questions, not going after the truth, not trying to find peace.
Moslems in a French graveyard make us question our assumptions; they make us realize that the world is not a simple place; they make us ask why there are sides; they make us ask whom it is we serve.