Not strictly connected with Trinity Church and the Centre, this sermon contains some of my thinking on faith and humanity. I add it here because some people have kindly said they found it helpful.
Following a reunion of wartime evacuees in Mousehole, former evacuees, and other members of the Jewish Community, gave a Menorah (a seven-branched candelabra) to the people of Mousehole. This was presented to them at Mousehole Methodist Chapel on 29 August 2010, when I delivered the following sermon. The Menorah has now been placed in the Chapel.
An enthusiastic young Methodist minister was posted to a small town containing both a Catholic Church and a Jewish Synagogue. The priest and rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and, offering any help he might need in his new charge, invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in a boat about 50 yards from the shore, the priest said he was thirsty. However, they’d left the cool bag on the land. The rabbi said, “I’ll get it,” stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the shore and returned with the bag. Later, the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net also had been left on shore. So the priest stepped out of the left side of boat, walked to the shore and returned with the net. By this time, the young minister was feeling a bit embarrassed. Then the old priest said he’d left his knife on shore and couldn’t get the hook out of the fish’s mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I’ll get it!” With that, he stepped out of right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we’re going to help this boy, we should start by showing him where the stepping stones are.”
I began thinking about today’s service as I printed off a notice I’d received about the Dor Kemmyn Faith Journey. Dor Kemmyn is Cornish for Common Ground. It started as an idea in the Cornwall Faith Forum, which draws together people from the various faith communities in Cornwall to learn from and about each other and to offer mutual support. Dor Kemmyn will one day be a shared interfaith building for Cornwall.
The Dor Kemmyn Faith Journey is to take place on Saturday 25th of next month. It will begin at Diocesan House in Truro, moving on to visit Kehillat Kernow, the Cornish Jewish Community in Blackwater, Quenchwell’s Cornwall Asian Islamic Community Centre and then by foot to Come to Good’s Quaker Meeting House before returning to Diocesan House. There a faith tea will be shared as well as prayers and readings from the faith traditions on the theme of change prompted by autumn.
Kehillat Kernow – the name combines the Hebrew and Cornish languages – has members from widely differing backgrounds from the various traditions of Judaism, and some who are not Jewish at all. The group’s website suggests that the final words of Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, in his book ‘The Dignity of Difference’, might apply to them – “Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities.”
Perhaps we might hold that thought in mind as we continue. The news of that faith walk and of the interfaith effort in Cornwall might not normally have been particularly relevant to share with you except that today we receive a menorah into chapel. Mousehole Chapel has more items of interest within it than many a Methodist chapel, but even so, a menorah is unusual indeed, being an item of importance to another faith.
This piece was sent as a gift to the people of Mousehole following the return of some of the evacuees from the Jews’ Free School who were billeted in Mousehole 70 years ago in war time. There is an article in the Crosswords magazine about the visit. These were days when the ecumenical movement had barely got its shoes laced and there was little of the co-operation that we now enjoy even with Anglican brothers and sisters. Yet into what seem to have been predominantly Methodist families came these Jewish children. While here, some of the older children attended Shabbat services at Paul Church hall while many of the children came to Chapel on a Sunday with their host families.
You remember the Chief Rabbi’s words: “Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities.” Such a view is possible only in a heart that recognises that whatever our religion or culture, we share one common humanity. On a website of religious jokes, this was included: “A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi are walking down the street. They discuss, together, the various traditions and beliefs of their different religions. Each leaves with a greater respect for the other and a deeper understanding of the world.” Not funny, but ironic.
I was asked recently how I measured success in my ministry. My answer was, “I shall see my ministry as being successful only as I see people growing as human beings and becoming more loving and more compassionate.” If another religion seeks that for its adherents, that works for me. I choose to make my home in the Christian faith. It was the faith in which I was reared although I left it before returning. The measure of a life filled with the divine and filled with love and compassion for me is the life of Jesus but that Jesus was a Jew; the faith I see as necessary to living that life is the faith of Jesus, Jesus the Jew. The menorah will serve as a reminder that the Christian story makes no sense without the Jewish story.
Religion doesn’t always get a good press and sometimes that is deserved, often perhaps. Some of the hardest words on the subject come from Steven Weinberg who said, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.” Jonathan Swift put it even more succinctly, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
Sad, isn’t it, pitiful even, that beliefs which are supposed to bring the best from us so often divide? It is so, not between faiths only, but also within them, as we know only too well within the church. It is why I answer as I do that success must be measured in a humanity touched by the divine with that touch outworked in love and compassion.
I remember well an elderly lady, now passed on, who used to belong to one of our circuit’s churches. She was a lovely soul, kind, compassionate, sensitive, generous – loving. Yet there were those around her who made her feel she wasn’t a proper Christian because she did not speak in tongues. Paul had something to say about that. He wrote that the different spiritual gifts are given for the common good and in variety necessary for the wellbeing of the body of believers. He urged everyone to go all out for the “greater gifts” but then he seems to back away from the description of individual gifts to point to the one gift without which all others are pointless, impossible even.
I will show you a more excellent way, he writes, more excellent than any individual gift, however great. It is of course – this more excellent way – nothing other than love. This is not the emotional love that is dependent on our feelings one for another. It is a love that wills good for another whatever their attitude towards us, whatever may be their theology, their faith, their race or gender, their colour or sexuality.
This love is what remains when our deeds are refined in the fires of our life’s living; it is the measure by which the divine within us is seen or not seen, the measure by which the fullness of our humanity, our encounter with divinity, is known. What good is anything, speaking in tongues, prophecy, undaunted faith, extraordinary generosity even at ultimate personal cost without love?
A story: Naomi is about to leave her house to meet her three friends for their regular monthly get together. But as she bends down to pick up the last of the toys left on the floor by her four children, she puts her back out. She’s in great pain, so she phones her friends and tells them that she won’t be able to go out with them that afternoon. Later that day, her three friends come to her house to commiserate. “O, Naomi,” says Hilda, “it’s such a shame you being laid up like this.” “Yes,” says Fay, “it’s terrible. The pain you must be experiencing.” “I know what we can do,” says Judith. “We’ll all pray for you every day until you get back on your feet.” As Hilda and Fay are nodding their heads in agreement, Naomi says, “You know what, better you three come here every day and help out with the housework. Praying I can do by myself.”
Religion may be gifted to us culturally, or we may choose it from among the various paths on offer but if it serves only to alienate us from our fellow human beings, it must eventually alienate us from the divine and thus from life itself.
Religion at its best, and it is so of all the great religions, seeks to free its followers from all that constrains us, all that limits us, to release us from the limitations of time, space, and our own desires and subjectivity. The practices of religion, be they the lighting of the Menorah, praying the Rosary or bowing towards Mecca, are, at best, aids towards that freedom, helps towards our release. At worst, religion becomes yet one more constraint upon us. Rather like the old story of the finger pointing at the moon, religion wrongly engaged with makes us concentrate on the finger rather than the moon it indicates, on itself rather than the divine encounter it may enable.
Once we understand that religion is intended to point us beyond or within ourselves, once we realise our shared humanity in the divine, once we are humble enough to recognise our own human limitations then we may begin to appreciate the faith of others. Then we may discover the truth of those words. “Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities.”