Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (7 May 2017) by Loretta Minghella, Chief Executive of Christian Aid.

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (7 May 2017) by Loretta Minghella, Chief Executive of Christian Aid.

As Christian Aid Week approaches, Loretta Minghella reminds us that "we can, like Christ, rise above the dividing walls between tribes and in our own hearts. As we show love without partiality to all those in need, we follow in the footsteps of Christ."

Have you ever been for a helicopter ride? Until two weeks ago, I would have said no, but on the Wednesday before last, I found myself with those great big orange headphones on to muffle the sound, taking off in a very loud, somewhat bone-rattling helicopter for the first time. It wasn’t exactly a fun day out: I was flying in a United Nations helicopter between government held and opposition held areas in scorched-earth, war-torn South Sudan. We went to Unity state where famine has been declared, to see the work Christian Aid and our partners are doing there to bring practical support to those who need it.

The tragedy of South Sudan is that it is the world’s newest country, born to great celebration in 2011, a fertile land, blessed with natural resources like gold and oil. The civil war which has been going on since 2013 divides the nation on tribal lines: Dinka against Nuer. If you’re not from one of those tribes, you are likely to be seen as supporting one or the other. Each day is a battle against the fear of being raped, tortured or killed for being identified with the wrong group at the wrong time, a battle which sadly more and more are losing, as the fear becomes the reality for so many, aid workers included.

Millions of South Sudanese people have been displaced by the fighting, fleeing to other parts of the country, or to surrounding countries like Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. They swell the ranks of those people across the world who have no safe place to call home, over 65million of them globally now. These are the people at the front of our minds as we approach this year’s Christian Aid Week, which starts next Sunday.

The Sunday before last I knelt for prayers in the Cathedral of the Episcopal Church in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. I have never heard intercessions prayed quite so fervently, or so poignantly, led by a woman pleading for rains, for food and for peace. “Why, Lord, are your people suffering?” she asked. “Only you understand this Lord, we are not able to understand it? We know nothing is beyond you Lord. If it be your will Lord, we need water, we need your living water”. A woman of enormous faith, praying the prayers on everyone’s hearts and almost, almost devoid of hope.

During my time in South Sudan, many asked me how I thought the conflict in the country could be overcome. How could people who so recently lived joyfully side by side ever heal and move forward together after the atrocities of the last few years? The answer sits in the middle of our reading today from the letter of St Paul to the Ephesians. St Paul was of course talking about divisions between Jews and Gentiles but he could have been speaking about the Dinka and the Nuer tribes of South Sudan, he could have been speaking of the UK and its relationship with the EU, or about those Americans who voted for President Trump and those against him. Much closer to home, he could be talking about our own inner tensions – the yawning gap in our minds between our aspirations to be the best we can be, and the searing reality of what in all our human frailty we can manage. Where can we find wholeness, unity, peace?

St Paul explains that the answer lies in Christ - who has through his death and resurrection already won the peace.

“He is our peace” says St Paul, “in his flesh he has…broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Christ knew what it was to live the reality of a human existence. We know that he did not want to die in agony after a public execution and asked God just before his arrest to be spared what he understood was inevitable. We know that he cried out in his pain on the cross, that he knew what it was to feel abandoned in his hour of need. And yet he declined to take the many opportunities he had to avoid his death. Because he knew his death was necessary to win us the peace, to overcome our divisions and to ensure that love and life would prevail. His sacrifice opens up a path along which there is room for all of us to journey together to our Father’s house, where each of us has a safe place to call home, each of us has a place at the table. In him, St Paul says, the whole structure is joined together with Christ himself the cornerstone and all of us built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

In South Sudan, you can in fact see many signs of hope. In Nyal, I met people who had waded through swamps for five days to flee the fighting, bearing their elderly and their children on their heads. In extreme conditions in which they might have thought just of themselves, they literally carried the most vulnerable and the most needy. The place they reached, where I met them, was desperately poor but local people are sharing what they have and pulling together with those who have arrived. And with your great generosity and the skills of Christian Aid staff and our partner Unido, those people are now able to feed themselves, using fishing equipment we’ve given them to catch tilapia and other fish in the river and new seeds and tools to grow vegetables they’ve never seen before like cabbage and kale, onions and tomatoes too. To thank us, one group sang and danced and gave us two chickens and an aubergine. Hungry as they are, they are still ready to give.

Resilience, tenderness, generosity – these persist. They are signs that God is at work, that the walls of division are coming down. As Christian Aid Week approaches, this means we have a choice. We can choose to be demoralised by the divisions we see in our communities, in our nation and in our world. Or we can see the signs of hope and join in with those. This Christian Aid Week, we get the chance to raise up the needs of those in poverty in places like South Sudan and across our divided world and raise all the money we can – for essentials like food, shelter, and clean water, to support processes which lead to peace and to help communities rebuild for the long term once the peace has been secured. I’ve seen what a difference your generosity makes and how, with another successful Christian Aid Week, we can do so much more. Please do give whatever you can.

My biggest joy comes from my belief that I am a beneficiary of the boundless love of Jesus Christ. This is my faith and the source of all my hope. It gives me the strength to go to the most dangerous country in the world for an aid worker and to return and say, we are all part of the answer, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a chance to play the strongest role we can. We are all Dinka. We are all Nuer. But we can, like Christ, rise above the dividing walls between tribes and in our own hearts. As we show love without partiality to all those in need, we follow in the footsteps of Christ. So as Christian Aid Week approaches, thank you in advance for all you will do to give and pray and raise money for those in need. Together we can break down the dividing walls, overcome poverty, injustice and conflict – and build dignity, healing and peace.