Sermon preached at Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (19 June 2016) by the Revd. Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (19 June 2016) by the Revd. Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

When fear drives us, we separate ourselves from those we see as 'other', says Canon Tricia

Today is different. Not today is it the soaring architecture, glittering mosaics or even the choir in fine voice which draws our focus.

Today it is this plain cross, just 38cm high and 28cm across the cross bar which captures our attention and acts as the prism for our thinking and prayers.

This cross, with its scuffed blue paint revealing other layers; dark green, beige, orange; its sides planned back to bare timber; a fragment of iron nail piercing its side. It’s signed on the back:  ‘F. Tuccio, Lampedusa’ (Mr Tuccio: benvenuto a voi e pace )  

Mr Tuccio took wood from the wreckage of a boat lost off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on 11th October 2013. 311 Eritrean and Somalian refugees had drowned. The inhabitants of Lampedusa helped to save the lives of 155 others.

Mr Tuccio, a carpenter, met some of those who survived, Eritrean Christians, in Church.Deeply moved by their plight and frustrated by their circumstances, he decided to do what he uniquely could: to create for each of them a cross from the wreckage of the boat – a symbol of their salvation from the sea and their hope for the future.

A similar cross was made for Pope Francis and carried at a memorial service for those who had perished. Another, this one, Mr Tuccio gave to the British Museum, where it marks this extraordinary period in our history and the fate of those who had hoped to cross to a new life and to safety. We are indebted to the Museum for enabling it to be here today.

Lampedusa is a small island. Lying close to the shores of Africa, it has been the place where many crossing the Mediterranean Sea have tried to reach. It’s also where many of those plucked from the sea have been brought.

Many of us form and offer opinions at arm’s length. Mr Tuccio and his neighbours had no such option – their dilemma being direct and immediate: what will my response be, here, now?

Many of us have other questions: if we offer safe haven what will be the cost? Will I / we be more or less secure? Will newcomers help or hinder our economy? 

These are not unreasonable questions. But as such they deserve rational thoughtful responses. Events in Orlando and here in the UK are sombre reminders that we cannot allow fear – or hate – to divide us nor prevent us responding to such questions with care.

A few years ago I received an email forwarded by a friend. The email set out, in the most alarming way, the threats unknown assailants posed to women driving alone. It made for terrifying reading – an impression only made stronger by the recurring chorus – in BLOCK capitals – ‘BETTER PARANOID THAN DEAD’. In summary the advice was:

‘You are not safe, even if you think you are. Don’t trust anyone – especially a stranger.’

The originator of that email was reflecting something of our adaptive propensity to stick with what seems familiar. Evolution may have had a hand in hard wiring us to be cautious and  self-protective.

BUT when we perceive something (or someone) as a threat, neurobiology suggests that we start thinking less clearly, we have difficulty receiving and assimilating new information. We are more likely to reach false deductions and less likely to take necessary risks.

Fear then, is the poorest context in which to respond to those not unreasonable questions.

In this extraordinary period, when clear thinking, creative and just solutions to the challenges facing desperate people on the move are so urgently needed, responses based on fear ,even if they are a far more sophisticated rendering of  ‘better paranoid than dead’, simply won’t get us very far. 

If we are that afraid, it’s as if we are already dead inside.

But there is an alternative refrain, a command which runs through the scriptures: ‘You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land.’

Jesus, in responding to a man’s question ‘who is my neighbour?’ did the startling thing of telling a parable, a story in which ‘neighbour’ was redefined – not meaning ‘someone like me’, but the outsider. And what is even more remarkable is that in Jesus’ parable it is this outsider-come- neighbour who is the one who offering assistance, not the other way round.

It turns out that, in God’s scheme of things it is WE who are in need, in need of the outsider-come-neighbour. 

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: ‘The supreme challenge is to see God’s image in the one who is NOT in our image…only then can we see past our own reflection to the God we did not make up’.

We hold in tension the sense of God as closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet and yet utterly “other” – a stranger and to be known through a stranger.

This is, the God both near and ‘other’, we encounter in our gospel reading today. A carpenter from Nazareth. A cross.

In this crossing place, between heaven and earth, life and death, fear and forgiveness, hatred and hope comes an astonishing act – an act of tenderness in the midst of brutality– as Jesus entrusts his mother into the care of another.

It is a profound thing, entrusting…the handing over of that which is precious. In that moment Mary was entrusted to the care of John and a pattern was set. This is how it is to be.

In our own time people are entrusting themselves and their children to the fragile and sometimes treacherous holding of seaborne boats, the uncertainty of borders and the kindness or indifference of strangers.

If fear drives our responses, little wonder that we are inclined to separate ourselves from those we see as ‘other’, believing that they have no claim on us. But this makes no sense at all in today’s interdependent, interconnected world, Brexit or no.

And for many of us here, the understanding that God entrusts us to one another – yes I AM my sister’s, my brother’s – means that we can’t so lightly ignore our connection.  Like it or not, the default position of faith is hospitality – thanks be to God- for the hospitality of this country has bade ME and so many others welcome.

Of course thought needs to be given to what is needed to assist newcomers to integrate and thrive – thank God for the work of organisations like the Islington Refugee Centre, with whom we are creating a link here at St Paul’s. 

We must be honest about the challenges but when Christians speak of God as love – what we must mean is love in action…love that not sentimental but is risky, determined and yes costly. Entrusting is always so.

But alongside those pragmatic, honest questions stand other equally important ones: how will our response be measured – by our own consciences, by one another, by history and by God when we give account for what and who has been entrusted to us?

And if we fail to hear cries for help – who will?

If we fail to reach out – who else stands by ready to do so? And with what consequence?

The boat whose timbers gave up this cross was lost in October 2013. In just one week at the end of May THIS year over 880 women, men and children were lost, feared drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Thankfully many communities – and congregations- are taking action to affirm and befriend people who are refugees, migrants, asylum seekers - and in doing so are finding themselves enriched, and yes, changed.

Truly meeting with the stranger, the newcomer, the new community or family member changes us – it always will and it always has.
The exhibition ‘I am a Refugee’ created by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which has its debut here tomorrow, highlights the contributions made by refugees past and present to our life in the UK. Each unique story underlines how we need, are enriched by, and are entrusted to one another.

So, today we are delighted to have with us those who work in and lead organisations responding to these urgent needs. Thank you for all you do.

We want to give especial thanks to honoured guests who have made the UK your home – for your presence here today and for all that you bring to our shared communities.

And of course, Mr Tuccio… Thank you for your humanity and for challenging and provoking us. To you must go the last word… I’d like to end by quoting you, on how you came to make the cross for that memorial service: 

“There were and are wooden boats coming to Lampedusa carrying people looking for help. And, although I have helped many, I was scarred by the desperation of those who had managed to save themselves. I also saw children and adults drowning. After I had seen so many landings, I was utterly dismayed. Finding clothes, shoes and food for the migrants was not enough for me. I wondered what I could do.

"I thought, I prayed, I searched for divine inspiration in my heart, I looked at Jesus nailed on the cross and a deep emotion struck me – now I am the castaway searching for Providence, desperately trying to give voice to the scream that is dying in my throat, with a wish to raise awareness, to create a solid chain of help.

"The answer came, it was always there, in front of my eyes – Jesus. That is why I built a cross from the wood of those refugee boats arriving in Lampedusa.

I decided not to polish the wood, instead leaving it as it is: a wretched witness, ruined by so much pain.”

Your words and actions, call us not only to make but to be the sign of the cross.