Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (5 July 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (5 July 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

In the week in which we remember the 10th anniversary of the London bombings, the Dean looks at the 'power of imitation' and says "may we imitate the power of love we see in Christ, to live not for evil, but for good."

2 Corinthians 12.2-10, Mark 6.1-13  

St Paul said: ‘Be imitators of me as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor.11.1)

On Tuesday there will be a service here recalling the 10th anniversary of four suicide bombs in London, in which 52 innocent people were killed and over 700 physically injured, with many more bystanders and emergency personnel suffering mental trauma, and hundreds of thousands affected. 

The service is part of a day of commemorations, a day to help those involved, and this whole city, to continue to come to terms with what happened, in the midst of a world where such life-denying and life-changing events are happening all too often, as in recent atrocities in France and Tunisia and Kuwait and Nairobi and elsewhere. 

All these events are linked: not only by the theme of so-called Islamism, but by something much more fundamental, which has justified countless acts of horror throughout human history, as well as countless acts of love and justice: the power of imitation.

Because human beings live in communities, because we learn by imitating those around us, we also imitate the attitudes and the actions of our social group. It’s clear to see in children, but also in adults. 

Many of us will remember, and some of us are experiencing, the explorations of adolescence when we discover our own values, often by modelling our lives on people rather different from our parents, whether a pop group or a sporting hero or another kind of celebrity. 

We start with imitation, and we may not get beyond it to develop our own critical thinking – which is why education is so vitally important, and why Boko Haram and the Taliban are so hostile to education which teaches people to think for themselves, rather than imitate uncritically the tradition of the elders. 
You and I will of course think of ourselves as enlightened people who know our own minds. But a lot of our values are simply assumed, because they’ve not been challenged – they’ve been taken on by us as part of the package of joining a group, whether it’s a group of friends or a church or a mosque or those at school or work. 

For example: for thousands of years men have just assumed that women can’t do things that men can do. That view has only changed in Europe in popular values over the last hundred years, and it’s still contested. 

In this cathedral we support and practice the ordination of women as priests and now as bishops, only agreed relatively recently by the Church of England: do you agree with women bishops? If you do, or if you don’t – why? Have you researched it thoroughly, weighed up the arguments on both sides, talked to people with different views? 

20 years ago after the vote to have women priests, I was speaking to a young Anglo-Catholic priest who told me that he was in favour of the ordination of women, and as a result none of his friends and colleagues would talk to him any more.

Would you be prepared to change your mind – either way – and face the hostility of your group, your community, for challenging the values of that group? We all know how unkind, how cruel groups can be to those whom they see as betraying them, whether in the playground or in religion or in politics or in sport. 

We don’t like to be out of step with others. We imitate what we see others thinking and doing: and sometimes it means that people imitate the actions of people they see on the internet and in radical groups, such that terror and violence become normal rather than being seen for the evil that they are. 

Two weeks after the London bombings on 7th July 2005, another group detonated four bombs on public transport in London. These copy-cat attacks imitated what had been done before – but fortunately only the bomb detonators went off, and no one was badly hurt.

The good news however is that people imitate what is good as well as what is evil. And although religious faith can be misused to encourage unthinking obedience, it can also strengthen us to do what is good in the face of beliefs which have evil consequences, and help us stand up against the negative power of group thinking.

The two scripture readings today show Paul and Jesus confronting the negative attitudes of others. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom criticise him very heavily, and in a remarkably personal passage speaks about his mystical spiritual experience and the personal weakness which came with it; an experience of God so powerful that it enabled him to bear persecution and insults and weakness for the sake of Jesus Christ – not to attack those who disagreed with him, but to love them and bear with them and win them over.

And the gospel story has Jesus in his home town of Nazareth being the object of envy and scorn by the people who’d known him grow up, who refused to accept his ministry and were offended by him. Jesus doesn’t curse them or attack them, but continues to share the gospel, and sends out his disciples to imitate him, and so the gospel was spread.

For both Paul and Jesus, it was their confident relationship with God which enabled them to be different, to confront the personal hostility and wrong thinking of the groups they encountered, and to do what was right rather than what was normal. 

When the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi was a young lawyer in South Arica, he was captivated by Jesus Christ and wanted to find out more, so went to a church. As he went up the steps he met a white man who said threateningly, ‘What do you want here, kaffir?’ When Gandhi said he wanted to come to a Christian church, the man said there was no place for people like him there, and he should get down those steps fast before he was thrown down. Gandhi continued to admire and imitate Jesus, but had little time for churches and organised religion.

And all of us, in our personal lives and in the lives of the groups we’re part of, yes, even church and other religious groups, need that grounding in the love of God which enables us to be a positive example of love and justice for others to imitate, and to stand up against the unkindness of groups who feel threatened and who exclude those who question them. 

Do we ever stand up in groups we’re in for those whom the group expels or ostracises, to defend people who can’t defend themselves? When people look at us, what will they  imitate? We need to imitate Christ, as Paul did, and not imitate people whose views and actions destroy the lives of others.

On 17th June this year, a young white man shot dead nine worshippers in a black church in Charleston in the United States. 

The response of the community was not to return the violence, but to pray, and to begin to forgive; a response which led to the removal of the Confederate flag from state property, and a black President at the pastor’s funeral calling the country to confront its racism; but instead of declaring a war on racism, he led the singing of Amazing Grace, a hymn written by a reformed slave trader – not the way of violence, but of love. 

‘Be imitators of me as I am of Christ’, says St Paul. Who will we imitate? Here in a few minutes’ time we come to the holy communion, the mass, the Eucharist: to identify ourselves with, to follow, to imitate Jesus Christ as our way and truth and life. ‘Power is made perfect in weakness’ said God to St Paul, who followed what he saw in Jesus. So may we imitate the power of love we see in Christ, to live not for evil, but for good.