We went through fire and through water

Preached on Sunday, 21.05.2017

By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair


We went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.


We celebrate this year as the 60th year of Christian Aid Week, but Christian Aid (under a couple of other names) goes back to 1945.  Christian Aid had its birth in the immediate aftermath of a war that had devastated much of Europe, and displaced many of its people.  Christian Aid was born in the midst of and as a response to a refugee crisis.

Here’s a little snippet:

Even before the end of the war the greater part of the population had fled westwards – although thousands drowned en route, in overloaded ships that sank in the sea.

It’s a snippet of news that might be very recent, talking of Syrians in the Mediterranean, but it actually describes the German population of East Prussia fleeing ahead of the advance of the Soviet Army, and drowning in the Baltic Sea.

After the war Germans were being thrown out of Poland and Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Romania – some of them were there as a result of settlement under the Nazis, but most had been there for generations and knew no other home.  Those Jews who had survived the concentration camps returned to find their homes either gone or occupied by others who had no intention of moving out.  There were anti-Jewish pogroms in Poland and Slovakia.  Most Jews sought permission to enter Palestine – but the British mandatory government there denied entry to all save a handful.  They therefore remained stuck for years in so-called displaced persons’ camps.  (Does any of this sound familiar?)

Nearly two million Poles were compulsorily transferred from eastern areas of Poland that had been annexed by the USSR. They took the place of Germans expelled from the formerly German regions of Pomerania and Silesia, now transferred to Poland.  Half a million Ukrainians, Belorussians and others were deported from Poland to the Soviet Union.  Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Croats, and others, fearful of reprisals for wartime collaboration, fled westwards from all over eastern Europe.

The international response produced various things that we now take for granted – or ought to be able to take for granted today: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 guaranteed a ‘… right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’, and forbade the arbitrary deprivation of nationality; the Geneva Convention on Refugees of 1951 defined refugees, accorded them specific rights, and prohibited their forcible return from countries of refuge.

In Britain the representatives of the churches met; they decided that it was not enough to leave all this to government – though they were clear that governments had responsibilities that they would be held to.  But they decided to form what they called ‘Christian Reconstruction in Europe’.  It was not an evangelising title – the reconstruction was not of churches or of congregations; this was about the rebuilding of lives, the rebuilding of family ties and social bonds and international links, the rebuilding of a common humanity that had been dragooned into hatred and bombed into desolation.

And that history has embedded itself in our thinking – that history of what happens when people are set against one another, and that history of the call to do whatever can be done to bring those people back together again: to say to those abandoned, or persecuted, or vilified, or harassed, or expelled, or exiled, or banned, or excluded, on account of nationality, or race, or religion, or sexuality, that they too belong.

You can see how that importance of belonging – and real, tangible demonstrations of belonging – remain in the prayer we used at the beginning of the service, a prayer from 1958, a prayer that has, to our embarrassment and to our cost, remained a prayer that needs to be prayed.  They prayed then, and we pray now, for hearts that are open and generous, wills that are persistent and practical, and governments that can, on our behalf, welcome refugees, and make them at home among us.

Our prayers, in a sense, define us.  If our prayers are about being preserved from danger, then that is how we are likely to live our lives.  If our prayers are about ourselves, prayed from the perspective of ourselves, then our lives will be about ourselves.  But if we can learn to pray with, for, and in the shoes of, others, then our prayers will be different.

Think back to the Psalm we read together earlier – and think of it now in the shoes (or in the bare feet) of a refugee; think of it as being spoken by a refugee, a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance into a new place – a place of freedom, a place of refuge, a place of God.  And think of that place as the place that we, in our advantaged place in the world, can provide for, or withhold from, those who flee war and famine and fighting and violence and oppression.  Let’s read it again, as we read it before:

Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
and has not let our feet slip.

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;

you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for me.
I cried aloud to him,
and he was extolled with my tongue.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

 Blessed be God,
   because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me.

 When Paul went to Athens he saw a place of much prayer and devotion; he saw shrines and statues to gods who would grant a harvest, or a profit, or good luck in romance, or success in trade, or victory in war; he met people who worshipped the ideals of reason, or the excesses of partying.  And the people he met had a pretty high opinion of themselves – when he went to the Areopagus he was speaking to the elite, the educated, the people who knew stuff, who understood stuff.  These were the people with connections, the people who belonged.

And Paul was fine as long as he kept to their ways – and he was fine when he spoke of their unknown god.  There are two ways you can think of the unknown god: one is as a catch-all for anything they haven’t yet thought of; the other, more positive way, is that this is an acknowledgement that there is perhaps, after all, something they don’t know.

But Paul was not fine when he began to speak of one who did not belong being the God that the Areopagus had yet to discover.  He was not fine when he spoke of the one who was suspected, and prosecuted, and rejected, being the one who brought heaven to earth.  He was not fine when he spoke about death, and of hope beyond death.  He was not fine when he spoke of the authority of eternity being quite different from the authority of human life – because the Greeks, and the Romans after them, projected the power they sought for themselves onto the gods they thought they could worship.

For those on the inside of power, the ones who understood it, the ones who exercised it, there was no sense in a God who was an outsider, an outcast, a refugee; no credibility in a God who could die; nothing to hold their attention in a God who would offer hope to the underlings of society.  And that mindset is ‘the world’ to which the Spirit is opposed, the world which does not understand, cannot accept, cannot deal with, cannot – as Jesus puts it – receive, the Spirit.  And so Paul is told politely by ‘the world’ that this has gone far enough; ‘we must talk again,’ they say, in the tone of voice that says that the next time he calls they will have an unbreakable engagement, an urgent matter to deal with, a very busy day – terribly sorry, must rush.

At a meeting recently the question was raised: if Christian Aid did not exist, could the British and Irish churches of today create it?  The answer we arrived at quite quickly was ‘no’.  The churches themselves, of course, are not the force in the land they were in the 40s and 50s; they don’t have the numbers; they don’t have the money; they don’t have the clout.  But we wondered if there might be something more important that we don’t have – perhaps we collectively no longer have the vision, or the will, or both.  Perhaps we have become satisfied with looking after those we think of as ‘our own’; perhaps we have become preoccupied with other things – like survival, like our built assets and heritage, like internecine disputes over theological interpretation.

But in some tragic ways the world is little different to 1945.  There are still swirling populations of displaced, disinherited, disavowed people wandering the earth.  There are still vast numbers of people being held in temporary camps that end up being far from temporary.  There are still governments eager to blame the outsider and the outcast for everything, governments who need constantly to be reminded of their duties and their responsibilities – duties and responsibilities, even under international law, that they are always looking for ways to wriggle out of.  There are still people being excluded from help and welcome on no other grounds than ignorance and prejudice.

So the churches may have changed, but the needs of the world have not, the needs of the poorest have not, the needs of those who are cast to the margins have not.  When Jesus wanted to make clear the duties of those who might wish to follow his way, he referred to caring for the ones he described as ‘the least’ as the way to care for him.  He was talking about those that the Areopagus would have considered as not worthy of their lofty consideration – but those who are at the centre of all that Jesus is and all the kingdom reaches for.

It was a refugee crisis that created Christian Aid in the first place, a crisis of hope, a crisis of love, and so also a crisis of faith.   The church of the day rose to the challenge in response to the crisis, so we do not need to create Christian Aid today – we just need to support it.  But the faith of the church is called in our own day, here and anywhere the church prays to be faithful to its Lord, to rise to the challenge of today’s refugee crisis – both in its own actions, and in the pressure it can put on government.  The call is clear and unequivocal and unavoidable.  The call is to become the answer to the prayers we offer; the call is to do whatever we can to enable the thanksgiving prayer of the refugee:

We went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.


Order of Service of 21.05.2017 with readings

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