Speak Up!

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Prisoners’ Sunday

We’ve just heard some strange and disturbing readings: the Word of God presenting us with mysteries which are not quickly understood. This kind of reading is prophecy – in veiled language, God is telling us something about the future, but also something about the present. Jesus’ words about the fig tree and ‘this generation passing away’ suggest something short-term. But the final end, when Christ will come again, may still be far into the unknown future.

Joan Osborne’s hit song of 1995, One of Us, was inspired by the question of what would happen when Christ returned. What if God came back quietly and slipped in alongside us, just like a stranger on the bus? If God showed us who He really was, if we knew his name and his true glory… it would have consequences! Then, we’d have to believe in things like heaven, and Jesus, and the saints, and all the prophets!

In fact, Osborne didn’t need to ask “What if?” – for we believe as Christians that God has lived among us.

In our journey of learning who Jesus is, and therefore, who we are, we come to Christ the Prophet. On our pulpit, we have an image clearly labelled ‘Christ the Man’ – even though the figure has the wings of an angel. It is meant to represent God dwelling among us, sharing fully in our experience of being human, and speaking to us as one of us – though in an age when he would be a stranger on a donkey rather than an omnibus!

There are a few pages in the Bible where the voice of God-the-Father speaks directly from Heaven – on the days when Jesus is baptised, or transfigured in light alongside Moses and Elijah. But in most cases God speaks to us in human ways. In the Old Testament, God called prophets to bear his word to kings and people alike. In Jesus Christ, God-the-Son walked among us, teaching us both by his words and by his actions. And when he rose from the dead, he taught his apostles for forty days, after which they were entrusted with taking the Christian message to the ends of the earth.

The portion of the Letter to the Hebrews for today reminds us that Jesus came to earth to offer a sacrifice once for all time, through which all the sins of humanity could be forgiven. Now that the work of the Cross is accomplished, Jesus dwells at God’s right hand in heaven. Then the Apostles who first carried the Gospel beyond Israel also died, and went to their heavenly reward. That leaves – us!

We are baptised into Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King. We share in the dignity of Christ the Priest, with the right to stand before our Heavenly Father in prayer at all times. Next weekend we shall celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, reminding us that we are members of a royal family. But we are also sharers in the work of Christ the Prophet, the one with the thankless task of speaking God’s word into a world unwilling to hear it. God has high expectations of us, that we will be the ones who speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and those with no voice of their own. We do not need a God-given vision of the future to be prophets – there is enough to see if we open our eyes to the present.

Our bishops have just completed their November meeting, when all the Bishops of England and Wales confer together. They have made statements based on what they can see. They notice in the world of education, Religious Education is being squeezed from the syllabus, especially in Academy Schools and in the way England is reforming its A-level system. They notice that there’s active political debate about the importance of paying a living wage, and they give this idea their strong backing. They notice that no political party went into the last General Election on a platform of redefining same-sex relationships to be ‘marriage’ and warn politicians to acknowledge that they are engineering a major cultural change if they press on down that road.

On Friday, the BBC held its annual Children in Need Appeal – the British public have already given almost twenty-seven million pounds. and more will follow, for what is clearly a worthy cause. But this week is also National Prisons Week, and on this weekend of the year we are asked to remember and pray for prisoners. Yes, we will pray for victims of crime. Yes, we will pray for families torn apart because one member is behind bars. Yes, we will pray for officers and chaplains with the difficult task of working in prisons. But we will also pray for the well-being of prisoners themselves, not because their actions deserve it, but because we are uncompromising in declaring that every human being is precious in God’s eyes.

We also are allowed to keep our eyes open and speak up about what we see around us. But we’re not speaking up for our own comfort or self-interest; we’re speaking up for God’s values in a world which rejects them. There’s a delicate balance here, but we can rightly demand space not only to hold our religious beliefs, but to live out the moral values which come directly from them. It’s good news that a court case this week found that a Christian manager was wrongly demoted simply because he stated his opposition to same-sex marriage on a social networking website. But we speak out not only for our own rights, but also for the voiceless.

Is a child precious because it is a child or because it is wanted? Ireland’s politicians and people are asking themselves difficult questions this week because absolute respect for the life of an unborn child led to the tragic death of a pregnant mother. But if the life of a child does not demand absolute respect, we find ourselves on a slippery slope on which politicians might suggest that if a couple have too many children, the extra children might not be entitled to benefits… and at the bottom of this slope, society loses sight of the fact that a marriage is a social institution which protects children by inviting their natural parents to keep binding promises to each other, and instead replaces a traditional marriage with a contract between two people based on strongly asserted desires.

Friends, in this age we are called to be a prophetic people who speak up for the rights of the undeserving. We are on the side of convicted prisoners, because we believe in a God who forgives wrongdoing and invites us to embrace a new kind of living. We are on the side of the unborn child because we see the image of God reflected in every human life. We are on the side of traditional marriage because, for all its imperfections, it confirms the identity of the children born to a husband and wife. We are on the side of the undeserving poor because we believe in a God whose love is unconditional.

Our words have consequences. The Prophet Daniel is shown that at the end, when God raises all the dead to life, “The learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.” As for those who hesitate, I leave you with the speech of Pastor Martin Niemöller, a German Protestant minister active during the Second World War:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I did not speak out, as I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I did not speak out; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out, as I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out, as I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, ah,
then there was no one left to speak out for me.