Sunday, 4 September 2011

Multiculturalism and Elijah

It has to be one of the loveliest of places to have a picnic … each August Bank Holiday Sunday for the last twelve years Felicity and I have enjoyed that spot. High up on the Grandstand at the Race Course with that wonderful view of the hill. It was Greenbelt once again.

Our picnic lunch over, we settled down to listen to Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, the youngest female member of the House of Lords. She has been responsible in the last three or four years for building up the relationship between the Conservative party and the Black Christian community in Britain. She was asking whether a multicultural society was a bankrupt vision. In one sense she was a strong advocate of a multicultural society where people of different cultures, and different religions live together, but critical of some of what she regarded as artificial ways the state had adopted in our multi-cultural society.

It is an age old question – how do people of different cultures, and of different faiths live side by side in the same community? It is interesting that our Congregational part of the church has had a very specific contribution to make down through the centuries. We are absolutely clear about where we stand in our Christian faith with its distinctive values. But at the same time we will stand up for the right of others to follow their conscience in the faith they hold and the culture they belong to. That was what inspired the likes of John Milton in his tract the Areopagetica which is one of the bastions of the principle of Freedom of thought and freedom of speech in our country. It was what prompted the return of the Jewish people to this country after centuries of exile in the 1650’s. It was what prompted the Toleration acts of the end of the 17th century. And it was what inspired the Mayflower Pilgrims and the founders of the United States.

It is always a balancing act for someone of faith to hold firm the faith you have and at the same time show respect and tolerance for the faith of others.

The unfolding story told by the prophetic historians of the Hebrew Scriptures in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings shows two contrasting responses to the problem, from which we have much to learn.

Looking back at a moment when all had collapsed around them and they were in exilie they resisted the temptation to look back with rose tinted spectacles. They pored over the story of their nation and told it ‘warts and all’.

Even Solomon in all his glory got it wrong at one particular point. Wise though he was, and revered for being the one to build the temple, he had a weakness that contributed to his major failing.

Proverbs is not the only biblical book from the last section of the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures to be associated with Solomon. The other is the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon. More than any other it is a book that has been ‘spiritualised’ by Jewish and Christian writers alike. That’s because it is a book about sex and love between a lover and his beloved. It is sensuous writing at its best that is nothing less than a celebration of sexuality. And I guess that’s why it has been given all sorts of spiritual meanings to avoid the blushes of devout readers of the Bible.

Solomon reigned as King over the United Kingdom of Israel at its greatest. But he was very conscious of the need to build friendly relationships with neighbouring kings with very different cultures and religions. He sealed those alliances often with relationships, At the beginning of chapter 3 he makes a marriage alliance with Egypt by marrying the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. By chapter 10 he welcomes the Queen of Sheba and her retinue building relationships which added to his wealth.

It doesn’t stop there. In chapter 11 we read that King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian and Hittite women … among his wivers were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines.

This is beginning to get to excess. And the excess has a danger within it. That marrying in this way will lead you away from the faith that is yours and you will merge your faith in with lots of others. Solomon gets more and more involved actually presiding over many, many different religious practices, some of which have dimensions that are deeply offensive.

Inside this story is one response to ‘multi-culturalism’ and to living with different religions. It basically puts all different religions into a melting pot and merges them together.

That is something I am not drawn to. I believe we must be clear where we stand in our faith and in its values, and take a stand.

There is a strand in the Hebrew Scriptures – that at the point of the exile goes to an opposite extreme and forbids all mixing with people not of the faith – it is an exclusivism that tends at some points towards what can only be descibred as ethnic cleansing in an attempt to keep to the purity of faith and culture.

But there is another strand and we catch a glimpse of it as the story unfolds after the death of Solomon.

What happens then is a pretty tragic story. At Solomon’s death the fault line between the northern tribes and the tribe of Judah around Jeruselm in the south opens up and the kingdom divides into two.

From 1 Kings 12 onwards the story of those two kingdoms and their successive Kings is told. At the end of the reign of each king the prophetic historians give their verdict. This king obeyed God’s law and things went well. This king disobeyed God and things were pretty awful.

Solomon’s son Jeroboam succeeds his father and becomes King of the Northern Kingdom – and things are pretty awful as he turns against God. 12-14. Meanwhile another of Solomon’s sons Rehoboam reigns over Judah and does just as badly. Rehoboam is succeeded by his son Abijam and is condemned by the historians for getting it all wrong. And then his son Asa succeeded him and in Judah the people return to God and all goes well.

But in the northern kingdom things rapidly go from bad to worse. When Jeroboam dies he is succeded by his son Nadab who makes such an awful mess of things that there is a rebellion and an entirely different family: when Baasha reigns over Israel it is a brand new line of kings, a new dynasty. He too ‘did what was evil in the sight of the Lord’ and when his son Elah becomes King he is overthrown by another palace revolt and Zimri’s family takes over as a third dynasty, only to be overthrown by Omri – a fourth dynasty – Omri establishes Samaria as the new capital.

You can see in the north a decline … and the break with Solomon. What the prophetic historians say of Omri is typical of what they write on so many of the kings. They give a verdict – he disobeyed God. And they also give their references – it’s as if they had rescued the state archives and their readers could read up in those archives -
Now the rest of the acts of Omri that he did, and the power that he showed, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? Omri slept with his ancestors, and was buried in Samaria; his son Ahab succeeded him.

Things surely couldn’t get worse in that northern kingdom! Don’t be too sure. Ahab marries Jezebel and turns away from the God of Israel and worships Baal.

Something needs to be done. Something has to happen.

This is where we must remember that these are not thought of as history books. They are considered to be among the prophets of the Old Testament. This is the point at which the first of the two great prophets of I and II Kings is introduced. It is of course Elijah. It is interesting that all the way through from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 13 the story of Elijah and Elisha are told. Prophets are the ones who hold the kings to account. They are the ones who challenge authority. Who speak the Word of God to the powers that be.

Now Elijah, the Tishbite of Tishbe in Gilead speaks to Ahab. But what is interesting about prophets is that they do not just deal in words. They also carry out often highly symbolic actions.

The word of the Lord comes to Elijah and sends him to a Wahdi, a dried up river bed where he finds water. But it quickly runs dry.

The word of the Lord then sends him somewhere totally unexpected. He is sent beyond the boundaries of Israel – to one of those neighbouring nations, to Sidon, to the city of Zarephath where he is to be looked after by a widow.

And there is this wonderful story of the way in which the widow has nothing but her supply of bread is sustained, and her jug of oil does not run out – God sustains the widow of Zarephath in this most wonderful of ways.

And of course it is this story of the care of the widow and the support that is shared and the Cruse of oil that does not run out that gives the inspiration for the foundation of the bereavement charity Cruse – where those who are widowed provide help and support to others.

There is here a different approach to other cultures and other religionis. It is not becoming part of them, not mixing them all together – but it is one of respect – maybe it is a relationship characterised by the sharing of love and concern.

And this story is highly significant for Jesus who came to fulfil the prophets among them the prophets we are reading in these books of the Bible.

AS his ministry opens in Nazareth at the synagogue he preaches a sermon that becomes the manifesto for his ministry. Here are the values that we take a stand on as Christians. He draws them from scroll of the propohet Isaiah – chapter 61

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

When he says ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” everyone spoke well of him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth.

But something changed. By the end of the sermon they are filled with rage and the mob is prepared to stone him to death. Why?

Many are those among the people in that synagogue gathering who have bought into the narrow line that emerged after the exile of purity of race.

But in bringing to fulfilment the prophets Jesus draws on a different line of thinking. Jesus comes to this opening story of Elijah and he makes his own commentary on it. And what he draws out is the relationship between Elijah and the Gentile widow from beyond the bounds of Israel.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Jesus brings a love from God that reaches out to all and to everyone, and is not limited by a shared faith or a shared culture.

This is a very different kind of multi-culturalism – and this is where I want to take a stand.

I want to be true to Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour – that commits me to these values – of good news for the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. But that is accompanied by an open-armed love for all beyond my faith and my culture.

That’s the kind of principle I want to hold to and then seek to work out in practical ways.

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