Sarah McKearney’s Sermon for Christian Aid Week —
Today is the start of Christian Aid week and it’s 70th birthday. It has its beginnings in 1945. The Second world war had just ended in Europe but Countries like Germany and Austria and France and Belgium were devastated and the number of displaced persons ran into the 10’s of thousands. A young woman called Anne Booth-Clibborn was driving through the Ruhr from Hamburg to Berlin in occupied Germany a month later and saw the devastation and the refugees and the breakdown of all communication in that area. It filled her with determination to work to change the world she saw. She was forbidden to fraternise with the Germans at that time but one day an elderly German woman passed her a small German NT through the barbed wire. She returned an English one. That small gesture was a vivid reminder she said that the Christian faith has no boundaries or nationality.
British and Irish churches raised £85,000 on the Sunday after VE day to begin to help the refugees and reconstruction, that is about £3 million today!. That is this Sunday! The organisation that was founded was called Christian Reconstruction in Europe. It wasn’t until 1964 that the name Christian Aid was coined. The first Christian Aid week was in 1957. Christian Aid helped to found voluntary Service Overseas and took the lead in setting up the Disaster emergency Committee in the 1960’s. In the 90’s it helped set up the Fairtrade foundation and continues to work for climate change. It is an organisation that is run mostly by Christians but for all people. It works with local partners in affected areas and these can be people of different faiths or of none. It is good news for all people. Of each 1 pound raised 83p goes immediatelyfor relief aid. The other 13p is used for more fundraising and obviously some admin costs. Christian Aid started by responding to the devastation in Europe but it is now a global aid agency.
That may have sounded like an advert or annual meeting opening speech which it was partially intended to do! Because perhaps like me you don’t know the history of Christian Aid nor the motivation of its founders. This was a very controversial thing to do in 1945 as you can imagine. The war had ended in Europe and soldiers would be coming home after years of fighting the enemy, yet the bruised and battered public were being asked to raise money for that same enemy. And they did! The equivalent of £3 million pounds on one Sunday. What grace. Why would anyone do this?
I think there are two strands of thought at work here. The above ground and the underground or the experiental and the theological!
The above ground is the experience of war, the horror of devastation and loss of life. The degradation of humanity and wickedness that can take hold. At the same time there was the acknowledgement that we are all human beings and the wonder at the strength of the human spirit. Compassion wakes up in almost all hearts at the kind of sights that war generates. The church leaders saw and they responded. They determined to restore dignity to all and to set a new standard, to give the suffering, the hungry, the forgotten, and the displaced the honour and significance they deserved just because they were human. They saw the reality of all humankind being made in God’s image. Which brings me neatly to what I have called the underground motivation for the beginning of this charity.
The Chair of Christian Aid at the moment is Rowan Willams and in a sermon on Radio 4’s Sunday worship last month he concentrated on this underground, theological motivation. He reminded us that God sees differently and our job is to open our eyes to see as he does. To see people and situations with his gaze. Then to act. St. Paul talks about how when we turn to god the veil is removed from our faces and we discover not only who we truly are but we discover who and what everything and everyone else is in the light of God. We see clearly and it is not a reality we expect! He also tells us that the Kingdom of God does not belong as we might expect to the rich and powerful but to the poor, to children, and to those wehad never noticed!
I’m going to let you into a secret, says Jesus. You think you know who matters to God and why – but the secret is that the ones who are blessed, are the ones who are in tune with God’s will and God’s world, they’re the ones you don’t expect.
This is a glimpse of reality, it’s not political nor moral it is reality. It is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, the world that we long for where justice will roll down like a river and there will be no more pain or weeping. We are commanded by the prophet Micah to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. This is what Christian Aid and similar organisations are encouraging us to do and helping us to do by their campaigns. We are the Body of Christ and if one part of us hurts it affects all the other parts. If your knee is causing you pain then your whole body is uncomfortable when you walk or sit. So with all our brothers and sisters in the world who are all created in God’s image. We also hurt when there are over 7,000 deaths in the earthquake in Nepal, when women and girls are abducted in Nigeria and when thousands die in the Mediterranean sea, we can and must act. Those hurt may not be able to help themselves but we can pray, support agencies and highlight the situation. We can be advocates for light in a dark world.
In Matthews gospel we are reminded in chapter 25 that Christ is there with the needy, the prisoner the stranger and the sick. We may not realise it but as he says:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.
Can we refuse and or ignore the chance to give Aid to Christ?
We are not all asked to give money, it might be time, or hospitality, or whatever our gifts are. We can only offer who we are. Earlier I mentioned the reality that comes of gazing face to face with God and understanding who we truly are and what reality truly is. When this happens then we know what we can offer and Christian Aid week is just one among many occasions when we can do this and witness to God’s reality. With God’s grace.
I would like to end with a prayer from the Ethiopian orthodox church. Ethiopia is the focus country this year and in particular the women of that country and their heart rending lives of struggle and poverty and bravery.
Let your hand rest on your people
Widows and orphans, aged and children,
Strangers and wanderers
And join us also with them
Protect and strengthen us
from all evil works keep us apart
and in all good works unite us
You are life for our souls
You are the life of the world