Ypres & Paris

Sunday 15th November 2015
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Matthew 13.24-30; 13.36-41

Six weeks ago I went on a tour of the Ypres salient which was such an infamous feature of the First World War, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded in four years for land exchanges which never exceeded a few miles until the final Allied push in 1918 which was successful because the Germans had exhausted themselves in what turned out to be their final push earlier that year. In the First World War, right up until the end, the defence always had the advantage. Those almost fixed lines, separated by a no-man's-land which was sometimes only yards wide, were emblematic of their age. You knew where you were. There were we, the wheat, on one side; and there were they, the weeds, on the other.

Not now. We live in an age where those in the offensive have all the advantages of surprise and flexibility. Paris last Friday, Beirut last Thursday, a Russian plane over Sinai two weeks ago, Turkey just before that. And we do not know where next. If we did not know it before, we know it now; the wheat and the weeds are growing in the same field. We can no longer drop bombs over there and think that nothing will happen to us over here. And whether or not we believe that we should be bombing Islamic State, we have to recognise the true entanglement.

There was a time when we thought that we could attack people in distant lands with impunity at home; but not now. Perhaps it will make us think twice about bombing; or perhaps it will encourage us to advocate even more intensive warfare; but at least it will make us think.

Now it is impossible seriously to contemplate taking a significant action without the prospect of ramifications but during the past 50 years we have become accustomed to the idea that we can enjoy all the benefits of the global economy, from cheap mobile phones to strawberries at Christmas, without having to endure the consequences; we have thought that we could have all the gain without any of the pain. But now. People all over the world, poor or oppressed, also know about the global economy and want to share it with us. Another clear line has gone.

In an age when the devil has fallen out of fashion and hell is simply a thoughtless epithet, it is difficult for us to explore the concept of evil. How often do we simply skate through the Lord's Prayer habitually calling upon God to deliver us from Evil without thinking what that might mean? At the very least it means the activities of Islamic State carried out in the name of God; there may be all kinds of mitigating circumstances, all manner of reasons, why people are led on to such cruel and pointless violence, but there is no other word for it than an evil from which we want to be delivered. But there is a critical interplay between situations in which we can and should promote peace and justice and others which have become, or have always been, so intractable that all we can do is to pray for deliverance.

There is a danger that such excess of violence will harden hearts and blunt judgments when what we need in a crisis is a good deal more humility, recognising that the sharp distinction we make between wheat and weeds may not be all that helpful even if, at the visceral level, it is obvious. The deeper meaning of our Gospel Reading is that only God, not we, will judge what happens to the mixed harvest. Matthew, I think, rather more enthusiastically than Jesus, looks forward to the weeds being bundled and burned whereas the teaching of Jesus, taken as a whole, points much more towards John's Gospel which says that God so loved the world that he gave his son that we all might be saved. Like the steward, we have been far too anxious to get the field sorted out, uprooting the weeds in a self-righteous sort of way, so that the wheat might live in peace. But it is a humbling thought for  us, the Easter people, charged with spreading the good news, that most of our fellows think that the defining characteristic of Christianity is that it judges human behaviour harshly, depicting our God as a sadistic old man.

But now that we know that living in peace is an illusion, will we change? Will we become more humble and dependent on God or will we lash out because we will never feel quite safe again? Will we recognise that all that we can do is to carry on as best we can or will we build higher walls to protect us and enact even more draconian measures to deal with people who are different from us?

But whether worldly measures are effective or not, it is right and proper that we should pray for deliverance. We are, after all, praying to a loving God through his Son, hanging helpless on a cross.

One of the messages of terrorism is that the idea of a dominant nation or class being able to control its own destiny is an illusion. Certainty - or the illusion of certainty - makes us proud. That is what happened in 1914 with the slogan that it would all be over by Christmas. As it turned out, no-man's-land in Flanders did not separate the wheat from the weeds as those on either side of it had more in common with each other than they had with the diplomats and politicians who sent them to war. Nobody in his right mind would want to compare those distinguished and civilised men with the mindless brutes of Islamic State but the flaw in humanity which leads to folly and wickedness is deep beyond the understanding of psychologists or social reformers; to think otherwise is to fall into pride.

And so, next time we say the Lord's Prayer and ask to be delivered from evil, let us say this not only with feeling but also with meaning.