SO like so many clergy around the land, I found myself rewriting my sermon for this morning as I heard about the tragedy in France.
It’s hard to know what to say – it’s so easy to say the wrong thing, or to say too much, or too little.
My first thought was – what were they thinking? What did they feel, before they killed themselves, as they shot the innocent. What was in their minds? Victory, pain, self-righteousness?
They weren’t born for this. They weren’t born wanting to be these people. When their mother first held them, when their families rejoiced at their safe arrival into this world, as they took their first steps and said their first words. They weren’t intended for this. This wasn’t God’s path for them.
And those who had been killed – enjoying a night with friends, young people and old, they weren’t born for this, this wasn’t their fate. This wasn’t how their life was supposed to end.
None of them were born for this day to happen. How did it get to this?
I want this morning to present you with three thoughts, three images. They wont’ give us an explanation, but might give us a prayer.
The first image is the news from this last few days.
On Thursday in Beirut, fifty people were killed in two suicide bombings. By IS, against those who are fighting against them in Syria. On Wednesday in Baghdad, there was a suicide bombing at a funeral. Again, it was an IS attack, against those who were fighting IS in Syria. Twenty killed, more than forty wounded.
These were all things that happened, and were not reported by any main news source until the Paris massacre. Because if the news reported every time fifty people were murdered, there would be a report every day.
The world is different now. I suppose it has been for a while. The world, small as it has become, is no longer a series of isolated conflicts with some pockets of peace and some pockets of war.
At least one of these terrorists, like those of the cartoon massacre, or the bombings in London, were all French and British nationals. These aren’t foreign terrorists. Conflict is no longer “out there” but within each country, each society. And we are all God’s children. The world is smaller, and ignorance is no longer bliss.
The second image I want to present to you is a speech from – of all things – last Saturday’s Doctor Who. It’s an extraordinary speech. It concerns the prospect of war between humans and aliens. The denouement is where it is in the hands of aliens and the humans to begin the war – or not. And this is what the Doctor says.
Maybe you will win the war. But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. You don’t know whose children are going to burn, how many hearts wil be broken, how many lives shattered. How much blood will spill, until everyone does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning – sit down and talk.
You think you can’t change now, you think that it’s too late, but peace will always happen, however many years or decades it takes, and the only question is, how many have to die in the meantime. Peace will come when you can’t bear the screaming any more, and you hold that so tight that it burns your hand, and you say to yourself, “no-one should have to live like this again, no-one should have to feel this again.
There will be peace between IS and the west. The only question is how many people have to die first.
We cannot control how murderous and how violent IS is. Wars are not started by two sides, they’re started by one. I’m not a unilateral pacifist. But for the sake of our own armed forces, and for the sake of our God, what we can do, is to hold peace more important than anything else. We must pray for peace, we must act for peace, we must extend our compassion to those who hate us – not simply because that is the way of peace, but it is the instruction, the commandment, of Jesus.
The third image is that of St Margaret of Scotland whose feast is tomorrow. She was a child of war, of conflict, a refugee in fact. She was born an exile in Hungary and came to England, then when the Norman Conquest kicked in, she and her family escaped to Scotland, and she married the King, possibly against her will, a barbaric man called Malcolm, the one who succeeded Macbeth.
In those days, Scotland was hardly a nation at all, a collection of tribal clans. They were all Christian, but so different in language culture and practice, it may as well have been different religions.
Now Malcolm, her husband’s way of dealing with conflict was the traditional way. Fight until you win. You’re right, they’re wrong, they die. And the devastation and warfare it produced was all too familiar to Margaret.
But Margaret found a different way.
She united the country by introducing a completely alien language. Every church service became latin – from the King down, everyone had to learn a new language and a new way of worshipping. There was no winner because everyone had to go on a journey. Everyone had to change.
She also encouraged pilgrimage all over the country – to St Andrews, to the borders, to Dunfirmline, Hence Queensferry over the forth, and the more people travelled, the more they relied on the hospitality of those whom they thought were their enemies, the more united the country was. She also, lest it be forgotten, cared for the most vulnerable.
Now it is often said that for people like Margaret, the moderates, the liberals, the gentle folk, it’s often thought that they were the relaxed ones in the heat of passionate argument – but that’s not true. She had steel in her.
She was every bit as passionate and full of life as those who descended into foolishness and war – and her task as a Christian was to drag the stupid away from the cliff edge – to do everything in her power to stop the powerful and the violent from killing each other.
So we must do. Because they weren’t born for this. And we are our brother’s keepers.
It’s not good enough to say “oh it’s an evil world” because it is our responsibility as Christians to make it better, it is our world that God has given us to tend.
It’s not good enough to say “what can we do” and wring our hands, because we need to answer that question. We pray and think and keep on praying until God gives us an answer, and we know what precisely we can do, and then we must do it.
They weren’t born for this. They weren’t born wanting to do this, wanting to be this. But we were born for this. We were born to make peace.
But we were born for this. We were born wanting to do this – wanting to become God’s holy people, wanting to pursue the paths of peace. And we can – we can make peace, if we want it enough. If we extend our compassion further than the illusory safety which ever second is breaking down before our eyes.
We live in dark times. And we were born for this. We were born to be a light in dark times. And we can do this. We can help make peace – we may not know what to do now. But as long as we are hungry for peace, as long as we keep asking what God’s will is, God will show us the way. We must have faith.
So may God have mercy upon the souls of the innocent, and upon the souls of the guilty. And may God show us a new and better way. Amen.