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Jesus frequently spoke provocatively and challengingly about riches and poverty. Think, for example, of the parable about the rich man who built additional barns in order to store his harvest, but whose life was taken from him before he could enjoy his wealth fully. He told a rich young man, who was keen to know what he had to do to follow God fully, to sell all his possessions and to follow him. The parable in today’s gospel – about the rich man who went to hell and the beggar, Lazarus, who went to heaven is in a similar vein. But what is it really saying? Let’s look more closely.
It’s interesting how the Church’s perspective on sin has changed over the years. When I was at theological college in the 1980s, we were in a time of reaction against what were seen as many years during which the Church had actively encouraged people to feel not sinful, but very guilty. This, it was said, had helped to reinforce the power of the Church and its clergy over people – the clergy being the only people who could forgive sin, on God’s behalf. We can’t deny that there is some truth in this description of how the Church has behaved at certain times in its history. But what this perception of the historical Church did was lead to an over-reaction – to a belief that sin didn’t really matter, as God always loves us whatever we do. The new dominant approach became the idea that if we do stray from his commands it isn’t really our fault anyway, but our parents, our circumstances, even our genes were really responsible. This even led to people in one of my previous churches arguing that we shouldn’t have the confession of sin near the beginning of the communion service, as it was too depressing and made people feel unworthy.
I wonder how many of you have seen the film ‘Pearl Harbour’. You may remember the opening sequence where two young boys, Danny and Rafe, are playing in the back of an old biplane in Tennessee in 1923. They accidentally start the engine, and manage to go for a short flight before, amazingly, it lands safely. Fast forward eighteen years to 1941, and we see Rafe (Ben Affleck) as a fighter pilot in the American Air Force. He is assigned to the Eagle Squadron, an American unit which is joining the Royal Air Force in its confrontation with the Luftwaffe. He takes part in the Battle of Britain, surviving numerous dogfights until he is shot down. He is presumed killed in action, but in fact survives his crash, is picked up by a French fishing boat, and survives in occupied France until he can get back to the US. Later in 1941 we see Rafe and his childhood friend Danny, who is also now a pilot in the US Air Force, at Pearl Harbour, on the Pacific island of Hawaii. The surprise attack by the Japanese is depicted in all its horror, as large numbers of US planes, as well as considerable amounts of military infrastructure, are put out of action before the Americans are able to defend themselves; with the exception, however, of Rafe and Danny, who manage to get two fighter planes into the air and shoot down seven of their Japanese opponents. We then see them coming back and giving blood to help their wounded colleagues, before being called to help rescue men from the harbour.
The theme of today’s first reading, from the book of Ecclesiasticus, chapter ten, is ‘Pride’. Think of someone who you see as proud ... When you think of someone as ‘proud’, do you see this as a good thing or a bad thing? The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle saw pride as the ‘crown of the virtues’. However, he specified that what he meant by this was what he called ‘greatness of soul’ - and he contrasted this with vanity, temperance, and humility. He believed that if someone was genuinely worthy of great things, through their personal qualities or virtues, they had every right to be proud – and that true pride makes a great person more powerful. However, he said that true pride is impossible for someone if they do not have a noble and good character. In recent decades, there has been a new emphasis, amongst those who have sought to understand what makes people fulfilled and satisfied, on pride in oneself. They have shown that those people who have a negative image of themselves quite often do not thrive; they tend to assume they can’t succeed, that they are not likeable or lovable, and their self-esteem is low. By contrast, such people argue, it is entirely right for us all to be proud of ourselves, to give ourselves credit for what we have achieved, and not to be unduly humble. Such thinking can be seen as a reaction, at least in part, to those forces in society which, over the years, have tended to give people an undue sense of their own inadequacy, weakness or tendency to fail in life.
Last May, I was privileged to dedicate the Memorial Stone in the Castle grounds naming all the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire V.Cs. It was an event which meant a great deal to relatives and others as a reminder that these heroes deserve lasting public credit for their courage in the face of the enemy. At that ceremony it was fitting to remember the words of Jesus saying that “Greater love has no one than that they lay down their life for their friend” – in this case, their comrades and their country. The similar words which Col. Oldershaw read this morning, also from St John’s gospel, tell the followers of Jesus to love one another as He has loved us - which is a lot easier for all of us to say than to do. As I said, it’s good to honour the fallen as we do today. However, there are many issues about how we as a society protect those still serving, and how we pension the wounded and the widowed. I believe the Services have moved a very long way from recruiting those who only joined because there were no other jobs and treated them, to use that phrase from the First World War, as cannon fodder. But there is no room for complacency. It is we as society whom they serve and we as society have a heavy duty of responsibility.
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