Dedication Sunday Sermon – Responding to Antisemitism

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Religion changes over time.

How to run a congregation changes over time.

The things that you need to do change over time.

As I flicked through the readings for this morning, I found myself thinking first about Jacob dreaming of a ladder and the angels of God ascending and descending up and down it.

And I found myself wondering why Jacob didn’t seem to dream about whether the angels of God had successfully completed their Working At Height and Using a Ladder Safely training.

That may not have been what Jacob dreamed about, but it is the kind of thing that can appear in the dreams of someone leading a congregation these days, of that, I can assure you.

And then I read of him taking up the stone that he had been resting his head against and setting it up for a pillar and pouring oil on it.

And I found myself thinking, well Jacob, sunshine, you are not going to get away with that without writing to the Dean of the Diocese and filling in a Canon 35 application and finding out whether or not the congregation mind exactly where you’ve put the pillar.

Canon 35 being the stuff not of Jacob’s dream but of property conveners’ nightmares.

And then Jesus in the gospel is asked to tell them plainly whether or not he is the Messiah and he says, “I have told you but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep”.

And I find myself wondering whether the Lord of Heaven and Earth was very cleverly prophesying the GDPR regulations which ensure that we don’t send emails to anyone who doesn’t want them.

It seems to me very likely that he was.

Things change.

Religion changes.

We’ve changed.

As a congregation, we’ve changed a very great deal.

Another thing occurs to me as we read the story of Jacob’s ladder and that it a foundational story not simply for Christians celebrating their own identity in a Feast of Dedication.

This is a Jewish story. The idea that you can set up somewhere to worship wherever you wander being foundational to being Jewish.

This week I went to a conversation about anti-Semitism organised by the local branch of the Council for Christians and Jews.

I listened to Jewish people from this city speaking of being frightened to live here. I heard talk of people thinking of leaving Glasgow and leaving this country because hatred of their community and identity, is growing again.

I have a number of complex responses to this.

Firstly, to affirm that the hatred (or even the suspicion) of Jewish people is always and forever wrong. There are no political or religious excuses. In a time where objective truth is under threat, let us be known as a people who know right from wrong and can say whenever we encounter prejudice that it is wrong, no matter on whose lips it is uttered.

Secondly, to try not to make assumptions that anti-Semitism) is what other people do whilst we are free of it..

It is always easy to blame others for the ills of society. The person accused of sending bombs to people on the American political left this week was exposed on many occasions to rallies where cruel words carved out a space where violence might seem legitimate. And it is right to call that out.

And the vile attack on a Jewish synagogue yesterday was the worst and most violent expression of the oldest prejudice. And I condemn it as it will be condemned in pulpits around the world today.

But the truth is, there are people in this city who are frightened of being Jewish. Frightened not just of thugs putting bricks through their windows or someone turning up with a gun on the Sabbath but are frightened of the way Christians (that’s us) think and speak and preach. Frightened of our discourse about Israel. Frightened about the way we use Scripture, which, let’s face it is not wholly ours. For words shape the space wherein actions can occur.

And that situation must call us to reflect about who we are and where all of that begins.

And thirdly, my response to religiou people feeling frightened in this city (and this will take us back to our Dedication Festival) is to remember that to some extent we’ve been there.

It happens to be the case that we’ve needed police protection and been guarded whilst we worship on several occasions recently. Going back into our past history there were times when even the civil authorities were not on our side and we had much to fear not just from mob violence but from civil society itself.

That is part of our story. People used to be frightened to be Episcopalians in Glasgow. (And for good reasons). We were turfed out of the Medieval Cathedral by men with pikes. We worshipped here and there in this city in varying states of fear.

A wandering Aramean was our father. We share solidarity with all who are afraid to worship freely.

We share in celebration with all who celebrate. And we weep with all those who weep.

Today we happen to be celebrating those who kept the faith through hard times and ended up coming to this place to put down foundations and build.

Today we celebrate those who caught a vision they believed in and contributed to making it happen.

Today we celebrate not just that we are still here but that we are flourishing and alive and having fun being the people of God who worship in this way at this time.

As we do so let us pray and work for the same safety and confidence for all God’s children.

Things have changed for us.

Our usual mode these days is not fear but joy. That’s what we do here.

We’ve kept the faith, hung unto hope and we share the joy of being who we are supposed to be.

Religion changes. This congregation has changed. All kinds of things change for the people of God as their story unfolds.

But the love of God changes never. And isn’t part of our story – it is our story.

As we keep dedication Sunday today, I ask you to give thanks for those who have made what we have here today possible. Those who have taught the faith, kept the faith and yes, funded the provided for the sharing of faith with us.

As we celebrate our story, we proclaim the simple truth as we’ve done before and will continue to do – whoever you are, God loves you. God loves you more than all the reasons you can come up with why God’s might not love you.

Loves you yesterday, today and forever.


Six things I have learned about anti-semitism and the church

antisemitic stations

1 Anti-semitism is a real thing in the life of the church

A number of years ago I was visiting a church in the Diocese of St Andrews and happened to look up at a set of Stations of the Cross and remarked to the Rector that they were rather stylish. “Hmm,” she said, “look again – some of those images are not very nice. There’s a narrative of trying to implicate ‘The Jews’ in the way the pictures represent the story of the crucifixion.”

And I looked and indeed saw that it was so. She was right and I hadn’t noticed. The picture that I’ve posted above is one of those stations and is based on stereotype and characterisation which is prejudicial to Jewish people.

The question is, would I have noticed this if it had not been pointed out to me? I had been in that church plenty of times and never noticed. In that there’s something of a parable. Anti-semitism is something that people who think they are good simply don’t notice. How much of our art, our theology, our preaching, our discourse, our storytelling is anti-semitic?

The answer has to be that I don’t know. I/we need to do our best to spot things that might make someone Jewish feel threatened, but the truth is, there may be things that I/we cannot see due to familiarity, uncovered prejudice or simple ignorance.

I enquired about those Stations of the Cross a couple of years ago and was told that they’d been taken down and stored in a glory hole somewhere and there didn’t seem much appetite for putting them back up. I hope that they didn’t ever go back up though I do know that these were only copies and the originals still hang in a Church of England parish in the Diocese of Derby.

2 So called “Christian Seder” meals are offensive and unhelpful

It has become the custom in some parts of the church to celebrate something called a Christian Passover or Christian Seder. The idea seems to be to learn more about “exploring the Jewishness” of Jesus and the “Jewishness” of the Last Supper. NB – Jesus didn’t have a small element of Jewishness within him. Jesus was Jewish.

It should not be a surprise to Christians that holding a parody of a key religious meal that people in another faith celebrate is offensive. However, that often seems to come as a surprise. Again, I will admit that it was only hearing a Jewish theologian talk about how offensive it is that I really thought about it for the first time. However, once I had done, the penny dropped.

There are ample explanations on the internet for why Christians holding a parody of a Jewish Seder meal is offensive. When something is offensive, we shouldn’t do it.

You want to know about the Seder? Then ask someone who is Jewish. They might even invite you to one and note well, you’ll be offered food there. Compare and contrast this to asking people from other faiths to a Christian Eucharist and telling them “no bread, no wine”. Not that anyone should expect someone from another faith to Christianity to take bread and wine in church but there’s something about hospitality that Christians have to learn from other faiths that is missing all too often in our own.

3 Some Christian theological interpretations of texts are anti-semitic

In particular – and this is really important, it is anti-semitic to teach Christian interpretations of the bible solely through the lens that Jesus was the answer to all the Jewish scriptures. Yes, you can find ample biblical evidence to support such a view. But you can find ample biblical evidence for slavery – so go figure.

Look up supersessionist and understand what it means. (Quick version – the idea that the church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen people). Look out for supersessionist interpretations of scripture in church and talk about them when you encounter them. For you will. Look for that kind of theology in hymnody as well as in sermons and readings.

4 I have learned more about anti-semitism from Jewish people than from others

I have learned some things about anti-semitism from people with a Jewish heritage who have subsequently embraced the Christian faith. I have also learned a great deal from people who are practising Jews themselves and this should not be surprising. It should not be surprising that it is Jewish people who know what anti-semitism is and have a more authentic voice in any of these debates than anyone who is not Jewish.

In particular, I learned a lot from participating as a theological reflector at a conference organised by the Council of Christians and Jews. I also learned a lot about Judaism that I didn’t know (and quite a lot about Christianity that I didn’t know) from being invited recently to a synagogue to experience worship there on a Saturday morning. I learned about anti-semitism though the experience of having to take photo-ID with me and the experience of witnessing their having to have a security presence on the door. It is unacceptable to me that a religious group in Glasgow should need this. And I feel helpless in knowing what to do about it.

I have learned about anti-semitism from reading things.

Amongst the things I’ve read, I’ve learned in particular from the novels of Chaim Potok (though I am aware of criticism from within Judaism of his writing), from the theology of Amy-Jill Levine and from the novels of Howard Jacobson. (I read his novel “J” last week whilst on holiday in Milan and it was a fitting backdrop to the obscenity of anti-semitic speech from UK politicians that has recently been evident).

5 Liberals are not exempt from anti-semitism and it is anti-semitic of them to presume that this is a problem for Evangelical Christians

One of the curious prejudices that can be found in the Christian faith is that anti-semitism is something that right-wing evangelicals engage in whilst good liberals are all sufficiently conscious to make sure that they never engage in anything like that at all. The fact is, that just isn’t true.

One thing to look out for in particular is the view that Jesus came to free us from the “tyranny” of the Law. The truth is, Jewish people have lived lives of great fulfilment whilst engaging in lifelong dialogues about what it means to live within God’s law. They have felt free, happy and full of life-giving energy. They have composed, written, prayed and told one another a million jokes about their experience. One is not oppressed by the fact that one is Jewish though one may obviously encounter prejudice and oppression. Jesus did not come to set Jewish people free from being Jewish. That idea is itself problematic as it contains the notion that Jewish people are not themselves free agents able to dialogue with God and possessed of free will.

In particular we need to be aware of the dangers of creeping anti-semitism when reflecting on feminist theology, LGBT theology and other theologies of liberation.

6 There will be more about anti-semitism I have yet to learn

I have to acknowledge openly that I never learned that much about anti-semitism from within the Christian church. That in itself should give us pause for thought. I don’t think I learned anything at all about it in either of my theology degrees nor in my ordination training. I’ve learned what I know almost by happen-chance and meetings with people who have enriched my life but whom I might never have encountered.

The fact that the things that I’ve learned about anti-semitism have surprised me when I have recognised them must mean that there is more to learn and that I will have prejudices that I do not know about deep within me.