Message Received?

Sermon preached for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 14th August 2016

You’ve heard me say before how much I enjoy reading the comments in our Visitors’ book – and sometimes also our reviews on the website “Trip Advisor”.

And I discovered earlier this week that on that particular website, Wilton Parish Church has a HIGHER approval rating than Wilton House – although that may have something to do with the fact that entry here is free!

But there was one recent review that caused a certain amount of consternation in our household: “Wow” began the review “beautiful. Worth a visit deffo. Quite unique in charm and character.”

So far so good – but then: “Don’t miss the spotty goats at the end of the quaint graveyard”.  Spotty goats?! neither our children – NOR our sheep – were impressed by that.

There are, of course, two other sets of “tourists” in our news at present – the Pakistani Cricket Team making their presence felt at the Oval, and, perhaps more comfortably for us, Team GB out in Rio (along with one or two others).

I have to confess that, due to the timing, I didn’t watch the opening ceremony this time – but, in the games themselves, the gathering of nations seems as impressive and inspiring as ever.

Less welcome has been the reaction of some audiences to the presence of Russian competitors – following the doping scandal and allegations of State sponsored corruption. Individual Russian competitors have been “booed” and, in a move that seems inconsistent, the entire Russian team for the Paralympic Games has been banned. Forgive me, but that does rather felt like going for the soft targets in order to make a point.

And I was intrigued to hear the reaction of some ordinary Russians to this decision. It was clear, one journalist said, that Russians regard themselves as the “victims” here, not perpetrators of an offence. Whereas we may think of Russian athletes and officials as having cheated, they see this decision as evidence of a far more sinister ganging up of the West against Russia.  The Russian sense of “victimhood”, it seems, goes far beyond these games. And that started me thinking about how many other situations of tension and mistrust actually revolve around that sense of insecurity – that sense of being the victims of someone else’s aggression or greed.

In our own country, much of the heated debate about immigration rests on Working Class resentment of foreign workers seeming to take our jobs, or drive down wages.

But if the white working class feel themselves to be victims of unfair competition, it’s equally true that economic migrants feel themselves to be victims of an unjust global economy – that gives them little choice but to abandon their homes and families in search of hope. And in the case of refugees from war-zones – we simply cannot comprehend the atrocities of which they are already victims.

We’re all too aware that the people of France have been victims of terrorism in recent months – no one can question the reality of those attacks. And yet, in a strange twist this week, Muslim women in France have complained that THEY feel victimised by the decision of the Mayor of Cannes, to prohibit the wearing of the so-called “burkini”  – the coverall bathing costumes favoured by devout Muslims.

SO that’s two sets of victims – but then it goes on.

One commentator defending the ban said – “France is a secular country – all religion is a private affair and no one should wear any visible sign of their religious affiliation”

And that’s precisely the kind of “negative” secularism which rings alarm bells with religious believers of all shades – and risks leaving them feeling like victims of oppression, prevented from speaking openly about their faith or acting according to their core beliefs. To be fair, the Mayor of Cannes distanced himself from that approach – making it clear that the ban was NOT an outright ban on any religious clothing –but the fact that such sentiments were voiced so quickly and so strongly does reveal a certain amount of tension around the place of religion in French society.

Perhaps more alarmingly the same sense of “victimhood” seems to be alive within the most powerful nation on Earth – the United States of America.

In recent weeks, one of the main rallying cries of the Republican wanna-be president has been “Put America First”. And while I’m not at all surprised that Donal Trump might come out with that – or anything else, really,  – I am alarmed that so many American people seem to be buying into that sense of grievance – as if, despite having an economy many times bigger than anyone else’s, and political and cultural power far stronger than anyone else’s, somehow they are hard done by.

If THEY are feeling like victims then what is going on? Why is there such a widespread sense of grievance and insecurity?

I wonder if some of this is the result of late 20th Century materialism – associating power and influence too closely with possessions and “buying power”.

Has our sense of justice and injustice become clouded by an awareness of what other people have – and what we think other people deserve – rather than on a sense of mutual flourishing and accountability?

If we’re forever looking around at other people who seem to do very little but somehow earn piles of money – we are going to feel aggrieved.

If we know that other people have access to better healthcare or education, or generally have far more opportunities in life – then we are going to feel that life is unfair. And that sense of injustice will be felt even more keenly in other parts of the globe.

And it seems to me that the only way to break out of this paralysing sense of victimhood is to refocus the way we deal with each other.

It’s a fairly mammoth task – but our aim must be for an international society where at least basic education and healthcare is the norm in every country, where there is freedom of expression.

If we focus on that end, rather than on the relative wealth of nations – on what is needed to make it happen rather than the amount of aid flowing from different countries – just maybe we could start to accelerate the pace of change and address the desperation that lies behind so many of our current troubles.

Closer to home, we could aim for a society where each person is enabled and expected to contribute what they can – to develop such personal skills as they have to the full and encouraged to find fulfilment in that, irrespective of wealth.

As people of faith, we add the extra perspective of personal vocation – of seeking to understand the life to which God is calling us to find purpose in living out that calling. And that is perhaps the most profound “refocusing” of social values we can model.

Today, as we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, we see something of those tensions in her life.

She did not ask to me the mother of Christ – she was chosen – called by God. She would have every right to feel a victim of plans beyond her control – her young life so radically changed, her suffering at the Cross every bit as real as that of her son.

And yet, if the gospel accounts are anything like reality, she graciously accepted God’s plan, she patiently stood by her Son in his ministry – and she knew that in doing so we was achieving something far more profound, far more lasting than any childhood dreams of her own.

Mary is presented to us as a model of obedience and humility and, at the same time, of tremendous courage and strength. Perhaps, then, her example provides the “check” that we need to a society infected with grumbling and grievance.

To the powerless victims of oppression, Mary offers a message of hope – that if even SHE can be instrumental in God’s saving plan for the world, then so can anyone.

To the powerful who vainly IMAGINE themselves to be victims of injustice, she may have a harder message, along the lines of “Get over yourself!”: at the very least I think she would encourage all of us to look at everything that we have and to think about how best we should use it, and not about how to get more.