St Andrew Parish Church Sermon of Sunday August 13, 2017
- Text: Genesis 37:12-28/ Romans 9:1-5;10: 5-15
Over the last few days we have celebrated 55 years as an Independent and sovereign nation, amidst some level of fanfare. One of the questions that confronted us as we marked this 55th anniversary, was this: should we be proud or angry over what has become of Jamaica in the five decades since the achievement of Independence, and as we have traveled along the road to full freedom, self-government, and nation-building?
On the one hand, we look at and recognize and acknowledge the plusses/improvements in the condition of our country, in almost every sector of the society – in health, in education, in agriculture, in physical infrastructure, and in the relative prosperity of our people.
On the other hand, the negatives stare us in the face- the rampant evil, the murders, the violent crimes, the selfishness, the breakdown in law and order, and the phenomenal rise in the number of criminal gangs across all the parishes.
And we ask why? What has led to this?
• What has led Jamaica to this level of decadence that no right-thinking Jamaican can be proud of? As some bravely continue the fight for a better Jamaica, others are feeling a sense of hopelessness and despair over the condition of our people.
• They ask, can Jamaica solve the problem of increasing gang warfare and corruption, and the growing culture of death that surrounds us? I know of no other city in the world where there is a monument erected in memory of children killed under tragic and violent circumstances than in my city, the city of Kingston, where over 1600 children and youth from age 0-18 have been murdered over the last decade. I often call attention to the monument erected in 2008 at the intersection of Church and Tower streets, right there in Justice Square in downtown Kingston, opposite the Supreme Court and the municipal offices of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation.
It is a monument of shame and a sad reflection on the kind of people we have become over the five decades of Independence.
THE OLD TESTAMENT READING
The Old Testament reading for today, Genesis 37, is a story that reminds us of the way in which the old selfish and evil motives of jealousy, greed, bad-mindedness, and personal feelings of hatred and wickedness in the human heart, can undermine family life and lead to domestic violence and tragedy.
It is a story that illustrates the way in which these negatives attitudes can affect our striving for better family life, a better community, and a better country. As they say, ‘Fix the family and we can fix the nation’. A lot of problems stem from very, very bad family life.
The story of Joseph and his family in Genesis 37 is a sad story about the effects of bad family life on a nation. We read:
‘Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him’. (Gen. 37:3-4) And so, Joseph’s brothers planned to eliminate him.
They came up with a scheme to get rid of him. They decided to grab him and throw him into a pit and leave him to die. But later, on reflection, they decided to do something else. They decided to trade him to strangers for twenty pieces of silver.
‘….Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.”
And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. (Gen. 37: 23-28).
Can you imagine selling your own blood brother for money, because of jealousy and envy! What a sad state of affairs! And yet, isn’t this what is happening to some of our people in some sections of Jamaica? We read reports of women selling their children for cash, for a piece of land, for anything that they think can help them out of their material poverty, and reports of young girls from our schools caught in the web of human trafficking. Where are we going as a country?
THE NEW TESTAMENT READING
In the New Testament, we read of St Paul’s mental anguish as he reflected on his own heritage, and the life of his own people. He writes about this in his letter to the Roman, chapters 9-11.
‘ I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.
Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.
Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised![a]Amen. (Rom 9:1-5)
What was Paul lamenting over? He was lamenting over Israel’s rejection of the special relationship and the privileges they had with Yahweh. He was lamenting over the abandonment of the spiritual heritage they had received as a people.
He says, ‘theirs was the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.
5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah”. (Rm. 9:4-5)
What a heritage! All that heritage was given up in the search for self-governance and independence. And what was his response? He wished he could disassociate from them- be ‘cut off’.
He was angry. He regretted the actions, the behavior, the character of his people. He was disappointed and disillusioned by the choices, the behaviors, the action they made.
What is the lesson for us in Jamaica, at this time? What can we learn? The lesson Is that:
Firstly, WE HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE SIGNS OF DECAY AND SIGNS OF RADICAL DEPARTURE FROM OUR SPIRITUAL ROOTS AND OUR SPIRITUAL HERITAGE?
When you see the deep divisions and destructive tendencies in family life in Jamaica, when you see the behavior of our people on the streets, in the communities, at the scene of a road accident, you ask yourself, why are our people behaving in such shameful and cruel ways?
How can we expect to have a better society? How does this help to build up our nation? Isn’t this kind of thing standing in the way of our true progress and development?
DECLINE IN APPRECIATING OUR CHRISTIAN HERITAGE
Today, there are noticeable signs of decline in recognizing and appreciating the Christian heritage of our country, Jamaica, Land we Love. As we move along the journey in yet another year of marking milestones of our Independence, those things which have been profoundly significant in the life of the people, and establishing the foundation of this nation, seem to be in danger of being forgotten and relegated to a place of less importance.
On August 16, 2013, four years ago, the lead story in The Gleaner carried the headline: “Goodbye, God? Irish Scientist Predicts Atheism Will Overtake Religion in Jamaica”.
The story was that an Irish scientist, Dr. Nigel Barber, predicted that by the year 2041, that is 24 years from now, the majority of Jamaicans will not believe in the existence of God. This prediction, it is claimed, is part of a global trend that suggests that as societies develop and become more affluent, the less need they have of religion. As more and more development takes place, gradually religious beliefs will disappear.
This prediction takes place at a time when the church in Jamaica is being challenged on many fronts and from all directions. It comes at a time when the church is engaged in a battle to save its own integrity and defend the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, against hostile attacks. It come at a time of weakness when in some churches attendance and membership are steadily in decline.
The last census in 2011 indicates that church attendance in some denominations is on the decline and membership is weakening. The Anglican Church in Jamaica, for example, has declined by 76% over the last fifty years, while the Roman Catholic has declined by 49% over the same period. On the other hand, the local Pentecostal Churches have grown by almost 2,000 % over the past 50 years (since Independence) and the Seventh Day Adventists have grown by over 300%. [Sunday Gleaner, October 21, 2012].
We must pay attention to the signs of decay and departure from our spiritual roots and our spiritual heritage? What are some of these signs?
Among the signs are the phenomenal rise in Biblical illiteracy, the displacement of biblical values, the relativisation of morality–what is right for me is my business, what is right for you is your business, and the deepening secularization of society, including devaluation of human life. Human life is not held as sacred anymore. As one professional in the health sectors reflecting on the slaughtering of our own people, said recently, ‘human life in Jamaica today is cheap’.
Given our strong Christian heritage and foundation in Jamaica, the question is, are we in danger of losing this heritage? Are we weakening the foundation on which the nation was built? Has the church become significantly weaker in its influence on society, and is now being marginalized?
If the answer is, yes, how did we get here? What should we do? How should we respond?
A Second lesson we can learn from the biblical story in today’s readings is that,
WE HAVE TO HOLD ON THE TRUTHS THAT GOD HAS GIVEN US.
It is up to the church to hold on to and defend the truth and integrity of the Gospel of Christ and the integrity of Scripture. As St Paul says, this Gospel is universally open to all and available to all, without distinction, without discrimination. However, the Gospel is not cheap. It is costly. It is very demanding.
In his letter to Romans St Paul said four things about the Gospel and what he has discovered about it.
(i) He says he is obligated because of it. ‘I am obligated”, he says. He owes something to it.
(ii). He is not ashamed of it. He is not embarrassed by it.
(iii) He is eager to proclaim it. He can’t wait to get to Rome to preach the good news.
(iv) Those who deliver it are wonderful foot-soldiers of it- ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Romans 10: 15), quoting the Prophet Isaiah (52:7).
This is the character of the true Gospel that we must defend. We sang passionately, the hymn:
How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him Who brings good news, good news Proclaiming peace, announcing news of happiness.
Our God reigns, our God reigns Our God reigns, our God reigns Our God reigns, our God reigns
Waste places of Jerusalem break forth with joy;
We are redeemed, redeemed.
The Lord has saved and comforted His people
Your God reigns, your God reigns!
We hear lots of voices calling out to us to go this way and that way. How do we distinguish between the false prophets, on the one hand, and the voice of God, on the other? How do we know which is the right way we should go? Do we follow our feelings and our rational ideas, or do we find out what God wants? What shall we do?
Our response must be to remain resolute and steadfast in the defense of our faith? We must stand guard against those who would lead us astray. We must hold on confidently to the fact that our God reigns over nations and over the entire universe, despite the rebelliousness and defiance of his human creation. In the end, he will triumph victoriously and reign over all evil.
Today, sadly, we have some young Jamaicans among us, the new generation, who are flirting with the alien philosophies of Agnosticism and Atheism. They write learned and influential articles in the newspapers. They argue that as a secular democracy Jamaica should not be influenced by religion. And even as a pluralistic society, Christianity should have no more influence on society than any other religion.
They openly challenge the church on its belief in God as Father, the Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth. They question, how do we know for sure that God exists? It is not enough for them to hear Christians sing, “don’t tell me that God is dead, He woke me up this morning”. Instead, they demand rational and credible answers to their questions. And when the church is unable to answer effectively they ridicule and challenge its message. How can we have some many churches, they ask, and as a country we have so many problems?
How do we respond effectively to this challenge?
A Third lesson for us is that, WE MUST NEVER GIVE UP HOPE FOR JAMAICA. WE HAVE TO DEFEND THE LIBERTIES WE HAVE ACHIEVED AND STAND UP FOR WHAT WE BELIEVE.
St Paul made it clear that despite his lamentation over the misguided and degenerate ways in which his fellow lived, despite their heritage and the privileges they had received, he will not give up hope.
As he says in the 10th chapter of Romans, ‘Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:1-4)
There are those who see the marked decline in the influence of the church in Jamaica since Independence and are in deep despair over the future of our nation. Like the disciples in the Gospel who were challenged by the contrary winds on the sea which threatened their boat, and their life, they need the reassuring words of the Master, ‘Take Courage’, ‘Don’t be afraid’.
They see, for example, articles of influence in our news media, such as one in our newspaper in November 2011, that focused on what was the paper titled, ‘The vanishing institution of Christian marriages in Europe’. One person responded and commented that not only in Europe but also in Jamaica he wishes to see all things Christian disappear.
We are being challenged and in response, we must hold on to and affirm the strong Christian heritage we have in Jamaica. It is indisputable that in the past, every Jamaicans was taught in the home, at school, and in the wider community, to acknowledge God. We used to have a strong Christian heritage of respect for the church. From the contribution of Christian missionaries in the 18th century to the collapse of the slave society in the 19th century, over 179 years ago, the Christian Faith has been strongly proclaimed in Jamaica. Even before the abolition of the deeply entrenched system of slavery in 1833, and the amazing achievement of full freedom at emancipation in 1838, and political independence and national sovereignty in 1962, over the past five decades, the church has been well planted all over the country, in every town and village.
We grew up to respect the church, to care for it, to support it and to affirm its value to society, a value and role we appreciated in education (schools/colleges/universities), in health care (hospitals/health centers etc.), agriculture (the JAS), finance and commerce (mutual societies, credit unions, etc). The church was there ensuring a quality of life that restored and reflected the dignity of black African slaves and all human beings created in the image of God. We sing the hymn “We love thy Church, O God, wherein thine honor dwells, the joy of thine abode, all earthly joy excels”.
As we sing such hymns, let us be mindful of the fact that increasingly, more and more of our people are singing a different tune, some totally disrespecting the church. As the nation struggles to moves forward, more and more Jamaicans are apparently losing respect for the church. Like other institutions that helped us on our way to where we are today, the church is being subjected to abuse and neglect and dismissed as being irrelevant and an obstacle to progress. We must reject these attacks. We must stand up for what we believe and reaffirm our strong commitment to the spiritual heritage of respect for the church in the society, and respect for strong family values.
As long as the church continues to be on the side of those who are foot soldiers of the Gospel – fighting for and defending the fearless and unfettered proclamation of the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of hope, and reconciliation, it will prevail and continue to be a strong influence for good in the society. Jesus said, –
‘I will build my church and gates of hades will not prevail against it’. (Mat. 16:18) -AMEN-