SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, JULY 31, 2011, THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Some of you may have seen a movie which I watched only a few weeks ago.  It came out in 2010 and is entitled Of Gods and Men.  The film is about a group of Cistercian monks who maintained a monastery in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.  Though they were a Christian religious community in the midst of a rural Islamic society, they were very much a part of the life of their neighbors.  Indeed, the village people loved them and depended on them:  for medical care, for employment, for help in organizing village affairs; for help – as outsiders – in resolving disputes.

The action of the movie takes place in 1996, which was the midpoint of the ten-year-long Algerian civil war.  All wars are horrible; civil wars are unspeakable and this particular civil war was as bad as they get.  Nearly 200,000 people were killed in the conflict between a brutal and corrupt military government and several brutal and often corrupt insurgencies, some of which claimed religion as their motivation.  The monks had been warned again and again of the danger of their situation.  The countryside surrounding the monastery had become a field of battle between the army and the insurgents.  Innocent people were being killed every day.  Teachers and intellectuals, leaders of the community and journalists were  particular targets for terror. 

The monks were advised repeatedly to leave.  They were Christian.  They were foreigners.  They were reconcilers and a source of stability in the midst of turmoil.  Things not greatly honored by the corrupt government and the brutal gangs of guerillas.  They were told to leave, and they all considered it, and the film examines the spiritual conflicts within individual monks and within the community as they came to a decision not to leave, but rather to remain at their monastery, even though it meant that they would most certainly die.  And that, of course, is exactly what happens.  The movie ends as they are marched away to their death on a snowy night by a gang of thugs, who it turns out may have been the unwitting puppets of the very government they thought they were opposing. 

I remember when this happened.  People all over the world were shocked.  The monks were there only to pray and to do good, but they were killed – perhaps because they were Christian, perhaps because they were foreigners, perhaps to score a propaganda point by making the enemy look even more brutal. 

I remember this.  It was in the news.  It was in the newspapers.  Unfortunately it overshadowed another event, another assassination in Algeria which took place only a few weeks later.  The Bishop of the city of Oran, Pierre Claverie, was killed by a bomb blast outside his house as he and his Muslim driver left for work in the morning.  The Bishop was a Frenchman born in Algeria.  He left the country for a time, but returned because he loved it and loved its people.  His return was part of his sense of vocation – to be a priest and later a bishop in Algeria.  And in addition to tending his flock, he was very involved – concerned with the desparate plight of the urban poor, working for reconciliation and understanding between Christians and Muslims and, occasionally, working for reconciliation between Muslim groups at odds with one another.  He was a man in the public eye and he was a man of peace – two very dangerous things to be during the Algerian civil war – and he was killed.  No one claimed it, no one knows who did it, but on one level that doesn’t really mater.  There were no good guys in this war, only bad guys. 

Sometime after the Bishop’s death, I watched an interview with one of his lifelong friends.  The friend was also a priest and also served in Algeria.  In the interview he said something like this.  (I am relying on my memory and my imperfect French.) 

“He knew it was going to happen.  We had discussed it many times over a number of years.  And he was convinced that at some point an assassin’s bullet or a bomb would claim his life.  But he was convinced as well that he should stay on.  Algeria was his country and the country of his family for four generations.  He loved it, and he knew no other home.  He felt there should be a Christian presence in Algeria.  He felt that someone there should speak actively for peace and reconciliation.

“He knew that this would happen.  And yet there was a serenity about him which came from his faith.  It was a serenity which stayed with him everywhere he went.”

A serenity about him which came from his faith.  A serenity which stayed with him wherever he went. 

In one of the most sublime and at the same time matter-of-fact passages in the New Testament, St Paul takes about the source of the serenity which the bishop knew and by which he lived.  We heard it in the Epistle this morning.  Allow me to repeat it:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’  No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is, as we heard, from St Paul writing to the Romans, and in that epistle Paul seeks to provide a detailed explanation for what he considers to be an objective fact.  The fact of the redemption of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And also, the fact of the transformation of human life and human lives through the work of Christ.

This is not an exercise in wishful thinking, nor is Paul talking about some kind of ideal we should all aspire to.  No.  As he sees it, he is talking about a fact – a new fact about human life which you and I can take hold of and make our own, and which will change our lives.

It is a fact.  It is a grace given.  And through faith it is bestowed.

St Paul was writing to Christians in a city where he knew he might die.  He was being taken there to Rome to be tried.  And so,ike the Bishop he faced death, and again like the Bishop he faced it with serenity and confidence and again that serenity and confidence was born of the fact which Paul proclaimed:  that God had redeemed the world in Jesus and through his resurrection death was overcome.  And so, as Paul understands it, that serenity and confidence is also a fact about human life.  It is a fact about the way faith transforms human life and allows us to live our lives – and to live them to the full – with serenity and confidence in the face of all those things which may seem to threaten us .   .   . all those things which may seem to threaten us but when all is said and done have been overcome by Christ.

Listen to Paul once again.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.