Micah, the BBC and me

The 1920s crest of the BBC including words from the prophet Micah and a microphone feature in a window at All Saints’ Church, Thorp Arch.

Broadcasting House

Back in the day, I worked at BBC Broadcasting House on a few occasions (recording radio shows for RTE Ireland). I once smiled at John Peel in the lobby there, and witnessed John Humphrys dashing out of the building, but this was as near to celeb stalking that I could manage. There was a buzz about the place and a sense of weight to what went on there. This was before the building had its revamp, so it still held that mid-20th century feel of being at the heart of national conversation, its 1920s architecture a reminder of aspirations after The Great War: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”, was inscribed above the entrance (and indeed celebrated in stained glass in All Saints’ church in Thorp Arch!). This was a vision rooted in, and quoting Scripture, 2750+ year old words from the prophet Micah.

Micah’s challenge

When he wrote this, the prophet Micah was addressing Israel and Judah (his own people) in a time of turmoil. This was the middle of the 8th century B.C.E. The Assyrian Empire is devastating the region, defeating Samaria and then Israel itself, leaving the southern kingdom of Judah alone to carry the flag of the people of God. Their calling was supposed to be acting as a godly light to all nations. But this must have looked like an impossible task. Devastation lay all around them. Refugees fleeing Assyrian persecution must surely have sought comfort and refuge among the people of God in those times. Perhaps there were people among them who spoke of these refugees as an invasion, framing them as a threat to the life of the nation using rhetoric redolent to our 21st Century ears of 1930s Germany? This would have been a time of isolation for these nations, lying apart from the major empires, political groupings and trading blocs. And Micah addresses a familiar human problem: in challenging times, at a time of national uncertainty and turmoil, how do we hold our nerve as people of faith and not nod along with those who call us to behave selfishly, unjustly and badly? How do we challenge those who seek security by scapegoating the vulnerable and minorities? How do we stand against those who stoke fear, who turn us against one another? And how do we offer sufficient space and grace to those whom we challenge so they can change direction (aka repent), change their tone, and bravely join the cause of righteousness?

On earth as it is in heaven?

Micah’s prophecy had two key themes. First, he challenges Israel and Judah to be more godly in their behaviour: they need to address their own evil behaviour rather than simply focusing on their enemies. Second, they need a vision of God’s eternal kingdom, beyond their current, challenging circumstances. Much of Micah’s indictment against Israel and Judah involves these nations’ injustice toward the powerless. Micah singles out corruption, robbery, mistreatment of the most vulnerable, and a government that lived in luxury off the hard work of its nation’s people. So what can we learn and apply from Micah today, here in the UK?

The BBC and me

Growing up in the UK in the 1970s & 80s, it was BBC radio that I tuned into in my bedroom. I had a portable radio with a mono earpiece and would often stay up late expanding my musical horizons on late night Radio 3, or listening to the world service and learning about life in these far-off places whose daily life and differing perspectives were so very different to my own. BBC Radio expanded my horizons and somehow informed my growing faith at the same time.

The music of Philip Glass blew me away in 1976 when I first heard “Spaceship” from his brand new opera Einstein on the Beach late one night. Glenn Gould’s Marmite approach to Bach, quirky and very personal, inspired me to start composing myself. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was an unexpected thing of beauty. The keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti made me laugh out loud at their reckless exuberance – the rock guitar shreds of their day. The late night programming on Radio 3 was where the Beeb brought out the fun stuff back then.

When I moved the dial to find the BBC World Service, this meant that I became aware of the wider world. I remember being fascinated by the challenges facing South American and African countries and Eastern European communist states, and how vulnerable minorities were so often the victims of injustice under regimes of very different political hues. I saw how fascism, communism, apartheid, occupation, dictatorships and political chaos all crushed the powerless: how extreme politics of both right and left each allowed evil to triumph. I also learned how important the arts are worldwide in enabling a wide variety of people to tell their stories and help us all gain understanding and empathy for how everyday life is affected by the huge, impersonal tides of history and politics. As my faith grew alongside all this, I also grew to understand how the prophets, the apostles and Jesus himself have always spoken into everyday life, into culture, into politics.

Part of the challenge of the Christian Faith is to learn how to apply what we know of God’s heavenly kingdom from Scripture here on earth, so having an open mind to learn about the world, as well as properly informed sources of information are part of our equipment as we work out how to pray, speak, engage and act in order to make the world (and ourselves) a better, more holy place.

George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

A less famous inscription can be found outside Broadcasting House. The author George Orwell worked at BH for a time, and beside his statue are words of this committed humanist which sit very well alongside Micah’s:

If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

George Orwell – an essay on the freedom of the press, written as a preface to ‘Animal Farm’ but not included in the original publication

These words certainly apply to Micah whose criticism of his nation cannot have made him universally popular, especially among the rich and powerful. Orwell himself commented in the same preface to Animal Farm that he knew well the excuses intelligent people of influence make for not speaking out, but that these usually boiled down to timidity and dishonesty. The people of God are always called to speak out, to overcome their timidity and to be honest when their faith and morality compels them to call out injustice, oppression and evil. In every generation, in every country, we are called to be Micahs in the here and now. Being more Micah means being dismissed as woke, being called a snowflake, being told that Christians should stay out of politics. It means that our speaking up will be equated with “cancelling” the rhetoric and action we oppose. It means “whataboutery” will be used to deflect from the criticisms we raise. It means that we will be attacked as a distraction from the issue we raise – that we and our speaking out (rather than the evil we seek to highlight and argue against) becomes the story. It means all that and more. The same applies to any prophet in any age, and most certainly applied to Jesus. If it doesn’t apply to us Christians, we need to up our game.

Two mottos: one challenge

Let us speak peace unto our own nation, and to all nations. The peace Christians are called to share is the Gospel – God’s Good News for all people. Sharing God’s Good News inevitably involves calling people to look at themselves critically, and then to turn from whatever they find within themselves which is wrong, unworthy, and evil (a process called repenting). In other words, we’re called to tell people what they often do not want to hear, but also to offer space for repentance: to have the grace to let people repent and accept them when they do. We’re also called to reflect and repent ourselves – this isn’t about setting ourselves up as a moral authority, but pointing ourselves and others towards God, the only true source of authority. But as Broadcasting House’s mottos remind us, if we are not truly pursuing peace in the human heart and in the world, if we are not standing up to populist ‘othering’ of groups of people, whether refugees, people of sexual and gender minorities, disabled people or citizens of other nations, and if we are not speaking words of challenge, rebuke and a call to repentance, then it is not liberty we are pursuing. It is something far different, far darker, and far from godly.

Do not be afraid? That’s easy for you to say, Mr. Archangel

Bearing the light

Whoever wields political power, the job of the Church remains much the same. We just have to work out where to put our energies in order to be faithful to our calling in whatever political landscape we find ourselves. Like Mary, we are called to be God-bearers in the world: to bear the light of Christ and give birth to hope. Like the angel alarmingly yelling at shepherds on a hill out of the blue, we have to somehow make “Do not be afraid!” into more than empty bellowings into the dark night and overcome perfectly legitimate fear with the heavenly host’s message of love: glory to God and peace on earth. Then, like they did, we need to point our listeners in the direction of Jesus, the reason for that reassurance.

And that’s a tough gig. It has to be more than empty words. We have to live the hope that is revealed in Jesus, and be active messengers of hope to those who today are despairing. This means feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting those who mourn (Isaiah), regarding the lowly, scattering the proud, thwarting the self-serving agendas of the mighty, exalting the humble and meek (Mary), pursuing truth and justice, loving mercy, walking with God in a humble way which means our own agenda has to take a back seat (Micah), being good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives (Jesus) and so on (see the Bible for more of this kind of thing).

And yes, it means continuing to pray for all in authority, not to bestow upon them our approval, and certainly not to give them any sense that their every action has a divine seal of approval, or is somehow ‘God’s will’. Rather we pray knowing that the way in which human power is used has spiritual and moral significance. We pray because God’s agenda matters and those who govern are answerable to the One who is the source of all power. We pray to hold to account, and as a reminder that, at the end of the day, there is no fridge in which those who govern can hide from God.

Emmanuel: God is with us.

God is with us: God’s love is loose in the world in Christ.
Therefore, do not be afraid.
But if you are, you’re not alone: God is with you, and, if we’re doing our job, then the Church is with you too.
May it be so. Amen.

Just as we are called to abide in the love of Jesus, just as Jesus abides in the love of God the Father, so must the world abide in our love.

A sermon given on Remembrance Sunday, 2019 – St Mary’s Church, Boston Spa

Readings: Revelation 21:1-7 John 15:12-17

A wall-mounted War Memorial in a a Church.

Today we pause for two minutes’ silence marking the Armistice, the end of the Great War, and gather all around the country and the commonwealth in remembrance of those who in two world wars (and in subsequent wars and conflicts) have paid the ultimate price for peace, as well as those whose lives, bodies and minds have been dramatically changed through their service in our armed forces. It is right and proper to look back with gratitude to those who lost their lives in conflicts. Some of you here today may have very personal reasons for doing so, and it is our honour to stand alongside you as you remember friends, comrades, and perhaps family members. You are not alone: we will remember, with you.

That is one aspect of Remembrance Sunday which will be focused upon later in this service, and again at the village war memorial, and it is a crucial aspect. But there is another, and that is to reflect on the sins of the world (that is to say, the many reasons for war and violent conflict), and to commit ourselves to peace. We cannot ever become so comfortable or complacent that we take peace for granted, either internationally, or even within our own nation. It is part and parcel of the human condition that nations “furiously rage together” as the Psalmist puts it.

Stained glass window featuring a BBC microphone, doves of peace and the caption Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation
Nation shall speak peace unto nation (window detail in All Saints’ Church, Thorp Arch)

Often this is the result of worldviews being in conflict: of opposing visions of the future. Visions in which national boundaries are defined in different ways; or how political settlements between regions, or nations are envisaged. Differing visions of access to resources; visions of different religions dominating politically – though this is statistically much rarer as a cause of war than one is often led to believe. The way we see the world, our vision of what the future ought to hold, is important. It is the job not only of politicians, but of all of us, to keep our eye on the ball: to look not only at the international situation, but also to look at our own nation with a self-critical eye and question where our future lies – to question our vision of ourselves and our own country.

An election campaign is an opportunity to ask ourselves: what is our vision?.

The current General Election campaign brings this into sharp focus, and we should be questioning those who would have us vote for them, and indeed question ourselves: what is our vision for the future of our country? And we need to question ourselves honestly, because the vision which emerges in a society comes from within us: it comes from the human heart. George Orwell, in his essay “Freedom of the Park” (in 1945) wrote this: “…the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper of the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” These remain, sadly, prophetic words. Where are our hearts leading us? What is our vision?

Sculpture: God's hand holding the universe.
“My Kingdom is not of this world.”

This is about the values which inform and underpin our communal life as human beings who have to share the world and its resources. If those are not God’s values, not God’s vision, then true peace will not reign on earth. As Jesus said to Pilate at his trial “My kingdom is not of this world.” So, when we look to visions of God’s Kingdom in the Bible, we are not reading a political manifesto, but we are getting a glimpse of what the eternal Kingdom of God will eventually look like. John the Divine, who wrote the Book of Revelation which we heard from in our first reading, tells us about the world being recreated as its maker intended. It’s a vision of God’s rule: a new creation in which the nations of the earth are no more and are replaced with God’s holy city: a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. God’s holy city is something we are called to look towards: a far bigger vision than any national vision. And if our churches, our village, our nation and our world is to gain that vision, the hearts of people need to be turned towards God. Seeing ourselves in our proper perspective, with humility before the authority of God – that is what is needed.

We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Often, conflict is the result of human vanity and arrogance. The Bible’s vision is of humanity knowing that God is the only true authority and placing itself under God’s rule. If all humanity had God’s heart and saw the world through God’s eyes, there would be no wars.

We are called to abide in the love of Jesus, just as Jesus abides in the Father’s love. We are called to love one another as Jesus has loved us – even to the point of laying down his life for us. That is the vision we aspire to.

Every nation is led by the vision its people allow to flourish.

Every nation is led by the vision its people allow to flourish. Where a nation has a flawed or evil vision, God’s people are called to challenge it. We are all led by what lies in our hearts, and if we are serious about wanting peace in the world, we should start by asking God to change our own hearts by inviting Jesus into our lives to transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit. You, me, us. Abiding in the love of Jesus.

Our vision needs to be big. Massive. A world vision to match God’s. A vision which unfolds locally, here in Boston Spa. A vision which starts in each of our hearts, but which looks outward, and spreads generously, lavishly, just like God’s love. Just as we are called to abide in the love of Jesus, just as Jesus abides in the love of God the Father, so must the world abide in our love. That is the legacy we should seek for those who have given their lives in the service of our nation in the hope of peace: that we become people, and are part of a nation and international community which walks in God’s ways and abides in God’s love. God’s generous, lavish love. May peace and love flourish among us. Amen.

Just as we are called to abide in the love of Jesus, just as Jesus abides in the love of God the Father, so must the world abide in our love. (Photo: the gates of St Mary’s Church, Masham, Nov. 2018)