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- Added August 11th, 2015
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God's own country
By Donald Phillipps in Sermons
A sermon preached by Rev Donald Phillipps at Mornington Methodist Church, Dunedin Sunday 2nd August 2015.'"I gave you the House of Israel and of Judah; and if this were not enough, I would add as much again for you."' - II Samuel 12: 8
Give me, give me God's own country! there to live and there to die,
God's own country! fairest region resting 'neath the southern sky,
God's own country! framed by Nature in her grandest, noblest mould;
Land of peace and land of plenty, land of wool and corn and gold!
Do you recognize the words - possibly not, but if I asked you what country they referred to you'd probably guess New Zealand - and then you just might recall Thomas Bracken who asked God to defend New Zealand
The phrase, published first in 1890, was made popular by Richard John Seddon - he used them in 1906, the day before returning home from Sydney - "Just leaving for God's own country." - he died the next day
It's the tourist slogan Kerala, in south-west India, one of the "ten paradises of the world" according to the National Geographic - in Yorkshire they don't quite know whether they are part of God's own country or county
The Yanks had already used the words, but New Zealand was the first country to really make use of the phrase, shortened to Godzone about 1905 - the Australians used it soon after
I mean no disrespect to my native land when I speak lightly of these words which, a generation and more ago, were so much a part of our vocabulary
When I was five or six my parents purchased the twelve-volume The Wonderland of Knowledge - it simply blew my mind - published in England in the mid-1930s, it had a small chapter about New Zealand
And I think the chapter was entitled 'The Best Governed Nation in the World' - what's happened since then! - should we worry - a bit of harmless national pride isn't a serious problem, is it?
There's been a recent his week in the on-going Middle Eastern horror that fills me with foreboding - the decision by Turkey to bomb both Islamic State targets, and those of Kurdish nationalists
Disastrous for world peace if those two groups were now to find themselves united against a common foe - I can't see that this is any sort of a solution at all, just the opposite in fact.
Then there's the reaction of the Israeli Government to the accord reached between the United States and Iran over a way to restrict Iran's nuclear program that makes it harder for them to produce nuclear weapons
Apparently nearly half of Jewish Americans support the deal - and with that in mind I'd like to share with you briefly the thinking of one of such person, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of New York
I do so because his attitudes, which subject him to violent opposition from among his own people, are grounded on the scriptures that Christians refer to as the Old, or Hebrew, Testament
And I do so this morning because my text comes directly out of the stories that are seen to justify the most extreme forms of Israeli nationalism (often called Zionism) that so affect the peace of the Middle East
Let me quote Rabbi Weiss, for whom Judaism's call and duty is to pursue peace with all peoples and nations, to practice its faith, and to worship the Creator with humility, with modesty and piety.
He believes that a turning away from militant Zionism could have a profound effect on the Islamic world, both practically and morally - the current stereotypes of the Jew and the Palestinian help neither
The present understanding each side has of the other is tragically affected by media caricatures of bigots and baseless haters - for them to find common ground would create a moral force for good in the world.
Rabbi Weiss ended a recent speech with these words: "...let us resolve to leave here this evening with our mutual moral compasses set right. Let us understand that Torah Jewry is in no way an antagonist of the Palestinian people in particular, or of the Islamic world in general. The hour is late. The civilian death toll mounts daily. Innocents on all sides suffer."
His very last words may strike you as extraordinary, and provocative - they are in the form of a prayer, in language such as we use:
"May it be the Creator's Will that the state of Israel be peacefully dismantled speedily in our days, that Jew and Palestinian live yet in peace with each other around the world and in the Holy Land, and that speedily in our days all mankind may merit the advent of Divine Redemption where God's Kingdom will be accepted."
At the heart of Rabbi Weiss's very personal belief is his understanding of the divine will - that Jews must see themselves as being an exile people until the day when all mankind will be miraculously redeemed
It is not for us to pray in his words, but we may surely respect the Rabbi's understanding of God, and his yearning for peace - and if we are open to that possibility then what about our understanding of God's kingdom
I suggest we begin by listening with fresh ears to those who speak to us from the world of the prophets of Israel
The recent OT lessons have had a great deal to do with the founding of the kingdom of Israel, and of that nation's never-ending changes of fortune - one looks at present-day Israel and sees the same pattern
But we must remember when we read this ancient history that they are stories written by people who believed in a God active in every moment in human history - every event fulfilled God's destined purpose
If a nation prospered - particularly if it were successful in battle with its neighbours - it was because God was one their side - for God was, after all, Lord of Hosts, in other words, the Lord of Battles
If wars were lost - if there was drought or disaster - then such suffering was due to human disobedience, to rejection of God, to sinfulness - they deserved punishment - and vengeance was the Lord's prerogative
As the Jewish people looked back over their history, they saw all these things played out in the reign of David, the great king - as brave a hero and as great a sinner as any
The more time passed the more they forgot David's weaknesses - their sense of identity, their sense of being a Jew, an Israelite, depended on maintaining the myth of this king/warrior
So it mattered to the Gospel writers to reinforce the link between Jesus of Nazareth and David - he was of David's line - that gave him prestige - maybe it gave him that something extra as a potential Messiah
Let's never forget that there were always those longing for a second David - who, in fact, tried to force Jesus's hand at one stage, and turn him into the Messiah, the champion for Jewish nationalism
Which is the point I want to make here, in order to link up with what Rabbi Weiss is saying - for he, too, as a devout Jew, has his eyes set on the Kingdom of God - exactly like that earlier Jew, Jesus of Nazareth
And both of them deny, absolutely, the use of military, or any sort of force, to bring God's kingdom into being - this was especially so for Jesus, crucified for claiming to be the King of the Jews
As Rabbi Weiss says, Judaism's call and duty it is to pursue peace with all men and all nations, to practice its faith, and to worship the Creator with humility, with modesty and piety.
Would a Christian dare suggest that there is another and better way?
What's to be done when the desire to possess one's native land is so great that anyone who disagrees with you is seen as an enemy to be destroyed - when your neighbour is, almost by definition, to be mistrusted
I believe historians will see the last century as the time when extreme nationalism gave rise to unlimited warfare - when international alliances were for defensive survival rather than peaceful growth
When a world that was shrinking because of new forms of communication and travel became too threatening to endure - and people and states denied their common humanity for the sake of spurious independence
The colonial powers of the 19th century did the present world no good service by re-drawing the maps - but we can't continue the blame them - we've had time enough to set things right
Why haven't we - if there were a simple answer it would be to do with our morbid fascination with land as object, land as possession - not as God's gift, something to be shared, a gift for the good of all
We pay lip service to the principle of a united world - we have set up a magnificent symbol in the form of the United Nations - a place where great ideals find expression, and we give it no real authority
But the Security Council has become the stage for the expression of selfishness and intolerance - as if we cannot accept the truth that the world stage is shrinking, and all our neighbours live just next door
The brave rabbi from New York takes his life in his hands when he speaks as he does to his Jewish brothers and sisters living in Israel - a state too fearful of its neighbours to see that friendship is the way to peace
But I could go on in another vein, finding more and more evidence of the common ground that exists between Christian and Jew, Jew and Muslim, Muslim and Christian - the essential unity of humankind
But I want to finish with a brief reflection on those words from Paul's letter to the Ephesians we heard just now - speaking to us of unity in the work of service that leads to unity in faith and knowledge
Note the order - work and service, then faith and knowledge - not the other way round - which, tragically, is what narrow religionists too often demand - you've got to believe the right things before good can be done
Faith and works, or works and faith - I used to think the difference was clear - now I wonder - and I have come to wonder because Jesus of Nazareth gave such simple expression to the difference
'There was once a man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho....' - the one who saved the life of the other was an unbeliever - the Samaritan is forever our model, he is forever our neighbour
To do as Jesus would have us do - there lies unity, and God's peace