A sermon by Bishop Joanne, using the readings for 27 March, on youth violence and referring to the 2021 Lent appeal and Uche’s story.
Click here to view the recording on Vimeo – please feel free to download the video or stream it for use in your service.
For more information on the 2021 Lent Appeal, please click here.
Genesis 17.1-7,15,16 – The Sign of the Covenant
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
I invite you to listen to Uche’s story: his account of how he has moved beyond knife violence and has begun working with a youth charity, XLP, which has several bases in the area of East London where I minister.
Uche had left his bike outside a youth centre and it was stolen from there. He confronted the person whom he was told had taken it. Uche was stabbed and taken to hospital by ambulance, where he required four surgeries to reconnect veins and muscles and patch up his injuries. In a dark and depressed place, Uche nonetheless decided that he wouldn’t take revenge. He said, “If I did the same to him . . . it goes back and forth – someone has to break the cycle. It’s not good to act on the anger and have revenge. If I’ve done this to him, then he’s gonna do this to me.”
There has been an 85% increase in knife crime in England and Wales since 2014. 24 children aged just 17 or younger were murdered with a knife or sharp object in 2019. This represents the highest number of children murdered in over a decade. 40 knife crime offences happen in London every day.
In this context, many young people like Uche make a different decision, and seek revenge. Violence is habitually passed around in potentially endless cycles of retribution. Violence is also passed on, passed down, to new generations, especially to young people who are marginalized because of race, poverty, and inadequate educational provision. Young people who have been exposed to this level of violence are often in a heightened state of alert. They have disturbed patterns of attachment and relating. They relive their trauma, often being pulled back to the places and people who have traumatized them. Their regular patterns of memory, reward, and punishment are disrupted, and their brain development hindered. This damage can stay with people over their lifetime and even be recycled in their own children’s lives: old trauma expressed in new ways for new generations. Or, in Uche’s words, “It makes this cycle. If there’s an eye for an eye, then the whole world goes blind.”
With support, Uche was able not only to step outside of this cycle but also to encourage other young people to think differently about patterns of power and violence. He and his team – he’s now a member of the Youth Advisory team at XLP – simply say that they refuse to believe that his is a lost generation. Being a disciple of Christ for Uche meant taking up his cross and rejecting the violence that always leads to pain, suffering, and grief, and choosing to pass on something different to new generations.
The Scriptures today, from Genesis 17 (1-7, 15, 16) and Mark 8 (31-end), remind us that we, like Uche, are invited by God to become his followers and to take a different kind of journey from the one we might have expected. “Walk before me, and be blameless,” says God to Abram. Abram can’t, and instead he falls on his face, perhaps not daring to stand up and count his own worth. But it’s from the vulnerability of having his face in the mud that Abram learns that God is lifting him and his people out of exile, dislocation, and disruption, and making him, newly named as Abraham, with his wife Sarah, the ancestor of blessed generations to come. Despite being mired in insecurity, Abraham has been given security in God. With no sense of entitlement, but with a deep faith in God, Abraham can see and know and feel that nothing can disrupt God’s promise to him, and to all God’s children.
By contrast, in Mark’s gospel there is at first rebuke rather than reassurance. Peter and the other disciples are told sternly by Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!”, his rejoinder putting them rather on the back foot. The values of their world are turned upside down in what he says: those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it; profits will become forfeits; and shame and glory will be turned on their heads.
What Jesus is offering is no less of a covenant than Abraham and Sarah were given, but God’s promise here takes on a new form for new times. In a world where crucifixion was a political punishment for those who stepped out of line, Jesus brings an invitation to join with him in challenging worldly power. This challenge takes Jesus even to the point of death, and yet somehow, in what follows, God’s promise of eternal life is made known. God’s people do not need to keep repaying evil for evil and joining in with the cycles of violence that course through communities and loop through generations because, in Jesus Christ, God has shown that love can overcome sin and death. In the resurrection God has renewed his covenant and made it available to all people, and most especially to those who might have expected, because of the circumstances of their generation, to be excluded.
Violence can seem like a spider web overlaid across communities, keeping people bound in patterns of violence and retribution. 1 Peter 3.9 warns “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing.” We know that our calling as Christians is to live differently, in a covenant relationship with God, bearing witness to God’s love in all times and across all places. Therefore, living in Christian community has to involve fostering good and healthy webs of connection across communities, replacing repeated trauma and disruption with the ongoing blessings of love and compassion.
I wonder what it might look like for the church to be the bearer of these inherited blessings.
First, I am sure that a church where blessings are inherited has Christ at its heart. It is open rather than defensive: violence is not its first response. It is prophetic, with people living out, in words and actions, what Jesus taught. And whilst its people may be involved in various project-based pieces of work, its witness is far deeper than social work. I see an example of such ministry in Hackney church, in my own patch of London. With a knife bin in its grounds, at the intersection of different postcodes and therefore different gang identities, the church acts not only as a place to lay down weapons, but also as a place to set aside the violence that stems from poverty, abuse, and neglect. This is a church whose worshippers believe that violence can be transformed, and that people can find a new identity in Christ, who is the foundation of all hope and healing.
Second, blessings are also passed on when the church is a place of communion and of community. I often experience this through the warm hospitality of churches in Stepney Area. I’m thinking especially of gathering with the Mothers’ Union, young and old, at St Olave’s in Woodberry Down, sitting around long tables eating fried chicken and jollof rice, talking about bringing up teenagers. Both food and conversation are antidotes to the persistent interconnectedness of exclusion and disadvantage. This is a place where generations meet and interact, where people who care about each other listen to each other, across differences, and form healthy, non-coercive relationships. It’s a place where entry and belonging can’t be bought but are always freely given. Like all churches, it’s also a place where we gather together around the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and shed for us.
And finally, churches are bearers of blessings because they are places of private and communal prayer. Here, every person can develop, whether in silence and in stillness, or in fanfare and in festival, their own peaceful, non-reactive, and self-accepting interior life. It’s a place where everyone can trust that, although they sometimes feel like hiding away in shame, they can nonetheless walk before God, knowing that God sees them with unconditional positive regard. It can take a while, if your norm is crowded, aggressive, or unforgiving space, to settle into this new way of being, but God is patient and ever present, calling us back to his covenant of love, even when we fall flat on our faces.
Incidentally, it’s important to remember that these attributes apply to all churches, not just those in areas where knife crime or youth violence are prevalent. It’s not the case that violence stems only from violent communities or from violent generations. Violence, the offspring of injustice, runs through financial systems, through immigration rules, and through welfare states. We cannot say that we have no sin and project our sinfulness onto others who may be more bearers of the symptoms than sources of a disease which we all carry. The instruction to take up our cross and follow Christ is a message to all of us.
When we start from the perspective of God’s eternal love for his people, including his promise to Abraham and Sarah and their offspring after them, then our perception of what it looks like for all of us to inherit blessings will change. Since God’s love is constant, and God has given us the promise of an open and protected future, there should be no generations who are lost to violence or despair. We therefore have to act, towards God and to each other, as if this is a reality. We can walk before God, unafraid of showing our faces to him. We can also push Satan behind us, refusing to get caught up in the struggles for power which create losers as fast as they create winners, or which push violence and trauma out into the world and onwards into future generations.
Local circumstances will lead churches and communities to respond in different practical ways to the epidemic of violence affecting our young people. In London, our Lent campaign this year is focussed on XLP, the youthwork charity which Uche is an ambassador for; as well as on Redthread, which maintains a presence of specialist youth workers in hospital A and E departments to create and use teachable moments with those who are caught up in knife violence; and TLG (Transforming Lives for Good) which specializes in support around school exclusions, emotional wellbeing, and holiday hunger. Responding to serious youth violence is also one of the pillars of the Diocese’s Compassionate Communities ambition. This means working with parishes and with expert external partners, using our buildings, our financial resources, and our volunteer capacity, to be a blessing to the generation of young people which is hurting because of the effects of knife crime on themselves, their friends, and their families.
Wherever we are, we must know that a church where blessings are inherited will be secure in God’s promise to be with his people through all generations. And whatever else we do, we must know that this church will be modelled on Jesus’s challenge to his disciples: to stand prophetically against violence of all kinds, to choose love over hurt and revenge, and to shape our lives around the pattern of Christ’s life. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Amen.
Dr Christian Stäblein, Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg, Silesian Upper-Lusatia, was installed as an Honorary Canon in St Paul’s Cathedral during a special Evensong service on Sunday 21st January.
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