Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: “Lepers”

Sunday 5 September 2021
14th After Trinity

Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

One of the more colourful characters in my life was my eccentric maiden aunt

Born in India, she never worked and so had no National Insurance number

Engaged five times, yet never married

Not surprisingly, she seemed to attract eccentrics

And often to bring her friends to my parent’s house where my Mother would entertain them

One friend in particular stood out for me by the name of Christophe

He was Austrian by birth and always came for dinner wearing an Austrian hunting jacket

He had an enormous appetite which would amuse us as boys – not least because he had a little tin box in which he kept his Rennie’s!

But what we failed to realise was that, as an Austrian Jew, he had fled the Nazi’s before WW2

Fleeing from Vienna to England, he had been graciously welcomed and educated by the monks at Ampleforth Abbey

He was hugely cultured with an encyclopaedic knowledge of English and European history and greatly enriched all our lives

As chance would have it, I found myself visiting Vienna whilst I was in the Army

I was on the invitation list of the Austrian Ministry of Defence and periodically would be invited to speak on the Law of Armed Conflict

But whilst I was in Vienna I came across the statue of a boy sitting on a suitcase at the main train station

With short trousers and knobbly knees it has the inscription “Fur das Kind”

The statue is a tribute to the people of Britain for saving the lives of thousands of children in WW2

The station in Vienna was the beginning of their journey

From thence they crossed Europe by train

And then the channel by boat –

All visa requirements were waived – they had no documents

Fittingly, there is a another statue at Liverpool Street Station which was the end of their terminus

Approximately 10,000 Jewish children were saved in this way

From a near certain death at the hands of the Nazi’s

The children who were saved are known, collectively, as the kinder transport

They came from all over Europe

The British Home Secretary said at the time at the time of the evacuation:

“We have a splendid opportunity of rising to be worthy of our own standards in carrying out this task of relief and salvation.”

Most famously, perhaps, transport from Czechoslovakia was organised by a British stockbroker called Sir Nicholas Winton

Largely unknown at the time, he was knighted by the Queen in 2003 for his “services to humanity”

His bravery, and modesty, in arranging their evacuation should inspire us all today

Our hospitality as a nation was wonderfully rewarded, not least, as so many of the children went on to lead very distinguished lives

The list is so long and varied that it is hard to know where to start

But it included three Nobel Prize winners, [Walter Kohn, Arno Penzias and Jack Steinberger]

Two knights of the Realm, [Sir Erich Reich and Gunter Trietel]

One Dame, [Dame Stephanie Shirley]

Four professors, [Robert Khan, Robert Shaw, George Wolf and Fred Rosner]

As well as physicists, chemists, mathematicians, immunologists, computer scientists, architects, sociologists, historians, artists and sculptors, actors, film directors, TV producers

And so on and so forth – the list is immense and distinguished

Looking back, it is a sobering thought that:

Each and every one of them was an asylum seeker

Each and every one of them crossed the channel by boat

Each and every one of them arrived without the correct paper work

And it is worth reminding ourselves today, as columns of refugees have been plucked to safety from the brutality of the Taliban

That amongst their number could be an equal number of distinguished men and women

Just think of that the next time you see a boat of refugees crossing the channel?

But I would venture to suggest that our recent attitude towards refugees has been far from commendable

In the past few years, there has been an almost daily diet of pejorative terms in the press

Terms such as “swarm” and “infestation” have been used as if refugees were sub human

We have even locked refugees up in disused Army barracks – unfit for human habitation

Bella Sankey from Detention Action said: The Home Secretary’s “experiment with segregated refugee ghettos is a divisive poison…re-traumatising survivors of genocide, rape and torture.”

Lord Alf Dubbs – who was also on the kindertransport – said “These policies…do a disservice to this country’s history”

To make matters worse, we have recently sought to criminalise refugees in the Nationality and Borders Bill

I had hoped that the Afghan tragedy this month had lifted the curtain on the horrors men, women and children are fleeing from

Rekindling our Christian compassion

But, as recently as last week, a Home Office Minister confirmed that Afghan nationals arriving by boat, would still be criminalised

So much for the façade of Operation “warm welcome” – so much for the kindertransport

This may seem a long way from the reading this morning which is about lepers

Lepers, like refugees, were on the margins of society -they too lived in ghettos and, no doubt, society wanted to have them locked away

But, as we learn, Jesus is not on the side of the Home Office or the press -he is not there clamouring to turn innocent men and women into criminals or locking them up

He is in the midst of them instead

He is there with those who have been excluded from social, political and religious life and seeks to re-integrate them

So just ask yourself where Jesus would be in the debate over asylum seekers?

Like the lepers, he would be with those whom society chose to condemn and, if that is where Jesus would be, then we should be there too