Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017, Sutton Montis
The annual report of Amnesty International published last week  warned that our “Toxic political agenda is dehumanising entire groups of people.”
Citing the 57% spike in reported hate crime the week after the Brexit vote, documenting “the very real human consequences of politicians worldwide wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanises entire groups of people,” accusing the British government of “creating a hostile climate for refugees and migrants”, particularly unaccompanied children, in shirking its responsibilities to them, the report says that what is at threat here is not just human lives but the value system enshrined in international law after the second world war.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said,
“When language around ‘taking our country back’ and ‘making America great again’ is coupled with proposals to treat EU migrants like bargaining chips or to ban refugees on the grounds of religion, it fosters deep hatred and mistrust and sends a strong message that some people are entitled to human rights and others aren’t … Have we forgotten that human rights protections were created after the mass atrocities of the second world war as a way of making sure that ‘never again’ actually meant ‘never again’?”
Amnesty’s director of crisis research Tirana Hassan said that behind all this vicious rhetoric targeting the most vulnerable, is “the dangerous idea that some people are less human than others”.
And this is the world we live in as we come to the start of another Lent. This is the world which Jesus addresses in his timeless Sermon on the Mount. This is the situation he wants us to respond to on this very Ash Wednesday. In what might be the most important passage in Scripture for our times,  Jesus teaches,
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 
Why might this be the most important passage in Scripture for our time? Because it conveys the element in Jesus’ teaching ministry which most distinguishes him in human history. Has there ever been anyone else prior to Jesus to teach that perfect love reaches out to include even enemies?
And this may be the most important passage in Scripture for our time because it challenges the usual view of God which all human societies hold. The view that God is the god of our tribe, our nation, our group - the god-on-our-side. In the face of this Jesus reveals a God who teaches us to love even enemies, Jesus pushes humankind toward experiencing God anew as the God who embraces all human beings - the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
In what might come a close second as the most important Scripture for our time, Paul the Apostle extends this theology to make God’s action in Jesus the Messiah to be about making peace, in that:
[The Messiah] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace… 
There is no longer us and them; there is only us. In Jesus himself, we meet a God for all, no longer a mere god-on-our-side. “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” is Jesus’ logical conclusion. For as we learn to love our enemies, as we learn to make peace with others unlike us, we edge ourselves and our world towards perfection, we become midwives to the incoming kingdom of God.
This Ash Wednesday we have to face the reality that Christendom long ago lapsed back into the god-on-our-side of empire, and that we Christians are still struggling to recover. Many American Christians are eager to embrace the nationalistic message of a Donald Trump, in which everything is deeply structured in terms of an us-and-them. Which means that following Donald Trump makes it impossible for us to follow Jesus the Messiah in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount.
Last weekend, a conference centre on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland just south of Washington, D.C, hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference. Among its advertised sessions on themes such as challenging so-called ‘fake climate news’, a talk by the National Rifle Association titled ‘Armed and Fabulous’, and an appearance by Nigel Farage speaking on Brexit, was a session with this title: ‘If Heaven has a Gate, a Wall, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?’ 
This Lent, let us turn again to the Sermon on the Mount to re-consider what it means to be followers of Jesus in our time; let us turn to the prophets of peace of our age.
Conscious that ‘elements of our situation are eerily similar to the nationalism of the Nazi movement’ let us turn to the Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose guiding text in the face of rising Nazism was the Sermon on the Mount . Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” 
At a moment in history when human beings wield weapons capable of self-annihilation, let us turn to the Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi who, in obedience to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, gave us a nonviolent way of waging war; a way of waging war “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,”  a way of war that seeks not to defeat human enemies but to turn enemies into friends.
This is our challenge this Lent - though we may think that Trump is a monster, we must love him; if we believe that our Parish Council is plain wrong, we must love them; if we find our neighbour annoying, we must love her; if we’re fearful of people of other faiths, we must love them; if we know that our work colleagues are undermining us, we must love them. For this is the way of the teachings of Christ. And let us be sure to understand that this love, which is required of us, is not weak and passive; it is strong and pro-active. This love, through which we model Jesus’ way to the world, is given to us once-and-for-all as God’s generous gift; but it is also something which comes to us repeatedly as we practice it, hour by hour, day by day.
In his annual Lenten message, Pope Francis suggested that if we're going to fast from anything this Lent, even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others. "Indifference to our neighbour and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians,” he wrote. “Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.” 
In the General Synod debate about same-sex relationships last week the Archdeacon of Dudley, Nikki Groarke, who I studied alongside at theological college, made a moving and challenging confession.
Formed in the Bible-believing evangelical tradition, nurtured in churches clear that the only context for sexual intimacy is in a heterosexual marriage, Nikki spoke of her recent experiences, “a privilege”, she called them, “of ministering alongside men and women, lay and ordained, in long term, committed gay relationships. Gay Christians serving God faithfully and being used by him powerfully.” Thus challenged to wrestle with Scripture, Nikki described how her understanding has changed, and, whilst still unable to support a change to the canons on marriage, she has accepted the need for the careful introduction of a blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships. Now, this was her confession: “I have said nothing. And I am sorry.”
“It felt difficult”, she said. “I serve people of all traditions in my role as archdeacon, and life is simpler when you remain vague on controversial issues. So I stayed in the silent middle. I am now beginning to understand how much more difficult this issue is for those we spend so much time talking about as ‘a problem to be solved’. By our actions, or inaction, we are continually undermining their identity, questioning their character and godliness, condemning them as somehow more sinful, limiting and restricting their flourishing, sometimes with tragic consequences. We are doing untold damage to individuals, and to the church. We are all responsible. So now it is time for those of us in the silent middle to dare to vocalise our changed understanding, to take the risk of speaking out in support of blessing, and to work toward ensuring all voices are heard, and all people are valued, welcomed, affirmed and freed to minister effectively in God’s church.” 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.” 
Lent is the interruption. It causes us to look deep inside. Let it begin to do its work in us today. Let us be challenged to turn away from our merciless ways to embrace the ways of God’s great mercy.
 Emma Graham-Harrison, Toxic political agenda is dehumanising entire groups, Amnesty warns, Guardian, 22 February 2017
 Paul Nuechterlein, The Most Important Passage in the Bible, Theology and Peace blog, February 19, 2017. Much of the following exposition is substantially Paul’s post adapted for this sermon.
 Matthew 5.43-48.
 Ephesians 2.14-15.
 CPac 2017 Agenda. Gwilym Mumford, 'Armed and fabulous' – and other talks from the CPAC conference, Guardian, 22 February 2017.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
 Ephesians 6.12.
 Christopher J. Hale, Pope Francis' Guide to Lent: What You Should Give Up This Year, Time, February 18, 2015.
 Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon Nikki's speech to General Synod, Diocese of Worcester website, 16 February 2017. Altered.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.