Eisteddfod Sermon, Cardiff, August 2008

In the Reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah prophesises a great future for Israel in the future after she has returned from exile in Babylon.  Her life will be like a watered garden and her young men and women and old people too will rejoice by dancing.  Our National Eisteddfod is also a time for great celebration – a time to celebrate both our language and nation.

“Un o dafodieithoedd datguddiad Duw”.  One of the dialects of the revelation of God according to Gwenallt.  On such a day as this, we are given permission if you like, to revel in our history as descendants of the original inhabitants of these islands.  I once heard a Professor of Welsh tell an international audience that Welsh was a developed, ordered and highly cultured language when English was a series of discordant shrieks in the forest of Schleswig Holstein.  So now you know.

There is a new confidence in the Wales of today with the advent of the New Welsh Assembly coupled with the Welsh Language Act of 1993 which gave equality to the two languages of Wales for the first time since the Act of Union of 1536.  There is a different attitude to Welsh culture, language and nationhood.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica could no longer get away with its entry of a few years ago “For Wales, see England”.  Nor would Matthew Arnold’s comments be terribly welcome in modern day Wales.  He had this to say about the Welsh language:

“I must say I quite share the opinion of my brother Saxons as to the practical inconvenience of perpetuating the speaking of Welsh.  It may cause a moment’s distress to one’s imagination when one hears that the last Cornish peasant who spoke the old tongue of Cornwall is dead;  but no doubt Cornwall is the better for adopting English, for becoming more thoroughly one with the rest of the country.  The fusion of all the inhabitants of these islands into one homogenous, English-speaking whole, the breaking down of barriers between us, the swallowing-up of separate provincial nationalities, is a consummation to which the course of things irresistibly tends;  it is a necessity of what is called modern civilisation, and modern civilisation is a mere affair of time.  The sooner the Welsh language disappears as an instrument of the practical, political, social life of Wales, the better;  the better of England, the better of Wales itself.”

Such a view is still prevalent.  Someone wrote recently “that the Welsh language is only kept alive by committees inventing new words for modern inventions like the motor car and the TV set”.

But although there is a new sense of identity in the nation, pride in its language dating back to the Sixth Century, with its own literary tradition and a sense of belonging to a particular area of land, yet when we talk of nation, nationalism, nationhood, the debate can become very heated and we have seen and are still seeing the cost in human terms of the struggle for national identity in various parts of the world.  We have seen what has happened in Yugoslavia, Israel – Palestine, and parts of Africa.

The challenge we face as a nation is keeping our identity and rejoicing in it without at the same time becoming narrowly nationalistic, xenophobic even, exclusive.  Nor is this a problem just for Wales.  You only have to read the correspondence columns of the daily papers to see the extreme views that people have about asylum seekers.  That debate is about race and nationality but of course we all like boundaries and perhaps we all need boundaries because boundaries give us a sense of security.  They help to define who we are – family and non-family, Welsh and non-Welsh.  Most people across the globe make distinctions of this kind and we cannot somehow survive without them, and yet we cannot either survive if the distinctions become so rigid that people react to outsiders with terrible aggression and hatred.  How can we preserve our identity, be that as a family unit or a nation, to stop us being overwhelmed and engulfed by strangers and losing a sense of who we are and yet not allow that protection to become destructive.

Perhaps the Gospel can help us, for after all, Wales has been formed by the Christian faith.  Its land and people trace its origins to the period between 400 and 800 when Christianity penetrated its life and being.

Gorwedd llwch holl saint yr oesau
A’r merthyron yn dy gôl.

(The dust of all the saints and martyrs
of the ages rest in your lap).  Gwenallt again.

They built Wales according to Gwenallt on the foundations of the Crib, the Cross and the Empty Tomb.  The early centuries in Wales were called “the age of the saints”.  They travelled the length and breadth of the country preaching the Gospel which is why Gwenallt called Dewi Sant God’s gypsy.  The place names of Wales are ample evidence of the influence of the saints.  “Llan” – a holy site used for burial, on many of which churches were subsequently built, followed by a saint’s name is one of the most common formats for place-names – Llanddewi, Llanbedr, Llandeilo, Llanelwy, Llanfair and not quite a saint, but a river, Llandaff.  As I said, historically Wales is a Christian country formed by the Christian faith.  Now I know that that has changed dramatically in recent years with only about 10% of the population being members of the Christian church.  But does the Gospel have anything to say to us in this Third Millenium about nationhood and belonging?

Having said that, one has to be careful because religion too can be used to demarcate people – those who belong and those who do not belong.  A religious commitment can become a kind of tribal allegiance and religions can sometimes develop ways of policing the frontiers of the religious community to make sure that only the real insiders are inside and to ensure people cannot get in if they do not really believe.  Both Judaism and Christianity have been guilty of this.  Religious fervour has very often fuelled nationalistic fervour in most parts of the world.

Yet at the beginning of both Judaism and Christianity, there were people who questioned this function of religion as a method of separating family from strangers, insiders from outsiders.  True, Israel believed that it had been called by God as his chosen race, but the prophets of Israel reminded the nation that there was only one God and that he cared for all men and women, regardless of creed, religion or colour, because he was their creator and they were made in his image.  Every single human being was his child.  Not only was that so, said the prophets, this God actively intervened on the side of those who seemed to be treated as less than the human beings they were by their fellow human beings.  So this God sided with outcasts, outsiders, strangers and rejects to make the point that they too belonged to Him and were part of His family.  So the prophets took the side of and said that God took the side of widows, orphans, foreigners and slaves “for the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, who is not partial.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner giving him food and clothing, for you too were sojourners in the land of Egypt”, (Deuteronomy).

And just when Judaism was in danger of losing sight of this fundamental truth preached by the prophets, because it was occupied by a foreign power, along comes Jesus who takes up the theme of God being the Lord of the whole universe, who had a special regard for outsiders – be they religious outsiders, racial outsiders, emotional outsiders or social outsiders.  So he associated with those whom some of his fellow Jews found hard to stomach – collaborators, tax collectors, lepers, sinners, women, Samaritans – all of those whom the leaders of his faith classed as them rather than us.  That is what the story of the Good Samaritan is all about.  My neighbour is not just someone who belongs to the same race as I do or the same religion as I do but anyone I happen to come across who is in any kind of need.

The disciples of Jesus and the leaders of his faith couldn’t cope with this.  They wanted to form a club that would define who and what they were and that kept out non-members.  It is quite a normal thing for humans to do and yet it can be one of the most demonic as we realise when we study any period of history.  The same can be true of families.  We cannot live without them for this is where human love can be at its best and yet it is in families that the most destructive and vicious tendencies can grow.  The paradox is that we perish unless we come together in groups, nations, families, but when we do we can destroy one another physically, emotionally and psychologically

The same can be true of churches.  We need to have a membership that comes together to worship, to grow in faith, to receive and show God’s love, but churches like other human groups can also be destructive places and can keep outsiders at the gate.  The Church of God exists to love and serve those who are not its members.  We are not a club either still less an exclusive club.

So we want to say that our sense of national identity and nationhood and heritage is a gift of God in which we should rejoice and that might involve further self determination.  Yet we also need to say that the gifts that we have been given, the distinctiveness with which we have been marked is not for ourselves alone, but for the enrichment of humanity.  We must never forget that we belong to one common humanity and one undivided human family.  We must not have a narrow view of nationhood and national identity, limited to particular people and excluding others.  The nation must not be made into a God.  The Gospel of Jesus warns us of the danger of trying to establish an exclusive club and challenges us to reject the drive that can make us as individuals, as families as nations exclude others.

His love was an all embracing, all inclusive love even though he was a First Century Jew.  Jesus dies an outsider, outside the city walls literally, to make the point that God is on the side of those who are outside, excluded, foreign, maimed or whatever fault we happen to think they have.  He makes that point because the whole human race belongs to him.  The life of Jesus is a symbol that God’s way is to allow himself to be rejected by the people to whom he belongs most closely;  to discover what it is like to be an outsider who refuses to hate and envy those on the inside even at the moment when they are excluding him, and an insider who wants to embrace those on the outside.  It is to such a God as this that you and I belong.  This is part of the new creation made possible through God in Jesus.  The particularities of culture, language and tradition are God’s gifts to us for they define who and what we are, but we also need to foster openness towards those who are different, the peoples and nations of our divided world.

God made himself known in as full a way as it is possible for God to be known in a human being as a First Century Jew – Jesus – a particular man in a particular place at a particular time.  Yet that disclosure was not for the Jewish nation alone but for the whole of humanity.  As Gwenallt put it:

  He was imprisoned by his Jewish flesh and bones
Within the boundaries of his country
But he offered them as living planks to the hammering
And they were raised from the tomb by his Father,
Despite the watching, to be a catholic body.

  And now Cardiff is as near as Calvary.
And Bangor every inch as Bethlehem,
The storms are stilled in Cardigan Bay.
And on every street the lunatics may
Receive healing salvation from the hem of his garment.

He did not hide his gospel among the clouds of Judea,
Beyond human tongue and sight.
But he offers the life that is to last forever
In a sip of wine and a piece of bread,
And the gift of the Spirit in drops of water.

Nu chuddiodd Ei Efengyl rhwng cymylau Iwdea,
Y tu hwnt i dafod a llygaid gŵr.
Ond rhydd y bywyd sydd fyth i bara
Mewn llymaid o win a thamaid o fara,
A dawn yr Ysbryd mewn diferion dŵr.

Or if you prefer a poem by Waldo Williams called Brawdoliaeth says the same thing in a different way

  God’s mysterious net
Binds every living person;
Reconciliation and the whole web
Of Me, You, Him …….

  Me, You, together
Despite the world’s divisions –
He makes whole his world …….

Myfi, Tydi, ynghyd
Er holl raniadau’r byd,
Efe’n cyfannu’I fyd.

To that kind of God be glory, honour, power and praise from this time forth and forever more.