What’s the point?

This was a sermon I delivered on Sunday 19th March 2017 at Camelon Parish Church. The text was John 3: 22-36. The translation quoted is the New Living Translation.

John the Baptist was a pretty big deal in Judea. He’d been baptising people all over the region for some time by now, we don’t know exactly how long, and he’d built up a decent following, attracted the attention of the Jewish leaders, and had what those in business might term a good customer base. He was, in our terms, a success with fame, adoration and the first century equivalent of an entourage of hangers on (that’s a bit unfair on his disciples, who were there to learn, but it’s just a modern equivalence).

Suddenly, onto the scene bursts Jesus – young, charismatic and at least as radical as John himself. John, of course, has already said that Jesus is greater than him, and that John was just there to “prepare the way” for Jesus. However, when John’s disciples come running to him saying,

“Rabbi, that guy you said was the Messiah is here as well and he’s also baptising people! They’re all going to him instead of to us!”

There is a clear inference. Their question is “Our fame and adoration is being taken by this man Jesus; what are you going to do about it?”

And it’s a good question. What is this man who has built up a following and a reputation going to do now Jesus is around, taking followers from him in their droves?

John knew who Jesus was, that was the whole point in his own ministry. But would we have been surprised to see John go over to him and say “I know you’re the Messiah, but could you at least leave something for me? I’ve done all this work, for you, and now you’re taking away from everything I’ve built up for myself. Fair’s fair, Jesus!”. Maybe that’s how we would have reacted as well if we had worked hard for such a long time, only to see the fruits of our labour taken from us, our status diminished, our work becoming unneeded.

Not John, though. He turns to his disciples, who do appear to be thinking in those terms and tells them, “This is how it must be. He becomes greater and greater and I become less and less.”

It’s an astonishing reaction by John, who describes himself as being the best man, simply glad to stand with the groom and hear him take his vows. John’s time in the spotlight is over, and he is delighted about it, more than happy to step aside and let Jesus take centre stage.

Our culture is defined by status. Who remembers or has seen that old sketch from The Frost Report (and no, I’m clearly not old enough to have seen it first time around), the one with Ronnie’s Barker and Corbett, and John Cleese as three people of various social standings? “I look down on him because… I look up to him because…”? Every member of the trio defining themselves by social class, belongings, money and many other human constructs in order to try to lift themselves up to a higher standing; your worth being made clear by whether or not you look down on or up to other people.

We do this, most of us have those we look up to and most have those we look down on. Some, of course, look down on everyone or believe themselves to be worthy of being looked down upon by everyone else, but we still position ourselves in this way.

Jesus understood this. On many occasions, when he spoke he referred to the greatest of my brothers and sisters, or the least of my brothers and sisters. His audience at the time knew what he meant, just as we do when we hear those words, because we all put ourselves within that spectrum of greatest to least. Jesus, however, didn’t see us in those terms. When he used them it was always to raise up the supposed “least of these”, to give them worth and an equal standing in his eyes. By using these terms, Jesus went on to remind us that there is, in reality, no such thing as the greatest or least of us, just us. We’re all his brothers and sisters who he wants to look out for each other instead of constantly looking after number one.

John was not looking after number one. John was in a position which had brought him fame and followers, but John was also a man who slept in the desert, wore a hairskin shirt and ate locusts and wild honey. John had status, but he didn’t care one bit about that status. He was the Ronnie Corbett in that Frost Report sketch. Whilst Ronnie Barker and John Cleese were looking up or down, Corbett, as the working man, gave us his catchphrase,

“I know my place”

John knew his place. Not in the Upstairs Downstairs way of knowing your place in terms of social standing, but knowing his place next to Jesus. Knowing that, regardless of any earthly status, Jesus is far greater that any and all of us.

The writer and speaker Jeff Lucas tells a story of his first time preaching at Spring Harvest, the largest Christian conference in Europe. It was in the Butlins camp in Minehead, Somerset, and he delivered the evening address in a huge tent filled with around 3,500 people. The following morning he was walking around the camp and he could feel people looking at him as he went past, saying things like “look, that’s Jeff Lucas!” or “it’s that guy from last night!”. Suddenly he found himself walking a little taller and prouder. This increased when a lady came up to him at the book stall with a copy of his book and asked if he could sign it for her. “Of course!” he said, happily producing a pen from his jacket pocket and, for the first time in his life, signing an autograph.

He walked around for the rest of the morning smiling and waving, pen at the ready for any other drive-by autograph hunters, until he got back to his chalet for lunch, half expecting a red carpet reception and line of people there to greet him.

As he stepped into the chalet he had a tangible, almost audible sense of God speaking to him. And God was saying this,

“Famous for a day at Butlins, are we?”

Suddenly he felt a bit daft. You see, he had been up on a stage the previous evening pointing people to Jesus, then spent the morning pointing the way to himself, and he realised this. He realised that all of his work, everything he was doing, was worth nothing if it was for his own glorification.

The writer of Ecclesiastes asked “What do people get for all their hard work under the sun?” and went on to say “We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we do now.”
(Ecclesiastes 1: 3 & 11)

So, what do we get for all our hard work? If we can’t bask in the limelight, enjoy our own accomplishments and if nobody will remember what we’ve done in the future, what is the point of it all.

And this is where John the Baptist steps in with his answer. “I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.” John’s work and ministry were never about himself. John never intended to enjoy the fruits of his own labour because the fruits of his labour were all intended for Jesus. Jesus, who is “greater than anybody else”. Jesus who “has come from heaven”. Jesus who “is sent by God and speaks God’s words”.

While we spend our lives presenting an image of ourselves to the world based on how hard we work, how popular we are, what we own, what our social standing is, how caring or generous we are, how often we can be seen at Church and a whole load of other ways; John is presenting an image of Jesus in everything he does.

We know almost nothing about John the Baptist, when you really examine it. We have a story of his conception, we know he baptised, what he wore and ate, how he died and what he said about Jesus. However, we don’t know how his ministry started, how many disciples he had or how they came to follow him, why people flocked to be baptised by him, or the vast majority of what he taught. His work and life are, largely, forgotten, as he would have been himself had he not devoted himself to preparing the way for and pointing the way to Jesus.

He became less and Jesus became greater.

John’s lasting impact is as a small part in the Jesus story. Not a man who is remembered for his own sake, but as a part of something much greater than he is. The same can be said of Jesus’ disciples, of Mary mother of Jesus, of Paul, of Mary Magdalene, of the Gospel writers and of countless men and women down the ages who have laid aside self interest and self promotion in order to present Jesus to the world. They won’t care how well they are still remembered, but because of them we can know Him. 

And that is worth working for.

I, Daniel Blake – a rather belated review(ish)

I’m not a film buff or someone able to adequately review a movie. In fact, I go to the cinema so rarely that the film I want to talk about is available on home video already, and I just watched it for the first time.

I, Daniel Blake is critically acclaimed, award winning and thought, by many, to be this generation’s Cathy Come Home. Directed by the same man who shot that amazing film in 1966, Ken Loach, it tells the story of Daniel Blake, or Dan, a joiner by trade who is off work long term due to a major heart attack. It follows his increasing desperation in his struggle to be heard by a welfare system more intent on getting him off the books than actually allowing him to live. 

He befriends a young single mother, Katie, who has just moved up to Newcastle from London with her two children. The reason for the move is that it was the closest place available for her to live. She also struggles with the DWP’s desire to sanction rather than support.

We see the anger at an inhumane system, railing against zero hour contracts, people marginalised and having their voices ignored, and the lengths they are driven to in order to just have the basics.

But we also see the humanity. The love of people, neighbours, communities willing to help as best they can as lives fall apart. Dan’s neighbour, a young man named China, sincerely telling him to ask for “anything”, whist he himself is driven to sell trainers out of the back of a car to supplement his earnings from a zero hour contract in a warehouse.

There is one scene in particular, set in a food bank, where all of this, the desperation and the humanity, are starkly revealed in a way which will surely leave even the most detached viewer in tears. It, like the whole film, is brilliantly and realistically shot and acted in a way which highlights how these things are happening to real people in this country right now.

Ken Loach is an unashamed Socialist. Yes, of course he has a political agenda behind this film, and that is an argument used by many on the right to talk it down and denounce it. However, it has no more of a political agenda than the stories you see every day in the tabloid papers, or hear about on talk radio shows, or watch every evening for three hours a night on Five (prop. Richard Desmond – also owner of the Star and Express papers, two of the tabloid who spend the most time demonising benefits claimants). All Loach is doing is allowing us to see through these stories (all of which, admittedly, at least have truth behind them) and to see the reality which so many more people face when dealing with life without work and on welfare.

The tabloid stories of excess and “scrounging” have built up a negative public perception of welfare claimants so successfully that it has allowed the Tories, originally in coalition with the Lib Dems, to focus attention on getting people off welfare regardless of the human cost. This film shows that human cost in all its ugliness, but also shows the basic decency of people; neighbours, strangers, food bank volunteers and even one particular staff member at the benefits office.

This is one of the most moving and most important films I have ever seen. I implore you to watch it as well, especially if your view of welfare has been shaped by the Daily Mail and company. It affected me so much that once I finished it I tried to tell my wife she needed to watch it as well, but found that I couldn’t open my mouth without crying.

At the end of the film we hear Dan’s words which sum up the situation so many find themselves in. They also sum up the true importance of this film and a rethink of how we view, talk about and deal with the least fortunate people in one of the planet’s richest countries,

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief.

I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so.

I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye. I don’t accept or seek charity.

My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect.

I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.”

The real reason populism is winning…

There’s a common thread going round the interwebs at the moment, in relation to the sudden upsurge of right-wing populism we’ve seen in Brexit, Trump and the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France. That thread says that it’s mostly the fault of the left, ignoring the concerns of ordinary working people by insisting on mass immigration, too much political correctness, and high state intervention whilst attacking all those who dare to disagree.

This is, of course, simplistic rubbish.

There is another thread doing the rounds. It’s one which suggests that Brexit, Trump, Le Pen voters are idiots, borderline racists, and sheep brainwashed by the right-wing tabloid media. We should ridicule, shout down and ignore these people who are, by siding with such awful people, not worth properly engaging with.

This is, of course, also simplistic rubbish.

Most of those on the left are not members of the fabled “metropolitan liberal elite”, they are ordinary working people as well. Most don’t believe in “mass immigration”, just everybody getting a fair chance, regardless of any accident of birth. Political correctness is not a tool to oppress and beat people with, it’s a way of ensuring that everyone is treated with due respect.

Those who voted for populism did so, not because some of us have differing views, but because the politicians they voted for touched a nerve with them; possibly by saying what they thought, possibly by playing on their fears.

But these voters are not (all) racist. They are not (all) brainwashed Daily Mail and Sun readers. They are not (all) stupid. They are mostly normal people with normal lives, normal jobs, normal problems, hopes, fears, loves and hates.

And they are all human beings and voters. Left and right, they are all human beings and voters.

The problem is that we have totally lost sight of this. We shout and yell (well, tweet… sometimes all in caps) at each other, dividing ourselves into separate camps and resort to ad hominem attacks and name calling; racist, cuck, fascist, snowflake, idiot, libtard… getting precisely nowhere.

And nobody, not one single one of us, is right about everything.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “There can be no compromise with extremism.”

This is true. Sometimes there can’t be any coming together because some views really are unacceptable. When people are motivated by racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia etc. you really cannot and should not compromise.

But you can listen. You can try to understand where views, all views, come from on a personal level.

Then, and this is scary, you can try to persuade.

Most of us hold some sort of political views, but are so politically illiterate and uneducated that we are unable to fully back up those views with evidence, statistics, proper arguments or, well, anything really. We have some basic things in our heads, but we need to educate ourselves more so that we can actually have proper debate and discussion.

One reason for the rise in populism is a disillusionment in politicians, and this is part of the reason. When politics loses sight of principles in the pursuit of style over substance then we lose the leadership we need, the example we need to show us how to debate, persuade and actually try to win people over to your way of thinking.

Yes, this is also pretty simplistic, but we need to start somewhere. We need to talk and listen. To understand that we are dealing with other human beings in issues which affect all human beings. We need to educate ourselves and others.

I mean, it might not work, but we just can’t go on like this. Can we?

Christian values and immigration

This is the transcript of a sermon I delivered on 16th October 2016. The texts were Isaiah 1:13-17 and Colossians 2:16-23.

Last month, on the eve of his final conference as leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage called on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to stand down from his role, accusing him of not standing up for “Christian values” in the UK. His words were in response to criticism from the archbishop of UKIP’s strong anti-immigration policies which he described as “legitimising racism”.

Mr Farage in particular pointed to Archbishop Justin’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis, accusing him of turning a blind eye to a series of sexual assaults carried out in Cologne, Germany, mainly by asylum seekers. He compared it to the condemnatory response of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Germany, saying that, in comparison, Archbishop Justin was simply not willing to protect Christian values and culture by supporting allowing further immigration and acceptance of refugees from the war in Syria.

This is simply one of many political rows and statements in recent years concentrating, or using concept of Christian values. Many areas of the press, many politicians and other pressure groups speak of defending Christian values from a whole range of things, from Muslim immigrants and refugees, to gay rights, feminism, political correctness, secularism and multiculturalism. All of these things are portrayed, to varying degrees, as a threat to our way of life and our Christian culture and values.

The one thing which is very rarely mentioned, however, is exactly what is meant by “Christian values”. It’s usually taken as written that people will instinctively know what is meant by the term and, it appears, most people do have something in mind to define it whenever the term is used.

This all begs one very important question: If politicians, campaigners, the media and the public all have an idea of what Christian values are, what actually are they?

Well, I could spend the whole time talking about what they are not, after all, Isaiah and Paul were extremely clear on the sorts of things many people feel are necessary, but don’t really constitute the values God wants of us – They are not turning up at Church on a Sunday, or refusing to do work on a Sunday, or making sure we observe festivals, or demonstrating piety, or saying our prayers, or telling people we are Christians or so many of the other public demonstrations of faith we can make. These are the easy things, the things which take no real sacrifice – no real faith – and are also easy to demand of others.

You see, when we hear of Christian values, these are the kind of things which are meant; the easy, cultural values which we can demand of everybody, the strict rules and conditions of being “one of us”, and a list of all the things we disapprove of and stand against.

When we hear, or even speak of Christian values, what we often really mean is our values. We impose our own world view onto others and say we are doing it to protect our Christian identity, demanding all conform otherwise they are oppressing us, they are a threat to us and must be resisted. Eventually, Christian values end up being viewed as things we are against, rather than things we are for.

The thing is, though, that these are all human values. When we think about what Christian values we all have a habit of fitting our own values into the description. These values have no right to be called Christian, though because they don’t meet the only criteria that term demands.

What are Christ’s values?

If we really want to live and promote Christian values then we need to look to Christ. Not to politicians or newspapers, or even ourselves, but to Christ. It’s one of those occasions where the old slogan “What would Jesus do?” applies perfectly.

So, let’s try to apply that question. In the face of millions displaced by a vicious war, fought by oppressive regimes on both sides; in the face of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children risking their lives to escape hell on earth in order to reach lands of freedom and safety; in the face of people living in relative poverty moving country in order to find a better life for them and their families – what would Jesus do?

One way to tell is to actually listen to his words:

Matthew 11

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.”

Matthew 25

“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me”

Luke 3 

“Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”

Luke 4 (quoting Isaiah 61)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”

These are Christian values; relieving the burdens of others, sharing our plenty with others who have little, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, freeing the captives and oppressed.

In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality As A Christian Tradition, Christine D Pohl wrote this,

“to welcome strangers into a distinctly Christian environment without coercing them into conformity requires that their basic well-being not be dependent on sharing certain commitments. When basic well-being is under attack by the larger society, Christians have a responsibility to welcome endangered persons into their lives, churches, and communities.

And there are no conditions put on this. At no stage does Jesus say we should only do this for other of his followers, or only if we can keep our own way of life intact, or only if people are willing to integrate into how we live. Love is unconditional, it stems from a life truly lived in Christ, from living under his control. When we live like this, when we allow ourselves, as Paul writes, to die with Christ so we can let go of our own worldly interests, then we find ourselves loving unconditionally in the same way.

You see, Christian values aren’t something to be protected, or forced onto others, they are something which comes from Christ himself and he gives to us, through the Holy Spirit, if we properly submit to him.

As far as placing conditions on love based around conforming to certain, man made standards is concerned, Jesus certainly had things to say on this as well with attacks on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who would laud it over the people, making big shows of their religious observance and condemning those unable to live up to their standards; but only doing it all for show and status, rather than for any desire to honour God.

Jesus knew that this went way back. Isaiah wrote about it when telling Jerusalem of their impending destruction. The people of Jerusalem would go through the motions of following rituals and rules, but there was nothing in their heart when doing it. There was no justice, no help for the oppressed, no rights for the vulnerable.

When we become like this then our worship, our songs, our prayers mean nothing to God. Less than nothing, they become detestable to him. All because we have lost sight of him and his desire for us to look after each other as human beings, his creations. As far back as Leviticus he said,

“Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

God wants us to forget our race or nationalities and to become one in him, treating all others – ALL others – with a welcoming, caring, giving and unconditional love.

So, when we come out with language alienating others on the basis of their nationality, or even their religion, and seek to make them unwelcome we are turning away from God, from Christ; when we speak of being worried about immigrants destroying the British way of life; when we stop innocent and suffering people from coming to safety for the fear that their religion means they may be a terrorist; we aren’t defending Christian values, we are turning away and destroying them.

It is our obligation as human beings and as Christians to offer safety and shelter to refugees, to be welcoming to strangers in our country and to share our own resources with those less fortunate. That is what Christian values and community are all about, loving one another as Christ loves us.

I’ll leave the last word to Justin Welby, a man who spends his life not defending, but promoting Christian values,

“God calls us to look outwards and care for those things He cares for; the poor, the sick, the suffering, the lost.”


The Tories and Brexit – The middle of the wedge

I didn’t sleep last night. It wasn’t sickness or stress. It wasn’t that I wasn’t tired (I really was). It wasn’t that my bed was uncomfortable.

I was angry. Really bloody angry.

I get frustrated, fed up, a bit cheesed off or even snappy at times. Rarely, however, do I feel real anger about anything.

Last night, though, I did.

Foreign workers are to be registered. Foreign doctors are to be “allowed” to stay until they can be replaced. Limiting freedom of movement seems to be the only non-negotiable element in Brexit. 

The message is clear – If you aren’t British then you aren’t welcome here. That’s right, Jonny Foreigner. This isn’t your home. It’s simply a place you get your money from, and we need to make sure you are treated differently to those of us who are native of this land.

This is as hard right as I can remember from a UK government, and it’s seriously scary. We’ve been through the language of “swarms of immigrants” and “bogus asylum seekers”. As many of us said, that was simply the thin end of the wedge.

It’s fair to say, with language you would expect to read on Stormfront and policies to match, we are now firmly in the middle of that wedge, and moving further up as we go.

The Brexit vote has confirmed one thing alone to the Tories, many people fear immigration. Theresa May addressed this in her speech today, attacking the mythical “liberal elite” for finding fears about immigration distasteful.

No, most of us don’t feel quite that way. Fears about immigration are, to a certain extent, understandable. People coming into the country, our communities, with a different language and culture can feel unsettling if you aren’t used to it. Stories in the press about millions coming over, taking jobs, benefits, NHS places, houses etc. can lead to fears. Of course it can.

The issue comes with addressing those fears. I believe that addressing fears should involve allaying fears. Pointing out the many, many benefits of immigration: they pay more tax and claim fewer benefits per person, they are helping to fill major shortages of staff in health care and the hospitality industry, they help us to learn about cultures beyond this small island…

The Tories, however, see addressing fears in a different way. They see it as pandering to those fears. Stoking them with increasingly hateful rhetoric and policies, then using the EU Referendum result as a way to justify those fears. In the same way those on the far right are using the result to legitimise their own bigotry and racism.

The Government often speak of standing up for “British values” or “Christian values”, yet these values they speak so highly of are not the ones I recognise when I think of them. I think of fairness and equality of all people, regardless of gender, race, colour, nationality or creed. 

I think of standing up for the vulnerable, the victimised, the poor, the oppressed.

I think of respecting those who work in professions which serve the wider good: health care, education, law and order, rescue and protection.

I think of a culture made up of many cultures over many centuries. Changing and evolving as we grow as one giant melting pot, celebrating the progress we make as we go.

I think of love, the most powerful thing on this planet, sweeping away hatred and fear as it goes. Healing people, communities, cities and nations.

Please, if you truly fear the idea of people coming from other countries, whether for economic reasons or for their own safety, and making their home here I beg you to think again. We learn from each other when we let down the artificial barriers of nationhood we have built around us. We learn customs, languages, festivals, food, ways of creating a caring society we had never thought of before when we realise that there is no us and them. There are just people. Human beings. Ordinary men, women and children.

The language of the Tories, the language of Brexit right now, is a dangerous and frightening path to go down. It is the language, and the policy, of division, inequality, blame, mistrust and hatred.

We are better than that. British people… all people are better than that. Please, let’s be better than the people we are being taken for. Before it’s too late.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:35, 40‬ ‭

Counting memes

It’s 2am and, for the umpteenth night in a row I can’t sleep. I’ve tried reading, music, just laying there… even cricket commentary (as 10CC sang, I love it).

Eventually I decide to check into my Facebook. A bit of social media browsing can’t do a worse job than anything else, can it?

Its busy. Mainly because, although its 2am, I am currently in Mumbai, India, so I’m 4 1/2 hours ahead of my friends in the UK, for whom it is only 9.30pm. 

After a minute I stumbled upon this post, shared by a friend, by the British Humanist Society.

The much mourned “Hitch” was an incredibly erudite, passionate and intelligent speaker and writer, even though I disagreed with him strongly on matters of faith. However, here he is spot on. Human decency is certainly not derived from religious practice or tradition. The BHA are right, the non-religious are as capable of good, sound moral actions as those who adhere to religions, and they do not need religion to help them do this.

There is literally nothing wrong with these statements.

There is, however, something badly wrong with the premise they are made upon.

They assume that all religious beliefs are centred around the idea that you need religion to have morals, or to be good. That the only way to be a truly good person is to follow religious teachings. That those outside of that religion are incapable of becoming a moral being.

I’m sure those arguments have been made, but I’ve not heard anybody making them.

I have heard the argument, however, that you cannot be good without God. Even if you don’t actually believe in him. It’s known as the Moral Argument and I would describe it for you, but it’s 2.25am now and I’m too tired to do so. So here’s a short video.

That is harder to argue against than needing religion to be capable of good. Not impossible, I’ll grant you, but harder.

And this is the problem when we try to reduce argument and debate to short Facebook posts, tweets or memos.  You lose nuance and find it easy to fall into the trap of making the wrong point. Unfortunately it’s also easy to fall into the trap of believing it, sharing it and forming values and beliefs based on it. I know I’ve fallen into that trap. Most people I know who go online have as well.

This isn’t just the case with religion. Politics is another area where debate is reduced to soundbites and infographics which, whilst eye-catching, don’t always stand up to scrutiny. But they seem to be shared and used in argument and debate all the same.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to think more. Think before speaking, or posting online, or even before hitting that share or retweet button. The important things in life are usually more complicated than we would really want them to be, and to reduce them to single quotes or trite statements is to do them, and us, a disservice.

Now, I really need to sleep.

How to react to Brexit – Sermon 26 June 2016

If only something of note had happened in the world over the last few days which I could have based a sermon around…

So, we had a vote on Thursday. One which will determine the political direction and position for generations. We are to leave the European Union and now…

Well, now the negotiations should be starting. Now the leaders of our country should be sorting out the terms of our exit from the EU so that neither the people of the UK nor the people of Europe are disadvantaged. Now we should be starting to heal the deep divisions which have opened up during one of the most vicious political campaigns these islands have seen.

That’s what should be happening.

Instead, we see recriminations. Instead, we see the name calling, accusations and fighting intensify. Instead, we see a nation deeply divided between the areas who voted to remain and those who voted to leave.

The words racist, bigot, traitor, smug, arrogant, liar and so many more are being bandied about social media, phone-ins and even some streets.

So, was it all worth it?

Of course, if you supported leaving the EU then you will feel it was. If you wanted to stay, you’ll think otherwise. And if you really didn’t know, you’re probably still utterly, and understandably, bewildered.

There will be people reading this from each of those three categories. You will all have your own views, thoughts and feelings towards the campaign and the result. The result, the rights and wrongs of leaving the EU, is not what I want to talk about here, though.

What I do want to talk about is the reaction, our reaction as Christians, as the body of Christ, to the events of the last few days and months.

The Church is nothing if not a divided body. The American comedian, Emo Phillips wrote a joke which was voted the best religious joke ever on the satirical Christian website Ship Of Fools. He said this,

“Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him off the bridge.”

I think we all recognise what’s being said here (although I do keep meaning to Google some of the terms in the joke). Throughout the years the Church has seen split after split after split. We have had splits on which language the Bible should be in, the authority of Rome, what translation of the Bible we should use, the links between church and state, the role of bishops, infant baptism, full immersion baptism, women in the priesthood and, now, homosexuality and its impact on the priesthood and marriage. We seem to love a good schism.

This is different, however. This isn’t a theological argument which simply affects one branch of the Church. This is an argument which has divided an entire nation and has gone beyond facts and values into personal insults and recriminations.

So, how do we react? When many of us within the Church have those same feelings of deep joy or total despondency, how do we keep ourselves from tearing ourselves apart in the same way that the country is threatening to do?

I think that the answer lies in the two readings; John 17:20-26 and Colossians 3:1-17. Jesus’ prayer for His believers and in Paul’s letter to the Church in Colossae.

Paul said this,

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Paul recognised that we will have disagreements, arguments and fallings out. Some disagreements will simply not be resolved. But that doesn’t mean that relationships need to suffer as a result of it. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; these are vital to any interaction we have with anybody. The second we start to forget to show these things, to forget to love, we also fail to reflect the image of Jesus to the world.

When we feel passionately about something these things seem to be the first things to be thrown out of the window in our dealings with people who disagree with us. It’s hard sometimes to keep our cool and interact with others with a cool head on our shoulders, but we must. And the first step in doing so is to listen.

Much of the cause for such divisive arguments is the failure to listen to opponents. The way that people tend to listen is that they hear a point being made, then spend time thinking of a counter argument or a reason for exposing an untruth. What we fail so often to do is to listen and to fully appreciate why people think and feel in a different way to ourselves. What are their experiences, their values, what has led them to take such a different point of view to ourselves? Take time to actually listen to someone with the opposite view to yourself, not just on Europe, but on any point of division. Ask questions, purely for the purpose of finding out information and not with any sort of agenda. You may not end up agreeing, but the insight you gain could lead you to a much greater understanding, not just of that issue, but of the person you are speaking with.

And don’t assume. As I said earlier, there have been assumptions made on both sides of the EU debate regarding the kind of people who would vote the other way. I heard two callers on a radio phone in today; one was a Remain voter who thought all Leave voters were elderly and/or bigots, the other a Leave voter who though Remain voters were young people brainwashed by educators or folk who sit around reading the Guardian all day. I wanted to crawl inside my radio and yell at them to stop! How can you know somebody’s motivation for doing something without listening to them in the first place? When we make assumptions we are pre-judging someone. But prejudice is not the way in which Jesus dealt with anybody, treating Samaritan women, Roman centurions and religious leaders all as people. Human beings who are loved and treasured by God.

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

There is also no remain voter or leave voter, no Conservative, no Labour, no SNP, no UKIP, no Green, no left wing, no right wing, no Scottish, no English, no Irish, no Welsh, no German, no French, no Polish, no Romanian, no Turkish… Christ is all, and is in all. We must never allow ourselves to forget that fact.

And we must be respectful in the way we communicate our own views.

“But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”

Again, the more passionate you are about an issue the harder it is to keep away from the things Paul warns against. But the more level headed we are when explaining our point of view, the more we stick to facts and our own experiences, the more likely the person we speak with is to understand our point of view. Again, though, without necessarily agreeing with us.

It’s vital we do all of these things. Vital for ourselves, vital for the Church and vital for the country.

Jesus prayed for our unity as believers. He knew we would disagree and argue, but it’s the spirit of that disagreement and, more importantly than that, the recognition of what unites us, that he is praying for here.

He is praying for us to recognise that we are all united by him, by the grace that God showed by sending Jesus, and by the glory of God demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus. We are united in the common aim of bringing God’s kingdom here on Earth. We are united in a desire to see people, families, communities, nations, the whole world won for Christ, for everybody to experience the love and saving grace of Christ.

That unity of purpose, that uniting power of Jesus, is what we all need to draw on at all times. Jesus is inviting us to be the light of the world, let’s shine that light. Let’s be the examples of how to disagree in love, to show the world that you can work with those who hold different viewpoints to your own. Let’s be examples of how we can work together, in the circumstance we find ourselves in, to make this country and this world a better place, regardless of how happy or unhappy we are with those circumstances. Don’t forget, Jesus spoke of unity and love in a time of occupation and violent oppression; we live in a free, democratic society, we have literally no excuse for not being able to act in the same spirit.

We must work together. We must work together to make the situation we find ourselves in work, we have no other choice. And if that changes again, if Scotland decides to become independent from the UK, we must work together to make that work as well.

We must work together to heal the divisions; a thing we can only do by acting in love, respect and true, God given unity with each other.

And we must work together for the Gospel of Christ. Amongst all of this is an opportunity. An opportunity to show people how we can treat other people. An opportunity to show how we can cooperate despite disagreement. An opportunity to demonstrate a different way, a way of love.

But, above all of this, we can’t lose sight of the most important thing of all.

NT Wright said “Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar is not”. Whatever earthly institutions, powers or nations we cling to, they are nothing. There is only one true authority, one true kingdom and one true power and it is our responsibility and our privilege to represent it on Earth. Our role is not to point to the EU, or the UK, or an independent Scotland. Our role is to point towards the cross of Christ, to say that this is where all hope, all salvation, all mercy, all rest, all healing and all power really lies. This is where we can truly lay aside our differences and become one with Christ and in Christ, forever.

I want to end with a prayer which the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Russell Barr, has written and is using as he leads worship this morning.

God of grace, trusting in Your continuing concern for us and for all creation

we bring You our prayers for this land and its people.

We thank You that in all the changed and changing circumstances of life

You are always with us

Your Spirit around us and within.

With Britain having voted to leave the European Union

some people are excited about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead

while others are fearful of what it will mean.

Some are pleased with the outcome of the vote and think it good

while others are left feeling disappointed and vulnerable.

Hear our prayer for those who will be involved in the coming negotiations

people who will make important decisions

affecting the political and economic life of our nation and continent.

Grant them Your gifts of wisdom and compassion

a commitment to seek the good of all people

and a desire to protect people weak and the vulnerable.

Free us from all bitterness and recrimination

and in all things grant us the serenity

to accept the things we cannot change,

courage to change the things we can

and wisdom to know the difference through Jesus Christ our Lord.