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.


Tomorrow’s calling, now – Sermon, 19/06/2016

(This is a sermon I preached on Sunday 19 July 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The scripture readings were 1 Kings 19:19-21, Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 1:1-12)

What do you want to be when you grow up?That was the question we were probably all asked all of the time as children, and continue to ask children today. What direction is your life heading? What are your dreams, aspirations, hopes for the future? Who will you become?

In my primary school, in East Tilbury, near the mouth of the Thames Estuary in Essex, most of the boys seemed to want to be long distance lorry drivers. We didn’t live far from the port of Tilbury (you could just see it from my classroom window) and that was the jobs many of their dads did. The odd one fancied being a car mechanic, or a soldier, but lorry driver was definitely the in thing at my school.

I, however, didn’t really have a clue. I’d have loved to have been a footballer, but I am comically bad at football. I liked the idea of being an astronaut, but I can’t even handle a roller coaster, let alone a rocket launch.

At one stage in my life I worked in a call centre. One of the managers had a picture on his desk of a little boy looking, wistfully into the distance and saying “When I grow up, I want to work in a call centre”. The humour in that derives from the fact that almost nobody grows up wanting to do that, or work in an office, or a shop, or as a delivery driver, or sweeping the streets… most of us either don’t know what we want to do when we grow up, or never really make it and end up “making do”. Dreams go unrealised, lives feel unfulfilled.

Sometimes the direction we had planned for ourselves, though, does seem to work out until something gets in the way and we end up changing path, or it all falls apart completely.

I have no idea what Elisha’s dreams for his life were. It may be that working on his father’s land for the rest of his days, ploughing the fields with his oxen, was exactly what he had in mind or, at least, was how he expected his life to pan out. It may be that he had dreams of building the family business up, acquiring wealth and status. It may be that he hated working the land and wanted to try his hand at a different job. I simply don’t know.

What I do think, however, is that suddenly upping and leaving his home to become an apprentice prophet to Elijah was probably not foremost in his mind. Just a few verses earlier God had told Elijah to find Elisha and anoint him as his successor. Now, here was the great man of God putting his cloak around Elisha’s shoulders and following God’s instruction.

Now, I want you to stop for a moment and think – if something like this happened to you, a clear indication of God’s calling, one which would leave your own plans in tatters and completely turn your life upside down, how would you react? Now you have answered the question I didn’t ask you in your heads, which is “how would you like to think you’d react?”, imagine how you actually would. This is not a small request. Elisha isn’t being simply offered another job with great prospects. He is leaving his home, his family, his job; he is leaving behind everything he knows.

I would like to think that I’d be able to follow God’s command, trusting him fully in whatever he was asking me to do. Trusting that I and those I left behind would be given the strength to cope with the change, and that I would be equipped in the Spirit for whatever task I was to carry out.

I’d like to think that…

In reality, I really don’t know. I don’t know how strong my faith is to do something like that. Whether I would go, or could go. Or would I spend weeks, or years, pondering what to do in the hope that, maybe, God might change his mind?

Elisha acts in the way I’d like to think I would. He leaves to follow God’s path for him. And he does it, apparently unquestioning. Stopping only to say goodbye to his family and to slaughter the two oxen. It’s an astonishing display of faith and trust in both Elijah and in God.

Jesus appears to ask even more of us, saying to his followers that they need to leave without burying their dead or saying goodbye to their family, to follow him to a life of apparent homelessness.

This life of discipleship is not an easy life, and neither is any job we are given to advance the Kingdom of God. It’s a life of sacrifice, self-denial and obedience; something we find increasingly difficult to do in this secular, self-satisfying world.

The Church of Scotland currently has an initiative called “Tomorrow’s Calling”. It’s a campaign to get people to look at jobs within the church as opportunities they may want to take, rather than something for someone else, someone more holy or talented. Much of it is centred around training for full-time ministry, but it goes much further than that as well into all sorts of diverse roles.

On their website there is a quote from a minister from Stornoway, who says,

“I would have done anything to be honest, other than be a minister, but God made it very clear that’s what he wanted from me. I knew it would be demanding. I’m on call 24/7. Although it’s challenging, the more you give to people the more you see the beauty and diversity of life. You never lose from that.”

So often we find ourselves called to the one thing we don’t want to be called to. When I was a student I had to deliver a speech, as a member of the Student Union executive, to a lecture hall full of first year students. I was terrified at the prospect, I hated public speaking. I completely froze. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. It was an awful and incredibly embarrassing situation.

The idea that God might call me to a form of ministry that primarily involved public speaking would have been ridiculous to the 19 year old me, but here I am. And I’m here because, over time, not only has God equipped me to serve in this way, but has actually changed my heart from within to the extent that I’m never happier than when up here speaking to a church full of people.

You see, that’s what he does. He calls us to do things for him, not because we want to do them, but because he sees something in us that can be used to do his will. He chooses us, not because we are perfect for the job, but because we are perfect for the job only with his intervention. He chooses us and changes us and soon, without us even noticing, his will becomes our will.

Every single one of us is being called to service for God. Some have answered, some are denying it and some still haven’t heard it, but we are all getting that call.

Elisha got the call in a very obvious way, and he followed. For most of us that call is not so obvious, not so clear. We need to take time in prayer, not only to talk to God, but to listen to him as well. To sit, or walk, or drive or however you feel most comfortable doing it, in silence, just listening for the voice of God to guide you and to call you.

The call may come in other ways. You may find that people you know well and trust will give you that guidance. You may find that odd “coincidences” take place which seem to point you in the right direction. Any number of things could happen which answer that age old question to God “Please, Lord! Give me a sign!”

And then we need to be ready to actually answer it. If anything, this is the difficult part. Hearing a call can sometimes be fairly easy, but being ready and answering it is a whole different matter.

I think I first heard the call to preach about 15 years ago, but I either ignored it, or disbelieved it, or was just “too busy” to do anything about it. I wish I’d answered it sooner, but I did eventually. As another minister on the Tomorrow’s Calling website said,

“If you feel a sense of Calling in your heart you can’t run away from it.”

You only need to see the story of Jonah to understand that. Running from God is impossible; wherever you run to, he’s already there.

Elisha, however, was ready and willing. All he wanted to do was say goodbye, which he did with a meal consisting of his two oxen, and he was off on his journey to become the next great prophet of Israel.

We aren’t all being called to be a great prophet. Well, it’s possible none of us are, of course. We’re not all being called to preach, although some of us definitely are. But we are all being called, and Elisha is a wonderful example of what to do when it comes – We need to listen for the call, get ready for it coming and just act on it. Don’t run from it, or ignore it, but embrace it. God will be with each one of us every step of the way, guiding us and equipping us for his work.

And, above all, remember that to be called by God, by the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, to do his work is the most wonderful privilege we could ever hope for. He doesn’t need us to do his work, but he wants us for it because he wants to work with us, to share in our lives, our battles, our rest, our triumphs, our failures, our sadness and our joy. And, in return, he wants us to share in his glory and majesty.

If that’s not a reason to take a leap into the unknown, into God’s great adventure, then I don’t know what is.