Thursday, June 27, 2019

Three year after the Brexit vote...

Luke 9. 51-62 and Galations 5.1 & 13-25

Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place.  It astounds me how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.  Today, we find ourselves three years on from the historic referendum on exiting the European Union.  And just as they did, three years ago, today's Scriptures speak powerfully into our situation and context.

Take, for example, the today’s set Psalm for Evening Prayer – Psalm 60 – which we will read on the Rectory lawn this afternoon after our ‘Strawberry Tea’.   Bring the current divided state of UK politics to mind, and then listen to these words:
“O God, thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad.”  (vs 1)
“Thou hast moved the land, and divided it:  heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh (vs 2)
“Hast thou not cast us out, O God?” (vs 10)
“O be thou our help in trouble:  for vain is the help of man” (vs 11)

It should not surprise us, of course, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  The key question on such an anniversary as this, is ‘what is God saying to us, through the Scriptures, about the state of our nation?’

For this, we need always to take account of those three important words that I’ve told you about before…the three words which should always be applied to any analysis of Scripture:  context, context, context!

First we must ask ourselves – what is the context in which an original story was written?  What was going on in history at that time?

Secondly, we need to ask ‘what was the context of the writer of that scripture?’  What did the writer understand the original story to mean?  Why did they chose to include it?

And thirdly, we need to think about our own context, into which the Scripture is read.  ‘What does this Scripture say to us, here today?’

So, let’s apply these three questions to the Gospel reading that we’ve just heard:

First, the context of the story itself.  It takes place at that moment when Jesus turns aside from his teaching ministry, and ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’.  In doing so, he passes through a Samaritan area.  The Samaritans were a sect within Judaism, made up of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  They were, to the people of Jerusalem, ‘foreigners’.  As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many conventional Jews - even Jesus’ own disciples.  When the Samaritans fail to give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John ask Jesus whether they should call down ‘fire from heaven’ to consume them!  But Jesus rebukes his disciples.  They are not thinking straight.  They are forgetting that Jesus himself used Samaritans to illustrate an answer to the vital question ‘ who is my neighbour?’.

As one might expect, that is entirely within consistent with the rest of Scripture – especially the teachings about how aliens and foreigners should be treated by the people of God. As far back in history as the book of Leviticus instructed the people of God as follows:
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”.(Lev.19.34).  There is even a strong argument that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was original told to encourage hospitality to strangers, and that it had nothing at all to do with homosexuality.  But that's a topic for another day!

Secondly, we must ask about the context of the writer of this Gospel.  Tradition tells us that Luke was a follower of St Paul.  He was writing at a time when the new band of Christians were beginning to feel the iron boot of Rome on their necks.  They were hiding from persecution, and fearful of their status as religious strangers in a strange land.  So Luke writes to those who are experiencing the poverty of being second or third class citizens in a European super-state, run not from Brussels, but Rome.

Luke encourages them, by reminding them of Jesus’ priority for the poor and the downcast, for the Samaritan and the stranger.  And then, in the second part of the reading – he encourages them to be steadfast in their faith.  He reminds them who have no security, no home, that Jesus himself lived in just the same way for the sake of the Kingdom.  ‘Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.  (Lk 9.58)

Then, the third context, what about our situation…the context into which this Scripture is read today?  Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has - at least partly - once again driven a nation into division.  There were many intelligent and thoughtful reasons why many people voted for Brexit.  Many were attracted by the idea of bringing back control of our laws from a distant super-state, and from unelected officials.  Others leave-voters understandably thought they could trust the promise on the side of the famous red bus, that £350 million a week would be ploughed into our ailing National Health Service.  

But, alongside those perfectly legitimate aspirations, there was also a substantial strand of those who cited the influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe. We saw them, on our televisions, and heard them on our radios.  Some of the politicians played up to this - not least the infamous poster showing a stream of mainly Arab faces queuing to cross a border. 

Being afraid of the impact of uncontrolled immigration doesn't make you a fact, it may well denote you as an economist, when the problems of housing, schooling and healthcare are factored in.  But pointing the finger at foreigners is the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book.  If we can blame foreigners for our failure to build new homes, hospitals and schools, then we can keep on subsidising big businesses with the lowest corporation tax in the world, while hiding our own wealth in off-shore tax havens, and no-one will notice.

The other modern context into which this Scripture speaks is the culture of wealth.  The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world.  If you have the certainty of a decent wage or pension or benefit payment at the end of every month, you are already more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population.  And yet, at every turn in the EU Referendum, politicians on both sides of the debate consistently focused their arguments on one point: the claim that if we vote for their side, we will be better off.

Into that context, Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Lk.9.58).  And he points us to a reality that is greater and more magnificent that anything human beings can conjure…the coming reality of the Kingdom of God.

We know what the Kingdom will be like – because Jesus has told us.  It will be a kingdom in which foreigners are loved as much as we love ourselves.  It’s a kingdom in which the humble and the poor will be blessed.  It will be a kingdom, filled by the Spirit, in which St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit will be known:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Sadly, we have seen little enough of these things in the last three years.  Instead, as I warned precisely three years ago, we have seen qualities from St Paul’s other list…the ‘works of the flesh’:  enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.

“O be thou our help in trouble [O God]:  for vain is the help of man” (Psalm 60.11)

So, finally, what is our calling in this circumstance.  How are we to respond to recent events?  How are we to be agents of the Kingdom in a divided a fractured nation?

Through the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to us across time:  ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.  You and I are called to keep on declaring the coming of the Kingdom.  In the face of all opposition, all hatred, all dissension and division.  

In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain or protect, we hold up a cross.  We hold up the supreme example of a God who pours himself out in sacrifice for the good of all.  We speak not of what we can gain, but of how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity. 

And with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we can be a place where those who voted to remain can find common cause, friendship and love with those who voted to leave.  In the face of a divided nation, the church continues to welcome all, from every political viewpoint, to gather in love around the Table of our Lord.


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