Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
It’s been an extraordinary week for Britain. On Thursday many of us cast our vote in the Referendum – whether to stay inside the European Union, or to leave. And by early on Friday morning we learned that the vote went in favour of leaving. As predicted, it was close – nearly 52% for leave, and 48% for remain.
This is a massive change for British society, which will affect us in all areas of life for the years to come – economic, political, social, every way. After over 40 years of being so closely linked with Europe, there is going to be a significant shift in the relationship. The campaign had its very low moments. I watched some of the TV debates and a few of them descended into shouting matches for at least part of the time. And then the week before the Referendum there was the tragic murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, the effect of which was to put the campaign on hold for a whole day while people went into mourning. We continue to remember Jo Cox and her family in our heartfelt thoughts and prayers. But there were also strengths to the campaign. It got people politically engaged in this country on a wider scale than has perhaps happened for some considerable time, and this was reflected in the high turn-out to vote last Thursday.
Whatever way we voted, whether to remain or to leave, or whether we were undecided – we now have a result. Lots of uncertainty about the future, but a result nonetheless. And the Queen will have her 13th Prime Minister to greet by the autumn. The many who voted to remain may still be reeling from a sense of shock and disappointment, even anger and disbelief.
You may think that Religious Communities such as the one I belong to are a far cry from an EU Referendum. But there has been a sentence from my Community’s Rule of Life that has been very much in my mind since Friday morning:
“Once the Chapter has made a decision it is my duty to uphold the decision, whatever my own views may have been”.
The EU campaign was fought hard and long and in many aspects was deeply divisive. And this division has been demonstrated in the closeness of the result. But the decision has been made. And rather in the spirit of my Community’s Rule of Life, I hope and pray that up and down our country people will put the bitterness and wrangling behind them and somehow work together to make the best possible way ahead, given the decision. It’s right that people have passionate views, and it’s right and healthy that people have passionately opposing views. But there comes a point when, despite deep and serious differences, people have to learn to develop the best way of living and working together. After all, those of us who are British are no more British than we were before Friday, and equally those of us who are therefore also European are still just as much European as before. The vote hasn’t changed the intrinsic facts. But it obviously has made a marked difference in terms of future economic and political relations.
In his letter to the Galatians that we had for our second reading for today, St Paul describes how as he puts it the works of the flesh are opposed to the fruit of the Spirit. Some words from his list of the works of the flesh are worryingly evocative of certain aspects of the EU campaign –
“enmities, strife…anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…”
There is nothing new under the sun. But such a description is not the way forward. Rather, we need to take heed to Paul’s list of the contrasting fruit of the Spirit, such as:
“love, ..peace, patience…gentleness, and self-control”.
Certainly there could have been a good bit more gentleness and self-control in some of those TV debates.
Some people prefer to keep religion and politics separate. But we can’t keep them separate. Look at those Old Testament prophets – they were forever speaking out on issues of social justice. And St John the Baptist, the feast of whose birth we kept on Friday, literally lost his head for speaking out the truth boldly and fearlessly. And it is right for us too to speak out when we encounter the evils of social injustice, or indeed injustice of any kind. But as Christians, the way we do it is so important – not with violence, not with hatred and bitterness, but with love, tolerance and compassion.
For those who voted remain it may feel tempting to be despondent and even despairing. But that, at least spiritually speaking, would be a mistake. Our first reading for today can help us. It is about the great prophet Elijah, taken from the first book of Kings. Elijah was a prophet mighty in word and deed. He had recently had a great double triumph. He had shown up very dramatically the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal were unable to call down fire from heaven – whereas Elijah could do so. And when there was a drought, Elijah was able to prophesy the coming of the rain. Elijah must have been on cloud 9. Twice in succession God had confirmed the authenticity of his prophetic powers in a very dramatic and undeniable manner.
But Elijah had his enemies, notably Jezebel. And when Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, Elijah is fearfully intimidated and runs away. He flees to Mount Carmel. Elijah is thoroughly downcast and depressed and he will not eat. And then, in the form of a still, small voice, he hears God asking the question,
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And then we come to our first reading for today, when God makes it clear that God still has tasks for Elijah to perform. The moral of the story? The outlook may look grim, but we still have to keep going, and give of our best.
Similarly, our gospel for today from Luke shows Jesus remaining resolute despite whatever difficulties may lie ahead. The passage is the beginning of what is often referred to as Luke’s “travel narrative” in which Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus knows that suffering and a cruel death await him in Jerusalem, but that does not stop him making the journey. His disciples want to call down fire from heaven to consume those who refuse to welcome Jesus. But Jesus will have none of it. His way is not one of violence.
Then Jesus encounters those who will follow him conditionally, such as saying farewell to their family first. But Jesus will have none of that either. Instead he sternly warns:
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”.
It’s strong stuff, and sometimes the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels can seem bafflingly hard to take. What we have to remember here is that all Jesus’ words, however hard, are motivated by love. For Jesus there is an urgency about living out the Kingdom of God and its values in the here and now.
May we too in our thoughts, words and deeds recognise the urgency of such a call. And it is a call to be lived out on a daily basis. The gospel challenge to us all is that each day we seek life, not death in our choices – and that each day we strive to live in the way of love, not fear or hatred. Let us pray God that the Spirit may enable us so to live, and help build up the Kingdom of God among us.