St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 5 (26.06.2016)

Tony Dickinson

There is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”. It’s a curse, because the times that are interesting to subsequent generations tend to be pretty awful for those who live through them. Think for a moment about our current fascination with the various centenaries connected with the First World War, and then remember the hard-won wisdom of Harry Patch and the others who lived to bear testimony in our age to the horrors of that war. Think, too, about the result of Thursday’s referendum. We are certainly living in “interesting times” now.

I don’t intend to go into the rights and wrongs of the referendum decision, except to note that it revealed a deeply divided nation, a poisonous distrust of “politics as normal” and the political establishment, and that it will mean a lengthy period of unravelling the fabric, not only of our current relationship with our neighbours on the mainland, but possibly of the whole European project and even of the United Kingdom, with Scotland (very probably) seeking a second referendum on independence and Northern Ireland (rather less probably) deciding that its future lies more comfortably in a borderless relationship with the Republic. “Interesting times” indeed.

So what, in these interesting times, are we to do? Our readings today suggest a way forward for those who are Christian disciples – by which I don’t mean calling down fire from heaven as James and John wanted to. Jesus’ actions suggest that, if you meet rejection, just move on. We are called not to entrench ourselves in fixed positions, but to follow Jesus.

Some of you may have read Bishop Colin’s thoughtful response to the referendum result, which I shared on the “Friends of St Francis” Facebook page on Friday. In it, he wrote, “My hope is that – whether you voted to leave or to remain – you will pray for our leaders and the important decisions they will have to make in the coming weeks, and pray particularly for a spirit of co-operation between those who see themselves as winners or losers today.” That sound advice echoes the wisdom of John Wesley, who recorded in his Journal for 3rd October 1774:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,

“1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:

“2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And,

“3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

That is wisdom of which, I fancy, St Paul would have approved, given his warning to the Christians of Galatia in our second reading, “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

But, and it is a huge “but”, following Jesus, living by the Spirit, means being aware of the darkness, what St Paul calls “the works of the flesh” – most of which, you will notice, have much more to do with our minds than with our bodies. They’re about being in control, about “winning at all costs”, about causing or perpetuating division. Resisting those “works of the flesh” is part of our work, if we live by the Spirit, and I suspect that we will be called upon to do so increasingly in the months and years ahead as we disengage from the European Union.

There is no point in resisting the vote, of course; that would be foolish and pointless: but we do need to be alert to the sheer nastiness that is lurking in the darker shadows behind the bonhomous Boris Johnson and the genial Michael Gove and which broke cover ten days ago to murder Jo Cox. It’s a nastiness that will have been emboldened by the vote to leave and encouraged by the cheers for that vote which have been coming from far right parties across the EU. It’s a nastiness that is here in Wycombe. I learned from an occasional member of our congregation, a young mum of mixed race, that when she went to vote on Thursday evening she was told by another voter not to bother because “you lot” will be out tomorrow. “’You lot’ will be out tomorrow”. Now, she was born in this country to a mother also born in this country, but the colour of her skin means that she is marked out as “other”, probably (in the mind of the person who confronted her) one of that long trail of people with dark skins who appeared in the infamous “breaking point” poster. It left her, she told me, feeling “very scared and upset”.

As fellow-Christians we need, as the Americans say, to “have one another’s backs”: but our concern needs to extend much wider than that. Eighty years ago Martin Niemöller, a much-decorated war-hero turned Lutheran pastor, was imprisoned by the Nazis because of his involvement in the “Church Struggle” against the regime. Unlike some of his colleagues, he survived, reaching the ripe age of ninety-two, and in the period after the Second World War he became an inspirational figure to many Christians around the world. But he carried with him a deep sense of guilt for what had happened in Germany in the 1930s and for the Churches’ complicity in the regime’s criminal acts. One saying of his from the late 1940s still resonates today and a version of it is displayed in the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem:

“First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

So let us all – whichever way we voted on Thursday – follow the wisdom of Bishop Colin and of John Wesley, and “take care [our] spirits [are] not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” But let us equally follow the courage of Pastor Niemöller and be prepared to speak out – and to act – whenever we see people marginalised, or victimised, or demonised, whether they are “people of colour”, to use the American phrase, or Muslims, or migrants or LGBTQ. Above all, let us live mindful that we are called to follow Jesus, “the Son of Man [who] has nowhere to lay his head”, travelling light, looking to God’s future, and proclaiming in action and word the coming kingdom of God, who welcomes all people into citizenship and whose borders remain open for ever, long after the EU has become a forgotten dream and the United Kingdom is no more. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…