Sunday, 26 June 2016

After the EU Referendum - What Next?

I don't often share my sermons here but just occasionally, I choose to.  Here are my thoughts shared in the three churches today:

This week has seen a momentous decision taken by the British public as the vote to leave the European Union secured 52% while the vote to remain secured 48%.  The turnout of voters was among the highest in recent history with 72.2% of eligible voters casting a ballot.  Within hours the Prime Minister had tendered his resignation and opinions were being freely exchanged across television screens, newspapers, social media and in conversations wherever I went.

This morning, I’m not going to tell you which way I voted and nor am I going to ask which way you voted.  The reason for that isn’t any great secret but the fact of who voted which way isn’t the subject I wish to linger on today – the political pundits are doing rather a lot of that.  What I am more interested in is the question of what happens next?   How do we respond both to the vote itself and to those around us as we discuss the result?

On Friday morning as I woke up to the news of the vote to leave, I logged onto Facebook as I often do.  There, I was confronted by some friends who were absolutely jubilant, and others who were absolutely heartbroken.   That in itself is perhaps understandable because this decision stirred big emotions and has the potential for huge changes in our nation; but what I saw next was very worrying.  As the news spread, I saw battle lines being drawn:  those who had voted to leave were repeatedly being described as selfish, racist, xenophobic, manipulated by the media and responsible for the imminent downfall of Great Britain.  Then I saw those who had voted to remain being described as sore losers, alarmists, out of touch, the political elite, scare-mongerers, and unwilling to listen to the majority.  It was in many ways like watching a pair of cats fight, as usually good, kind, people rolled over and over in the dirt spitting, snarling and yowling as the fur flew and as each one yelped in pain but neither was willing to walk away from the fight.

And as someone who had a vote, who used her vote and who is also an immigrant to this great nation, I began to wonder what we were doing to one another - not because of the result itself, but in how we are treating one another, how we are speaking to and about one another and how, or indeed if, our faith is included in the mix.

In our Epistle reading today, St Paul speaks of some huge concepts starting with slavery and freedom. He argues that our faith in Christ means we have been set free from the burdens of a rigid law that had become impossible to fulfil, but our freedom is not to be used as an opportunity to be self-indulgent, but rather to serve one another in love.  He says:  “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.  If however you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

 I wonder, at the moment, are we loving our neighbours just as much as we love ourselves?  Well, those of our neighbours who took the same political position as we did are probably fairly easy to love but what about those neighbours who took the opposite view?  I wonder how easy you find it to love them…or does it seem easier to bite and devour one another with your opposing views and through the exchange of harsh words?

 There were many harsh words exchanged on both sides of the argument over the two months leading up to the referendum.  The debate was harsh, the lines were drawn in black and white, the question made so simple that it seemed there could only be winners and losers.  And I wonder if the very tone of the debate contributed to the result itself?  When we dig our heels in, in any argument, and become determined that we are 100% right then this automatically means that those on the other side must be 100% wrong.  And what happens next is that we stop listening.  We vilify other people in our families, in our churches and in our communities and we paint them as “bad people” because they do not agree with us.  And that’s the point when both communication and communities start to break down.  We have drawn our battle lines and we find ourselves unable to cross them to see the humanity of those on the other side.  Civil wars have been triggered over less.

St Paul goes on to say that as Christians, we should “live by the Spirit, and not gratify the desires of the flesh.”  So first, let’s look at some of those things he puts into the category of “flesh” – enmity, strife, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions.  These are the things that leave people drawing battle lines in the sand based on who is right and who is wrong and these are the things that come naturally when we are upset, disappointed or hurt and these are also the things that tear communities, families and churches apart.  And this is why St Paul warned us against them.  It is very tempting to allow these things to rule our hearts and our lives but if we do, then we are living in the flesh and we are choosing slavery.

By contrast, Paul then moves to the flip side because he doesn’t stop with a long list of what we shouldn’t do, he continues on to tell how we can begin to rebuild, how we can find our way back to one another, how we can heal the divisions among us.  Paul says, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  There is no law against these things.”

Some of you here today will be deeply saddened by the results of this vote, you will be worried about what happens next and you may even feel angry with those who voted to leave.  Some of you here today will be filled with joy at the result of this vote; you will see this as a good thing and will be looking forward to the next steps.  And each one of you will be absolutely convinced that your position is the right one.  But as much as you had a choice to make this past Thursday, you also have a choice to make in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.  Will you draw battle lines between one another with anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions and choose to live in the slavery of the flesh?  Or will you choose to find a way to live with one another by demonstrating patience, kindness, generosity and self-control and so allow the Spirit to live in you and flow out through you?

The process of reconciliation when peoples and a country are divided is hard, it can be painful but the very steps involve being willing to truly and deeply listen to one another:  So if you voted to remain, then I would encourage you now to truly listen to the reasons why those who voted to leave did so, even if that’s hard and even if you disagree.  And if you voted to leave, then I would also encourage you to truly listen to the reasons why those who voted to remain did so, even if that’s hard and even if you disagree.  Listening to one another’s deep and heartfelt experience is not easy but it’s the only way we can now move forward and work together because if we want to live by the Spirit, then we must also allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit.

May those of you who hurt be comforted.  May those of you who rejoice be blessed.  And may we all find the strength to listen to each other and work together on the next steps.  Amen. 

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