Last Sunday we were thinking about the celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, and also looking at 2 passages from the Bible- one in Luke chapter 7 verse 36- 8:3 and the other in Galatians 2:15-21. As well as this I wanted to respond to some questions I’d been asked about the referendum, but without telling people which box to tick… so this is what I ended up writing. If you prefer to listen, go here.
In the days since last Sunday I’ve been reading and thinking more, and have concluded that I’m going to write a post about which way I’m choosing to vote and how I’ve come to that conclusion… hopefully that will be up tomorrow.
So, last weekend:
Very often when we look at someone else’s position in life, we see their rights and privileges, but when we look to our own lives, we see our responsibilities and burdens- we look at the Queen and we see palaces, the largest personal fortune in the country and more outfits than you can count… we don’t see the 40hr working week of a 90yr old pensioner, the lack of privacy for someone who is not a natural extrovert, the framework of ‘how things must be done’ that hold her in place as much as allow her to influence others. We look at our own lives and see the hard work, the health and financial worries, we feel that no one listens to us and that we deserve more… how rarely do we consider the simple truths that having spare change in your pocket and taps with clean water, access to a car and a roof over our heads puts us in the top 20% of the richest and most privileged people in the world. The fact that we live in a society where men and women have the vote without having to prove their ‘right’ to vote, where sexism and racism are recognised as problems even though they still exist… that we have so much time that most of us can choose between leisure activities rather than simply work then sleep…
The Bible passages that we have heard this morning both speak of privilege, and of what it means to forget what that word means…
The Jews of Paul’s time understood themselves as being God’s chosen people- on a good day that meant to be chosen to bring God’s blessing to the whole world, in a world where everyone had their own gods and it was safest to worship them all, to proclaim through their words and lives that there is one God who is worthy of worship, and all others are nothing compared to him. On a good day. On a bad day that knowledge turned to arrogance and the desire for serving God turned to an abhorrence of the rest of the world- looking down on everyone who wasn’t one of ‘us’… As Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner implied- If Jesus knew what sort of a woman was washing his feet he wouldn’t let her touch him… Jesus’ response highlights the risk that faces all of us who have any kind of privilege- that we can forget what we have been given, and that it has usually come to us undeserved- God chose the people of Israel, not the other way around, and not because of what they already were, but because of what God would help them become… and Jesus could, and so frequently did as we see here, choose to go beyond that- to extend the kingdom of God into the lives of people he met with the words ‘your sins are forgiven’. If we don’t recognise the need we all have for forgiveness we can easily forget what a wonderful gift that was for her, and what a wonderful gift it is for us. Similarly an ‘accident of birth’ makes one person royalty while another is a refugee. This month many people are taking part in celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, while a great amount of energy is also being spent discussing the forthcoming referendum, and in the background, all the while, the homeless are struggling to carry on in our own nations and refugees are risking their lives to cross borders and the sea. Life as a refugee is worth the risk- not because our benefits are so great but because what they have left is so bad. A life of faith is worth it, not because every single day is paradise but because life without God is meaningless. [BT only- As her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II once said- ‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.’ There are some here who are great lovers of the Queen and the Royal Family, others are less so- I’m not trying to cause offense or convert you to a different viewpoint on the Queen, but she does seem to stand as someone who has so much, and uses it for good. She could quite easily have been a caricature queen- something ridiculous in a modern age. But because of how she has held herself, how she has been herself her life and her faith have been taken seriously.]
Our passage from Galatians takes up this point- We are justified- made right with God, by our faith, not by our birthright… its not about where you’re born but how you live- Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles- the one group born with a sense that they are God’s people, the other discovering that they can become God’s children. One group justified by their adherence to the laws that have come down through their culture- the laws of Moses given to him by God and developed over the years into a full legal system that could answer every question of what was right or wrong, the other justified by their adherence to Christ Jesus and him alone.
This passage within Galatians has parallels in Romans, where Paul similarly argues that the law doesn’t bring salvation or righteousness, but an awareness of sin… a structure isn’t necessarily the solution to a problem but is a first step towards finding a solution. The structure helps, as a means to an end, but its not the end in itself. Realising that we are still sinners while we are seeking to be justified in Christ- that’s another way of saying ‘doing our best but still messing up’, and Paul, in this passage is quite clear that a)that doesn’t mean sin is ok, but equally b)that there is still grace and forgiveness… we are seeking this, we’ve not yet arrived… the church and all of us within it, is not yet perfect… but it is the means that God has chosen to share the message of his grace and love with the world.
I’ve been asked by several people in our church and elsewhere to share some reflections on the approaching referendum. And I’ve been quite hesitant to do so, because I believe quite strongly in the responsibility and the privilege of the democratic process- we each have the right to make our own decision, to come to our own conclusion, and to vote as we choose. But my preparation for today, and the amount of material I read on both sides of the argument has brought me to the point where I feel it is right for me to speak on this. I do not want to tell you how to vote, but maybe to encourage you in how to think about this, as Christians, as people who take our privilege and our responsibility seriously. Some of us are staunchly committed to voting one way or another on 23rd June, I don’t want to cause offense to any of you. The church nationally has no public stance- the Archbishop of York has made his intention clear, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, though commenting strongly on the comments of Nigel Farage has refused to say whether he’ll vote in or out (note: in between my writing and preaching this, he publicly stated his intention to vote remain). In reality this is no different from how we, as Christians, should approach any significant decision- whether something in our own lives or in the shared life of our community and nation. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, our understanding of the world is changed- compassion for the weak, kindness to strangers, and love for the natural environment are not peripheral interests but guiding principles… they are how we live out the gospel in our daily lives and so they should inform our decisions. So we need to ask ourselves how does my vote show compassion for the week, kindness to strangers and love for the natural environment… and, and this is the big question… how do I know that?
There’s been a lot of talk about the economy and finance… both sides making similar claims… and both missing the point- Money is not everything.
There’s been people weighing in with their views, claiming expert knowledge one way or another… and we need to be wise to the fact that politicians and businesses always have a vested interest.
There’s been pretty pictures and lies, damn lies and statistics… we know that a picture and a graph can be made to say anything.
But, there is one thing on which I am certain- we have this responsibility. We have the privilege of making this decision. And we have to make it. If we don’t, others will, and we will be bound by their decision, for good or ill.
When you leave today you’ll probably remember the last few minutes more than the whole of the rest of this service… if I’ve made you think about how you vote, then I’m happy, but that pales into insignificance next to the decision, the vote, that we each of us make when we respond to Jesus- when we become made right with God by faith in him- when we hear those words ‘your sins are forgiven’ and know that they are said for us.