Every episode of Friends has a title beginning The One. You know – The One with the Fake Monica, or The One where Chandler Takes a Bath. Well, today was meant to be a sermon called The One where we Wake up after Brexit. Only it didn’t quite turn out that way. Many of you may have headed away for the spring vacation not quite sure what it would be like returning to the UK after the 29th – different queues at passport control; empty shelves in Tesco. But the date passed and the UK remains a member of the European Union, at least until a week on Friday. We’ve all heard of on-off weddings. But an on-off divorce?
There are a huge range of feelings at play here, some of which pre-date the Brexit Referendum, but which are stronger than ever: anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, gladness, anticipation, weariness, anxiety and fear. Not every encounter between politicians, negotiators, journalists and the public is marked by rancour, but acrimony does seem to be the dominant mood at the moment. In the film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, one character has a bookmark which says Anger Begets Anger. It’s the watchword of the film, and is perhaps the watchword of societies across our world just now. Brexit may or may not mean Brexit, but it does, in a number of ways, mean anger.
This is part of the context for how we live out our faith. Being a Christian is not a withdrawal agreement with the world. You do your public thing, and I’ll get on with my praying, my worship, my virtuous life. Being a Christian can only mean living out our faith in space and time, in St Andrews of 2019, in a time of Brexit, of climate change, of refugees, of food banks, of social media, of mental health issues, of referendums. How then should our faith inform us in the one with Brexit?
Well, sometimes there can be a hint of Providence in the readings assigned for the day in the Lectionary. And today’s readings point unambiguously towards forgiveness, embrace and reconciliation. Let us explore these a little further.
In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, a child messes things up. He wastes his inheritance, is humiliated by his circumstances, and is ashamed of his actions. He knows he has let others down, especially his father. It would have been easier perhaps to stay away, to live swaddled in his guilt, to avoid the risk of rejection. Instead, he turns round, and walks back to his father. And, instead of an angry encounter, his father springs forward to embrace him, before his son gets a word out of his rehearsed apology. There’s a celebration – robe, ring, reception, all signs of reconciliation.
When Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians reflects on the story of Jesus, his life and death, his dying on the cross for his fellow human beings, he sees it as another account of reconciliation. God has reconciled the world to himself through Jesus, making his enemies his friends, embracing those who were hostile to him, not counting all the ways we go wrong, the ways we hurt others and ourselves.
And this, for Paul, has consequences for us who are reconciled. Since we’ve become the friends of God, forgiven and accepted, our role is to share that reconciliation with others. We have that ministry of reconciliation; we are ambassadors of it, entrusted with its message. On one level, this surely means that we tell others that God is forgiving, that God is accepting, that Jesus’ death is for the life of the world, and the life of every person within it.
But on another level, surely it means that our own lives must be lives of reconciliation. In our own families and friendships we should strive for acceptance, forgiveness, not counting trespasses, not keeping a score of wrongs. In our communities, we should accept our differences, disagreeing not with rancour but civility, in the context of a deeper union. In our churches, we should be a community of reconciliation, not a culture of blame and defensiveness but of acceptance and love.
In other words, Christians are called to see others through God’s eyes, as beloved, precious and beautiful. From now on… we regard no one from a human point of view, says Paul. We see them from a divine perspective. We see them as the waiting parent saw an immature child, and embraced them in love. Anger begets anger, but surely reconciliation begets compassion.
Which brings us back to Brexit. I believe we should approach other people in the context of Brexit in the light of God’s reconciliation with the world. But this involves a tension. What if people espouse a view which seems opposed to this vision of compassion, acceptance and reconciliation? What if we encounter people who seem determined to regard others from a selfish point of view? Should our vision of reconciliation not oppose those who find security in borders, in walls, in separation?
This tension was evident in an event which the Chaplaincy organised on Thursday evening. Called a Reflective Gathering over Brexit, it brought together students and staff from different faiths and philosophies of life and in their voices, in song, in poetry and symbol, in sharing food together, we created a space for reflection on who we are as a University community going through Brexit.
There were a number of voices promoting good disagreement, unity in difference, and reconciliation. Here was the contribution of a Muslim:
we each here, and Muslims in particular, have a duty, a role, to be as integral a cog as possible, in forging a new nation. Building a stronger Britain – one which does not hinder its own progress in fighting the natural diversity of its people, but rather one that embraces, celebrates, and thrives from it. One that is equipped to tackle the challenges of our age, one that is sensitive to the difficulties and plights of its members – and ultimately one that knows the importance of responding to confrontation with reconciliation.
And here was a voice from the Co-Existence Initiative:
You have a right to your opinion and to your feelings, but you also have a responsibility to those on the other side of this and every issue to recognize that their disagreeing with you does not make them a bad person. It simply makes them a person who is different from you. Of course, the most important word in that sentence is “person”. We must recognize the humanity we share with those we disagree with. And we owe it to our fellow human beings to try to understand their perspective, even if we do not agree with it.
But one contributor said she had a hard time with that approach. Her Jewish faith convinced her that this is a matter of justice, and that Brexit should be opposed on those grounds:
Brexit forgets that fundamentally, we have all been foreigners, newcomers, oppressed, rejected, sometime in our individual AND national history.
But…the most-repeated Jewish commandment is to love the stranger because the stranger is us. I can’t claim that Jews have always lived up to this commandment. We have fallen far short many times and continue to do so. But from the beginning it is intended to shape the way we view the world and live in it.
A tension then between justice and reconciliation, a tension made explicit in a Quaker contribution:
Take heed, we are advised, take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Love and truth, wisdom and compassion – they can seem to sit uncomfortably one with another, but I have found there is a presence, a ‘now’, in sitting with them side by side that is both eternal and instantaneous, as if we could balance eternity and the moment in our two palms.
Preparing for Thursday, and really thinking then about how as a Christian I should approach other people in the Brexit debate, have made clear to me that the Christian faith is counter-cultural twice over, first in content, and second in form.
In content, the Christian faith does not prize what the world prizes – prosperity, success, achievement, security, safety, comfort. Instead, the message with which we are entrusted is acceptance despite our faults, forgiveness of our wrong-doing, love despite our lack of achievement, a welcome to all in the embrace of God.
And in form, we live out our faith not in strength or brilliance, not through winning arguments, or besting our rivals. Rather the form of our faith, our lives, is the form of Jesus who ate with sinners, the form of the father who looked, welcomed and embraced. Faith is a celebration of God’s love for this mixed-up planet, a celebration all can share, even if the fatted calf made the ultimate sacrifice.
Let me finish with a story. Someone walked into a shop, and, clearly unhinged, took from the shelves all the china plates and cups, bowls and saucers, and smashed them on the floor. People rushed to see the scene and gazed, astonished at this destruction. Hours later, an old woman returned to the shop and with patient skill, began to piece together what had been broken. No-one stopped to watch her.
Christian faith is that mending: patient, low-key, barely seen, but profoundly significant. The mending of our relationship with God, and so the repair of our relationships with others, in our families, friendships, churches and communities, societies and faiths, nations and international relations. As the hour springs forwards, and many feel that as a world we are falling back, let us give thanks for the reconciling love of God, and share that deepest of messages in embrace, for the vulnerable, the stranger, the European, the remainer and the Brexiteer.