Thank you all for suggestions and comments on the first draft of Sunday’s sermon following the EU referendum, “A little disagreement”. This is the tweaked version of the sermon which I am taking to church in the morning.
Today’s Gospel story is about a journey. Jesus and the disciples are on the way to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was in an area called Judaea. Jesus was setting off from Galilee, which was another territory. There were two routes to go from Galilee to Jerusalem, the quick and hazardous way or the slow, safe way. In between Galilee and Judaea was Samaria. For reasons going way way back, the people of Judah hated the Samaritans, and the hate was mutual.
Jesus and the disciples decide to take the route via Samaria, the difficult road. Jesus sends some of the disciples on ahead to fix up a place to stay overnight and organise some food. However, the village won’t take them in. Because Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, they are not welcome.
The disciples are offended by this response. They want to get their own back, so they think they can call down fire and brimstone to destroy the village.
When I hear a passage from the Bible, I want to know where we are in the story, taking account of what is going on around us. So when I read this on Friday knowing the outcome of Thursday’s referendum vote, I was wondering what this story meant for us. As you know, Gateshead voted 56.8% in favour of Brexit.
So let’s look at the different characters in the story and see what they have to say about us.
Jesus and the disciples are crossing territory in which they don’t belong and where they know that relations could be tricky. It feels to me like we are going into unknown territory. It won’t be like going back 40 years to before we joined the EU. The world is a different place. We are going to have to unravel all the rules that bind us together. And that’s not going to be easy.
There is a way in which we are like the villagers. We have rejected our membership of and partnership with the European Union, which was set up after the Second World War as a way of working together to bring peace to Europe and to the world. As a country, we said to Europe, “we want to go it alone. We don’t need you.”
One of the reasons why some people voted to Leave was because of their fears around immigration – on the one hand, it was around people coming to Britain from Eastern Europe looking for work, and often doing the work that British people just wouldn’t do. On the other hand, it was also about refugees coming from places of war and violence. So some people might interpret the outcome of the referendum as saying to all these people, “you are not welcome here!” In fact, there were stories yesterday about cards being put through the doors of Polish people in Huntingdon saying “Leave the EU. No more Polish vermin.” And in Newcastle, the EDL had a poste proclaiming “Stop immigration. Start repatriation.” On Friday, graffiti was painted in Durham, “Jo Cox deserved it. Durham is next.” This behaviour is absolutely appalling and must be condemned.
Actually, I think a key reason for people choosing Leave is that they had borne the brunt of the recession and the austerity measures and needed someone to blame. The vote was a protest against politics in general. That became very clear yesterday – amongst people who are now being called the Bregrets, who said they voted leave, not because they really wanted to leave, but as a protest vote, and they were shocked that Leave was the outcome.
In the north east, and here in Gateshead, we have a lot to be thankful for because of all the benefits we have received from the EU, including the hundreds of thousands of pounds given to St Chad’s Community Project in the early years. More recently, Gateshead College has been given nearly £11m. The Sage and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge also came about because of money from the EU. The Angel of the North got £150,000 from the EU of the £800,000 it cost to install. However, that kind of funding will not be available to us in the future, so no more big projects.
The decision has been taken. We have to live with the consequences. And it’s not going to be easy. There is likely to be a huge cost to individuals, to businesses, to our country. And in my experience, it is those who are already struggling who will be hit hardest.
The disciples wanted to call down fire on the villagers. That was their immediate response, to turn to hate and violence. It is a warning to us, that we mustn’t go down that track. We mustn’t blame individuals for the way they voted. Where people voted in a different way from you, accept that they had good reasons for doing that.
And over the next few weeks and months, we will see how different groups will respond to the outcome of the election.
How will our EU partners respond to the rejection of framework in which we work together? Will they call down fire upon our heads in the way they treat us, like the disciples wanted to do? If they did, you could understand it. Some EU politicians have already said that they want the UK out of the EU as soon as possible, and that Out means OUT. It really matters how we handle the complicated cutting of all kind of political and economic ties with the EU.
In Britain, there will be huge turmoil for some time. A new Prime Minister is now required. The financial after-shocks will need to be steadied. There is a huge debate about the lies that were very much part of the Brexit campaign – for example that there would be loads of money for the NHS. And now Boris and Farage are claiming they never said that. I heard a political journalist on the radio defending Boris Johnson by saying that “the people want to be lied to”.
In the story, the disciples were angry with the villagers. They felt hurt and rejected, just as some people in Europe feel hurt and rejected. They were all for calling down fire and destruction. Jesus rebukes the disciples for wanting to get their own back. Destroying a whole village is not an appropriate or gracious answer. We all need to be gracious. We are in the position we are in.
It may be OK. I pray that it will be OK in the end, and that things will settle down. But it will take time.
The Gospel story is one little incident on the journey to Jerusalem. It comes at a point in the Gospel where Jesus has already told his followers twice that he is going to be betrayed, to suffer, be killed and then rise again, and the disciples are struggling to come to terms with that. They don’t believe it, quite frankly; they don’t want to believe it. Jesus knows that Jerusalem is where it’s all going to come to a head. Jerusalem is the place of suffering and crucifixion. There will be only one outcome to the story. Suffering and death. But that will lead to the final transformation – resurrection.
There will be trouble ahead, as the song goes. We will have to face the consequences of the vote, and it won’t be plain sailing. It means massive change. What I am afraid of is that the people who will bear the brunt of the transition are the people of Bensham and Teams, who don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of opportunities, many who are dependent on benefits, many suffer poor health. We pray that the dance of transformation, of new life, is further down the line.