A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields on 27th October 2019
‘Jesus told this parable to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector …’
Or, alternatively …
A Brexiteer and a Remainer went to church to pray …
One of them prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am so right. All my friends think so too, and you know that I have only the best interests of this nation at heart. Above all, O God, I thank you that I am not as those others are, especially that one over there, who should be praying for your forgiveness. For I thank you that I am not economically misguided and self-indulgent. I thank you that I am not forever exaggerating the benefits of my view and misrepresenting the truths of others. I thank you I am not untrustworthy with regard to democracy nor am I nasty to people I see as “different” from myself. Yes, thank you, God, Amen.”
The other one prayed, “O God so much of what others say is true: be merciful to me, a sinner.”
So, these two went to church and prayed those prayers, but which do you think was the Brexiteer and which the Remainer? And, whichever way around you see it, do you think everyone else in church today made the same choice?
Consider all of that in the light of today’s three Bible readings. There are words from the prophet Jeremiah about a nation in turmoil. There is poetry in the psalms, seeking God’s forgiveness for the collective iniquities of the nation. Then there’s that tale, told by Jesus, which features a pharisee and a tax collector; two individuals, but ones who were seen as representative, emblematic of contending, contrasting social groups within the nation of their time.
It’s been a long time since I preached a sermon on Brexit … explicitly, anyway. The last time I preached on Brexit was the 26th of June 2016 i.e. the first Sunday after the referendum, when just over half of those who voted did so to leave the European Union, and almost half voted to remain. And here we are today, more than three years later, on the last Sunday before what should have been the due date, and yet not a lot has changed; at least, not a lot in preaching terms.
Back then, in the sermon I shared with a URC congregation in Edinburgh, I mentioned two things which I had found alarming about the referendum campaign, result, and aftermath. The first thing was that although more than half those who voted did so to leave the European Union, the vast, vast majority of my friends (including my FB friends) voted to remain. Perhaps I needed to get out more. Despite my impeccably working-class roots, by virtue of educational experiences and career choices I have joined the ranks of the respectable, university-educated, middle-class folk under the age of sixty, who just love the EU. In that process I have also lost touch with many of the people most likely to reject their usual political “masters” by voting to leave.
The second thing that worried me, and still does, was the language many of my similarly educated, professional, respectable, often church-going, friends used about the seventeen and a half million people who did not vote the way they did. Apparently, such people were “racists”, “xenophobic”, “deluded”, “fools” and even “numpties”. And here I have limited myself to comments made by URC ministers! In my friendship circle today, the attitudes, and the language used about others have not improved over these last three years. In wider society, if anything, the language has become more extreme, perhaps particularly from those at the extreme end of the “leave” spectrum, using terms like “betrayal” and “traitors”, and even worse.
In such a difficult situation, in these challenging times, when it’s easier to give up, to hide, and to bury your head in the sand, it’s important to hear what word God speaks to us through hearing these words from the bible. Through God’s prophet Jeremiah we see how religious communities such as ours need to be concerned about and involved in the politics of those communities that go by the name of “nations, saying, ‘Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake.’ (14:7)
Now note that it’s ‘our iniquities’, not his or her iniquities, or even ‘my iniquities’ concerning which Jeremiah prophesies: ‘Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake.’ The kingdom of Judah had got itself into a mess in the way its people had behaved. This includes turning its back on its God, and a cavalier attitude in its relationship with its more powerful, neighbouring nations. Now the chickens were coming home to roost; the destruction of the nation itself was close at hand. Here, in Jeremiah, political concerns are part and parcel of the biblical worldview.
And through Psalm 85 we discover it is appropriate for such concerns to feature in the worship life of God’s people. The psalms were written to be said or sung in worship. Today, Christians have different levels of involvement in church life. The activity in which the greatest number of Christians participate, however, is Sunday worship. So what appears in the psalms, such as today’s one, is suitable subject matter for the activity to which all Christians are called.
‘Lord, you were favourable to your land … you forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin … restore us again, O God of our salvation … show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.’ (85:1, 2, 4, 7) This psalm is about the land; the land the nation occupies. It is about the ups and downs of national life, understood as flowing from God’s anger or God’s love, with the balance coming down on the side of God’s steadfast love.
Let’s not be too concerned about the detail of the political situations that lay behind the Jeremiah and Psalm 85. Twenty first century Britain and its relationship with the European Union is not simply the same as that between ancient Israel and its warlike neighbours. What should speak to us though, is the biblical conviction that worship – the setting for the psalms – is an appropriate place to address the political issues of the day.
When the nation’s political life is going wrong – and who think things are all going well – that’s a legitimate concern for people of faith, including Christian faith. Again and again in the Old Testament the word of God from God’s prophets concerns the political life of the nation. A religion that ignores a nation’s political life, that refuses to comment, that avoids getting involved, is quite simply, unbiblical. Religion is never merely a “private matter”. It is also about our life together: ‘Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake.’
Granted, Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector features two individuals and their perceptions of their personal relationship with God, but it still has something to say to us about relations within and between nations today. After all, this was a story about two Jews, fellow members of Jeremiah’s and the Psalmist’s nation, one now under imperial occupation. It took place in the temple, the place where all could gather to address God with their concerns about God’s people. Most tellingly, for my concern about how we think about others, and what we say about others in the context of Brexit, it’s also about how two members of a nation viewed the other.
‘I thank you that I am not like other people,’ says the pharisee, going on to extol his own religious fasting, praying and financial giving. (18:11) Of course, in the context of church life, or political life, there’s nothing wrong with fasting, praying and generous financial giving. There may have been something wrong in that the pharisee is ‘standing by himself’. (18:11) Not only was he convinced of his own rightness, he did not want to associate with those he considered to be in the wrong. The tax collector is described by Luke as ‘standing far-off’ (18:13), a bit like the prodigal son of Luke 15 who went away to ‘a distant country’, but returning, was seen by his loving father, ‘while he was still far off,’ and welcomed back home. (15:13, 20) And in chapter 18 it’s this far-off, repentant tax collector, not the self-satisfied, up-front and centre, religious expert who is justified. (18:14)
It would be all too easy and all too wrong to sum up this sermon as, “be like the tax collector, not like the pharisee”. It’s a little more complicated than that. Actually, what we’re called to is to be righteous in our actions, like the pharisee, but combine that with the humble attitude of the tax collector. And that, I think fits well with the political situation that we inhabit at this time.
So, first, strive to make your political judgements and decisions on the basis of righteousness i.e. living in the way that you believe God would desire in this situation. Second, examine the views and actions of others – your neighbours. Try to discover how they might have come to the view that their judgments and decisions are righteous. Then, third, consider, that both they and you might also have something in common with sinners, like the proud pharisee and the penitent tax collector i.e. that we all fall short of what God wants and requires from God’s people.
Always keep in mind that the people that you disagree with share with you in being God’s children. Maybe you are right in all regards concerning the political life of this nation, but on the other hand, maybe not. If, collectively, we strive to be as righteous as pharisees and as humble as tax collectors we can have a better shared life, as church, as communities, as nations, whatever the political outcome in the days ahead.