Choose life!- Sermon for the Kirking of the Council 2014

The Kirking of the Council is an annual community event when members of the Inverness City Committee of Highland Council, and other community representatives, process to the Old High Church to take part in our Sunday worship.

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 14 September 2014: Year A, The Kirking of the Council
SERMON

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 5:1-11,33-37

Choose life!

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s an story about an English vicar who always seemed to give away his politics by his choices of hymns. If the Tories won an election, the first hymn the following Sunday was something like ‘Now thank we all our God’. If Labour won, it would be ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways’. On one exceptional occasion, the Liberals won the local council election. So it was with great anticipation that his congregation came to church the following Sunday. The first hymn given out was, ‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform’.I hope that wee joke doesn’t send you scurrying to look for clues about my politics in today’s hymn list. Because my politics are not important today. The Kirking is not that sort of occasion. It is a non party-political event, when we come together above all to celebrate what it is we can do together for this city and community. But politics is the way we organise our life together, the space where we can speak about and hear different points of view, because we believe that in a democracy, that’s who we decide things.

I’ve always understood the Kirking as an opportunity for the church and the wider community to show support for all who work for the public good. Whether you are an elected politician, or if you are a public employee, this is a day for us to say thank you. Quite often we, the public, give you a rough ride, but we cannot do without you.

It’s wonderful, too, today, to recognise many others who make a contribution to the common good- volunteers, people who serve the community in a whole range of roles, and so many others. Together you contribute to making the community we all share, and we are grateful, and seek God’s blessing on what you do.

Today we meet, not after an election, but just before a less common type of vote, a referendum. This referendum has engaged the people of Scotland to an extent which I have never experienced before. It has been mostly a good-natured debate. It’s been exciting to see Inverness High Street at weekends, as people visit the two stalls, and ask questions and discuss, and to see how it’s mostly all polite and good-natured. Millions have watched TV debate, but perhaps more significant have been the many smaller gathering in halls and rooms and schools across the country. Politicians often complain that people are apathetic about politics. Well, they should all be delighted that we are experiencing such an outbreak of democracy at this time.

And yet some of this has also led to many people feeling profoundly uneasy. There have been nasty incidents, and sometimes abuse has taken replaced discussion. It’s not just that there are hotheads on both sides who have soured it for the rest of us. I think that there are deeper issues. For this referendum makes us think about questions of identity- are we British, Scottish, one or the other or both?- and questions like that makes us uneasy. (Perhaps that’s why debates about sexuality are so difficult for some people as well).

And now that it looks as though the vote will be very close, there must be concern about what happens afterwards. We are locked into having to say yes or no- as if we could all be divided easily into two different groups. The Moderator of my church’s General Assembly, the Rt. Rev John Chalmers, has said,

If we do not behave respectfully to one another in the run up to the 18th September, what on earth makes people think that we will behave differently on the 19th September? Scotland may be in danger of becoming a divided country for some time to come. Sir John Elvidge, the former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government puts it thus: “A Scotland in which everyone is defined by which side they were on, on a particular day, is not, I think, anyone’s definition of a healthy, modern society”.

In fraught times, a preacher like me can only point to the ancient texts of the Bible for wisdom. And that is what I would like to spend a few minutes doing with you now.

Our first reading came from the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. The background to the reading is that the people of Israel, freed from slavery in Egypt, have now crossed the desert and stand on the threshold of their promised land. Their great leader, Moses, speaks to them. He reminds them that at Mount Sinai, they had received from God the Ten Commandments, a law of God which, if they obey, will keep them happy and prosperous. The decision to obey is, says Moses, a life and death decision. He urges them to choose to follow God’s way- to ‘Choose life!’

It is rare that any of us have to make choices quite so momentous as we have to make on Thursday. As we lift our pencils in the polling booths on Thursday, we will each of us hold the future of our country in our hands. Yet every day we make choices between life and death, choices which may make us more or less happy, choices which will impact on others for good or evil, choice which may or may not to bring us closer to God. An apparently simple decision like which brand of coffee to buy can have moral consequences- we could buy a fair trade brand, a bit dearer perhaps, but the farmer gets a fair price; or we can stick with the company who always buys at the expense of the farmer. Moses says to us today to make decisions in which we choose life.

But what happens when people choose in differently? When different choices are made in all good conscience? How can a community live together when individual makes different choices? In our second reading, St Paul is writing to a church community like that. It is the very early days of Christianity. Christians don’t yet possess magnificent buildings- their churches are simply small groups of folks meeting together in each other’s houses. They are a tiny minority, often including the poorest and least of society, like slaves and slum dwellers. They already had their differences- of nationality, of race, and even religious differences, reflecting that they had come from different religious back grounds.

And so into the church people brought ideas about what religion was really about. We hear that in the church at Rome, some people seemed to be vegetarians. Others wanted to keep certain dates as religious festivals. While others ate what they liked and treated every day the same. All beliefs and practices made in good conscience, but with the potential to cause debate and division.

St Paul calls for a tolerance of these different beliefs and practices: ‘Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. … Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God’.

Where different views, and different practices, are honestly, conscientiously held, then, says Paul, there must be tolerance in the community. Even if your faith allows you to eat what you want, you are not to despise someone whose conscience leads him in another way.

Indref logoI am sure that most people will make up their minds on Thursday in accordance with their conscience. Earlier this year, the Church of Scotland ran a project in preparation for the referendum. Imagining Scotland’s Future brought people together in church halls across Scotland to talk, not about the yes no question of the referendum, but about the values we like to see govern our national life, whatever the outcome this Thursday. Inspired by a model of citizen’s assemblies from Iceland, there were 32 events, in which over 900 people took part (one was held at St Stephen’s Church here in Inverness). The top ten¬†values and topics which came out of this process were:

1. Equality
2. Fairness
3. Justice
4. Education
5. Respect
6. Honesty
7. Community
8. Opportunity
9. Compassion
10. Tolerance

The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, convenor of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council, wrote in the introduction to the report on these community consultations,

What we found was reassuring but not surprising. When asked to imagine Scotland’s future, the ‘big picture’ visions were positive and aspirational. However, what is interesting is that when discussions focused on what would take these aspirations forward, the adversarial frames that dominate political and media discourse were largely absent; instead we found a deep concern for our neighbours, a focus on the local community, the future of children and young people, and a longing for a more peaceful and sustainable world.

At a time when we were being told that economic arguments were what would count, those who took part in Imaging Scotland’s Future said that other matters were more important. It was reported that ‘references to wealth and money… [were] overwhelmingly directed towards rethinking attitudes to money and a need for a redistribution of wealth to narrow the gap between rich and poor in society as a whole, rather than aspirations for personal wealth and individual gain. Ahead of any mentions of money or wealth, however, were other values which focused on faith, peace and the environment’.

St Paul understood that there was something above and beyond the disagreements of the Christians of Rome. He asked them, ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God… So then, each of us will be accountable to God.’ Paul understood that there were things- faith in God- which were more important than squabbles about food or special days. A nation’s constitutional arrangement are very important. But not more important than ensuring that justice is done, that the poor are looked after, and that our community is at peace with itself. On Friday, when we still need to get along with each other, we must not define ourselves by whether we voted yes or no. Reconciliation is not only necessary, it is also possible. As a colleague pointed out to me on Friday, ‘If it’s possible for Martin McGuiness to refer to the late Dr Ian Paisley as “my friend” then it must be possible for “yes” and “no” to find reconciliation’ (Thanks to Rev Blair Robertson).

A few years before St Paul, Jesus of Nazareth, saw himself surrounded by crowds hungry to hear him. He finds a high place, and sits down- for that was how a Jewish rabbi taught. And he begins to teach this crowd- a crowd probably consisting mostly of poor peasant farmers- the kind of people we might nowadays be trying to help by buying fair trade coffee. And he speaks to them, not of the powerful Romans who take their taxes, or of the rich landowners under whose extortionate rents they struggle. He doesn’t speak this time of the puppet kings and the religious leaders who collaborate with the Romans. Instead, he speaks to them, and perhaps about them: to the poor, in goods and money or in spirit, to who mourn, saddened by the life they have to lead, to the meek and the humble and the ordinary folks. He speaks of people who try to live fairly, who are merciful, and pure in heart, and try to make peace; and to the ones whose attempts to choose life in a world which so often seems to bring death has led them to feel persecuted. And Jesus tells them that such people are the blessed of God. For these people, and their struggles, are the one which are important to God.

Later, as Jesus taught on that hillside, he turns to what is, for us, another obscure historical controversy- but at the end of it is an answer which, without, I hope, stretching the point too far, we can hear addressed to us today. Back then, People would make a vow and say, ‘I will do that, by God’, or ‘by Jerusalem’, or ‘by the earth’; and the thought was that the vow became stronger by invoking a sacred idea (God, or Jerusalem (the city of God) or the earth. But Jesus loved honesty and plain speaking. He thought that if you said something, you should mean it. You shouldn’t have to make a vow; a Christian should be known for her integrity. And so he tells his followers, ‘Let your word be Yes, Yes, or No, No’.

However we vote, let our yes be a yes or a no be or a no- a decision made in conscience and integrity, for the greater good and not for any selfish ends. And afterwards, let us work and strive and- if that’s what we do- pray for a better future for all in the years ahead.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo

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