Pentecost 15 After the Scottish Referendum 21 September 2014
After years of campaigning on both sides the votes have been cast and counted – and the result has been declared. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club has voted in favour of allowing women members for the first time in its 260-year history!
Next weekend Strictly Come Dancing begins its new season and each week the general public will vote for their favourite dancers, and each Sunday evening the bottom two will have to face the dance-off. The four panel members will cast their votes and one pair will leave the show.
Voting has become more and more a part of our lives but this week we have taken part in probably the most important and significant vote ever. And having done so, this morning we probably come to church in one of two states: either we are pleased and relieved about the referendum result or we are depressed and pretty miserable. It falls to me this morning to try and offer some thoughts on the way forward from here. Indeed, I decided to write this sermon before Thursday so that in my prayerful reflection I could be as neutral as possible even though, like you, I voted for one of the two options! The struggle for me has been discerning what to say without it seeming trite or clichéd?
The people of Scotland have been pretty engaged these past several weeks with meetings in small halls and large venues the length and breadth of the country. We have been involved in a way no Scottish electorate has ever been involved before. A total of 4.2m people registered to vote out of a population of 5.2m. It’s been a stunning level of engagement and here in East Dunbartonshire there was a massive 91% turnout.
My overseas friends have remarked how our discussions and debates have not been accompanied by riots in the streets or towns being bombed – as in the Ukraine or the Middle East.
There have been no assassinations and no allegations of ballot rigging. People around the world are astonished at how amiable and civilised our independence debate has been. That is something I think all of us can be proud of. With a very few exceptions the people of Scotland have behaved in a very mature, measured and peaceful way and that is a significant witness in a world where political change often comes out of the barrel of a gun.
Our congregation here at St James’ is much like every other in Scotland – some of us have voted one way while some of us have voted the other. But that is no different from a general election where, again, members of congregations vote for different candidates and parties. We are a plural society and we worship in a church that is plural – a church that is inclusive of a wide range of political and social opinions.
But tomorrow begins today. The head tells us that the decision has been made and we now need to move on – but where do we go from here, and how do we deal with our emotions especially if we are feeling hurt or despondent? But for some of us the heart is telling us this is not the right time to move on. We have to cope with feelings that are simply too raw.
Referendums are not mentioned in the Bible. People in those days were subject to the powers that be whether it was a Jewish king or a Roman emperor. People two thousand years ago were subjects without rights. We are different. We live in different times. We are citizens and as such we are part of the decision-making process in the life of our country.
But the Bible does have a great deal to say about moments of crisis, moments of great import, moments of elation as well as moments of anxiety and fear.
The psalmist says in Psalm 6: My soul is in deep anguish. How long, O Lord, how long? Or in Psalm 31: Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress. Half the nation will be feeling some anguish, some distress today, while the other half will be relieved and pretty chipper! Because of the promises of extra powers for Scotland that have been made we stand at the beginning of something new without quite knowing what it will be.
That is just how Joshua felt on the death of Moses long ago. After wandering in the wilderness the tribes of Israel were on the cusp of a new beginning as Joshua took over the leadership of the Hebrew tribes after the death of Moses.
For years Moses had towered over the lives of the Hebrews. He argued with Pharaoh and he led the twelve tribes out of Egypt into what was supposed to be the Promised Land. After they had crossed the Red Sea, and having escaped the Egyptian army pursuing them, there was no promised land to be seen anywhere. Instead, they found themselves wandering around in a desert – it was hot, it was arid and it was unwelcoming. So the people murmured against him. This is not what they had expected when they left Egypt. You might say that when they voted with their feet to follow Moses the aftermath of that decision hit them hard. Moses had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey and we get this, they said, as they looked across the barren land and the mirages in the distance.
For forty years – a long period of time – the people moved from oasis to oasis, trying to keep their goats and sheep alive, while they waited for the Promised Land supposedly flowing with milk and honey. And they waited and they wandered and the elderly died while babies were born and young children grew up. And then one day Moses comes up against the River Jordan, he climbs Mount Nebo opposite the settlement of Jericho and looks across the valley and says, ‘Yes, this is it. We’ve arrived’.
Then he died.
He died on the cusp of entering the Promised Land!
His eye was not dim, and his energy levels had not abated, we are told. He was fit and healthy and he wanted to lead the people on – but he died. As we all know, death does not make an appointment. Too often it comes without any warning at all.
So what were the people of Israel going to do encamped as they were by the Jordan river? Moses had laid his hands on Joshua. He was Moses’ unquestioned successor but he was younger and less experienced than Moses.
But we are told that in taking over the mantle of Moses God says to Joshua these words of encouragement… words that have rung down the centuries:
‘I hereby command you: Be strong and very courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’
It was in this faith that not only Joshua lived his life but others throughout the scriptures lived theirs. We think of Elijah being hounded by Queen Jezebel, we think of Jonah trying to escape from God, we think of David going out to face Goliath, we think of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den. And we think of the disciples after the death of Jesus, and St Paul surviving his shipwreck. But they held on to their faith in God and in due time they prospered in whatever their calling happened to be.
For them God was not static. God was dynamic. God was involved. And we believe in the same God who is involved with us now however we are feeling this morning.
The promises of God
I remember when I was around 18 years old, the Vicar in the church where I then worshipped, and where I was being prepared for confirmation, said that if you find a promise in the Bible then hold on to it. God will never fail you.
I have always remembered his words and I am grateful for them. They have stayed with me through many difficult situations. So I have always held on to the words of promise given to Joshua:
‘Be thou strong and very courageous… Have I not commanded thee? Be not not frightened nor dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go’.
Whether we voted Yes or No there is work to be done in making ours a better society. Our calling as citizens is to contribute to the common good and we will continue to do that. Our calling as Christians is to serve one another, and to serve our community and country, and that hasn’t changed since Thursday. Our calling, our vocation, remains the same.
We all know from our own experience that through all the changing scenes of life, human beings need firm ground upon which to stand – people need a rock in their lives, something solid that will provide certainty, security and safety.
In some ways Scotland is different today to what she was like on Thursday. We are not returning to the status quo. We’ve been promised that changes lie ahead. That is life. Nothing ever seems to stay the same for very long.
But some things never change. Like Edinburgh Rock or the River Clyde some things are always there. For you and me who have chosen to follow the Carpenter of Nazareth and to rely on the guidance of God like the saints of old we have our rock – Jesus Christ who is the same last Thursday, today and in the future yet to be decided.
Whichever way we voted on Thursday, and however we now feel about the result – relieved or depressed – it’s already past. It’s gone. Today is what we have and, God willing, tomorrow and next week and next month and all the years yet to come.
Maybe sharing the peace today will have a special resonance knowing that we have voted in opposite ways. Half of us are not happy and half of us are very happy indeed. We need to have a care for one another and for one another’s feelings. As the House of Bishops have said in their statement, ‘We hold particularly in our hearts and in our prayers today those for whom this decision brings a feeling of hopes dashed and vision lost’.
The Iona Community has also issued a statement which I think raises our spirits if we are feeling down in the dumps: ‘As a Christian community … our values and concerns transcend borders and boundaries. Our passion for social justice, peacemaking and the protection of the environment is both local and global.’
Coincidentally, today is the UN International Day of Peace. Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General says this: ‘Armed conflict causes untold grief to families, communities and entire countries. Too many are suffering today at the brutal hands of warmongers and terrorists. Let us stand with them in solidarity. Let us all reflect on peace- and what it means for our human family’.
So we move forward into God’s future together as brothers and sisters in the one Christian family. We are here for one another. Our shoulders are there for someone else to cry on. We are sensitive to how others feel because that’s the kind of people we are here at St James’. And in sharing the Peace this morning we might be able to express that.
St Paul exhorts us in his letter to the Romans to ‘Live in harmony with one another’. And Jesus, in John’s Gospel, exhorts us to ‘love one another and to serve one another’. We have is to make those aspirations real and our challenge is to remember all those around the world whose struggles are not amiable or friendly, but whose struggle involve violence and rape and pillaging and summary execution.
As followers of the teaching of Jesus we believe that Christ is in the midst of us, empowering us, exhorting us, and calling us once again to follow him in whom we find our way, our purpose and our salvation. Amen.
Rev Bryan Owen
St James the Less Episcopal Church