Sermon preached at Orchestral Eucharist, 8th Sunday after Trinity (17 July 2016) by the Very Revd. David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Orchestral Eucharist, 8th Sunday after Trinity (17 July 2016) by the Very Revd. David Ison, Dean

‘You are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing,’ notes the Dean. 

Like the withdrawal of the sea from a beach before a tidal wave comes crashing in, there are times in human life when events lay bare an underlying reality which we otherwise don’t notice because it’s too inconvenient or too difficult to engage with.

Whether it’s destruction by storm or an earthquake; the eruption of a war; the crash of a financial system; the discovery of an infidelity; a long-buried accusation of abuse; a redundancy letter; a multitude of refugees fleeing conflict and starvation; a recall notice after a routine medical test... the ground we thought we stood on securely, shakes and shifts and uncovers things which were always there but which we thought wouldn’t affect us – and the way of life we’ve carefully built proves far more fragile than we had expected. 

The last four weeks have been such a time for many. The raucous and unpleasant debates and the vote in Britain to leave the European Union have shown the power of the long-standing divisions in British society which are there for those with eyes to see, but have been hidden from view by complacency while being aggravated by austerity. 

The Chilcot Report has reopened the issues around the invasion of Iraq and the devastating aftermath for the Middle East and North Africa which have also divided the country for years. The use of violence by the Western powers which we justify so easily has damaged the rest of the world, a violence which comes back to bite us.

The renewed conflict in South Sudan, the latest terror outrage in Nice, and the attempted coup in Turkey have underlined the power of violence to beget violence, in a spiral of hatred and division, with the use of violence and terror being an increasing feature of everyday life.

In response I want briefly to refer to three women.

The first is Jo Cox, former Labour Member of Parliament, hard-working, outgoing, idealistic and compassionate, who was murdered on 16th June during the referendum campaign, apparently by a man with mental health issues and links with white supremacist groups in the United States, who gave his name as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said a week later just before the referendum vote, and I quote, ‘The Britain I know is the Britain of Jo Cox. The Britain where people are tolerant, and not prejudiced, and where people hate hate’ he said. But sadly that’s not the only Britain on offer: there’s another side to Britain, where people can be fearful and intolerant and racist. The Britain we live in is where Jo Cox was murdered.

The Britain where Jeremy Corbyn and other politicians are stalked and get death threats, where a Labour MP standing as party leader had a brick thrown through her window, where on Facebook and Twitter, blogs and the internet, people use crude and violent language against those they disagree with, the Britain where some people danced in the streets when Margaret Thatcher died, the Britain where hate crime against ethnic minorities and disabled people and gay and transgender people has risen sharply after the referendum result.

Of course we want to agree with Gordon Brown that we should be a country of tolerance and compassion. But if we don’t recognise that in many ways we’re not, then we’ll be unable to overcome what the Book of Common Prayer terms ‘our unhappy divisions’, and fail to live together while tackling what divides us.

The same is true in the wider world. The driver of the truck in Nice on Thursday night also seems to have had mental health problems, a loner who had no attachment to a religious community, who was influenced by the violent rhetoric and actions of so-called Islamic State, as other perpetrators of terrorist acts have been. 

Underlying these is a climate of violence and intolerance, the refusal to live with difference and the pursuit of power, which poisons public life, undermines democracy and community, and for some susceptible people legitimates hate crime and terrorism and the murder of Jo Cox.

The second woman to mention is Theresa May, the new Prime Minister with a new government. From a Christian perspective, it’s not who that matters, but what: what will the government do? And the task facing Theresa May is enormous: to lead a re-shaping of the country into an unknown future, while tackling the inequality and division and prejudice which divide our communities.

It’s incumbent on us to pray for and support the government, and to challenge them where needed, so we don’t lose sight of the difficult realities and pretend that we don’t need radical change. And also we mustn’t sit back and expect that Theresa May will do it for us.

Whoever you are, if you and I don’t change, then neither will our country or our world. If we don’t speak out against violent language and intolerance, if we don’t listen with respect to those different from us, then how can we complain when people treat us and others as we would not wish to be treated?

The third woman to mention is Mary, sister of Martha and disciple of Jesus Christ. Our gospel reading is Luke’s story of the distracted hostess doing the cooking and cleaning up the house, while her sister Mary listens to the Lord’s teaching. When Martha complains, Jesus tells her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing.’

By which he meant paying attention to God; to God who brings all our scattered lives together, who transcends our differences and our distractions, God who alone gives us a vision of hope and glory which is big enough to draw all humanity into one.

St Paul in our reading from his letter to the Colossians writes of the Christian Gospel in cosmic terms: how Jesus Christ brings all things together, how God reconciles and makes peace, peace with us and peace between us, through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the life of Jesus living in us now. 

‘Christ is in you, the hope of glory’ says Paul. And that’s where we need to start as the tectonic plates shift beneath our feet and our way of life seems to unravel before us. 

It’s not for us to go back, to create an ideal version of the past which never really existed. 

It’s not for us to make our own lives comfortable and ignore our world’s differences and divisions, the violence and intolerance which touches us all.

It’s not for us to live lives distracted by pride and money, by status and power, by fear of others and self-concern.

‘You are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing.’

We’re called to a greater vision, the challenging vision of God’s love at work in us and for everyone, 
- the vision of compassion which people saw in Jo Cox, 
- the vision which our new government and Prime Minister so desperately need to embrace and pursue, 
- the vision which Mary saw in Jesus, 
- the vision of the reconciling God who suffers violence to bring us peace and whose Spirit lives in us – 
- the vision without which we will be lost:

Christ in us, the reconciliation of all, and the hope of glory.