sovereignty

A question of sovereignty

This sermon was preached about two weeks before the Brexit vote (although it has been posted since then and in knowledge of the result I’ve not changed what I wrote originally). It was preached as as  series of three mini-sermons each based on a different Bible passage of which I’ve quoted a few verses. In between I’ve placed links to videos of the hymns I chose.

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Introduction

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established  as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills,  and peoples will stream to it.  Many nations will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the temple of the God of Jacob.He will teach us his ways,  so that we may walk in his paths. The law will go out from Zion,  the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.

From Micah 4:1-4.

June 23rd fill present us with the biggest political decision facing the country in a generation. Should we leave or stay in the EU? This is difficult to preach about. I don’t think there is a “Christian” view of whether we should leave or stay. I am sure there will be a diversity of opinion within congregation, there certainly is within the community and within the country. I’ll be quite honest, I’ve got a very clear view of which way I’m going to vote. That view will almost certainly be shared enthusiastically by some of you and vehemently opposed by others. My purpose this morning is not to abuse my position in this pulpit by trying to persuade you to my point of view but to ask what Christianity has to say about the issues.

Just because I don’t believe that there is a Christian view on the way we should vote doesn’t mean that I don’t believe the church has got anything to say. I do believe that there is a strong Christian view on what the issues are, or at the very least what they should be. I think as Christians together we should be able to agree on what those issues are, even if, as individuals, we have different opinions about whether remaining or leaving is the best option to address them.

I went to a session put on by Churches together in Poynton last week which was attended by Edwina Curry amongst others. Although there were representatives from both campaigns present, the main activity of the evening was for the audience to sit around tables and talk to each other. Around our table, as around all tables, there was a wide diversity of opinion. But what really helped us to share a meaningful conversation was being asked first of all us to identify what the issues were and only then to have a discussion about whether these would be better addressed by being inside or outside the EU. It worked very well and there was a depth of debate that went far beyond the superficial squabbling and name calling that seems to have characterised the national debate.

A significant part of the debate has been about sovereignty. The Leave side think that our country should have sovereignty – it should retain the authority to make decisions for itself. In many ways they would see that this is what defines a modern state. The Remain campaign believes that, by pooling certain aspects of decision making power with other countries, we can achieve more than any country could do individually. There are very different views about who should be in control.

Most Christians, however, would believe that in some sense God should be in control. I don’t think that it is good theology for us to want to claim sovereignty for ourselves. We believe that sovereignty rests with God. It is God who decides what is right and it is then our responsibility to try and work to bring about God’s will. This is the vision that is placed in front of us in this reading from Micah. He will teach us his ways,  so that we may walk in his paths.

Let us listen to God and what he wants because it is only when we have done this that we will be able to walk in his path. For Christians the issue should not be about whether power rests in Westminster or in Brussels but which is more likely to bring about God’s will.

So having established this as the overall question that Christians need to consider in preparation for the referendum I want to look a three specific issues, Peace, Prosperity and Poverty.

Peace

He will judge between many peoples  and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

From Micah 4:1-4

 God wants us to live in peace. The passage we’ve just heard read is one of the most powerful in the whole of the Bible. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

One of the first things we have to remember about the EU is that it was born out of a continent which had been ravaged by war for centuries and had just emerged from being at the epicentre of the two most savage wars in history. I’m too young to remember the Second World War and the absolute mess that Europe was in at the end of it but some of you may just remember.

The foundation of the EU was a direct response to this and almost literally a working out of the injunction to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks in that it started with European Coal and Steel Community. The factories that had been used to produced ammunitions were being converted to building the infrastructure required for peace. It is no coincidence that shortly after that there emerged the foundation of the Common Agricultural Policy to ensure that there was enough food to eat and that farmers were adequately paid for this whilst prices were kept low enough for people to afford. The ploughshares and pruning hooks were forged.

There can be no real doubt that the EU has been successful in this. It is absolutely inconceivable – to me – that Europe will ever have another war on the scale of those of the last century. We have learnt to live together, to grow food together, to trade together. The role of the EU in building and consolidating peace in Europe has been recognised by the Nobel prize committee who awarded the Peace Prize to the whole of the EU in 2012.

But just because the EU has had such a strong role in establishing peace in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it is best served to consolidate that peace in the future. There is a strong argument that, in relation to establishing peace, that the EU has done its job, that that process is essentially complete, that war between nations within Europe is inconceivable.

The threats to our security have changed. They no longer come from aggressor nations within Europe. They come from unstable nations beyond Europe and through how this spills into Europe through the action of various terrorist groups. Often this is inflamed by fundamentalist religions but it is also deeply rooted in the inequality of power and wealth distribution across the planet.

It is not obvious to me – at any level of detail. Whether remaining in or leaving the EU is more likely to consolidate peace in Europe. Reducing border controls undoubtedly makes it easier for terrorists to travel, but increased cooperation between nations in gathering information for security purposes is presumably our most effective weapon in fighting this. How these balance out in reality I’m just not qualified to judge, but I do think that as Christians one of the first questions we should be asking in this referendum is which choice is going to do the most to promote peace across Europe.

Make me a channel of your peace

Prosperity

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching[a] you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12

Much of the debate about the EU is economic. The fundamental question we are faced with is whether the country will be more prosperous within or outside the EU. The leave campaign believe that by withdrawing we will stop having to make payments to the EU and that we will be left in a stronger position to trade with partners outside the EU. The leave campaign think that the economy will suffer if we reduce our links with Europe and that tax revenue lost will be greater than the contributions we make at present. Both sides are coming up with ludicrously exaggerated claims about what would happen if the other side won. Both sides are clearly exaggerating how the economy might respond to a decision either way.

The Biblical perspective on prosperity is an interesting one. At one level it is grounded and realistic. It is quite clear that no-one is owed a living and that we should all expect to pay our way. This is clear from the words we’ve just heard from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. Several of Jesus parables clearly suggest that we should be using our talents to generate income and provide for ourselves.

On the other hand there are many more passages in the Bible and particularly in the teaching of Jesus, where the dangers of becoming obsessed by wealth are spelled out. The most obvious is the story of the rich young man who asked what he must do to gain eternal life and was told to give away all he possessed. On balance the Christian position is that we should expect to work to ensure we have enough to live on but should not make accumulating wealth the driving motivation in our lives.

In the context of the current debate we should perhaps remind ourselves that the UK is the fifth biggest economy on the planet. We tend to hide this from ourselves by our obsession with growth. It is true that the economy isn’t growing at the moment but we shouldn’t let this obscure the fact that we are still, as a nation exceedingly wealthy. Being inside or outside the EU may make a small difference to just how that wealth develops in the future but the decision either way is unlikely to affect our basic position as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

If we take a biblical position on wealth we should be thankful for the wealth we have. We should accept that this wealth is a product of our industry in the past and strive to be productive in the future. But we should not let allow our obsession with wealth creation to become the sole focus of the debate.

If there is one contribution that I think Christianity can make to the present debate(in relation to the EU and more widely) it is to ask politicians to focus less on how we create more wealth and more on how we use the wealth we already have to create a society that is more reflective of God’s Kingdom. It’s a debate that we have heard almost nothing about from either side in this referendum campaign.

For the fruits of our creation

Poverty

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,  for he has been mindful  of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones  but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things  but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever,  just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55

I often preach from the lectionary, from the list of Bible readings set for each week. I’ve not done that this week, clearly a list of readings on a three year cycle is not a good framework for thinking about an issue like the EU referendum which only occurs once in a generation. When I do stray from the lectionary I find that the Magnificat is a passage that I want to preach from more and more.

It’s a revolutionary vision of god’s Kingdom sung by a pregnant young woman. Mary is feeling God’s potential growing inside her and she’s dreaming about how the world can be. It drives her to express herself in song. How marvellous is that. The vision is of a radically different society to the one Mary lived in 2,000 years ago, the one we still live in today. It is a vision of the rulers being cast down and the humble lifted up. It is a vision of the rich being sent away and the hungry filled with good things. It is a vision of the poor and downtrodden being placed at the centre of the political debate.

As Christians we believe that a society is judged not by how wealth is amassed by the powerful and wealthy but in how it is shared with the poor and humble. I’ve talked about peace and I’ve talked about prosperity but I now turn to a third P, poverty. In many ways this is the silent P in the current debate whether it is in how we confront our politicians, or when we decide how to vote. Perhaps the most important question we should be asking ourselves as Christians is not, how will this affect the affluence of the rich (the centre of the debate at the moment) but how will it affect the lives of the poor.

I don’t think there is a clear answer here. Particularly perhaps, because the question has not been addressed within the debate so far. The most obvious vulnerable group to be affected by leaving or remaining in the EU are the unemployed. There is a perception that immigrants are affecting the potential of our own citizens to get jobs but actually unemployment rates are at an all-time low marginally over 5% at the moment even though immigration is at a record high. On the other hand a plentiful immigrant workforce  prepared to work for low wages are probably reducing pressures on employers to increase wages above the current minimum wage. So maybe although immigration is not affecting employment rates it might be artificially reducing living standards for the poorly paid. On the other hand many immigrants are working in the care sector doing basic jobs in care homes or hospitals. If they were forced to return home who would do the job of looking after the vulnerable in our society? We just don’t know.

There is also a broader perspective. The current debate tends to focus on whether people within the UK will be better or worse off whereas as Christians we have a concern for all God’s people. How often do we hear politicians addressing this issue? Much of the money that we give to the EU is spent in developing the infrastructure and economies of poorer countries within the EU. Maybe we should be less concerned with how those payments affect our economy and more concerned about how they affect theirs. It’s a debate we’ve just not heard isn’t it.

In summary I’d encourage you all to pray and about the referendum. Pray purposefully. Pray not so much for one solution or the other but for a debate which focusses on the issues that your God would see as important. Pray that people will vote for the option most likely to  consolidate the peace we have within Europe. Pray that people will be less concerned about their own prosperity. Follow Mary and pray that the concerns of the poor and oppressed will be central to the debate.

And tell other’s of your prayers. Tell your friends, tell your families. If you pray alone you will influence one vote, if you share your prayers with others you may influence many.

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