Friday, 24 June 2016

Tolerance - a sermon for this Sunday

The other day I asked a friend to help me with something, not a big job, but it needed two of us. I wasn’t in a hurry at all, happy to wait until whatever was convenient for him. But his immediate response was, “No time like the present! Let’s get it done, then.” And we did.

To those who looked on sceptically - as some certainly did - Jesus hadn’t done much of a job assembling his disciples. Any rabbi would be expected to gather disciples, but what a rag taggle bunch this Jesus of Nazareth had got! None of them had the education and erudition you’d expect. They were fishermen, people of that ilk. What kind of disciple could you make from a fisherman?

In the Gospels we can read how some of them were called, and the common factor is this: these were the sort of people who were prepared to say “yes” straight away. For them there was no time like the present. That wasn’t true for everyone Jesus called. “Of course I’ll come, but can you hang on, I’m not quite ready yet” - that was their response. Their reasons for not coming straight away weren’t bad ones. If my friend had come up with something like that I’d have waited, I wouldn’t have minded. But Jesus demanded an immediate response.

He even comes across as a bit uncaring. He says some tough things to them. “Leave the dead to bury their dead”: what kind of thing is that for the Messiah to say? Though it could actually be that the man’s father was not actually dead, some people think - in which case he was saying, “I shan’t be free to follow you until after my father has died.” While that might make what Jesus said easier for us to accept, the challenge behind his words remains the same. In every matter there comes a crucial moment of decision; miss that moment and the thing never gets done at all. My friend was a friend indeed when he said he’d come straight away. I’ve got past history of never doing the things I don’t do straight away.

And then, how often we say we’ll do something, sign me up, when really we only want to look good, or maybe get the person whose asking off our back. But Peter and the rest of them came as soon as they were called> They dropped everything, just got going. And if they weren’t the brightest sparks in the box, they were what Jesus wanted, people who’d just get and do it.

Mind you, they still had a lot to learn. You can see that from the verses that began our Gospel reading. If you travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem, your most direct route would be through Samaria. But Jews and Samaritans were old enemies. Though they were from the same stock, and worshipped the same God, they kept themselves totally separate, and worshipped in different places and different ways. It’s sad but true that close neighbours can make the most bitter enemies.

So it would be strange for any Jewish teacher to send his people to a Samaritan village to get help and accommodation. Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t sit at the same table. Why would a Samaritan help a Jew to travel to Jerusalem? Samaritans believed it wasn’t a holy city at all, that Jews were worshipping in the wrong place. Maybe Jesus wanted to offer a hand of friendship, as he did by the well of Jacob in a story we can read in St John’s Gospel. Or maybe he just knew he could use the rejection he expected to teach a lesson to his disciples. Anyway, that’s what happened in the end.

The messengers were duly turned away; and when they heard about it, the most boisterous of the disciples of Jesus, James and John, wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Remember their nickname - Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder - it was bound to be those two, really. Jesus would have none of it. They went on to another village. Jesus had presented the Samaritan village with an opportunity to be hospitable. He must have been sorry they didn’t do it, but even so, this was a matter for forgiveness, not retribution.

And so he taught his disciples a lesson in tolerance. One commentary I read on this passage calls tolerance a lost virtue. If that was true when that commentary was written, some fifty years ago, what about the world of today? I think tolerance has been in short supply over the past few weeks. And in general, though we may be more free these days to do our own thing and choose our own path, even to make our own truth, I’m not sure that our society has all that much of the tolerance we find in Jesus.

We have an “anything goes” society. That seems tolerant, but it’s tolerance based more in indifference than in mutual care. Of course there is still a lot of care and kindness about, and I thank God for it, but I also can’t help but feel that in some ways society is growing ever more fractured. If we don’t need to know our neighbours - and these days often we don’t - then we also don’t need to care too much about how they live. But that’s not really tolerance, but indifference.

The tolerance of Jesus is tolerance based in love. Abraham Lincoln was once accused of being too soft on his opponents. He should destroy his enemies, he was told. This was his answer: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Good words, but harder to live than they are to say. But that’s how Jesus saw that Samaritan village. They’d not been able to accept his offer of friendship now, but that didn’t mean the offer was withdrawn.

There’ll always be those who don’t share your views, those who see the world differently from how you see it. Even in church we don’t all sing from the same hymn sheet. I’ve found that when I’ve chosen hymns in a church I’m visiting, only to find them sung to different tunes from the ones I expected. St Paul wrote, “Our knowledge is partial.” That applies just as much to me as to the person I might disagree with or want to criticise or correct. As William Barclay wrote, “God has his own secret stairway into every heart.”

For when people disagree, the truth is not usually 100% on one side or the other, but somewhere between the two positions, however entrenched those positions may be. Jesus believed that the Samaritans had got it wrong about God, but so had his own people. When he did enter Jerusalem, the first thing he did was to cleanse the temple, to make clear to his own people just how much they were getting wrong.

I heard someone say last week, “I’ve had to live with the word brexit, but if anyone starts talking about braftermath I won’t be responsible for my actions!” But braftermath is upon us, like the word or not. We have to deal with the aftermath of the debate, and the fact that a decision has been made that one lot of people won’t like, while the other lot of people might be tempted to be triumphalist about it. It behoves both sides to be patient, tolerant and caring. Too much hot air has been expended already; and let us not forget that, whether you connect it to how the campaign has been conducted or blame the madness of extremism, one person has died.

We need to be clear about this: neither alternative was the truth; neither alternative had all the right on its side. For better or worse, there’s now a job of work to be done, that must be done for the sake of the whole, and that work begins with a process of healing and of toleration. There’s not been a single view across church folk in this debate: people have rightly come to different conclusions by thinking through the facts and testing them according to their Christian beliefs. Again, the truth lies somewhere in the space between us: only God sees all things as they are. And his call to us? There’s no time like the present. I hope that Christians take a lead in tolerance, and set an example of discipleship. A decision has been made. But we still need those who voted the other way, we still need to hear what they have to say, and we still need to remember that those who may seem to be our enemies contain within themselves, as do we, the possibility of being friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment