As Chaplain (and member) of an ancient livery company I get to preach a sermon each year. Our Master chooses the reading, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats offers a telling commentary on the referendum tomorrow. So here’s what I’ll preach this afternoon for the Charter Day Service of the Company of Merchant Taylors of the City of York.
INSTITUTIONS which make laws can sometimes find themselves in complex and detailed territory. A debate continues to rage, for example, about Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and whether, by it, the European Commission has ever attempted to regulate the straightness of bananas.
It will not surprise you to know that the General Synod of the Church of England is also capable of this. We once spent a whole hour on the quality of the envelopes in which our papers were sent. And we had a major debate on the use of a single word: the one used when we were called upon to vote. Synod can create English Law, and uses parliamentary processes. So, when a vote was to be taken, the call to us was “Divide”.
It was felt that, though the Church of England has differing views and outright disagreements about almost everything, we should still be able to express this while remaining united. Might we not ‘disagree well’? Did a vote have to be expressed in the language of opposition and division? After various options were considered, we finally agreed to change the word to “Decide”, on the basis that we were taking decisions which we would have to live with together, rather than enshrining divisions which may never heal.
Last night I sat in between six politicians. ‘Remain’ were to my left, ‘Leave’ to my right. Three MPs, one Peer, one former MP and one national campaigner spent a couple of hours in Beverley Minster debating the Referendum. Privately beforehand more than one of them expressed the hope that never again would there be such a process. It is, after all, divisive. Seeing some of the exchanges from last night’s TV debate I’m not sure how some politicians will ever be able to look each other in the eye or sit on the same side of the House.
As Chairman last night my final question was to ask how each of our panel wanted us to be feeling at noon on Friday 24th, after the result is announced. I was pleased that they picked up on the nuances. We will, after all, still have to live together, take part in the processes of government and society together, look for the improvement of our nation and our world together, get along together.
One MP in our debate was clear that this process has been damaging, and will take a long time to heal. He was also clear that, for all our sakes, we must be generous to each other. There are greater things to concern us, as we have been so cruelly reminded in these last days. And this nation remains an amazingly privileged place to be, with every opportunity to make a difference to a needy and complex world.
Our new Master’s chosen reading today inhabits these tensions. If you are looking for a division, look no further than the sheep and the goats. But look carefully: they don’t divide themselves; that will be not for them, but for the Son of Man on the day of glory. And note the basis of the division: the lives which have been led, and the actions which they have all had an equal opportunity to perform. It’s not that they are preordained to be one or the other: everyone has the same chance. The division, as if they were like sheep and goats (shepherded together in the Holy Land and only separated when necessary for milking or shearing), comes at the end of everything. Until then all of us have the same opportunity.
The opportunity to do what? To serve. To make a difference. The quieter voices in the referendum debate have been asking us to decide tomorrow on the basis of how best we might take our place in the world, how best we might serve our planet and hand it on to our grandchildren, how best we can ensure the common good and peace among nations. Louder voices have concentrated on matters which look more like self interest. Jesus commends the people who, sacrificially and carefully, actively look out for and meet the needs of others.
In the Bible you never know when you might be bumping into God, or welcoming an angel. The people Jesus applauds are the ones who have actually looked after him, he says. They are baffled, but he says that whenever they have fed or clothed or visited or welcomed anybody, he was to be found in them. Jesus offers a vision of a united humanity, where all have needs, and all have the opportunity to meet them. And this is not a reactive sort of kindness. You have to make an effort to visit someone in prison, make an effort to find clothes or food for the hungry and naked. This is a decision, not a guilty response.
As the Company of Merchant Taylors, deriving from the earlier Confraternity of John the Baptist, we gather around St John’s Day to reaffirm our purposes and recommit to our aims. John the Baptist was unafraid of calling people to decide, and to change their behaviour to ensure there was justice and right action. His cousin Jesus offers the radical challenge to everyone to offer their lives in sacrificial service.
The division will come when our earthly life is lived to its end. Until then it is a decision we are called to. Whom shall we serve? How will we obtain the good of our neighbour? How will we take our place in the world? Our Company may be but a small part of this City and region, and our individual lives may not make a massive impact on the world stage. But just as every vote counts on Thursday, so every action, however small, makes a difference. And in this I would rather be a sheep than a goat.