Policing our borders. A sermon on St Paul.

Sermon preached this morning, Sunday 26th, concerning the Breferendum, and other events which I hadn’t mentioned last week because we were at a joint service in another church.

So a lot’s happened since we last met. Or at least since we were last here together. This last week, of course, we celebrated Melrose Week, we rejoiced in community and fellowship.  I  went to the celebration in the abbey, where hundreds of children gathered, singing old hymns, and watching a long, rather dull slow ceremony with people dressed up in unusual robes – and wondered why we think children can’t cope with church…

Part of the celebration of Melrose is riding the boundaries – it’s the same for every town gathering, especially the more ancient ones like Selkirk. These days it’s purely ceremonial but it once had a purpose – not just a physical purpose of repelling incomers, but binding the town together in a unified identity – against the outsider.

We are lucky not to live in the debatable times, when we had to protect the borders of our towns from rustlers, rapists and pillagers. But in St Pauls’ day, not only did every town have a boundary to be policed, it had a wall. Every town was a fortress, many of them still have them, like Jericho, or Damascus. And in spirit, every religion had one too. Every culture had boundaries to be policed, in order to keep its identity and to keep out the unclean and the troublesome.

The letter to the Galatians, is one of St Pauls’ first ever letters. He’s writing to a group of people that he Christianised, that he brought Christ to, and since he left, there is a group of Judaisers, of Christians who are saying that in order to be a Christ, you have to police the boundaries.

And Paul is distraught. Because he used to believe that. He was the most devout Jew, and to be Jewish was not just a religion it was a race. His understanding of Judaism was that you were a people set apart, a holy nation, a special people. You were a Jew by inheritance, it was your birthright. And everyone else were outsiders. And you had to police the boundaries.

Paul’s response to what the Judaisers were doing was to produce one of the most eloquent, beautiful and moving testimonies ever written. Because that was the old way.

His persecution of Christians before Damascas was because he had an image of his religion, his race,  as pure and holy, as unspotted and perfect, and it was his job to keep it that way. God had to be protected, and protected violently.

And that’s what he did. And he did it with anxiety, with anger, with violence, and with the righteous anger of a zealot. IN fact he did it with all of those things he said were “of the flesh” – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, jealousy.

It reminds me a little of the Indigenous American tale, of a young boy talking to his father. His father tells him, “there are two wolves at war within us, each striving for control. The wolf of envy, anxiety, anger, greed, and hate, and the wolf of love, of generosity, of compassion, of light.”

“Which wolf wins?” asked the boy. His father replied “The one you feed”.

And when God broke St Paul,  he was blind until he found a new vision. He found a deeper truth to the shallow truths he held. He found God not in one pure white religion and culture, to be fiercely protected, he found God everywhere. He travelled, and in every culture, in every society, in every class, be it slave or senator, he found the people of God.

Since we met last in this place, 49 people were killed by a fundamentalist who was policing the boundaries of his religion. One MP was murdered by someone protecting the borders of his country, because the MP was advocating for the unclean to cross the boundaries. And since the referendum, people have set up their camps, their territories, their boundaries, and become enemies. In London and in Newcastle, Immigrants have had letters telling them to leave our country, and people are frightened.

A very odd thing happened to me over the weekend. I wrote a blog article on the morning of Friday, which as they say went viral, receiving over 300,000 views, a hundred times more than most things I’ve ever written on my blog. Which is a shame, because it contained a number of grammatical infelicities. I hadn’t expected it, but goodness I was very glad that I had had clicked the button marked “moderate comments before publishing”.

The comments that are published on the blog are intelligent, reasonable, often generous, and compassionate as well as passionate. Only about half got published. Some of them were rather intemperate. “If you disagree with me, you’re a racist”, said one Remainer. “If you disagree with me, you hate your country”, said a Brexiter. Well I disagreed with both of them, which makes me a racist who hates his own country. Brexiters and Remainers alike, not listening but shouting, wearying, pointless anger from both sides, as they police their boundaries and entrench their positions as to who they are and who they want to be. Full of sound and fury, and in the end, signifying nothing.

That’s the problem with referenda – it’s binary – black and white, good or bad, cowboys and Indians. Complicated issues become simplistic. And some win, and some lose, and we create, and police our boundaries.

And that’s how Paul was, until God broke him, just as sometimes we have to be broken, just as sometimes our society has to be broken, just as sometimes our religion has to be broken, broken apart, broken open, to stop the shouting and start the listening. What Paul saw when his eyes opened that first time, was that there was a deeper truth to the world, and a deeper faith to follow, and a deeper, richer God concealed in every human heart. Perhaps he had thought that before, he thought it and perhaps understood it, but now, he decided to live it. His every living being was focussing solely on that one thing, that God is in every human heart, and that every soul will shine with God, if we only let that light out. His mission, his hunger, his soul was to unlock that light in every human being – Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Man or Woman.

His despair at the Judaisers was that they could only see one method of allowing that light to shine and they were more in love with the method than with the light. They saw only one culture and one practice wherein God could dwell, and in that they reduced God to a small, feeble thing, a God which needed defending, protecting, policing, not a robust, strong, powerful God whose love inspires and conquers all.

Our questions about referenda and identity and who we are and who we value are secondary questions – they may feel important, they certainly feel hot, but they divide far more than they unite. We need to ask the deeper question, we need to focus on the deeper, richer life that exists beneath the noise and the haste.

Our question for this referendum and for the next should be the same as the question we should ask every day, and it is a question not of others, but of ourselves. How do I, as a child of God, enable another person’s light to shine? How can I see the love in that person, and how do I enable them to see the love in me?

Everything we do should be predicated on that question. Every decision we make, and every hope we have, should be soaked in the hope of that question. How do we let their light shine?

Will it change the world? It could, it might, but that’s not really the point. It will change us. And we shall live in righteousness, a righteousness not based on superiority or vindication, but a righteousness of knowing that we sought to be good – and amid the madness of this world, amid the changes and chances, of this fleeting world, we shall be at peace.

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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2 Responses to Policing our borders. A sermon on St Paul.

  1. davidtollow says:

    Thank you for sharing your good sense and humanity.

    When I woke up on Friday morning and heard the news, I said to my wife “things can’t be that bad – I’m not considering turning to religion”.

    While I’m not reconsidering that position I do find your posts, and particularly this one both calming and an essential reminder of the values we should be aspiring to – whatever side of the debate we are on, and whatever religious beliefs we hold.

    Keep posting, please.

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