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Disagreeing Well – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

Sunday 9 February 2020 – 3rd before Lent – Matins

Jeremiah 26.1-16 & Acts 3.1-10

How do you respond when someone says something to you that you do not like and do not agree with?

In today’s first reading, Jeremiah, following the guidance of God, goes to the people and tells them that God calls them to be obedient to God or else they will face punishment and their city will be laid waste. It is clear that the people did not want to hear this message so they seized Jeremiah with the intention of killing him.

This may seem like a reaction steeped in the way the world was several thousand years ago, but we will all have heard the story of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who died a couple of days ago. He was the first to identify the new Coronavirus in December and when he spoke about it on social media he was detained by the Chinese authorities for spreading ‘false rumours’. In addition, threats of death and physical violence are a daily occurrence on social media. It is salutary to be reminded that these kinds of responses, when people hear things they do not want to hear, are not far below the surface, even in the enlightened and civilised 21st century.

So, how do you react when someone says something with which you disagree? It has to be said that our role models have not covered themselves in glory over recent months and years judging by the tenor of recent political debate in our own country!

The clergy of the Minster have been faced with a challenge in this area over the last week or so. On 22nd January the House of Bishop’s issued a pastoral statement relating to the change in the law allowing people of opposite sexes to enter into a civil partnership, a legal arrangement previously only open to couples of the same sex. The pastoral statement talked about the Church’s understanding of marriage, making the point clearly that a civil partnership is not a marriage, and restating the church’s teaching that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman and that marriage remains the proper context for sexual activity. This pastoral statement was greeted warmly by those in the Church who are keen to uphold the Church’s present teaching on these issues, but for many in the Church, and for most people outside the Church, it was greeted with a mixture of anger, despair, dismay and confusion. Lots of people heard or read reports of the Bishop’s statement and did not like what they heard at all – what was the right way to respond? There was a furore in the press and the statement was quickly followed by some bishops distancing themselves from the statement and the archbishop’s publishing an apology, not for the statement itself, but for the ‘division and hurt’ it had caused.

The Minster clergy were lobbied by some to sign a letter of complaint to the House of Bishops. We discussed this possibility, as most of us thought the statement was, at the very least, unhelpful, but in the end decided to arrange an evening after evensong and invite anyone who wants to, to gather and discuss how the statement has affected them. We decided that the best thing to do was to listen to those who are feeling hurt, rejected and judged by the pastoral statement. Details about the evening, which is on Tuesday this week, are in the Notice Sheet today.

So, how should we respond when someone says something we do not like, something with which we strongly disagree? Our instinct is to go into combative mode, to challenge and belittle what we have heard. An instinct that social media platforms encourage and inflame.

We all know that Jesus taught us to love our neighbours and that he went even further and taught us to love our enemies. This is very hard indeed and not many people can do it – but surely, loving our enemies must start with listening to people with whom we disagree? We should listen carefully to what they have to say and examine what their motives might be for saying it? Is their point of view borne out of personal experience? Is their point of view borne out of careful and prayerful reading of scripture? As we listen carefully to others we should also constantly examine the basis for our own points of view, where do they come from? How justified are we in believing we are right? We are very quick to condemn religious and political fundamentalists but it seems to me that there are some in the liberal and academic elite these days who aren’t far off being fundamentalists themselves. Maybe even we have a tendency to express our views in ways which close debate rather than encouraging it?

As Christians we are disciples of Jesus and he taught us to love our enemies. One small step on the way to being obedient to this teaching is surely to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree and debate sensibly and respectfully with them. We are all led to believe that most issues in the world are about what is right or wrong, black or white, good or bad – but hardly anything is that simple. The world (and the bible) is complicated, there is ambiguity, there is nuance. Everybody’s world view is different and limited, everyone’s understanding of scripture is different and limited. It is only by listening together, discussing together and I would say, praying together, that we discover what is true. What we have to remember is that Jesus in not just in the truth we are reaching for, Jesus is also in the way we travel to the truth and Jesus should also be the driving force of the life we live, in relationship with others, as we travel towards the truth. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life.

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