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The Habit of Art and Being Ourselves – Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Sunday 28 October 2018 – Evensong

Jeremiah 3:11-18   Jude 1-4, 17-end

We live is disturbing and worrying times. It’s as if the global tectonic plates are shifting and opening up vast fissures in all sorts of areas of life. For example, we’re seeing mass migration on an almost unprecedented scale, at least in modern times. Then there’s climate change and global warming, inclining some to suggest that we’ve little more than 10 years to put a strategy in place before it’s too late. The situation in the Middle East, which never seems to be stable at the best of times, is becoming increasingly unstable, with horror stories reaching us daily of brutal oppression in Syria, famine in Yemen, and things like the torture and butchery of a journalist in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. Russia’s flexing its muscles and, some say, deliberately attempting to destabilise the West. Far-Right political movements are on the rise in European countries such as Italy, Austria and Germany, from which the UK’s certainly not immune. Oh, and there’s Brexit! And, of course, there’s Donald Trump!

Americans must be feeling ill-at-ease today. Within the last 24 hours, 11 people have been gunned down at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism’s gaining ground in all sorts of places. The parcel bombs, too, sent a few days ago to leading Democrats in the USA have no doubt ratcheted up the tension and fear in that country just a little more. Cesar Sayoc, an ardent Trump supporter with a criminal record as it happens, is alleged to have sent 13 explosive devices to the homes – amongst others – of the former President, Barak Obama, the former Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and the former Vice-President, Joe Biden. Thankfully, they were all intercepted by the intelligence services, so no physical injuries or deaths were caused.

Many have suggested that the sending of parcel bombs is a direct result of a toxic political climate fomented by the President himself. While it has to be remembered that the President wasn’t responsible for sending the bombs, it would be hard to deny that the President’s political rhetoric hasn’t on occasion been inflammatory.

The former CIA Director, John Brennan, remarked that the President had previously subjected the intended victims of the bombs to verbal attacks, and accused the President of hurling insults, telling lies and encouraging physical violence. It’s been remarked that news stories the President disagrees with are immediately labelled ‘fake news’, and many have commented on the invective used to demonise political opponents and others. From the beginning of his Presidential campaign, for example, Donald Trump referred to Mexicans crossing the border as ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’, before hastily adding, ‘some of them might be good, though’. And it’s the media, above all, which comes in for stick. The President’s referred to the media as the ‘enemy of the people’, as ‘absolute scum’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘very dishonest’. It’s for these reasons that his appeal in the wake of the parcel bombs to ‘all sides to come together in peace and harmony’ might ring just a little hollow.

It’s not only in the USA, though, where a toxic political climate can be found. Here in the UK the rhetoric around Brexit has meant that there’s been little real opportunity for a serious, sensible and intelligent debate about the issues. Such toxicity is to be seen most of all in the Prime Minister’s own party. Tim Shipman, the political editor of a Sunday newspaper reported last week that one Tory MP had declared that Theresa May should ‘bring her own noose’ to a forthcoming meeting of backbenchers, saying that she would be ‘knifed in the front’ by critics of the so-called Chequers proposal. This led one of her backbenchers to claim that the story had been concocted by Downing Street itself in an attempt to gain sympathy for the Prime Minister, something Shipman strenuously denied.

In the context of such toxicity, words heard from the Letter of Jude in today’s second lesson seem like balm to the soul. In contrast to ‘worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions’, the recipients of the letter are to keep themselves in the love of God and to ‘have mercy on some who are wavering’. Love and mercy seem like good virtues to practise in any circumstances, even and especially, perhaps, in politics.

It would be too easy and not a little complacent to leave it there, though, for toxic climates exist in the Church, just as much as anywhere else. Those who are accused of causing division in the Letter of Jude, those who are described in verses not included in the lesson as ‘grumblers and malcontents, [who] indulge their own lusts [and] are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage’ aren’t some outside group; they are themselves Christians, members of the church. The Letter of Jude was clearly written in the context of bitter disputes within the Church, disputes between those who would later come to be referred to as orthodox believers on the one hand and heretics on the other. As we heard at the beginning of the lesson, the issue was, as the author states, that ‘certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who…pervert the grace of God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’. It was clearly felt that matters of crucial importance were at stake here, but it’s to the eternal credit of the author that invective, insult and abuse is discouraged. Instead he urges, ‘Build yourselves up on your most holy faith…and have mercy on some who are wavering’.

‘Have mercy on those who are wavering’. We might paraphrase that along the following lines: ‘Be courteous, respectful, gentle, sensitive and generous to those you disagree with. Listen to them carefully. Seek to learn from them where you can, but persuade them otherwise where you think they can learn from you. Above all, have compassion and humility, knowing that none of us is in possession of the whole truth. So have mercy not only on others, but also on yourself. Where you have to part company, do so with kindness and civility, for stridency and rigidity only separate and divide, whereas love builds up and unites, and leaves the door open.

Sadly, the Church hasn’t always adopted such an approach. Even the gospels themselves show evidence of the use of invective against opponents. The Gospels of Matthew and John, for example, both demonise opponents. In the case of Matthew, it’s the Scribes and Pharisees who are the target of harsh language, and in John it’s those referred to simply as ‘the Jews’. This designation in the Gospel of John has been particularly uncomfortable for the Church, because it’s been used as an excuse for anti-Semitism throughout its history. How, in any case, could such invective be attributed to Jesus himself, the one who certainly spoke the truth at great cost to himself, and yet who embodied the virtues of love, compassion and forgiveness?

One possibility is that these two gospels, in particular, reflect the bitter controversies in the latter part of the first century, when it’s thought that Christians began to be excluded from synagogues. The hurt that Christians felt is perfectly understandable, but the language used in Matthew about the Scribes and Pharisees is directly at odds with Jesus’ own teaching in the same gospel, ‘You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’.

Such loving is about more than just the words we use, it’s also about actions, the way we behave. And yet words are hugely important. As the Letter of James puts it:

‘Look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire’.

We don’t know for sure who the Jude was who wrote the letter which bears his name in the Bible. We can be extraordinarily grateful, though, that in this 25-verse letter, matters of significant disagreement are addressed with conviction, yes, but above all with love, mercy and compassion. It’s a model which all of us, both inside and outside the Church, have much to learn from. After all, the words we use and the way we speak can be used either to spread poison, or to be one of the antidotes to deal with the toxicity which affects us all. As the author implies, the most powerful antidote of all is to keep ourselves in the love of God, to let it shape and transform us, so that in our words and actions it is really Christ speaking and acting.

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