A sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury
Proverbs 3: v13-18; 2 Corinthians 4: v1-6; Matthew 9: v9-13
We worship today in the context of two big disagreements which have been making our headlines. The one which has occupied all our thinking this last week is the Scottish referendum on independence. The other is the threat of Islamic State, the child of the war in Syria, which has brought the barbaric beheadings of Aid workers and journalists to our TV screens. Islamic State, like the recent conflict in Gaza, has made us all wonder if there is any way to resolve the global disagreements which get played out in the Middle East. Doesn’t it also make us all deeply grateful that the potential transfer of power within the regions of the United Kingdom can be considered through the ballot box and without violence?
On September 21st we celebrate the life and witness of St Matthew, apostle and evangelist. Matthew’s story tells us that Jesus lived his life, as we do ours, in the context of some big disagreements; groups of people alienated from one another, seeing the world from entirely different perspectives.
Over and over again in the gospel narratives we have mentioned the big disagreement between the Pharisees and what are described as the ‘tax collectors and sinners’. To understand how the dynamics of that disagreement played out you need to imagine yourself into the world of Jewish society when the oral stories of Jesus were finding themselves into the written form we call ‘Matthew’s gospel’.
In the year 70AD the Roman occupiers of Jesus’ homeland had lost patience with the Jewish people and torn down the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple Jesus knew, and in which sacrifices were offered for the atonement of the people, was virtually razed to the ground. Out of this blow to their religious life grew a more self-conscious and aggressive form of Pharisaism, self-appointed custodians of the Jewish faith, desperately anxious about Jewish disunity and the loss of a well-boundaried distinctive faith. And out of that fear grew intolerance. Pharisees means ‘separated ones’ and their focus around the time Matthew’s gospel was written would have been to help the faithful Jew to adjust to the trauma of losing the Temple rites. To help in that adjustment one of them promoted the text from Hosea, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ as part of their negotiation of a world without that worship in Jerusalem. You can understand why the Pharisees were particularly antagonistic to those they saw practising a diluted religion, those who, like tax collectors, seemed to put personal gain before loyalty to the ancient covenant with God, those who like Matthew became rich on the proceeds of collaborating with the enemy, and those who called themselves Christians.
“When the Pharisees saw Jesus sitting at dinner with the tax collectors, they said to his disciples ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors?’” Jesus had to manoeuvre his way through the disagreement between Pharisees and tax collectors which wouldn’t go away, indeed we know it was still gaining in bitterness 50 years later.
In the same way disagreements often frame and define our lives. If we’re lucky they’ll be relatively small, domestic and manageable. Of course they might not feel small.
When I first arrived in Salisbury to be the Canon who looked after the Cathedral fabric there was a huge disagreement running about whether the city of Salisbury should have a new Ring Road. Lorries were making the life of the city centre unbearable and advocates of the Ring Road wanted to both improve the quality of life and take pressure off some ancient streets. But to do that involved changing the historic landscape with a new road cutting across untouched meadows. I’m sure you can imagine the way the arguments ran and it felt as if the Cathedral’s interests were going to get used by both sides if they possibly could.
From that day to this disagreements are commonplace in the life of Salisbury Cathedral – one of them this summer was whether to introduce a piece of art which divided opinion. It’s not because we’re a fractious place, on the contrary we’re rather peace-loving, but because we, like Jesus, live within the prevailing reality of disagreements.
Disagreement isn’t an option, it’s the context within which all of us live our lives. So the question becomes – not how do we avoid disagreements but how do we disagree well?
Whilst Scotland was deciding and Islamic State was terrorising this week, the College of Bishops of the Church of England met for three days. All of the working bishops gathered together and for a large proportion of their time they had conversations about sex. Last year whilst the General Synod was still disagreeing about whether to have women bishops a working group of bishops reported and said that our difference of views about gay relationships, especially gay clergy, threatens our well-being and our reputation so we need to talk about it and discover how we can disagree about these matters in a respectful and creative manner. It’s not about hoping we will all agree but it is about disagreeing well. And the bishops have just started that process off.
So here on St Matthew’s day – he who knew all about big disagreements – from our Scripture readings let me leave you with three encouragements, helping us to discover what it might mean to disagree well with each other.
From our Old Testament reading in Proverbs there’s the encouragement to be wise.
‘Happy are those who find wisdom . . . , her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths of peace.’
In the face of any disagreement we need to practise wisdom. That might mean we practise awareness about what we are really disagreeing about. How often in a family argument do we realise that what’s really driving the dispute is not where we started but something quite else which has hurt or offended us or of which we’re afraid?
Similarly let’s practice wisdom in identifying what is important enough to disagree about. Perhaps our first conversations need to be about why some things become so fundamental for us that they become highly charged.
It’s right we do a work of reconciliation in the Church of England about our differing attitudes to gay clergy but speaking personally I’d much rather we gave some of that energy to understanding the subject of money: for instance how all our wealth still leaves a billion people in abject poverty across the globe. Be wise.
Then, from our reading from 2 Corinthians, we heard the apostle Paul urge us to be merciful.
Disagreeing well needs us all to remember that we live under God’s mercy and we are bound as Christians to practise that mercy with others. We’re encouraged to be true to ourselves and our Christian values: not to practise cunning, not to lose heart, to live by integrity, respect, compassion – all those things which that small word ‘mercy’ encompasses.
How do we disagree? As Jesus says, we do well to recognise that we too are sick and in need of a physician. As we need mercy so we practise mercy.
Finally to our gospel reading where Jesus encourages us to be generous.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that if they want to learn their own favourite text “that God desires mercy not sacrifice” they might need to practice generosity and sit at the table with tax collectors, alongside those with whom they disagree.
Jesus was uncompromising about wanting Matthew the tax collector in his band of disciples but his generosity meant that he also wanted the Pharisees to sit at the table as well.
Disagree about things that are worth dividing over.
Be true to your values in the way you disagree.
Seek the welfare of those with whom you disagree.
And if we can practice these Scriptural encouragements we will be on our way to learning how to disagree well, maybe not agreeing with each other but still sitting at table together, united in the bread and the wine of the kingdom.