A Sermon by the Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Romans 13 v 8-end; Matthew 18 v 15-20
“The Sultan of Oman has a flair for the dramatic.”
That’s how Hillary Clinton begins the chapter in her new book where she talks about the troubled relationship the international community has had with the political authorities in Iran over many years but especially during the Obama administration. ‘Hard Choices’ is the title of her biography where she describes her term of office as the American Secretary of State, that country’s chief diplomat and the President’s principal adviser on foreign policy.
She tells the story of how, in January 2012, just before the Arab Spring bursts into life and popular revolutions spread from Tunisia through Egypt to Libya and then Syria, the Sultan offered to help in brokering talks between the United States and Iran. Armed conflict seemed all too likely. The issues at the heart of the problem were Iran’s illicit nuclear programme and its sponsorship of terrorism. The sense of threat to regional and global security was escalating and the negotiations with the permanent members of the UN Security Council were going nowhere. I haven’t got time to tell you the rest of the story but the Sultan of Oman played a significant role as honest broker in this most delicate and potentially incendiary of international relations.
Our gospel reading in church this morning addresses the question of what you do if someone hurts, threatens or offends you. In the first church communities straight after the death and resurrection of Jesus they were no more perfect than we are in our institutions and personal relationships. So Matthew describes for us a system of conflict mediation they used within their church but which sounds awfully like that which Hillary Clinton relied upon in the highest levels of negotiations from Pakistan to Ukraine, from Burma to Gaza.
Just to recap: Matthew says, resolving conflict begins with talking to the person with whom the relationship has broken down or is severely damaged. That, of course, was impossible in the case of America and Iran for they had long ago severed diplomatic relations. But talking is critical and so Matthew also suggests that we find mediators, those who can be trusted as agents of reconciliation, and that’s where the Sultan of Oman came into the picture.
If that isn’t enough then you can make an appeal to a wider group who can make a fair judgment. Just about everyone had a part to play in the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme: the Gulf States, the United Nations, the Arab League, the NATO alliance. The UN Security Council had passed six resolutions in the years before the Secretary of State’s conversation with the Sultan, calling for Iran to honour its signature of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
But finally, Matthew admits that conflict might become so intractable that severe measures, even force, might be necessary. And in 2010 following the passing of a UN Resolution the strictest sanctions in history were imposed on Iran. In their very nature sanctions are an acceptance of failure and the hope is that their pressure will lead towards more reconciling measures.
As we worship together this morning two things are happening which are grasping our attention. One is the enduring and frightening violence in the Middle East, with some of the events I’ve just described contributing to the growth of a bloody and barbaric force moving across northern Iraq.
The other is the much more local and domestic reality of a new school term. The worlds of The Godolphin School or the Cathedral School may seem wholly removed from the geopolitics of the Middle East but they do have this in common: whatever the uncertainties of this academic year, whatever the achievements and endeavours that lie within it, there will be conflict within these school communities. That’s not because they’re unhappy schools – as someone who has been a Governor of both schools I know it to be true that they are immensely healthy and compassionately run organisations.
Yet conflict there will be because all of civil society in its many parts needs to cope with human failure; with betrayal, hostility and dark, possessive desires. From a school friendship which breaks down over petty jealousies to the intractability of nation states. Our gospel tells us that conflict is endemic to the human spirit and human society. But both our readings also give us ways to handle that reality.
Our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans reminded us of the commandment ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’ and then urged us to ‘live honourably’. Let me point up two things which those instructions say about dealing with conflict in our situation.
The first is highlighted in that word ‘honourably’ – live honourably - and is about our need for a moral vocabulary which we share.
We are moral beings, most of us hard wired for empathy and compassion and knowing right from wrong. If we cease to have a response when we see suffering then we have lost some essential sense of being human. You don’t have to be religious to hear this call from the heart of our being – to love our neighbour as ourselves, to feed the hungry, not to harbour a grudge or take revenge, not to be indifferent in the face of injustice. Our schools have all they need within them to pursue such ways of being and if they get practised then human spirits will be lifted and energised and equipped for a more resilient life.
That may seem obvious to you but consider that our Western liberal and democratic society seems to be working off a diminishing moral vocabulary. Just think of when was the last time you heard someone use the term duty, or honour, or virtue or obligation or shame or contrition or remorse. Now we could argue that such concepts have been replaced linguistically but it’s at least worth asking whether our moral vocabulary is collapsing.
When it comes to personal behaviour are we coming to believe that there is no wrong and right but only poor or better choices? Is social conformity becoming our primary standard – if everyone else is doing it, it can’t be wrong. And can we be heard to appeal that if it’s legal it’s okay. All these options are selling ourselves short when it comes to educating our inner moral code.
‘Live honourably, as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’
Which leads to my second point which is that we need resources to deal with our inevitable conflicts.
There’s a long and distinguished debate about whether a religious faith adds anything to the task of being a stable, peace-loving and moral society. Might it even be a toxic influence, reinforcing intolerance and condoning inhumane behaviour?
When Paul urges us to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ he clearly believes that being a Christian will lead to habits of human society of which we could rightly be proud and which can help us heal our conflicts. How does it do it?
· Faith teaches us the habits of virtue by encouraging us to see a reflection of what is divine, what is of God, not just in those you love but in your neighbour, in those who irritate you, in those who have damaged you, in those who frighten you. Loving your neighbour as yourself starts with seeing something lovely and mysterious and infinitely worthwhile in others. Seeing them as God sees them.
· Faith also challenges us to do ethically demanding things. There are plenty of human adventures on offer but faith asks of us the really challenging lifestyles: to help the needy, comfort the bereaved, make radical friendships, give away our money, to care for the powerless.
· Faith takes seriously doing all of this in the context of community. It takes a community to sustain the kind of moral life which can bring about co-operation and reconciliation.
· And only faith can show us how to find in ourselves mercy and forgiveness when we do commit adultery, murder or steal or covet, as we will.
Loving your neighbour as yourself is no easy matter. If all we do is to make our own choices, gratify our desires, argue that it’s legal so it must be okay, and point out that everyone else does it then conflict will increase, and the strength of civil society will diminish.
To truly love your neighbour needs faith, for faith promises to give us the ability to see ourselves joined to others by the uniting force of God’s love. May that be as true for the peoples of the Middle East as it is for our schools and our society in the year ahead.