Posted by: owizblog | September 14, 2014

Beyond This… Sermon, UCB, 14 Sept 2014 (Referendum Week)

Would you like a picture of where I felt myself to be, as I started preparing this sermon this morning?

Here I am, balanced exactly between the hopes and expectations of people who will go into the little booth on Thursday and answer the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” with a cross by Yes, and those who will put their cross by No.

And there’s an abyss on either side that I don’t want to fall into. Because I want to preach the Gospel this morning to all of you, and not to half of you.

And I want to speak to them all – to you all – in a way that each option, each conviction, will find equally useful. And I want to suggest to you that I have discovered that that’s possible, because today, the Sunday before the Independence Referendum, we are all in the same place.

I’d like to use a couple of images to lead us into the very complicated thoughts we will all have today, at the beginning of an exceptionally important and complicated week for the whole of our society.

Here’s a picture of a vote. Fittingly, it’s more of a referendum than an election:


This is a Greek drinking vessel, depicting a scene from Homer’s Illiad. We’re outside the walls of Troy. Achilles has been killed, and Ajax and Odysseus have laid claim to his weapons and armour, and all the prestige that their possession will carry. The Greeks vote on what is to happen – and they do it by casting pebbles. “Pebble” in Greek is psephos, and that’s where we get our word for the scientific study of elections – psephology.

And they throw their pebbles into one of two piles, here:

Iliad 2

…and here.


Odysseus wins, and poor old Ajax doesn’t take it terribly well. To say the least….

alea jacta est

“alea iacta est…” said Caesar, as he strode across the river Rubicon in BC.

“The die is cast…”

The Rubicon was the boundary, the border between the province of Gaul-This-Side-Of-The Alps, where Caesar was entitled to command his army as a Roman General, and the Roman homeland, where to enter with an army was instantly to become a rebel General, as Caesar was about to do.

“alea iacta est…” “The die is cast…”

This week contains two of the biggest days that Scotland will have known in the last half-millennium. It occurs to me that it’s probably not Thursday, when we will do our democratic duty as an electorate of over four million people, and declare our choice personally, that weighs with us, but Friday, when we move from the individual to the collective, and discover what the society of which we are a part has chosen for its future, that exercises us all.

And that’s common ground. For you, and for the pretty much half of the population who will vote the other way to you, just as for me, Friday is a day which will begin with huge anxiety.

We will all share that, and I’d like to invite you to sit in that anxiety for a moment, and pay attention to it, because it’s what we all share, and, oddly enough, it’s what makes us all one. Yes or No, Union or independence, and, come Friday, in the small majority or the small minority, we need to grasp, as the Referendum approaches, the things that do put us all in the same situation, that make this a shared situation as the electoral dice are thrown.

I’m going to suggest to you that the huge passage we just heard Len read tells us something we desperately need to hear this morning. It tells us that, as the Referendum approaches, whatever our intention on Thursday, indeed whether or not we know yet how we are going to vote, we are all in the same situation – because we are all part of one whole, and that that won’t change through the next week, or on into the future whatever it is.

A people terrified, trembling on the brink of a future they can’t see or understand. In fact, from where they stand, they can’t see the future at all. They are convinced that they stand on the brink of a catastrophe, the loss of everything.

I’d like you to pause for a moment, and do something very important. If you are clear how you are going to vote – and I’m not asking you to consider changing your mind! – I’d like you to imagine all those whose feelings are equal and opposite to yours. Just as strong, just as sure that the alternative to the result they desire is catastrophe and darkness. If you can think of someone whom you like, love, respect, who disagrees with you over this issue, that is perhaps best of all. Because if you can think of your own apprehension and fear, and see that other people share that with you, you will have gone a long way to restoring something very important.

The people of Israel stand in a situation in which every one of them perceives a deadly threat. But it’s a complicated perception.

What terrifies them most?

Is it the barrier of the Red Sea in front of them, which stops them dead, which is the catastrophe which is about to engulf them?

Or is it Pharaoh’s malicious army, bent on revenge and destruction?

They could disagree about the nature of the threat, and their fear and horror at what they see approaching could divide them, and fill them with despair and bitterness – and on that stretch of desert sand, among that terrified people, that’s exactly what happens:

And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD; and they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, `Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

It’s hard to see anxiety and fear as things that unite us. We tend to look for positive things, and to spin things as positive, and anxiety and fear aren’t positive.

But truth is always positive – to give things their true weight and significance is positive, however difficult. And yes, it’s hard to see anxiety and fear as things that unite us, but they do, because they tell us that we really are all in the same boat. And because that is the truth – that in one very important sense we are all in the same place this week – we really need to grasp that.

Moses does. Moses addresses the people in their place of anxiety and fear.

Human affairs on every scale are a mixture, of decision and dependence, of choice and powerlessness. These are the components of the Exodus, too.

Last week, we sat at the Passover table, in chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, with a terrified people, powerless before the genocidal power-politics of Pharaoh, and the awful events of that ghastly night that play themselves out just beyond the walls and marked lintels of their houses.

Then comes their liberation, and they seize it, and leave. The sense of power and purpose in the narrative is unmistakeable. They make their choice and grasp their opportunity.

And now, here they are, powerless, with the Red Sea in front, and Pharaoh’s vengeful army thundering up from behind. And God knows what they will do now… Human affairs on every scale are a mixture, of decision and dependence, of choice and powerlessness.

We feel that we cast our vote, deliberately, on the principles which motivate us; we throw the dice, and it’s out of our hands…


In the fifth series of the American television drama about the Presidency, The West Wing, there’s a moment at the very end of an election campaign when Will Bailey, one of the people in charge of all the efforts in a seemingly hopeless California congressional districts, is being lectured by his sister, who tells him that he’s done enough, that the votes have been cast, and that he must disengage from it all and accept that it’s out of his hands. He responds:

“There’s a moment after you cast the die, before it hits the table. Breathe wrong, you’ll change the way it lands.”

He has thought himself into a moment where, it seems, everything stops – and everything has yet to be decided. A moment just after we have done what human beings do, and just before the results of that are set in stone.

There are things that we can only grasp properly in that moment. There are things about Thursday’s decision, and Friday’s result, that we can only grasp now, in this moment.

That this is not about half of us “winning” and half of us not. That this is about the hopes and fears of all of us, about our shared future, and about having to deal with what comes next.

This is a referendum, not an election. It isn’t about the promises that politicians make to us; it’s about the values and principles we take into the voting booth on Thursday. It’s about our conviction that the way we vote, whatever that is, will actually be better for the people who disagree with us, that this will be a better society if our choice prevails, for them as well as us. Because they aren’t the other side, they are our fellow-citizens, and we want the best for them as much as for us.

And what happens if our choice isn’t that of the majority?

Well, think of this.

The other side of the Exodus and the Red Sea, is the wilderness. For everybody. We may fear – however we intend to vote – that if “the other side” (in big inverted commas!) “wins” (in even bigger inverted commas!) that we will enter a wilderness.

Well here’s something to think about. We each need to recognize that if “my side” “wins”, if things go the way I want them to, we are still headed for the wilderness. Because that is where we must go. Where we need to go. A wilderness in which we will be searching for direction, for the way to journey, for an understanding of what our society is, and needs to become, even if Friday morning leaves us feeling that we have come through things, and come through in the way we feel is right.

And if that doesn’t happen – and inevitably there will be some folk hearing this here, now, whose experience that will be on Friday – we need to understand that we need to wrestle with that new reality, because the Scotland of the future won’t, can’t, mustn’t be shaped by only half the people. It has to be the story of all of us.

I’m now going to tell you something about the next week with absolute and unequivocal certainty. Three things, in fact The first of them is a platitude, and something nobody sane could possibly disagree with – with the possible exception of Dr Who.

The future is where we are headed, no matter what it is. And it will be starting to arrive long before Friday morning.

The second has me agreeing with John Calvin, possibly against Dr Who, though possibly not.

That future – our future – is already in God’s hands.

And here’s the third thing.

The future, where we are inevitably going, is a wilderness, not because it’s going to be awful, and terrible, and terrifying – because that isn’t what the wilderness was, or what it meant, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. No, the wilderness – the future – is the place, the only place, where all the difficulties can be met and wrestled with – the future, not the past. And where we are going is actually beyond the future. We have to go into the future, and accept its reality, to get beyond it. To accept God’s lead, to wrestle with God’s truth, God’s demand of us and of our shared life, our community, our society…

Where we are going is beyond the future. Beyond Thursday, and Friday, and next month, and next year.

We can’t see it from where we are this morning. But there is a beyond to Thursday. There is a beyond-Friday, a beyond-next-week, next year.

The Israelites stand before the Red Sea and see only a wall of water. They look at the forces converging on them, and see only hopelessness, destruction and death.

But Moses raises his staff, and leads them through all of that. Because Moses is the sign, and no more than that, of the presence of God, in the things that frighten us most, and the appearance of God’s impossible possibility out of the most closed, shut-off and hopeless of situations.

Every one of us, no matter how we vote on Thursday, is united by that, because that’s our faith.

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