Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 10th July 2016

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23

I’ve just got back from a few days on business in Hamburg. Hamburg is one of my favourite places. As well as being a very beautiful city, a city on a lake, as well as being a very important industrial centre and port, full of life and culture, two universities, two opera houses, a world-class concert hall, a symphony orchestra, and so on, it is also the friendliest city in Germany towards Brits.

They say, ‘When it rains in London, they put their umbrellas up in Hamburg.’ I am very proud to belong to the Anglo-German Club, which is a Pall Mall style club with about 1000 members, which was founded at the end of the Second World War to revive the friendship between the people of Hamburg and the people of the UK. It is situated in a beautiful mansion on the side of the Alster lake.

I met a number of friends last week, a number of German friends. You can imagine that there was an ‘elephant in the room’, something which we had to air before anything else. A typical conversation went this way:
‘What did you do? You were our friends; but now we are not sure. You seem to have rejected us.’ I, of course, as a convinced European and a Remain voter, was extremely embarrassed and apologetic, but I couldn’t get over the fact that a majority of our population have voted to leave the EU.

What happens next? What is the right thing to do? I couldn’t answer my friends in Hamburg. What, indeed, did our country vote for?

It is a difficult question to find out what we as a people actually want to do with the decision to leave the EU. Never mind what we don’t want to do – we don’t want to be part of the EU: but where does that take us?

Is it the case that the people wanted to save £350 million a week and pay it all to the NHS – which is what the Brexit people were promising right up to the end? Although the Brexit people refused to withdraw the promise, as soon as the results had been declared, they admitted that it was not true. There is no more money for the NHS, at least from that source. It never existed.

Does it mean that we are content to allow the NHS to suffer really severe staff shortages rather than continue to employ over 100,000 immigrants in it as we do at present?

Does the vote to leave mean that we should stop immigration into this country completely? Over half of the immigration into this country now is from countries outside the EU, and these migrants are already subject to the ‘Australian-style’ criteria which those in favour of Brexit were arguing for. It still resulted in 180,000 immigrants coming in from outside the EU. Perhaps again, the truth is rather different from the way things were put in the campaign. Perhaps we really need the immigrants.

But, if the popular will really is that there should be a greatly reduced number, does this mean that we don’t want to participate in the single market any more? Freedom of movement of labour is a non-negotiable requirement for entry into the single market. You can’t have it both ways, as Boris Johnson claimed you could.

And so on. All these unresolved questions. I think maybe that some people who voted to leave the EU, if they had met my German friends, and heard what my friends were saying, like “You don’t want us any more; you have rejected us”: might try to say, “Oh no, that’s not what we wanted at all. That’s not what we intended. You are still our friends.”

How? Perhaps people don’t realise that what we have just done as a country is perceived, by the people I met in Germany at least, as doing enormous damage to the European Union. It’s a funny thing for real friends to have done. We might not look like friends any more.

Can we get any guidance from what the Bible says to us today? In today’s Old Testament lesson, there is the story of Jacob coming face-to-face with God. There is the mysterious all-night wrestling bout in which Jacob ends up with a dislocated hip. He brings the bout to an end by demanding and getting from the other side a blessing, a blessing from the mysterious nocturnal wrestler who attacked him.

Perhaps it was a bit like Cato attacking Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther; the idea being to keep Jacob on his mettle, on his toes. The place where it happened, Peniel, means, in Hebrew, ‘face to face with God’. It’s a legend. Other ancient writings, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, are said to have similar weird stories about the founders of nations. But it is a very important story, as it marks the founding of the new nation of Israel.

How annoying it is that we, who are looking at, if not the founding of a new nation, at least a revolution in our constitution, how annoying that we have not bumped into God in the way that Jacob did at that crucial time. It would be very good for us to get some confirmation, even indeed after some kind of contest, that we were on the right lines, whichever path we eventually choose: that we are blessed by God.

Think how confused the Pharisees must have felt when Jesus was ticking them off about being hypocrites, playing things by the rules, by the Jewish law, rather than trying to discern what God really wanted.

Why do you wash your hands before you eat? It’s quite interesting that things seem to have gone full circle since the time of Jesus. A lot of the instructions in the Old Testament about what to eat and what not to eat, we would say now, are pretty soundly based in food hygiene. Pork, in a hot country, goes off very quickly, so it’s probably a good idea to steer clear of it.

Similarly, washing your hands before you eat is sensible, because it prevents the transmission of diseases. But then Jesus comes along, and says that it is not what you eat that will do you harm, not what comes in from outside, but the bad stuff that you have in your heart, what comes out from inside you, that causes the trouble.

A philosopher today might well say that Jesus was making what’s called a ‘category mistake’ for the sake of his argument here. The dirt on your hands when you are about to eat is not the same ‘dirt’ as dirty thoughts inside you. They are two different types of ‘dirty’, and strictly speaking, Jesus is confusing them.

I can see that the Pharisees might well have been confused. Why is the Jewish law such a bad thing? It was almost that they were being faced with a kind of revolution. Their old way of life was being upset. After the Brexit vote, we also have been thrown into confusion. What should we do?

What would Jesus have done? Jesus would have been very clearly opposed to the rise of xenophobia and race hatred – a 43% increase in reported race hatred crime – which appears to have been stirred up by the referendum. Of course not everyone who voted for Brexit is a racist or a xenophobe, but it does look as though a significant number of racists and xenophobes have been encouraged in their views by the vote for Brexit.

The Pharisees should have been reassured when Jesus said he came ‘not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it’ (Matt. 5:17): for in fact, Jesus endorsed the Jewish tradition: love your neighbour as yourself, which goes back to the book of Leviticus, chapter 19: and think of all the references in Deuteronomy to looking after the stranger, the alien in your midst, alongside widows and orphans. Love God – and love your neighbour.

In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, the hero, the Samaritan, was not a Jew; he was a foreigner (Luke 10). Or think of the Roman centurion in Capernaum whose servant Jesus healed (Matt. 8), possibly the same centurion who in Acts 10 was called Cornelius: he was definitely not a Jew, but his faith, said Jesus, was greater than anyone else’s he had met, even in Israel. To Jesus, being a foreigner was completely all right.

Think of how the gospels spread. First it was a gospel for the Jews. For the chosen people. Then, mainly through St Paul’s good offices, it became known also to the Gentiles, to the nations of the earth; ourselves among them. No one then was uniquely qualified, by their nationality, to be saved; so why should we, who happen to live here, keep out others who are poor and who are trying to find a place where they can have a better life than where they came from, by working hard? What is the Christian attitude to that?

What do we want now, what did we vote for, in the referendum? There is a Christian way of looking at it; as we weigh up all the twists and turns into which the Brexit vote has led us, we should all remember to try to discern what Christ would have done.