Living with the Tares

Sunday 18th November 2018
The Second Sunday before Advent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Daniel 3
[passage=Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43/]

It was our custom, in our mid-teens, to remove our caps as soon as we passed through the school gates. One day we were sternly reprimanded for this but I was not prepared to stay silent, protesting that the school had absolutely no jurisdiction once I was off the premises. The reply was that I was bringing the school into disrepute to which there really was no answer. At the present time, having been acquitted by the court with a defence that he was protecting innocent people against attack, the cricketer Ben stokes awaits a hearing from the cricket authorities for bringing the game into disrepute. And we can think of myriads of other examples of institutions being given or giving themselves quasi-judicial powers; and, if that were not enough, we are all subject to avalanches of judgments, mostly behind our backs, now massively supplemented by anonymous, frequently very nasty, judgments on social media by people who most often do not know the facts of a situation and, in any case, ignore the principle that what counts is motive, not outcome.

The Church is not exempt from this mania for micro meddling. I remember, for example, when I was on the General Synod, passing a measure which allowed a couple to get married in a church where one of the two had a "qualifying connection" to, say, a church which he or she had attended as a child. It was a simple enough measure but the House of Bishops published 40 pages of guidance. That is nothing, of course, to the two millennia accumulation of judgments on every aspect of human conduct.

But it has all gone too far. Evidence on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that people are fed up of being criticised by the elite as opposed, significantly, to the rich which accounts in good part for the popularity of Donald Trump and the Brexit result. Liberals, it seems, are very good at preaching tolerance but not so good at practising it, the result of which is that we have made space for people even less tolerant than ourselves; and so we fragile stalks of wheat are forced to live in the field with the rampant tares of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and the rest; a peculiarly appropriate but cruel form of justice.

But behind this rather superficial criticism of our tendency to judge when we should stay silent, to avoid confusing the necessity of civic justice with the irrelevance of religious justice, there lies a deeper truth which has never been more relevant than it is now; and that is that we forge community out of diversity not out of like mindedness. The danger we are now in is that we are beginning, in parallel with the United States, to equate difference with immorality.

I should say at this point that forging a language of community is terribly difficult. Six months after the 2016 Referendum I led a house group session on the need to find ways of talking to each other because otherwise the church community would simply use a strategy of avoidance to keep the peace. As a result of that session I lost one of my best friends; and so the process is not without risk, but it must be done because we are too often falsely secure, placing too much trust in civilisation, but although good manners are important, they are no substitute for the establishment and consolidation of trust. To know how rapidly community relations can disintegrate, we only have to remember the end of the Tito regime in the Balkans; it turned out that a civil war had only been prevented through the exercise of a dictatorship with a massive secret police service.

Which brings us to our Reading from Daniel which is one of the remarkable stories in the first half of the Book which demonstrates grudging admiration of the Jews by their enslaving Emperor, not a bad starting point in a situation of tension. Our own culture has a long history of grudging admiration but it has almost always been confined to the trivial: we are taught to "play the game", to admire the skills of our opponents at cricket, to lose gracefully at the horticultural show and admire our chief competitor's marrows; but this has hardly ever extended to the serious, particularly in the realm of politics where a spot of grudging admiration would do no harm. But the place where we need to concentrate most sincerely on building up community is within the domain of Christianity. In a theological sense, the dispute that tore the Eastern and Western Churches apart in the 11th Century was trivial; and the dispute that tore the Western Christian Church apart in the 16th Century was deliberately exacerbated by both sides. The state of Christianity is scandalous; but in addition to these ancient woes we are now on the brink of committing institutional suicide with vicious disputes over gender and sexual issues while the poor languish and the planet lurches towards destruction.

Never, I say never, was there a more crucial time, at the very least, to live and let live, to leave what we think are tares, to grow alongside ourselves whom, no doubt, we largely think of as wheat, until such time as the Lord's sickle passes through the field.

Usually in my sermons I paint a big picture and say in conclusion that we cannot be expected to do much but on this occasion I am departing from the usual to say that only through personal hard and persistent work can we build a strong church community, a strong civic community, and a much saner approach to the politics of necessary disagreement. This is not, as I noted earlier, without risk, but the cultural wars in which we are currently embroiled show every sign of being as brutal as those in the 16th Century in the name of God which led to war almost everywhere in Western Europe between 1520 and 1650. We are not there yet but a resort to hectoring will only make matters worse.

Our Reading from Matthew is one among many in that Gospel which shows Jesus not only to be a man of high principle but also one who is deeply pragmatic, a priceless combination which we should find it hard to resist for, if we cannot live among the tares we will surely perish.