Sunday 30th June 2019
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Genesis 27.1-40
Mark 6.1-6

When I was in business there was a standard crisis procedure which involved hiring an external consultant to make a report which, more often than not, was put on a shelf to gather dust while things went on their old not so sweet way. Meanwhile, the senior people inside the organisation, regardless of whether they had been responsible for the crisis or had warned against it, were totally ignored.

In fairness it must be pointed out that introducing an outsider is easier for most organisations or communities whether the purpose is impartial analysis, problem solving or mediation but such introductions are a measure of organisational and community failure.

We see this failure in the denunciation of Jesus by his own community. The aphorism that a prophet is without honour in his own country has almost turned into an incontestable truth but, as I have just said, this inability to handle internal conflict is a mark of failure. The community of Jesus could not come to terms with what he had to say about the good news of the coming of the kingdom: they just wanted to keep things as they were religiously; so if Jesus was not offering a revolution against the Romans they were not interested.

In our first Reading from Genesis, conflict is handled in a very different way. There is rivalry for the succession to Isaac where he favours Esau over his twin brother Jacob, even though The Lord had told their mother Rebekah that Esau would serve Jacob. Then, in one of the most colourful stories in the Bible, God's dynastic wishes are fulfilled through a piece of monstrous deception. If one needs any further proof that the Bible is an unreliable guide to ethics, you have it in this story. There are other equally alarming cases but none so blatant as this.

It seems to me that one of our problems as a country, our problem within communities, is that we have lost the ability to handle difference. I used to get bored in London taxis by grumpy drivers saying that all politicians were too interested in their own point of view and they should all work together in a coalition. And, lo and behold, there came a coalition and when the Liberal Party made a compromise by dropping its promise on university student fees it was universally condemned for breaking a promise. Under such circumstances, our only option is a winner-takes all solution which is what Isaac faced with his two sons and is what we face with a no deal Brexit on the one hand and remain on the other. We are heading towards a winner-takes all solution which leaves the other side with nothing.

Before we go any further, however, it is important to enter a qualification. There are some things on which it is impossible to compromise. We can, for example, compromise on the manner of our leaving the EU but, ultimately, we are either in or out. And sometimes when we try to make a compromise where there really isn't one, we end up with the situation we have in the Church of England whereby new male Priests are still allowed, after almost 20 years, to say that women cannot be priests. So we need to be careful with difficult cases.

Nonetheless, self-interest rather than pure principle is the root of almost all disagreements and it follows that we could immediately radically reduce friction in society if we were able to reduce our self-interestedness.

The 20th Century's greatest political theorist, John Rawls, said that we should make all social and economic decisions as if we were acting behind a veil of ignorance where we do not know our position in society, nor our strengths and weaknesses but, clever though this formulation is, we should, as Christians, not need it.

How do we think pursuing our self-interest, our economic advantage, our view of society, our level of rhetoric, our depth of intransigence (in the name of principle, of course) line up with the fundamental Christian obligation to love our neighbour? Do we really believe that this obligation is limited to personal relations?

Yet, even if we do, the sacrifice of self-interest still applies. We know in our family lives that we often need to make sacrifices for those we love but do we recognise that all love may involve sacrifice? Or, to put it the other way round, if we are to love our neighbour as ourselves we will be extremely lucky to get by without sacrifice.

When we think again about a prophet being without honour in his own country, we may think that that is a price the outspoken must pay, but we should give a thought for the prophet. Is it really necessary that people who tell the truth should have to suffer for it? What does it say about our society when we accept that honesty, far from being rewarded, is punished? All my life I have been told that honesty is the best policy and all my life I have found it to be just the opposite: it may be good morality but it's certainly bad policy. Do we really think that the most honest candidate for the Premiership will win? I doubt it: we have made a Faustian pact with our politicians whereby we endorse their dishonesty in practice but renounce it in principle. The problem for us is, as in the case of loving our neighbour, that practice must emerge from principle, otherwise the principle is worth nothing.