Saturday, 25 June 2016

Decision Making

Sorry, it's been a while since I posted here, but in the light of the referendum this week, here are some thoughts based on this Sunday's readings.

Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Luke 9:51-end

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’


Everyday we are faced with choices. Some of them are easy: Shall I have toast for breakfast? Do I fancy a cup of tea. Shall I wear this shirt or that one? 

OK maybe for some that's not such an easy choice.

But some choices are far more difficult, and how we, as Christians, make those choices is probably far more important than the actual decisions that we make. This last week has seen the most momentous national choice made in a generation.T here will be some who are overjoyed and there will be some who are deeply disheartened and worried for their jobs and their children's futures.

My concern though is not with the decisions we make, it is the way in which we make them, about how the big, (and the small), decisions in life are informed not by what we believe, but how we allow what we believe to change us. The two readings today work together to make us take a very long, hard look at the ways in which we make our choices.

Let's begin with the Gospel reading as our leaping off point, and in order to understand this you need to know a little first century geography. The reading finds Jesus in Galilee, the area he has made his home. This is the turning point in Luke's Gospel as he begins to make his way towards Jerusalem in the south for the events he probably knows will lead to his death.

So Galilee is in the north and Jerusalem is in Judea, which is in the south. So what's the problem? It's merely that the quickest way from north to south is through the region of Samaria which lies more or less between them, and Jews and Samaritans really don't get on.

It's an ages old quarrel that can be traced back to the time when there was civil war in Israel between the northern tribes and the southern tribes leading to a divide. Excuse the slightly simplified history of what follows.
Israel in the north was conquered by the Assyrians who took the people of the northern tribes into exile and scattered them, hence the ten lost tribes of Israel that some of you may have heard of. Judah was invaded sometime later by Babylon and the same forced exile happened, but Babylon located the Jews in one place so that they could continue their culture and worship, and when Persia defeated Babylon the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland, thus remaining one nation. However, in the meantime the Assyrians had moved into the land formerly known as Israel, intermarrying with those who remained, and they had brought their gods with them, but gradually they began to focus their worship on the Israelite God, Yahweh, until we get to the strange place where both Samaritans and Jews worshipped the same God, but in general the Jews had low regard for the Samaritans because they weren't Israelites, or at the very least they were of mixed race.  So racial tensions ran high between the two regions. Yet if you were a Galilean heading southwards, the easiest way was through Samaria. In the past this had been no problem and Jesus had spent some time amongst the Samaritans, if you recall such events as meeting the woman at the well. 

 But this time was different.

It was clear that Jesus was heading for the temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans did not recognise that as a valid place of worshipping God since they had their own temple, and so Jesus was made unwelcome in the first village he entered. This causes James and John to want to call judgement down on them in terms for fire from heaven.  But Jesus rebukes them; he tells them off. He recognises the spirit in which they have made that decision as being wrong, being forged in the objectifying, dehumanising anger that never lies too far beneath simmering racial tensions.

If we turn now to St. Paul, we can see a lot more about what those decision-making principles might be based upon.  Paul sets up a duality, that we choose based on the desire of the Spirit or the desire of the flesh. If I'm honest I think this is an over-simplistic argument. I know that in my own mind I have to work very hard at discerning the foundation for any major decision, but it seems to me that the easiest way to consider this is that the desires of the flesh seem to have an inward facing arrow and the desires of the Spirit seem to have an outward facing one.

In other words, if I am making a decision based solely on what I think is good for me, then it will be an inward facing decision of the flesh. If I am primarily considering how my decision will affect others, then that is an outward facing spiritually based decision.  That's why, in St. Paul's words, the entire Jewish Law can be entirely summarised in one statement: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' 

So the rule in decision making seems to be abundantly clear, 'Am I choosing for my own self-interest or am I choosing because I care about the needs of others?'

If James and John had been able to set aside the racial tensions between Jews and Samaritans and instead see them as Jesus did, as ordinary people with the same hopes and dreams, then they would never have dreamt of trying to destroy them. But because they didn't love their neighbours they were able to objectify them, and once you've done that you have dehumanised them and their destruction ceases to be a moral issue.

There's footage of a lovely experiment doing the rounds on the internet at the moment. It has been shown by psychologists that if two people look deeply into each other's eyes for at least four minutes, they begin to feel connected and loving towards each other. The accompanying video has numerous people of different ages and races doing precisely this.  What follows is astonishing as the eye contact forces people to recognise that the person in front of them isn't an 'other'. They're not an immigrant or a Jew or an Indian or a German or a Pole. They are simply people. By the end they are hugging each other because they have been forced to see a common humanity. They have been forced to look outside, beyond themselves. [ ]

Isn't it remarkable that even our natural biological instinct seems to be to love our neighbour?

We simply need to get beyond the selfish inward desire to look at what 'I' want and focus instead on what 'we' need. The choice of 'Which shirt shall I put on this morning' becomes transformed into, 'Should I even buy this shirt if it was made in a sweatshop?'

If we give the Holy Spirit space, then we should see Her fruit develop within us. And do please note that St. Paul writes in the singular. All the attributes he mentions are part of one fruit, not many different fruits.

So, coming back to our present situation, there are going to be many changes in the future and it is quite possible that a space has been created into which division and factions may spread. That will surely happen if people like us forget that on top of loving God with all that we have we have to love our neighbour as ourselves and look to their needs and hopes, whoever they are and wherever they came from.

May we grow in the Spirit so that all of our decisions are based on the needs of others. I loved it when one retired couple told me that they asked their grandchildren which way they would like them to vote because they would inherit the decision.

May that kind of spirit dominate all our future decisions, that love for our neighbour forged in the power of the Holy Spirit should be our driving force.

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