One New Year’s Eve at London’s Garrick Club, British dramatist Frederick Lonsdale was urged by his friends to reconcile with a fellow member. The two had quarrelled in the past, and never restored their friendship. “You must,” they said to Lonsdale, “it is very unkind to be unfriendly at such a time. Go over now and wish him a happy New Year.”
Lonsdale crossed the room and spoke to his enemy, “I wish you a happy New Year,” he said, “but only one.”
What we need now as a nation is to look towards reconciliation. Through these last months we’ve been through a bitterly divisive referendum campaign. A campaign that has been of equally poor quality on both sides of the debate, the result of which is more animosity and disagreement than was ever necessary, with division within families, communities, organisations, churches, across the whole of the United Kingdom. Whichever side we took, our task now is to begin to look for reconciliation and healing, to seek to build up community and common life, to concentrate upon what unites us.
Post referendum there are those who are elated, those who are relieved, and there are those who are desperately disappointed, “gutted” – is a phrase that I have frequently heard. Feelings like these will take time to heal, and there is no quick fix, no easy “dusting down”. For some, this referendum has been about national identity; for us all it has been about self-identity and that is about as close to the soul as it gets. So recovery and healing is a soul searching matter, therefore a deeply spiritual matter, so no quick fixes.
Instead, it will take a force of magnanimity and graciousness to restore equilibrium across the UK, across communities. But God is all about magnanimity and grace, and so the role of God, and therefore the Church, Christ’s body, is to help people to stretch out a hand of friendship to those who did not support the side we supported. How we voted on one particular day does not define who we are. How we work together to put in place what the democratic process has determined will be defining, both for us as individuals and for us as we work to redefine the United Kingdom.
In Proverbs we were reminded of the need to always speak gently and carefully, and the reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia reminds us of gentle and kind fruits of the spirit.
As we look to the future, as determined by the people of the United Kingdom, we need to believe that if we play fair with one another, and do justice to one another, and listen to one another, especially those who feel they are never listened to, then God can bring healing. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel continues this need for magnanimity and graciousness. Jesus challenges us not just to walk one mile with someone, but to walk the second, and he actually goes as far as to say that the “first shall be last and the last shall first” and, that of course, is the extraordinary measure of God’s love and grace.
Today those who may be feeling let down, bereft, anxious, angry – need to find that on the other side there are those who are prepared to be magnanimous, generous, and inclusive in their approach to what happens next. And although it’s not possible for the result to be reversed so that the first shall be last and the last shall first – there is an imperative that we make the last feel like they are first. That would be grace, perhaps as close as we can get to the grace of God shown to us in Jesus.
Of course, that cryptic maxim that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”, has nothing to do with being the runner-up – runner-up spot means you have competed and competed well. The last in this parable are those who hardly even get into the race:
The last are women and men, who can see no road out of the poverty in which they live.
The last are children who endure poverty of opportunity.
The last are women abused by men who exploit.
The last are those marginalised by social exclusion, by illness, by advancing years.
Let’s make the least and the last the focus of our attention as we imagine our future.
Nineteen years ago there was a referendum in Wales to establish an Assembly. The result was by the narrowest of margins, but Wales has found a way to move forwards, to heal division, and that might be an example of God’s healing at work.
Engraved around the mace of the Scottish Parliament are the shared values of the Scottish people: justice, wisdom, integrity, and compassion; whether you saw the way to a better United Kingdom through the lens of Leave or Remain, those are the kinds of values so that will make the United Kingdom a fairer, more just, more equal, and more inclusive society.
And, of course, these are values of the Christian faith. Light, for me, is shed on each one of these values through my faith, but God calls us to join with people of all faiths and none; with institutions, political parties, academics, the rich and the poor, any who share these same values, and to work for these values by every means possible. This is God’s healing, and God’s building up of our common life.
If you were trying to escape the referendum campaigning a few weeks ago, you may have noticed the Invictus Games held in May. The Invictus Games were the brainchild of Prince Harry, and he involved both the Queen and the Obamas in some clever publicity. Prince Harry decided that injured servicemen could be helped to recovery through sport, and through competition in sport. Invictus means “unconquerable”, and the women and men competing demonstrated that the human spirit is just that: “unconquerable”.
The reason I refer to those Games is because of an image from the very first ones in 2014. Three injured serviceman raced the race of their lives. As you do in team pursuit cycling, you feed off each other’s slip stream as you open up a gap on the other riders. These three did this to perfection. Then 40 minutes into the race with Gold, Silver, and Bronze assured the bell rang, and all they had to do was race for the line to establish who would be first, second, and third.
But they decided to be counter-cultural and counter-intuitive; instead, as the commentator prepared the commentary that would take them to the finish; they formed a line, joined hands, and crossed the tape together. These were naturally competitive young men, but they knew that there was something more important than winning. So in the spirit of those games, they decided that there should be no winners and losers. And in the spirit of those games the organisers made them all winners, and awarded three gold medals – that would not happen in other competitive arena.
Ordinarily, no one remembers those who come second. But that must not happen in the context of what has been the most important, most intense, and most significant race that any of us has seen in our time and in our country. Somehow we have to line up now, hold hands, and build the future together.