15th Per Annum 2019 – SMC
It never ceases to amaze me just how tribal people can sometimes be. One of the situations in which people’s tribalism often comes out is at football matches. Now, I have the misfortune of being a naturally dutiful sort of person who thought it would be a good idea to follow my Dad’s team, and thus I am in the rather dire situation of being a Southampton fan. At one time in my life I used to follow Southampton quite closely both home and away, and always enjoyed going to live matches. There are two stands in the stadium where the most vocal fans tend to sit, and they are called the ‘Northam’ stand, and the ‘Itchen’ stand. Throughout the game you can hear these two stands vying with each other for who can cheer their team on the loudest. You will hear the chant, “We’re the Northam, we’re the Northam, we’re the Northam and we’re ‘ere!” followed closely by, “We’re the Itchen, we’re the itchen, we’re the itchen and we’re ‘ere…” There is a sort of friendly competitiveness here, which is probably seen in many football grounds around the country, as to who loves their team more, and who can demonstrate this love in sonic form.
Even at away games this atmosphere is recreated. I once went to see Southampton away at a pre-season friendly game at Brentford. The game meant nothing at all really; the two teams weren’t even in the same league and the season proper hadn’t even started. I suddenly heard the familiar tune beginning, but how would they chant here? This wasn’t their home stadium, they wouldn’t know the names of the stands! I heard the old battle cry go up, but with a small adaptation to fit the new circumstances: “We’re the right side, we’re the right side, we’re the right side and we’re here…” What strikes me about this is how as human beings we are constantly trying to put ourselves into smaller and smaller groups of people who all share similar ideals or goals. I mean, you would have thought that 30,000 Southampton fans herded together into a stadium in a small city on the south coast of England would be an embittered enough minority, but even within that small group we split ourselves into smaller groups. We’re all Southampton, but our stand is better, but our block is better, but our row is better…all the way down until all you have is yourself.
We expect that belonging to a particular group of people will make us safer in the world. Other people who are also members of our group will be predisposed to treat us well and look out for us, and this will mean that we will survive better in situations of potential danger. There is certainly a logic to it, and in many ways being aware of our group-identity is not a bad thing. We live in a world where it has always profited us to know that if we are a salmon we should avoid friendships with bears. I will certainly not be wearing my Southampton shirt in Portsmouth town centre any time soon. This is because we live in a world where differences between groups do have an undeniable significance. In today’s gospel though we see how group differences dissolve under strain, and even more significantly, so do similarities. The traveller in our story today soon finds out that the ties that are supposed to bind us together, are very often thrown aside as soon as we leave the safety of our normal world behind.
The grim spectre of violence has visited this man, and he lies by the side of the road in a very bad way indeed. This is where you want your friends to really rally round you and yet it is the most unlikely person that offers assistance, and the traveller is forced into the uncomfortable conclusion, as is the lawyer to whom Jesus tells the story, that the one who showed the man mercy is his neighbour, even if he is from a group of people who are widely despised.
The conclusion for us is, I’m afraid, just as uncomfortable in many ways. We can all probably think of examples during this past week even, when we have not done enough to help a fellow human being. I don’t say ‘fellow’ meaning, someone from our own comfort-zone, or friendship circle, or age-group, or ethnic-group, but ‘fellow’ meaning, whoever we are confronted with in that moment. Our neighbour could be anyone that we meet, and indeed is everyone that we meet, all equally deserving of compassion and respect. It is this radical reappraisal of what we value that Jesus was always seeking to present to his listeners. The word ‘repent’, that Jesus so often uses in the gospels, means in the Greek, ‘to turn around’. I think this is a wonderful distillation of Jesus’ message into a simple gesture, that contains so much profound meaning. ‘Turn around’; look at something you have been looking at every day of your life, but look at it with new eyes, having turned back on your past self and agreed to live your life in a radically different, perhaps radically difficult, way. It is not just those whom we share similarities with that we must help, but everyone, all the time.
I was at Chalk Farm tube station the other day and outside was a woman sitting on the floor crying. It is the sort of situation is inwardly dread, and then feel very guilty for dreading. Here was someone who clearly needed some help. It wasn’t immediately obvious what she needed, but it was clear that she was upset. I was in a bit of a rush, but could have spared a couple of minutes. I thought to myself, “Well, she probably just wants money and I haven’t got any on me anyway”, even though that wasn’t true either. In the end I made all sorts of excuses to myself and didn’t stop to ask how she was. I’m not saying this because it’s what you should do, but probably because it’s exactly the opposite. Then the thought came to me, “What if this was in a few years time and I was a priest in clericals, could I have walked past her then?” Would I have made myself into that Priest in the Gospel story today? Because I’m sure we would all like to be everyone’s neighbour in theory, it’s just that in practice it might be quite late, and you might feel a bit embarrassed, and you might not know what to say, and actually in practice being someone’s neighbour is quite difficult.
But Jesus didn’t every do anything just ‘in theory’. He was the ultimate example of someone who acted out his love for people in a wonderfully real and vivid way. He would always have been the man’s neighbour, that is why he could say, “Love one another as I have loved you” and that could really mean something. He didn’t just love the people he was supposed to love, because they were Jews, or because they sat in the right section of the ground. Yet we are tribal; we like to feel like we belong. We find it easier to look after the people we think are ‘like us.’ I suppose that’s one of the wonderful things about Christianity: that through membership of Christ’s body, we become the same. We still have all our many differences and these are wonderful and should be celebrated, but now we are all part of one body together, a people connected by a shared bond of love.
Of course I didn’t feel good for not helping that lady the other day, and I know that Jesus wouldn’t have walked on by. Maybe I would’ve helped her if she’d been a Southampton fan? I could delude myself into thinking. If it had been a more convenient time? Extremity seldom visits us when it is convenient. If it did could it even be called extremity? Then I think about what I would have done if it had been my niece there, crying on the floor. I couldn’t have left her for more than a second. So I realise that this is what we do when we restrict our surroundings and interactions; when we place limits on our love – I can only love this person if they are related to me, if they think the same way, if they support the right team. My failure to act and to help that woman, was a terrible failure of love.
Jesus love did not fail, ever, and it never will. That is quite a remarkable thing. Imagine how it would be to love everyone. Imagine how many times a day your heart would break, seeing all the foolish and destructive things human beings do to one another. I would suggest that if I had enough love for that lady, I wouldn’t see her as an inconvenience and an obstacle, but as someone who could grow my love for humanity and myself, and could lead us both towards Christ, who should always be what we are aiming towards. So if we are to be part of a tribe, why not be part of a tribe that defines itself by not leaving anyone outside it. There is no selection process for who we consider our, ‘neighbours’ to be, because as soon as one group is ‘in’, another must be ‘out’. As soon as we exclude people from the circle of our love, that circle gets narrower, until we are led inexorably to the position where there is only one person left to love, and then we are truly alone. Luckily for us though, we have as a model someone whose love was limitless. It feels to me as if we must pray for that overwhelming love for all people to inhabit our own hearts, so that stopping for our neighbour will not feel like a chore or a duty, but a joyful opportunity to show our love for our fellow beings. It’s like Jon Snow said at the end of ‘Game of Thrones’, “Love is the death of duty”.