Sunday, July 18, 2021

England's Green and Pleasant Land

 Texts:  Ephesians 2.11-22 and Mark 6.30–34,53–56

In England’s green and pleasant land….

This will be my last Sunday sermon for a while.  After 16 months of preaching twice a week, almost every week, I’ve decided that you’ve heard enough from me, for a while at least!  So over the next few weeks, a fine array of alternative and doubtless better preachers than me will grace this lectern, including Bishop John, the Rev’d Judy Henning, and, I’m very proud to say, our daughter Emily.  I’ll be sneaking off, from time to time, for some rest and refreshment, in the hope that I’ll return with new insights to share.

Today’s final sermon – for a while – is entitled ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’. 

Those of you who have thumbed today’s service sheet to the end, will know that I’ve chosen that great anthem of Englishness, ‘Jerusalem’ as our final hymn.  And we started our service with ‘Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, Zion City of our God’.  It will not surprise you, then, to hear that today, I’d like to invite us to contemplate the theme of ‘nationalism’.

I am an Englishman.  There have been times in my life when I have identified with other nations too.  Being an Honorary Canon of two cathedrals in Africa, for example, gives me a somewhat unique perspective (and a sense of belonging to a wider human family).  But ultimately, at my core, I’m an Englishman.  My heart swells with pride at the sight of the Cross of St George flying on our church Tower (even if St George himself never set foot here in England).  I did shed a little tear at the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, and I was sad when we failed to win a certain football match last weekend.  Not as sad, however, as I was at the awful racism which followed our defeat. 

I glory in Gilbert and Sullivan’s epic song “For he is an Englishman”.  For he himself has said it, and its greatly to his credit, that he is an Englishman:  he i……………..s an Englishman”!

The word ‘English’ derives from the tribe of Angles, the Germanic-speaking ‘Northmen’ who colonised much of the British Isles after the Romans had abandoned us to our fate, while Rome itself burned.  ‘England’ is really ‘Angland’ – the newly acquired land of the Angles.  But my great grandparents came from Ireland and from Wales (which perhaps goes some way to explaining my love of singing).  The plain fact is that I’m actually a Celt, or a Briton, not an Englishman at all.

Well, OK then.  At least I can say with some certainty that I am British.  Can’t I?  Well, no actually. DNA research into all human ancestry leads to a scientific conclusion that all of us are descended from Africans – and that the Great Rift Valley of Africa is the birthplace of modern humanity.  After their migration from there, humans inter-bred with other hominoid species, like Neanderthals.  On average, all modern humans have between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA.

So, I’m part Celt, descended from Africans, with up to 4% Neanderthal DNA, living in a country which has only been called England for about 1000 years.  But I’m an Englishman!  And an African.  And a Neanderthal.  Oh it’s all very confusing, isn’t it?

The problem we face is that most human beings have a deep desire to belong somewhere, either as the ‘owner’ of land, or (as with many aboriginal peoples) being owned by the land.  The Jewish people held on to the promise that a certain portion of land was theirs for almost 2000 years.  So strong was their belief, and so persuasive their argument, that the modern state of Israel was created out of what had been, for centuries before, Palestine. 

However complicated is the truth of our messy ancestry, we also feel a strong call to bind ourselves to those around us.  We form tribes – partly out of a sense of shared endeavour, and partly to protect ourselves against other tribes who might want to take our land, or our stuff.  Our tribalism is at the same time formed out of need to build something with other people, but is it also defined by our opposition to other groups of people.

This embedded tribalism expresses itself in different ways.  For some, it produces an allegiance to a Country.  For others, there’s a greater allegiance to a way of living – perhaps as a Football fan, or a member of a political party, or the fan of a popular music band.  Many of these ‘tribes’ set themselves up in opposition to others.  Football tribes hate other football tribes, for example.  Political tribes are entirely deaf to the wisdom which any other political tribe may possess, believing that for good or ill, only their tribe has all the answers.

And then of course, there are the tribes of different philosophies and religions.  Religious tribes tend to transcend national borders.  To call one’s country a ‘Christian country’, or an ‘Islamic country’, or a ‘Buddhist country’ is to lay claim to membership of a much wider, broader, deeper tribe than mere national identity alone, or to the small vision of special interest tribes.  The best religions have the power to call nations beyond the narrow confines of ‘national interest’, and into shared endeavour with people all over the world.

Which is why St Paul, writing to the Ephesians in this morning’s Epistle, was so keen to assure non-Jews (that is ‘Gentiles’ as they were known) that Jesus brings all nations and identities into one new Kingdom, with Jesus as the cornerstone of a new living Temple to God.  Paul’s vision is lofty and powerful.  He says: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

Naturally enough, as we would surely expect, Jesus also got this.  He didn’t only preach the Kingdom of God to Jews.  He spent time in places like Tyre, Sidon, Gabardine, and (as we heard in this morning’s Gospel) Genessaret.  These were places where Jews and Gentiles mixed freely together.  There were even pigs being farmed in the land of the Gabardines – despite pigs being outlawed for Jews.  Jesus preached to Canaanite, Philistines, Samaritans and Romans as much as he did Jews, and he healed their sick too.   Later, before Ascending into Heaven, Jesus told his disciples to preach his Gospel message to all the nations.  One of those nations, without a doubt, was England.

So, when I think of England, I think of a country which at least in principle, has the capacity and the potential to be part of the great Christian ideal – a truly Christian Kingdom.  So bring me my bow of burning gold.  Bring me my arrows of desire.  Help me to battle for a Christian England in which strangers and aliens, Jews and Gentiles, and people of all races are welcome and cherished;

Bring me my chariot of fire, to race towards a Christian England in which workers in dark satanic mills are freed (from the slavery of profit-driven-exploitation);

O clouds unfold on a Christian England in which Christ’s example of offering healing for all is not sub-contracted out for profit; 

Bring me my spear to fight for a Christian England which offers charity and aid to all who need it, without counting the cost in percentages of national income; 

I dream of a green and pleasant land in which, in the words of the prophet Micah, we truly know what it means to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Now that’s an England of which I could be truly proud.


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