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
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
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.