Saturday, May 13, 2023

A Sermon for a Civic Service

 Texts:  Micah 6:6-8  and Matthew 25: 31-36

When I say the word "sheep" to you - I daresay that you have a vision in your mind of something round and fluffy, with a big thick woolly jumper.  On the other hand, the word "goat" brings to mind something bigger, stronger, with a rough wiry coat, and big horns.  In fact, that was not the image that Jesus had in mind.

Something I’ve learned through my trips to Africa in recent years is that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar.  It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry English goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries.  In fact, a African shepherd who might be separating them has only one visible marker to guide him in a hurry - namely that the tails of sheep point downwards, and goats’ tails point up.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats comes at the end of a long section of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus has been talking about the End of All Things.  It all starts back in Matthew 24, when his disciples say to him "Tell us...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" So this parable, which is part of Jesus' response to their question, could easily start with the words "At the end of the age"...or, as we might say, "at the end of the day".

At the end of the day, this parable teaches us, there are only two kinds of people.  They are pretty similar, these people - it’s hard to tell them apart, in fact.  They all lead fairly normal lives, they marry, have children, go to work, even volunteer to be Councillors and, yes, Mayors.  But there is a difference between these two kinds of people.  And the difference is found in the way that they relate to other people.

All the people of the world, the sheep and the goats, are surrounded by others in need.  There are homeless people, and hungry people.  There are thirsty people and naked people.  There are sick people and prisoners, ripped away from their families by their own fault, or by the oppression or collapsing economies of the countries they live in.

At the end of the day, the difference between the lost and the saved is indicated not by the way they look, but by the way they behave.  The difference is seen in the way they respond to the hungry, homeless, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Jesus is saying "if you want to know who will be saved, look at the quality of a person's the decisions they make about others in need".

Becoming a sheep - a true believer, a true Christ-ian, takes a complete transformation of our inner being...or what the Bible calls being 'born again'.  Crucially, it takes a daily commitment to the abandonment of 'self', and the development of a mindset which puts others first. 

To offer us a different perspective, consider the words of Micah, which was our first reading, just now.  Micah asks how he can please God.  Perhaps burnt offerings might do it?  (I do hope not, because it will make a mess of the Altar!).  Perhaps the Lord will be pleased with thousands of sacrificed rams, or rivers of olive oil?  Perhaps I should offer my firstborn, as a sign of penance for my sin.  (My only daughter is sincerely hoping not!).  But no, Micah concludes, these things will not please God.  If we want to win God’s favour, or (to put it another way) to be on God’s side, all he requires is that we should “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” with him.

Another thing I’ve observed in Africa has been the immense generosity of people who have nothing.  Before I went on my last visit to Ghana, I told Bishop Matthias that I didn’t want to sleep in a hotel anymore, costing money that could be used for mission.  He had always put me in a hotel because he felt slightly ashamed of the poverty of his house.  But instead I begged him to be allowed to sleep somewhere in his house…anywhere.  A mattress on the floor would do me.  Imagine my surprise (and my slight horror) when I found on arrival that Matthias and his family had refurbished an entire room for me to stay in.  They had repainted the walls, and even bought some new lino for the floor!  I felt awful…but at the same time reflected yet again that in African Christians I so often see a kind of generosity, even in the midst of extreme poverty, that is a beautiful thing to see.  It flows from a lifetime of responding to the need of neighbours all around.

This is the work of a lifetime.  It takes time to gradually pull down the walls of the ego and the self we have built around us.  It takes years to come to the realisation that it truly is in giving of ourselves that we receive, and that in dying to ourselves we are born to eternal life. It takes years to realise that God calls us to live not as individuals, but in communities that care for each other. 

What Jesus called 'the Way' is, in fact, a Way of life.  It demands a complete re-imagining of what we consider important in life.  It means a complete emptying of self...truly giving up my rights, my desires, my feelings, my wants, my purposes:  and the giving out of all my resources to the service of others.  To the hungry and the thirsty, to the naked and the homeless, to the refugee, to the sick and imprisoned.  This is true for all citizens, whether we are elected to public office or simply living private lives. 

But perhaps, as our new King demonstrated graphically last weekend, it is those of us who are called to public office who have the most responsibility to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly’.  Whether we like it or not, we are exemplars for the communities we serve.  Other citizens take their lead from us.  So if we act like goats, grabbing resources to enrich ourselves or our friends, then those we serve will take their lead from us.  Lawlessness, tax fraud, and the accumulation of personal wealth will become the norm.  But, if we dare to act like sheep, to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly, then perhaps, just perhaps, we may lead others to live on the side of God.  Amen.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

What does God think about monarchies?

 There’s no getting away from the fact that people stand quite firmly on either sides of the debate about monarchy. 

There are many who have been joyfully waving flags, ringing bells, and joining together, yesterday, in church to watch the Coronation.  They enthusiastically support the principle of monarchy.  This is often because they see it as the only viable alternative to a Republican system.  Supporters of an English Republic dream of electing a wise national treasure as our Head of State – someone like David Attenborough or Judy Dench!   But monarchists argue that a popular vote would be more likely to elect Simon Cowell or Ant & Dec!  The fact is that if we were designing a nation from scratch, it would be ludicrous to give all that power and influence to one random family.  But we’re not starting from scratch.  Our constitutional monarchy has evolved over centuries.  It has become a kind of screen onto which we project our national identity, and our national ethics of service before self.

As a Christian, I’m compelled to ask what the Bible’s view of monarchy is.  Unfortunately the Bible is ambiguous, at best, on the subject!  In our reading from the first book of Samuel, we are confronted with a God who seems implacably opposed to Israel having a King.  God warns the people that if they have a King, he will take all their wealth for himself, and send their sons into battle for his own political aims.  But the God portrayed in this part of the Bible is one who can be argued with – and eventually he relents, and permits the nation to establish a monarchy.  From that point onwards, until the Exile from Jerusalem, God appears to be broadly content with the idea of monarchy.  He blesses Saul, then David, and then wise King Solomon.  Kings after that were a fairly mixed bag, however. Some led the people away from the worship of God, even to worship other idols.  The books of the Kings are full of descriptions of various Kings who ‘did evil in the sight of God’.  Others led the people back to God.  On the whole, Israel’s experiment with monarchy turned out to be a pretty mixed bag.  Ultimately, the monarchy was lost when the leaders of Israel were carried off into Babylon during the period known as the Exile.

By the time of Jesus, Israel had a ‘vassal’ king, the notorious Herod the Great and his sons.  These monarchs were, however, subservient to the Emperor, Caesar, who claimed dominion over all of Israel.  Jesus recognises Caesar’s earthly authority, famously advising his followers to render unto Caesar and God those things that are theirs, respectively, by right.  St Paul, after Jesus, commends his followers to pray for all who are in authority, and makes the startling claim that all earthly authorities – including Kings and Emperors are established by God.  It is from such teaching that the ‘divine right of Kings’ finds its roots.

So, the Bible – as it so often does – presents an range of views about the monarchy, which we can draw upon to make up our own minds.  On the one hand, Samuel was right about the tendency of monarchs to appropriate the resources of a nation to themselves.  In the UK, for example, the Crown Estate owns just over 1,000 square miles of the countryside. Many Republicans would like to strip the monarchy of such land holdings, and make it available to the people for the building of homes, hospitals and businesses.  Others argue that many of the Crown’s lands are wild moors and coastline, which the Monarch preserves on behalf of the nation, and keeps from the hands of voracious property barons.

The life of our late Queen reassures many people that monarchy, done well, can be a stabilising and yet prophetic force in the life of a nation.  A wise monarch has the power to bring people together, to speak wise words of comfort in times of crisis, and, on behalf of the people, can provide wise but private challenge to prime ministers (who seem to come and go with increasing frequency these days!).  King Charles has often been a leader in our national debates.  Famously, he was worried about the environment 20 years before David Attenborough started to worry about it.  As the progenitor of the Prince’s Trust, Charles was working to level-up the nation decades before politicians caught on to the idea. As an enthusiastic patron of the Arts, he has constantly reminded us that from the Arts, from comedy, drama, music and painting, come dreams and visions of who God calls us to be.

Our Gospel reading, however, offers us another lens through which to view the monarchy.  Jesus promises his Disciples that they will one day sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  But he does so after making very clear that the role of any leader is primarily to be a servant.  We sometimes forget, that the word ‘Minister’ means ‘to serve’.  The King is called to be a minister – indeed, much of yesterday’s coronation service ritual was designed to reinforce that point. He was anointed and clothed as a priest, before ascending the throne.  Jesus came to us, in his own words, not to be served, but to serve, and to give up his life for us.  That, ultimately is the model that our King is called to follow – and so are we.

For all his lands and palaces, for all his crown jewels and private wealth, the King carries a heavy burden of responsibility. There is, in fact, very little of his life that I would envy.  Imagine having the ultimate responsibility for the management of 1000 square miles of land – I find it stressful enough to manage the three or four acres owned by this parish! 

The King has responsibilities thrust upon him that most other billionaires around the world can’t even imagine.  Not for him the life of endless parties on yachts, or the freedom to play with space rockets.  No, for the King, each day is consumed with Government business, endless correspondence, and the challenge of meeting the expectations of a sometimes fractured and fractious nation.  He may do so from a position of wealth and privilege, but (as previous monarchs have described it) the trappings of monarchy are in fact a gilded cage. 

I believe, therefore, that the King deserves our respect and our gratitude.  It would be easy for him to have walked away from the duties of monarchy.  He could have abdicated in favour of his much younger son.  But King Charles has chosen to shoulder the burden, and to take on the iconic role of a servant – inspiring and challenging us all to do the same.  And so, whether we are monarchists or republicans, I believe he deserves, at the very least, our sincere thanks, and our most heart-felt prayers.  God save the King!

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The Feast of English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation

On May the 4th the Church of England celebrates the witness of the Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era. But we are not simply remembering ‘our own’, Church of England martyrs; those who died for their unwavering fealty to the Church of England in the face of Roman Catholic persecution.  We are also remembering those Roman Catholics who died at the hands of Protestants for maintaining their Faith and allegiance.  We remember those like Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake by Roman Catholic monarchs in the turbulent years following Henry VIII.  But we also remember the often unnamed Roman priests who hid within, and were sometimes forcibly dragged from, secret closets in the great Catholic houses of the land.  Both sides in this horrible period of English history had men and women of great courage, who lived by the light they had been given at the time.  They believed earnestly in the central tenants of their faith, and earnestly believed, whether they were Anglican Catholics, or Roman Catholics, that their particular expression of the church was the right one.  It was a belief for which they were prepared to die, and yes, sometimes to kill.

We are recognising, therefore, that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide.  But we also recognise that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!  The only way that we can confront these two opposing truths is with humility.  First, we are invited to personal humility, as we stand in awe of the strength of faith, the holiness and courage of those who witnessed to their understanding of God right up to the point of death.  Would I, would you, have the courage to do the same?  In the face of someone threatening to burn me alive, would I have the courage to stand firm as the English martyrs did?  Or indeed as our own St Faith did, in a different time?  The honest answer is that very few of us would have that courage.  Our only response, therefore, must surely be one of humility.

However, we also need to express some corporate humility too:  humility and repentance for the Church as an institution, which can turn so swiftly to condemn those who don’t share our particular theological view.  And humility and repentance for all the times that condemnation has turned to violence.  In the Reformation Era, there was a see-sawing of religious life in England at the time, as one monarch replaced another, and the balance of power shifted between Anglicans and Romans, depending who was on the throne.  In those swings of power and opinion, it is frightening to remember how quickly the oppressed became the oppressor.  How quickly zeal turned into hatred and then violence.

The Reformation, in that sense, is a stark warning to theological warriors of today.  Arm-chair theologians, as well as many pressure groups within the church, still argue with each other about what God thinks is ‘right’ on any number of issues.  Christian Twitter is sometimes a very nasty place. Everyone has their own opinion on a wide range of subjects,  These range from which political party is nearer to the Kingdom of God (a good question for Election Day!) to vexed questions around human sexuality.  Or Christians love to debate the protection of national borders, the role of the Monarchy in modern Britain, the question of a woman’s right to choose, the correct mode of dress for priests and many more issues that inspire real vitriol, I’m sad to say.  There are, for example, large parts of the Anglican Communion who are presently breaking away from Canterbury, over recent decisions of the Synod around the blessing of same-sex marriages.

The hardest lesson to learn in these debates is the lesson of humility.  It’s salutary to remember that Jesus himself never wrote down a single word.  He was presumably capable of writing, because we know that reading and writing were taught to Jewish boys of the time – so that they could read the synagogue scrolls (as Jesus did himself on a visit to Nazareth).  Indeed, Jesus himself was described as The Word – the creative force through which God spoke all things into existence.  But Jesus himself never wrote a single word down.  Instead, he spoke in stories and parables, designed to creatively expand our thinking and often leading us to ask more questions.  We have taken The Word, the Logos, the creative speaking of God, and turned it into logical, rule-bound, codified letters on a page.

Stories come from a place in our psyche which is more fluid and flexible than words.  The human brain, as I’m sure you know, is divided into two spheres – left and right.  This is how we have evolved over millennia, or how we were created by God (if you prefer).  Our capacity for creativity AND logic is what has made us the dominant species on this planet.  The left side of our brain is the logical side.  It’s the part of our brain which reasons, organises, catalogues and processes information.  But our left brain exists in a permanent state of dialogue with our right brain – in which art, music, emotion, and story reside.  In that sense, we like the English Martyrs, find ourselves in a battleground – between logic and feeling, between empirical knowledge and faith.   Neither of these is more right than the other.  Both are essential to what it means to be human beings, made in the image of God.

Jesus never wrote anything down, I believe, because he wanted to keep our right brains alive in the difficult, challenging task of building the Kingdom.  The greatest religious art, the sublime music of Bach, the instinct to give without counting the cost, the willingness to love the unlovely neighbour, or even to love our unlovely selves.  These are all right brain activities.

So to those who, with their left brain, want to nail their theological opinions to a stake, I urge the lesson of humility.  Sometimes, the most honest answer to the great questions of our age has to be ‘we don’t know’.  God’s Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, and our ability to understand the mind of God is limited at best.  At the very least, we need to grasp that when we offer our opinion on matters such as sexuality, political alliances, abortion, the monarchy or any number of other weighty matters, we must do so in a spirit of humility.  And, unlike the warring theologians of the English Reformation, we must never, never, never, offer violence in word or deed, to those with whom we might disagree.