Sunday, 10 May 2015

After the General Election...

You can listen to this sermon here:

Acts 10.44-48  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,  46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,  47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"  48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Romans 13.1-7  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;  4 for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.  5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.  6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing.  7 Pay to all what is due them-- taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Call to Worship

Luke 1.46-53  
My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Opening Prayer
Great God of all the earth,
            we come to you this day
to dedicate ourselves once again to your service.

Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us,
            that we might become good news for the whole earth.

We pray for our nation,
            for those we live alongside,
            and for those who have to live alongside us.

May we be good neighbours,
            may we be good stewards,
            may we be good news.

Forgive us for those times we have acted selfishly,
            for the times we have decided in our own self-interest,
            rather than in the interests of others.

May we learn to see the world as you see it,
            by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.

So we ask that you will reveal yourself to us today,
            through your son Jesus Christ.

And we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever

‘Be careful what you wish for, or you might get it’,
            the old saying goes;
or, as Oscar Wilde memorably put it:
            "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers"[1]

Well, here we are, post-election…
            Did you get what you wished for?
            Have your prayers been answered?
Do you think the current leadership of our country is good news or bad?

I’m going to come clean now, and admit to the fact
            that I wrote this sermon, and planned this service,
            on and before Thursday, when the nation went to the polls.
This was partly because I like to get my sermons written a few days in advance,
            but it was also because I didn’t want my pontifical ramblings
            to be influence by my own personal response
                        to the outcome of the general election.

I do, however, very much think that our passages this morning
            speak powerfully to a post-election scenario,
And so I made a commitment to preach this sermon in this way,
            regardless of how the balance of power in government was settled.

And that is because in our short reading from the book of Acts
            we encounter God casting his vote, decisively,
                        on the question of who’s in, and who’s out,
            and in our reading from Romans,
                        we hear Paul challenging his readers
                        as to what they’re going to do about it.

But first, let me tell you about a hymn
            that I couldn’t sing on Wednesday evening.

Now, anyone who’s ever heard me trying to sing,
            might legitimately remark that, seeing as I can’t sing any hymns,
                        singling out just one of them is rather unfair,
            and there may be a point in that,...

…but, whilst it’s true that I rarely raise my voice in song,
            and more usually mouth along with the words for fear of being heard,
I do still consider my silent vocalization
            to signify assent to the words in front of me.
And if I can’t agree with them,
            I will, on occasions, keep my mouth shut.

Well, on Wednesday evening,
            I went, with a number of others from Bloomsbury,
to the Florence Nightingale memorial service
            at Westminster Abbey.

It’s a wonderful service,
            and provides a fitting annual tribute to an incredible woman,
offering a celebration of her astonishing legacy
            in the work of nurses throughout the world.

I love it. I’ve been before, and hope to go again.

And this year, the service included the hymn,
            ‘I vow to thee my country’
set to the wonderful tune Thaxted,
            adapted by Gustav Holst from the Jupiter movement of The Planets.
I would sing it to you, but, well, you know…

Anyway, stirring stuff.

Except I couldn’t even mouth the first verse;
            at least, not in agreement.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Cecil Spring Rice, a British diplomat, published these words in 1918
            to express his nationalistic loyalty to his mother country,
and to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many
            in the trenches and battlefields of the Great War.

Interestingly, on Wednesday night,
            especially given that Florence Nightingale developed
            her nursing practices in the theatre of the Crimean war,
none of us were asked to sing the second verse
            which makes far clearer the call of Britannia
            to death and destruction,

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.

And I find myself wondering…
            Is our national identity, really, the most important thing?
            Are we really defined by the borders that define us?
The commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day this weekend
            speak to us powerfully of the ultimate cost paid by so many,
            as they fought and died in the service of their country.
And so I find myself wondering…
            Is Britannia worth dying for?

Perhaps depressingly, if the statistics are to be believed,
            a good many of those who live here
            don’t even think she’s worth voting for…

Now, don’t get me wrong here,
            I love being English.
There are many things about my culture that I’m proud of,
            and whether it’s democracy, tolerance, or warm beer,
            I’m happy to celebrate my Englishness.

And by the same token, I love to join with others, from other cultures,
            as they celebrate all that is good in their heritage.

But England does not own my ultimate allegiance.
            That, I’m afraid, lies elsewhere.

Which is why I cannot vow to my country
            a love that asks no question.

Interestingly, Cecil Spring Rice also recognized the call of another place,
            a different allegiance.
Listen to his third verse,
            the one I could sing, or at least, pretend to sing, on Wednesday evening.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

And so we find ourselves confronted with the problem faced by Christians
            in the face of nationalistic ideologies.

Those whose citizenship lies in the kingdom of heaven,
            owe their ultimate loyalty somewhere other
            than the country of their birth or habitation.

Because the kingdom of God transcends human borders,
            it joins people across cultural, linguistic, and social divides,
            it breaks down barriers, and demolishes walls.

The kingdom of God does not sit easily
            with any nationalist agenda.
And those who have sought to equate the two
            are, I would suggest, acting against the interests
            of the dawning kingdom of heaven.

… and back to the Bible:
            This is what is going on, in Acts chapter 10.

The back-story here
            is that, up until this point,
            the emerging Christianity had existed as a sub-set of Judaism.
The earliest Christians were Jews,
            and they had inherited a Jewish nationalist ideology, based upon
                        their understanding of their nation as God’s chosen nation,
                        and their ethnic identity as God’s chosen people.

And so, for many of the earliest Christ-followers,
            any non-Jew who wanted to join them in following Jesus,
            needed to convert to Judaism to do so.

But then we come to Acts chapter 10,
            and Simon Peter, the Jewish disciple of Jesus,
                        goes to visit the house of a Roman called Cornelius.

The thing is, Peter has just had a vision, a vivid dream,
            of a tablecloth laden with food,
                        some of it ritually clean,
                        and some of it ritually unclean.
As a good Jew, he could only eat the ritually clean food,
            and yet in his dream, God’s voice tells him
                        to eat food that is ritually unclean.

And then he comes to meet Cornelius,
            a Roman, not a Jew, and yet someone who is seeking after God.
And suddenly the meaning of the dream becomes clear:
            the opportunity to encounter God through Jesus
                        is not just for the ritually-clean Jewish people,
                        but for the ritually-unclean Gentiles as well.

So Peter preaches a sermon,
            summarizing the gospel story
            of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles, the non-Jews,
            who hear his message.

As I said, this is the point where God casts his vote,
            on who’s in, and who’s out.
This is the moment that sets the agenda for the future,
            this is the point where God’s manifesto is made manifest.
This is where the gospel starts to become real for the world;
            it’s where the gift of the Spirit takes practical shape
            in the political sphere of relationships, nationalism, and power.

Because this is where God goes beyond one nation,
            it is where God transcends any one society, however big it may be.

It turns out, as Peter discovers,
            that the kingdom of God is bigger than any nationalist agenda,
            and broader than any nationalist ideology.

And this makes demands on those of us
            who would consider our ultimate allegiance
                        to lie with the eternal Kingdom of Heaven,
            rather than with the United Kingdom
                        of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The arguments in the run-up to this week’s general election
            primarily focused on issues of national identity.
So we have been asked to consider, and vote,
            on the British economy,
                        on immigration,
            on Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism,
                        and the National Health Service;
            on National Welfare,
                        National infrastructure
            National Security,
                        and Social Security;
            on Housing, Pensions,
                        and Local government;
            on the European Union,
                        and The Environment;
            to name but some…

And in all of these we have been asked to consider
            where our own interest lies;
either our own interest personally,
            or our own interest nationally.

And yet the message of Acts 10,
            is that the interest of the Kingdom of God
cannot be equated with what’s best for me and mine.

The blessing of God falls beyond our national boundaries,
            and challenges all our attempts to confine our horizon
            to our own, localised, agenda.

So, the nation has decided,
            at least for now.
But politics doesn’t end with the election,
            and engagement by Christians in the political life of our country,
            does not stop at our moment of decision making.

We may have cast our ballot,
            putting down our cross in the relevant box;
but the call on us is to take up our cross,
            and to continue the path of sacrificial living,
                        of focusing on others,
            and seeing the kingdom come
                                    on earth, as it is in heaven.

We, whose primary allegiance is with the Kingdom of Heaven,
            have an ongoing role to play
            in the life of our nation.

The counter-cultural communities that we are called to in our churches,
            are places of prophetic witness to the wider society
                        of which we are a part.

The drawing together in the name of Christ
            of young and old,
                        of rich and poor,
            of different cultures, ideologies, sexualities, and genders
                        embodies the kingdom of God
                        that will not be constrained by borders,
                        wherever it may be that people try to draw them.

As the Cuban theologian Justo González puts it:
            ‘We have to be careful not to fall back into the trap
                        of acting as if the Church were only for people “like us”.
            When in any of our churches people are rejected because
                        “they are not decent”
            or … because they do not share our political ideology,
                        it is time for us to … ask ourselves
            what it means to declare that “God shows no partiality”.’[2]

So where does this leave us,
            on the Sunday after a General Election?
What should our response be
            to the powers-that-be in our land?

Well, here I want us to spend a few moments with Paul,
            and his letter to the church in Rome.

‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’, he says…

Which of course, in his context,
            didn’t mean the newly elected government
            of a democratic country.

Rather, for Paul, the governing authorities
            were the agents of the Roman Emperor,
            who was the head of all Roman society.

For Paul and his contemporaries,[3]
            the idea of changing the given social order
            would have been unthinkable.
The social order, for them, was a stable as nature.
            Indeed, it was considered ‘natural’.
The empire had endured for hundreds of years before Paul,
            and would do so for hundreds of years after him.

It would be a misreading of this passage to take it
            as the revelation of a distinctively Christian view of the state.
It is no such thing;
            Paul is simply responding to a social order that,
            so far as he can see, is ‘natural’

But just as we need to recognize that Paul’s advice to the Romans
            was culturally-conditioned
So we also need to recognize
            that our own post-enlightenment perspective on the state
            is also time-conditioned and relative.
Our view of society is no more self-evidently ‘correct’ than is Paul’s.

Just as we now think it is ‘natural’
            for people to have a choice of who governs,
so we need to recognize that people up to the Enlightenment
            thought that society is most naturally governed from the top down.

We still see this in the residual traditions of monarchy
            that underpin our own democracy,
where the new Prime Minister must seek permission
            from the monarch to form a new government.

So, how then do we align our own commitment
            to a crucified and risen messiah
with the reality of the social order in which we live?

Possibly, if all civil authority is from God,
            and ordered under God,
then it follows that a civil authority that does not respond to God’s will
            might be considered disqualified as a true authority,
and so might be resisted ‘for conscience’s sake.’

If, for example, a state, such as that in Germany under the Nazis,
            took to itself ultimate powers over conscience,
            or punished those who did no wrong except following their conscience,
then, as Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded,
            ‘for conscience’ sake’, such a regime can be actively opposed.

But in our world, this is not our situation;
            and in our democracy this is not, by the grace of God,
            where we find ourselves.

But there is a warning and message here
            that there is no ‘default Christian’ position on party politics.
There is no one party that can be identified
            as consonant with the politics of the kingdom of Heaven.

Whether we identify as a Christian Socialist,
            or a Christian Conservative,
                        or a Christian Liberal Democrat,
            or a Christian Green,
                        or a Christian conscientious no-voter…
Wherever we draw our boundary,
            the blessing of God falls beyond it,
            onto those we would consider unclean.

The Christian position in this post-election country of ours,
            must surely be the prophetic living-out of an alternative society,
            where in Christ the boundaries that separate us,
            and divide us one from another, are challenged.

The transformation of society, which is the aim of politics,
            begins with us,
and it begins again with us, here, today.

What divides us one from another?

There will be people here today who voted
            for each of the main political parties, I’m quite sure of that.
There will be people here today who disagree on a whole range of issues,
            from the political to the ethical.
There will be boundaries and division within and amongst us,
            and there will be walls that we construct around ourselves
            to differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Who do we look down on?

Whom do we exclude?

Where do we draw the line?

Well, the message for us this morning,
            is that wherever we would seek to draw it,
the blessing of God continues to fall beyond it,
            as God is at work in Christ in the world,
            drawing all nations to himself.

[1] An Ideal Husband (1895) Act II
[2] Justo L. González, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), p.136
[3] What follows is drawn from L.T. Johnson, ‘Reading Romans’ pp.186ff

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