30 June 2013
St Marys Hadlow – Civic Service
Readings: Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Luke 9:51 –end
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I met with the Mayor and Lady Mayoress last week in order to rehearse this service and as we parted at the end of the rehearsal I said: “Howard, as your Vicar and Chaplain you have my permission, indeed my encouragement, to spend the rest of this week practicing ‘licentiousness’. And from the way you read the first reading it is clear that you have been, well done.
Now I am sorry to have to say this, but the sad truth is that lots of people can be a bit sniffy about civic services. Some church-goers seem to resent their church being ‘taken over’ by local dignitaries as if this were not in some way a ‘real’ church service and I suspect, although I am more than happy to be wrong about this, that some local dignitaries dislike the idea of the church having any involvement in civic life at all, even if a fairly passive one of prayer and blessing. Nationally, there have recently been controversies about having opening prayers at the start of council meetings and, although that did not result in a change in the law on this occasion, there seems to be a general trend of seeking to privatise faith and to separate church and state.
Well, before thinking about some of those bigger issues, I should say from the outset that this service is very far from being a take-over by outside dignitaries. The opening words of the service, which I spoke from the door, were: “Mr Mayor, in the Name of God, we welcome you to your parish church.” And I am pleased to say that these were not mere formalities – St. Mary’s is very much Howard’s parish church. Howard and Jane live in Golden Green, which is part of this parish, and Howard is an active and committed bell-ringer in the tower here. Those of you here a bit earlier this morning may have heard Howard and the rest of the band at work ringing a quarter peal. For those unfamiliar with bell ringing lingo I am sure Howard would be happy to explain what that means later.
When I was installed as Vicar here in February Howard welcomed me on behalf of the council and when Howard was appointed as Mayor I was delighted to accept his invitation to be his chaplain for the year and to then be able to welcome him into the church today as Mayor and to have the opportunity to pray with him and over him during this service. I have no doubt that Howard is a person of faith and that his Christian values inform all that he does, including his public service as a councillor and as mayor.
In my view that is right, and proper, and as it should be and any attempt to make people put their Christianity in an hermetically sealed compartment only to be opened briefly on Sunday mornings and to be kept shut for the rest of the week is to completely misunderstand the transformational nature of being a follower of Christ, not to mention our call to be transformational to the world. Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that there is no place for half-hearted discipleship but also, and this is important in the context of public service, neither are we to force our faith on others or punish them for not sharing it.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and is passing through the hostile territory of Samaria. There was little love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans, which is why the story of the good Samaritan is supposed to be so shocking. As Jesus passed through this territory a Samaritan village refused to receive this wandering Jew and two of his more hot-headed disciples, James and John, asked Jesus whether they should call down fire from heaven on these people.
Those familiar with the Old Testament will be put in mind of the Prophet Elijah who was always calling down fire on those who were against him. However, Jesus rebuked them for this attitude, signalling a clear break with the old way of doing things and making it clear that discipleship does not mean punishing those who reject Jesus. It is a shame that some of the medieval crusaders did not get that memo but, on the whole, Christianity has not sought to grow through violence. Which puts me in mind of the Eddie Izzard sketch on the church of England called ‘Cake or death” but I won’t go there for the moment.
However, although Jesus rebukes the disciples for being too hot-headed he also makes it clear that being his disciple requires nothing less than whole hearted commitment. In the space of only a few verses Jesus is approached by three would-be followers and he makes clear the cost of discipleship – he says that the Son of Man, and by extension his followers, should not expect even to have anywhere to sleep at night, that one should not delay even to bury his father and that no one who even looks back to their old life is fit for service in the kingdom of God. All intentionally challenging stuff and all making the point crystal clear that there can be no such thing as a part time follower of Christ – this is not a hobby but a whole life endeavour – and not something that can be compartmentalised out of sight of other areas of our life.
And in the same way that individual Christians should not privatise their faith but seek to act as salt and light to all those around them I believe too that the Church exists not merely to look after the needs of individual Christians but to act as salt and light for the whole of society. The relationship between Church and State is not an invention of Henry VIII but actually goes back to the year 313 AD when the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and put the resources of the Roman empire behind the church. Some believe, both Christians and non-Christians that that is when the rot set in and would like to see church and state go their own way but I believe that to take God out of the heart of our civic society is as damaging to that society as to take God out of our own hearts.
Which brings us back to Howard’s reading from Galatians. In that reading St Paul asks us to compare and contrast two very different states of being – one with and one without God. Without God, Paul says, we lack any sort of moral compass and are subject to all kinds of impurity, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, drunkenness, carousing and so forth. I am sure that none of that goes on in the council generally. But with God we are led by the spirit to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Joking aside, when you hear the stories coming out of Parliament seemingly week after week it is fairly clear which list some of our politicians are working from and we have to ask ourselves, what sort of society do we really want in the future. Whenever atheists tell me about all the bad things done in the name of God, of which there are too many I accept, I also gently remind them that in the 20th century all the most brutal and murderous regimes in the world were those who officially rejected faith – Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and on the list goes.
So I am pleased that in this country it is still possible for people of faith to be called into public service, to be unashamed of their faith, and that the church is still able to be contribute some salt and light in public discourse. However we all know that this is far from guaranteed to continue and I would urge everyone here to do all you can to resist the constant pressure to put our own faith into a box and to take faith entirely out of our public life. I believe that we will all be poorer for that.
Finally Mr Mayor, now that your reading is done, I am sorry to say, that you can officially stop practicing licentiousness.