Sunday 5th July 2015
Hadlow Civic Service
2 Sam 5:1-5,9-10 Mark 6:1-13
May I speak this morning in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Having formally welcomed the new Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council to this their parish church at the beginning of this service I would just like to say now, in my own words, to both Owen and Chris how truly welcome you are here. And, of course, that welcome extends to Julie, the Chief Executive, to all the other members of the council here and to our own previous mayors, Gill and Howard. And never forgetting Jim the mace bearer, who keeps us all in order. It is lovely to see you all here back in St Mary’s on this wonderful occasion.
But I do owe you a bit of an apology from the outset: if I seem a little bleary eyed this morning you should know that for the last two nights I have been sleeping, or rather trying to sleep, in a tent in Langton Green. No, my wife hasn’t finally kicked me out, rather I have been taking part in my first Cub camp – well, my first one for nearly 40 years. I had to leave camp early to be here now but, believe me, that is absolutely fine. Don’t tell Akela I said that.
I also want to say a big ‘thank you’ to Owen for asking me to be his Chaplain for his year in office. I served Howard in that capacity in 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I look forward to sharing this year with you.
The primary job of the Chaplain is to open the council meetings with prayer and, actually, I think it is incredibly important for our leaders at all levels of society to remember that none of them are our ultimate leader and to keep their leadership grounded in something greater than even politics or economics. I once spent a few hours with the Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and that chamber opens every day in prayer for the same reason. But we should never take this for granted: as atheism becomes the new orthodoxy in our society we see increasing pressure to take faith out of every sphere of life other than in church on a Sunday morning for those who like that sort of thing, provided it doesn’t cause offence to anyone else.
Well, much as it may annoy the atheists, the Christian faith has never been a purely private matter to be kept separate from the rest of ‘real life’. As we heard in our gospel reading this morning and shall look at in a moment, not only did Jesus spend his ministry moving from place to place healing and preaching the good news of forgiveness but he also trained and commissioned the apostles to go out and do the same. As a follower of that same Jesus it is my huge privilege to be able to take something of the grace of God into the council chamber and I hope and pray that TMBC will always remain open to that ministry.
But of course, Owen and Chris, my chaplaincy is not just to the council it is also to you personally. I would be very happy to accompany you to any events you feel are appropriate but, even more importantly, I want you to know that I am here for you as a priest whenever you need me.
The first of our two readings this morning was about David becoming King over all Israel at the age of 30. We are told that David reigned as King over Israel for 40 years, so just a tad longer than your term of office as mayor. On the whole David was a good king, and he was also a poet and a writer of Psalms, so a bit of a renaissance man, long before the renaissance itself. But David wasn’t perfect and he did let absolute power go to his head when he ended up seducing Bathsheeba and sending her husband off to be killed in battle. So, Owen, during your year of absolute power as first citizen of this borough do try to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
In our gospel reading we encountered Jesus, who is descended from the same King David. At this point in the gospel Jesus has been active in his ministry for some time – going from town to town, preaching, healing, gathering disciples around himself and drawing large crowds wherever he went. Last week we even heard that he had brought a 12 year old girl back from death. It is clear to all those around him that Jesus is a powerful miracle worker, a prophet of God and perhaps even more than that.
And then Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth – the place where he had grown up with his family, had been surrounded by friends and neighbours – in short the place where he had been known since being a young child.
When Jesus started preaching in the synagogue things seemed to be going well at first. We are told that the people who heard him were ‘astounded’ at both his words of wisdom and the deeds of power that he had been doing. And they wondered “Where did this man get all this?” The obvious implication being that such power and wisdom must come from a place above and beyond his humanity – that it comes from God.
But in the blink of an eye the astonishment of the people in the synagogue turned to doubt and to cynicism:
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary – are not his brothers and sisters here with us?”
The crowd allowed their knowledge of Jesus as a person – a person with a family and a history – someone they may well have seen scampering around the streets of Nazareth as a child – to destroy any possibility that there was something else, something divine, going on here. And we are told that they ‘took offence at him’.
I am reminded here of not one but two Monty Python sketches. In the first John Cleese enters a room dressed smartly in a suit and his elderly mother and one of her elderly friends are there. He says “Good evening Mother” and the two old ladies are amazed that he can walk and talk until, eventually, he says: “Mother, I am the Secretary of State for Trade.” and that sets them off again.
And the other is, of course, from the Life of Brian when Brian’s mother says to the gathered crowd, “He is not the Messiah, he is a very naughty boy.”
And we can probably understand the human nature of what is going on. Here in Hadlow, where no one knew me as an 8 year old, I am the Vicar and many people like to imagine that Vicars drop from the sky fully formed and other worldly. But when I visit friends and family I am not the Vicar, I am simply Paul and rather than getting a pulpit to preach from I struggle to get a word in edgeways.
But of course the whole point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human – the real living, breathing humanity of the person of Jesus – a person with a family and a history of growing up in Nazareth who was also fully divine. God works through real, living, breathing human beings not only in the person of Jesus but also in his church – sometimes that makes it hard to discern the divine through the human but it is a useful reminder that we need to open our eyes to the divine presence in the familiar and the material – ordinary bread and wine are transformed to divine service but so too are ordinary men and women – even those we may have seen growing up and even those we know to be fallible human beings.
Dare I say it but beneath the chains of office and regalia of being the mayor there is a real living breathing human being who did not drop from the sky as a fully formed mayor – but it does not denigrate your office to recognise your humanity, anymore than it does mine, indeed anymore does it that of Jesus.
So, the encounter in the synagogue that started well with the crowd being astounded with Jesus ends with him being amazed at their unbelief. In many ways this passage should be a comfort to those of us in ministry who may have unrealistic expectations about people liking us because we are seeking to do good or being won over by our preaching. And, indeed, when Jesus sent out the apostles he made it very clear that just as his ministry was not welcome in Nazareth so there will be times and places when the apostles are not welcome either – and he didn’t tell them to keep trying different programes and initiatives until the people were won over he simply says that if a place will not welcome you or listen to you then shake off the dust from your feet as you leave as a testimony against their unbelief. It is the apostle’s responsibility to go in the name of Christ and do what they are commanded to do but if the people won’t respond then that is the people’s responsibility. That is part of God respecting the free will of all human beings but it is a lesson that those involved with ministry could do with learning at an early stage, and doubtless applies to councillors and mayors too. Despite our best efforts there will always be people who don’t respond in the way we would like because if it happened to Jesus it will happen to us.
But the important thing is that we do to the best of our ability the job that God has called us to – like the apostles to set out in faith on a journey without always knowing where we are going.
That applies to everyone here this morning but it applies also to our new mayor. Owen, you are in the foothills of a year’s adventure, going out and meeting the many people and communities which make up this borough – an apostle of TMBC if you will. My hope and prayer is that you and Chris will have a great year, that you will spread a little light and joy as you go from place to place and, like the apostles, that at the end of your journey you will return home rejoicing at all the great things God has shown you. But if you do have a bad day remember that not everything is your responsibility.