October 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
If enough people talk to me about a sermon I preach, I think about putting it on here. Sermons are best heard in context of course, but it may be this strikes a chord beyond the Minster. Here’s this mornings: preaching from Luke 17. 11 – 17 – the healing of the 10 lepers.
Beverley Minster has become something of a home to the Beverley Literary Festival this year. The first two events have happened already: Lord Robert Winston on the limits of genetics and ethics – asking what it is to be human; and Will Self, last night, preaching a secular sermon on the failure of romantic love. If I were playing it safe I wouldn’t have agreed to giving a stage to a man of faith but not the Christian faith, and then a man of some occasional extreme views and behaviour, who is an avowed agnostic. Can there be a ‘secular’ sermon? Well, there was, and I agreed with Will Self’s basic premise: if you don’t believe that love has a divine origin, romantic love on its own won’t save you.
I said last night that this great building, among many other purposes, exists to enable our thoughts and our aspirations to soar. That should mean thinking challenging thoughts. We are a safe place. These walls are strong and our windows let light in. This is a complex world and we live in changing times. Many Christians would wish to retreat into the safety of certainties and cherished traditions. It can be tempting to ask if the world might stop so that we can get off. The debate about sexuality is the one generating most heat at present, and it may be that the Anglican Communion will be split over it. But the safest place for the Christian is right on the edge. That’s where Christ was.
He is on the edge, the place between, in today’s Gospel reading. South of Galilee, north of Samaria. Contested lands, a place of uneasy truce, where even the Romans chose to let the natives fight out their religious quarrels without interfering. He is on the edge of a village, and he meets the edge dwellers. When you go to a medieval city, look to see if there is a church dedicated to St Giles, or a road called Gilesgate or Gillygate, as in York. It’s likely to be outside the old walls, on the edge of the city. That’s where the lepers lived, and was as far as they could get into civilisation. St Giles is a patron of the outcast, so the churches for the lepers, on the edge of things, were dedicated to him.
Lepers lived on the edge because their disease – in those days a collection of different skin conditions – was devastating and you could catch it. It’s the same today, though it’s curable, and the Minster supports the work of the Leprosy Mission with our mission giving. The lepers knew their place on the edge, and they ‘kept their distance’. But their edge dwelling led them to being an example to a divided, broken world. Shunned by others, they found a community of honesty and need and care which broke down the old divisions. Here Jews and Samaritans lived together, not apart. They had something to teach those who thought they were well. On the edge, disfigured by an unclean illness, they became more human. We might ask who today’s lepers are, and what they might teach us. Who does a post Brexit Britain push to the edge?
An edgy thing happens. They ask for ‘mercy’. That could have simply been affirmation, food, water. Jesus Offers them healing, wholeness. But he doesn’t heal them. He tells them to go to the priests as if they were healed. You should only go to the priest if you wanted to be pronounced clean, to have your healing verified. Jesus preserves their dignity by making no effort to close the gap between him and them – he affirms their edgy community. But he recognises their need, and just says – `off you go’ – as if they were clean… And they, on the edge, have to learn to take an edgy, a faithful decision. We might not know that Jesus is at work in us, has given us what we ask for. Faith invites us to live ‘as if’ we are healed, loved, forgiven.
So this story is about faith, not just healing. Ten lepers are healed. One discovers faith. This is a story about going beyond the physical, the needs of the here and now, to the eternal, the vital, the relationship between ourselves and our God. The tenth leper recognises that his healing was God’s gift, not his right, and he gives praise in humility where it is due. Jesus recognises that his faith his deep, and proclaims salvation (wholeness is the same word in Greek). And the remarkable thing is that this man is a Samaritan. The one who was most on the edge is the one who finds himself thoroughly enveloped in the saving love of God.
Many of us will have been touched by God, but God’s grace leaves us with a choice: do we respond by giving God the whole of our lives, or do we take the money and run? The leper was given all he wanted. He gave it back in gratitude to God, and was given more than he could imagine. I learn two things from this. I should not be surprised at people who gain much from God, but don’t make it to full Christian faith (Jesus had a ten percent success rate!). And I should not be surprised to find that someone can make it from devastation to wholeness. If a Samaritan leper could, then anyone can.
It is amazing how many people feel on the edge – within their workplaces, families, friendship groups, churches. Be assured. The edge, the borderland, is where Jesus operates. It is where the love of God is discovered. It is where great wrongs are confessed and forgiven. It is where leaps of faith are made. And it is where our lives are saved. I was led to the edge of thinking about science, genetics, human progress and the nature of life on Wednesday. I was led to the edge of the nature of believing (and the limits of intellect – Will Self is clever!) on Saturday. The Church of England finds itself on the edge of contemporary thinking about same sex relationships at the moment, and it is uncomfortable.
To be on the edge is not then to put our fingers in our ears and sing la la la. It is to find people working out what it is to be human, what it is to believe, what it is to love. That is where we should be. We are in between earth and heaven, between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. It may feel edgy. Perhaps we are the ones then who need stretch out a hand to Christ and say ‘have mercy upon us’. Perhaps we need to stretch out that hand to others, for this should be a place where edgy people find a home. In Christ, we can go on our way. Our faith in him will save us.
August 24, 2016 § Leave a comment
There has been much fun, and much outrage, about a Coventry Diocese decision to prevent a church having upholstered chairs. The parishioners of Long Itchington had gained permission to replace their Victorian pews, but were refused upholstered chairs. The Daily Telegraph story is here.
A couple of things to clarify. Firstly, churches have to apply for the church’s planning permission (a ‘faculty’) to do stuff like this. After consultation the permission is given by the diocese’s senior legal figure, the Chancellor, and for these purposes it’s a court decision. However this was not a court case, with barristers and things, though this is possible if the matter goes on to be contested.
Secondly, the ‘amenity societies’ (like the Victorian Society) are statutory consultees in this process, based on the wisdom that without such campaigning bodies many things we currently value would have been lost. In this matter the Victorian Society did not take the church to court or anything. They expressed their strong view, as they were required to do. It’s not clear whether they objected to the removal of the Victorian pews (which is probably the extent of their remit) or to the type of chair (which I reckon goes beyond their remit if the church is twelfth century).
So: is there anything wrong with chairs? No. Pews, at least of the kind we see in most churches, are a reasonably modern thing. The Victorians were keen to ensure a place in church for every member of the population, and pews are an efficient way of doing this. But most were utilitarian, and, though long lasting, have little aesthetic merit. My heart sinks when I walk into a church packed with a sea of pitch pine boring uncomfortable pews. Let them go.
There are some pews which are rather wonderful, beautifully crafted and of real aesthetic merit. Some box pew schemes survive from the pre-Victorian period. Even in Victorian times there were some schemes which made real sense and, if you like that kind of thing, are tremendous. Some are even comfy, and the design, craftsmanship and overall scheme can be a heritage asset, capable of being interpreted and understood. Actually, my heart sometimes sinks when I see these kind of pews too, because the heritage asset doesn’t always sit well (pun intended) with the current operation and mission of the church concerned.
The magnum opus on pews is edited by Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown. No, I’ve not read it, but was pleased to see it’s available here for free.
Anyway, if the pews are to go, and chairs are to be introduced, what should guide the choice? I was on the Church Buildings Council for a bit. It offers guidance and oversight in all fabric matters, and Diocesan Chancellors take notice of its guidance notes. There’s a really good one on church seating here, and I think that’s what guided the Chancellor of Coventry.
Simply put, upholstered chairs might look comfy, but they are often not. The fabric is difficult to care for. Not all are of great quality, and you will probably find yourself bequeathing a replacement problem to people in only a couple of decades. They get grubby very quickly, especially if you want to use them flexibly – which is what Long Itchington want to do – and they are difficult to stack. Putting a couple of hundred chairs covered in blue or purple fabric in a church has an instant aesthetic effect which can detract from the historic aspects of the building. They dampen the acoustics.
So, the advice says, please consider using wooden chairs or moveable/stackable benches. The interplay between wood and stone and glass can be really pleasing. Some wooden chairs are ergonomically surprisingly comfortable. In the church I serve we had a big consultation, and went for a wooden chair which the vast majority of people really like – and can sit on happily for the three hours of a Messiah without complaint. It’s no wonder that the chair we selected is also found in half of England’s cathedrals. We’re assured that it will last for decades. (I should say that we never had pews in the Nave, so it was a chair-for-chair replacement. Good luck to those of you removing your pews).
I’m a chair evangelist. I came to agree with the CBC advice that upholstery is to be discouraged, especially when you take a long term and aesthetic view. I’d happily see most churches lose their pews, and even those who have fab pews should be helped to reorder them in a way which works with inheritance but is not bound by it. We should be able to tell the story of how the church has been ordered and used without it being permanently frozen in a previous era.
As it happens I think the comment of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry about upholstered chairs being ‘overly casual’ was a hostage to fortune. But I do agree with the general point: upholstery isn’t always the most comfortable or the most wise choice.
Here’s what did we did: chairs with leather seat pads which were at the end of their life and hard to stack were replaced by all wood chairs (with a metal frame).
Don’t get me going on carpets…
June 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
As Chaplain (and member) of an ancient livery company I get to preach a sermon each year. Our Master chooses the reading, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats offers a telling commentary on the referendum tomorrow. So here’s what I’ll preach this afternoon for the Charter Day Service of the Company of Merchant Taylors of the City of York.
INSTITUTIONS which make laws can sometimes find themselves in complex and detailed territory. A debate continues to rage, for example, about Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and whether, by it, the European Commission has ever attempted to regulate the straightness of bananas.
It will not surprise you to know that the General Synod of the Church of England is also capable of this. We once spent a whole hour on the quality of the envelopes in which our papers were sent. And we had a major debate on the use of a single word: the one used when we were called upon to vote. Synod can create English Law, and uses parliamentary processes. So, when a vote was to be taken, the call to us was “Divide”.
It was felt that, though the Church of England has differing views and outright disagreements about almost everything, we should still be able to express this while remaining united. Might we not ‘disagree well’? Did a vote have to be expressed in the language of opposition and division? After various options were considered, we finally agreed to change the word to “Decide”, on the basis that we were taking decisions which we would have to live with together, rather than enshrining divisions which may never heal.
Last night I sat in between six politicians. ‘Remain’ were to my left, ‘Leave’ to my right. Three MPs, one Peer, one former MP and one national campaigner spent a couple of hours in Beverley Minster debating the Referendum. Privately beforehand more than one of them expressed the hope that never again would there be such a process. It is, after all, divisive. Seeing some of the exchanges from last night’s TV debate I’m not sure how some politicians will ever be able to look each other in the eye or sit on the same side of the House.
As Chairman last night my final question was to ask how each of our panel wanted us to be feeling at noon on Friday 24th, after the result is announced. I was pleased that they picked up on the nuances. We will, after all, still have to live together, take part in the processes of government and society together, look for the improvement of our nation and our world together, get along together.
One MP in our debate was clear that this process has been damaging, and will take a long time to heal. He was also clear that, for all our sakes, we must be generous to each other. There are greater things to concern us, as we have been so cruelly reminded in these last days. And this nation remains an amazingly privileged place to be, with every opportunity to make a difference to a needy and complex world.
Our new Master’s chosen reading today inhabits these tensions. If you are looking for a division, look no further than the sheep and the goats. But look carefully: they don’t divide themselves; that will be not for them, but for the Son of Man on the day of glory. And note the basis of the division: the lives which have been led, and the actions which they have all had an equal opportunity to perform. It’s not that they are preordained to be one or the other: everyone has the same chance. The division, as if they were like sheep and goats (shepherded together in the Holy Land and only separated when necessary for milking or shearing), comes at the end of everything. Until then all of us have the same opportunity.
The opportunity to do what? To serve. To make a difference. The quieter voices in the referendum debate have been asking us to decide tomorrow on the basis of how best we might take our place in the world, how best we might serve our planet and hand it on to our grandchildren, how best we can ensure the common good and peace among nations. Louder voices have concentrated on matters which look more like self interest. Jesus commends the people who, sacrificially and carefully, actively look out for and meet the needs of others.
In the Bible you never know when you might be bumping into God, or welcoming an angel. The people Jesus applauds are the ones who have actually looked after him, he says. They are baffled, but he says that whenever they have fed or clothed or visited or welcomed anybody, he was to be found in them. Jesus offers a vision of a united humanity, where all have needs, and all have the opportunity to meet them. And this is not a reactive sort of kindness. You have to make an effort to visit someone in prison, make an effort to find clothes or food for the hungry and naked. This is a decision, not a guilty response.
As the Company of Merchant Taylors, deriving from the earlier Confraternity of John the Baptist, we gather around St John’s Day to reaffirm our purposes and recommit to our aims. John the Baptist was unafraid of calling people to decide, and to change their behaviour to ensure there was justice and right action. His cousin Jesus offers the radical challenge to everyone to offer their lives in sacrificial service.
The division will come when our earthly life is lived to its end. Until then it is a decision we are called to. Whom shall we serve? How will we obtain the good of our neighbour? How will we take our place in the world? Our Company may be but a small part of this City and region, and our individual lives may not make a massive impact on the world stage. But just as every vote counts on Thursday, so every action, however small, makes a difference. And in this I would rather be a sheep than a goat.
June 4, 2016 § 5 Comments
I am MAS – the C of E’s Middle Aged Spread – and I am a “problem”.
The latest Ministry Statistics show a preponderance of clergy aged 55 – 61. Though ordinations are increasing, even the most optimistic of projections show the number of stipendiary clergy reducing over the next 20 years.
The statistics are here. People like Ian Paul and Peter Ould, here, and David Keen, here, have looked into them closely. Whether I am a problem because of a “disastrous decision” in the 1990s to ordain older people, or I am a problem because I was a younger ordinand in the 1980s, I am a problem, because I’m going to retire, and there’s a gap behind me.
If I don’t much like being depicted as a problem to be solved, because it saps my energy, how might MAS be included in the solution? Why not work with me in two areas: later retirement; and the ‘last post’?
A lovely graph in the 2012 statistics – Fig 12 here (but not developed in the 2015 figures) – showed the effect of delaying the average age of retirement by just one year. It was nearly the same as increasing ordinations by 25%. Doing both would make quite a difference, wouldn’t it?
The reality is that, full pension or not, I am likely to go for retirement earlier rather than later. If I’m an incumbent I am heading for burn out. David Keen has shown that 5000 stipendiaries are sustaining a ministry pattern once undertaken by at least 10,000. I am 55 – 61, and I don’t have the energy I once did.
So: sit me down and get me to look carefully at how you can get the best out of me for the next ten to fifteen years, not the next five.
Give me one of those whizzy health checks you give to Bishops and senior clergy as they are appointed. Give me active encouragement to invest all I can in my spiritual and physical well-being. Yes, I know that’s been the message drummed in to me from the beginning, but tailor it and target it for me. (I am numerous enough for this to be done economically too – discount for a bulk order).
The next post I’m looking for is likely to be my last. So offer models of ministry and growth which go beyond getting a hipster millennial to plant something – fab though that is. Recognise that I am likely to be turned down in favour of a younger model, unless posts are identified where age and mileage will be an advantage, not a problem. Manage the expectations of those writing job descriptions and doing interviews.
Update my software. I can be a decent mentor to these young things whizzing through the processes. Yes, they are young enough to be my offspring. Get me excited about how I can foster vocations and mentor younger generations. I can be taught new tricks too, and they might need a wise head (if I’ve learnt anything…).
When I retire, think carefully about how my ministry can be continued. There are more clergy with PTO – the majority retired – than stipendiaries at present. Is House for Duty the only option for the deployment of the retired? Are there other models of focussed ministry in the years from 65 – 80? Invest in your officers for retired clergy – the numbers are worth it.
I am MAS. I am large enough (in numbers!) to be treated as a “thing” and am worth investing in. I am not just a retirement problem to be anticipated, I am a resource which can make a difference now.
The 2025 statistics should make interesting.
December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
A friend gave me a book* to read this year. One of my resolutions for 2014 had been to read the books I intended to read, and like all resolutions it didn’t quite work out. But this book I did. It’s about technology, and the way we use it, and it uses us – the way we change as we use new tools. The sections about email, and smartphones and social media were powerful. I know that some of my friends have made resolutions this year not to be so dominated by their technology. I’m sympathetic to that too.
What struck me most forcibly was that this was a book which could only have been written in the last couple of years. Twenty years ago it would have been baffling. Then, though it existed, I knew nothing of the world wide web, the Internet, or email. In 1994 I was just getting into text messaging I remember, and I sent my first email in 1995, I think. Social media then was still a letter, or a fax. To think that in 2014 I would witness my 84 year old mother in law on Facetime speaking to her relatives 300 miles away, just like those communicators on Star Trek…well, I would not have imagined I would really see the day. Who can predict what such a book will be covering in 2034, when I’m 74?
I guess that’s the point of marking a date in the calendar as a good time to look back and to look forward. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but we can use what we have learnt so far, and we can equip ourselves to face what will come so that we can judge what will nourish us and what will harm us, what we should embrace and what we should avoid. And that’s why I’m talking about the book my friend gave me. In one small section it talks about the kind of looking back you do when someone dies, and how you talk to them.
The author suggests four things to say to those who have died, and I think you can say them to the year which is past too.
“I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you”
I’m sorry. There will be things in this past year which you have not done well, or which you’ve been a part of which are beyond your control and which are a source of regret. A resolution might be to try and repair any damage, and certainly not to take part in the same stuff again this year – and to create the conditions where society, or the world, won’t cause that stuff to happen again.
Thank you. One of my resolutions this year is to relish what has been good, and, where possible, to let others know if they have done it. There is now a Masters Degree in handling complaints. I’d like a Masters Degree in offering thanks, and that will start with thinking of enough good things to be able to start offering thanks for, and calling to mind the people who have done them. That includes the Almighty.
I forgive you. There will be stuff from this year which has been caused by others. I spend too much time in the middle of families who have been torn apart, or situations where disagreements have become divisions. That’s a privilege of the priestly ministry, and all priests know that these things are only resolved when someone offers forgiveness to another. But it’s a costly beginning, and it may as well start with you.
I love you. To reflect on what has been is to work out what, and who, is worth our time, our attention, our effort. Where those people are still with us, then making an active choice to love them, rather than just hoping that they already know, will make all the difference to our, and their, future. Where those people have died, then loving them in memory will enable us to live with what they gave us.
The Biblical writers were skilled at looking back in order to look forward. Isaiah took such courage and hope from God’s dealings with his people that he could be confident that there was a future and a hope, a way to walk. The Gospel writers, sure that Jesus had conquered even death, were thrilled to offer us the words they heard from Jesus about trusting in God for everything, and not giving our energies to things which would ultimately not satisfy.
I pray that this New Year you’ll be able to look back and ask questions of the past in such a way that you’ll be able to embrace the future with faith and hope. I pray that there will be thanksgiving, apologies, forgiveness and love. And I pray that all of your living, with whatever the future will hold and whatever tools we use in it, will be held in the palm of God’s hand, and lived to God’s glory, for God, in Christ, is our yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.
*The book is Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Basic Books 2011. On p. 304 She quotes a Rabbi’s sermon at Yom Kippur, and he offers these four things to say to the dead.
September 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
I post sermons on here when enough people comment about them after I preach them. So here’s today’s, on Matthew, and whether I am converted.
The thing is, I wonder if any of us really know what it is to be thoroughly converted. What it is to be going completely one way, and then stop and go in the exact opposite direction. What it is to set aside everything for which we’ve dreamed and worked and saved and planned, and to go and do something completely different. I wonder if, really, we’re a mixture of old and new, good and bad, trying to shape it and sort it so that land just on the right side of the line. I wonder if most of us are really going at this Christian life bit by bit, two steps forward and a step back, hoping that, when we take stock we can demonstrate that we’ve made some progress.
If I’m honest I’m quite envious of someone like Matthew. Everyone knew what he had been like, and therefore what a difference Jesus had made in his life. We all know about tax collectors in the Bible. They did a necessary job: taxes help society when used well, and in themselves they are not evil. But the biblical tax collectors added their personal touch, using the force of law and the authority of the state to line their own pockets as well. Matthew, or Levi in the other gospels, did this like any other, and was loathed as a result. Tax collectors personified what today’s collect called “the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches”. They were a byword for everything that was corrupt and bad and loathsome, and they knew it. Perhaps they even revelled in it. ‘No one likes us. We don’t care’.
The way Matthew tells it, he’s in his booth being loathsome and corrupt. Jesus walks past. Jesus has already gained a reputation for being powerful and charismatic and challenging and divinely inspired. He’d healed loads of people, cleansed people of leprosy, helped a paralysed man to walk, rid people of evil things which had taken them over. He’d even changed the weather. These were close knit communities. People talked, quicker than we tweet now. No one, least of all Matthew would have been in any doubt as to who this was and what he stood for. Two words to Matthew. ‘Follow me’. And that’s it. He does.
That’s why I’m envious. Because, the way it’s told, Matthew is one thing and then immediately he’s another. Old life: gone. I guess it would have to be: he was so obviously doing the wrong thing that any hint of doing it again and he would have been out on his ear, even self condemned. If he was going to follow Jesus it would be all or nothing. And it was all. Not only does he get to be one of the twelve, he gets to write it all down, so that he’s both an Apostle, one of those who could recount the words of Jesus and he’s an evangelist: a writer of the Good News, so that we can still hear his words today.
And, perhaps because he’s conscious of all the harm he has done his own people, the Jews he has a special concern for them in his Gospel. Remember how Zaccheus makes recompense by repaying what he’s taken many times over? I wonder if Matthew, aware of all that he has taken from his own people, ensures that he gives them the most precious thing that he can: an account of the faith in Christ which turned his life round and gave him hope. Read through Matthew’s Gospel – I dare you – and count the number of times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures and shows how Jesus fulfils them. From wherever you are, he says, Jesus can and will be your Messiah, your Saviour, your hope and your light.
I’m envious because this shines a very clear light on the murkiness and complexity of my discipleship. I can point to a moment when I knew I made a decision for Christ. That came after a lifetime – 15 years – of church attendance. I was never very bad, and then and now have had no public reputation for going the wrong way or doing the wrong thing. My day to day life didn’t have to change very much, and, though pleased, no one was very much surprised when I followed a call to be ordained. I didn’t have to turn round from very much, and that means I have to look very carefully to check what a difference following Christ is making today.
Reflecting on the call of Matthew, crystal clear as it is, is like holding up a mirror – one of those dressing room mirrors with lights on it. Matthew’s is what a 100% conversion looks like. What does yours? What, for example, has following Jesus done to your attitude to money? Do you still, really, put more store by it than your heavenly treasure? What about your attitude to other people? Are they all there to be served, to be loved, or are some of them to be swept out of the way, dominated and defeated? What about your reputation, the things which mark you out as successful, your ambitions? Where are they when faced with the two simple words Matthew heard: follow me?
And if you want my honest answer: none of my responses to those questions will be as clear as Matthew’s. I know I could have been something else rather than a Vicar, but I have to say that my last three roles have meant living in three very nice places. I know as a Vicar I am the target for all sorts of stuff other people avoid – last night I was walking the dog up Toll Gavel, when a hooded young person in Subway saw my clerical shirt, looked me straight in the eye, leered and stick his middle finger up. I don’t think it was a cheery greeting. And sometimes you get worse abuse in the church, not out of it. But no one can tell me that my life is harder than anyone else’s in a complex employment situation. And this is no sacrifice compared to the lot of some Christians across the world.
I want to secure my finances as much as the next person. I’m as defined by my possessions as much as anyone else. Ask me how pleased I was when I bought a guitar I’ve wanted for 30 years. I care about my position and what people think about me, and if I had to weigh that up against what I want people to think about the Jesus I serve, there might be a slimmer majority than for the Scottish referendum.
Matthew shows me that my conversion is still happening. And I bet yours is too. Yes, I follow Christ. I sometimes wear clothes which make that so clear that people can tell me what they think of it. And yes, I’m still working out what that means. My emotions, and my finances, and my intellect and my relationships are all still listening to Jesus’s words, and trying to make sense of them. Thanks be to God that when we’re with Jesus we are truly with him, right from the start. After Matthew’s call there’s a big dinner, and all sorts of dodgy types are there. Far from them dragging Jesus down, he raises them up. That’s us: with him we are made new.
And then we have to work out what that means. I will follow, if you’ll help me. And I’ll help you too. Amen.
August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the Hebrew Scriptures the history books – Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – have a difficult time with the idea of Kingship. It is not because of the bad ones: the kings who manifestly disobey the commands of God from start to finish. It‘s also the ones you would think we should admire, and hold up as examples. Of course even they do some stupid things. People do. But the histories of Israel are more worried than that. Taken as a whole they advise us to regard the whole institution of monarchy with great caution.
This stretches right back to the people’s demand for a king in the first place. Samuel has combined the roles of prophet and judge, but the people have no faith in those who will follow him. They look around at other nations, just as our politicians do today when looking for a model of some social policy: ‘they do it better in Sweden’; ‘this is what works in Germany’. The people look at the strong nations around, for Israel has ever been under threat from its neighbours. And they see that kingship seems to work. ‘Give us one of them’, they demand of Samuel.
Samuel does, but gives them a health warning. The King will make you subservient. The King will demand everything of you, he says. ‘In that day you will cry out because of your King’ is his prophecy, in 1 Samuel 8. 18. Their reply? ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we might be like other nations…’ (1 Sam 8. 19, 20). And they get their wish. Saul, who is something of a disaster, then David, who builds up the country and enlarges its borders, and Solomon, who establishes it, fortifying Jerusalem even more, holding court there so that world leaders come knocking, and founding the temple, to show the impregnable power of the relationship between God, King, nation and people.
A wise reading of history is often able to show that the seeds of destruction are to be found at the moment of what looks like complete success. A reliance on what has got you to the point of achievement, simply looking for more of the same, will lead to the whole edifice crumbling. That’s as true of the Roman Empire as of the financial markets in 2007 as it is of the England cricketers who won the Ashes in 2005 and fell away soon after. The Books of Kings, especially, describe just such a fall, and attribute it not just to bad leadership, but to the very model of kingship itself.
Solomon, the wise, the all powerful, the sought after one, is not immune from finding security in transient alliances rather than the complete dependence on God which is the hallmark of Israel. Kingship makes you do that. Power concentrated in the hands of one person, to whom others fawn, eventually corrupts. And with few checks and balances that power turns in on itself. It was already happening at the end of Solomon’s reign, and not even the strong words of the prophet Ahijah about the breaking up of the twelve tribes of Israel can stop the process.
Our first reading tonight carries on the story. Solomon has died. Rehoboam, his son and anointed successor, trusts in the wrong sort of exercise of authority. Absolute kingship, he feels, can best be demonstrated by showing people who is boss. Is that not what a King is? Wise heads invite him to exercise his authority with humility and restraint, but kingship lends itself more easily to a display of power than of humility. He would rather be ruler than servant. He would look weak otherwise. Ten of the tribes tell him what he can do with it, and so begins the split of the nation, into two Kingdoms. A couple of hundred years and it’s all gone, the nation overrun, the leaders in exile. And we can safely say that the split, the destruction, has been there all along.
My former boss used to say that ‘any system can be made not to work’. The Judges and the early prophets had their troubles too. But reliance on an overt exercise of power – ‘someone who will go out before us and fight our battles’, as the people say to Samuel when they ask for a King – this reliance has perhaps more chance of failure than any other. The people put a figurehead and a system in between them and their joint responsibility for the land and nation and people. Their abdication of power leads to it being exercised badly, however hard the King in question tries.
In that same land today different models of leadership and power currently clash, and people die. In our own land the people with power seen increasingly remote for the people they govern, or should that be ‘serve’? We do well to be suspicious of the exercise of power. We do well also to pray for those who have it, and hold up before them the model of the one who, with all authority on heaven and earth, sought out the weak, sat with the needy, shared the life of the poor, and gave up every shred of what he had, that we might live. Amen.