Authority and humility

Judges' service, St Mary's Church, 30th January 2005
1 Samuel 8: 1-9; Ephesians 1: 15-23
By what authority?

It is a strange and somewhat surreal experience being up here this morning, not to say a little daunting. Forgive me if I seem a little nervous but, distinguished as the normal St Mary's congregation is, I am not sure that I have been faced before with such a challenge as you present me with this morning. I confess that I am used to having a virtual monopoly on, shall we say, interesting vesture... but there's a bit of competition this morning so I'm probably feeling a bit threatened, which as you all will know much better than I seems to be a good excuse for almost any behavioural eccentricity that I may display. What, I wonder, gives me the right to stand here and speak to you from this pulpit (even if the notion of being six feet above contradiction probably does not hold much water today)? But then I am sure that you too face that question in your lives on a daily basis, and must wrestle deeply with the responsibility that is placed upon you by society. Authority. By what authority? And who are we to exercise such authority, you on behalf of the community or the nation or the monarch; I, apparently, on behalf of God - a concept which is to me at least almost laughable.

Humility as a starting point

I was heartened, it has to be said, by the energy and the piety with which you all joined in the General Confession at the beginning of the service. Together, in penitence, acknowledging our altogether too fallible humanity - that is a start at least. Not that some of your forerunners carried such humility with great ease, it has to be said. You may know the story, retold in a recent book by Lord Browne-Wilkinson, of the opening of the new Law Courts by Queen Victoria:

“The judges” he writes, “prepared a loyal address which started (some may think pompously): 'Conscious as we are of our manifold shortcomings...' A very distinguished judge objected to this opening, saying that he was not conscious of any shortcomings, let alone manifold ones. At this another equally distinguished judge suggested that the difficulty could be overcome by substituting for the offensive phrase: 'Conscious as we are of each other's manifold shortcomings...'

We live in a strange world. It has ever been so. It is, it seems, a continual struggle for the human race to find a way of ordering itself that will feed both our desire for comfort, for self-preservation and self-advancement, and our desire to have someone else take responsibility for protecting us from the vagaries of others. It will not, I hope, have escaped your notice that this service this morning takes place in a world context that includes the remembrance of the most horrific genocide of all history and the first so-called free elections in Iraq. It is also the day in the Anglican calendar when, were it any day other than Sunday, we would be remembering King Charles the Martyr. A strange person to remember in the company of saints you might think, but a faithful Anglican, if the working out of that faith in his understanding of his role as King was arrogant and misguided.

“Never charge your head with a crown” he wrote to his son just before his execution,”as shall, by its heaviness, oppress the whole body, the weakness of whose parts cannot return anything of strength, honour or safety to the head, but a necessary debilitation and ruin. Your prerogative is best showed and exercised in remitting rather than exacting the rigour of the laws; there being nothing worse than legal tyranny.”

The words are fine, his actions both to his contemporaries and through the eyes of history less obviously so.

The struggle to find a structure for a just and peaceful world

All these various events are salutary reminders, as we celebrate the justice system in this country and pray for you all in your onerous vocation, of that search, that struggle for a just and peaceable world with which we all wrestle to one degree or another. Yet such a dream becomes ever more complex, ever more illusory as our world shrinks and fragments around us. Truth is rarely spoken of, ideals are no more set, and what works for us is the only criterion by which we order the life of our own little worlds. Or, so frightened of the fact that others perceive truth to be different from the truth we believed we had, we retreat behind our walls and live in the balloons of our self-made kingdoms, petrified that someone else has a large pin. We are too frightened to embrace what is obvious: that truth is many-faceted, and our search for peace and freedom will be enriched by experiencing and engaging with the struggles of others.

Our first reading this morning is part of a fascinating story which has an entirely contemporary feel to it. The people are dissatisfied with the system of leadership with which they have been saddled since the death of Joshua and the entry into the promised land. The judges were charismatic figures in the fullest and best sense of the word who were called out of the local tribal community to be the arbiters, the guardians of the boundaries of each community as they developed their community lives and became more settled in their land. But there was little sense of unity about this newly founded nation, that should have been able to rest content in its faith in the God who had led them safely through the wilderness to this new and fruitful land. He was a God who kept his promises, but that was not sufficient charisma for these, his chosen people. They saw power in the nations around them, they were subjected to armed raids, they observed the wealth and success that came with nations united under a monarchy, and they lusted for the same. God instructed Samuel to give in to their demands - as he always does. God never stands in the way of the freewill that he has given us. But, as the passage continues on from where we left it, the people are warned of the consequences. This is a book written with hindsight. The rapacious self aggrandisement and misuse of power of king after king takes Israel into exile. That most potent of symbols of God's promise, the Land, is taken from them, and once again they are given the chance to fall back on their faith in the endless and unstinting love of God for his people.

The Law made human

Of course, neither the exile nor the restoration of Jerusalem solves the problem, and so the Word of God, the Law, that most holy institution of the Judaic people must take a new form. It must be offered in a way that the people will see, and with the eyes of their hearts enlightened, they might know what is the hope to which God has called them and called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe according to the working of his great power. So says that most glorious passage from Ephesians. “So that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” I could preach for the whole day on that text, for it is the nub of the matter. And if for you the Christian Faith does nothing, or any other faith for that matter, still hold on to those words for they have universal significance for those who find themselves unexpectedly in a position to shape, in small ways or great, the community, the nation, the world of which they are a part. Take out the personal pronoun if you will, but it still retains its force.

At the end of the day, our knowledge is partial, our hearts are only partly enlightened,our wisdom always expandable and our capacity to love and honour what is different, what is weak, what is fearfully unlovable is impossibly cramped by our own blindness, our own manifold shortcomings. In the person of Jesus - so we would claim - we see the one true light, the one true hope, the one true love lived. Law that controls and diminishes and subjects is embraced and enlarged and transformed in the encounter between the living God and the people of God; and the code of law that frames every jot and tittle of life is famously, sensationally refined to two essentials: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God... with everything you have. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.' Therein lies our hope.

An epilogue from the Holocaust experience

It is fitting today that I should end with the words of Rabbi Hugo Gryn. One of the great faith communicators of our day, who sadly died before his time in 1996, he lost everyone and everything in the atrocious destruction of the Jewish people that took place sixty and seventy years ago. In everything that he preached and lived, at the heart of his faith was a fundamental identification with the 'anawim', the little ones, the forgotten, the oppressed, the ones we despise, because they too, when we have taken off our special robes, and broken out of our formal processions, and stripped away the layers of all that darkens the eyes of our heart, they too are uniquely loved and honoured by God as people of God; and any system that denies or ignores or oppresses them denies and ignores and oppresses the love, truth and hope that lies at the heart of God.

“It seems to me” wrote Rabbi Gryn “that true religion begins with the law about protecting and shielding the alien and the stranger, the unwanted and the unloved. It's there in practically every religious tradition and it is there that men and women discover the idea of humanity...
How you are with the one to whom you owe nothing; that is a grave test...
I always think that the real offenders at the half way mark of the century were the bystanders; all those people who let things happen because it didn't affect them directly.
I believe that the line our society takes on how we are to people to whom we owe nothing is the critical signal that we give to our young. I hope and pray that is a test we shall not fail.”

Well, as we have already begun the long journey towards a General Election I hope we all, from whatever perspective in society we come, whatever our role in formulating the values of that society, would join in saying Amen to that.

“Never charge your head with a crown as shall by its heaviness oppress the whole body. The weakness of whose parts cannot return anything of strength, honour or safety to the head...”

Andrew Deuchar
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 6th February 2005