There are times when our readings make me aware that we have come a very long way since they were written; that we live in different times. The first reading (2 Samuel 11:26-12:15) talks of events nearly 3,000 years ago. It predates the Must Farm settlement, about which I spoke last week, by several hundred years. King David has not behaved well, having lusted after Bathsheba and she became pregnant, he engineered her husband’s death on the front line of a battle so that he could marry her to save face. Nathan the prophet doesn’t mince his words in condemning him for his actions. We might just go along with the possessive image of a beloved lamb for Uriah’s love for his wife, but it gets much harder to swallow when the child is made to suffer for his parents’ sins, though they are seen as David’s sins, not Bathsheba’s, which I’m not sure is better. The child does indeed die.
The Epistle (Galatians 2:15-21) has Paul showing that he is still very concerned for legal argument. He is clear that just following legal precepts does not deal with the problem that we are fallible, frail and faulty mortal beings, who sin and mess things up, sometimes spectacularly – see first reading for more details. This can only be sorted by the grace of God and then he goes into lengthy argument as to why this is the case, the type of thing which can make Paul hard to follow at times. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer. It is an argument that doesn’t resonate easily with where we find ourselves. In fact I’m not that fussed about eternal life. I can’t imagine it and really if there is anything it will be a bonus. I don’t believe in hell as a place, I don’t believe that the alternative is anything other than nothingness and there are times when that sounds quite appealing, not least when I have a few days away and come back to all the emails! So this is not the primary focus of my faith and that rather removes the major selling point that the church has relied on in the past.
However I do believe that God is God and that life flourishes when lived in harmony with the purposes of his Kingdom, when we seek to be children of his grace and heirs of his promise. So while I’m not fussed about eternity as such, I do believe it is on offer through the love that will not let us go and which seeks us out, through the love that gives us life in the first place and new life in Jesus Christ. So I might arrive at the same place as the Apostle Paul, he will be pleased to know, but I come at it by a different route. So again, a reading which has much to say to us, reflects a different world and agenda.
The gospel reading (Luke 7:36-8:3) is perhaps easier to enter. We don’t know why the woman is in such distress. She seems to break down. We’re not sure why she had the alabaster jar with her, but seems to have completely lost all sense of decorum and protocol. She sounds like someone who carries deep distress inside her and responds with unrestrained emotion. The tears flow, they drop on Jesus’ feet as he reclines for the meal and then wipes them with her hair and the ritual anointing continues. It’s not surprising that the host and other guests are perplexed by that. It would surprise us.
She clearly carries deep guilt and deep distress. Jesus’ words and acceptance set her free. It is a healing of her mind and soul, who she is as a person is honoured, and that can be profoundly liberating and cathartic. The passage ends with a list of other women who have equally been set free and found healing by Jesus. That is itself remarkable in an age where women were not noticed and didn’t count. That is still the experience of many women around the world and our own society is not without fault.
What comes through these passages is how faith in the God of grace sets people free to live in the light and hope of his Kingdom. Gracious living sets a tone and people flourish in it. The story of King David shows the opposite, how political manipulations and injustice lead to death and oppression. King David became the epitome of a good king, but he has his shadow side. Wherever there are political manipulations they do not create an environment in which people flourish.
This weekend is the official celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday. As part of this we are giving away the book that has been produced by the Bible Society, Hope and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This book is a tribute to the Queen’s faith, which as she said in 2002 has guided her “though the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”
The Queen has been a faithful servant of this nation as monach for 63 years. It is quite a record and she is held in enormous affection and respect, even by those who would prefer a republic, which the polls tell us is quite a minority, certainly at the moment. There is a lot of flannel and flummery around royalty. Whenever there is a royal event there is a side that turns me cold. But when I looked deeper into what lies behind the coronation oaths I found a surprise. During it the Queen was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, “Will you to your power cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgements”? That is a profound question and takes us to the heart of what government is for – justice and mercy. It also takes us back to Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of its sealing we marked last year.
For the Queen the most important moment of the coronation service was not the crowning, but the anointing. The moment she was anointed with holy oil was for her a solemn moment where the self-sacrificial heart of what lay ahead was expressed. This was a spiritual rite and prayer that grace would be given to fulfill the duties.
There was a prayer of blessing which asked for quiet realms, that is ones not disturbed by discord, that there would be defence, wisdom, honesty and stability. These things are signs of blessing because they are signs of love abounding and flourishing within the realm. It also prays that she will be given “devout, learned and useful” clergy, and I will leave that one without comment.
For those heading into the unknown in a new day, the book we are giving away, reveals that the poem quoted by King George VI in his Christmas broadcast in 1939, was actually given to him by his then 13-year-old daughter, who became Elizabeth II (page 9). That poem by Minnie Louise Haskins was quoted during the service from St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light, and safer than a known way.”
Our Queen has been and is inspirational in how she tries to reflect and proclaim the love of God in Christ. When I read the book I found it inspiring and humbling. It tells of a life lived in the light of faith, hope and the grace of God in Christ.
Today we celebrate with the Queen. We are reminded of the grace at the heart of the gospel and how a life can be lived in that grace so that it inspires and enables others to flourish. May we too live as children of grace and heirs of the promise in Jesus Christ.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th June 2016