We are in the season of party conferences. This week it is the turn of the Tories; we’ve already had Labour, the Lib Dems and the TUC. Many enter politics with high ideals and a desire to make a difference. They have a vision of a fairer, more prosperous, equitable society and want to do their bit to make that happen. There are differences about how that can be achieved – how big or little government intervention should be, how much faith can be placed in markets to achieve those ends, and what the balance should be between hand-outs, hand-ups, incentives and sanctions. We find deep social consciences across the benches. Then there is also a shadow side, where personal ambition and the lust for power for power’s sake creep in. As one of the Psalms puts it ‘sin whispers in the depth of the heart’ (Ps 36:1). The temptation for personal gain speaks to a dark recess in the psyche that can lure to the rocks.
Our readings presented us with contrasting images. In the Epistle (Philippians 2:1-13) Paul appealed for a sense of service modeled on Christ: looking not to our own interest but the interests of others. Meanwhile in the Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32) Jesus encountered the political scheming of the leaders, not giving a straight answer but rather assessing the likely fall-out first. That may reflect a good PR strategy, checking that there are no elephant traps for them before they give their response. But in this case it is based on a deep-seated deception, where there is an inherent distortion at the root of their approach. As with all deceit a lot of effort has to go into maintaining the line in case you trip yourself up. It is so much easier to defend a position built on integrity. There is here a reminder that just coming up with clever words will not convince if there is nothing behind them, or if the experience behind them does not match the pretended high ideals.
When I sit down with Council officers to talk about the issues facing our city, I find the churches’ credibility has been enhanced by our involvement with the foodbank and with responding to the challenge presented by the rise in homelessness, by the provision of drop-ins and debt advice. Where we are seen to be making a difference gives us a currency that is highly valued at the table. Because churches are so often key organs of community cohesion, quietly working and oiling the wheels of the social fabric, we have a voice with something to say. When we remain remote and detached, the credibility of anything we might have to say is not heard or recognized. And there are new kids on the block with this. I was at a meeting on Wednesday looking at modern slavery and how we can respond to it. There were some impressive stories being told by some of the newer churches in the city, who provide meals and it is in the conversations over the meal that people open up about their plight and need for help. It is when we are outwardly living and loving that we stand a better chance of being seen as relevant and worth listening to. So often the right to be heard has to be earned. It is when this is not seen that our voice is questioned and challenged, and rightly so. When we can back up what we say with real contact and real making a difference, then we have the power of authenticity.
And this authentic voice is not dependent on just church owned and run projects, though we have them. So many of those who are the mainstay of imaginative projects are regularly in pews on Sunday. And I know many of you are involved with so many areas. This involvement contributes to projects that draw a wider spectrum of people together to make a difference together. This is being the yeast that makes the dough rise, the salt that seasons and the light that shines, making the difference, bringing transformation. And Paul went on in the passage we heard to talk about Christ who didn’t remain aloof and remote but came among us, alongside us, emptying himself of all privilege and immunity, to become not just a servant but a slave. That meant giving up the power to direct and control, to aggrandize and serve self-interest, but to be at the mercy of whatever someone else might do and be vulnerable to the worst excesses of human depravity. Humbled, obedient to the point of death, emptied. It is only through this self-emptying and self-giving, this sacrificial love, that the exalting comes. Knees do not bow to a mere status symbol, but to one who has earned that honour.
And when we do similarly we live after his example and become representatives of Christ in these places, people who make a difference, inspired by faith. It is then that we ‘work out’ our own salvation (Phil 2:12), live it out in Christ-like obedience. For it is God who is at work in you, as Paul continued, enabling this. And this brings surprising company. People we might otherwise not expect to be on the right side are the ones whom Jesus describes as responding (Matthew 21:31), whereas the ones we’d expect to be champions are the ones scheming and more concerned for their own status and interests.
There is deep challenge in our readings today to those who would seek power. Power and influence have to be earned and have to have a clear vision that is for the common good, that is the good of everyone. The model of Christ is one who is giving, loving and serving. Without those we will not transform whatever issues we face. And this is true for the church, for politics and for our own involvement in a wide variety of projects. Being Christ-like makes a difference all round.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st October 2017