Have you received one of the new 50 pence pieces in your change yet? This is the coin that has been struck to commemorate our exiting the European Union at 11.00pm last Friday night. It contains the legend “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. That phrase is based on a quote from Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address on 4th March 1801 as he became the 3rd President of the United States of America. The actual quote is “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”, with the Oxford comma after “commerce”. That comma changes the statement. As the 50p coin has it without the comma, ‘peace, prosperity and friendship’ are to be with all nations. Thomas Jefferson just gave honest friendship to all nations, with the use of his comma. There has been a bit of fuss about that – whether the comma should have been inserted or not, but it does change the meaning.
For peace this is not so significant since if you want peace you need it with all nations, otherwise you don’t have it. Prosperity for everyone is quite a vision and I don’t know if the designers of the 50p realise what they have committed us to.
The origins of Thomas Jefferson’s phrase lie in the American wars of independence and having the freedom to establish commerce, to do the things which independent states may of right do. Establishing the rules of commerce is precisely what will occupy us over this coming year as we enter the negotiations in this transition period. Someone knows their history.
Friendship with all nations was about not meddling in others’ affairs, not ‘entangling alliances’, not least because it endangered the peace and prosperity of the American people. Not treating the world as a political play-thing is a noble aspiration, and of course we have a colonial history to be wary of. But it is also one that is somewhat harder to maintain in a world where the likes of Huawei, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, let alone the media empires and global traders make the independence of nations somewhat limited and rather a fantasy. Global warming is a stark reminder that what we do can affect others directly. When we pump out excessive levels of CO2 and endanger Antarctic ice caps, we are meddling on a very serious scale. Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with all nations has far reaching consequences.
This last week the Church of England has committed itself to encouraging each of our churches to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. Our City Council have been more ambitious in setting their goal at 2030. This will be a challenge but we know we have to take this seriously. Gas fired heating is on borrowed time and we are borrowing that time from the future. If we wish peace and property with all nations, then our environmental impact is a major area for us to address. St John’s Church in Cathedral Square signed up to work towards eco-church status last year and the diocese has followed suit.
Today we celebrate Candlemas (Luke 2:22-40). That is a nickname for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of Mary, his mother. It brings a small child, just 40 days old, to the Temple for a sacrifice required for a firstborn male to be offered. The one offered for Jesus is the poor person’s option of a few pigeons, rather than the more expensive lamb. Jesus is placed among the poor at this special moment, and if we wish prosperity for all nations then the poor must be included, not just the powerful and rich. Meanwhile this ceremony brought his mother’s period of uncleanness to an end. At best that is a nursing mother’s protection, so that having given birth she has time to nurse unhindered, to recover, to be given the space she needs. This is the antithesis of seeing people as robots who can carry on as if significant events to the body don’t need to be taken into account. Again, those who are most vulnerable have peace and prosperity proclaimed to them. On the flip side, this is part of a system that sees women’s bodies as being polluting. There are some assumptions in Candlemas that need challenging.
The candles come from Simeon, the old man who spoke of Jesus as the light to lighten the nations. Inner thoughts will be exposed, which is what happens when you wish for peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations – they can’t happen if we are being dishonest, deceitful and have hidden motives of meddling for our own gain to someone else’s detriment. In walks Anna, one of those people who are constantly at prayer in the temple, bringing her tears that won’t dry and her heartache that won’t sooth. She sees in Jesus redemption and hope.
Wherever you are with what happened on Friday night, we stand on the threshold of a new future. I know some will be filled with jubilation and what they see as freedom, freedom to trade as independent nations can. Others here will be anxious at what we have done and what the prospects will be. Independence in a global world is limited. Congregations are no different to the rest of the country, they are split on this. Let us then take some inspiration from Thomas Jefferson and his phrase without the Oxford comma. And let us shine the light that lightens the nations into this analysis.
We seek peace. This means doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, looking for the genuine good for all people. Remember our inner motives will be exposed. It means peace that is rooted in justice, compassion, genuine good for all. Some have called for quick reconciliation and coming together. Others have pointed out that there are problems for families made up of multiple nationalities. Those who see that they have lost need to have their pain acknowledged. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, after the horrors of the Apartheid regime, facing the consequences was an important part of the peace-making. So for those who rejoice, they need to hear to cries. Those who suffer, need to hear what led to the vote. Peace is never easy peace, because that is often not really peace at all, rather it is someone being told to be quiet and put up with what the others have done. Inner thoughts are exposed, brought into the light of Christ’s blessing, redemption and hope, so that a new future can be truly embraced together.
We are encouraged to seek prosperity. This is not just for ourselves in selfish grasping, but for the betterment and flourishing of all people around the world. It is generous in its approach, in its aid when there is need, in its trading which seeks to be fair. It is a prosperity which has to be sustainable. There is an online tool which can help you work out how many planets it takes to sustain how you live. It is likely to shock. The average for this country is 1.75, with some using the resources equivalent to as much as 6 planets. Prosperity at that cost is not prosperity at all, but an assault on the world and on all its people, so no where near being for all nations, not even ourselves.
We seek honest friendship with all nations, to build bridges in which commerce can flourish and with it the exchange of ideas and cultural engagement. Trading can be a source of peacemaking, as many know the benefits of cultural exchange and the enrichment of outlook this brings. The bible is built on it and it was shaped by ideas being shared.
A light to lighten the nations, bringing peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations, offers for us a way forward with hope and generosity. Without it we will be impoverished in the extreme. The global crisis that we face requires us to work together because our good is their good, and the good of the planet is the good for all of us. Peace built on justice, on inner thoughts exposed to the healing, redeeming grace of Christ, is a future to embrace. We are where we are, which ever way you flip the 50p coin. What we can do is shape where this goes for the good of all, which is actually our good too. May we truly seek peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations, for light to lighten all peoples.
Sermon for Candlemas, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 2nd February 2020