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The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Salisbury Cathedral by Ash Mills
Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 14th May 2017

A sermon preached by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL

Acts 7 v55 – 8 v3; John 14 v1-7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God . . .”

We’re 3½ weeks away from a General Election. Democracy has produced some unexpected results this last year. No-one can accuse elections of being boring or predictable, and being an election pollster must be a nerve-wracking business these days.

But what everyone predicts is that the backdrop to this General Election will be that of ‘troubled hearts’. Let me offer you three reasons why, as a national community, we are troubled.

·        We are troubled by either the outcome of last summer’s referendum or by what lies ahead in negotiating our exit from the European Union.

·        We are troubled by increasing inequality.  The differentials between the wealthiest parts of our national community and not the very poorest but simply those who represent decent, honest citizenship – the nurses, the teachers, paramedics and shop workers – these differentials feel as if they’ve got out of control and they’re breeding a sense that something is wrong.  My daughter and her friends have been five years out of university this summer.  I compare two of them who had the same education and are equally talented and are in good jobs. Already one is earning three times more than the other.  And the one who is poorer off is a qualified doctor working within the NHS.  We don’t expect a utopian world but there’s something about how our economy is working which ought to be troubling our hearts.

·        And for those of us who believe a shared faith is a good thing our hearts might be troubled by the way we’re developing cynical or ignorant attitudes towards religious life and what it offers our society.  It won’t surprise you to know that I’ve been brushing up on my Welsh history these last weeks.  I have a particular fascination for what happened both in England and Wales during the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly because we’ve been harvesting the fruit of that era in our own lifetime.  In 1851 there was a religious census in our nation aimed at discovering what were the religious attitudes and practices across all communities.  In Wales in 1851 it tells me that 57% of the population attended Christian worship regularly.  I don’t know what the figure is now but I’d be surprised if it were more than 3%.  It is certainly less in most of England.

Church affiliation isn’t the whole story but I have no doubt that as we lose touch with the bedrock of our Christian story it will take its toll on the depth and durability of our values.  The fact that we put our trust more in skills or money rather than character or community is connected to our diminishing confidence in faith and the religious expression of our life.

So in these next weeks we’re listening to candidates and political parties. We’ve the opportunity to choose between differing visions of the future. Yet our hearts may be troubled because of questions of identity – what is our national character and what are our priorities? Are we rejecting things our predecessors have long regarded as spiritual capital?

Last Sunday my colleague, Ed Probert, mentioned a pastoral letter which had then just been circulated by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.  You should now have a copy to take home with you and possibly digest. In it the Archbishops recognise that context of this election, the events and attitudes of our current moment. They also recognise another context, and that is how we see our Christian responsibility and God’s perspective.

Just now we’ve heard two passages of scripture which invite us to put all of our life experience, including how we will vote, into that wider context than simply our troubled hearts, but in the context of God’s enduring purpose for our life. So just a few reflections based on these texts.

Firstly, they invite us to consider the witness of Christian history: that ‘troubled hearts’ are nothing new.  Jesus is acknowledging the troubles faced by his disciples, and the Church which develops around those disciples in the years after Jesus’ resurrection met hostile social conditions and outright opposition. Brutality and violence, extreme reactions to any threats to power including the Jesus message of peace and hope.  A really good man, Stephen, was stoned to death.  The Christian community in Jerusalem was persecuted and scattered. 

The problem we face is not that we have ‘troubled hearts’ but our problem begins if we think that we’re unique and the first generation to have had to deal with such challenges.  Each and every generation has to find a way of integrating what it believes with the complex realities of that moment in civil society.  Consider the art work by Ana Maria Pacheco which will sit dominantly in our South Transept for the next three months. The inspiration for the ‘Shadows of the Wanderer’ comes in part from the tales fleeing migrants written eight centuries before Christ and connects it with the contemporary issues of exile and the displacement of peoples in our day. For us the mass movement of economic migrants and refugees fleeing danger is a huge challenge and rightly threatens our sense of security whilst also asking of us a humanitarian response.  It needs calm, co-ordinated responses but it’s no greater challenge than those faced by our forebears.

Secondly, what Christians will want to say throughout this election campaign, most of which is happening alongside our celebration of Eastertide, is that as a nation we should choose life.  This election ought not to be just about what will make us individually better off but what will make us proud of ourselves, what will build a society in which our children will flourish and our neighbours’ children will live hope.  A society where progress isn’t a lottery where some do extraordinarily well and others are left struggling and in misery.  Are we capable of choosing life for all?

And to achieve that life the Archbishops remind us that we require faith to help us. Yes, we need economic capital and social capital, especially to care for the youngest and oldest in our society, but we also need spiritual capital to help us create stability.

When troubled we are urged by Jesus to believe in God, to find our stability in things other than mere material well-being.  Thomas expressed the sense of uncertainty we recognise. He was assured that there’s a profound stability to be found in Christian believing which can work its way out – as the Archbishops express it – in stable communities “skilled in reconciliation, resilient in setbacks and diligent in sustainability . . . a nation of ‘glad and generous hearts’.”  A nation of cohesion and able to live well with change.

Yet true religion also offers, alongside stability, a challenge to power and vested interests.  And we see that challenge personified in Stephen whose sense of loyalty to the things of God and his enormous courage, shine out of his martyrdom.  We’re not asked to give our life for the vision of a more just and equal society but we still need courage to speak out boldly against injustice, or to participate in the democratic processes which will choose the fairest way ahead.  If my conversations are anything to go by many of us practice cynicism and apathy when it comes to elections.  The right to vote is a hard won right and by it we can witness peaceable change in our nations’ priorities. Use it how you will but use it.

The Archbishops tell us to vote, and they urge on us that we pray. So in these next 3½ weeks I bid us pray for the candidates, for those who administer the electoral process, for the mood of our nation and those who report on it, for an ability to understand truthfully our context, and face up to the complexities and failings of our social systems. And when we choose, to choose life: to prayerfully choose what we believe to be God’s purpose for human society.

‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6 v8)