Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: A Service of Holy Communion Sermon
A sermon preached by The Rt Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey, Bishop of Ramsbury.
Sunday 18 September 2022, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, a service of Holy Communion in thanksgiving of Her Late Majesty.
Of all the words spilled and spoken about the death of Her Late Majesty the Queen in the last week, few have stood out for me as much as those of Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, on the Today Programme last Tuesday. His elegant poem, Floral Tribute, but also the way he introduced this, describing how easy it is on momentous occasions to veer into grandiosity. ‘How do I say something small about something so huge?’ he remarked.
That is not only the task of the poet, but also of the preacher or priest, for it seems to me this is the heart of what we call the Incarnation: that something so colossal as the eternal and creative word of God might come to us encased in infant form. And if that is true, then of course the corollary is that both poet and priest must also say grand and glorious things about what is very small, because of the dignity afforded them by God’s presence.
I think there is another corollary too about the nature and value of constitutional monarchy, which may be veering me away from my brief, but perhaps we shall return to that at the end!
I mention all this because our Gospel reading this morning is about the management of worldly and eternal things – how are we mortals to handle the things of God and his everlasting Kingdom? And we should start by acknowledging that it is really the most notoriously perplexing of Jesus’ parables – that of the unjust manager – which seems to commend the very kind of sinner we ought to condemn. Perplexing because it appears to endorse corruption: the steward of a wealthy man is caught out by his master and charged with squandering his property. Facing public shame and the loss of his job, the manager proceeds to doctor the invoices owed by various clients, pleasing them, thus saving his own skin, and making his master look good, all at the same time. Jesus then says – read v9… which has baffled better Biblical minds than mine. And as if that isn’t confusing enough, Jesus proceeds to make very clear that we cannot serve God and money, and that dishonesty in worldly wealth will not lead to true riches, which appears to contradict his previous advice.
So, what may we say? Well, the first thing to observe is that Jesus’ parables are quick, vivid stories, designed to amaze and provoke: they seduce the hearers into expecting one ending and often give another – they are tales of the unexpected. So, it’s alright to read this and think ‘what??’ We are meant to. And of course, we don’t know how Jesus said these things – with a glint in his eye, gales of laughter, or fearfully solemn?
Nevertheless, what is clear is that Jesus is contrasting the behaviour of what he calls ‘the children of this age’ (‘secular’ in modern English) with those he calls ‘the children of light’ (his disciples – v8b). Going on, he contrasts worldly wealth with true, eternal riches – faith, hope, love – possessions that never fade & belong to all believers (v11-13).
Those who are concerned with eternity, Jesus seems to be saying, are called to have very different priorities in their lives to people who are only concerned with the present. Yet, at the same time, believers are to learn from the way in which secular people handle earthly riches. As if to say, look at the ingenuity, the urgency people display when worrying about money; look at the lengths they will go to –how canny they are in dealing with people; how skilfully they handle their business relationships! If only we were as shrewd with the things of the kingdom!
So I take the message of Jesus’ parable to be this: if such people can show such native wit and ingenuity in dealing with earthly wealth, how much more should Christians show it when dealing with true riches, eternal wealth?
Politics tends to be preoccupied with ingenious ways of managing the present: escaping from scrapes and using all our wit to spin and swerve around the slings of fortune. The bigger picture (and there is no bigger picture than eternity) is easy to lose sight of and I have to say it feels particularly obscure in the present climate. And thus, we find ourselves at a historic hinge in our national polity.
Tomorrow marks the ceremonial passing of this long Elizabethan age – and, as the Laureate’s poem puts it:
Evening will come, however determined the late afternoon,
Limes and oaks in their last green flush, pearled in September mist.
…which leaves us with the challenge as to what kind of country we must now be – and whether we can be wise stewards who act with deep memory and long foresight, bringing from our treasury what is old and what is new. For we must not only wistful, but hopeful. What qualities will this new age ask of our leaders, and each of us?
To call the role of constitutional monarchy metaphorical or symbolic is by no means to deny its power, which in some ways is akin to that of the poet and priest. Which is to say that its job is to constrain and contain within ordinary things and people, extraordinary ideas of glory, majesty, nationality – to make them personal and local. And by the same token, to fill and elevate ordinary things – like family and belonging – with a sense of the transcendent and timeless.
We have been unusually blessed in having a monarch who was unerringly faithful at both scales, and I would say that we are also blessed in having in her successor a King who intuitively understands that vocation, with a mystic’s sense of the eternal, yet grounded in abiding love for the earth.
We cannot serve one without the other: so, let us pray for the holy imagination to do both. For Jesus’ sake, amen.