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The Second Sunday of Lent

A Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury  Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Mark 8: 31-end

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The Second Sunday of Lent

Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 1st March 2015

A Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury 

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Mark 8: 31-end



We have a General Election just over the horizon.  As we know it’s the first Parliamentary election where the date’s been predetermined.  One of the advantages of a fixed term Parliament is to give time for other bodies to join in the pre-election debates of what kind of national priorities we should be voting for.  And if the polls are to be trusted a very great number of us are still undecided in our voting preferences this time.  At the depressing end of political behaviour that means we’re open to having our votes bought by sweeteners and promises, or at the more hopeful end there’s still space for serious debate about what are the real issues.

One of the bodies which has entered that pre-election debate is the Church of England’s House of Bishops with a pastoral letter to all regular worshippers – though they hope others will read it too.  It’s called ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and to make it easier for you to access it’s on our Salisbury Cathedral website.  The link to the website is also in ‘Looking Forward’ in case that helps.

In their reflections on the election the Bishops go out of their way to emphasise that they’re not telling us how to vote.  There’s no commentary or criticism of likely manifestos.  Their starting point is the apathy and cynicism which surrounds politics in the UK which they say can’t be good for any of us.  One of the things the bishops encourage is that we should find better ways of talking about fundamental questions, and that we ask of our politicians visions of a better society.

Lent is a time of self-reflection and couldn’t that be true as much for our shared public life as for us as individuals?  Our politicians are particularly receptive to hearing our views just now so what might we feel deserves review and even some repentance?  Repentance, after all, is having the good sense to realise that our welfare may be served better by changing our habits and looking in a different place for what fulfils us.  How might the UK change the direction it looks for its well-being?

Our readings this morning give us two related themes for that reflection on our national culture, on our assumptions and anxieties.  They ask us, and our politicians, to have the courage to address two big issues.

The first is our inter-dependency.

Our Old Testament reading described God’s covenant, his commitment of love to all humankind.  His promises made to the patriarch Abraham are for the benefit of all races across all times.  Yes, God pursues his purposes through particular leaders, particular events – we look for God’s presence in the signs of historical reality, our realities.  But God’s compassionate commitment is to all people and that means our destiny is tied up with the destiny of others.  Do we in our national life recognise the importance of our inter-dependency - that my wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of others?  

For instance there’s inter-generational well-being.  Our grandchildren will reap what we sow.  There are inter-national dependencies.  Other nations reap what we sow.  The Bishop has been at a conference on climate change this week and I’m sure on Wednesday at our Lent discussion he will say that fellow Anglicans are already experiencing the fruits of environmental damage for which we need to take responsibility.  Closer to home there’s inter-relational dependency.  God’s covenant of love to all means we cannot see anybody as disposable.  It was God who invented the sense of the ‘common good’ when he created a world in which we find our fulfilment as creatures inter-dependent of one another, as made in community.

Surely one of the most dangerous tendencies of our modern culture is the diminishing of community, treating the controlling power of self-interest as the dominant social and political motivation.  Part of us still knows we flourish best within those human inter-dependencies, within networks of family, friends, neighbourhoods, strong communities of local association and belonging.  But another part of us gives way to the emphasis on our individual self-interest and we constantly look at the impact of policies through the lens of what benefits just me.  The supreme irony of this excessive stress on the rights of the individual is that it ends up undermining the moral significance of each person, especially those we think of as more dependent such as the mentally ill, the out of work, the elderly frail.  So our first reading you could say is a call for a stronger politics of community and repentance of a rampant individualism.

The second theme is that of power and how we distribute it.

Our gospel reading builds on that need for strong community with Jesus doing what he does all through Mark’s gospel – challenging our concepts of power, what we call success and what we rely on for our redemption.  We hear of a row with Peter rebuking Jesus for speaking of his powerless destiny, and Jesus then rebuking Peter for his assumptions about God working through human power.

l suspect most of us have enjoyed watching Wolf Hall these last weeks, directed by one of South Wiltshire’s very talented residents, Peter Kosminsky.  This has been a moral tale of power exercised and abused in Tudor England and ended this week with the beheading of Anne Boleyn.  In Robert Bolt’s version of the same period – ‘A Man for All Seasons’ - a very different interpretation of the Thomas’s More and Cromwell, at his trial Thomas More quotes those same words of Jesus we hear today:

“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

The accumulation of power and the distribution of wealth, by what means and to what ends will always be the best test of human character and the quality of human society.  How do we in the society of the United Kingdom, as we lead up to this election, wish to use power: the power of money, the power of prestige and social approval, the power of identity and the place we give to minorities, and who are we content to leave powerless?  Who do we ignore, despise, even fear?

We hear Jesus putting Christian discipleship in the context of the cross.  If you’re to follow in the way of Christ you’ll have to control your natural desire for power and success and find that God works through brokenness and humility and values such as compassion and self-giving.

            “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The disciples were invited to follow him to a place where God shows his power only through love and sacrifice. We’re called to do the same.

The Church has a tough task in trying to articulate how that same principle of dispersing power and favouring self-giving love might operate in policy making and community building for a nation.  As well as individual discipleship we also need to give a lot of thought to citizenship and what that means within a Christian framework.

On Friday of this week the Cathedral formally opens our new Magna Carta exhibition.  Some of you will have been to see it already and know that we’ve called it ‘Spirit of Justice, Power of Words’.  It’s there to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, a moment when monarchical power began to surrender to shared values of fairness and due process.

Our hope is that it will also stimulate all of us to work harder at how we set our minds on divine things within human things, and to warn our visitors, as Jesus warned us, that we can gain the whole world materially but still forfeit our life.