25th of the Year, 18 Sep 22
Next Sunday as we celebrate Harvest Festival we’ll sing the Hymn, “All things bright and beautiful.” Not one of my favourites, I must admit, but one people know and often enjoy, which is good. It celebrates the beautiful world made by God: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful the Lord God made them all.” But there’s one verse from the original hymn which is never sung now, it’s not even printed in the hymns books. Here is the verse that is usually omitted: “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.” Mrs Alexander, who wrote the hymn, clearly believed that the different estates of society were part of the beauty of the world, no less than tall trees in the greenwood and rivers running by.
I don’t regret the fact that that verse is not included in hymn books these days, indeed within sixty years of it being written in 1848 that verse was being omitted. The Church - and perhaps especially the Church of England - has a lot of pomp and wealth about it, which we will see particularly evident at this time of national mourning when abbeys and archbishops are paraded around. The Church mustn’t be simply a proping up of existing social and political norms.
The radical and political qualities of the call of God are revealed in that first reading we heard from the prophet Amos. Amos was much quoted by Martin Luther King in his battle for justice sixty years ago. Earlier in the book, the prophet has revealed to him the words, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” They’re words the Church particularly uses in her liturgy in Advent as we look for the coming of the Son of God to establish His kingdom, a kingdom of justice and peace. When Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech he said, “we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
Well, if it caused a revolution in mid-twentieth century America, it must have caused a right storm when the prophet first received the revelation over 700 years before the birth of Christ. There was absolutely nothing like that passage we heard as our first reading with its warning to the powerful who trample on the needy and try to swindle others for the sake of a few extra bits of material possession. It comes as a reminder that talk of social justice and fair pay and decent working conditions all find their origin in God’s ancient message to His people. Without the Church and her preaching of the Gospel there would be no concern for the poor even among those who now profess no faith.
Part of the significance of the prophet Amos’ message is that we are each reminded that we are given power over others. Power is generally seen as a negative word in our society. Rarely is power seen as good. The powerful are made to think they should be ashamed of themselves for having power and there’s nothing better that can be said to induce popularity than “Oh, I have no power.” Power however is a good thing and we must not deceive ourselves in to thinking that we are powerless. Allow me just to unpack the two parts of that statement.
First, power is good thing. God is powerful, omnipotent, all-powerful. As our psalm put earlier: “High above all nations is the Lord, above the Heavens His glory.” Job ponders in his trials, “The pillars of Heaven tremble, and are astounded at His rebuke. By His power he stilled the Sea … the thunder of His power who can understand?” (Job 26:11-14). The Lord of Hosts, surrounded by his great number of angels, can and does do great things. With this power God creates, He heals, He calms the storm, and He conquers sin that there might be a new Heaven and new earth where there is finally no weeping and no pain and no sorrow. These are wonderful displays of God’s power so it must be a good thing.
Second, we are not powerless. We are made in the image of God, “a little lower than the angels yet with glory and honour” are we crowned, the psalmist says, (Psalm 8). We are able to make decisions, we are created free, a freedom which is renewed in baptism when we become God’s children and therefore set free from sin’s hold on us and called to know the glorious liberty of our vocation. It’s dangerous for us to think we are powerless because then it is all too easy to be like Pilate and wash our hands of situations and unsatisfactory aspects of our shared life together: “Well, I can’t do anything to change it.” And yes, it can be incredibly frustrating when we come against these huge organisations which we feel like we have no hope of changing. I have to say I often feel like that when I consider Haringey Council and even the Diocese of London, and I don’t mean that necessarily as a criticism of these institutions, but say it to try to capture something of how we can all feel.
It won’t be the case that we can change everything or indeed change the small things we would like to. But there is always some way we can make sure the Cross of our Lord Jesus is known in the difficult situation, some light we can shed there, the light of the Gospel of truth. It might be the power to say something reassuring to someone who is fearful, or the power to say the opinions of those bullies don’t matter, or the power to say there is a way of love as opposed to the well-trodden way of hate. We have power over people who serve us in shops or those who serve us in hospitals or the Church or transport. There is power we have been given to contribute towards society.
In the Gospel we heard today the steward is entrusted with power. He is going to be dismissed and so he uses his authority to make some friends whom he might need in the future when he’s lost his job. He reduces their debt. He uses the authority well and is praised by his master. Jesus says we must be faithful in these small ways, in the situations where we do have influence so as to build up the kingdom of God where we are to be entrusted with far greater things, namely the joy of eternal union with God. But we need to use well the things of this world that will pass away so as to be proved trustworthy: money, time, our body, our relationships, our skills, our intellect, our strength, our influence, our voice, our popularity. These are to be put at the service of God rather than them being served by us, making them to be gods.
In our second reading, we heard St Paul give instruction to his friend St Timothy and the church he was responsible for, presumably in Ephesus where he was bishop. Paul had given Timothy this role and exercises a spiritual fatherhood over him (I Timothy 1:2) so Paul’s not interfering here. He says, “My advice is that, first of all, there should be prayers offered for everyone … and especially for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live religious and reverent lives in peace and quiet.” The old 1662 prayer book used the phrase “godly and quietly governed” to articulate this prayer of how the powerful should enable God’s people to dwell. With this Scriptural warrant we pray for our new King and all who hold authority in his government.
The Church has never decreed that a particular form of government - be it Monarchy or Republic, Democratic or Autocratic - is to be preferred over the other. Winston Churchill famously said, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’” It probably sums up the Church’s understanding pretty well. And so we pray for whoever is in charge whether we agree with them or not, whether we like them or not, because they are powerful, that that power might be used well and for the improvement of the lives of the voiceless and the poor and so the Church might worship Almighty God untroubled.
The British, it is often noted, can get a bit preoccupied with class: is someone upper class, middle class or working class? The traditional Marxist response would be to condone violence to tear up this oppressive system. The traditional conservative response would be to uphold it so as to enable everyone to flourish in the proper order. The classic liberal might introduce notions of self-improvement and aspiration that folk might strive to better themselves. Well, if violent aggression is never justified, so there is equal concerns about a political system that is based on envying what others have, even if it has the potential positive fruit of self-improvement it will only lead to that society’s disintegration and the loss of souls.
We have to live in the world, a world where power is set up to mirror God’s sovereignty, and a world where we can exercise the power we have, great or small, for the benefit and encouragement of others. Christ’s powerful victory over sin and death leads to the world being offered hope and every Sunday we gather to celebrate that victory of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. May His power be at work in us and in our community, rich and poor alike. Amen.