Friday, June 08, 2012

Pentecost 2 (Annual Meeting)

This last week we have been treated to the spectacle that was the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration, enacted in various locations under the inevitable and all too British canopy of the grey drizzle of a London summer day.  As – I must confess – one who can't quite see the point of a monarchy, let alone a foreign one, there were some aspects I found bemusing, not least the quasi-religious language of the whole thing.  And yet – there is certainly much to thank God for in the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, for her long faithfulness through decades of war and peace, and for the attitude of humble service to nation and Commonwealth that she so clearly displays.

Clearly on display, also, was the relationship between the English Church and the Crown – a relationship that is grounded in the history of the Church of England as the Church established by Parliament with the monarch as its head.  For Australian Anglicans this can be a little difficult to understand, since our own relationship with the symbols and institutions of government is thankfully less explicit.  But it does perhaps lead us to reflect on the ways in which politics and faith intersect, both in the life of the nation and in the life of the Church.

In our first reading this morning, Samuel the aging prophet is under pressure.  The people are tired of theocracy – which is to say a society led by priests, and who can blame them? – and they want a proper fair dinkum secular government, a king like all the nations around them have.  Samuel has been a reformer - since replacing the corrupt leadership of Eli with his odious sons all those years ago, Samuel has epitomised the faithful self-giving service that should be representative of clergy everywhere.  But the people want a king.

This is not quite democracy, of course, and Samuel rather labours the point, describing for them in laborious detail the self-serving and autocratic ways of kings, and reminding them gently that kings like to go to war, and that the ones who ultimately pay the price of that – are the people.  But God and Samuel give in gracefully, and the kingship settles on Saul – who of course wonderfully fulfils all Samuel's predictions.

I promised myself as I sat down to write this sermon that it would be my shortest ever, since we today are engaged in the business of selecting our own government for the year ahead, and so it shall.  We Anglicans, with the complicated structure of our relationships between Church Councils and parish priests, Synods and bishops, of all people should get the irony of the chequered political history of ancient Israel -as king after king is consecrated, gets seduced by his own power and the dangerous game of international politics, and governs as well as he can with the clergy sniping at him from the sidelines.  Even the great king David goes off the rails, which shows how quickly things can go bad when our political games become self-serving.  David fails at his main ambition, the building of a world-class Temple, a job which needs to be finished by his son Solomon, a lesser king but a cleverer politician.  The worst king of the lot is the last one, King Manassah, who gets the blame in the Book of Kings for the defeat by Babylon and the long period of exile.

Who'd be a king? At the risk of making it sound a bit grander than it is, who'd be a warden? Or a member of Church Council?  You couldn't pay me enough, except – oh wait – they don't get paid, do they?

Like Israel, the Church lives in the real world where building projects get stalled, where external circumstances need to be negotiated and where dollars count.  We need good government, we even need the complicated relationship and occasional tension between clergy and lay leaders.  We need men and women who understand leadership as faithful and self-giving service, who know that to lead means to learn and to grow, to listen and reflect in community.  As we are currently faced with the opportunities and challenges of a major parish development project we need men and women with intelligence and competence, and the grace of humility.  It's a tall order, actually, but it's just us.  The men and women we need are here, already among us, and it is by God's leading, and God's grace, that the gifts of leadership emerge within us as we serve together.

When Samuel prays for guidance in today's reading, God explains – perhaps a trifle peevishly – 'it's not you who the people are rejecting as king, it's me'.  And this of course is the crux of it.  Our institutions of governance – whether the Synod of the Diocese or the Council of a parish church – are as good as our awareness that it is the Holy Spirit of God who leads and inspires us, God's priorities that challenge us and the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is our ultimate and only goal.