Sunday, 3 May 2015

Supererogation, the election and where our hope lies

We are approaching the homeward straight and the policy offers have been coming thick and fast as Thursday’s General Election vote comes in sight.  Despite the TV debates and local hustings, there is still quite a bit of fog around, and that makes me wonder what they are not saying.  It is not surprising that many like me are still undecided; it is just not clear what the parties really stand for.  And I feel rather uninspired.

Listening to Radio 4 on Wednesday there was a report on first time voters in Manchester. One man was not disinterested or disengaged; he had never been engaged with politics.  The debates came from an alien world to him, neither speaking to him or in any way engaging with him.  A young woman was similarly unclear and sounded like a teenager in panic mode when she can’t grasp the maths homework.  Before we laugh, what I heard was someone who just did not understand what our politicians are talking about.  I’ve heard some saying that they don’t understand how voting works, or who we are voting for and that is not surprising when the media present us with presidential style leadership debates and none of them are standing in this constituency and in the case of Nicola Sturgeon, she isn’t standing at all.

Decide though we must.  This week was the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his bunker on 30th April in 1945 and this coming Friday brings us the anniversary of VE Day.  We may have problems with democracy at times, but the alternative is truly horrendous and we mustn’t forget it.  The common good is the good of all, everyone, including those we disagree with, and especially those some would like to turn into scapegoats for every ill we care to project onto them.  That is politics at its worst and most worrying.  Personality politics that is self-serving and self-aggrandizing becomes evil and oppressive for everyone else.

It wasn’t about politics but our first reading (Acts8:26-40) gave us a government official who was confused and needed help to understand what he was reading.  “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”  There were parallels here with the young, confused first time voters.  It took Phillip to sit alongside him and start explaining the back-story so that he could see where the amazing and startling event of Jesus Christ’s resurrection fitted into the picture.  What does it mean to be human, when we star gaze in awe and wonder?  What does it mean to know that we mess it up and there is nothing we can do to repair the gap between the creator and the created if God doesn’t do it for us?  That's a rough summary of what he said to him.  We are not the authors of our own salvation, that is the lie of our age, and it is the lie that was confronted in the 1940s.  It is also the lie which our Anglican tradition identifies in the 39 Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer, and I am grateful to the Dean for pointing out on Tuesday evening what has become my word of the week ‘supererogation’.  No, this is not an unpleasant medical procedure or a large-scale watering device for market gardeners, supererogation is a wonderful word that talks of going the extra mile, going beyond the call of duty.  In the context of the 39 Articles, though, (no 14) it is that we cannot achieve our own salvation, however hard we try, we need the grace and mercy of God.  In fact to think we can is an arrogance, which becomes dangerous.  Faith in politicians is always somewhat limited and that has been the case since the time of the Psalmists who warned about putting faith in princes and the power of horses.

This brings me to another anniversary, that of the execution of the brilliant German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer on 9th April 1945, in the dying days of the Nazi regime.  I studied him over 30 years ago, and so I went to St Martin-in-the-Fields in London a week ago to hear our own Natalie Watson as part of a panel discussion on him and brush up my Bonhoeffer.  During the discussion one of the other contributors Jane Williams, wife of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury and a theologian in her own right, spoke of Bonhoeffer’s belief that prayer is the foundation of everything that we have and are.  Without it we have nothing to offer the world, without being grafted and rooted in the vine of our Gospel reading (John 15:1-8) we have nothing to offer the world.  This is because the church is not the means of salvation itself.  Political parties and programmes are not the means of salvation, though both can make it feel like hell at times.  God is the source and goal of everything and without being rooted in and fed by God we are lost.  There is no substitute but many imposters.  When we are looking for hope and lasting salvation we will only find it in God.

Now that gets quite perilous if we think that there will be a programme for economic and political renewal that will drop out of the pages of the Bible, history warns us about that too, and such programmes are transitory in their nature.  But it is our deep faith that the Holy Spirit moves over time guiding and shaping, inspiring justice.  That justice runs through as the central core of the Bible.  When we stray, when our leaders stray, it is there to call us back.  In the words of our second reading (1 John4:7-21), or at least the gist of it, love takes root and becomes for us the fruitful course to take.  Justice is truth in action and we will only stand a hope of finding out what that looks like if we are regularly being renewed in the fountain of truth and hope, God, in prayer.  It is part of this cathedral’s vision that we will root everything in prayer and don’t underestimate what that means.  It is radical and it changes us.  It is also not about just putting on another service – there are great Father Ted parodies of that.  But it relies on us opening our hearts to the living God who will guides us when we are confused, inspire us when we are jaded and change us when we are wrong.

When we are confronted with people who are either disillusioned or have never been engaged, be it with politics or spiritual faith, the challenge comes to speak in words that they do understand; to be genuine and authentic, to speak, like Phillip, with a vision that is alive with real faith and hope.  For the Christian church that has to be rooted in prayer; in a vision of the source of life and hope.  That vision must be rooted in a sense of where we fit in the eyes of the eternal and not think that rests on or revolves round us.  That is a route to evil and is rooted in an evil.  The anniversaries this week should remind us what the alternative to voting is and so however much we may find some of them wanting, choose we must on Thursday for the common good, for justice, grounded in the love of God in Christ.  Beware false saviours and notions that we can be the agents of this in our own strength, the dangers of supererogation.  Every human effort falls short and we all need to be called back to the love and justice of God.  For us, prayer, being grafted and rooted in the vine that is Christ, is ultimately the only hope we have.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 3rd May 2015

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