Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday Sunday 1 September 2013: Year C, Proper 17
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Next Sunday we’ll once again hold the Kirking of the Council service at the Old High Church. In some ways it’s a different kind of service than most Sundays, because it involves the local community in a way that most of our worship does not. As it’s developed over the last few years, it involves not just councillors and officials, but schoolchildren, the University of the Highlands and Islands, and many more. This year we will be joined for the first time by a detachment from the Black Watch based currently at Fort George. We’ll have guests from our twin town of St Valery. There will be a parade. It’s lovely to welcome to the church lots so many visitors of guests that Sunday, which a make it a special day. When I arrived here in Inverness the Kirking was quite a small affair. I think it’s great that involves so many more people, and that it has established itself in the city’s life in a way which it wasn’t before. The Kirking is, perhaps, the biggest community event this congregation is involved with. As such it deserves the support of every member of the congregation.
But we do have to make sure that we don’t lose sight of what is happening at the heart of the day. For at the centre of this community celebration is a church service, with prayers, hymns and the preaching of a sermon. The Gospel is at the heart of the Kirking of the Council. In a world where faith seems increasingly marginalised, this is our chance to speak of Christ to a much wider audience than we usually get.
We often hear the cry nowadays that politics should not be mixed with religion. In fact, the Kirking has become such a big event that it was attacked last year in the press by an Edinburgh-based representative of the National Secular Society. For me, it’s a badge of honour to have been attacked by the National Secular Society! They get miffed when we try to bring Christianity out into the public arena- forgetting that it’s a free country we live in. In any case, the Gospel of Christ is a public affair. Jesus was a public figure. And in an age when the Church often accused of being silent, the Kirking is a great chance to take our faith out into the public square.
But why on earth should we offering a special service to the men and women in the red robes, our local councillors, those politicians we all love to hate? Hasn’t our politics strayed wildly from traditional Christian values? People have been saying that for centuries. Six centuries before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah says that for generations, the people of Israel have been turning away from their God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Through the prophet, God says to Israel, ‘my people have exchanged me, the God who has brought them honour, for gods that can do nothing for them’.
Jeremiah has a wonderful metaphor for this. In the dry climate of the Eastern Mediterranean, what rain fell was collected into cisterns- essential to store water through the dry seasons. But, says God, ‘they have turned away from me, the spring of fresh water, and they have dug cisterns, cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all’.
In 1979, just before an election, the satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’, ran a front cover featuring a slightly staged photograph of then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan coming out of church with his family, including two grandchildren. With their famous speech bubbles, one little girl is saying, ‘I didn’t know grandpa believed in God’, to which the other replies, ‘Once every five years he does’ 1. A surprising number of our politicians claim some sort of religious allegiance. But whether they are sincere, or not, about faith- or just agnostic- I think they need- and deserve- our prayers and support. But also our informed criticism.
The Hebrew prophets, like Jeremiah, were not slow to criticise the rulers- and the people- of Israel, and not just over religious matters. Justice and integrity was important to them too. When the poor were oppressed, and the rich didn’t care, that also was a sign of the nation was falling away from God.
Jeremiah was sure that Israel would, as result of turning from God, suffer disaster- and it happened, as the city and temple were destroyed in war and most of the people carried off into exile in 586 BC. But even as Jeremiah and the other prophets spoke of judgement, they assured Israel that God would restore the nation, that they would return to their land. I think that when, today, we speak Christians speak about public issues, we need to have that mix of judgement and hope. We should speak plainly about injustices, and how we our nation fails to live up to God’s standards. But when we speak of justice, we should also speak of hope.
On 28 August 1963, a Baptist minister who had controversially got involved in a political movement, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Washington DC to address a vast crowd. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior’s speech began by detailing the injustices which had been done to the black population of the United States, and of how the American promise of freedom was still, for most them, empty of any practical meaning. But then he said,
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.I have a dream today!
And then, not for the first time in the speech, he quotes an Old Testament prophet (this time, Isaiah)
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Even as King speaks of grave injustice, he also speaks of hope. His speech is a prophetic text, in the fullest sense of the word. It is prophetic still, because, of course, we are not quite there yet. Racism has not died out in America. There is still prejudice, injustice, poverty, police brutality- even if the form of it has changed. And in our own country and around the world, we are still a long way from judging children by their character, and not the skin colour… or their nationality or their creed or their tribe or their class. That’s why it’s good to go back and read Martin Luther King… and the other prophets, from centuries before, in whose line he stood. They show us how to speak of God’s justice. King went to Washington, to what was a huge civic event, to confront injustice with hope.
Sometimes people ask me, ‘Isn’t the church compromised by being involved in a civic event like the Kirking?’ Do we not sully the Gospel by mixing it up in something like that? What would Jesus have done?
We are about to see the end of the very old custom of the High Court sitting in Inverness. That will also end another civic function which I have been involved with over the years, which is to go up to the Castle with the Provost, and say a prayer at the beginning of court sitting. Afterwards there is a rather nice lunch (paid for, I believe, from the Common Good Fund, and not your council tax!). It’s a remnant of the days when the town would have given board and lodging to the judge on circuit, visiting from Edinburgh. It’s attended now by the Provost, in his capacity as host, and various court and town officials.
There is a degree of formality to the lunch. There is a top table, and before the lunch begins certain people are called forward to their special seats. I am one of the top table, and get to sit to the right of the judge, Of course, I’ve got to be there because someone has to say grace! Like the Kirking, it’s an odd tradition, a hangover from another age. But I’ve had some fascinating conversations with most the judges of the High Court over the years!
So today, on the Sunday before the Kirking, we find a story in which Jesus, probably after having preached in a local syanagogue, goes for a meal. He is being watched. He creates controversy by healing someone, then and there, on the Sabbath, in the Pharisee’s house. And then Jesus who has been watched by the others- now watches them. This is a more-or-less public occasion- the Pharisee throwing a meal for the visiting preacher. And the custom seems to have been that there were no places reserved for people around the table. And yet there’s a sort of jostling for position, because everyone well knows that there are some places which are better- more prestigious- than others.
Jesus, we are told, watches how some people were choosing the best places. So he tells them a parable. Imagine you chose the best place to sit at a wedding feast. But then someone more important than you came along. It would be very embarrasing for you and your host when you had to be asked to move to a lower place. Better to sit in the lowest place, for the chances are your host will come and say, ‘Why are you sitting there? Come and sit in a place of honour’. And so Jesus concludes, ‘For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great’.
Now, the embrassasing thing for the guests at this meal is that they ought to have already known that. The Book of Proverbs advises, ‘When you stand before the king, don’t try to impress him and pretend to be important. It is better to be asked to take a higher position than to be told to give your place to someone more important’ (Proverbs 25.6-7). Jesus, the prophet, is reminding them of their own scripture. Martin Luther King did the same in his Washington speech. Many of the racist politicians and policemen knew their Bible, which King quotes in the speech. And they certainly King quotes from the American Declaration of Independence (which is very nearly a religious text for many Americans): ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’. Like the guests at the Pharisee’s dinner party, too many Americans knew the words, but didn’t put them into practice. They needed a prophet to remind them of what they meant, and how they should put them into action.
For me, it feels a bit awkward to go to the Town House, or anywhere else for that matter, in order to represent the church, and, indeed, the Gospel. Last week I had lunch in the officers’ mess at Fort George, the guest of the Padre to the Black Watch, the Rev John Duncan, who is currently worshipping with us at the Old High. It was lovely to spend time with John and meet some of the officers, but again I was just slightly out of my comfort zone, since I have hardly any experience of the military. But it seems to be part of what I do for this congregation- I eat lunches on your behalf. And if that seems a strange thing to do a part of my ministry, well, it’s what Jesus did. He took up any invitation to have a meal with friends, or enemies, or those who were just unsure about him. And he used those opportunities to speak of the Kingdom, of the dreams he had for a better world in which God’s peace and justice would reign.
We are still waiting for the Kingdom. But meantime, we take every opportunity speak of the Kingdom, whenever people invite us, whether it is to the town hall, or the officers mess, or the school staffroom, or the hospital ward or hospice room, or the prison cell, or the factory floor, or the shop, or the office, or the front room, or the back room, or the kitchen, or the sick room, or the doorstep or the garden- all these places where me and you might find ourselves representing Christ. And if we have to speak about injustice, and judgement, let us also speak God’s words of hope and blessing.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)