Redressing the power of kings – a sermon for coronation weekend

A sermon for Easter 5 (A) for St Mark’s, Leamington. May 7th 2023.

The Gospel reading is John 14:1-14.

Who has seen the most coronations? (The maximum is going to be 3, dating back to 1936). I’ve seen two and remember just one. Like many families we got our first TV to watch Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

Our scriptures are very sceptical about monarchy, probably because these scriptures come from the heart of a people who have been repeatedly traumatised by imperial power. There will be a whole range of positions on the monarchy represented here this morning, from those strongly in favour to those of you who would line up with the anti-monarchist protesters. That whole range of positions can be traced back as far as the time of the prophet Samuel.

The memory of the people of God always goes as far back as the time they were held in Egypt, to the prince known as Pharoah and the memory of how oppressed, exploited and persecuted they were by him. He was always demanding more from them. More bricks, more bricks, more bricks to build his pyramids of power. This Pharoah isn’t named but that doesn’t matter, because, as one wise scholar of these scriptures says, “when you’ve met one pharoah, you’ve met them all”.

The people of God remember injustice, their history of persecution, their repeated exile, their holocaust – and they/we rejoice that God joins them/us in their/our struggle.

There was a time when Israel was governed by prophecy. Israel wasn’t like the other nations, until the elders came to the prophet Samuel asking him to appoint a king because (and this sounds really childish) everyone else has one.

This is 1 Samuel 8

All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel saying: “you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’

Samuel prayed about this, and he heard God saying, “don’t take this personally, they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them.” Then God told Samuel to warn the people about kings and their ways.

So Samuel warned Israel about kings – basically saying that they’re always on the take. “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and be his horsemen … he will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, grain, vineyards and orchards. He’ll take 10% of your grain in tax. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys. He will always be on the take, and will always be taking the best.

“Never trust princes” says the psalmist in Psalm 146. Never trust princes, nor any human power, for there is no help in them, speaks the psalm. There are so many people across the world lost, displaced and hated by the powers that be who know the truth of the psalmist – who this morning, like us, on this 5th Sunday of Easter, will be breaking bread, defying their princes as they commit their lives, their trust and their hopes to God, simply because, in the words of Psalm 146, it is the Lord their God who:

  • gives justice to those who suffer wrong
  • Bread to those who hunger
  • Looses those who are bound
  • Opens the eyes of the blind
  • Lifts up those who are bowed down
  • Watches over the stranger in the land
  • Upholds the orphan and widow
  • Turns the way of the wicked upside down

These are all God’s people – those who suffer wrong, who are hungry, bound, blind, bowed down, strangers in the land, widows and orphans – learning from first hand experience, and guided by the wisdom of ages that princes can’t always be trusted even though they are often charming.

That is why what we saw in yesterday’s coronation was a redressing of the power of kings. We saw King Charles being undressed and then being dressed up with the regalia binding him to the kingship of God, and binding him (and us) to those who have been let down by kingdoms and empires.

Here’s how they hemmed him in, how they redressed his power with prayer.

First they gave him spurs, symbols of military honour and chivalry, praying that he may be a brave advocate for those in need.

Then they gave him the kingly sword that it be not a sign and symbol of judgement, but of justice, not of might but of mercy.

Then the bracelets of sincerity and truth, tokens of the Lord’s protection.

Then the robe, that he may be clothed in righteousness and garments of salvation.

Then the orb, set under the cross, that the kingdoms of the world may be seen under the rule of God in the cross.

Then the ring

Then the glove, praying that he will hold authority with gentleness and grace.

Then the royal sceptre

Then the crown that he may be crowned in gracious favour

The whole thing was a dressing prayer for the king, praying for the power of God in his life, so that he comes into his power not to be served but to serve.

The meaning of the word religion goes back to binding. Religion means to be bound. In the coronation service we saw the king being bound by those who are leaders of our religious communities. Our bishops and other faith leaders binded the monarch, as they have repeatedly done over the centuries.

I’m not a chess player but I know the rule of the game is that the king cis bound to only move one square at a time. In fact, he can’t even move as far as the lowly pawn. He relies on the defence of his queen, his castles, his knights, his pawns – and yes, his bishops. The game is set up with the bishops sandwiching the royal couple.

Bishops are anything but straightforward. The rule is that they move diagonally, criss-crossing the board. In yesterday’s service we didn’t see them moving diagonally, we saw them moving diaconally binding the king to the gospel, binding him and his kingdom to the broken hearted, captives, the bruised.

Today’s gospel hasn’t been chosen because it is coronation weekend, though it could well have been. It is the gospel appointed for this Sunday in Easter. In it Jesus addresses those troubled by the state of things and all that they are having to endure. He says, do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in me. He is not talking to the troublemakers. He’s talking to the troubled.

In my Father’s house, he says, there are many dwelling places. This he says to a people whose land is occupied and who have been continuously displaced by others who have wanted their lebensraum or living room. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

My Father’s house is the kingdom. It is the place of longing as we pray for the kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven, and it is the place where God longs for us, for our be-longing. Different versions of the Bible translate the many dwelling places as many rooms, or as many mansions. The meaning is the same – that there is so much room that has been prepared for the troubled in heart. It is positively palatial.

This is the metaphorical space we enter as soon as we submit to Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life, when as his beloved disciples we lay ourselves close to his heart, when we join with him in communion. And this is the place we come to when we pray, when we are troubled by whatever is going on which has a different way, truth and life.

Just as they do in chess, so in yesterday’s service (and I presume in their daily prayer) the bishops were walking diaconally the many spaces, the many rooms, the many dwelling places made ready for us by Jesus for the broken-hearted, the wronged, the bruised.

Maybe one or two of you are more used to coronations then me but I admit to being very moved and surprised by the binding of the monarch, and I ask myself why I am so surprised.

Is it that we have neglected prayer for the queen or the king? Surely our scriptures teach us to pray for kings because their feet are feet of clay. It is because they can’t be trusted that we need to pray for them.

Have we neglected to pray for our bishops, to bind them to their diaconal ministry of gathering the prayers of the people, to hearing and resounding their cries?

Have we neglected to pray for others who have all the power in the world to ruin us? Have we become indifferent to the gross inequalities of this nation and kingdom, much of which is rather close to the home of our king and his family?

When we pray in Christ we pray in the dwelling places made ready for us by Christ. There we may know what is on the heart of the King of kings, what is the prayer of the King of kings. Surely it is this: that the only way, the only truth, the only life for any kingdom is the way of Jesus, and any other way, truth or life is a travesty of justice.

When we pray in Christ we build capacity and room for others to breathe. This is our service. When we serve one another we join with Christ who came to serve, not to be served. These are the very foundations of the royal house Jesus shows those who are troubled in today’s gospel: a palace fit for the King of kings and all those he loves, in which there is so much board, so many spaces, and more than enough room for everything except any other way, truth or life.

As in chess the king needs the binding protection of our prayer, so, for now and for as long as he reigns we pray for/with Charles, for/with his family, for/with his advisers and ministers, for/with those who suffer wrong, for /with those who go hungry, for/with those who are bowed down, for/with those who are refugees, that together we may be saved from the ways of the wicked and the wrongs of the kingdom.

Which way all the way

a sermon for Easter 3C for St John’s, Weston in Runcorn.

Hallo.

‘Allo, ‘allo.

One of the running gags of TV sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo! was the line, delivered in a French accent, “I will say this only once …….”, which was said over and over again, in a comedy called “Allo, allo”.

And we can perhaps imagine the market trader saying, “I’m not going to give you this once, I’m not even going to give you this twice, I’m going to give you this three times.”

That is what we get in today’s readings. We get it three times.

In the gospel, Jesus gives it to Peter three times. “Do you love me?” “You know I do.”

Three times, to correspond with the number of times Peter denied Christ before the cock crew.

Three times to emphasise that Jesus had got over that, that Peter was forgiven.

Three times to underline Peter’s particular pastoral responsibility

I wonder what he says to each of us, this Jesus risen from the dead. What his call is. “Mary, do you love me?” “You know I do.” “Then feed my lambs, teach my people, help them find their freedom.”

It’s not just once that Luke gives us the story of Saul’s conversion. It’s not just twice. It’s three times.

Why?

First of all, I presume it was because he thought this is a story worth telling.

And I presume that it was Luke’s intention that this story should capture the imagination of the church, and help us in our own journeys and our own transformations and conversions.

It’s worth remembering also that it’s not just one, it’s not just twice, but it’s three times that Luke tells us how brutal and callous Saul was towards the followers of the Way.

  1. In chapter 7, Luke tells us how Saul was involved in stoning of Stephen to death. He may only have been holding the coats, but Luke does say that Saul “approved of their killing him.” He was not a nice man.
  2. In chapter 8, Luke reports that “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” What was wrong with the man?
  3. Here in chapter 9, he goes and gets letters from the high priest to authorise him to arrest those who followed Jesus’ Way, and imprison them in Jerusalem. This is a truly frightening man.

What on earth was Jesus doing with Saul?

This is a story of conversion told three times, intended to capture our imagination.

I want to look at this in not just one way, not even just in two ways, but in three.

I want to look at the idea of “going out of our way” (in the sense of waywardness), “mending our ways” and “finding our way”.

And I want to refer not just to one person, Saul, nor even to just two people, but three. I refer to Saul, to the prodigal and to ourselves as the people this story is intended to inspire and transform.

Firstly, Saul.

Saul went out of his way to find the followers of the Way.

It comes across as an obsession.

There are two places named. There’s Jerusalem and there’s Damascus. It’s hardly Runcorn to Liverpool in 20 minutes, so long as there are no lane closures on the bridge. This is 135 miles away, across rivers and mountains, on horseback – perhaps 4 or 5 days away.

Then, lo, Jesus meets him, risen from the tomb.

Lovingly he greets him.

“Who are you?” Saul asks.

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

And he said to Saul, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”

And Saul had to be led the rest of the way by hand, and then he was told his way forward.

And what a long way he went.

Luke emphasises all the places Paul went, by road, overseas, through storms carrying Jesus’ to all the nations.

The way was found for Saul, and the way was followed by the convert all the way, all the miles, through trial, suffering, all the way to his death.

Saul’s way, Paul’s way, reminds us of the ways of the prodigal son.

His way was to get his inheritance and run for the time of his life.

Until his luck runs out, and he sees the error of his ways.

The father’s way is to tuck his skirt into his belt and run out to embrace the son he thought he had lost.

Lovingly he greets him, in such an outrageous way that the elder brother protests.

“This isn’t the way.

This isn’t the way to deal with someone who stripped you of half of your money, and who let down the family business.”

And the father says “This is the only way.

The only way to share your father’s pleasure is to forgive your brother. That is the only way. That is my way.” 

What about ourselves?

What are our ways? Are they his ways?

Our waywardness may not be as dramatic as Saul’s, or the murderer who becomes a preacher, or the prodigal’s.

Or as awful as Peter’s, who when he realised what he had done just broke down and wept.

Waywardness is part of our reality which is realised in our worship. We confess the ways in which, whether in thought or in deed, we have sinned against our brothers and sisters, and sinned against God.

We ask for God to help us to mend our ways.

We let Jesus lovingly greet us, lead us, his way, so that we may “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you our God.”

That is the way God wants us.

He wants us to walk with him. He wants us to be yoked to him, on the way and all the way.  This is the way of life.

Before Jesus’s followers became known as Christians, they were known as followers of the WAY.  The followers of the WAY were known because they had a way of life.

And that way of life is spelled out not just once, not just twice, but three times, by both Jesus and Luke in today’s readings.

Through both Peter and Saul Jesus experienced betrayal and persecution.

To both he showed forgiveness.

For both he gave them a way to go, a direction.

For both there is the prediction of suffering, but for them that was another aspect of walking with Jesus and following his way.

Ourselves, we help each other on our way at the end of our liturgy.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. “In the peace of Christ, we go”.

We don’t simply get on our way.

We commit ourselves to his way, to keep in step with Jesus, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we meet other Sauls, Peters, Sharons and Janets.

What is our way with them?