Sermon preached on the eighth Sunday after Trinity (29 July 2012) by The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean
The Dean of St Paul's looks at the power of crowds, focusing on the summer riots of 2011 and the uplifting nature of the Olympic Torch.
TV Channel 4 asked me to give them an interview on Friday morning (27 July) after the Olympic torch came to the west steps to be handed over.
There were thousands of people on the streets around St Paul's: there was a happy, carnival atmosphere.
They say that something like 13 million people came out to see the torch running past over the last 70 days coming from almost every corner of United Kingdom. The torch was carried occasionally by the inevitable celebrities: but also by thousands of ordinary people of every kind, who have done great things for their communities – people who've triumphed over their disabilities, people who've helped others, and saved lives, and done wonderful things for the people around them.It's been a real celebration of positive community life.
The Channel 4 reporter wanted me to compare and contrast the riots of last summer with the crowds coming out to see Olympic flame. I asked him why: he lives in Battersea in London, and had experienced the riots last year as well as the Olympic flame this year – and this had made him ask questions about how the two experiences of people on the streets could be so different.
The same impulse I guess lay behind them: the power of the crowd, of the community. Crowds which become temporary communities are incredibly powerful things to be part of: in them, people do things which they never would do on their own. And crowds can encourage either good or bad. Think of a crowd at the Olympics cheering for the competitors at the back of the field as well as at the front, whether able-bodied or paralympian – encouraging the best in the people they see. And think of a football crowd shouting racist abuse at a black player on a different team. A crowd can get out of hand and lead to riots, death and destruction: or a crowd can come out together and clear up the mess the following day.
Our gospel reading from John chapter 6 includes a crowd scene: Jesus feeds 5000 people. They've followed him into the wilderness because he has done signs of healing to some people, and they want to be part of the action, engaging in it all. And they're not disappointed: Jesus provides food for them all in a miraculous way. The response of the crowd is a bit like that of the rioters last summer. The crowd see a power in Jesus and they want it, because it will assert their own power and control in a world where they feel powerless and not in control of their own lives.
Jesus knew they were coming to make him king, and so he withdrew into the hills and told his disciples to get into a boat and go away. The crowd had a menacing power of their own, and Jesus had to run away from it.It was the disciples who followed him away from the possibility of power and kingship who then experienced the depth of the power and love of God in Jesus, which the crowd had completely missed.
At the heart of the Olympic movement is supposed to be a creed which asserts the importance of taking part over winning. I was given a copy of the Big Issue magazine by Terry our wonderful Big Issue seller on Friday, and inside there's a photo from the 1948 Olympics at Wembley: and behind and above the crowd is a permanent billboard where everyone can see the words of the Olympic Creed, which come from a sermon by an American bishop who preached here in St Paul's at the first London Olympics back in 1908 : 'The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.'
I wonder if the Olympic and Paralympic crowds, of competitors as well as spectators, will remember that in the midst of the dash for medals?
Certainly, for me, the torch relay was both longer-lasting and will be I think more significant as a symbol of how communities can celebrate in positive ways for good, and overcome the heritage of riots and dereliction – if we choose to do so.
For we do have choices to make. Remember: you and I here in church are part of a crowd too. We together have power as a crowd, either to seek power for ourselves, or to pray for others and to celebrate the good things of God; to be focused just on our own community, or to be, as St Paul puts it, rooted and grounded as a community in the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge – love which encompasses everyone, whether they are winners or losers in the race of life.
Even in church, Jesus walks away from the power of crowds that seek their own glory; but strengthens the lives of those who seek the glory of God in the lives of others.
In this service we proclaim our faith as a community in the God of hope who loves all people; and then we pray for the crowds we will be part of through this coming week, including the Christian crowd, the congregation, the community: that we may seek God's way and God's kingdom, and not our own; and that through this week we may follow the race that God sets before us, by running wisely and running well.