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Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Trinity (18 June 2017) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Precentor reflects on the call to leadership and says: 'the Church has such an enormous, and enormously exciting, part to play in the call for action, in the drawing together of society, in the building up of community, in the political interference that makes change happen, in the recognising of shared responsibility, and in the challenging leadership that sheep without shepherds need.'
Jesus’s call to his disciples in this morning’s gospel lesson is a call to leadership. The hallmarks of Christian discipleship, however, include such qualities as humility and sacrifice such that the Christian priest today is often mistaken as a foil to people’s idiosyncrasies and foibles rather than as one who leads decisively even at the expense of his or her popularity.
People are likely to offer the vicar more tea for the cup than more power to the elbow.
And yet it seems to me that there is a growing number of groups within society – both here and elsewhere – which feel like sheep without a shepherd. And, while they do indeed need tea and sympathy, they also need strong voices and a call to action.
The context in this morning’s gospel lesson appears to be narrow: it is a call to mission and evangelism rather than a call to social or political action and, in the case of St Matthew’s particular account, the context is narrowed down even further to a call specifically to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But even the call to mission and evangelism must be set within the context of the search for the Kingdom of God which, throughout the Gospel, is a call to social and political action of dynamic and anarchic proportions – not least when it comes to the challenge to the rich on behalf of the poor.
In the contemporary context of church, I wonder if the social context is now an afterthought to the more pressing matter of numbers in church on a Sunday morning. Whereas the call to action was often – particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – synonymous with mission because people were drawn to a message with which they could identify both theologically and empirically.
It seems odd that the church today hasn’t quite worked out that people are drawn in greater numbers to a call for social action than to a call for male-only leadership and heterosexual-only lifestyles.
That is, until disaster strikes.
The indescribable tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in a tower block only six miles away from this cathedral church has reminded us yet again that, when life gets as bad as it can possibly get, people cast away their differences and unite to become the epitome of strong community. One of the great paradoxes of the context in which this tragedy has occurred is the description of an utterly broken society against the backdrop of a very strong community response.
The job of strong leadership – both in Church and State – going forward must surely be to harness the potential for strong community that is clearly present throughout society and let it inform the political agenda.
You know the Church must be doing something right when politicians criticise it for interfering in politics. You know it must be doing something wrong when it becomes congregationalist.
New church members should be the result of Christian action, not the sine qua non.
Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and I have to be honest and confess that it is very hard indeed to know what to say that could possibly be of any value to the bereaved and the homeless but it is at least heartening to watch a young woman from a local mosque with a young woman from a local church standing together like the sisters that, as fellow human beings, they are and describing the work they were doing to help the stricken people of their borough in the hour of their greatest need.
And I understand and share the criticism of those in authority both in terms of their responsibility and their response but I believe passionately in shared responsibility so that, if we don’t like what we’ve got, we need to go out and vote in local and national elections or even stand for election ourselves.
The two young women that I’ve just described would make excellent local councillors.
And the Church has such an enormous, and enormously exciting, part to play in the call for action, in the drawing together of society, in the building up of community, in the political interference that makes change happen, in the recognising of shared responsibility, and in the challenging leadership that sheep without shepherds need.
But it’s going to have to re-think its strategy and send out labourers into God’s harvest not so much as missioners than as turbulent priests whose call to social action might open eyes and ears to the good news of the kingdom – tomorrow, next year, maybe never. But that’s OK because the sower who went out to sow flung the seed all over the place and only some of it yielded fruit so don’t worry about results. Just fling the seed of Christian action around as an end in itself because the fertile ground of God is out there just as much as it is in here.
London is hurting very much right now but, if we peer over the brow of church mission plans and party political manifestos, we see the potential in our brothers and sisters for the agenda to change and for the hurt to heal.