Evensong for the Feast of Dedication
14 October 2007 at :00 am
Evensong for the Feast of Dedication in the presence of the Lord mayor of Westminster and the Mayors of the London Boroughs: 14th October 2007
Today the Abbey celebrates its Dedication festival and we also welcome the Lord Mayor of Westminster and the London Mayors to Evensong. At first sight this might seem an incongruous juxtaposition but I think we can find strong parallels between the Abbey and the London mayors.
The Dedication Festival marks the dedication of this Abbey Church in 1269, during the reign of Henry lll, who built this present Abbey to replace King Edward’s earlier one. It was founded to be the place of coronations, built around the focus of the shrine of the Saintly King Edward the Confessor, and, through the presence of the monks, it was a place of prayerful support for the monarch and his Government.
Situated opposite the present Palace of Westminster, and surrounded by Government offices, the Abbey continues today as a place of prayer at the heart of our nation, always ready to respond to the monarch’s requests and through the offering of daily prayer supporting Her Majesty and the work of Her Government. And indeed, if you want to understand British history, a walk around Westminster Abbey would be a good place to start. So Westminster Abbey stands as a sign of God’s presence in, and concern for, our world and for me it is very much a representative, the sort of parish church of the world, as we would discover if we asked everyone who is here today where they come from.
The mayoralty has also, in many places, a very historic lineage. And in the same way, Mayors are signs and representatives in their communities. I know how much a visit from the Mayor can encourage a beleaguered playgroup or enthuse people working to support a hostel for battered women, for instance. Many of us will have experienced the excitement of waiting for the Mayor – or Lord mayor- ‘s arrival. I am not trying to be sentimental here, I really do believe that these are important moments in society and every day I experience the sense of expectancy as Mr Speaker’s procession enters Central Lobby in Parliament as I go into the Chamber to say the prayers for the parliament every day when the House is sitting. These are significant moments. Like the Mayor, the Speaker symbolises dignity and order and indeed the office of Speaker in parliament, or Mayor in the council, holds the integrity of the body and symbolises community, faithfulness and service. Yes, the Leader of the council and the politicians take the political decisions but that is underpinned by the office of the mayor who holds something of integrity and nature of the council. Yes, of course not everyone can live up to such standards and there will be failures, but against those, hopefully few examples, we can see the faithful service of mayors and churches in local communities building up community in our increasingly fractured and fragmented post-modern society.
In his acceptance speech in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Laureate said,
In the olden times every leader worked for the good of his own nation alone. The others were considered adversaries, or subjects of exploitation. Today, this view needs to be changed from its very source. Today the greatness of a civilized leader ought to be measured by the universality of his vision and his sense of responsibility toward all humankind . I think the Mayors of London would not only sympathise with that in our multi-cultural world city, I have no doubt that you all put that into practice in your communities! For this we honour you today.
Sometimes it seems that our runaway world is heading on a self-destructive path and we do not know where it is going, whether to misery or happiness, to prosperity or to poverty. I imagine that as we at The Abbey re-dedicate ourselves to Christ’s service today, you Mayors, too, will be dedicating yourselves to the service of your communities. Our first reading from the 7th century BC prophet Jeremiah sets high standards of integrity warning his listeners that they cannot just mouth platitudes but must always strictly live and uphold justice, honesty, generosity and integrity. Such virtues are necessary in any society.
In our second reading we hear about Zacchaeus, one of the great characters of the New Testament, and we only find the story in St Luke’s Gospel with his concern for the social dimension of the good news of Jesus Christ. Luke’s Gospel is the most literary and polished of the four gospels and he uses Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as a symbol of Jesus’ whole mission and ministry. It is significant, therefore, that as the dramatic tension increases, Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Jericho is the final incident in the journey to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus “was a chief tax collector, and rich” says Luke. The tax collectors were despised in 1st century Jewish society because they collaborated with the occupying Roman military government and probably took a certain percentage of the taxes for themselves, so in both ways betraying their own people. And public sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, play an important part in St Luke’s gospel. I won’t go into all the details, but Zacchaeus is called to conversion and holiness in daily life. In responding to God’s offer of love he doesn’t have to leave everything behind and enter a monastery, rather he is called to conversion of life. This involved firstly making a bit of an idiot of himself by climbing up a sycamore tree, secondly opening up his house to strangers, and thirdly, we find him standing and saying to Jesus, “ Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” – ouch! He changes his life to share his goods with the poor and to make restitution to those he has defrauded.
God’s reign of justice, mercy and peace, honesty, generosity and integrity – those are surely descriptions of the sort of society we all seek whether or not we are believers. I imagine that we all share a desire for a peaceful and just society that shows mercy to the poor and outcaste and perhaps from my privileged position 6 feet above contradiction I can articulate our thanks to you all, London Mayors, and the councillors you represent for all that you do to encourage a peaceful, just, & merciful society.
For those of us who are Christians we believe that such virtues reflect the Trinitarian life of love which is the source of Christianity – the stream of divine love that is constantly renewed in the life of the Trinity and which is infused into us through grace. At our Dedication Festival we thank God for those who built this Abbey Church and for all those who have continued to maintain and develop it. But we don’t just look backwards. We also seek to draw on that grace, that stream of divine love, to inspire us as we seek to find ways to represent Christ today in our global village. Ways that will invite others to respond, like Zacchaues, to God’s offer of love. That is our challenge.
For the Mayors perhaps the challenge will be to find and encourage meaningful ways of developing community at a time when , against a backdrop of drug-related crime, fractured families and the fear of violence many people have become disenchanted with politics locally and nationally.
But for all of us the greater challenge is to find ways of achieving these objectives whilst living authentically in a world which seems to distrust anyone in authority, a world of rampant consumerism, a world of migration, refugees and asylum seekers, a world driven by oil and arms, a world which tends to fatalism.
It is important to remember that Zacchaeus climbed the tree so that he could see Jesus, so that he could see the meaning of life, perhaps; but he had to come down from the tree, so that his feet were firmly planted on the ground before he could actually meet Jesus - right on the ground of his ordinary life. For that is where we all have to live authentically once we have taken off the chains of office, the ceremonial robes, the surplice and the cassock – where we meet in our humanity, seeking justice, mercy and peace, honesty, generosity and integrity.