Sermon given at the Civic Service on 6th July 2014
6 July 2014 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Michael Persson, Chaplain to the Lord Mayor of Westminster
I love this city! I love my city of Westminster!
But am I not a man of the cloth – and is not religion a rural thing? Small lovely churches in green valleys in the English countryside with the English or the Church of England flag swaying from the medieval tower…
No, the city is God´s place to be! Open, always developing, changing; there is always more to see, to experience and to discover. Here we meet and grow and change. To my understanding this is the meaning and aim of a good life; maturing through meeting and sharing.
The text from Isiah is a vision of a better future – “Our builders outdo your destroyers” he says. The constant building and changing city. And the vision of the city as John paints it in The Book of Revelation; A clean, bright city with all kinds of food and drink – always, for everyone (vegetarian). And the City is enormous (John himself talks arameic, but the book is written in Greek, so most things he describes as “great” Megalä – but we have to translate with better words than that “everything is great”). I like John´s peculiar image for a celestial city, paradise, heaven or what you would like to call it – a city 2300 km wide, 2300 km deep – quite an area – and of the same height! The good city is described as a huge area – like Europe – but a cube – also upwards! A Tardis, yes much much more than that.
I think the biblical love for the city has to do with it´s freedom – and it´s inclusiveness! Free to come as you are, blend in or show-off – “Come out” and “Show yourselves” as Isiah puts it – could be anywhere in Westminster! Nobody will count you out and say – “Aha! you are not a Londoner – you see we only allow third generation Londoners to live and thrive in this city” – No, we are included as well as a northener, someone from Scotland, Finland, Sri Lanka or even Durham or south of the river.
The right people is the “laos” in Greek – the people of God – the others are heathens – exactly the same word in Greek “ethnoi” – people living outside, in rural areas. This is the way it is put in almost all books of the Bible – but here in the last book, the Book of Revelation it changes – the Good City holds “People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations” – the word translated nations means “heathens” “ethnoi”– Wherever you come from – you are welcome in the good City. That is the biblical gospel – the good news – welcome as you are – you are included, even wanted and needed.
One of the first times I went for a guided tour in this Church – I tried to add a trifle to that feeling by saying “there is also an epitaph of a Swedish singer in here somewhere” – and the elderly cannon muttered: “Of course not – there are only British in here!” – and that is true! Jenny Lind Goldschmidt, called the Swedish nightingale, moved here when she was 38, having married a Jewish man from Hamburg in the US – of course she is British! – I was ridiculously nationalistic! And when I look at her epitaph now I can´t help being proud that you diminished a true Englishman´s monument to put hers next to the great British composer Georg Friedrich Händel. “I know that my Redeemer liveth”
It is a memento, as we this year commemorate the outbreak of the Great War. When the empires of the world were finished dividing the map and the world; there was nothing left to explore or conquer – we had to fight each other. And when the old 18th and 19th century Imperialism committed suicide in the trenches, by gas-attacks and air bombings, instead a new nationalism grew, which now again starts popping it´s ugly head up saying – you are not “English” or “Swedish” or whatever – maybe not even European. There is a story from Germany in the 1930:ies. – When the priest screams that Jews and foreigners are not welcome in his Church – the big wooden Jesus steps down from the cross saying “Ok – we´re out of here” – to Mary and his disciples – and they all walk down the aisle and out of the Church. But they are still the focus point in this Church. You may see them here!
So why is the openness and freedom of the city so important? Because here you have the opportunity to become the one you were meant to be. With all your gifts, with all your talent, all that is you – I think that is the meaning of creation described in Genesis. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” A typical Hebrew stylistic way of building an increasing climax. Male and female – God´s image reveals itself in a relationship. You will become the one you are meant to be, when there is a relation, a true meeting. Not an easy one – remember when you first fell in love? Or fell out of it? Or discussions and misunderstandings in a relationship, where diversities may be acknowledged, outed and discussed, when you are excitingly different or just a trifle – here God´s true image becomes visible. And it has nothing to do with who the two of you are; not your sex, age, upbringing, colour of your hair, not even your language – the true meeting. And the relation grows when you love and serve. By serving each other we reveal God.
This Abbey church was built as a meeting place – and around it people gathered who needed to eat, sleep, buy clothes and tokens. Church tries to make pilgrims out of us wanderers and tourists in life – that is to make us see the aim of our lives in serving others. And this is truly the city of service. Here you find all kinds of services – and a few are still to be licensed, Audrey, my dear Lord Mayor!
How does one measure if our city is a good city? One measurement used by archaeologists and historians of how good a culture is, involves the way we treat our vulnerable, weak and even dead people. That is why “the Lamb” is in story of the City. We are all vulnerable at some stage of our lives; at least when we were born and when we are dying. What do we see around us? How do we react? There was a man who when he met a beggar and had no money at hand, took off his ring and gave it to the beggar. Would I? Would you? And if the beggar was from Romania? That man, who gave the ring is buried in there: Edward the confessor. This Church and this city was and is built around a dead king, who stopped, took in another human´s vulnerability and shared what he had. It was his moment!
I went to a lovely concert a couple of days ago. London Philharmonia Orchestra – played Sibelius´ Violin concerto. The Gregorian violinist Lisa Bathiashvili was excellent. She has talent, and has practised for years – and now she shared it with all of us. The audience was positive enough, but when she introduced her Encore by saying “the piece I´m going to play was written a couple of weeks ago – it is a Reqviem for the Ukraine”, the hall fell dead silent. She moved us all away out of our settings. That was her moment!
They both knew their moments – I pray that I may know my moment and dare to do what I should, when it draws near. And in the meantime - I´ll try to use the small magic words: Please, Sorry and Thank you!
Thank you God, thank you ancestors, thank you all remembered here around us, thank you all who may be forgotten, thank you councillors and friends for the constant building of the good city, the city of freedom, who should make everyone blossom and mature and also serves and cares for the vulnerable. May God bless us with Salam, Shalom, Peace for our city and our common future. Amen