Building The Kingdom

Sunday 20th October 2019
The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Nehemiah 8.9-18
John 16.1-11

It is easy to get things out of proportion. As we are driven almost mad by the seemingly endless hyperbole of Brexit, inflamed by passions which daily grow further away from reality, it is difficult, as in the case of the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, to remember how the quarrel started, and it is difficult to remember that we have been in much worse places before. I have just finished reading an account of the Three-Day week of the early 1970s and the flirtation with violence during the miners' strike; and before that I was reading an unsentimental account of exactly how it was in the United Kingdom during the Second World War, and particularly about the exhaustion which people felt at the end such that they hardly had the strength to celebrate; and, before that, commencing this heavy bout of history reading, I began with Vera Brittan's account of the horrors of the First World War.

This is not to say that our present predicament is not serious, nor is it to deny that we are busy destroying our future and the future of our children by debasing our public language and ravaging the delicate conventions of our constitution; but matters are still in our own hands. We can make a better world without resorting to violence, as in the two World Wars, but we can only make that better world if we accept that its basis must be the common good, not our personal preference, nor our ideological preference, and certainly not our economic self-interest. And the basis for any proper settlement of our seemingly intractable condition must be motivated by a reversion to the twin fundamentals of God's creative purpose for us: worship and building the Kingdom.

I said last time I was here that there was a contrast between Ezra and Nehemiah such that they seemed to me, in spite of some scholarly opinion, to be different authors: Ezra was certainly a glass half empty man but Nehemiah, as we can see from our Reading today, was definitely a glass half, if not three-quarters, full man. This passage is one of my favourites in the whole of Scripture because, for once, it is profoundly celebratory and it finds the Chosen People doing what they are supposed to do, as we are supposed to do, worshipping God with a sense of joy. They listen to the Law, they say their prayers, and then they eat their meat and drink their wine. They may not perceive the common good in the way that we do in our age and they may not be building the Kingdom as we must build it as Easter people, but their commitment and joy are precedents for our commitment and joy. They have been freed from their exile in Babylon as their ancestors had been freed from Pharaoh in Egypt through the Passover and as their successors, the Apostles, were freed by the new Exodus, celebrated at the Last Supper, enacted on the Cross and under-written in the Resurrection. The Chosen people were bewildered and bewitched in the Wilderness; and Nehemiah's audience were tantalised by the prospect of full restoration after the Exile, a restoration which flickered at the time of the Maccabees and then died with the Romans.

But we have no occasion to be bewildered, bewitched nor tantalised. We have been promised full participation in the ultimate realisation of God's purpose in creating us, to be part of the united kingdom of our realm and God's realm for which we are here to prepare by following our Royal Priestly vocation of being full imitators of Christ.

Now let us see where we are. It is not that we should not disagree with one another about the means by which we build the Kingdom but we should be joyful in our competition to do our best to build it; there is nothing wrong with friendly rivalry in the cause of the good; but I get the impression that our profound disagreement at the moment is not an issue of friendly competition between Kingdom builders but is, rather, an argument which has strayed far away from kingdom building into a maelstrom of raging passion, stubborn assertion and an increasingly dangerous tendency not to talk to each other either because we know we disagree or because we dare not risk it. That is no way to sustain a Kingdom-building community and we must try to do better. I say "try" because in an effort to build bridges between different sides after the Referendum result I lost my best friends; so I grant that what we must do will not be easy.

But, at the bottom of it all, at the foundational level, the necessary precondition for everything else is worship. I've just returned from Addis Ababa where I admit that the sunrise call of the Muezzin was somewhat irritating but it did remind me that worship should be integral to our daily lives, not a feel-good occasion for gathering on Sundays. When I say to people that prayer is non-negotiable they reply that they are too busy. Well, if we are too busy to pray then we will lack strength to build the Kingdom and, far from saving time by not praying, we will get ourselves hopelessly entangled in the pride of human affairs. How different would all our controversies be if we started from Kingdom building principles, not the narrow arguments of tradition, tribal loyalty, self-interest or fear of the other. Depending on the issue we must respectively ask how our political decisions affect Kingdom building, for instance, asking how they affect the poor and the refugee, whether they would make peace more or less certain and whether they would strengthen or weaken environmental controls. But for a country which claims to be Christian, if only in its core values, this has been a profoundly Unchristian time.

If we are to live with profound difference - and that now seems sadly inevitable for some decades to come - then worship is the essential necessary precondition for reducing the angry language of pride. And, unlike so many prayers of intercession which ask God to do something about our sorry condition, we cannot pray fully unless we pray for the Grace to fix what God has given us the tools to fix. It is our Kingdom to build.