Sunday, 10 June 2012

Kings, Queens & Presidents

Address given at Killodiernan, Sunday 10th June 2012, 1st after Trinity, Year B

I was privileged to represent the Nenagh Union of Parishes at the opening of the new Nenagh Community Garden by President Michael D Higgins last Wednesday
Although still very new, it will grow into something quite lovely – do make a point of visiting it, just opposite Centra in Cudville. Its creators hope it will be ‘a community space that promotes wellness and learning in the areas of gardening, food cultivation and healthy living’. It is a wonderful demonstration of community spirit, volunteer effort and the generosity of sponsors, not least the local woman who made the land available.
 President Michael D spoke very well I thought, about what this initiative means, about sustainable communities, about sustainable living and about learning to recognise when we have sufficient – such a contrast to the recent Celtic Tiger era of excess – these are values for the future which also recover older Irish values. I was particularly struck by a question he posed – ‘Who ever saw a hedge fund in full bloom like the natural hedges of our countryside?’ He made me feel proud of our Republic and glad that we as citizens had chosen him to represent us.

Our neighbours in the United Kingdom are just as proud of their Monarch. Wasn’t it moving to see the crowds of ordinary people from so many different backgrounds that came out to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee? It was much more than just an excuse for a party. They were also there to celebrate the lifetime of service that their Queen has given to their country and the Commonwealth. The Archbishop of Canterbury caught the public mood well in his sermon in St Paul’s Cathedral, when he declared that in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race’.

Both the Queen and our President – successive Presidents – are widely admired and loved, no doubt in part because while they reign or hold office, neither governs.

Today’s OT reading (1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15) is about a momentous change of government for the Israelites.
From the time when Joshua led them across the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, right up to Samuel’s day, the Israelites lived in a fragmented, tribal society with no central authority and shifting allegiances. They were loosely held together by their common ancestry as ‘Children of Israel’, and by a shared sense of covenant with the Israelite God Yahweh. But they prized their independence, and saw no need for a king – surely Yahweh was better than any human king!

The Israelites lived alongside other peoples with kings, the original Canaanites and neighbouring peoples – Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and Philistines. Shifting alliances of Israelite tribes would come together in times of crisis under charismatic military-religious leaders the Bible calls Judges, who led them in sporadic wars against their neighbours. We remember the names of some, such as Gideon, Deborah and Samson but others less familiar.

 Samuel was the last in the line of these Judges. Times were changing. The tribal elders had come to recognise that without central leadership the tribes would lose their independence. Samuel was too old to lead, and his sons were wastrels. So they came to Samuel and said, ‘you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations’.

Samuel holds to the old tribal values. He dislikes the very idea of kingship. He consults Yahweh in prayer, but Yahweh’s reply surprises him: ‘Listen to the voice of the people… They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them… only – you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them’.

Samuel understands the nature of the contract between a king and his subjects: in exchange for protection from enemies, the people must give up some of their freedom. He tells the people how a king will behave: “he will turn your sons into soldiers, your daughters will become his servants; he will take a tenth of your possessions and give them to his supporters; and you will be like slaves”.

But the people refuse to listen: ‘No! …we are determined to have a king over us’, they say, ‘so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go before us and fight our battles.’

Despite his reservations Samuel leads the people to make Saul their king. From that time forward until the Babylonian defeat and exile the Israelites are ruled by kings, some good, some not so good, and some down right bad.

Why should we read this old story in our churches today, you may well ask.
The answer I think is that the story has a moral that is still relevant.

God does not decree any particular form of government for us – he leaves it up to us to decide. That implies that it would be wrong for me – or anyone else for that matter – to pretend to tell you from this pulpit what political choices you should make.

But we must take our responsibility seriously. As Christians that means trying as best we can, prayerfully, to make political decisions which align with God’s will and promote his kingdom. Such decisions will often not be black and white, but between shades of grey. We may feel uncomfortable about this, but Christians cannot withdraw from the political world – God is in the world of politics as much as he is in everything else.

And I think it likely that we will shortly be faced with critical decisions which will determine how we are governed for generations to come. Just as the Israelites decided despite Samuel to appoint a king – just as our forbears decided 90 years ago to establish this State separate from the United Kingdom - so in our own time I believe that the present financial crisis and geo-political developments will force us with our European partners to decide whether or not to join in a much deeper financial and political union, in effect a United States of Europe.

Let us pray that the Irish people and our friends in Europe may be guided by the Holy Spirit to make wise decisions.

No comments: