A sermon to mark the longevity of service of HM the Queen.
Thursday 10 September 2015
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Long to reign over us! 1 Samuel 16:1,4-5,11-13 and Philippians 4:4-9
As we all know Her Majesty the Queen is a devout Christian and according to the Bishop of London her particular take on church services is as follows – ‘not low church, not high church but short church’. I will endeavour to comply.
Many of us have known nothing but the reign of Elizabeth II. Now in her 64th year as our Head of State she has exceeded Queen Victoria’s 63 years and 216 days making her the longest ever reigning British monarch. I understand the King of Thailand has reigned for nearly 70 years!
Her Majesty has sought not to make this into a major national occasion yet it does need marking as history is made. However, using that word history in church takes us into slightly different territory than is commonly understood.
Two thirds of the Hebrew bible is historical and much of the Christian New Testament is also a retelling of history. But the word history does not appear anywhere and in its place we have the word ‘remember’ (zakhor in Hebrew). We find it over and over again. History is different from remembrance. History is someone else’s story, memory is our story. It is the events that happened in some sense to me even though some of them happened a very long time ago. And of course memory is about identity – so often we hear people speak of those with severe dementia, who no longer have a coherent memory as almost as if they have already lost them even though they remain alive.
Our stories are intimately woven with her story. We have all watched the weddings and funerals and jubilees. Many of us have met her and we have seen her on the streets of our county and city. Ours is an Elizabethan age.
The bible has a complex relationship with monarchy and it is clear that there are good and bad monarchs – it pulls no punches! Power can corrupt and even those chosen by God are not exempt. We heard the story of the anointing of King David who did not expect to be King. Jesse presented all his sons starting with the oldest yet the young one looking after the sheep is chosen because God’s choosing does not always fit with our choosing. The heart matters most.
In recent years we have begun to understand much more about the heart of our Queen, especially through the annual Christmas Broadcast where she manages to speak with clarity and compassion to the whole nation. She is so aware that the cultures, races and faiths of the Commonwealth and beyond are now those of modern Britain. Yet she speaks from her own heart of her trust in God, and of her following in the life of faith made known by Jesus Christ. Yet she is now 89 with a diary and range of commitments that would make all of us look idle in comparison! Faith may be good for us!
In the early 1990s neurobiologists who were studying monkeys and how their brains work did a study observing the monkeys eating peanuts. A certain motor neuron in the monkey’s brain would light up. But then the scientists learnt something else, something unexpected – when the monkey watched one of the researchers eat a peanut, those same motor neurons fired again. In other words your actions cause my brain to act in very specific ways. This is of great relevance to Her Majesty because above all, time and time again we witness her serving others so that their or their communities’ experience of life is in some way enhanced. The service by one leads to the service of others.
Over these many years we have so often witnessed in this person and through this particular role and calling virtues which matter. Our reading from Philippians spoke of that which is true, noble, just, pure, lovable, attractive, excellent and admirable. Through very different phases of our history, our memories have been shaped for the better because we have seen evidence of these Godly characteristics in our Queen. The way they are expressed as changed decade by decade but their essence has remained consistent.
St Augustine, a North African Christian living in the fourth century wrote of God – ‘whom to serve is perfect freedom’. To some modern ears the thought of service leading to freedom might seem a paradox too far. But living for ourselves is in fact a kind of slavery, whilst living for others becomes a delight and a joy beyond words. This is what has come to characterise this long reign over us shaped through a faith in one described as the ‘man for others’. For that we give thanks and we pray indeed that this reign may continue in a nation and in a world that still needs to learn how to serve and so to find our perfect freedom.
© The Very Revd David Monteith