Civic Service

Sermon: Sunday 1 September 2013

Civic Service

The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester

This week I’ve been reminded how much words shape our lives and chosen carefully as poetry they have a power which unblocks our minds and frees our wills to choose to act differently.

Firstly, we witnessed the first African American President of the United States standing in front of the statue of the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln to recall how 50 years ago 250,000 people marched to form the Civil Rights Movement.  The President said:  “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislators changed and Congress changed, and yes, eventually the White House changed”.  But it took two additional things to bring about such change.  It took the visionary leadership of Dr King and it took his carefully crafted poetic words to inspire his and every subsequent generation.  We’ve heard and read it so many times but pay attention to the hairs on the back of your neck and to the fireworks of thoughts which blast off in your head:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

 …..”Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

America is a different place and the whole world is a different place because of that poem, even if the old embers of racism persist in some of our institutions various patterns of community life which still harbour these injustices.

And then yesterday my fellow countryman Seamus Heaney died.  This Nobel laureate who with huge care and precision managed to reflect back what he witnessed in his daily life.  First that helps us all to notice what we miss so much of the time.  In the autumn every year I can’t see a hedgerow without thinking about his poem ‘Blackberry Picking’:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

And that observance took him into the heart of communal strife during the worst of times when politics became its most tribal with religion ready to bolster the divides.  When the Omagh Bomb planted by the Real IRA killed 29 people and injured 220 others as a response against the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the actor Liam Neeson read Heaney’s poem ‘The Cure at Troy’ and it seemed to have far more power than the brutality of any bomb.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Heaney said he couldn’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world (This Week magazine, 2004) so the obituaries describe him as the ‘keeper of language’ .

This afternoon we are keepers of the language of the City, and of our community and society.  It is language which is spoken but it is also language which is enacted through dress and costume, through procession and seating, through an annual ritual.  Each year our Lord Mayor gathers publicly outside the narrow confines of beaurocracy and politics in a public place of worship.  This is not simply because such places are embedded in every community from Clarendon Park to Rushymeade but because such places stand for the power of a poetry abroad in the earth, cultivated by women and men down the ages and determinedly present through every enlightenment and new technological revolution.

This cathedral, like every Church, Synagogue, Temple, Mosque and Prayer Shrine, points to poetic language which informs, inspires, critiques and cajoles us so that we return to a deeper sense of humanity, a broader compassion and a more challenging vision of justice which no single system of politics or economics or health care or philosophy can contain.

Amos lived in the 8th century before the Common Era, before the birth of Jesus. He was not professionally religious but instead was a farmer.  He lived at a time of division when the north and the south had ruptured.  He was a Southerner sent to the North.  He was a very ordinary man sent to speak to those who gathered in the town halls and big buildings of his day.  His very name conveys a sense of his vocation – Amos means to carry a load.

The Chamber of Commerce tells me that things are improving economically.  Amos found himself speaking also when things were improving economically but even though people were more optimistic about their future, many still were far from those realties – there was exploitation of the poor and migrant workers and those whose responsibility in the local council was to ensure fair treatment – whether that be the measuring weights in the market to the way crime was being handled – were distracted and forgetful of those they were there to serve.  Amos says to them:  “Seek God that you may live; …hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5:14-15).

Amos makes it clear that ethics have origins in the universe made by God.  To seek God is to seek goodness.  To seek goodness is to be true to the deepest character of life gifted by God.  Amos nor Heaney nor even Luther King in their poetry gives us policy but they do give us vision.  We need inspiration to be Good.

Recently there has been more talk about our city’s motto granted to us by Queen Elizabeth 1: semper eadem – always the same.  Some joke about nothing ever changing – the last 12 months shatter that myth.  But semper eadem speaks of a stability of values of a commitment to our deepest and wisest instincts throughout the best and worst of times.

So I leave you, Mr. Mayor, as our First Citizen, with more poetry from the prophet Amos who with great courage and consistently evokes a better city where human flourishing is available to all.

Amos writes: “instead let justice flow on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing torrent”. (Amos 5:25).

© The Very Revd David Monteith