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Sermon at the Annual 'Rule of Law' Service, 2014

by glynch — last modified 01 Apr, 2014 05:11 PM

Sermon preached at the annual service for the rule of law, held at Salisbury Cathedral, 4.30 pm, 22 March 2014.

Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mk 12.29-31)

The importance of religion
Almost half a lifetime ago, when we lived in East London and our children were little, our daughter came home one day from Primary School with a bilingual book, Bengali and English. I was surprised and pleased it was a Bible story which began, “This is the story of the prophet Jonah, blessed be he....”; and I realised it was a story from the Qu’ran, elements of which are shared with the Scriptures of Jews and Christians, the other ‘People of the Book’.

In the relationship between the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, from which we have just had three related readings of the Law, it is important to listen for what is similar as well as for what is different. In this matter of Law, as we heard, there are some striking similarities of wisdom.

In this country, through the middle and late Twentieth Century, there was a reasonable expectation religion would die out in 2 or 3 generations. In the 1970’s the rise of secularism and a new and popular atheism seemed inevitable. Something happened towards the end of the last century and the beginning of this in which we became more aware of religious pluralism. It’s partly the presence of other faiths in this country but also of our living globally. 80% of the world’s population have a religious identity. In the United Kingdom 60% still say they believe in God, whatever that means. Often what people say is that they are ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’, but there is a very widespread belief that there is more to life than meets the eye.

This emphasis on personal spirituality means we have discounted the importance of the life-giving faith of a deep and practised community that knows what it is to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. It was G K Chesterton who observed at the beginning of the last century that  “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”. More prophetically he said that, “When people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” All sorts of false gods have arisen that provide attractive but undemanding and in the end unfulfilling answers to the basic questions of life: ‘Who am I?’, ‘’What am I?’, ‘What sort of character am I?’

In our day, for a variety of reasons, we have come to know again that to be human is to be religious, but we are out of touch with the deep resources of our religious traditions. We have a superficial acquaintance with variety and have forgotten that to belong everywhere we have to belong somewhere. We know the lethal potential of bad religion without having an equal awareness of the life-giving potential of good and true religion. Nor have we found it easy to discriminate between good and bad religion, opting instead for a tolerance that accepts what you believe as long as it does no harm.  That is a long way from Jesus’ promise of “life in all its fullness”.

Karen Armstrong who writes so well about the contemporary experience of God, suggests that the touchstone of good religion is that it increases compassion.

The gift of Law
When I was an ‘East End’ Vicar I had a ‘minder’ who had been the Kray brothers’ driver, served ten years for a murder he said he hadn’t done, and kept a protective eye on me and the church. In Lent we used the Ten Commandments as preparation for the Confession. The first time we did this, after the service my minder told me that he hadn’t heard the Commandments used like that since he was a child, that he had broken nine, and wasn’t going to tell me which was the tenth.

In Christianity, as in Judaism and Islam, the Law provides a framework for our moral and religious life. This is not just a bottom line of what is expected from everyone, the law providing an element of social control which if we fail to keep we can expect to be punished. Rather the Law embodies religious ideals and helps to set our vision and aspirations. The Law of God is a delight and to be loved. Just think about that sublime setting of Stanford’s of the opening of Psalm 119 sung by the choir at the start of the service:  “Beati Quorum Via”, “Blessed are they whose path is righteous, who walk in the law of the Lord”.

The gift of the Law in the Hebrew Scriptures is a life-giving gift to God’s people who were making the journey through the wilderness from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land. Receiving the law was a defining moment for the people of Israel. The application of the Law was complex and 10 commandments very quickly became 620 or so laws attempting to provide for every eventuality -  what to do if your oxen falls into a ditch on the Sabbath or how to settle disputes about boundary markers or food laws about not mixing milk and meat and not wearing two different sorts of fibre together.

The rabbis told stories to illuminate their purposes and this is the tradition, in which Jesus stands. He simplified the law to two – love God and love your neighbour as yourself. He pointed to the purpose served by the law rather than got caught up in the detail of duty and a sometimes obsessive adherence. “The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath”, and so on.

There’s not much that is unique in the moral teaching of Jesus. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is universal wisdom. Confucius said the same. But there is plenty that is distinctive. “Love one another” runs the dangers of platitude, but Jesus saying, “Love one another as I have loved you” invites the imitation of his self-giving sacrificial love in service and friendship. It is the pattern of God come among us, highlighting the life giving patterns of creation.

Jesus stands within the traditions of Judaism. His distinctiveness is that he took what was a minority reading of the law and universalised its implications. Our neighbour is everyone, not just our own kind. Even more shockingly, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the religious outsider is the person who teachers the meaning of the law. In the New Testament the love of neighbour is the test of true religion.

Justice for all
The rule of law in this country has arisen out of this Biblical tradition. Church, and Synagogue, and all religions, should be proud. Law has an independence, of course, but the concern of law with justice is the concern of God. As it says in Deuteronomy “For the Lord your God … is not partial and takes no bribe … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the stranger providing them with food and clothing.” (Dt 10.17,18). Law holds the powerful to account and protects the vulnerable. That is a very helpful touchstone for the rule of law which is God’s business as well as ours.

Every High Sherriff talking about their year of office tells stories of how they have seen more of Wiltshire than they previously knew existed. In their role, on our behalf, they have visited communities where people are mostly poor and disadvantaged. They have been deeply impressed by the resilience of people’s spirit.  William and Prisca (this year’s High Sherriff and his wife) have found this particularly moving, as is reflected the High Sherriff’s Awards, the details of which are set out on the last page of the service sheet. The concern they have registered is of the ways in which we people are so easily excluded, or exclude themselves, from the opportunities of society. For the Rule of Law to work, everyone must have access to opportunities.

This is a local version of a bigger problem. Oxfam recently published the statistic that 85 people own as much as the poorest half of the world. In our own country life expectancy can vary by more than 12 years depending on where you live. As a society we are debating the rights and wrongs of employment with zero hours contracts and how and why we have become dependent on foodbanks to care for those who have fallen through the gaps of welfare and low pay.

Next year we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, one of the four earliest copies of which is housed in this cathedral’s Chapter House.  In 1215 Magna Carta was the solution to a political crisis but its importance has endured as it has become recognised as a cornerstone of liberty influencing much of the civilized world. It works because it held the powerful to account and protected all people regardless of status and wealth.

The Rule of Law involves a large number of people, only some of whom are visible in and around a Court where people find themselves found out and feel vulnerable under judgement. How we care for people in those circumstances is the test of those who exercise the Rule of Law for whom we pray and who also ultimately stand under the judgement of God to whom be glory now and forever. Amen.

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