Ninth Sunday after Trinity

20 aug 2017


Preacher: Canon Mandy Ford, Chancellor

Readings:1 Kings 11:41-12:20; Acts 14:8-20


“ Nations get the governments they deserve”. So said the Philosopher, Joseph de Maistre, who saw the French Revolution at first hand.

He saw that people give power to those they think will serve their own interests best. The French peasants, suffering after long years of oppression by the aristocracy, did not look for wise or tolerant leaders, but for leaders who would exercise power and punish their oppressors in turn.

The young men around Rehoboam were not thinking of the good of the nation, but of their own self interest, when they counselled him to take power and to rule the nation with an iron hand.

Rehoboam, son of the wise King Solomon, inherited none of his father’s wisdom. Under his rule the people of Israel were burdened with taxes and dragged into a series of damaging wars for the whole of the seventeen years of his reign.

The young men who had enjoyed the experience of influence soon found themselves on the front line, leading their men in to battle in a series of unsatisfactory skirmishes. They gave the power to the leader they deserved.

When the people of Lystra saw the miraculous healing carried out by Paul and Barnabas, they also recognized a kind of power – divine power. This is the kind of power they associated with the gods of their ancestors, with Zeus and Hermes.

This was not the power that Paul and Barnabas were demonstrating, but when they protested, they were hounded out of the city. They would not give the people the signs of power they craved.

The Christian church has become very used to power. Since the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church has wielded power and enjoyed great wealth.

But the first Christians, like Paul and Barnabas, lived in a world where they had no power. They were persecuted, despised, and treated as outcasts.
They were fired by the love of God, not by the desire for power or influence –so the powerful among them shared their resources and included slaves, widows and orphans among their number.

It would be foolish to imagine that we can re-create the conditions of the early church in England in the 21st century. We should surely pray for an end to the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world, who like Paul and Barnabas, are outcast, despised and even punished for their faith.

But perhaps we can ask ourselves hard questions about our own desire for power, whether it is personal, financial or influential. We take for granted our freedom, to make choices, to vote, to spend our money, to travel without always considering that we are exercising power, not only in our own lives but over the lives of others.

Let me just take one example of power that you may not have considered.

In this holiday season, I have been thinking about the power to travel. This came to mind particularly when I was travelling last week in Italy, being very grateful for the power of the petrol engine and not relying on my legs to get me up and down some extremely steep hills!

I thought about the lives of the local peasant farmers, who until the early 19th Century had to walk to market carrying their goods, a life not very different from that of many subsistence farmers in India and Africa today.

Something that I take for granted – the power to travel - is a luxury to many in our world today:

One billion people (about 14% of the world’s population) lack access to reliable roads, never mind vehicles, rail or air travel. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that transport accounts for about 64% of global oil consumption, 27% of all energy use, and 23% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions.

Our power to travel comes at a price, which includes the unequal distribution of resources and the impact of global warming – already being felt in parts of India and sub-Saharan Africa.

I’m conscious that many of you will have enjoyed travelling over this Summer, as indeed I have, and some of you will be travellers visiting our cathedral today. So how might we think about the power we have to travel and the responsibility that gives us?

We might simply be aware of the huge privilege we enjoy and be grateful for it. We might show generosity to those who lack the basic necessities which we take for granted. We might take more interest in the power we give to others, to the airline companies and the fuel giants. We might, and I stress that I am speaking to myself as well as to you, enjoy the power of our own legs and chose to walk instead of take the bus, tube or car sometimes.

Paul and Barnabas were international travellers in their own time, crossing the Mediterranean from country to country. They did not only rely on their capacity to walk from place to place. They used the luxury of sea travel that was available to them. They did it, not to seek power or influence, but to share the good news, the joy and the strength of the gospel, to give others the opportunity to know the love of Jesus.

Travel was a blessing to them and to they were a blessing to those who met them and heard their story. I pray that we might use our power to travel thoughtfully and that the power to travel may be a blessing to each of us.