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Read Dean Stephen's Sermon from Westminster Abbey

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Westminster Abbey 18 June 2017 - Luke 11.14-28

The Very Revd Stephen Lake, Dean of Gloucester

Preparing any sermon these days, let alone one to be preached in Westminster Abbey, is a risky business. The speed of events in this nation in these current times makes reflection and insight a challenging business, and the chances of sounding cheap and holier than thou is all too real. And this is especially true here in London, which has seen such violence and disaster in recent days, and such political uncertainty too. We live in challenging times.

Just a year ago this week, our lives were shocked by the brutal murder of a beautiful and effective member of the Parliament next door to this Abbey. Jo Cox was attacked by a deranged man and our parliament was deprived of a rising star, a constituency was deprived of an advocate, and more importantly, a family was deprived of a wife and mother. The attack and its senseless mis-appropriation shocked a nation and reminded us of the value of our democracy, and its price. The response of Brendan Cox, Jo Cox’s husband, was an example and an inspiration to us all. This weekend up and down the country community events are taking place in what is called ‘The Great Get Together’, as a worthy response to the violence and the madness. Street parties, big lunches, picnics and celebrations cross boundaries of communities and difference to bring people together, simply in the name of community. How ironic it is, that after this recent General Election, in which Jo Cox would surely have been returned to office, that we find ourselves more divided than ever.

It is also sad that since her death twelve months ago, we have seen a terrorist attack on that very parliament and upon our way of life both at London Bridge and in Manchester. Brendan Cox has spoken on the banality of evil. He says, ‘how quickly civilised societies can descend into barbarity when extremists are allowed to turn community against community. How the values and the norms we think are sacrosanct are in fact fragile and have to be fought for’. PC Keith Palmer fought for that society, as did those who fought back against the terrorists in Southwark. We must all wherever we are from, fight for civilised society, for to take it for granted or to simply enjoy freedom without contribution is to take it for granted, and to take it for granted is to risk losing the very freedoms others have died to preserve. There is a lesson for us all in this, both as individuals and as a society, for as we have heard from Jesus in our reading from the Bible, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls upon house.

Politicians choose to trade opinions and insults as a way of life but recent events should make us call for a new politic and a method of representation that places engagement above competition. If this recent election taught us anything, it should be that we are one and that when the political purpose serves itself, it ceases to serve the humanity it was called into being to care for. So the way in which our leaders speak and behave has to be revisited and the way in which so much of our lives is now informed by the booming voice of social media and the temptations of the internet has to be challenged. Like others I sense a great dissatisfaction amongst ordinary people and those who are gifted with leadership or resources need to re-evaluate in this age their role and responsibilities against the needs of those less fortunate. To ignore the needs of those in greatest need is also to risk the society we cherish. Jesus pointed towards this need for the common good in saying here in Luke 11, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’

We saw this so vividly and awfully in the inferno of Grenfell Tower this past week when the London skyline burned again. Ordinary families, from all nations, trapped in a worst nightmare, too horrific for the media to fully portray. Investigations will take place of course, but the cheek by jowl nature of the super-rich and the poor in Kensington and Chelsea Borough has to be a sign to us that the value of real community and better politics must be found, and that there are times when togetherness must be used as the agent of change above party gain. We saw this in the incredible response of the local community and the generosity of individuals and groups, filling churches, mosques and community centres which the basic essentials of survival, all without being requested or demanded. Whilst such a response should not be needed, it does show us what can be achieved not only in adversity, but also when people come together. In the face of such horror of recent weeks, it must give us hope in the human condition.

And to this end I wish to use this platform to make a suggestion. The response of our emergency services in recent weeks has been breath-taking. To see the dedication and bravery of the police, the compassion of ambulance crews and hospital staff, and the sacrificial service of firefighters has to be recognised by this nation in a new way. I make the call for a national day of thanksgiving for our emergency services, and not just now but every year, when we can pause and say thank you, and come together in praise. A national Emergency Services Day is deserved and deserving of a civilised society.

In her first speech to parliament, Jo Cox said, ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ This great Abbey stands as a champion of that in the name of Jesus Christ. Filled daily with different people from all over the world, this sacred space is also common ground and can be so for people of faith and of faithfulness to the goodness of humanity. Our politics and the way in which we all speak to each other, needs to discover this new faith and faithfulness, for believing people and people who simply want to believe in the best. For it is of course when we are at our best, and at our weakest, that we come closest to seeing the face of God in ourselves and in each other.

The great anthem we have just heard (Lo, full and final sacrifice by Finzi) tells of how Jesus’ full and final sacrifice, redeems us all and indeed the whole of humanity. As we seek a new community, let us hope for the community of the Trinity in our lives and for the comfort of the presence of God.

Come love! Come Lord! and that long day  for which I languish, come away. When this dry soul those eyes shall see, and drink the unsealed source of thee. When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase, and for thy veil give me thy face.

Amen.

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