Creation-time 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday September 18th

1Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’ Those words from our, not entirely straightforward, Gospel reading, jumped out to me this week. This week when we have mourned and contemplated a faithful life of service, they seemed a fitting comment on our late Queen: to the remarkable sense of duty that permeated every aspect of her life, from the little to the much. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.

That commitment to duty and service has been much lauded this last week, as that which gave shape to her long life and reign. But it has also not gone unremarked that these are words that are now somewhat alien to many; that the Queen’s self-understanding and commitment to duty were in sharp relief to other more contemporary understandings of ourselves. We have gathered this week, queued many hours in some cases, to pay homage, but what might it mean for us to go beyond lauding such attributes? What might it mean to discover a re-imagined sense of duty?

The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, talks about the path of Christian discipleship as about transforming our fate into our destiny. Transforming our fate into our destiny. What he means by that, is that at the heart of the life of faith, and of the church, should be a willingness to engage with the realities that are given to us; that faith is about a willingness to be shaped by those givens – because they are seen as gift, as our destiny and not our fate. It is through embracing those givens, recognising as a blessing that which might be seen as a curse, that the world is paradoxically transformed.

The Queen’s youthful vow, much played this last week, is an amazingly articulate example of such an embrace: I declare before you all, she said, a few years before she ascended to the throne, that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.

It was a vow made in her ‘salad days’ as she put it years later, and it is a remarkable fact that as a 21 year old she embraced that lifetime of service. The vow was made in response to the accidents of history, to the fact that she would one day wear the crown of the United Kingdom, a day that arrived sooner than she expected or hoped it would. But rather than rebel against the unfairness or the untimeliness, or the demands that that placed upon her, she accepted a life defined by those limits and demands. A life of duty, as she described it. As I suggested earlier, such commitment might feel alien to us now, or at least we might characterize it as a weight, a burden that she carried. Much of the lauding of the Queen has been in admiration of her carrying of that burden.

I don’t underestimate either the sheer hard work that was involved in seeing that vow through, or, on the other hand, the immense privileges that she enjoyed that helped her carry it out. But what has struck me also this week is that the sense of the vow being a burden is at odds with much else that has been reflected upon: the Queen’s wit and wisdom above all, but also her ability to properly listen, and to take courageous steps for peace. You don’t do those things, it’s hard to be witty and wise, if you are weighed down and burdened. And so I wonder if it is possible that that youthful vow, rather than burdening her, actually liberated her? That in transforming her fate into her destiny, she discovered the freedom to be herself, discovered the vocation that would both define her but also make her.

Freedom in the modern West is often understood as the throwing off of the shackles of history – the creating of a life not defined by the accidents of history, of our birth and of our time. Freedom is characterized by that adolescent energy that sees the world as its oyster, so that life is what we make of it, is best lived without limits, or at least in defiance of limits. Freedom is in the perpetual rebellion against what limits us; be that, to take two very different recent examples, institutionalized racism or the institutions of the European Union. Duty strikes us as a fusty constraint, potentially oppressive in its demands that keep us in our particular boxes; its often seen as a limit on our freedom and self-actualization, as people or as a nation. And of course there is truth in all that, so that at the very least discernment is needed to see what is oppressive and needs to be resisted and overcome. But the point is that a particular and limited notion of freedom, as being that which lies beyond imposed limits, is unchallenged.

And yet, the climate emergency is teaching us that there are, in fact, limits. Limits on what our earth can sustain. And not only that, but as Covid began to teach us, we are often less in control of our lives than we imagine. And the coming years, as the climate emergency bites, might teach us that over and over again. Characterising freedom as the throwing off of our limits, as limitless possibility, brings us to the brink of disaster. For there are limits; limits on what the earth can sustain; limits on the injustices others are willing to bear; limits on what is technologically possible, to remedy what we have done. And so the sharp question is how we will react to that experience: in the hard years to come, will we experience the necessities of life as cruel fate, or as something to face and embrace, and so paradoxically discover another path to freedom?

I suggested earlier that freedom as it is often defined has an adolescent quality. It’s certainly true as we grow older that, for many of us, the necessities of life press in on us, we realise how shaped we are by things of which we are barely in control. We have made particular career choices, married a particular person, have to live within particular means, our bodies begin to fail us. Through both active choices, and the happenstances of life, our lives have taken on a particular shape. Some people continue to rail against that narrowing of life – many a mid-life crisis is the resurgent bid for freedom characterised as rebelling against the limits. But most of us know others who are now comfortable as themselves, and embrace and serve others from that place of freedom; so that freedom is not sought in the escape from how life has shaped them, but known in the embrace of that; in the embrace of the giftedness of that life, the blessing known in its particularities. In the transformation of fate into destiny. And in that embrace is found wisdom, so that, as in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer, we are granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

The Queen’s youthful vow ended with an exhortation and invitation to all her future subjects: I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it. May we have the grace and wisdom to continue to rise to that challenge, and in that common embrace, find our freedom. Amen.