Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity 2018

Who’s in charge? It can matter quite a lot.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 15th July 2018 at 11.15 AM

Who’s in charge? Sometimes the question is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to me very much if I’m buying goods or services, in a shop or restaurant, who’s in charge. Unless I wish to complain, that is.

But it can matter quite a lot. When disaster strikes, if we’re involved in some way, we often need to know who’s in charge.

Getting those twelve Thai boys and their coach out of the cave required a high level of co-ordination and careful planning and decision-making. Someone had to be in charge. It’s also wonderful to know how many expert cavers from Britain and around the world volunteered to help, and what a difference they made.

Organisations and institutions typically spend a good deal of time planning for disaster, working out what exactly they should do when something goes wrong. Schools practise fire drill. Offices develop plans to disseminate information to a dispersed work-force after a fire or terrorist attack on their building arranging for them to work from home rather than coming into the office. Then, everyone needs to know who’s in charge.

Tragically, things don’t always work out as they should. It seems that in the case of the Grenfell tower, the fire officers worked to a plan that failed to envisage the way the fire took hold, and 71 people lost their lives.

Someone has to take responsibility. Someone has to be in charge. In many cases it’s fairly obvious who that has to be. A school has a head teacher or headmaster or principal. Day to day, he or she has to be in charge. And there’s usually a deputy head who takes over if the head’s away.

Tragically, sometimes, the people in charge aren’t up to the task. When I was a diocesan director of education 25 years ago, I remember a conversation with a head teacher who told me that before a governing body meeting, he would cower in the corner of his office, sitting on the floor with his head in his hands for an hour or more, dreading the prospect. I can’t tell you who he was or what happened next, but his anguish has stayed with me.

Happily the schools connected to Westminster Abbey are flourishing and are wonderfully led. Today is the last day of the Abbey Choir School’s academic year, the last day for five pupils who are leaving the school and going on to excellent new schools. They have all contributed wonderfully to the musical life of worship in the Abbey and received an outstanding education. We wish them God speed and every blessing and look forward to welcoming them back as members of the Brotherhood of St Edward.

My question ‘Who’s in charge?’ is not really about the microscopic level of a school or office or even abbey but aims at the macrocosmic level. Who’s ultimately in charge? Anyone?

The prophet Amos lived during the 8th century BC in Judah, the southern kingdom, the kingdom having been divided following the death of Solomon. Amos was sent as we heard to Israel, the northern kingdom, to warn them of impending disaster. His message was clear. The rulers and the rich in the northern kingdom cared nothing for the poor and needy and were obsessed with their own luxury. So, the Lord God would rise against the king of Israel, Jeroboam II, and the sanctuaries and high places would be laid waste. The king would die and the people would be sent into exile. The Lord God had sent Amos to warn them. But they rejected his message and carried on regardless. And so disaster struck. The Assyrian empire ruled by Tiglath-Pileser III, who had come to the throne in 745 BC, attacked and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and took its leaders into exile.

The prophet Amos knew who was in charge. No king, no army, could withstand the power of the Lord God. As we hear in psalm 75, ‘God is the Judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.’ And Amos trusted that God would deploy a foreign king against his own people if necessary in order to end abuse.

Our gospel reading today seems to tell a different story. John the Baptist, the great prophet, the forerunner of Christ, had warned many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’ But now, he is in prison and suffering at the hands of the wicked king Herod. He is beheaded as a result of queen Herodias’s hatred of him and her daughter Salome’s erotic dance.

So, we see the power of the wicked to withstand the will of God. And, of course, we know that can be the case. We know it for ourselves. Despite our repeated waywardness, our sinfulness, our selfishness, we’re still here. God has not struck us down. Not yet at least. So, is there ultimately anarchy? Time and chance the final governor? Is there really no one in charge? I don’t believe so.

Evil does happen. The good do suffer. The wicked appear to triumph. On the Abbey’s west front are statues of ten 20th century martyrs, representative of many thousands of men and women and children who died during the 20th century for their Christian faith and way of life. Later this year, one of them Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated at the altar on 24th March 1980, will be formally declared a saint. And early next year, at the time of the 125th anniversary of his birth, we shall hold a service here to honour St Maximilian Kolbe, another of the martyrs commemorated there, a priest who gave his life in Auschwitz volunteering to replace a young father he did not know when the Nazi guards were selecting ten people at random to be starved to death.

The wicked appear to triumph, I said. And many people suffer as they do. But we have seen the rise and fall in the past century of oppression and hatred, of dictatorship after dictatorship. The vicious cruelty of Russia’s Communist regime, where Stalin put to death at least six million of his own people and perhaps nine million others, was finally defeated. The Nazi regime in Germany, that caused the death of six million Jews and perhaps six million others, was defeated. Germany has radically changed into a prosperous and peaceful country. The dictatorships in Spain and Portugal were defeated. Ultimately the good prevailed.

We see the power of God cloaked in Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection. But the power is there and the ability to make a difference. We may not always discern God’s will or God’s way. But we can and should trust in God. Who’s in charge? God’s in charge: God’s gift of creation; God’s gift of redemption in Christ; God’s gift of sanctification, if we will accept it. As we heard St Paul say earlier, God has a plan to gather up all things, things in heaven and things on earth. To God be the glory.