THE INGREDIENT THAT MAKES A NATION GREAT
Every generation tends to think its troubles are deeper than before but this is often not true. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned seventy years ago, the country had been shattered by war. Grief, rubble and poverty disfigured the UK; goods were still rationed. The Soviet Union had become a mortal enemy and was in possession of terrible nuclear weapons. Stalin had just died and few knew where the Cold War would take us.
As her son Charles III is crowned, the nation has related challenges: there is war in Europe again and Russia remains a political foe. People are struggling to make ends meet, sometimes terribly so. And there are new problems: a lethal virus is here to stay; climate change is already devastating some parts of the world.
The nation has changed greatly in the years between the coronations of mother and son. Heavy industry has largely given way to service industry and especially finance. Technology has revolutionised communications, information flows and how we relate one to another. The welfare state, in its infancy in 1953, is now a highly complex system and the NHS hugely expanded as the population ages with its attendant medical needs.
Voice and dignity is given to more people. For diversity to flourish, there need to be things we cohere round too. These used to be the institutions we have created, but many of these are less trusted than they used to be and some are in crisis. In their place, we talk more about British values, though these are often not uniquely British and can be found in other countries, especially democracies. And, of course, there are some who do not want to talk about Britain anymore and others who talk about Britain when they really mean England. Life is confusing, but one thing we are good at is muddling through.
One of the subtle, sometimes invisible changes of the last seventy years has been the decline in religious faith. This faith helped to shape so many of our institutions but because people no longer understand that faith, are often unaware of its profound influence over British society. We got a flavour of that in the coronation of Charles. And one of its deepest effects has been in the idea of public service.
In Luke chapter 22, the disciples got into an embarrassing and undignified argument over who was boss among them. Human nature does not really change and most of us will identify the office politics at work among Jesus’ friends. We live in an era of strongmen politicians – Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Victor Orban, the list goes much further. But this is not new, of course.
In responding to the egos around him, Jesus reminds his friends that the political leaders of the time loved to throw their weight around, to build status, privilege and wealth. To impose brutal punishments that made political rivals think again. Roman power was the pinnacle of this; a savagery so casual and prevalent that it would dispose of Jesus himself in time. And he warned them against imitating it in any way. The greatest among you must become like the youngest, he said. This in a society that valued age over youth. In today’s ageist society, he might have said: the greatest among you must become like the oldest.
And the leader like one who serves, he went on. This also challenges us. People who serve us today – setting out food and drink, cleaning washrooms, checking tickets, changing incontinence pads – go about their business largely unnoticed. In fact, if they are noticed, it often means they have failed in their job. The kind of person Jesus held up for praise isn’t the one who always has to draw attention to themselves. They are quick to listen and slow to speak and go about their lives in an unheralded, quiet, reliable way. And it clashes with the view of modern leadership which imposes itself on others, and is aggressive and entitled.
Monday 8 May has been designated by King Charles as a day both to celebrate and inspire volunteering in the UK. Volunteering is the purest form of service because it offers itself without expecting any return. But those who volunteer also know it is one of the most rewarding of human acts, because money is taken out of the equation and a different incentive is at work, one that Jesus held up for his followers to imitate. And Jesus was the ultimate volunteer, offering his whole life as a sacrifice, that others might be blessed through his courageous self-denial.
Churches are full of people who volunteer and so I simply want to say: thank you for all you offer, both in church and elsewhere. Your commitment enriches the whole community and sometimes makes up for those who could volunteer but choose not to. It is easy to idealise service, when those who offer it often do so at times of the day when they are dog tired and would rather be curled up on the sofa in front of Netflix like others. There is a personal cost involved and it comes from the heart of a cross-shaped faith, where people give their lives away so that others may be helped.
And for those who volunteer on top of many other duties in life, there is a promise in Isaiah 40:
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
God knows we are often worn out and feel we have no influence in this world. And this is his word to us. In a post-Covid world where there is fatigue and the kind of discouragement that leads people to give up, it may be one of the most important promises of scripture.
Every generation has its troubles, but God is changeless in his steadfast love and faithfulness. He simply asks us to take the next step of service, and to see what he will do with it.
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