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Sermon given at the High Sheriff’s Legal Service,
Derby Cathedral, Sunday 9th October 2005
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Liberty; peace; justice: three words, three ideals, which lie at the core of today’s service. For this service is primarily one of thanksgiving for a society that places those ideals at the heart of its existence, and for those people, especially in this county, whose work it is to uphold and protect them.
We give thanks, therefore, for those institutions whose responsibility it is to ensure that the liberty, peace and justice for which so many have given their lives, over the years, are never lost: Parliament; the judicial system; the police; the prison service and related organisations; and not forgetting the ancient role of the High Sheriff.
Today we also remember the spiritual dimension to these aspects of our country’s life. In his Prologue, the High Sheriff referred to “ the witness of churches and communities of faith in upholding the true worth and dignity of humankind in the order of creation; in teaching that all people are equal in the eyes of God, and in showing that true liberty and justice are the gifts of God alone”.
But what do those words really mean? In a society which has become predominantly secular, can they do any more than add an anachronistic ecclesiastical veneer to politics and the law? The problem becomes even more worrying when we look more closely at the statement that “true liberty and justice are the gifts of God alone”. It is of course not a quotation from Scripture. Jesus himself is recorded to have said very little if anything about liberty, and certainly does not seem to have argued that slaves should be freed – indeed slaves and slavery are barely mentioned in the Gospels. As for justice, Jesus never translated his teachings about love and service onto the level of society as a whole – it has been for the Church, after him, to do that. When we say that liberty and justice are the gifts of God, moreover, it would seem to imply that those societies in which liberty and justice are absent are not favoured by God, unlike ours. The implication of this would be that God is not even-handed in the way he bestows his blessings.
So what are we to make of the difficult statement that “true liberty and justice are the gifts of God alone”? This claim implies that any society that aspires to liberty and justice needs the help of God in order to achieve them. If this is the case, what form will that divine help take? What is the spiritual dimension which gives the key to a society in which liberty and justice prevail?
The answer to both of these questions lies in the Biblical teaching – also included in the High Sheriff’s Prologue – that all people are equal in the eyes of God. This statement, if we take it seriously, has profound implications. It means that earthly distinctions of race, rank, or religion are irrelevant to God. Or as St. Paul said, in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. It means also that each individual is of the utmost importance to God.
The theologian and writer C. S. Lewis put it this way, in a sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory”: “ There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal . Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
The knowledge, then, that there are no ordinary people – and that all are not mortal but immortal - has enormous power not just to change the way we see every person we meet, but also to enable liberty and justice to take root and endure. For it means that we find ourselves with no alternative but to help others to flourish, and to create opportunities for them to realise that eternal glory which God offers to each person. As Lewis says, it becomes “hardly possible for us to think too often or too deeply about our neighbour … and the load, or weight, or burden of our neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on our back”.
Liberty and justice arise, then, when a nation’s people become so convinced that every individual is important that they become determined to set up the political and legal structures that make liberty and justice possible.
Today’s first reading, from Ecclesiasticus, said “Let us now praise famous men, through whom the Lord hath wrought great glory”, as the traditional translation expressed it. There are many famous men and women who have contributed to the inheritance of culture, science, industry, and religion in Derbyshire for which we give thanks in this service. People like Saint Wystan, prince of Mercia, buried in the crypt at Repton church following his death in 850; John Flamsteed – born in Denby in 1646, the first Astronomer Royal; Thomas Hobbes – buried in Ault Hucknall church in 1679; Joseph Wright of Derby, 18 th century painter; Richard Arkwright – known as the inventor of the factory system; George Stephenson, the Father of the Railways; Thomas Cook – born in 1808 in Melbourne, who became a Baptist missionary before founding the travel company which still bears his name; Catherine Booth, a founder member of the Salvation Army, born in Ashbourne; and authors such as Richmal Crompton, Alison Uttley and Edith Sitwell, all of whom had Derbyshire connections.
But, “some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished, as though they had never been … their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. How many unknown people whose names are not recorded by historians have also helped to make this county what it is today?
There are those who, even now, without seeking fame or status create the inheritance which our descendants will enjoy. Those who are building a county where each individual is valued; or who are contributing to communities, causes, and culture; and all who are playing their part in preserving the freedom, peace and justice under the law which, without effective vigilance, can so easily be eroded.
Every society takes wrong turnings. The appropriate balance between freedom and regulation is never easy to find, and may vary from one nation to another. Sometimes, freedom, peace and justice are absent for many years – indeed some nations have rarely if ever known them. But St. Paul’s conviction that nothing at all will be able to separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus, reminds us that there is a divine purpose for the world, one which is based on the confidence that good will finally prevail over evil.
The precise nature of how that divine purpose will reach its conclusion is veiled from us. But for the time being, whenever we recognise the intrinsic glory of each individual; or recall that there are no “mere mortals”; and on every occasion when we refuse to see our neighbour as just an ordinary person; we are not only reinforcing the freedom, peace, and justice that we celebrate today; but are turning them truly into gifts from God. Amen.
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