SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE
ON JULY 6th, 2008
Psalm 145:13 “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all ages.” Following the establishment of the Republic Congress first met in New York, and then in Philadelphia. But it was always the intention to build a special city as the capital of the new republic. The rivalry between the North and South (or was it Boston vs New York?) meant that a compromise had to be met. Thus it was that the District of Columbia was carved out, and Washington was built as the Nation’s Capital – designed by a French architect. 100 years later, Australia faced the same problem. At first the Commonwealth parliament met in Melbourne – but Sydney would have none of that! So Australia followed the example of their American cousins and some land was chosen – and given the must unimaginative name of the Australian Capital Territory! All that was there was a small hamlet called Canberry. The American architect, Walter Burley Griffin, was chosen the winner of a competition to design this new capital – now called Canberra. All it consisted of was farms, a few houses, and a pretty little Anglican Church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. But they discovered something remarkable. In the church cemetery was a tombstone quoting Hebrews 13.14: “Here we have no continuing city – but seek one to come”. Some people took this as a prophecy for the building of the new city. That was, of course, to completely misunderstand the Biblical text – which really means that we should not set our store on earthly cities, but on the heavenly city. It is pause for reflection that the Bible begins with a garden – the Garden of Eden – and ends with a city – the city of God in Revelation, coming down from heaven. Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote a great book “The City of God”, which expands this image. He compared the fall of the Roman Empire with the rise of Christianity. He warns Christians not to confuse the eternal city of God with the temporal city of the Empire. It is a lesson that all nations have still to learn. We Episcopalians know this more than most Christians. We are descended from the Church of England. A state Church, where once it was a civil offence not to attend the local parish church, nor use the Book of Common Prayer. The Church was identified with the State and the State with the established Church. Even today Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords as representatives and guardians of the Christian Church. Historically this was so because at the Reformation the Church of England did not regard itself as a new protestant Church, but as the continuing Catholic Church in England. That is why today in the Creeds we profess our faith in the Holy Catholic Church and why we have the seven Sacraments and the Apostolic Ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. It is a continuity with, and our claim to be part of, the Holy Catholic Church. At the time of the American revolution and the Declaration of Independence this was a real problem for us. The Church of England clergy in the 13 colonies had all taken oaths to the English Monarch and were licensed by the Bishop of London. To continue this arrangement would be an act of gross disloyalty to the new republic. As a result many parishes and priests suffered. The Anglican parishes had to arrange a new American way to be English Catholics – and with a new Book of Common Prayer, of course. So at Evensong last Sunday the Officiant chanted that odd phrase “O God save the State” instead of “O God save the Queen”. That phrase in itself indicates a problem. Here in America, the State became the expression of the protestant philosophies found in the New Republic. The Declaration of Independence seems to reflect those values, and what is called “the enlightenment”. At its heart it guarantees “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Thomas Jefferson asserted that all men are endowed by their Creator with these inalienable rights. But are we? The New Testament speaks not of rights but of responsibilities. In fact we have no right to our life – it is a gift from God. Neither is it suggested that we have a right to liberty, nor to pursue happiness. The crucified Lord himself said: “If anyone wishes to be my disciple he must renounce himself and follow me”. In the secular world there is not much liberty or happiness in that! The point of life revealed in the Bible is not the pursuit of happiness – but of blessedness. You can see this when you wander around Cathedrals in England. Before the Reformation, tombs and monuments were concerned with the gaining of eternal life for the deceased, and asking the viewer to pray for them. From the 18th Century on, such monuments became increasingly secular – concerning themselves with the dead person and his achievements, and they often dwell on the happiness of the person’s life. That was how our nation was formed, and it has led to confusing the city of God with the earthly city. This is particularly evident as we endure another presidential election. Candidates have proclaimed their Christian faith, and tried to justify their hopes and agendas in terms of Christian principals. Now I am the first person to be thankful for the faith of our leaders and the Christians principals our nation is based on. But we must heed Saint Augustine’s warning not to confuse the city of man, with the city of God. Ultimately we do not seek a continuing city here – but one to come. That city is described in Psalm 145: “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all ages”. 232 years ago America threw out the King of England……..but we still have a King – Christ the Lord.