Speaking truth to power

Rev Sue gave this sermon on Wednesday 17 November 2021. Here it is again for you:

Today we remember Hugh, who was the Bishop of Lincoln in the 12th century. The king at the time was Henry the Second. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who thought that they were acting on the King’s wishes. Henry was dismayed by what had happened, and, no doubt, by the anger of the ordinary people who believed Thomas a saint. By way of penance, he founded a new monastery in Somerset, and he asked Hugh, a monk in France to come to England to be in charge. Hugh told Henry that he was delighted by the honour of being selected but he wouldn’t come unless the villagers that had lived on the site before the monastery was built were compensated and found new homes. Not only did Henry appoint him as Prior to the monastery, but 10 years later he appointed him as Bishop of Lincoln. Once again Hugh set a condition – he would only come if the cathedral chapter elected him in a free vote.

A few years later King Richard the Second asked Hugh for money to pay for the crusades. In a completely unprecedented move, Hugh refused. He continued to be independent of all the monarchs, and King John walked out halfway through an Easter sermon in which Hugh was making his expectations of the king clear. He spoke his mind in church circles, too. When he was dying the Archbishop of Canterbury invited him to repent of rudeness to him. Hugh not only declined but said that he wished he had been even ruder.

He was remembered as a fair judge and a loving and compassionate pastor as well as someone who courageously spoke the truth to power.

If you were listening carefully, you might have been surprised by today’s gospel reading. It is the parable of the talents told by Luke, which has significant differences from the more familiar story in Matthew’s gospel. A nobleman went to a foreign country to the emperor to ask to be made ruler of his own land. Unfortunately, he was not a popular man, and the citizens of his country sent a delegation to the emperor, too, saying that they didn’t want him as the ruler. Before he left, he gave a sum of money to each of 10 slaves. It was a substantial sum – three months wages for a labourer – and he instructed them to trade with it. When he returned, the first man had ten times as much money, and he was praised and rewarded with rulership of 10 cities. The second man had made 5 times as much, so he was appointed to rule over 5 cities. The third came and returned the original coin. He had kept it safe, because he said, he was afraid. He knew that his master was a harsh man whose business practices were ruthless and unfair. His master said that indeed he was, that the slave should have at least put the money in the bank, and he gave the money to the first slave who already had 10 coins. The delegation, who had asked the emperor not to appoint him, and anyone else who didn’t want him as ruler, were killed in front of him.

We tend to assume that because Jesus’ parables speak of the kingdom of heaven, the rulers represent God. But this ruler is unpopular, grasping and murderous. I wonder what sort of rulers the first two slaves made? Did they learn their business practices from their master? A thousand per cent profit in a relatively short time was a lot to make by scrupulous means. So perhaps, the hero of the story is the slave who refused to play along. He did not spend the money entrusted to him, but neither did he co-operate. He chose to disobey a tyrannical master.

We live in a world where those who have much pay mysteriously little tax. If they lose their jobs, they are given eye watering severance packages. The workers on zero hours contracts and those who claim benefits can find themselves suddenly without any money to feed themselves or their families. To all those who have, more is given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have is taken away.

Today, we still need people like Hugh of Lincoln who will stand up to the rich and powerful and negotiate for the poor.

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