Buckinghamshire County Council Address
Surah 19 – Maryam
The Visitation by Malcolm Guite
Again it is a privilege to welcome everyone to the Hambleden Valley this morning.
Civic Services such as this are somewhat niche as Church and State come together to share time and space, to give thanks both collectively and as individuals, and to celebrate all that we hold in common.
Civic life and the council services provided offer a stable foundation for communities (both large and small) to grow and flourish. This life often involves the things that we take for granted and do not give much thought to. We simply expect them to be there when we need them to be. The same is largely true of the Church. It is usually when we do not meet expectations (real or imagined) that we get attention!
A life of service, whether that is national, civic or religious, is not an easy one. The work is hard and the tangible rewards can be few. Why and how do we do this? I will suggest that to live a service-orientated life, we need to take a view that is both short and long term.
I have recently returned from my hometown of Cochrane, just outside of Calgary, Canada. Growing up both my parents were involved in local politics and at different times served on the town council and its various committees. Civic duty and responsibility were ingrained at a young age. I was reflecting on this service while I was there and thought about who would be here today.
I looked around Cochrane and recalled the projects that my parents had been involved with. Planning permission, building applications, sewage treatment, dog bylaws, pothole repair, working with the local RCMP, fire & ambulance services, rubbish collection and the myriad of things you have to do to get things done. Around the dinner table, these things at times, seemed insurmountable and also rather dull. At least to a child!
However, a few decades on, there is now evidence of what was worked so hard at then. Housing developments that started as a few houses in a field are now established communities, the new library is not so new, the sports complex is booming and expanding. The industrial site in the middle of town has been cleaned up. A second bridge across the Bow River finally got built – if ever there was to be a miracle in Cochrane, this is it! None of this happened quickly but with the dedication, perseverance and vision of people who wanted something better. Please be encouraged in what you are doing, play the long game.
The recent events in the Ukraine also played into my thoughts about today. Cities, towns, villages and infrastructure being destroyed needlessly; the work and legacy of people like you, coming down in a heap of rubble. It is heartbreaking. Not only the physical structures but the work of people to put them up in the first place, the planning and vision that was required. How ever do you start again? Where? When?
The question that materialised was: If it all comes down tomorrow – what is left?
That is what is left. Everything you do in your civic life, job, the work of the government, council, the police, the RAF is for people. I read a quote from President Zelensky’s inaugural address in 2019 where he told lawmakers: ‘I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photo instead, and look at them each time you make a decision.’
The chosen readings for this morning have a similar thread running through them. They are about love and relationships between people and family. We have the same characters portrayed from different angles; younger and older, different generations with similar issues (unplanned pregnancies) all coming together to love and support each other.
Mary is 14-ish and pregnant. Elizabeth is well – old and pregnant. Both in impossible situations; socially and medically this is a nightmare. The men of the story are absent: Zechariah is mute at this point, the result of his earlier disbelief at the news that his wife Elizabeth would have a baby in her advanced age. Joseph was at home, likely considering whether to jump ship (or not) on Mary. There are also the babies and at least one of them, John (who would become John the Baptist) is leaping in his mother’s womb. It was at the voice of Mary’s greeting and being in the presence of Jesus that made unborn baby John leap in this well-known story of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting.
Mary has gone in haste to see Elizabeth after Gabriel has appeared to her with some shocking news. I think that haste is a good word – it means ‘excessive speed, urgency of movement or action; hurry’. We often say ‘don’t be hasty’ when cautioning others (generally not ourselves) about making decisions too quickly. Haste is probably not a word bandied about in the County Council offices or Westminster! TVP and the RAF likely have a better idea about haste.
Mary has good reason to go in haste to see her cousin Elizabeth. She was probably terrified, anxious, unsure. When she arrives at her cousins’ home and goes into the house, Mary receives the most wonderful response to her greeting. Elizabeth too is overwhelmed in that moment, not in fear but in humility and kindness.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had played the long game in life, they are noted for their right living before God by following blamelessly his commandments. Zechariah was a faithful priest, who was carrying out his duties, getting on with it. Then one day his prayer was answered, a child would be coming. They had to wait their whole lives for this. We are so impatient, attention spans are getting shorter, fuses are faster to blow. Yet in Zechariah and Elizabeth we see them receive the reward, the blessing of faithfulness and integrity.
Young Mary set off from home in haste and found refuge, love and kindness in the home of her caring cousins. This is more short-term. Mary, unsure of what to do, went to the people that she could count on to help her. Elizabeth was able to confirm what Mary had been told by the angel Gabriel (come back at Christmas for the rest of that story!) Mary’s response is the beautiful song The Magnificat in which she proclaims the greatness, faithfulness and goodness of God. God is our ever present help in times of trouble. Sometimes we need some reminding that God looks on us with favour; even when circumstances don’t look like it or we don’t feel it. Like Elizabeth and Mary we need humility and faith that God will act.
So friends, as you go from here today, God bless you in the work that you do. Play the long game in all things, your work matters even if you can’t yet see the results. Show love and kindness in the short-term. Do all things in humility and kindness for the imperfect human beings that you serve. Remember God’s favour and his great love for you.