What does the Lord require of you? One last homily for Benenden School

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‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

– Micah 6.6-8

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, you,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

– The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1, William Shakespeare

If you are to be a true member of the Benenden community, what is required of you?

You are required to begin lengthy and very complex sentences with the word, ‘Basically…’ without even a hint of irony. You are to describe all things metaphorical as literal: ‘I literally died when he set us prep…’ and all things actual as simile: ‘I like did my prep.’

You are required to leave the Dining Room with a stomach full of food and check the menu to see what’s for your next meal.

You are required to dress up to the nines for a social with a boys’ school, then stay at the opposite end of the room to them and not speak to them for the duration of the evening.

You are required to apply to only five universities across the whole of the UK to ensure that you are in a Benenden outpost for the duration of your degree course.

I’m delighted to tell you, class of 2019, that you have successfully and wholeheartedly met what is required of you and you therefore qualify for the status of Benenden Senior!

So, what now?

Your education puts you in an incredibly privileged position; in the top 7% in the UK to be precise. Having attended one of the finest schools in the land, you will go to some of its finest universities and you will, please God, go on to do the most wonderful things. We are so proud of all that you have achieved during your time in this community and we send you off into the world with a joyful expectation of all that is to come.

But make no mistake, you wield exceptional power by virtue of the education you have received. You may not think it now, but remember my words and one day you will think, ‘He was right.’

The big question is: what are you going to do with all that power? How will you exercise it? Well, if I may be so bold, I have three suggestions for you:

‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to act justly, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?’

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

Firstly, use the power you have to act justly.

There is a legend about Fiorello La Guardia who was mayor of New York during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On a cold evening in 1935, he turned up at a courtroom which served one of the poorest areas of the city and sat as judge, as was his right as chief magistrate of the city. A poor woman was brought before him charged with theft; she had stolen a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her husband had left her, that she had no money and was struggling to feed her family.

The man from whom she had stolen the bread told the mayor that it was a bad neighbourhood and a message had to be sent: punish her and teach everyone a lesson. The mayor agreed and fined her ten dollars before reaching into his pocket, producing the money and paying the debt for her. He then turned to the rest of the court and fined everyone fifty cents for living in a town where a person had to steal bread to feed their family. The bailiff collected the fines and La Guardia turned the money over to the defendant.

When we think of justice we often turn to thoughts of punishment for offences committed, people getting what’s coming to them, but its true meaning is to render to each what is due. Justice is about making sure that everyone can live as they ought.

It is obvious that we live in a world where many do not enjoy an equal share of Earth’s bounty, do not experience the freedom that you and I enjoy, do not have the voice to speak up and be heard.

The power that you wield brings with it the possibility of dismantling the structures which enable injustice, of sharing out the fruits of creation, of cutting the chains of the oppressed, of speaking up for those who have no voice.

What is required of you? That you act justly, so that others may live as they ought.

Secondly, love mercy.

 ‘And earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice.’ So writes Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. It is, in this preacher’s humble opinion, one of the finest speeches in all of Shakespeare’s work.

Shylock has brought Antonio to court because he has defaulted on a loan and wants what is owed to him: a pound of Antonio’s flesh and Portia delivers this speech, entreating Shylock to show mercy to Antonio.

Is there not a Shylock in the hearts of all of us? Have we not at some point wanted our ‘pound of flesh’ for having been wronged? It is a natural instinct, and I willingly admit to having succumbed to it on more than one occasion in my life.

That is why mercy is a great act of courage.

It is easy to lash out at those who have hurt us or to take back what we think is rightfully ours but if this is the way we choose, then we will all continue to bear the wounds left by the excising of pounds and pounds of flesh.

But if we choose mercy, then those wounds will begin to heal; if we choose mercy, we will create a space where transformation can happen because, ‘It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’; if we choose mercy, then love can flourish and a future becomes possible for everyone involved.

If justice renders to each what is due, then mercy renders to each more than we ever could wish for or deserve.

What is required of you? That you love mercy, for none of us deserve it, but all of us need it.

Thirdly, walk humbly.

 One of my favourite moments in the US Presidential Campaign of 2016 was part of an interview given by Donald Trump to CBP current affairs programme Face the Nation. Trump had recently attended a church service and the sermon had been about humility. When the interviewer asked what Trump thought, given that he presents a very confident persona, Trump replied: ‘I do have much more humility than a lot of people would think.’

It would seem that he also has a rather limited understanding of irony.

Back in the third century, there were Desert Fathers would lived the life of a hermit, away from the towns and cities and people would come to them and ask for their spiritual advice. There is a saying of St. Anthony, one of those Fathers, with which I am rather taken: he said, ‘I saw the devil’s snares set all over the earth, and I groaned and said, “What can pass through them?” I heard a voice saying: “Humility.” ’

The devil’s snares to which St. Anthony was referring are, for us, the temptations which tell us that if we want to matter, if we want to make a name for ourselves, then we must earn a particular amount, have a particular status, look a particular way and without wealth, status or beauty, we are worthless; we don’t matter.

So, we will do all we can to attain those things, including putting others down, claiming to be better than ‘them’, walking all over anyone who gets in the way, because then the world will know us; then the world will respect us; then the world will love us.

Well, let me tell you: you are loved. Loved without condition. Nothing that you can fail at or achieve in life can ever diminish or increase that love because it is already complete.

And it is from this place of knowing your true worth, as a child of God, that humility can spring for you have no reason to construct a persona that is wealthy, successful or beautiful.

That is a wonderful, freeing thing.

Humility is not about letting others walk all over you; humility is about having a right understanding of yourself and if you understand yourself to be loved, then the snares of this world can never entrap you.

What is required of you? That you walk humbly, for if you know yourself to be loved completely, then you are completely free to love.

So go out there and be all kinds of awesome but never forget just how powerful you are. I beg you, use that power for good and above all, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly.

God bless you, wherever life takes you.

Amen.


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