Sermon: ‘Seek the welfare of the city’ (Mayor’s Evensong).
Preached on 17th June 2012
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and
always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…pray to the Lord for it;
for if it prospers, you also will prosper. Jeremiah 29.7
Words from a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah from the first lesson read by the Mayor. Durham City is a wonderful gift to us. It is held in enormous affection by its residents and by the wider county. It is a good place in which to live and to visit. I’m reminded of that every weekend, when the City Centre is heaving, with visitors and tourists and students, yes, but, if accents are anything to go by, with hundreds upon hundreds of local people from the city and the villages. Of course, it is a beautiful city, dominated by Cathedral and Castle and the River Wear, with an ancient Market Place, medieval streets, historic churches, many buildings of architectural merit, a proud industrial heritage, a world-class University.
The venerable and ancient office of Mayor is part of the city’s heritage. You only have to go into the Town Hall to appreciate the sense of civic continuity that mirrors ecclesiastical continuity, and we are proud that the Mayor of Durham ranks fifth in civic precedence and in the civic pride held by the Charter Trustees and the Bodyguard and officers of this ancient office. It seems to me that part of the role of the Mayor, historically and today, is in accordance with Jeremiah’s exhortation ‘to seek the welfare of the city’. This is exercised in the role of the Mayor in supporting our schools, our commerce and industry, our community activities and charities, our voluntary sector, and the groups and organisations that bring people together. The Mayor, as first citizen, in St Paul’s words, ‘rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep’. It a representational, vicarious office; it is about giving attention to the human heart of civic life; it is about supporting and celebrating all that we hold in common.
One significant aspect of Mayor’s role is to be prominent in the round of religious events in the life of the city. As well as other places of worship and faith, the Mayor comes to the Cathedral regularly for occasions such as the DLI commemoration, Battle of Britain Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, Founders and Benefactors, Nine Lessons and Carols, St Cuthbert’s Day, the Miners’ Festival Service, Matins for the Courts of Justice, and many other celebrations. This interweaving of the spiritual and the civic is no better represented than in the great window of the Town Hall. Here we give attention to another phrase in Jeremiah’s letter – ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…pray to the Lord for it; for if it prospers, you also will prosper’. This exhortation to prayer recognises that as well as our human striving for the sake of the good of the city, we also rely on God’s favour and goodness towards us. The word ‘welfare’ in Jeremiah’s letter is literally ‘peace’ or shalom – ‘Seek the peace, the shalom, of the city’. In Jewish thought, shalom encapsulates a sense of harmony – God and his children in harmony, harmony in the community, harmony between people and creation, the environment. It is about providing a context in which people thrive and are enabled to fulfil their potential, use their gifts, and enjoy God’s good provision. Where shalom does not exist, there arises exploitation, division, and self-seeking. In other word, shalom is not something that human beings alone can achieve, because it goes against the grain of many aspects of our human nature. Shalom, peace, is a divine gift, for which we must pray, and prayer is a means whereby we become re-focussed on the nature and righteousness of God:
Unless the Lord build the house their labour is but in vain that build it; unless the Lord keeps the city, the guard (we might say the body-guard) watches in vain. Psalm 127.
But note, this seeking the welfare, this prayer to God for the city, is not without self-interest. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…pray to the Lord for it;
for if it prospers, you also will prosper’. Jeremiah’s letter was written to Jewish people who had been exiled to the city of Babylon, far away from home. This exile would last for seventy years. Jeremiah exhorts the Jews to settle down for the long-haul – and to work and pray for the good of an alien city, whose king had destroyed their homeland, and whose religion and customs were very different. For one simple reason – if the city prospered, they also would prosper. It is to our own good and well-being that the city thrives; if it doesn’t, our enjoyment of living here, and the enjoyment of those who visit us, will be diminished. We’re in this together.
So what does it mean to seek the welfare of this city? It certainly means supporting those who have civic responsibility, and who carry the burdens of political responsibility. It means encouraging investment, providing employment, and high standards of care, especially for the young, the elderly and infirm. It means seeking to ensure that Durham remains a beautiful city, a safe city, a residentially-balanced city, a city of which we can be proud. It means ensuring it is a hospitable city to our thousands of visitors from near and far. It means that we care for the environment, and the present River Banks Project is a good example of a common endeavour between Cathedral, Heritage Lottery Fund, County Council and University, to do just that. It means that we seek to ensure that the city, and this peninsular in particular, is not exploited as if it were some kind of theme park; that decisions about the ordering of this city are taken with full regard to the people who actually live and work here. It means that we seek to ensure full access to this Cathedral as the spiritual heart of this city. It means that we promote businesses and events that recognise that Durham is in a real sense a holy city, because here at the heart of it lie the shrines of St Cuthbert and St Bede. So we resist anything that might tarnish it. As such, may Durham point to that eternal city, ‘whose Architect and Builder is God’.
So we ask for God’s blessing on our new Mayor and Mayoress, the Deputy Mayor, and all who support them in their year of office. And may we all heed the exhortation of Jeremiah:
Seek the welfare, the shalom, of the city where I have sent you…pray to the Lord for it; for if it prospers, you also will prosper.