Sermon: Delivered by Wisdom
Preached on 16th May 2004
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Let me remind you of that little tale out of the Old Testament we heard just now. ‘There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he, by his wisdom, delivered the city.’ How much that terse story leaves unsaid. What did the poor wise man know that his lords and masters didn’t? What could he do that princes and soldiers couldn’t to deliver the city from its enemies? We can’t say. All we know is that he was wise. And we also know that he was not thanked for his endeavours. Perhaps he did not know himself what he had done. ‘Yet no-one remembered that poor man’ says the storyteller.
The story, I think, offers us a parable for our own times, when all towns and cities are up against it, great or small, threatened by siegeworks like unemployment, urban deprivation, traffic pollution, vandalism and crime. Durham is a good city. We should be proud of it. People envy us for living here. Just yesterday it featured in The Guardian voted as one of the top six favourite UK cities. But even Durham has its problems. How good it would be to find a poor wise man to deliver us, recreate the vision of a city whose streets ‘are the avenues for the passing and procession of a happy people, where men take daily delight in each other’s presence and powers’, as John Ruskin put it. (Ruskin loved Durham and regarded the ensemble of river, cathedral and castle to be one of the seven wonders of the world. He and his wife Effie attended a service in this Cathedral on Christmas Day 1853.)
Many of you are people to whom others look. Politics is the art of holding everyone together in a just polis or society. Christianity has at heart the good of human beings in our life together as well as in our personal relationship with God. So how we are led, and with what vision is very much a matter of Christian concern. Politics, we know, is the art of the possible. No-one these days can make unrealistic demands of local politicians or city councils. They can’t by themselves deliver the city. So much that affects us is decided elsewhere: at County Hall, Westminster, Brussels and Strasbourg. In the kind of world in which we live, it must be so. We live, not as islands but as part of the main, knowing that our life is bound up with every other man, woman and child on this planet. Nevertheless we ought to be concerned that leadership so easily collapses into uncritical expediency that serves self-interest before the community. What we see depressingly often is that those in high places slide insidiously into maintaining their own positions of privilege, power and popularity. The Church is no exception to the rule that power tends to corrupt. A dean or a bishop must remind himself of this all the time, of how to exercise authority without the sacrifice of integrity and truth.
Back to Ruskin. I have in my possession a precious little volume called Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne: Twenty-Five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland. In it, Ruskin has many pertinent things to say about public life, the economy, the nature of work and the ethics of trade. He has a striking insight about what it means to be noble. ‘It means’ he says ‘a known person; one who has risen far enough above others to draw men’s eyes to him, and to be known (honourably) for such and such an one. Ignoble, on the other hand, is derived from the same root as the word ignorance. It means an unknown, inglorious person…. All men ought to be, in this sense, noble, known of each other, and desiring to be known.’ Jesus says that the good shepherd ‘knows his sheep and is known by them’. To be mayor of Durham, or Leader of the Council, or an elected member or an officer is a noble thing.
To do this well, to know and be known, is what it means to serve. ‘Whoever would be great among you must become as the least’ says Jesus. How can we return to the idea of sacrifice for the sake of public office, rediscover that, in a fundamental sense, it’s a vocation? How do we keep the issues of integrity and truth in public life on the agenda? I don’t want to be too other-worldly about this. I simply mean that there is no hope for our society unless we can recover a vision of citizenship and public life in which volunteering, sacrifice and service are the key matters. On the day that we celebrate a new Mayor and pray for her, it is right to reflect on what a costly thing it is to become a servant of others. And I speak not only of mayors and city councillors, but also of those who lead and serve in the police force, the judiciary, the military, in industry, education, the media, health, commerce and the church.
Back to our story. What was true of the poor wise man will often be true of those who hold the lives and destinies of others in their hands. He was forgotten. His good work went unrewarded. He delivered a city, yet there was no-one to thank him for it. It is the same with so many of those who are crucial to the well being of society: their real, lasting achievements are largely unsung, unappreciated and unthanked. Only the mistakes, the misjudgments, are remembered. So your coming to the Cathedral today is an opportunity for us to celebrate all those who serve this city, not least in local government, and lest we forget, to say thank you to those who give so much to the community.
And the man who delivered the city was wise. How is a new mayor, how are any of us in our various callings, to lead well and effectively? Our story suggests that it will not be by coersion or clout. Authority these days has to be earned, and rightly so. More than that, today’s leaders need to weigh course amidst countless checks and balances, systems for monitoring and accountability that make their vocation a subtle and difficult thing. ‘Wisdom is better than might’ concludes our story, ‘though the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded’. Wisdom is always a rare commodity. Yet it is wisdom that leadership requires, or as the Old Testament understands it, an instinct for what is right and the courage to act on it, the gift of discernment, the ability to see things for what they are, uncover the complex motives that drive human lives. That is the difference between those who are uncertain or craven or anxious to please, and those who are courageous, self-forgetting and strong.
Where shall wisdom be found? The answer reigious faith gives is that the fear of the Lord is wisdom, for its source is the Eternal One himself, ‘God only wise’. At the outset of his reign, King Solomon was invited by God to name the gift he most coveted at that moment. He chose, not wealth, not victory, not renown, not even a long life. He chose wisdom. Make that same choice, and we may perhaps deliver a city. And thanked or not, remembered or forgotten, what will have mattered is that we did not flinch from the call when it found us.