I was sitting in my office on Thursday afternoon, working on my sermon for today. The words I was working on are much different than those you will hear this morning, for as I was writing, the word came that Queen Elizabeth II had died. Like the rest of the world, I was shocked but not surprised. Earlier in the day, her family released a statement that the Queen was under the watch of her doctors. As the Royal Family is remarkably silent on the health of the Monarch, this was a worrying statement.
It may seem odd to some that I am paying tribute to a British Monarch, but I pray your forgiveness as I believe it is appropriate to spend some time in tribute to an extraordinary woman. The Queen was a devoted servant of her people, swearing to them at the young age of 21 that she would devote her entire life, “whether it be long or short,” to their service.
But more importantly, she was a woman of enormous faith, a faith she was not afraid to share with the world. So among the many titles and honors, the Monarch carries Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. Queen Elizabeth took both roles very seriously. It is also interesting to note that when the new Monarch takes the oath, part of that oath is to swear to the protection of the independence of the Church of Scotland. So religion and faith are very much a part of the role of the sovereign.
In her Christmas message in 2014, the Queen had this to say as an indication of her faith:
“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance, and healing. Christ’s example had taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”
As Americans, we prize the separation of Church and State. Over the last few years, those lines of separation have been blurred, but regardless, we are not used to hearing our leaders speak so openly and honestly about their faith and how it guides them. Sure, we have politicians who will use any opportunity to flaunt their faith, going so far as to clear out people to stand in front of a church for a photo op, but to hear such a pure understanding of faith and what faith is all about is refreshing.
The words the Queen spoke in her message in 2014 should be familiar to all of you since they are central to my understanding of the message of the Gospel. The Queen spoke of reconciliation and forgiveness. Last week, I spoke of the importance of forgiveness in the life of a Christian.
You will remember that forgiveness, as I see it, is central to our spiritual life and of great importance in our development of that spiritual life. But the Queen speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation on a personal and corporate level. We must seek forgiveness for past wrongs, whether individual wrongs committed by the church or wrongs committed by a nation.
As of late, it seems that seeking forgiveness is perceived as a weakness. The very idea that we, as a nation, should apologize for how we treated the native population or those we have enslaved is wrong. Yet, there is this sense that we should whitewash that portion of our history. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth was the first British Monarch to visit the Irish Republic in a century. That visit has been hailed as a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, nothing is instantaneous, and forgiveness is not immune to that, but these moments, these times when people come together, start the process, and as Christians, we should be at the center of these times. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and we should always seek peaceful means to resolve issues.
The Queen spoke of Jesus “stretching out his hands in acceptance and reconciliation.” Again, these are two central ideas and ideals in the life of the Christian. I have mentioned before that Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross symbolize welcome for all, much like a parent welcomes their children. At the center of this is the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the father welcomes his son back into the fold without asking any questions. In Jesus Christ, all is forgiven, and we are given a seat at the table of reconciliation and peace.
Healing is another aspect of this relationship with Jesus. Although that is not healing in the physical sense, Jesus makes possible the healing of past hurts. From the cross, the instrument that the state chose to kill him, he looked down upon those who had just nailed him there, and rather than shouting insults at them, he asked his heavenly father to forgive them. His last thoughts were not for himself but those around him.
England and the United Kingdom are very diverse and have been for a long time. Although the Church of England is the “Established Church,” there is room in society for all expressions of faith and no expression of faith. Yesterday, senior members of Parliament took the oath of allegiance to the new King. As part of that oath, they swear “by Almighty God,” but there is room for those who wish not to use those words. As a result, expressions of faith varied as the people and the Queen understood that.
In 1954, the Rev. Billy Graham visited England as part of his famous Crusades. The Gospel that Graham was preaching was not in alignment with the theology of the Church of England, yet the Queen welcomed Rev. Graham to preach at Windsor. The Queen’s depth and breadth of understanding of theology transcended that of the Church of England. She was undoubtedly Anglican, but she had respect and understanding for other faith and those of no faith.
But I think this was more than simply religious acceptance.
During her 96 years, the Queen saw monumental changes in the world. When she was born, there was an Empire, and the King was considered an Emperor. But in her life, she witnessed the Empire’s dissolution and the Commonwealth’s creation. No longer was the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered but friends, much like our relationship with God. And with that change comes an acceptance of all walks of life, again, something fundamental to the life of a Christian and one I spoke of before.
I would like to say a few words about grief.
As I mentioned at the start of the service, today is a day of remembrance of not only the life of the Queen but of the events 21 years ago in New York City, Washington, DC, and in that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Although we may not have experienced personal grief on that day, I mean to say we may not know of anyone killed on that day; we have shared or national grief.
We all experience grief in our own way, and regardless of what some experts say, we never get over our grief, nor do I believe we should. Grief’s sharp edges give way to life’s smoothness, but it is always with us. Our lives changed that beautiful morning in September of 2001, and it will never be the same. Times of remembrance are good if they lead away from anger and towards this idea of forgiveness and reconciliation. This will not be a popular statement, but we do not have to forget, but we do have to forgive.
Today we remember those whose lives were lost on that day and those whose lives have been lost since then, but we should also pause to remember how we all came together on that day and the days following. We stretched our hands to our neighbors and embraced one another in our collective grief. For a short period, we came together, prayed, and cried together. That is what I choose to remember about that day, not the burning and collapsing buildings but neighbor helping neighbor and friend helping friend.
Ritual is vital in our ability to come to grips with our grief. Tonight, our community will gather for ritual as we commemorate those lost on September 11, 2001, and this week a nation and the world will gather for ritual as we say farewell to the Queen. We have seen some of that already, but there will be more. One of the interesting parts of all of this is that amid grief, there is celebration. The Queen has died, but, as the Queen has said, “tomorrow, the daffodils will bloom.”
When we strip away all the pageantry, we remember that a family is mourning the loss of their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. My thoughts will be with them and the new King in the coming days, just as my thoughts are with all those who grieve on this day.
For me, the legacy of Her Majesty will be her faith and the idea that she was able to be Queen of all her subjects, but at the same time, she was not afraid to live her Christianity in public. She did not lord it over anyone or insist that England was a “Christian Nation.” Her faith influenced and guided her life, and it is that memory that I will take from all of this.
At the end of the day, a Christian has died, and we pray that she has been welcomed into the arms of her savior with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant.