I’ve been in full-time ministry for over forty-four years, and in that time I’ve preached all kinds of sermons to mark all kinds of occasions. I’ve gone to old passages of scripture and found new ideas and new inspiration in them. But I have to say this: for some reason, it never entered my head that one day I would stand up in front of a congregation to preach a sermon marking the death of a queen or a king. That’s something I’ve never had to do in all the years of my ministry. And of course, none of us knows what the future holds, but I’m reasonably sure I won’t be called on to do it again.
For many of us in this building today, Queen Elizabeth II is the only reigning monarch we’ve ever known. This isn’t true for all of us. Some of you have memories of her father, King George VI, but they go back a long way. I was born in 1958, so I’ve never in my lifetime sung what I’m going to be singing before too long: ‘God save the King’. In my lifetime, it’s always been ‘God save the Queen’.
Queen Elizabeth II is the longest reigning monarch in British history; not long ago, she surpassed the previous record-holder, Queen Victoria. She was very young, of course, when she came to the throne, and some of you will remember the promise she made to the citizens of the Commonwealth on the occasion of her twenty-first birthday:
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
Perhaps we can forgive her, at that young age, for assuming that for those who had been colonised around the world, the empire felt like a family. And we can give her credit for doing all in her power, during her lifetime, to make it more so. But today isn’t a day for us to have discussions about the legacies of colonialism and imperialism, although those discussions are important. Today’s a day to reflect on the amazing dedication of a young woman who, by all accounts, didn’t really want this job, but felt duty-bound to undertake it, and stuck with it to the end. Eugene Peterson talks about the godly life as ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ Surely we can recognise that long obedience in the life of the one who will always be, to many of us, simply ‘the Queen’.
I’ve often said to people that I’m not especially a committed monarchist—I tend to be pragmatic on that subject, and my feelings would be that constitutional monarchy combined with parliamentary democracy is at least as good a system as the other alternatives on offer, and much better than some of them. However, I was—and by the way, it feels so wrong to use that word ‘was’—I was a big fan of the Queen herself.
This is not because of any special relationship the Queen may have had with the Anglican church. In England, the monarch is officially recognized as the supreme governor of the Church of England, but that’s not the case with the Anglican Church of Canada; the Queen had no official position in the government of our church. A lot of people think she did, because when she visited Canada she made a habit of worshipping in Anglican churches, but this was simply because, well, she was a regular churchgoer and a devout Anglican!
So why was I a fan? I’ve often asked myself this question.
I could identify a lot of reasons, but I want to focus in on one thing, and I want to do that by sharing with you some quotes from the Queen’s Christmas messages. Is it just me, or did Her Majesty get a little more open about her Christian beliefs and commitments in recent years? Not that she ever hid them, but my impression is that she got more forthright about them toward the end of her life. Here’s a quote from her 2016 Christmas message:
At Christmas, our attention is drawn to the birth of a baby some two thousand years ago. It was the humblest of beginnings, and his parents, Joseph and Mary, did not think they were important.
Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.
The message of Christmas reminds us that inspiration is a gift to be given as well as received, and that love begins small but always grows.
In 2017, she had this to say:
Today, we celebrate Christmas, which, itself, is sometimes described as a festival of the home. Families travel long distances to be together.
Volunteers and charities, as well as many churches, arrange meals for the homeless and those who would otherwise be alone on Christmas Day. We remember the birth of Jesus Christ, whose only sanctuary was a stable in Bethlehem. He knew rejection, hardship and persecution.
And yet, it is Jesus Christ’s generous love and example which has inspired me through good times and bad.
In 2019 she had this to say:
Of course, at the heart of the Christmas story lies the birth of a child: a seemingly small and insignificant step overlooked by many in Bethlehem. But in time, through his teaching and by his example, Jesus Christ would show the world how small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding. Many of us already try to follow in his footsteps. The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy, but small steps can make a world of difference.
As Christmas dawned, church congregations around the world joined in singing It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Like many timeless carols, it speaks not just of the coming of Jesus Christ into a divided world, many years ago, but also of the relevance, even today, of the angels’ message of peace and goodwill.
And in 2020, at the end of the first year of Covid, she was even more open:
This year, we celebrated International Nurses’ Day, on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. As with other nursing pioneers like Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale shone a lamp of hope across the world.
Today, our front-line services still shine that lamp for us—supported by the amazing achievements of modern science—and we owe them a debt of gratitude. We continue to be inspired by the kindness of strangers and draw comfort that—even on the darkest nights—there is hope in the new dawn.
Jesus touched on this with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The man who is robbed and left at the roadside is saved by someone who did not share his religion or culture. This wonderful story of kindness is still as relevant today. Good Samaritans have emerged across society showing care and respect for all, regardless of gender, race or background, reminding us that each one of us is special and equal in the eyes of God.
The teachings of Christ have served as my inner light, as has the sense of purpose we can find in coming together to worship.
And finally, in her last Christmas message, in 2021, she ended with these words:
And for me and my family, even with one familiar laugh missing this year, there will be joy in Christmas, as we have the chance to reminisce, and see anew the wonder of the festive season through the eyes of our young children, of whom we were delighted to welcome four more this year.
They teach us all a lesson – just as the Christmas story does – that in the birth of a child, there is a new dawn with endless potential.
It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus — a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith. His birth marked a new beginning. As the carol says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”.
I’ve often said over the past few years that I’ve been strongly tempted to set aside my Christmas Day sermon and just let the Queen speak. Her faith wasn’t particularly theological, and it wasn’t even especially sophisticated—but then, maybe sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. What has stood out for me is that almost every year she has mentioned that the life and teachings of Jesus were a shining light to her, and the centre of her faith, and that she was doing her best to follow his example.
Of course, to do that in the context of a prestigious position at the centre of government—not only in the United Kingdom, but in all the constitutional monarchies in the British Commonwealth around the world—isn’t simple at all. How did the Queen balance, on the one hand, her faith in a Lord who tells his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor—as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel—with, on the other hand, the enormous wealth and privilege she was born into? How did she balance, on the one hand, the call of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, with, on the other hand, her position as commander in chief of the armed forces?
I don’t think there are any easy answers to those questions. The Queen was born into a generation where people tended not to wear their hearts on their sleeves; that’s why her forthright statements of faith in recent years have been so remarkable. If she struggled with some of the more demanding passages in the teaching of Jesus, she certainly never told me about it!
And yet, in a sense, the Queen’s struggle isn’t far removed from yours and mine. Yes, the Queen was fabulously wealthy—but compared to the vast majority of people on the planet, so are we. You remember that passage in the New Testament where John the Baptist tells would-be followers that if they have two coats and they see someone else who has none, they’re to share their extra coat with them? That passage is just as challenging to me as it would have been to the Queen! And loving my enemies and praying for people who hate me is every bit as tough for me as it would have been for her.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he had this to say to them:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13.12b-15)
Jesus calls us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Nowadays, when we use that word ‘love’, we tend to use it to describe an emotion. But it’s often been pointed out that in Jesus’ thinking, ‘loving’ is almost synonymous with ‘serving.’ Humble service to others—like the Good Samaritan, or the Lord washing his disciples’ feet—that’s where the rubber hits the road.
We will all remember the life of Queen Elizabeth II differently, and our opinions of her will no doubt be influenced by our political views. Fair enough. For me, those Christmas messages will be my enduring memory of who she was and what she stood for. No doubt there were times when she struggled to live up to her own convictions—and in recent years, she hinted at those struggles too. But in that, she wasn’t so very different from the rest of us. I’ve learned from Mennonite friends that following the teaching and example of Jesus is the heart of Christian faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I always know the best and wisest way to do it. I’m thankful that, for so many years, the Queen was a fellow-traveller on that road with us. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.