A symbol of something greater

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Sermon for the Memorial for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

September 18th, 2022

She was not my mother, or my grandmother, or an aunt, or a distant cousin, or a relation of any kind. 

She was not a personal friend; I’ve never had tea with her; Never chatted with her by the fireplace. She never invited me into one of her homes, although I have been in almost all of them. 

She was not even an acquaintance. I never got to shake her hand. Never got to meet her or even see her from a distance. The closest I ever got was standing outside the very thick and heavily defended walls of Windsor Castle once when she happened to be at home.

She was not aware of my presence. She did not know my name.

As I am a citizen of the United States, she was not even my Head of State,

But she was my Queen. 

That is why this hurts so much. That is why this loss feels personal; like family. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. As I have watched some of the ceremonial proceedings this week, I have noted the mass outpouring of grief, the tears, the crowds, the flowers, the lines of mourners waiting hours for just a glimpse of that casket draped with the Royal Standard. How many of those people standing in line to see that casket never got the chance to meet or even see the woman inside? But still they waited…for hours, they cried, they mourned, and they all probably felt just a little bit broken inside. Just a little bit lost.

Why?

Because she was their Queen.

Even though they never met her she was a part of their daily lives. Her picture was engraved on the money. Her initials could be found on banners and on post boxes. She was on the television every Christmas. Politicians, musicians, fashion trends, those things all came and went, but the Queen was always there. People around the world, people like myself and I’m guessing many of you here, people are not just mourning a remarkable individual that they never met. They aren’t mourning a celebrity or a political leader; they are mourning their Queen. 

The grief that is being felt isn’t just about the loss of an individual though, remarkable though she may have been; it is about the loss of a symbol. A living symbol.

I could stand up here for hours talking about the unique personal qualities of Elizabeth. Books have been written, and many more will be written, about this remarkable person. News commentators tomorrow will tell you all about the countries she visited, the world leaders she met, and the everyday regular people whose lives she engaged with. They may talk about her personality: her razor-sharp intelligence, her dry sense of humor and her inherent shyness. They may talk about her love of horses and Dubonnet and gin. People may talk about all of the many things that made Elizabeth such a fascinating individual, but none of that will explain the collective grief that is being felt by so many across the world. None of that explains the pain that so many feel on the loss of someone they never met.

It’s because we have lost more than an individual; we have lost a symbol. A symbol of so many things. A symbol of a country, that whether or not we are citizens, many of us dearly love. A symbol of Anglicanism. The most famous Anglican Christian in the world was the Queen, who lived her faith, our faith, quite openly and unapologetically. A symbol of the generation that lived through the war. A symbol of monarchy. A symbol of reserve, of grace, of dignity, of humility. She was a symbol of service and charity. She was a symbol of so many things and now she is the symbol of an era that we all lived through. The funny thing about symbols is that they always point to something greater than themselves, even when the symbol is a living person, even when being a symbol is your job. Elizabeth did that supremely well.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Elizabeth as an individual, her greatest personal strength we might say, and what made her so well suited to her calling in life, was the extent to which she knew, knew, that none of this was actually about her. Elizabeth understood that she was a symbol. She knew that the crown and the palace and the gold carriage and the robes, she knew that all of this stuff wasn’t for her. It wasn’t Elizabeth that was really being celebrated; it was the monarch, the Queen. Elizabeth knew that. Of course, symbols are complicated things, especially when that symbol is a living human being, and people often project onto symbols negative as well as positive things that have nothing to do with the individual. To put it bluntly: you get blamed for things that are not your fault. Elizabeth knew that too. For better or for worse, when you live your life as a symbol of something greater, you have to continually remember that this is not about you. Elizabeth did that. 

I think that we often have some Disney-esque fantasies about what it means to be a King or a Queen. We think of fairytale princesses with fancy dresses and glass slippers, or we think of petty tyrants screaming “off with his head!” whenever their slightest wish isn’t granted. We think of grand ceremonies and throne rooms with people groveling at the monarch’s feet. Elizabeth knew that being the Queen had very little to do with any of that. Her personal wishes and desires were going to be superseded for most of her life. Elizabeth knew that being a symbol was not just about show; it was also a lot of hard work. Countless hours of sitting in her office reading and signing paperwork. Innumerable engagements: sitting with politicians whom she may or may not have liked or agreed with, supporting charities, visiting communities, marking events, and almost all of these things having to happen whether she felt like it or not. Elizabeth knew that her feelings, her opinions, her emotions, her personal likes and dislikes all had to take a back seat in her life, for her entire life, so that she could serve something greater. Her life needed to be about or point to something greater. That is what it means to be a symbol. It means being a part of, or representing something greater than yourself. Something bigger and more important than you. Monarchy, for Elizabeth, wasn’t a fairytale. It wasn’t about glass slippers; it was about sensible shoes. It wasn’t just diamonds and gold. It was endless, literally endless, hard work serving others. That is the opposite of the tyranny that some people imagine monarchy to be. 

You know what tyranny is? Tyranny is being enslaved to one person’s emotions, opinions, and feelings. Tyranny is having your life completely centered upon and controlled by one person. No one else matters. Well I do think we are living in an age of tyranny, only the tyrant that is seeking to control our every thought and action isn’t a king or a queen, or a president or a premier, or a dictator. The most dangerous tyrants we face right now are ourselves. We are living in an age where people have become enslaved to their emotions and their opinions. We are told over and over, in every survey we are sent just how much our opinions and our feelings matter. Every online newspaper article has a comments section underneath, wherein we may share our oh so valuable opinions, regardless of how ill-informed they may be. We feel compelled to offer them more and more and more. Our own individual opinions, emotions and feelings have become so sacred to us that if someone should commit the heresy of having a different opinion, feeling, or emotion we cut them off and cut them down. They are now the enemy of the only person that matters: me. It’s tyranny. We live in an age of tyranny and the tyrant is often staring right back at us from the mirror. Yes, there are still the old-fashioned tyrants in the world that would steal our freedom and our lives, but we will never be able to fight those tyrants if we don’t first learn how to fight these tyrants, the ones inside. 

As our Western culture has been descending into a tyranny of individualism for decades, there all along the way standing in contrast to the culture around her has been a woman who has been the image, or the symbol, of the opposite of all that. Other than laughter and joy, we rarely witnessed her emotions. Her opinions went unshared. Her feelings were usually unknown. She was willing to talk about her faith, because that was bigger than her, but she rarely talked about herself. Week after week she sat down with prime ministers that she may or may not have liked, and listened to policy proposals that she may or may not have agreed with. You can’t do that if you are enslaved by your own feelings and opinions. You can’t really serve others. Elizabeth, in the way she lived her life and conducted herself was a constant reminder that we don’t have to give in to that tyranny. Whoever we are, at whatever station in life we are, we all have the power to live lives that are about more than just ourselves. We all have the power to be a living symbol of something greater. 

That was Elizabeth’s conviction as a public figure and it was her faith as a Christian. As Christians we are a part of something greater than our individual selves. We have a greater calling than just serving our own emotions, opinions and feelings. Like kings and queens, we too are anointed to be a symbol of something bigger. We represent and belong to a kingdom that is in this world, but not of it, and we are called to serve a king who promises us more than just victory on the battlefield, but instead gives us victory over sin and death. Elizabeth was anointed as queen over a very large kingdom, but she always knew that she served a greater king. None of this was about her. Well we serve that king too, and when we gather to mourn a fellow, faithful Christian, whoever it is, it is right for us to remember the hope that we have of that future day when the one true king will raise us up and set us free; even if that tyrant we are being set free from is ourselves. Someday we will know that although we are individually treasured by God, this whole story isn’t about us personally.

In British tradition, the monarch never dies. A king or queen may die, but the symbol of the monarch immediately lives on in the heir, the new King or Queen. It isn’t about an individual person, it is about recognizing that there is always someone greater than yourself to serve. Many people have said that there will never be another like Elizabeth, but I don’t think that that truly honors her legacy and the way she lived her life. She was a unique individual, but that wasn’t important to her. Her life wasn’t about her. What was important to her was being a symbol of something greater. That is why we have come together to mourn a woman that we never met. Because she wasn’t just a woman. She was something greater. She was our Queen.

She is gone. The Queen is dead. But the role she served, the living symbol lives on, just like she always knew it would. God save the King.