Thursday, November 17, 2016

Accountability and Kindness: Hugh of Lincoln

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hugh of Lincoln

Have I mentioned lately how much I love preaching midweek sermons about the saints? Through their example we have access to the long stretch of history in which Christians have lived out their lives through much work and much suffering. Today we drop into 12th-century England to get to know Hugh of Lincoln, whose call from God was to redirect royal power to the advancement of God’s Kingdom.

Hugh was born into French nobility, so growing up he knew what it meant to have power and privilege. But he learned humility and piety from his father, and he was ordained at the age of 19. Hugh became a Carthusian monk and was appointed as prior of a series of monasteries in France and then England.

When Hugh arrived in England, Henry II was on the throne. You may remember that Henry killed Thomas Becket—murder in the cathedral. As a form of penance, Henry established the Carthusian monastery in Somerset to which Hugh was appointed. But Henry’s remorse knew limits, apparently, because Hugh arrived to find the monks living in tents and the builders not working because the king had not paid them.

Hugh’s first meeting with the king was tense, but Hugh chose his words carefully: “I do not despair of you. I know how much your many occupations interfere with the health of your soul.” Accountability and kindness: the combination of these forces would keep Hugh in relationship with his monarch for many years. Hugh persisted in bothering the king for money until the monastery was finished.

One of Henry’s favorite games was to find legal loopholes and exploit them for his own financial gain. Many English dioceses were without bishops, and it was the king’s job to appoint bishops. But if he didn’t appoint them, he didn’t have to pay them. And there was no law that said he had to rush to appoint important government figures. Why not wait a while? Hugh pestered the king again and again to fill the vacancies, and then he was surprised to find himself elected bishop of Lincoln. Suspicious of the forces behind the vote, Hugh demanded a secure recount—and he still won the election, so he had to serve.

Continuing, then, as a bishop, Hugh did not give special treatment to royal favorites. Henry’s appointed forester in Lincoln had been mistreating the poor, so Hugh excommunicated him. At another time, Henry tried to appoint a totally unqualified buddy to a lucrative clergy post that required Hugh’s approval. Hugh refused, and the king was furious. However, Hugh’s obvious piety and his refusal to give up on King Henry restored their relationship. Hugh's biographer wrote that “of all men only Hugh could bend that rhinoceros to his will.”

After Henry’s death, Hugh also served under Kings Richard and John. During the Third Crusade, armed mobs were ready to attack the prominent Jewish population of Lincoln. Hugh stood up to them and quelled the violence through his authority and his carefully chosen words. Accountability and kindness!

When Richard requested church funds for foreign wars, Hugh flatly refused, creating a crucial legal precedent that would begin to chip away at the power of the crown and would play a role in the creation of the Magna Carta. We could even call it an early example of the intentional separation of church and state. But Hugh’s steadfast kindness to the king made the refusal much easier to take. Richard said, “If all bishops were like my lord of Lincoln, not a prince among us could raise his head against them.”

Hugh served under yet a third king, John. One year on Easter Sunday, Hugh was preaching at length about the duties of kings, and John quietly slipped out of the congregation. Hugh never really managed to get John to warm up to him.

Lord Acton said in the 19th century, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Hugh would have answered that quote with a big “Amen”! The relationship between Hugh and his monarchs, especially Henry, reminds me of the relationship between the prophet Nathan and King David. Hugh taught us much about the art of checks and balances. When powerful people do all they can to shore up more power for themselves, somebody has to stand up to them. But it’s not enough just to be belligerent to them. God wants justice, and God also wants mercy, because only the marriage of these two forces brings about grace and allows love to flourish.

The Letter to Titus gives us some tools for this toolbelt: “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” That can mean something as great as remaining kind to those who don’t deserve it. It can even mean something as simple as posting only from reliable news sources on social media!

So to sum up, what is a Christian’s duty regarding powerful rulers? What are some tips Hugh passes down to us over 800 years of history?
  • Stand up to powerful people who stiff their contractors.
  • Stand up to powerful people who make themselves rich at the expense of the poor, even if they do so legally.
  • Stand up to powerful people who use loopholes to avoid doing their duty.
  • Stand up to powerful people who give authority to the unqualified, the undeserving, and the hateful.
  • Stand up to powerful people whose prejudices enable and encourage bullying and mob violence.
  • Stand up to powerful people who have no qualms about fighting wars with money that could instead help the vulnerable.
  • Speak God’s truth in these matters, even if this causes some people to walk away. You may lose them from your life, but God will never lose them.
  • Finally, don’t give up on powerful people, because God loves them, too. Understand that their many occupations interfere with the health of their souls. Understand that this is true of us as well, and that we all require perpetual training in self-discipline, prayer, and hope.
In our era, we do some of this work with our vote, but it can never stop there. Unlike Henry’s subjects, every one of us has a voice. Use it. When you see these abuses happening in our country, call your senators and representatives. Call and write to the most powerful leaders in our nation, and hold them accountable, with kindness wherever possible. This is work I myself have been doing all week long. Teach our leaders that the people are watching, and that the people will hold them accountable.

And if there is standing up to do, don’t wait to do it. Jesus advises us today on the importance of the present moment: “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” Will you be the faithful and wise servant of God whom God will find at work? When God is the thief who breaks in to steal your heart, will you be ready to stand up to powerful people in God’s name?

The Collect we prayed today for Hugh’s feast advises us to fear nothing but the loss of God. That’s not as easy as it sounds. But with God’s help, we can, like Hugh, exhibit “cheerful boldness” and “commend the discipline of holy life to kings and princes.” Amen.


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