Today we have a story – a story of hesitating and holding and humanity...
|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Human beings need to sing and dance and feast – and tell stories. This is one reason COVID-19 times have been so hard for us. It is natural for us as a species to gather for ceremony and to share the stories that shape our lives and give them meaning and purpose.
Today we have a story – a story of hesitating and holding and humanity...
John the Baptist is an angel. This is explicit in the biblical text, where Mark writes of them, quoting Isaiah, “behold I send my messenger ahead of you” – and the word used for messenger (as everywhere in the Greek text) is angelos - angel! John the Baptist probably does not fit the picture we have of an angel – no wings, no obvious glowing light, no message of peace. But he’s an angel. He’s pretty unmissable – wild, eccentric to say the least, and certainly not welcome at the average family tea table. As Jo has written in her brief Biblical commentaries in Insights for this season, “If he was a toddler someone might suggest his emotions were disregulated by his diet and he needed to calm down and get a good night’s sleep! Yet, his prophetic voice is one we cannot ignore. He reminds us that there is always a place for righteous anger and that sometimes the new and better requires actions of clearing and letting go that can be painful and disturbing to some. His voice acts as corrective to tendencies in some Christian circles to associate the gospel with niceness or respectability. John was not respectable. But his message was essential.” His was the message of a disturbing angel calling us to change.
Today I would like to introduce you to an old friend. Do you like their orange flowery skin and scrunched up green and other patterned ears? I call them Angell – with a double ‘l’. They come from my first year at theological college, in some of the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher’s time as UK Prime Minister. For I brought Angell home from a church fête stall during a formation placement. This was in Brixton, the scene of two (in)famous ‘uprisings’, or riots – depending on your outlook – led by Black British people. The immediate cause of the first of these, in 1981, was a response to extraordinary ‘stop and search’ laws and police brutality. Tensions were particularly high after a suspicious fire in which 13 black teenagers and adults had died. The final straw was the so-called Operation Swamp 81, named after Mrs Thatcher’ speech in which she claimed the UK ‘might be swamped by people of a different culture.’ The 1981 Brixton Riots lasted for three days. They triggered similar ‘uprisings’ across Britain’s inner-cities, and led to the landmark Scarman Report, which began the long journey of addressing racial injustice and police reform in the UK. It was fuelled by a powerful cocktail of poverty and deprivations of many kinds, as well as race. In Brixton, the large African Caribbean population were at the centre. And it is out of this background that Angell comes, so called after Angell Town, a particularly challenged and challenging housing estate, after which the Church of England parish was named. So Angell reminds me always, both of the very real violence involved in today’s Gospel in the Temptations of Christ, and of the continuing struggles for what Martin Luther King called ‘the beloved community’…
Little Johnny was upset. He really wanted the part of Joseph in the school nativity play, but the teacher had given the part to Stephen instead. Johnny was given the role of the innkeeper. All he had to say was, “There’s no room in my inn. But you can have the stable round the back if you like.” Over the weeks of rehearsals, Johnny plotted his revenge. The day of the play came, and Stephen in his role as Joseph knocked on the door of the inn. When Johnny as innkeeper opened the door, Joseph asked, ‘Have you a room for us? My wife is about to have a baby and is very tired.” Johnny beamed and replied, “Of course, come right along in, I’ll get the best bed made up!” ……………But Joseph was not to be put off. With great presence of mind, he looked through the doorway, and turned back holding his nose announcing, “This place is not fit for my wife. We’ll go round the back and sleep in the stable!”
We all know the stories of the inn, the inn keeper and the stable. People have been having fun with them, elaborating them and generally using their imaginations for centuries, certainly since the medieval mystery plays gave a starring comic role to the inn keeper. But the truth is that none of them is actually in the Biblical narrative – itself an imaginative tour de force – or at least the inn might be there, but probably not really.
Have you ever thought about how truly ‘queer’ in the best sense, Christmas is? Angels and shepherds, wise people of dodgy backgrounds with very odd gifts; a baby (but apparently one that according to the carol doesn’t cry!) and an unmarried mum giving birth in a hay barn – to say nothing of God sprinkling glitter across the sky in the form of stars and skies full of glory. It is all frankly very surprising, and really a bit queer.
And this is the point isn’t it? - that God, God always does the surprising thing, not the boring thing! God always turns the world upside down and showers blessings in unexpected places. God makes Godself flesh, incarnate, in some very unlikely ways.
The first Christmas sermon I preached here in Toowoomba empolyed words of a great poet songwriter singer: Leonard Cohen who, sadly for us, died recently. Let me then preach my final Christmas sermon here with reference to the words of another great poetic songwriter singer: Bob Dylan, who was recently awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. For like Leonard Cohen, Dylan’s lyrics have typically been grounded in a relationship to existence which we can call religious, in the very best sense of that word: namely a relationship which is not always conventional, and certainly not ‘churchy’, but which is always seeking to connect with the deepest ground of our being. It is from this place that we find our truest meaning, both for our individual lives and for our families, communities and wider world. For, in Dylan’s words which take us to the heart of the feast of Christ’s nativity, whoever ‘is not busy being born is busy dying.’ In the nativity we see the ultimate meaning, source and purpose of life. We are invited to share that light and love, by allowing it to be born more fully in us and the world around us…
Joseph has a problem! Mary's pregnant and the baby is not his. It is not exactly a unique problem. This is the kind of scrape that appears somewhere in most people's family history, no matter how much pontificating and covering up goes on. I am sure we all have tales we could tell of the judgments that family members make of one another, and of the harshness of some 'good Christians'...
‘The difference’, said Anna, ‘between a person and an angel is easy. Most of an angel is in the inside and most of a person is on the outside.’
That is just one of the wonderful words of wisdom in the marvellous little book ‘Mister God, This is Anna’. Do you know it? It is a wonderful read. Published in 1970, we now know it to have been written by Syd Hopkins, a man who grew up in the poverty of the pre-second world war East End of London and who suffered physically and mentally for many years. Out of his experiences and reflections, he created a moving story which touches heart, mind and spirit. For, in brief, Mister God, This is Anna tells of the encounter of Fynn, the 19 year old author, with the five-year old Anna, a homeless waif. The book describes the bewitching thoughts, discoveries, analysis, and poetry of little Anna’s beautiful mind. Wise beyond her years, Anna has a special connection and relationship with her dear “Mister God” and God’s enchanting world, and she happily leads Fynn through a whirlwind of wonder and insight.
‘The difference’, said Anna, ‘between a person and an angel is easy. Most of an angel is in the inside and most of a person is on the outside.’ What is the child Anna saying to us, do you think?
Questioned by Fynn, she explains. There is a wholeness to angels: they are full of all the stuff angels are supposed to be full of: light and love and peace. Human beings however tend to be full of all kinds of holes. Some of these holes have names. The holes might be something like: a new dress, game, or car; a new house, job, or holiday; another drink, or drug; whatever it is that we happen to long for. Such things are outside ourselves. Whilst we think about, and give ourselves to them, most of our being is therefore outside ourselves. We are not full like angels. We are walking about with huge parts of ourselves missing. For, of course, even if we were to have the things which leave holes in us, we would still have other holes. For things, in themselves, cannot fill us up, like angels, with the life and light and joy which truly makes us whole...