Christmas Hope

Fr David’s sermon Christmas 2016

“Do not be afraid! For, see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:1-14) – Midnight Mass

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-14) – Day Mass

Two stories:
As Christmas time approached, plans were made for the annual infants’ school nativity play. Children were being assigned their parts: angels, shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph. And then there was Ben. Ben was a rather naughty boy; one of those lads never in the right place at the right time; always with an excuse for work not done; always the one without the right kit when it came to PE. Not the most reliable lad. He waited – then, his joy knew no bounds; as he heard the teacher say, “Ben, I want you to be the Innkeeper.” (Not many lines to learn; only one scene – he would be able to do that.)
The rehearsals got underway with the manger, beards, crowns, and a stage full of squeaky voices. Ben would stand in the wings, watching the performance with fascination. His teacher had to make sure he did not wander on-stage before his cue. Then came the long-awaited night. Ben stood holding a lantern by the door of the Inn, watching as the children who portrayed Mary and Joseph came near him.
“What do you want?” Ben called.

“We seek a room for the night. My wife, Mary is about to give birth to our child. We need a rest and you are our last hope.”
“There is no room in this inn for you!” said Ben on cue.
“Sorry, you will have to go!” the prompter whispered from the side of the stage.
“Sorry, you will have to go!” Ben repeated automatically.
Joseph sadly placed his arms around Mary and Mary laid her head upon her husband’s shoulder, and the two of them started to move away.

Innkeeper, Ben, stood there, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open; his brow creased with concern; his eyes began to fill with tears.
“Don’t go, Joseph!” Ben called. “Bring Mary back! You can have my room!”

Well, they didn’t really need to do the rest of the play. Ben had delivered the best Xmas sermon ever.

A friend of mine who teaches sat James Maddison University in Virginia told me of a nativity play (or pageant) that he saw in the university junior school. Mary and Joseph and all the animals were in place…all carefully rehearsed and dressed in perfectly improvised costumes. They acted their parts with utmost seriousness – looking as pious as they possibly could. And then it came time for the shepherds to enter. In they came in flannel bathrobes and towelled head gear, one carrying a fluffy lamb tucked under his arm; they solemnly approached the platform steps upon which sat Mary and Joseph looking adoringly at the manger full of straw which contained a single light-bulb that was playing the part of the radiant new-born Jesus.
Then quite unexpectedly, one of the shepherds turned to Joseph and said in a loud voice: “Well, Joe, when you gonna pass round them cigars?”

The solemnity of the occasion was blown apart by this ad-libbed remark. Mary and Joseph burst into fits of giggles; the audience couldn’t contain themselves and the chief angel – standing on a stool in the background fell off her stool she was laughing so much, and as she fell she pulled the starry night back drop with her and fell in a heap on the floor. The manger tipped over. But that light bulb in the manger – it never stopped shining!

The light, indeed shines in the darkness. And the nativity of Jesus is more about challenge than charm. Christmas is about an invisible God making himself seen and known to us in vulnerability and love. God gives himself to us in that stable amidst the chaos of poverty and weakness – no power and triumph…just a shivering baby lying amidst the hay and the dung: and there he is for all to see. The all powerful God in human shape.

This is how God is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find… no strength or success as the world understands those things. The mess of the world is redeemed by a love that refuses to take control… to force us or bully us into belief: it is the love of the cradle and the cross. When you are hurting and suffering the pain and cruelty of the world… it is only then, that you can recognise the hurt and suffering of others… it is only then you can hold hands with the vulnerable and walk with them through this world.

So yes… the Christmas story is about chaos and mess – but it is also a story about the need to recognise hope in humility. Humility is a different road to that of the haughtiness of the corrupt which has led to so much hardship in our world. Humility is a different road to that of the arrogance and aggression, which has given rise to a horrible cycle of violence and brutality, which has wounded our cities; our politics; the nations of our this past year. Humility is a different road to that of the indifference and lack of caring which leads to hopelessness.

Having seen the Christ (the chosen one of God), shining as a dependable, defenceless, vulnerable baby in a manger, there is hope for us all. No matter how dark and violent this world may be at times – we know that because of the birth of Jesus; God made flesh and blood for you and me – there will always be hope if we can make room for each other in our own hearts. Do not be afraid – there will always be hope, because there will always be love to give; there will always be love to receive.

The light will always shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

Who is Mary?

Fr David’s Sermon, 4th Sunday of Advent 2016

“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah)

I imagine that you have received a large number of Christmas cards by now. It struck me, looking around at the cards we have received, that there were two cards right next to each other each depicting Mary and Jesus, but in totally different ways.

The first card shows a soft, pale-skinned, blonde Mary, with her hair wound around her head in an elaborate plait – she was gazing lovingly into the eyes of a chubby-cheeked, blue-eyed pale boy. She is elegantly draped in white and blue.

The second card shows Mary as a sharp featured dark-skinned woman, whose eyes looked out beyond the viewer of the picture in an intense gaze: half anxious, half resolved. The Christ child in this picture is also dark-skinned, looking up at his mother with perplexed eyes: “Do you not know I must be about my father’s business?” they seem to say. This Mary wears a coarse dark robe with matching headdress.

If we think how Mary is usually described in our Western world – on most of our Christmas cards, and in our Christmas carols, we see her in blue and white all meek and mild. And that seems to be how we see Mary. She is quiet. She does not make a fuss. She is all gentle smiles and loving and white and blue and blonde (which would have been its own little miracle for a Palestinian Jewish peasant girl of that era!).

There is nothing wrong with meekness and mildness, they are wonderful attributes to have. But we get into trouble if we restrict Mary to the blonde, pale Christmas card image. Because Mary is so important to our faith, because she gets a crucial role in the Gospel narrative; in fact the gospel cannot happen without Mary’s “yes” to God, because Mary is so important, if we restrict her to a quiet – in the corner, pale-ish girl, then that does dangerous things to our faith. Because that is a fairly narrow category to fit into with fairly rigid expectations. While we need people around us who are quiet, who sit in the corner meek and mild, holding up all people of faith to that narrow way of being, ends up excluding a lot of people. It makes Mary seem remote and perhaps unreal.

Most of us are not good at sitting in the corner and being quiet and assenting to things – so what does the pale, blonde blue and white image of Mary tell us we should do? It can make us feel guilty or unworthy, because we are not like that – and yet Mary is held up as the pattern of faithfulness.

It matters how we depict people associated with our faith story. It matters how we depict Mary, and Jesus and Joseph. Because in depicting them we are saying what we think our faith ought to look like. We look up to Mary, because Mary had faith. Mary had faith when she agreed with that outlandish story an angel was telling her. It matters how we see Joseph, who was prepared to go along with that story, because he believed in the importance of doing God’s work over saving his own reputation.

That is why the card depicting the dark-skinned Mary with a resolute, but anguished look in her eyes is, for me, a better depiction of the young woman of faith we call the Mother of God. In that image of Mary, I see the woman who, although she says nothing out loud, in our Gospel reading today – her determination and courage is reflected by Joseph’s response. A young Palestinian woman, of those times, could have been taken and stoned to death on suspicion of adultery. This is the Mary, who said “behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me as you have said.” These are the words of Mary the prophet. Mary has backbone; Mary has courage; Mary has faith! This is the Mary we meet in the Magnificat, the one whose faith speaks of a world where the hungry are fed, the rich sent empty away, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up. This is the Mary who tells those who don’t believe in miracles to “do as he tells you!” This is the Mary, who stands at the foot of the Cross watching her son die in silence, who said “yes” to God, even though she knew a sword would pierce her heart.

Mary has strength, Mary has courage. And that is important. Mary is an icon of our faith and for real faith to make a difference – there has to be strength.

Such faith proclaims that even though the world is broken and unjust now, God is working out a better way. In Mary, we see God calling the unexpected to work with him. And that work is still going on. To answer that call, to be part of God’s plan, to remake the world in a way that is just and reveals God’s love in action – we have to be like Mary. Whether meek and mild; determined and resilient – we have to be brave, we have to be fearless – we have to be prepared to go out into this broken and dangerous world and give God our hands and our feet, our flesh for his use. That is the faith we need; in Mary, that is the example of faith we have. ​Amen.

Advent Sunday

Sermon by Fr David McGladdery 27 Nov 2016

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:1-5)
Take a moment to pause and think: how are you feeling? Seriously – how are you feeling? Deep down, underneath the routine of everyday life: how *are* you? And what do you need? What do you want? What has God given you? What do you want God to give you?

We tend, as human beings, constantly to be striving for some ultimate goal – that state of perfection, which will give us total fulfilment. And as life rolls on, and we grow ever older, we may begin to think that we will never reach where we ought to have reached; there’s no hope; it’s all too late. I guess we are really human “doings” not “human beings” – if only we could *strive* less and simply *be* more. And I don’t mean simply material success or status, but, also, what we might consider to be our spiritual achievements – let’s be honest, the closer we get to following Christ, the greater our awareness of our own imperfections. How can we ever be Christ-like?
But, wait! And waiting is what the church calls us to do in Advent. Wait – consider the readings from Holy Scripture this Sunday. They speak to us of a vision, that in a world filled with impossible and incredible things there still exists the possibility of a good life, a life filled with justice, peace, goodness, wholesomeness, beauty and the things of God. Godliness is possible in a world where it seems to be almost impossible. Jesus urges us to get ready for it.
The prophet Isaiah tells of a vision of God’s kingdom, where effort is expended seeking to grow a world of justice and fairness, where nurture and harvest replaces the struggle for control and supremacy.

Paul says to the fledgling church: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day.” Let’s be attentive – let’s get ready.

But to be attentive, to get ready, is to wait. The gift of Advent gives us the gift of waiting. Not waiting as at a bus stop; but more like a waiter in a restaurant, waiting attentively – watching the tables to see when to attend to the needs of the customers.

A few years ago, there was a reality TV programme with a difference. Five men went to a monastery and five women to a convent for a silent retreat. They came from the busy, professional world of schedules, deadlines, time management… a silent retreat at an enclosed convent and monastery was something they had never ever experienced. After the first few days – after the novelty had worn off – they each found it hard. Hard to sit with themselves in silence, with nothing to distract or divert them. They each found that they had to confront their own selves. No longer could they run away from or ignore who they were. They had to discover themselves for who they really were. They each had a monk or nun to reflect with them, how it was going. One man explained that after a period of frustration and self-criticism, he found himself relaxing; something was growing deep inside him; he felt a freedom; a release. He said: “I can’t explain it.” The monk said to him – “Do you think it could be …God?”

There is a story about a woman from an African village who had to walk many miles each day to collect water for her family. She carried two large buckets on a wooden bar across her shoulders. When she reached the well, she filled up her buckets with water from the well and set off back along the hot dusty road. The journey back always began with difficulty as the buckets were so heavy, filled to the brim with water, but the journey home got easier – simply because the buckets got lighter. They each had cracks in and the water leaked out as she walked home. Her friends who walked with her used to say: “why don’t you get new buckets? you lose half the water you collect every day!” And the woman replied: “Perhaps, one day. But don’t you see what has happened – along the route home, where the water leaks from my buckets, there are lines of grass which has stayed green and even a few flowers appear; that gives me hope; it makes me happy on my journey each day!”

That is the Advent message. We are just like those buckets, imperfect and cracked. But God loves us for who we are. God loves us with all our cracks and imperfections, for all our faults and failings. The cracks, those points of vulnerability, the mistakes we have made, the pain and suffering we may have endured: they are all part of who we are – and because of this, we are beautiful in God’s eyes. We are called to stop; to wait; to be attentive who God has made us to be. To pause and to love who God has made us to be. To wait and to stop being anxious and simply turn and face God, and allow God’s goodness to shine upon us and bathe us in Love. And so with the glory of God’s love shining upon us, we can turn to each other and reflect that love in each other faces. If we can accept each other as God accepts us – in love – then all striving and worrying will cease. Then, we can say with the prophet Isaiah: ‘…come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Amen.