Sermon preached at Midnight Mass

Inevitably I think the end of 2016 will be thought about the end of all kinds of things. Post Brexit. Post Trump. Post truth.

It is as though we have reached the end of something and don’t know what’s coming next.

Time in the secular world stretches straight out in front of us. Time in the spiritual realm bends always towards justice.

But time in the liturgy just keeps on going round and round.

And so the liturgy reminds us of truths that we would otherwise miss.

Post referendum. Post US election. Post facts. And post certainty.

But in the beginning was the Word.

The liturgy brings us right round to what comes at the beginning, that which is foundational for us, that which cannot be argued with because it has always been so and always will be so.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.

A very great deal has been written about the effect of Jesus’s life and of course his death. People have debated, argued, even warred with one another about quite what difference it made that he came and lived and died.

But before that, is something that we should not simply pass us by just because we hear it on a dark, cold wintery night.

In the beginning. Before disagreement, before war, before strife, there was God.

And God looked at this world and loved it and wanted to be part of it.

Before the world began, this much was true – that God was there and God had compassion and God was love.

Before the world began, before not only our present darkness but before all darknesses, God was there and God brought life and light and truth.

Every year I wonder how to see something new to preach on for Christmas. Every year I wonder how to see something fresh in the story itself.

This year a friend told me a few months ago that his mother (whom I don’t know) was knitting me something.

Not a Christmas jumper or a Christmas hat. But the Christmas story itself.

I was presented with a whole crib scene made of knitting figures for the church. A knitted Mary, a knitted Joseph, knitted Magi and shepherds and sheep. And yes, a knitted Jesus.

It is a work of art, and I’ve no doubt a work of love too. You don’t put that kind of work into something like that for someone you don’t know without a lot of kindness in your heart.

And they sit here in church this year with an invitation to the children and everyone who is young at heart, to meet the characters afresh (even the sheep). I’m encouraging the children (and whoever wants to) to take up the characters and to think about what is represented there.

To take up Mary and ponder what it mean to bring to birth the creator of the universe who already loved us.

To take up Joseph and wonder what was going through his head as he stood by Mary. The love of the one who already loved us is known through such human kindness.

To take up the shepherds and encounter those whom the world might least expect to receive a revelation from an angel. Whom do you encounter whom you find it difficult to believe God would be bothered with. Trust me on this one, God is way ahead of you whoever it is. For God has already loved them since before forever.

To take up the strange Magi, knitted robes and knitted beards and knitted gifts and all and reflect on the fact that God’s love seems to extend to the kosher and non kosher worshippers alike. And to know that those outside our own definitions of belonging are already known and loved by God anyway.

To take up and cradle in the palm of your hand the Christ child who once cradled the dawn of time in his.

For in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.

Every year I wonder how to say something new about the Christmas story.

Every year, I eventually come to the conclusion that the only thing to do is to let the original story stand on its own two feet.

For in the beginning God was. In the beginning God came. In the beginning God loved.

And we are who we are because of it.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Not post glory. Not post grace. Not post truth.

The real thing.

Born amongst us. Born this night. Born in our hearts.

And with us, God with us, as time began.

And with us, God with us, as a baby was born.

And with us, God with us, right here and right now.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

Nuns, knitting and why prayer is like a Carry On film

Sermon preached on 24 July 2016


I had a cup of tea beside me as I tried to pretend to read a very worthy book about prayer than had been recommended for me by a Franciscan friar.

I still have the book and I’ve still not finished it even now nearly 25 years later.

I’d come to this monastic house for a quiet weekend praying and thinking about my soul and my vocation and generally trying to be holy.

And I was joined in the sitting room by a couple of members of the community – two religious sisters.

This was an unusual religious house in that it was a small community of men and women living together.

And the women were not Sisters of the Great Veil and Wimple but your more modern nuns who wander this world in the camouflage of ordinary dress. And a great bunch of women they were too doing no end of good in this world.

The two religious sisters came into sitting room and asked me whether they could join me.

I said, of course. And they immediately put on the television and both sat down and got out their knitting.

I with my book about prayer.

They with their knitting and a Carry On film on the television.

Now, for those who were not raised on these shores, a Carry On film probably requires some explanation. A series of films that were sexist, bawdy, outrageous and very occasionally very funny. (Though rarely as funny as they ought to have been). They were a product of their time and their time is now long past. In these more sophisticated days they seem rather absurd – though of course it was the absurd that they very successfully satirised for decades.

So I sat turning the pages of my devout book about prayer.

Kenneth Williams’s nasal voice delivered one liner after one liner on the television.

And the nuns knitted on as only religious people can do.

Knit one unto another. Perl one unto another. And then from time to time, a barely suppressed snigger.

After a while, one of the nuns turned to the other and said thoughtfully, “Hmmm. You know what?”

“What?” said the other clicking her needles.

“This is just like being nuns”.

“Hmmm yes,” said her sister, “just like being nuns…apart from the Carry On film”

“Hmm” said the first.

And then they both looked across at me with my pious book of the history of prayer in the lives of the early fathers of the church and both burst into fits of giggles.

“Lord teach us how to pray” said the disciples to Jesus.

What have I learned about prayer that has sustained me through my ministry since the time I was describing just before I tested my vocation again and entered into training for the ministry?

If anything I think I have learned that prayer is a response, curiously like a carry on film, to a world that is quite utterly absurd.

I had a day of it this week when I was trying to take a funeral service and set off boldly for a Crematorium that I’d never been to before in the full but utterly mistaken belief that I could navigate the shape-shifting roads of the south-side of this city.

I couldn’t, of course. (Who can?)

And ended up rolling into the Crematorium after everyone else had got there apologising having taken a wrong turn.

“Don’t worry” some of the mourners said to me – “we’ve just got here too. We nearly went to the wrong funeral. We discovered at the last minute we were following the wrong hearse.”

Lord, how shall we pray in this complex, absurd, frightening but also very peculiar world?

I rather fear that the disciples might well have been rather serious young men like the person I was in the convent sitting room.

And Luke’s gospel records two very different answers – firstly the Lord’s prayer that we know so well. A model for how to pray that undermines any attempt to learn to pray intercessions amongst the Christian community by its brevity and profundity.

Short, simple and holy.

And then this business of asking, seeking and knocking.

When I was younger and found myself in many a worthy evangelical prayer meeting, we used to think that this all meant that we had to be more sincere in our prayer, more earnest in our prayer, more devout, more pious and very often more lengthy in our prayers and that if we got it right, God would give us what we asked for.

Because the bible told us so.

But the truth is, this gospel doesn’t tell us that the more we pray the more we get what we ask for.

It tells us that the more we pray, the more we get the Holy Spirit. Which is another matter altogether.

Jesus presumes in fact that the disciples will ask, not for what they want, but for the Holy Spirit.

And that means the Holy Spirit of God.
The Holy Spirit of Common Sense.
The Holy Spirit of Wisdom.

…whom God’s people have known of old, who dances with us through the absurd world in which we live and inspires us, cajoles us and in the most unlikeliest of situations can make us laugh or dance or sing.

Even when hearts are breaking. For we believe in resurrection not once but everywhere.

What have I learned about prayer? I think I have learned that it is more likely that we are the answer to God’s prayers for a grieving and needy world. That seems much more likely than that God will simply do what we ask like a cosmic magician.

Prayers are not spells nor tricks nor illusions.

And I think I learned something important from the religious sisters – that a life of prayer isn’t supposed to make us po-faced over our knitting. Just the opposite in fact.

When we pray the holy spirit comes to us and can teach us not only how to pray but how to answer prayer also.

I know that people are asking how to pray in the face of terrible events. Shootings and terrorism are real and people find praying hard.

It is important to find ways to mark the moments of tragedy – to pause, to reflect, to remember.

But it is only a pause.

We get up again and we turn and face a world and we work, we reflect, we organise to make it a better world tomorrow than it was yesterday.

And that’s part of the prayer that Jesus taught us.

When we pray an amen to a prayer that God’s Kingdom will come we give our assent to help in making it so.

Remember at this time that European cities are safer than they have been in decades. Our own city particularly so.

Deaths on our streets have sharply declined.

There was a time when we might well have been praying about gang violence in our city that was taking so many young lives.

Those deaths are becoming far less common because God has answered those prayers.

Those deaths have become far less common because people, real people have worked, reflected and organised to make things different.

That’s how answers to prayer come.

Pray we will, in the face of terror on city streets.

Pray we must. in the face of the absurdities of this world.

But to pray is to know that there is work to be done. And joy to be found in doing it.

Lord, said the disciples, Lord, teach us to pray.

Amen.