Sunday, 29 January 2012

Candlemas: Growing old gracefully

When anyone asks me how old I am, I usually answer “21 and a bit, and don’t ask about the size of the bit.” I’ll let you into a secret, though, if you promise to keep it to yourselves; I’m actually 51. Now, depending on how old you are, you’ll either be thinking that I am terribly ancient – most children regard anyone above 20 as  over the hill – or you’ll be thinking “she’s no more than a spring chicken – what’s she doing standing up in that pulpit?” It all depends on your point of view.

And of course the number of years we’ve lived doesn’t tell the whole story anyway.
How old do you feel inside?  I’ve met plenty of 70 year olds who still feel 17 to themselves.

Age and aging are complicated. Many people spend their childhoods wishing they were older, and the rest of their lives trying to claw back the years that the locusts have eaten. People go to great lengths to hold back the signs of aging. We know that whether we seem young or old people will make snap judgements about us based on our age. They will assume they know what we like, what we think, how we should behave, but those judgements will often be quite wrong. There’s no fool like an old fool, and some children have old heads on young shoulders.

It was today’s Gospel story which set me thinking about age and our attitudes to it. It tells the story of two very old people – Simeon and Anna – and a very young one, the baby Jesus, just 40 days old, and brought to the Temple by his parents for the rituals prescribed by the law of Moses. Age meets youth; those near the end of their lives meet one who is at the beginning of his. Luke underlines Simeon and Anna’s age. It’s clearly important. But I wondered why, and what it brings to this story that can help us think about ourselves and how we can live well in whatever season of life we are. I’d like to pick up two points that come out of this story for me for us to think about.

The first springs from the sheer unlikeliness of this encounter happening at all. How do Simeon and Anna spot Jesus in the throng of the Temple? How do they know who he is?

The Temple was huge, crowded and noisy. There were animals being sacrificed, people coming and going from all over the world. It wasn’t just a place of worship either, but a forum for debate and discussion about theology and politics too. It was nothing like a church might be today, a place of quiet prayer. This was probably more like Bluewater in the week before Christmas.

And yet in the middle of all this Simeon and Anna spot Jesus, recognise who he is and acclaim him. How? He’s just an ordinary looking baby, with ordinary looking parents, coming to do what was an absolutely ordinary thing at the time, no doubt one among many other families in the Temple. There was nothing special about his appearance; he didn’t glow in the dark, despite what you tend to see on the Christmas cards. I’m sure Mary and Joseph would have been able to pick him out of a line-up, but to everyone else he just looked like another baby.

So what do Simeon and Anna see in him? The answer, according to Luke, is nothing. It is simply that they are in tune with God, open to the prompting of the Spirit. “Guided by the Spirit Simeon came into the temple” we are told, and when Anna turns up on the scene later, she somehow knows exactly who this child is and what he is going to do for Israel as well. We aren’t told how they have felt God’s guidance. Was it a voice that they heard, or just the nagging sensation that something important was happening and that they needed to be paying attention?

Whatever it is, it all sounds a bit strange, but actually I don’t think it is as unusual as we might think. I’ve heard many tales over the years from people who experienced something like this. I recall one woman in a previous parish of mine who popped out to get a pint of milk from the shops one Sunday morning. Her route took her past the church and as she went by she suddenly had an overwhelming urge to go in; there was no reason, no crisis, no gradual build-up of interest. She just couldn’t resist it. In she came, and in she stayed. Something about that moment made it the right moment. She could have easily just told herself to stop being daft, get the milk and go home, but she didn’t; she listened to something beyond her understanding rather than to cold hard reason, and she was very glad of that. We are often rather reluctant to talk about moments like that, worried others might think us foolish. This isn’t how sensible grown-ups behave, we think – there are those assumptions about age-appropriate behaviour again - but it is far more common to feel these unexplained promptings than most people realise, and they can be very important in our lives.

The young bloods in the Temple, those with revolution in their minds and hearts, missed Jesus that day. The mature leaders, the ones in power missed him too. They knew what was what already. Their minds were on their own agendas. But Simeon and Anna were people who had opened themselves to God, opened themselves to mystery, through a lifetime of prayer. They didn’t assume - however long they have lived – that they had seen it all and knew it all, and so they didn’t write off the non-rational, intuitive aspects of life, the wisdom that was beyond their own.

That’s something which comes naturally to very young children. The world is a mysterious place when you are small anyway; you don’t expect it to make much sense. But as we grow we try quite hard to leave that mystery behind us. We are keen to be in control, to understand, to be in the know.  We mistrust anything we can’t explain.  And that can mean that we shut ourselves off to those promptings that come to us from the depths of our own spirit or from God, the things that nudge us in directions we’d never thought of by ourselves. Not so for Simeon and Anna, though, who hold onto that vital gift of childhood, the humility  to realise that they are in the hands of a God who is infinitely greater than they will ever be. As a result each day is a day on which God can surprise them with something new. 

And that brings me on to my second point. Simeon and Anna are ready, quite literally, to embrace God’s new work in the world. Simeon takes Jesus in his arms, and gazes with joy at the face of the future, despite the fact that he knows he won’t see that future come to pass himself. Anna celebrates a redemption that will come long after she is dead. But neither of them seems to mind. They care just as much about the world which their children, grand-children and great- grandchildren will live in as they do about the one they are living in, and they are going to do everything they can, right up to their last breath to encourage the ministry of this child who they know will shape that world.

There’s a phrase I often hear people use, especially if they are not as young as they used to be.  It’s the phrase “in my day”. “In my day people respected each other and the trains ran on time…”  It always fascinates me though, because by definition the people using it are still alive and kicking. Isn’t it still “their day?” And yet, somehow they feel as if they have now become invisible or irrelevant. The real action is all happening somewhere else, and they have no power any more to influence it. I can understand that – we live in a society which often seems to idolise youth - but the truth is that as long as we breathe we have a role in the world, gifts to give, a part to play.

I always rejoice that the Church is one place which is richly gifted with older people. I know people sometimes worry about the age profile of the church nationally, and I am glad that here we also have a very good number of younger folk too, but it is great that there is no retirement age from Christian life. You are as valuable at 99 as you were at 9, or 29. You may have different things to offer, but there is never a point at which you become useless to the Christian community. I recall an elderly woman I knew many years ago. Dora couldn’t get about easily any more. But she could pray, and she did pray, faithfully and often, and because she prayed she noticed, and because she noticed, she cared. As a young and rather exhausted mother , who was evidently on her prayer list, I would be invited around to share tea and scones with her, told to sit in a comfy chair and simply relax – just what I needed!

You never heard any nonsense from Dora about “in her day”. This was her day, just like all the others she had lived, and she was going to do what she could with it. It made all the difference to me. When she died, everyone was aware of what they had lost. I don’t know whether she lamented the things she couldn’t do - if she did she didn’t say so – but I do know that she served God, loved others and was loved by them to the day she died.

How old are you today? The number of candles on the birthday cake can only give us one, rather inadequate answer to that question. The truth is that however many or few days we have lived on the earth, God calls us to be born again on each of them as Simeon and Anna were. Their eyes opened afresh every day to a world of wonders.  And God puts the future into our hands, just as surely as Jesus was put into Simeon’s arms, and calls us to do what we can to make it a good future for whoever inherits it. We may not be able to hold back the tide of time physically, but spiritually it is always “our day” a day to live and to love as God calls us to.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

Epiphany 3: Water, wine and real life

I sometimes wonder, when I stand up here to preach or as we join in prayer together, whether we aren’t getting a bit above ourselves. This isn’t any reflection on you or me, or the sincerity of our faith or our understanding of it. Nor is it just a case of January blues, a wobble in self-confidence in the dark days of winter.
It’s just that sometimes the words we say and the things we talk about in church seem so lofty, so far above the reality of day to day existence that it’s hard to see how they relate to our real lives at all.

Already this morning, for example, we’ve prayed that God would give us “the wonder of his saving presence”. We’ve heard about great heavenly visions and sung about ranks of angels.  It’s stirring stuff but what is it all about in practical terms?
Even when we are talking of earthly matters, praying for the world and its needs, we can sound as if we have a rather inflated idea of our own importance. “Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,” we pray at the end of the service, “so that we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name.” The whole earth? … no pressure there, then! Are we supposed to be getting all that sorted today, or will tomorrow do?

Of course, it is good to have a goal, and to be reminded of it in prayer and song, but the fact is that most of us don’t spend our lives thinking about the redemption of the cosmos. I wonder what was on your mind as you came to church today. Have the children done their homework? When can I squeeze in that shopping trip before we run out of food? I must remember to phone mum to find out what the doctor said? How will I meet that deadline for work?
For me this week has consisted of excitements like writing service sheets, planning the next Messy Church, and wondering what to do about the fact that the oven door won’t close any more…

Even those of you who do genuine life-or-death jobs – nurses, doctors, police officers – probably find that a ridiculous amount of time is spent on things that seem very trivial – box ticking and form-filling and having meetings that don’t really go anywhere. Perhaps it has to be done, but it doesn’t seem like the stuff of divine revelation and cosmic redemption.

That’s why our Gospel reading today is such an important one. It’s a miracle, of course, so not exactly mundane, but it is a miracle which happens in very ordinary circumstances, to very ordinary people, and doesn’t seem to make any real difference to the world in the long run. Indeed most of those present don’t even know it has happened. “The steward tasted the water that had become wine and did not know where it came from” says John. Neither the newly-weds, nor their families, nor the vast majority of the guests have a clue that a miracle has taken place in their midst. If they were aware that there was a problem with the wine they probably just assume someone has found an extra barrel hidden somewhere.

Apart from Jesus and his immediate circle it’s only the servants who know what is going on. “The servants who had drawn the water knew” John tells us. He puts it in brackets. It sounds like an aside, but actually it’s not. It’s one of the most important points in the story because it sets the tone not only for what Jesus does here, but for his whole ministry, which is primarily going to be focussed on people like these servants, the poor and overlooked.

Paintings of this story make this very clear. I’ve put one, by Hieronymus Bosch on the pew leaflets and it is typical. The bride and groom are there, and Mary and Jesus, but it is the servant in the foreground who the artist wants us to notice, the servant who most of the guests ignore as if he is invisible, but who is witnessing a miracle at this very moment as he pours out the wine that shouldn’t be there. God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of time and eternity, the giver of all good things is at work in this wedding, but most people don’t notice, and Jesus doesn’t seem to suggest that they should.

And what is this miracle for? What does it achieve? World peace? The overthrow of Roman rule? No, it just saves a family from the shame of having their wedding go down in village memory as the one where the wine ran out. In the grand scheme of things, to us, to history it doesn’t seem to matter at all. But to that family at that moment it mattered completely. Their happiness, their ability to hold up their heads in front of their neighbours hinged on it.

This miracle is absolutely characteristic of the miracles of the New Testament. In the Old Testament miracles are usually done on a grand scale and a very public stage, in the interests of national survival; the parting of the Red Sea, the Manna in the Wilderness, the fall of Jericho. That’s because the Old Testament was written by and for a nation trying to establish its identity. Its stories are mostly about kings and the prophets who challenge them, wars and alliances, national victories and defeats. There are domestic and small scale stories too, like those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but even then the point is that these are people who become highly significant in the history of the nation.

In the New Testament, though, the focus is completely different. It is written by and for a persecuted minority – the early Christians – a tiny group of people, and one which was disproportionately made up of the poor and powerless, servants and slaves like those at this wedding feast. They weren’t people who thought their lives mattered much and it probably didn’t occur to them that anyone would ever notice them beyond their own immediate sphere. Who would pay attention to people like them? But Jesus’ message, in words and actions, was that whoever you were, you mattered to God and your concerns were his concerns too. Jesus’ miracles are almost all done for people who are anonymous and without influence. A deaf man hears, a blind man sees, a woman with a haemorrhage which has kept her from being part of her society is healed, another who is bent double is enabled to stand upright and talk to her neighbours face to face again. He doesn’t heal the rich and famous so that they will bring their influence to bear on his behalf; he doesn’t provide wine for emperors and kings in the hope that they will support his mission. In fact he doesn’t even meet with or talk to anyone of any status until the last week of his life when he finds himself hauled before the Jewish authorities and the Roman Governor. He heals and helps people because they need it, in the way that they need it. Never mind if they will follow him afterwards. Never mind if they will help to further his wider mission. Never mind if they understand what has happened at all.

There are grand themes in his preaching; the kingdom of God and the healing of humanity, but the emphasis is very much on the way these things grow from small and humble beginnings and are to do with ordinary people and their ordinary lives. A tiny speck of yeast, a mustard seed, a grain of wheat, says Jesus; God’s work in us starts in things as small as this, things you hardly notice at all.

And of course that brings us full circle. I started by asking whether we sometimes get a bit above ourselves in worship, spouting grand ideas about heavenly things which have little to do with our real lives. The answer to that, I’d like to suggest is yes, and no. Of course we are sometimes so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use, but actually heaven is all around us, and in us too. It is there in the stuff of our lives, those mundane worries you brought with you this morning. The small things are the big things. Those apparently trivial concerns – wedding plans, family issues, work dilemmas – are holy places, because they are the things that make a real difference to our lives, and through us affect the lives of others too. They are the places where hurts are healed, relationships repaired, wrongs righted, good foundations laid for the future, and that’s what the kingdom of God is about.

I’d like to finish with a favourite poem by David Scott. It’s called “Letters from Baron Von Hugel to a Niece”. To understand it you need to know that Baron Von Hugel was a very much respected late 19th Century spiritual writer and guide. He is probably best known, though, for a series of letters he wrote to his beloved niece, a young woman who struggled with her health and died young.

His day was not really complete until
he sealed with a gentle middle finger
a letter to his niece, heralding the arrival
of books. It smelt of camphor. The advice
was a comfort to her: “Give up Evensong,
and even if dying never strain.”
It was surprising counsel from one so scrupulous;
whose sharp pencil noted on both margins of a page,
and hovered, like a teacher’s, over spelling.
Walking into Kensington with the letter,
his muffler tight against the frost,
he reassures himself that directing a soul
is not only a matter of angel’s talk, it is
also the knack of catching the evening post.

“Catching the evening post” – a small thing but one which mattered. The small things are the big things, because in them we find God at work. Whatever concerns you  brought to church with you today, if they matter to you they matter to God and if you pay attention to them, who knows, you might find that they are the places where God is turning water into wine in your life, making it rich in love which can overflow to others too.