Sunday, 26 January 2014

Epiphany 3: The people who sat in darkness

The woman and child whose faces look out at us from the picture I’ve printed on your pew leaflets today are a familiar sight. They are refugees from the civil war in Syria, and we’ve seen many more like them in recent months.  The mother’s name is Bushra and she arrived at camp run by UNHCR sometime last year. She’d escaped Syria in the middle of the night with her son and when she crossed the border and saw the sign saying she’d arrived in Lebanon she was immensely relieved. "I realized that we had escaped death." As it turned out, she was the millionth refugee to register at the camp, which is why she is holding up the sign – one in a million.

The scale of the problem is vast, but Bushra’s sign reminds us that each of those refugees is an individual, with their own story to tell.  Bushra’s story, to judge by her words, is a story of hope despite the hardships of the refugee camp. Coming over the border was an escape from death for her, a new beginning. Who knows what the future holds, but as far as she is concerned, it is a cause for rejoicing that there still is a future. 

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” When Matthew quotes Isaiah’s words at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry, he is talking about the same sort of experience; the dawn of hope in a time of despair. As it happens he is talking about the very same region that Bushra lives in too.  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.” If you look at the map I have given you, it is the area at the top he’s talking about. Frontiers have moved to and fro over the centuries, but today these are the borderland areas of northern Israel, Southern Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. It’s a region which was fought over often in ancient times, just as it is now, a place where people have often “sat in darkness”, the darkness of conflict and occupation.

That’s no surprise. Many ancient trade routes passed through it – from Asia to the seaports of Tyre and Sidon, and the north/south route between Europe and North Africa. Every empire in the ancient world wanted to get their hands on this gateway. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome had overrun it in turn. In Jesus’ time many Roman soldiers were garrisoned in the area, and the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee were home to many Greek speakers living in the ten towns – the Decapolis – founded by Alexander the Great. The Jewish people called this area Galilee of the Gentiles, or Galilee of the Nations, because that is what you’d find there, all nations, all cultures, the influences of many religions.

So it was the last place many observant Jews thought the Messiah would come from. Surely he would come from Jerusalem, from among the Temple hierarchy, from the heartlands of their faith, not from up there on the borders. The fact that Jesus came from Galilee and conducted most of his ministry there was a problem for them.

In today’s Gospel we see the very start of that ministry, as he calls the first of his followers, and that raised another problem. Peter Andrew, James and John were fishermen, people with no real religious training, just ordinary working men, who up until then didn’t seem to have had any more interest in spiritual things than the next person. As far as we can see their priority was making ends meet, staying out of the way of the Romans, and minding their own business.

So why does Jesus call them to follow him and eventually to become leaders of the church?  What qualifications do they have? What special aptitude?
None, so far as we can see.
And those Jesus goes on to call are even stranger; people like Matthew, the tax-collector – tax-collectors were regarded as Roman collaborators - Simon the Zealot, a member of a fanatical political movement who would have to give up violence to follow Jesus. There were women too – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and Martha of Bethany – women who  followed Jesus right till the end and were entrusted with the news of his resurrection before any of their male colleagues. Why choose women in an age when their words counted for very little? No respectable rabbi would behave like this.

Matthew is telling us that in Jesus we see an unlikely Messiah, from an unlikely part of the country, with unlikely followers. The whole thing should be sunk before it starts. If Jesus were to pitch his project – the building of the Kingdom of God – to some first century Dragon’s Den, he’d have no chance of getting it funded. What was he thinking of?

The answer is that he was thinking of the ways of his Father, a God who had always had given special honour to those who were overlooked, vulnerable, battered by life.  He was thinking of the ways of a God who stuck with his people when things went wrong, who rescued them from slavery and brought them back from exile. He was thinking of the ways of a God who had a habit of choosing the least likely people to do his work; the little shepherd boy, David, who defeated Goliath, or Moses, the stammering runaway murderer, who confronted Pharaoh, or Ruth, the foreign widow who became mother to a dynasty of rulers. The Bible is full God’s strange decisions to choose the weak, the shamed, the outsider to do his work. There turns out to be sense in it though, because these people, who know what it is like to “sit in darkness”, are usually the ones who rejoice most in the light when it eventually dawns.

It seems to me that the message of today’s Gospel can be summed up in two questions.
The first is “What? – here?” and the second is “Who?– me?)

 “What? - here?” asked those who first knew Jesus.  “God at work in Galilee? How can that be? Here, in this unholy, mixed-up, frontier land where there are Gentiles around every corner? Here, where any day an army might march in and turn us out of our homes? Here, in this land of deep darkness?”

Yes, say the Gospels – right here.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” not in the hallowed confines of the Temple, but in the ordinary villages of Galilee, in its leper colonies, among its prostitutes, in the graveyards of a Greek speaking Decapolis town, where a man who called himself Legion was chained up because of the demons that possessed him, as unclean a setting as it was possible to imagine. And ultimately, of course - yes, God dwelt among us in a man hanging on a cross outside Jerusalem.

Those who first knew Jesus asked,  “What – here – in Galilee?”, but it is a question that we often ask too. “What? Here? In our own lives and communities?. Are you sure?”  
“Yes” is the answer. And not just in church on a Sunday or in the beauty of a sunset but in the mess of a relationship that’s  breaking down, or in a business that’s failing, or in the shame of a sin we never thought we were capable of committing, or in the grotty torrent of painful memories we wish we could forget but somehow can’t. “What – here? Can God be at work in these things?” Yes, say the Gospels– here most of all, when we find that we are “the people who sit in deep darkness.”

And the answer to the second question “Who? Me?” is just the same. Just as those first disciples couldn’t really take in that God was calling them, we often struggle with that idea too.

Our first calling, like theirs, is simply to follow – to learn, to grow. That may be something you’ve been doing all your life, but for many that call comes later, and perhaps it’s a surprise. The call to follow can come through a chance conversation, a strange coincidence, an act of kindness which makes you curious, or a tough time that makes you realise you can’t do this thing called life on your own anymore. “Who? Me?” we ask – “I never thought religion was my thing at all.”

But the call to follow isn’t the end of it, because following Jesus inevitably leads to service too. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people…” says Jesus. I don’t much like this imagery, frankly. It sounds a bit predatory, as if we are going to haul people in and serve them up with a side order of chips… But we get what Jesus is saying. We aren’t just called to receive his light, to bask in its nice warm glow for our own sake; we are called to pass it on to others too.

“Who – me?” we ask.” But I don’t know enough. I’m not strong enough, or young enough, or old enough to be any use to anyone… “ Yes, you”  says God. “If fishermen and tax-collectors and prostitutes can be channels of God’s love in the world, why not you?”  Just as we needed people to open the door for us so we could see God’s presence, so we need to open the door for others as well. If we were hungry for the gifts that we have found here, a sense of community , a sense of peace, of assurance, of challenge , then surely others are hungry for them too, and who will invite them to find those gifts if we don’t. Each of us is called in different ways, for different tasks, but each us is called.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”. People have seen that light in the person of Jesus as he taught and healed in Galilee of the Gentiles. They have seen it in the welcome and safety of refugee camps as they fled from conflict. And they see it , too, in the day to day acts of kindness, and  community involvement of ordinary people like you and me as we respond to God’s call to us to follow, to love and to serve.
“What  - here?
“Yes, here”
Who – me?”
Yes, you” says God.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Baptism of Christ: Not waving but drowning

Today we celebrate the story of the Baptism of Christ in the waters of the river Jordan, and it is a very appropriate moment to do so, because the news right now seems to be dominated by water. If it isn’t pouring from the skies it is crashing over sea walls, or rushing down swollen rivers, or seeping across flood plains and up into through the floorboards of vulnerable houses. Floodwaters have claimed several lives, and caused a great deal of misery. I am sure there are many in the UK this week who would be quite happy never to have to see or think about water again.
Of course that’s not possible though, because water is essential to life. It’s just as much a problem when we haven’t got enough as when we’ve got too much. Whatever  those who’ve been flooded out might feel at the moment, we all know we can’t do without water.

That is probably why water is so often used in religious practices. Hindus immerse themselves in the Ganges, Muslims ritually wash before worship, and the ancient inhabitants of this land threw offerings into sacred springs, a custom that lingers in the habit of throwing coins into wishing wells and fountains. For Christians, of course, water is mainly associated with the rite of baptism, but what is it we are doing when we baptise a child or an adult? What is it about? What is it for? What is it meant to achieve?

The truth is that if you ask any two Christians you’ll get at least three answers to those questions. Baptism can be about belonging, forgiveness, thanksgiving, naming, the washing away of sin, initiation into a new way of life and a new community, or just a jolly family gathering, and a host of other things as well. The meaning of baptism is as hard to pin down as the water we use to do it. There’s been a bit of debate in the press this week about baptism – you may have seen accusations that the Church of England is dumbing down the baptism service. Actually it is just a small trial of some alternative wording which might become available to use in parts of the service if it seems appropriate. We nearly always use an existing alternative set of words for the promises of parents and godparents anyway, as do many churches, so it really is a complete storm in a teacup, but what was clear from the debate is that even within the same denomination, people’s ideas about what baptism is, and what it’s for, vary wildly.

And there’s nothing new about that sense that baptism can have many meanings . Christians have always done baptisms; Jesus told his first disciples to go out into the world and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and they took him at his word. But today’s Gospel story of Jesus’ own baptism is an illustration of the confusion that has often surrounded this rite. John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus hints that even in the earliest days of the Church people weren’t sure what to make of baptism. Why does Jesus insist on being baptised? Surely he doesn’t need a baptism of repentance?

The awkwardness around this story is a sign, oddly, that points to its authenticity – that it really did happen. You don’t invent stories which you will then have a hard time explaining.  And that authenticity is supported by the fact that this story comes in all four Gospels, which is quite unusual. The only other stories that appear in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the cleansing of the Temple, the feeding of the 5000 and the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So, the evidence suggests that Jesus really did come to John for baptism, but why? People quite reasonably assumed that God's Messiah, his chosen one, would be someone who was already walking in the way of God, someone who , in Isaiah's words, was already full of God's spirit, faithfully bringing forth justice, caring for the bruised reeds and the flickering lights, the vulnerable and the broken . Jesus seemed to his first followers to fit that bill. So what could he possibly have to repent of?

The idea that he was totally sinless – sinless in his essence, right from conception - is really a later development in Christian thought, but even at this early stage it clearly felt wrong to those who wrote the Gospels that Jesus should have asked for baptism. All four Gospels record John’s uneasiness, which reflects their own sense that there is something rather puzzling  - perhaps a bit embarrassing - about this incident.

Jesus words don’t really make things much clearer.
 “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”  What’s that supposed to mean? Commentators have argued endlessly about it, without coming to any real conclusions, so I don’t suppose I will get it all sorted out this morning either. But at the very least, it is clear that Jesus is insisting that this is something that he has to do, just as he later insisted that he had to wash his disciples’ feet and, of course, die a shameful and apparently pointless death on the cross, things his followers also found baffling. Going down into the waters of the river Jordan somehow sits alongside those other moments of humiliation, moments when Jesus could have turned away, retreated, left it to someone else, taken the safe, easy route, but chose not to. It was that determination which gave his message and his ministry such power to help and to save, because in sticking with it, and sticking with us, he came to where we are, lived as we live and died as we die, enduring all those inescapable realities of loss, sorrow and fear that are part of every human life.

As those who have been flooded can testify, there’s nothing like water to remind us of how little we are really able to control the world. Water exists on its own terms, not on ours; it flows where it wants to. Sometimes we manage to tame it and it appears friendly and safe – a tranquil pool, a gentle, refreshing stream - but as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it can also be wild and dangerous; crashing waves, engulfing floods, roaring torrents. Water is such a powerful symbol of life because, just like life, it can bring delight or disaster.

The message of Jesus’ baptism is that whatever life brings – calm water or floods - he is in those waters with us, immersed in it, drowning in it. He is in them symbolically at his baptism, but he is in them for real as he hangs on the cross and goes through the “deep waters of death” as the prayer of blessing over the waters of baptism puts it. We don’t usually baptise by total immersion, as some churches do but the symbolism is still there in our liturgy.

When we baptise people - children or adults - one of the things we are assuring them of is that God is with them not only in the good times, when all is going well, but in the moments when they realise they are all at sea, out of their depths, “not waving, but drowning” as the poet Stevie Smith put it. When the waters are closing over our heads, when we feel like we are sinking without trace, we are not alone – Jesus goes down to the depths with us. He doesn’t just sit safely on dry land, shouting to us to pull ourselves together and swim harder. He doesn’t just throw us a line and hope we might manage to catch hold of it. He jumps into the water with us and stays with us until we finally come to land on the other side, whether that is in this world or the world to come. That is good news, powerful news – far better than him just being just some kind of super-hero, whom death and failure can’t touch.

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters,” said our Psalm this morning, “the God of glory thunders, the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” God speaks to us not just from the triumphant halls of heaven, but in the murky depths of the floods that sweep us away. And the message that voice proclaims is the one which Jesus embodied and lived out - in his baptism, in his ministry, in his death and resurrection. It is the message that’s there in the title the Gospel writers give him at his birth; Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The crib of Bo Bossu

A story for Christmas day - my own re-telling of a traditional Breton tale.

There was once an orphan boy called Bo, who lived in St Malo, on the Northern coast of Brittany. He’d been abandoned as a baby, and brought up by an old shipbuilder, who took him on as his apprentice as soon as Bo could hold a hammer and chisel. He wasn’t a kind or generous employer though, and made Bo sleep in a shed on a straw mattress. Often he went hungry and when the winter came he was always cold.  

As Bo had grown up, it was clear that all was not well with him. His back was twisted and bent, and Bo couldn’t run like the other boys. People can be cruel and often they would laugh at Bo and bully him. They called him Bo Bossu, Bo the hunchback and no one wanted to be his friend
Despite this, Bo turned out to be very skilful with his hands. By the time he was a teenager no one could carve like him. He was especially good at carving the great curved prows of ships with their elaborate figureheads.

Bo took pride in his work, but he was often lonely, but he took great comfort in visiting the great granite cathedral of St Malo, and he was often to be found there, sitting in the stillness, or praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary. She was his mother, and Jesus was his brother, and when he was there he felt at home, knowing he was loved and welcomed by God.

One day as he knelt praying, he had an idea. Every Christmas in the Cathedral they would set up  a big nativity scene, with carved figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, oxen and donkeys, and in the centre, the baby Jesus, lying in his manger crib in the stable. A curtain would hang across the stable, and as the service started it would be pulled aside to reveal the scene.  . But it had always seemed to Bo that the crib in which they laid the child was a poor, rough thing. It looked odd and out of place amid all the other fine carving. So Bo decided he would make a new crib for Jesus – it would be a secret from everyone else. His gift to Mary and Jesus. He decided that he would make it in the shape of a little ship, and on each end he would make a curved prow, adorned with an angel.
He looked up at the statue of Mary and made a solemn promise to her that the coming Christmas he would give her a beautiful crib for her son to sleep in.

He went home full of joy and began collecting little off cuts of wood, which he hid under his straw mattress.  Whenever he had a spare moment he would work on the crib and gradually it began to take shape. It was slow work though, because Bo was kept very busy, making ships for his master. He would rise early in the morning to work on it, and carry on after work as long as there was any light to see by.
picture by William Stobbs

It got to the week before Christmas and still the crib wasn’t quite finished, but Bo worked on, determined to keep his promise to the Virgin Mary. But then disaster struck. An order came in for a new ship for the fishing fleet of a wealthy local man. He wanted it ready as soon as possible, so it could sail with the rest of his ships in the New Year. Everyone in the shipyard was ordered to work all the hours there were to get it ready, and by the time their daily work was finished, there was no daylight left for Bo to work on the crib, even if there had been light, he was so tired that he would fall exhausted onto his straw mattress straightaway. 

Christmas Eve came and still Bo hadn’t finished the crib. At the end of the day, the other apprentices has gone to prepare for the feast of Christmas, but Bo sat alone in his shed. He looked sadly at the crib. There was no way he could get it finished now. All it needed was some work on one of the angels and to be smoothed and polished, but he knew he could not do the work in time, and there was no light left to work by. Bo felt the tears come to his eyes and fall on the rough wood. “Holy Mother “ he cried, “ I so wanted to give you this gift, but I have done what I can, and it isn’t enough, and I can do no more!” But then he heard a voice.

“Bo, can I help to finish the crib?” Bo lifted his head, and there, standing beside the little ship was a boy around his own age, a boy with a kind face who looked strangely familiar, and yet Bo was sure he’d never met him before.
“You are tired, Bo.” said the boy, “Give me the chisel and I will finish it for you.”
“Can you carve?” asked Bo. “And will you have enough light to see by?”
“Oh, yes, I am apprentice carpenter too, just like you, “ he said, “ I work for my father, and I will have plenty enough light.” And it did seem to Bo that there was a light around him, though he couldn’t see where it came from.
So Bo handed him his chisel, and lay down, intending to take just a short nap.

When he woke up, though, it was morning, full daylight, and the cathedral bells were already ringing to announce that worship would soon begin.
Bo sat up with a start. He would be too late after all. And what about the crib? Surely it could not be finished. But there it stood, with the boy carpenter standing beside it, smiling at Bo. And it was beautiful. Somehow the angels on its curved ends almost seemed to be singing for joy, they were so real.

“Oh! It is wonderful!” said Bo. “But we will be too late! The service is about to start!”
“We can carry it together – there is just time” said the boy.
So they picked up one end each and they hurried through the streets towards the cathedral. They slipped in through a side door, and came around the back of the stable scene. No one noticed them as they carried the crib in behind the curtain.
Bo took the carved baby out of the old crib and laid him in the fine new one,  and as he did so Bo fell to his knees in wonder, because it seemed to him as if the child in the crib – the carved wooden baby – smiled up at him, and as he looked into the face of his mother, she smiled too.

Just at that moment the curtain was pulled aside, and the crowd who had gathered for this moment gasped in wonder. They gasped to see the beautiful new crib. But they gasped too to see Bo there, kneeling in the straw, and they knew then who it was who had had the idea to make this crib. Who else could have carved such a fine little ship to bear the Christ Child? And it was strange ; it was the same Bo they had always known, and yet, as he got up, didn’t he seem to stand straighter and taller and stronger than they had known? It seemed to them that he did, and whatever had happened, they knew that they would never call him names or bully him again.

Bo looked around, wanting to tell them of the mysterious boy who had helped him, but he was nowhere to be seen.  Then, lifting his head, he caught sight, high in the roof above him of a small carving of Joseph, in his carpenter’s shop, and by his side his young apprentice, Jesus himself, with a chisel in his hand, and the kindest of kind smiles on his face.

And suddenly Bo knew who it was had come to him when he had done all he could, and it wasn’t enough, and he could do no more. It was the same Christ who comes to us when we have done all we can, and it isn’t enough and we can do no more.


Anne Le Bas Christmas 2013