‘According to your word.’ We live by that, not always knowingly of course, but often, according to the word of another, often those with authority, or those we find ourselves unable to influence. Sometimes through gritted teeth – if you say so. Let it be to me according to your word. This is the story of Mary. I know, it is Christmas eve and there is only one more sleep until the day itself – forgive me for not getting overly exited just yet, this morning as we are still on Advent Four. I know its messy, but the Christmas story is anything but clean, well, it ought not be. Men ought to be silent on such matters, for we know not the birth pains. The story of Mary her pain and suffering unfolds itself before us once again. We see her clothed in blue, (no passports here) the sanitised sanctified image of a virgin, perfect, undefiled. I find myself having to squint at the image of first century Palestine through the lens of the gospel writer to see what we might actually be being offered. In so many places around the world the image is clear if we are willing to turn aside and see. Women finding themselves pregnant on the wrong side of a border, in a refugee camp with few supplies and a distant medical centre. If only Mary had the blue passport. (Okay I’ll digress to say it was at its best ill timed news, fodder to the comment and opinion piece writers – not to mention sermon writers. At its worst a mockery to the state we’re in.) I recall hoping around this time last year that 2017 would be the annus mirabilis antithesis to the so called annus horribilis that 2016 was for so many. I find myself rewinding and again hoping the same for next year. And I see Mary all around us. Mary, the young woman who until recently worked 105 hours a week caring for others to support her daughter, her husband and to pay his child support allowance. Mary, a woman frustrated by her own medical condition. Mary, a woman reliant on meagre transport; living too far from the job she dare not give up. Mary, a woman who at every turn finds another ‘no-room at the inn’ so desperate she has to beg her way to a night in a bed. Mary, a woman frightened of what the future might hold if she acknowledges the pain inside herself. Mary, a woman who can’t afford to allow others to help her in case the authorities take away the little she has. I don’t read that in the Gospel story you say. No, but it’s there in the background, in the hebrew scriptures, you can read their stories and see it here in our midst, for nothing much changes. The fear, the un-knowing, the giving up into the hands of the other. Mary the servant, left by the angel to consider her future. How did Mary manage it? Facing an imminent accommodation crises, no health service, no documents, the colour of which makes no odds for those born on the wrong side of a line on a map. What is that about but fear? Still? In all these images I see Mary. Like the girl on the street who smiled a smile which still carries me on and lightens my heart. Resilience beyond understanding. Dare we turn aside for a moment and see the face of those who have nothing but a smile to offer? Are we fearful that they will ask too much of us as too much was asked of Mary and all those others who bring children into the world unprepared and unsupported. Mary the one who in this sanitised, often romanticised and certainly not first hand account appears to have said yes to the impossible. Giving up all she had as a servant to her master. “Let it be to me according to your word” Obedience then to the will of the other, and the sword that will pierce her own heart as we will hear Simeon declare when we finally arrive at the end of the Christmas season on the second of February for the Presentation at the temple. Candlemas. The presentation of the child that she struggled for. It wasn’t meant to be easy, it’s not meant to be easy. It’s not romantic, or the victorian postcard sepia image of a frosty toy shop window, the child; nose pressed against the glass. It’s each single moment everyday and yet forever, difficult but straight forward, dirty, but miraculously clean. It is to be a mother. And she gave birth and bore a son and she named him Jesus.
What does the recent / expected Snowfall and Donald Trump have in common? And no, that’s not the beginning of a very bad joke, though if it were the punchline probably ought to contain the words ‘slippery and slope’.
Perhaps they have in common that we love to hate them?
That both are the target of righteous anger?
That we seem powerless to be able to do anything about either of them. Though I suspect by the end of this I’ll be disagreeing with myself about the last. For perhaps there is something that we can do, yes, even about the snow!
Perhaps less obvious is that both Snow and Trump reveal a hidden truth. A good hard snowfall reminds us how vulnerable we are and how susceptible we are to a little inclement weather. (If only Trump were so short lived.) Once again DT has enraged nations, this time with his declarations over Jerusalem. Perhaps though he has done us a favour – just as the snow gives us a little reminder, for both have shattered our illusions.
I first met Sami Awad as I drove him back to his hotel at the beginning of a tour of the UK speaking about his home town of Bethlehem, non-violence and the work of the Holy Land Trust of which he was director. That was in 2013. Sami Awad, now executive director of the Holy Land Trust is back in the UK this December and has just finished a tour of the UK with the Amos trust who work for justice and hope in the Holy Lands. Sami wrote this last week that Trump [has] erased the illusion that there was an actual peace process. And that peace and justice … will not be realised … by one side forcing its will on others. That, It is only through a commitment to recognizing and honouring the full equal rights of all peoples in the land and building a new joint vision for the future that is founded in the principle of non-violence, justice, equality, and healing, will we be able to move forward in real peace.
That’s an awful lot to digest on a Sunday morning in Advent. Advent is not only about chocolate calendars and the run-up to Christmas. It is also about a world-view that says that “hope appears where it’s least expected and when it’s least anticipated. 2,000 years ago it was a Jewish Palestinian baby born in the occupied village of Bethlehem. Is it perhaps this advent a recognition of the “reality” President Trump talks of which is the failure of a quarter century of the peace process. It’s also the reality of the on-going discrimination and dispossession of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.” (Amos trust) If those are some of the realities we are faced with, what then can we do? This is perhaps where we have a chance to do something positive – but it will take a change of heart. Our Gospel reading today begins the account of Mark with the dramatic prophesy of Isaiah – interpreted in the light of what Jesus achieved. A change of heart for a community which recognised a different way of being, not one which focussed on the past as if nothing would ever change, and acting out of the same fears that it had always acted. A community which focussed on the future they wanted to see and acted in ways to bring about that future. This transformation is key. It is simply the transformation of our way of looking at a situation. Rather than to base our reaction always on what has gone before, it is to look into the future and base what we say and do on what we want to achieve in the end. If we want a future of peaceful relations, then our actions must reflect that. If our lives are disrupted by the weather, then we have the opportunity to reflect on what we believe we are in control of. I defy the snow; not by going out in spite of the warnings, but by changing my perspective. I defy DT; not by shouting righteous angry slogans at my television, but by sharing the story of Palestinians and Israeli’s of Christians and Muslims and all those who stand together and choose not to be defined by the violence or words of others, but who are defined by the common humanity which binds them into community. Build a little hope this advent…
Matthew’s parable of the marriage feast (Matt. 22. 1-14) has its origins in something much older. Luke has a version of it too, both probably added to it in order to say something to their communities. Matthew to the Jews, Luke to a wider audience. So the great supper in Luke becomes a Marriage feast and the certain man becomes a king. Matthew raises the stakes as he tells the story. Christians were being persecuted, the temple destroyed in 70ce and so we hear this reflected in the story as slaves are killed and the ‘king’ sends his army to burn the city.
How might we re-tell it today? Who is offering the feast and for whom? Who is invited? Who turns away? What are the consequences? Who ends up at the meal?
Don’t get confused with Matthew tagging on the bit about the marriage garment, it’s a different story, and asks: ‘Are we clothed with the right frame of mind?’ Not as you might be tempted to read it, that, even if you’ve been invited, you’re still not welcome. Everyone has been invited, and everyone is welcome. Some just choose to choose not to come.
Can we talk of a spiritual malaise of our time with this parable? I wonder what for us is the feast? Are there many who have chosen to choose not to partake? I don’t mean turning up to church on a Sunday morning, for that can be as bad as anything else we do without the ‘right garment’ (don’t forget that’s not about millinery).
We’ve lost a language of the feast of the kingdom. The language to speak of deep things such as pain and suffering and death and by and large we have been distracted by trivial matters because it is so difficult to talk about things that are real. Some years ago a film tried in part to speak about this – many people avoided it because of the violence, language and drug use, however it did have a point and it called us to reflect on our choices:
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, Choose a big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fabrics.
Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning”
This sounds so old, it is. 20 years in fact. I suspect even if you’d not seen Trainspotting, you’ll recognise the rail against materialism which I’m told is all but over. it’s been replaced by exerientialism. Which may not have been a word until a few moments ago. Welcome to the consumption of experience. (Radio 4’s Costing the earth addresses this very issue) By the way, did anyone tweet that they were coming to church this morning, or is it on facebook, instagram, snapchat? There is now 4G here so you could probably live web cast the experience… (if you wanted to…) So the twenty years later sequel T2 rails against social media and offers a jab at the culture of zero hour contracts, unfulfilled promises, never learning from our mistakes, slowly reconciling ourselves towards what we can get rather than what we had dreamed of, Watching history repeat itself.
And again the King invites us to the feast and still we’re not yet ready. We’ve been distracted by stone temples, faculties, PCC meetings, summer fetes, the size of scones with jam first, or is it scones with cream first and the minutes of the last meeting mis-spelling someones name, the lighting not being to the current ecological expectations, cutting the grass to less than a quarter inch lest someone complain. And we neglect to speak of the great things that attending the feast brings. The feast of life that is living with God’s love. The love that knows no limit. Living in the knowledge of who we are despite what we might own or have means to do. The love of life for its own sake, the life that Jesus taught us to have, and to have in abundance.
Welcome to the feast.