Shepherds, Angels, Stars

As Christmas fades towards Epiphany and the interest of the masses in Christmas and religious observance returns to normal levels Jesus is set loose from the confines of the crib, but not before the shepherds have made their visitation in our last but one attempt to domesticate him in this Christmas season. A domesticated Jesus, brought out like special crockery for birthdays and annual remembrances as the stars return to their place so many it seems, more than before. Have we missed our chance to follow yet, the one in the crowd. A glimpse a half smile, the world weary one alongside ordinary folk Shepherds even, simple words honest hands changing lives. In those precious minutes our worlds collide.  Will you have forgotten my face in the crowd that passes you by?  I will carry your smile with me and hold it close to me, close even to the shadow side, the broken side which we all share – perhaps that’s why there are shepherds at the very beginning, the humblest of folk – refugees from the world perhaps. Don’t forget that no one person owns truth, goodness or love.  In order to find this out we must begin to live it in humility. Not for a day or just for Christmas, but as a state of mind. The shepherds are the ones who inhabit the wilderness – of mind and of hillside. I wonder if they understood this happening completely, but to find a world outside that didn’t / doesn’t understand anymore. The beating drum of the world goes on insisting the path we tread. Still, the gentle imperative begins deep in the heart, and our discordant attempts to speak of the unseen in that liminal space are lacking. Time for withdrawing to the hills is over – from wilderness to the city the shepherds come just as Jesus will travel many years later when armed guards and courtiers will wash their hands the shepherds too as innocent as the lamb. I’m glad it was Mary who treasured these words and pondered the message of the angels brought by the shepherds. I’m afraid we men all too often get distracted. Distracted too, to miss that moment when simple shepherds offered an epiphany – the kings of the hillside with bright eyes and half smile which spoke a thousand different stories. Are those who heard them hungry for more than bread broken? Are we ready then to take off our shoes and walk with the shepherds, a shared chance encounter? Jesus, much like the shepherds message is not an agenda the world recognises as significant or even particularly important. And that is good. For the moment it does, there will be something to sell and the whole radical edge will be lost. Standing in the quiet hills as shepherds are wont to do, life around begins to emerge, or perhaps they being still of heart become aware of its presence. And as we stand on the cusp of a new year, are we ready for the Gospel story – the shepherds story to take us on a whirlwind snapshot tour from the backstreet birth, refugees travelling the road, baptisms, weddings, funerals, confrontations, healings and reconciliations. The seed planted takes time to develop. I have seen a glimpse of that place not yet of which the shepherds spoke a blessing on those who gathered. We never get to stay long in these in between moments, for this is neither the end of our journey nor yet, the beginning of the next. At this point, we ought not say ‘until next year’. – For our task is to keep this alive throughout the year, each month and every day. So, bring your hopes, dreams, visions and join us at the table Gathering Hope that the shepherds brought a re-imagining of the lost art and beauty of creation. Everyone has been invited, and everyone is welcome. And some choose to choose not to come. Don’t forget that hope appears where it’s least expected and when it’s least anticipated. Perhaps even in a Jewish Palestinian baby born in the occupied village of Bethlehem with few to witness it but some shepherds. And she gave birth and bore a son and she named him Jesus.


For New Year’s Eve – Nos Calan.  Put together with snapshots and sentences from the past year’s sermons…

according to your word

‘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.

Snow, Trump, and a Quiet Defiance

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…