There are two words that strike terror into the hearts of congregations throughout the developed world. Usually they only occur in the summer months, but you, poor unfortunates are going to hear them this morning.
You must brace yourselves, for this is a HOLIDAY SERMON!
Holiday sermons are usually written on the beach, often on the slightly stained napkin that once cradled an ice cream cone, and the text usually develops some torturous analogy and asks such searching questions as “is there a sandy beach towel in your life?” or “don’t you think receiving the Eucharist is like suntan lotion for the soul?”
This sermon was written in New York – it was started as I waited to see in the New Year for the second time (we celebrated at 7.00 p.m. New York time which was midnight in the UK and then struggled to stay awake for another midnight!)
So what sermon illustration do I bring back from the New World?
We were staying at the North end of Central Park, on the edge of Harlem. I don’t know if any of you went to New York in the 1960s or 70s, but if you did, you were probably warned to avoid Harlem. It was an area of burnt-out tower blocks and riots, a neighbourhood of crime and poverty.
But it was regenerated, and although it still has poverty the streets are safe and it’s a very pleasant place to visit.
It changed because local people worked to rebuild and take pride in their neighbourhood. The improvement is obvious:
London had 7.4 robberies per 1,000 residents last year. In Harlem it was 5.9.
Less than 15 years ago, Harlem did not have a single cashpoint machine. No one would have dared to use one. Now Harlem has all the usual banks, shops and cashpoints. A bit of online research showed that the biggest crime problem in Harlem at the moment is double-parking.
But this did not happen by chance. Partly it was police policy and also it came about through citizens campaigning, giving their time and energy and money.
The words I saw engraved by a statue of anti-slavery campaigner and former slave, Frederick Douglass, by the entrance to Harlem:
“Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
People can and do change the world. People like you and me.
One of the very few books I have read more than once is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings. My favourite line in the book comes after Gandalf falls to his apparent death after facing the demonic Balrog deep in the Mines of Moria. The surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring gather outside the mines and Aragorn admits that there is no hope without Gandalf, and says “then we must do without hope.”
One of the themes of the books is about facing hopeless situations and soldiering on. Without a doubt Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of World War One influenced his writing.
It’s tempting to see the struggle of building community and indeed the struggle of religion in the modern world as a hopeless fight.
Secularism and a selfish materialism seem to be winning the day and religion, like the tide on Dover Beach in Matthew Arnold’s poem, is slipping away….
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
We are left confused “on a darkling plain.” But we are not without hope.
Our Church here at the Ascension is growing – we just had a largest Christmas Morning service that I’ve seen looking back at our records.
Our projects are making a difference in our local community and although many of us are despairing at government and church cut backs, we must not lose our hope or our faith.
Our reading from Jeremiah comes out of a seemingly hopeless situation: the nation of Israel has been shattered, the Monarchy brutally slaughtered, the leaders among the many forced into slavery and exile in Babylon.
The response of some was to give up hope: “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
But Jeremiah (not known for his cheerful disposition) has a different story to tell:
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.
There is always hope. Tides do turn, the world does change. As a world, as a nation, as a local community and as individuals there is hope. I will close with the famous poem, “The Gate of the Year”. You are probably familiar with the first verse, but there is more. The first verse is probably the best, but the rest of the poem deals with the idea that God has the future in her hands although it is impossible for us to understand God’s plan. The poem, published in 1908, caught the public’s imagination when the then Princess Elizabeth handed a copy to her father, King George the 6th, and he quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast. It spoke to the uncertainty of our country in the days leading up to the Second World War.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.
Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.