Holiday Sermon – New Year in New York

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.

God Knows
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.

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Resurrection Now!

ImageHappy Easter!

What does it mean to wish each other a ‘Happy Easter?’ 

“I hope you enjoy that glass of wine you’ve denied yourself throughout Lent?”

“I hope you have lots of chocolate eggs (though not so many that you are sick?)”

What is Easter all about?

I think liberal Christians can find it easier to believe in Good Friday than Easter.  It takes no leap of the imagination to imagine a good man crucified by an unjust occupying force.  “Nice guys finish last” is a twenty first century cliche.  It’s what we expect.  

But we struggle to believe in Easter Day – if we believe it at all.  New life, new hope, the thought that things can get better – that is a struggle.

But if we don’t believe in resurrection we are cheating ourselves and missing out on the joy that faith offers, and we are missing out on a fundamental truth of human existence.  

I must clarify that I don’t mean the physical coming-back-to-life-from-the-dead – that’s a trick that happens several times in Scripture and is a bit strange and bit mysterious and is a story from the ancient world that is a bit hard to get our modern heads around.

But I mean the historical fact that the disciples who fled Christ at his arrest become the missionaries who turn the world upside down with Christ’s teaching of love and forgiveness.

In our world resurrection is not an incident in history or an abstract theological idea, it is a present reality.

 

“We’re all going to hell in a handcart” – is the subtext (if not the text) of most stories in the Daily Mail.  But they are totally wrong.  The world is getting better.  Fact.

Two thousand years ago the most advanced, civilised nation in the world carried out the death penalty on an industrial scale.  It’s true that the death penalty still exists in many countries worldwide including the United States of America (but in America constrained by a phrase in their constitution that forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ and so no nailing people to planks of wood).  No nation, not even the worst civil rights offenders, practices public crucifixions today.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Torture still happens, but it is no longer morally acceptable.

We no longer allow slavery.  It still happens, but its not considered a crime.

I hear some of you protest at my glib optimism!  “How can you say the world is getting better – world wars and genocides have occurred in the last 100 years!”

There have been genocides and attempted genocides in the last fifty years, but these are now the exceptions in how we deal with conflicts between people’s – a thousand years ago these were common practice.

Our technological advancement has been faster than our moral advancement – so there are very real dangers.  But we don’t live in the shadow of immanent global destruction in the same way we did a few short decades ago.  We still have the weapons, and they are still a danger, but we are no longer pointing them at each other with the same insane enthusiasm.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Our technology is threatening the future of the planet.  Pollution and global warming are perhaps he greatest threats that the human race has ever faced.  But we have never been better technologically or morally equipped to meet these challenges.

If the ancient world or the medieval world were suddenly transported through time to take over we all be dead in a generation.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

But we don’t always feel that.

As we get older we lose the innocence we enjoyed in our youth (if we were fortunate enough to have a peaceful and safe youth).  In our life we go from a sate of fluffy childhood loveliness to having to encounter the difficult realities of life, and the older we get the more unpleasant stories we read in newspapers and it seems easy to believe things are getting worse.  It’s seductive to look back with rose coloured spectacles, and look ahead with fear for more disillusionment to come.

But we should look back with honesty and ahead with hope.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

One symbol of the resurrection is how society has changed – is the place of women.  In the ancient world women were property, passed from their father to their husband… When no longer property they had to promise to “obey” their husbands in the marriage service until recently.

It wasn’t until 1918 women over 30 were able to vote in Britain and women were not allowed to be lawyers or accountants until 1920.  It was not until 1828 – just 86 years ago, that women were given the equal right to vote with men.  The first female minister of state was not until 1965 (when Barbara Castle was appointed Minister of Transport).  Equal pay didn’t come until 1970 Equal Pay Act – and that was a very imperfect piece of legislation that has needed several revisions.

Only last year were women given theoretical equal hereditary rights for the British monarchy.

Today women still do not have full equality – but it is prejudice and inertia, not the rules that cause inequality, the rules largely push towards equality now…

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

But they get better by struggle, by a recurring process of work and campaigning and protests and sliding back before pushing forward.

It’s not that we are drifting into a better world, it’s that campaigners and organisations and individuals are working hard and standing up to injustice and making sacrifices and being crucified over and over and over yet daring to believe that there is a resurrection to come

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Watch and old television show from the 1960s or 70s and you will be shocked by the casual sexism, and racism, and homophobia.  Even in the last 40 years attitudes have changed for the better.

Another symbol of the change is our attitude to sexuality.  In much less than a generation we have gone from homosexuality being illegal to gay marriage.

Here is a perfect symbol of the resurrection.  The resurrection does not end the story – it begins it.

The resurrection is a message of hope and new life that has to grow and spread.

The celebrations of the first same-sex marriages were exciting, and for many a symbol of resurrection after long years of prejudice, bulling, violence and state-sanctioned persecution.

There will be a song on this subject to come later in the service, but for now I close with one of my favourite poems, Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh.  I’ve used it before, but it bears repeating:

 

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

 

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

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