Sunday, 30 December 2012

Advent 4 sermon

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit”

May I speak in the name of God our Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word, and the Spirit, in living echoes of all her Glorious and Holy Wisdom.  Amen.

Let us all stay very close to God and let God love us. What is the question that God is asking us? What does God want us to do and to be? For today, beauty calls to us from the wombs of Elizabeth and Mary.

The story
Today is about a meeting: the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth.  The church honours this story as the visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth on 31 May.  It’s not really about Mary or Elizabeth on their own. It is about what happens among them. 

We are not sure where they are. That’s a bit frustrating.  It’s not clear – a Judean town – but it’s not named.  The traditional reference point for Mary’s song is Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 c 1-10.  Hannah offers her only son Samuel to God and leaves him in the temple in the care of Eli the prophet.  The difference is that Hannah is on her own.  Your homework for the week is to go and read 1 Sam Ch 2 this week. And ask yourself how it is the same and different to Mary’s Magnificat.

Mary and Elizabeth are for us
o   Examples of commitment and discipleship
o   Examples of leadership
o   And bearers of questions

Mary and Elizabeth stand as examples of commitment and discipleship. 
If faith relied on numbers we may be thinking this is a bad week. The census figures may on a first reading not look good for us, in that some of the headline figures suggest that the number of UK residents who self-identify as Christian is down.  But do they? We must look below the figures.  The headline numbers of people who say their religion is “Christian” is not reflected in the number of people in church on a Sunday morning.  We need to explore the numbers game.  Is it about numbers? Or is it about the exercise of choice and the quality of commitment?

I suspect that 95% of us are here today out of choice.  Apart from, maybe, the children.  And possibly the vicar. One hundred years ago it is very likely that 95% of us would be in church without choosing to be there – because our culture said we had to be. Many people were in church because of their employer, if they worked in domestic service or a tied farm and their employer was a church attendee. Many churches in Urban areas were built by the rich middle classes for their servants to attend, so that their employers did not have to see them in church in a Sunday. 

If we are here because we choose to be here then that is a powerful statement about commitment.  And also raises questions for us to think over about the relationship between faith and culture in our society today (and note I said “faith” not “religion” – the difference is significant).

Mary and Elizabeth stand as examples of leadership.
We seem to have got ourselves into something of a muddle about leadership in our church of late. I have tried to listen carefully to the arguments of those who are against our church having women as bishops, as on BBC Radio 4 this morning. Quite simply the arguments were from a foreign country. (That may be a polite way of saying they were “incoherent rubbish”).  Sister Wendy Beckett on Desert Island Discs this last week (amidst a beautiful choice of music and much wisdom and hilarity) said that if you ordain women as Priests it does not make sense not to ordain them as Bishops.  In so doing she echoes the observations of Archbishop Michael Ramsey (that wise and saintly 20C Archbishop of Canterbury) who noted that if you ordain Women as Deacons then there is no theological reason not to ordain them as priests and bishops.

Sisters and brothers let us be very clear about this.  The Church of England has not rejected women as bishops.  The current House of Laity of General Synod has [temporarily] voted down Women as Bishops. In so doing it has demonstrated that it is out of step with the vast majority of the parishes in the Anglican Church in England. Quite simply something must be done. I understand that only Her Majesty the Queen can dissolve General Synod before the end of its five year term.  I did contemplate how we could build a campaign to persuade her to do that. And I think it would be quite a fun campaign to run. But I fear it would put HM the Q in an unfair position and not be a good move.  So we have to live with it. It is hoped that a revised Measure will be brought to the July 2013 meeting of General Synod. We need to lobby the members of the House of Laity on General Synod. We need to write and thank those members of General Synod who voted for the last Measure. And we need to write honest and upfront letters to those who are opposed to the ordination of women as Bishops and challenge them about their position and tell them how annoyed and frustrated we are with them. They need to be told.  We have got to sort this out

Mary and Elizabeth stand as examples of questioning faith
We are not today engaging in an exercise in blind faith, nor of universal certainty. We gather here with our questions, un-answered and unclear, in honesty and integrity. Remember that Luther taught us that “to doubt is to be human”. And that doubt is the road every human being travels to either faith or unbelief.  As we stand on the door step of another Christmas, we are not being asked to buy a package, nor leave our brains behind. Nor be afraid of honest doubt and unanswered questions.

In so doing let us be open to something deeper. Let us be open to the possibility that as we bring our honest questions to God, he invites us to be open to the possibility that he is questioning us, and asking questions of us, just as much, indeed if not more so, than the questions we bring to him.

So we give thanks
In this Eucharist we give thanks today for the gifts in scripture:
·         Of Hannah’s service and dedication and her song
·         For Elizabeth’s hospitality and her very important meeting with Mary
·         For the children they bore
·         For the cost of their discipleship and their exercise of choice
·         For their example of Leadership, and the challenges that lay before our church in the year ahead
·         For the God who questions us: more profoundly and deeply than we shall ever question him

We stand on the hinge of Advent and Christmas. We pause, and see Mary meeting Elizabeth. We honour their lives today. I close with WH Vanstone’s beautiful poem “Loves endeavour, loves expense”.  I invite you to imagine that these are Mary’s words. That she speaks them to us this morning, that they are her prayer.
1. Morning glory, starlit sky,
soaring music, scholar’s truth,
flight of swallows, autumn leaves,
memory’s treasure, grace of youth:

2. Open are the gifts of God,
gifts of love to mind and sense;
hidden is love’s agony,
love’s endeavor, love’s expense.

3. Love that gives, gives ever more,
gives with zeal, with eager hands,
spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
ventures all its all expends.

4. Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others free,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be.

5. Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.

6. Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen

Geoff Hammond
Reader; St Peter-In-The-Forest, Walthamstow

Sunday 23 December 2012

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