Sermon Preached on 2nd February 2020
Gospel Reading: Luke 2: 22-40
Two stories have dominated my diet of news this week.
Brexit – which I am now officially sick to death of
And the House of Bishops of the Church of England – who I am now officially sick to death of.
But I don’t want to start my sermon there. I will come back to them.
A funny thing happened while I was writing my sermon on Friday
I was sitting in supermarket café and along came on old couple – old friends
The wife is a retired priest, and they were incredibly welcoming to Sian and I as we were making our way into the Anglican Church.
The husband told me he hadn’t been to church for 2 years. He couldn’t stomach it any more - or the messages it gave about what God is like. He’d given up hope of ever encountering God in church again.
The children who come here to Playgroup have no such trouble.
Tomorrow morning they will be so sorry to see that the crib has gone and the baby Jesus isn’t here anymore. We regularly found the children amongst the figures stroking the shepherds and holding the baby. It reminded me of Harry at Christingle.
We’ve had to put a barrier up around the figures every week to keep them safe. Its no problem encountering Jesus here for those children.
Last Christmas I remember locking the door after playgroup only to notice a young couple with a tiny baby girl sitting at back of church. She was wrapped up warmly in a white shawl.
I discovered that she was three weeks old, and called Lucy – light
Her father told me that they had promised they would bring her to be baptized if everything went well with her birth, and so here they were - wondering what to do next.
Her mother, Ashley, held her out for me to hold, and then, as we talked a bit, the father took his new daughter to look at the Crib, and I watched as he stood there for a long time, holding her so that she could see the baby Jesus. It’s been a year and they have not returned. Maybe they will. But they did encounter Jesus here that day.
It was only the next morning, in the middle of Morning Prayer, that it suddenly occurred to me that I had been part of an experience a bit like the one we hear about in the gospel this morning, the time when Mary and Joseph brought their new firstborn baby to the Temple in thanksgiving for a safe delivery and to mark the fact that the Temple and its worship were to be part of the child’s life from now on, a place where he belonged.
The gospel reading is a story of people who had different reasons to be in the Temple that day, and who all encountered Jesus. Obviously there was Mary and Joseph who were there to fulfil the rituals, set out in the Old Testament, for the redemption of the firstborn boy, and the purification of the mother after childbirth.
There was Simeon, a devout man who was sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guiding. At some point in the past the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died, and on this day he was somehow aware of the Spirit nudging to go to the Temple and, once there, somehow aware when he saw Mary and Joseph that this was the moment he had been waiting for all those years.
And then there’s Anna, eighty four years old, one of those people who find a home in a sacred space, and she’s just there. Doing whatever she does where she belongs. She is caught up in this little drama because she walks past just when Simeon is holding Jesus and blessing his parents. And she too recognises that this ordinary looking baby is someone very special.
And so there is a strange and holy meeting in the Temple, amidst all the buzz going on there, of a young couple, a baby, an old man and an old woman. And there Simeon expresses the most astounding message - That this child will be a blessing to both Gentile and Jew.
That this child has been born for all nations.
That all nations are part of God’s universal plan for salvation.
That because of him, NO-ONE is to be outside of God’s blessing.
The gift of buildings like the Temple, like our church, is that they are a visible sign of God’s universal blessing – the doors are open and the church is big enough and prayed-in enough for there to be room for everyone who comes.
And that reminds me of a little girl who came in just as Brian and I were closing the doors after a baptism. She was about 6 and she seemed to be on her own, and she asked if she could light a candle for a baby who had died.
We walked over to Our Lady with her baby, and she told me that she lived in North Reddish, next door to 2 month old baby Adam, a little Muslim boy, who with his granddad and Grandma, had been killed in a mini-bus crash in Saudi Arabia a few days earlier. His mother Ataka and his two sisters were critically ill in a hospital in Medina.
She opened her purse, pulled out a coin, put it in the slot, took a candle and I helped her light it: “For Adam”. She pulled out another coin, and did the same thing: “For Ataka”. I was about to say “That’s enough money” when her father came in rather sheepishly, carrying another child.
And he told me that she had been saving up all week to come here and light candles for all the family. So, coin by coin she put all her money in and lit 6 candles. Then we prayed together, and they left, promising to come back one day. It’s a couple of years. They haven’t been back. But we did all encounter God in church that day.
This week, quite without warning or need, the House of Bishops, meeting in London issued a “Pastoral Statement” about who could and who could not be blessed in Church, about who was, and who wasn’t living according to God’s design. People in Civil Partnerships, be they same-sex or opposite-sex Civil Partnerships were not to be given the opportunity to have their union blessed in Church, there would be no official liturgy and prayers written to be said in Churches to bless people choosing to commit their lives to each other in a loving, faithful, stable Civil Partnership, and clergy must not offer it.
There were words of warning for clergy living in Civil Partnerships, and the tone of the whole document was like a slap in the face for any clergy wanting to show how open and welcoming and reflective of God’s universal love, the Church is. And for gay clergy it was threatening and sickening.
There was an outcry in the social media all week, against the crass, unnecessary and deeply hurtful Statement, people expressing their disappointment and disgust, people commenting on how utterly irrelevant the Church was becoming to most people, and how ugly the Statement was. On Thursday the House of Bishops issued a short apology (not for the wording of the Statement, but for the hurt it had caused).
Finally, on Friday, our 3 Bishops issued a joint letter to say that they recognized how badly they had let down so many priests in their Diocese, how sorry they were that they had lost our trust, and asking our forgiveness, and for the opportunity to earn back that trust. They stated that they would be leading the way in the authorization of a public liturgy for the blessing of Civil Partnerships in churches.
It wasn’t until I read their letter on Friday, that I began to realize how utterly let down by them I had felt, how thoughtless they had been, how overlooked, despite all the hard slog of working for the church for so many years. I realized how hurt I had been all week.
Then I began to think about what we, here, are doing, and must continue to do to be a church that really is welcoming to everyone. A church where everyone can belong. How we can be it, and live it and say it in every way.
We have a WELCOME statement on our website, and our notice boards. It begins ….
“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.”
And it goes on …..
I want to invite you to take a copy home, put it out where you can see it, where other people will see it. And lets make sure that its not just a cute statement, but that we really live it, so that we can bless every single person who comes here.