Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas - Why did God put me where I am?

A very happy and blessed Christmas from all of us at St. Cuthbert's!

My question, "Why did God put me where I am?" was provoked in part by the struggle we've been having keeping open the access to our church, set as it is in the middle of a steep hill made treacherous by the snow and icy weather. It's very beautiful as well of course.

In the event there was pretty much a full house at our Christmas Eve service of Carols, Christingles and the Blessing of the Crib. And people have been coming back for the Midnight Mass and this morning's Eucharist.

My sermon for Midnight Mass sermon is now online to be found here - and I'm posting it here as well in full.

Best wishes for every blessing of peace and joy!

Homily for Christmas Midnight Mass

Someone asked me the other day, “Who decided that it was a good idea to build St. Cuthbert’s Church in the middle of such a steep hill?” It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself quite a lot recently as we’ve struggled with ice and snow on our one in seven hill with its one in five approach at the steepest point. Perhaps St. Cuthbert’s Church is here because the man who gave the land in the middle of the nineteenth century couldn’t think of anything else to do with such an inconveniently situated site. Whatever his motives were in giving it, the fact is, however, that the people who wanted to build the church accepted the land and got on with the building. I don’t know if there is any record of early regret being expressed after a couple of hard winters, but 160 years later we are still here doing what we can as we worship in this place, as we use it as a focal point in seeking to serve this community around us and in trying to witness to our faith. And you are here tonight - I’m thankful that you are, when it’s such a struggle in such seriously bad weather to get here.

Why did God put me where I am? That’s a question we could ask ourselves at any time - whether the going is tough or easy. It’s often only when life is hard that we ask questions like this. If we did it more often - in good times as well as bad - then we’d be better placed to see how God has blessed us in so many ways. Ask the question more often and perhaps that might be for you the beginning of a process in which you can cultivate a sense of thankfulness. I wish people would do this, because the voice of complaint is so frequently louder than the spirit of thankfulness… the response to God of gratitude. Why did God put me where I am? If I ask that on a sunny day in May on one of those rare occasions when I get to sit in my garden and feel that I’m on top of things, then I might quite possibly give a different answer than on a day in December when I can’t get the car out onto the road and I spend my time cancelling events which we’ve looked forward to - and which are important especially to people who might not easily be able to get out at the best of times. Against the sense of frustration I’ve encountered so much during the last month, I have to hold up again and again the knowledge of just how much we are able to do as Christians in this place, blessed with our church and its facilities in such a beautiful location. And then I can be thankful for those who do turn out again and again to offer their support for others, who struggle to get here to maintain this place and its life, and who go out of their way to help other people when they could say that life is tough enough for themselves.

Why did God put me here? We have to ask that question on the good days, so that we don’t get the wrong answer when we ask it on a bad day. There is a school of thought that Christians in this country are becoming something of a persecuted minority. But when a British Airways employee is told that she can’t wear a cross with her uniform… or a nurse is reported for offering to pray for a patient, we have to weigh this against the reality and harshness of persecution where Christians are discriminated against day by day, where they are fearful of false accusation, where they become the victims of bloodshed and violence, sometimes imprisoned, even murdered. As we celebrate this Feast of Christmas and have only the weather to contend with, we can think of those who gather tonight in Bethlehem - and who first have to contend with a security wall and identity checks simply to get there. A little further to the east, Christians gather in real fear in Iraq where in recent weeks and months congregations have been taken hostage during worship and murdered by indiscriminate gunfire and grenade attack - and tens, probably hundreds of thousands have felt that they have no alternative but to flee their homeland to find safety elsewhere. Still further to the east in Iran, a Christian pastor has been given a death sentence for apostasy - his parents had been nominally Muslim, but he felt he had had no religion of his own until he became a Christian as an adult, and for that decision of faith he now stands condemned. And in too many other countries Christians are subject to severe restrictions - in some even forbidden to practise their faith.

Do Christians in these lands ask, Why did God put me where I am? They live with real fear and apprehension - and yet they continue to practise their faith and to celebrate it.

Why did God put me where I am? It’s a question we should ask ourselves regularly.

Last weekend I went to see the film “Of Gods and Men.” It’s the story of a community of Cistercian monks in the Atlas Mountains region of Algeria. During the 1990s they became aware of the increasing pressures of Islamist extremism. For decades they’d lived alongside the local Muslim community. But that community itself was fearful. Foreign workers were being murdered by terrorist groups. And then one night at Christmas the extremists came to them, demanding that the doctor in their community should come to treat a wounded fighter, demanding that they hand over their medicines. The monks refused. The doctor himself was too frail and the medicine they had was scarce and used in the clinic they ran for the villagers. The terrorists were persuaded to leave, but from then the pressure increased. The monks had to decide whether they should leave or at least accept protection from government security forces. But they refused the help of a government they knew to be corrupt and oppressive of the people they were seeking to serve. And while some at first wanted to flee to safety in France, gradually they had to recognise the reality for them of that question, Why did God put me where I am? It was not that they were there to make converts - whenever they worshipped it was just them, the monks alone. And they didn’t attempt to make converts. But they were there to live out a vocation. Their calling was not simply to offer medical treatment to villagers who would otherwise be without it - nor to offer some employment to local people who worked alongside them in their fields. Their calling was simply to be - to live a particular way of life as Christians in a particular place; to be a presence. Where else could they go without giving up their vocation?

The Prior of the Monastery, Dom Christian de Cherge, wrote this testament:

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

The monks asked the question, Why did God put me where I am?... where we are? and knew that his will was for them to be there, a presence which could not be denied. And in 1996 seven of the community of nine were taken hostage and then murdered. They could have fled, but they stayed - and being there they lived out their calling.

What did they achieve? Were they noticed for what they did? In fact millions now know their story and have seen the film about their lives. It’s a film that requires patience of the viewer. There’s a lot of silence and stillness. And that’s something we could all do well to seek.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of Christ in the stillness of the night in Bethlehem. The story tells us that shepherds ran from their fields to worship - and later there were strange visitors from the East. But how many people at the time noticed? The Nativity of our Lord is the birth of God’s Son into the world, but he comes secretly - not with any display. He is born in the vulnerability of weak human flesh in a backwater of the Roman Empire - to a couple who didn’t really count for much according to worldly standards. But his birth is a presence, unrecognised yet real. This child would grow into a man who would change many lives, who would bring hope in the midst of despair, healing in brokenness, and the promise of new life and salvation for all who would follow him. By this birth God enters into our human picture as profoundly as is possible.

What was barely seen at the time is now known throughout the world. Tonight we bring ourselves once more to worship at the crib. We come to receive him who gives us his Body and his Blood. From apparent insignificance we learn the way of sacrifice and love - and a challenge to our calling. Why did God put me where I am?

Monday, 20 December 2010

Approaching Christmas

Ice is my major preoccupation at the moment. I spent much of this morning consulting on whether a regular Eucharist due this afternoon in sheltered accommodation should go ahead, and then ringing round people who might turn up to tell them that for the second time we've had to cancel it - just too dangerous for many who might have wanted to go.

Last Friday we lost the planned concert by the Leadgate Gleemen and our Handbell Ringers - the second year running. Last year it was deep snow that caused the problem. This year the plummetting temperature which rapidly and dramatically worsened our road conditions.

But we're not too downhearted. This evening we have carols round the Village Christmas Tree - I think we'll aim for no more than thirty minutes! And an order for 200 oranges ready for the Crib Service cum Christingle on Christmas Eve is even now being prepared... Let's hope that people are not put off, whatever the weather!

Last week we did at least manage to do a fair bit of eating. The Lunch Club had its Christmas Party in grand style last Tuesday, and some of its members were back for more as the Mothers' Union celebrated its Christmas Lunch at Derwentside College. Excellent fare at each - and I gather that some people who were at both events also managed to fit in another one or two festive meals in between.

Thanks to everyone who is helping to keep things going: some of the Lunch Club workers are pictured here; no photos yet of the church's magnificent Christmas Tree which a wonderful team managed to erect last Wednesday just before the weather had taken a further downturn. And Rosie Junemann, our Reader, preached this sermon the Sunday before last (Advent 3) managing to get Coronation Street's 50th anniversary, John the Baptist and the call of the Kingdom all into the space of 10 minutes. I preached yesterday - but no written record exists of what I said...

Now the sun is shining, the sky is clear and blue - which might give me an hour to go out before dark and another temperature drop. At least it should keep tonight's singing up to pitch.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

See amid the winter's snow...

I know it's too early for Christmas trees - but I've just got back from decorating our Hall for use by our various user-groups over the coming weeks. We have some magnificent decorations - and hoped they would have been seen to their best as the Rainbows, Brownies and Guides put on a coffee evening and entertainment tomorrow. Sadly, it's had to be postponed due to the ice and snow on Church Bank - hopefully it'll go ahead on Monday 20th December.

Only two cars with snow tyres made it down the Bank to the church and hall this morning - so thanks to everyone who walked. And we grabbed people while they were there to help with the decorating (completed in record time), a task we don't now have to do this afternoon - and even had a Finance Committee meeting (only one absentee, who lives on an even steeper hill), so we don't need to have that tomorrow!

Preaching this morning, I tried to make the connection between John the Baptist and the way we might be feeling in this wintry weather. I don't find John a particularly appealing character (too much shouting at people, poor dress sense, disgusting diet) - but probably I do him an injustice... I found myself reflecting on his formation through life in the desert and went on from there to the desert experience created over a thousand years later in the Russian taiga. To quote Carlo Caretto (via Andrew Louth's The Wilderness of God), “All the great religions were born between the desert and the steppe.” See how I developed that by clicking here - you'll probably need to tweak the sidebar to make the text appear.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Advent - already "a cold coming"

The snow is over a foot deep now - little chance of my removing the car from my drive onto my steep bank for some time. So I'm re-discovering the virtue of walking - and meeting quite a few other hardy souls as I do so. The weekly "shop" is going to have to be undertaken by bus (the joy of not having to find a place to park at the MetroCentre!) - though buses are not surprisingly a little intermittent, and schedules are ending at 7p.m. Nevertheless "Go North-East" bus company seems currently to be amongst the current heroes of the region - and quite likely has the most widely used Facebook page.

All this prompted me in thinking of what to write in the "View from the Vicarage" for our December - January Parish Magazine. It's all finished now - and I've had an offer from a 4x4 driver to get the copy to the printer and to collect the finished product. Unfortunately the printer isn't there to do the work - and I'm not surprised... However, you can read the whole magazine in full colour by clicking here and using the tools to re-size and navigate (easy but be patient). And this is what's on my page:

A Cold Coming…

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow…

The opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi” come to mind as I write these words on 1st December - with heavy snow falling upon the foot or so we’ve already got. At least in Eliot’s imagination the snow was melting for the Magi. There seems little immediate prospect of that for us.

Why did the wise men from the east make that journey to Bethlehem? What had motivated them? Why did we do it? - they ask in the poem. And what did it mean?

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?...

The story of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem is both the simplest of stories and also the most demanding. We bring ourselves to worship the Child who is born in the stable and laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Shepherds from the fields rush to worship before him. Mysterious visitors from the East come bearing rich and strange gifts. And then they go back to their former lives - to find something has changed.

Each year we need to make that spiritual journey to Bethlehem - to recover a sense of child-like awe as we see how heaven touches earth, how God’s Son is born in the vulnerable frailty of human flesh. But then we need to ask, how has this changed me?

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…

In the coldness of a wintry world, may we experience again the warmth of God’s love. And may we know that it makes all the difference.

Wishing you all joy and peace at this time - and throughout the New Year.

Martin Jackson