(Sermon 9 Jan 22)
Précis – a talk on standing up for values that matter; and how, when we come to the end of time and stand before the pearly gates, it will be the little acts of loving kindness to a stranger and standing up for our values that are the steps of our stairway to heaven.
Epiphany marks a change of tack for us. In church terms it is the first of two great mid winter festivals to be inaugurated. Alexandria was a key centre of learning in the early church and THEY appropriated the Egyptian festival of the sun god overcoming darkness at the winter solstice in the old EGYPTIAN calendar to mark Jesus’ baptism at the start of his ministry – and added in his birth as a 2 for 1 offer. Later, in the 4C, the emerging Western church flexed its muscle and appropriated the date of the winter solstice in the new ROMAN calendar to replace its own pagan celebrations with the BIRTH of Christ. To be different Rome chose the visit of the magi as ITS unveiling of Jesus – as a sort of end to the Christmas season with the 12 days filling the space in between. At the Reformation, 1000 years later, many Protestants rejected Christmas for its associated pagan frivolities and the also adopted Baptism rather than Kings at Epiphany. We being ANGLICAN Protestants do half & half, so whilst we do Christmas, it’s baptism for us today ‘looking forward’.
Therefore, scripture-wise, we leave behind the myths that built up around the birth of Jesus and look forward to his ministry. This is one of those big events in the Jesus’ mission which has significance to both the probable prime eye witness accounts: Mark’s gospel based on Peter’s memories, tho with cavalier disregard for chronology; and John’s gospel, which either comes out of the Johannine community a bit later or, arguably, direct from the pen of John himself even earlier – a possibility I’m waiting for the opportunity to talk on HINT HINT. Matthew & Luke, remember, are a combination of Mark’s gospel and the unnamed source of Jesus’ teaching. Epiphany is Jesus’ unveiling to the world and it begins a timeline to what the Western, medieval thinking, church saw as sacrifice on the cross; but what we should see as vindication & verification that in his resurrection we see the nature of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
I’ve talked repeatedly on love as the fundamental factor in understanding God as we see him/her in Jesus: not a soppy, soft kind of love but rather a wider more general compassion and care for the condition of everyone or everything n creation; but, having laid down the framework to understanding, we are left rather wondering what WE can do. After all for the last 75 years we have had a welfare state in this country which aimed to look after the needs of all, and for the last 50 certainly I’ve looked on aghast at the catastrophes leading to the great appeals for aid around the world. Now I actually believe that both of those have their roots in Christian belief and practice but it does tend to leave us not actually able to do anything more than caring for friends and neighbours in a way that is instinctively human rather than particularly Christian.
I used a phrase right at the end of my last talk which (I hope) some of you might remember: “let every little thing you do contribute to the Kingdom of God”. Sadly I cannot claim credit. Rather it was a phrase that a wonderful lady used in a sermon I heard 20 years ago; and describes a way of living that helps us decide what is right or wrong about every little thing we do. I still think it was one of the best sermons I’ve heard because it deals with the here & now rather than the bigger scale which, sometimes, we can appreciate but not contribute to. In the light of the events and things that have been going on in the world and in THIS country at the present time I want to add another thing to that though; because identifying with Jesus, having commitment and loyalty to him, and proclaiming that in him we see God, means that we have to stand up to be counted and to be seen to be counted.
Whether it is in the courage shown to oppose injustice in Burma/Myanmar or the loss of rights in Hong Kong; or opposing an apartheid state in Israel; or standing up and saying that shooting a jogger for being black in America is wrong; standing up and saying ‘no’ is something fundamental at the heart of our belief in the God of Love. And here today I see a country where a cynical disregard of the truth, decency, fairness & tolerance we in this country at least used to BELIEVE we stood for, have been allowed to take root over the last decade; and I want to say ‘not in my name’. Governing is difficult and even with shared values we will often disagree with what we should do; but in a Christian country with nominally Christian leaders we need to start making our feelings known; and, for myself, when I see a hostile attitude to people being prepared to put their wife and child in a leaky raft at night in winter in the middle of Mediterranean or the Channel because it’s safer than where they come from, I want to shout ‘not in my name’; and when I see an aid budget slashed because of sleaze and incompetence costing ten times as much, I want to scream ‘not in my name’. Misery and deprivation exist in the world alongside us in our comfortable lives, which is why we need to have honest, sincere, decent men & women leading & representing us. If they aren’t and they don’t, some stage along the line we need to say “not in our name”.
Some if not all of you will be thinking that “whoa, Phil’s gone off the reservation with this one” and “it’s way over the line of inappropriate”; but I’d say to any thinking like that “this is EXACTLY what the baptism of Christ represents”. It’s the start of a two year mission that leads us to say that in in Jesus of Nazareth we see God. It is the raising of a flag that says ‘follow and we shall look for the Samaritan in distress’. It is the starting gun of a process that says ‘here I stand with the weak, with the sick and with the needy’. It’s a clarion call that says to the stranger, a clarion call to the refuge, a clarion call to the down & out and, yes, a clarion call to the immigrant looking for a better life who’s here lonely, scared & vulnerable: a clarion call to them to say “when you need a neighbour I’m here”.
And when we come to the end of time, and stand before the pearly gates, it will be these little things – acts of loving kindness to a stranger and standing up for what is right – these little things are the steps of our stairway to heaven.