Monday, 13 December 2010

Fragments of Advent understanding - a sermon

They held up a stone.
I said, "Stone."
Smiling they said, "Stone."

They showed me a tree.
I said, "Tree."
Smiling they said, "Tree."

They shed a man's blood.
I said, "Blood."
Smiling they said, "Paint."

They shed a man's blood.
I said, "Blood."
Smiling they said, "Paint."

copyright (c) Dannie Abse, Adapted from the Hebrew of Amir Gilboa, 1982

Bible Reading - Isaiah 42:1-4
Matthew 3:1-12
Fragments of Advent understanding - a sermon preached in the ecumenical centre chapel

First the bad news - Manoj and Hielke are travelling so you get me again …
and be warned, next year it will be different you will all be doing the prayers and the preaching!

And now for more bad news:
Sorry but Advent is not all about the cute little baby

So I offer you some fragments

In the knowledge that they will not make a perfect whole

In the hope that this incompleteness will leave room for some of your fragments too

Earlier this year I spent some time whispering into the ear of a delightful, charming and erudite man called Floribert Bahizire, a leading human rights advocate and Director of an NGO in the Democratic Republic of Congo called "La Voix des Sans-Voix pour les Droits de l’Homme"

Six weeks later in early June the world learnt of his and his driver's death in suspicious circumstances. The two of them treated like paint. Their humanity and blood denied.

And in Advent we read and hear Isaiah's words from the suffering servant:

"He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick"

And I think oh really?

I hear my mother in law's voice saying to me that she really has had enough of all these prayers saying that God cares for all those who are suffering - "I don't think he does you know. And how does that help them, what is God doing?"


We can all think of people like Floribert - the bruised reeds or smouldering wicks who have been snapped off or snuffed out or raped or beaten - we may even refer to some of them as martyrs or saints

And there are also those too numerous to mention or comprehend who have died in genocide, war, famine and injustice: Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, gulags, gas chambers, the disappeared

"He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick he will faithfully bring forth justice."

Upholding human rights, upholding the humanity of humanity …seeking to bear witness not to paint but to the blood which courses in all of our veins. It is a painstaking and often dangerous task. Truth creates enemies.

And as I think about that challenge I think of the many times in my own life when I have been more on the side of paint than of blood. Advent is such a time of reflection, a time to contemplate judgement as well as the promise of joy.

Let me give you a small example from parish life in France. It was not a good day. The previous night's elders meeting had lasted until 1am, the morning's meeting of "les amis de l'orgue" - the friends of the organ - seemed to have resolutely decided to become the enemies of the pastor. I walked from my study out into the garden, in need of some springtime hope and as I got to the fruit garden my heart sank, there was the parishioner who "helped" (I use the term advisedly) with the garden with a large pile of twigs in front of her. I could see that they came from my gooseberry bushes which would now have no chance of bearing fruit.

Let's just say I wasn't happy and I let her know it.

She was probably the poorest member of the parish. After the failure of her marriage she had become addicted to antidepressants but had overcome that, her daughter was on methadone, she didn't have a garden of her own. And on this lovely sunny morning even the pastor was shouting at her.

"He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick he will faithfully bring forth justice."

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

A further and final fragment
A friend is talking about the empty evening ahead while feeling lonely and exhausted after a heavy travel programme. She suddenly said, "I think I shall go home and pray." And I realised she hardly ever had the time or energy to pray and that having and making that time is also a privilege … do I use my privileged praying time well?
Centuries ago St Augustine said "without God we cannot, without us God will not". Prayer and ethics, spirituality and practice belong together
All of us are imperfect pilgrims trying to make those two ends meet.
Sometimes we ourselves are the bruised reeds and guttering wicks

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;

Even when things are in fragments the Advent promise carries us forwards.
Because of and despite our limitations we continue to bear hope, to dare to believe

Last week Floribert's successor was here in Geneva, and is taking the work of his NGO for human rights in DRC forwards.

So here's the good news
It is all about the suffering servant baby
About God's vulnerability and choice of the insignificant stable rather than the pompous palace.
About God the almighty accepting even to be powerless and dependent.

In British folklore parents tell their children that babies are found underneath the gooseberry bush - (given how thorny gooseberry bushes are this may say something about British attitudes to sexuality). Two years after the pruning incident in my garden I came home to discover a basket of freshly picked gooseberries on my doorstep. There had been a bumper harvest but I had moved house in the meantime, someone else was harvesting from the fruit bushes I had planted.

We are called to prophetic anger at abuses that treat people like paint and pawns rather than flesh and blood.
But in Adventide we are called even more to be fragments filled with the promise of peace and justice, reeds and wicks pointing to the possibility, to the certainty of future fruit even if we will not ourselves be the harvesters.

For most surely, God's suffering One from the stable will enflame our hearts and redress all that is broken within us.

Copyright (c) Jane Stranz / WCC

1 Comment:

janetlees said...

Love the gooseberries - I remember the french ones growing out of a well at the farm where I stayed with a family I worked for when an au pair in France in my teens - the mackeral berry - berry nice!