Gaudate (Joy) Sunday with Rev Dr Phil Wall
…Well, on the subject of joy…it’s nativity play season and few things cause stress to teachers, pride to parents, and joy to the rest of us than the tinsel and tea-towel drama of a good school nativity play. Which leads me to the question – what role do you remember playing in a nativity? Were you a wise man, wise woman, shepherd or innkeeper? Did you have the star power to play Mary, the grace to be Gabriel, the face to be the donkey?! Those of us online will be sharing our memories but those of you reading this might want to pause for a second and have a think of nativities in which you’ve participated.
…I always think it must be hard for teachers if they try to ‘top’ the previous year’s play. It feels quite hard to put your own, original spin on the story. Hard…but not impossible…for we’re going to see a short clip in which the Head of Music at an English private school comes up with a cunning plan to make his school’s nativity play the talk of the town…
[A clip from Nativity! will be shown. It is currently on BBC Iplayer]
A clip there from the wonderful film Nativity! – a justified favourite of Mary Robins’! And the teacher – Mr Shakespeare – does put on his macabre nativity opera, complete with swords, blood, and five-star reviews. In the context of the film, it’s hilarious…and he’s right, of course – for obvious reasons, school nativities abruptly end with the holy family, the traditional visitors, and often various assorted extras, singing together in harmony. It’s sweet, heart-warming, and a festive ending where everyone lives happily ever after!
The trouble is, fairy tale endings only ever really happen in fairy tales. And the true nativity story is no fairy tale, so let’s go back to the script to remind ourselves what actually happened after the actors usually take their bow…
It’s a somewhat different ending, eh…and one that I would sadly say is more in line with what we read in our newspapers and experience in our world today. Power-obsessed leaders who lie, cheat, and steal to cling on to the throne. Families forced to seek refuge abroad just to survive. A mother weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled. A mother in Afghanistan, perhaps, weeping as her children face freezing temperatures, failed harvests, and a return to violence. Maybe a mother in Madagascar, weeping because the price of water has jumped up by 300 percent over the last three years and she has to decide who gets to drink, to survive, and who doesn’t. A father in Iran, weeping because he is told that his wife and three children were four of the twenty-seven people who drowned whilst trying to cross The Channel, seeking refuge in the UK. It can feel like not much has changed in two thousand years.
And yet, the answer simply cannot me to shrug our shoulders and sigh ‘plus ca change’. So what can we do? What is the faithful thing to do? Well, let’s start by reading on for the story is not yet over. The holy family do find refuge in Egypt; Herod’s reign does come to an end; and Jeremiah’s foretelling of weeping and mourning does not conclude with a mother’s devastation. In the verses that immediately follow, he tells us;
Thus says the Lord:
‘Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for…there is hope for your future.’
Hope for your future. I wonder how you receive those words today. I wonder how they were received in Jeremiah’s day. Personally, at the moment, I find those words quite small. That hope feels fragile, even foolish in the face of pandemics, climate crises, and the politics of fear and greed. But then I remembered words about hope from the North African theologian, St Augustine, who said;
Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.
Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
I don’t know about you, but that quote really speaks to me. I feel like it gives me permission – encouragement even – to be angry. And there is so much to be angry about. Like the fact that about 15000 children under 6 die every single day from preventable causes around the world. Like the fact that the Trussell Trust has to give around 2000 food parcels to families in this country each day. Or the fact that, at a time in which the UK has more people leaving its shores than arriving with more than a million job vacancies, our present Westminster Government still wish to push families back into the English Channel with little regard whether they live or die. This is not lefty hyperbole…even a parliament report on the home office’s plans for criminalizing the act of seeking asylum found them to be ‘contrary to the UK’s obligations under the right to life and international maritime law’…and that makes me angry!
But me being angry won’t change anything, so let’s remember hope’s second daughter – the courage to see that things do not remain as they are – a phrase that has echoes of the one we shared in our first service of advent – that it is better to light a candle than to curse at the darkness.
For I do believe that things do not have to be as they are. I do believe that Christmas is a time for hope. I do believe that God will usher in a day when no mother will have to choose to risk a deadly crossing, drink polluted water, or watch their child die an avoidable death. Yet I also believe that God does not want us to sit idly by, twiddling our thumbs and checking our phones while waiting for that day to arrive.
‘Feed the hungry’, said the one born under a star. ‘Visit the sick. Welcome the stranger. Challenge the corrupt. Give away your coat; turn the other cheek; walk the extra mile. Listen to the marginalized; stand up for the oppressed; beware the evils of wealth. Think not just of your own needs; embrace the Spirit; enjoy parties. Give generously; forgive regularly; love recklessly. Be blessed, be magnificent; be angry, be courageous, be hopeful…for God’s kingdom is coming. God’s love is boundless. God’s good news is for all.
This Christmas, then, let’s try not to get lost in the fairy tale of nativity plays; nor in the despair of our age. Rather, let’s be people of hope. Let’s share our anger honestly; pray for courage fervently; and trust in the God who was laid in a manger, is with us today, and who tells us;
‘Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for…there is hope for your future.’
May it be so.
Refugee – Malcolm Guite
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside a font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and sheltering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower,
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
Those who are moved by Malcolm’s work are encouraged to check out his website, where – amongst other things – they can buy him a coffee as a thanks! https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/
Prayers of Intercession – Margaret Morris
Compassionate and Loving God, whose son became a refugee, and had no place to call his own, we ask that you be with those who today are fleeing from danger; who are homeless and hungry escaping the wrath of someone else’s quarrel. We think of those making perilous journeys by land and sea, and we think of those who have not reached their destination; men, women and children who have died in search of a place of sanctuary. We especially think of those who have perished on our own shores in recent days. May we pray for the families and friends who mourn them.
To you each one is known and loved. When we see their images in our newspapers and on the television, may we see your face in each one.
In the family seeking safety from violence and persecution.
In the asylum seekers seeking justice for themselves and for their families.
In unaccompanied children travelling in a dangerous world.
Give us hearts, that are open, whenever they, our brothers and sisters, turn to us for help, and ears that are no longer deaf to their voices, in times of need.
We pray for the agencies which are set up to help them, Care for Calais, The Refugee Council and those others who work worldwide to alleviate their suffering.
We think of the friends that we know in our own church and neighbourhoods, those who have come to our
town, leaving behind family, friends and loved ones. Let us recognise the great sadness and pain that they
must hold within themselves, as they worry about those who have been left behind, and were not able to come with them. We are humbled by the courage and bravery which they show us.
We thank you today for those within our own fellowship and community who try their utmost to help and support them, often unknown to the rest of us, and we pray that you will give us all the heart to help in whatever ways we can. Forgive us when we have not cared as much as we should have, when we become numbed to the suffering which we see continually, and open our eyes, that we, who are so privileged and have so much, may see the need in others.
We pray for wisdom and compassion for the leaders of the world that they may consider carefully, the consequences of armed interventions into other countries. That they may see the wrong in setting up walls, barriers and fences to keep refugees and asylum seekers out. Forgive them for their thirst for power, and we pray that, one day, dialogue will take the place of warfare, and love take the
place of hate. We look forward in hope for the day when swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.
And now we pray for ourselves, our families, friends and community. We pray for those who grieve the loss of loved ones, and for those who, this year, will miss a beloved face at the dinner table.
We pray for those suffering from illness, who have struggled for so long, and those suffering the effects of coronavirus, and other illnesses. May they feel your presence and love, as we celebrate the coming of the one who feels all our pain and suffering, and who walks alongside each one of us.
In a moment of silence we pause to give you thanks and to bring to you, those who are on our hearts and minds today.
Help us to share with others the Hope that the coming of Jesus brings us – that the light is shining in the darkness, and that the darkness will never put it out.
In His name we bring you all our prayers, as we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples …….
We sing our final hymn…Come now unexpected Jesus – come to shock us and to shake us, readjust surprisingly…
God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and the suffering ones,
The grieving parents on Earth,
and the angels in heaven,
Give us Your blessing,
Your joy for our souls,
Your hope in our deeds,
Your light in our darkness.
We go to serve. Amen.