Sunday, 8 January 2017

'Full of grace and truth': Epiphany in Hodge Hill

Being overwhelmed

You don’t have to take a glance at the news to feel overwhelmed by life – but if you do happen to turn the telly or the radio on, scan the front page of a newspaper, spend a minute or two on Facebook or Twitter, then it is hard not to be overwhelmed by it all: by war, and destruction, and mass displacement of people; by angry, divisive, hate-filled politics; by the very real facts of climate change, and their potentially devastating consequences for the whole planet... Let alone the smaller overwhelmings of our own and our loved ones lives: illness, bereavement, pressures of work or money or relationships, the list could go on...

So in the midst of the multiple overwhelmings of life, how do we respond? It is so tempting to put our defences up, hide away, do everything we can to make ourselves impervious to the pressures, stiffen the upper lip and ‘press on’ with life, cutting ourselves off from as many of the overwhelmings as we can manage...

But there is another way. A riskier way. We might, as theologian David Ford has suggested, instead seek to live ‘amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes [our responses to] the others’. That probably needs re-reading a few times, and chewing over a little, for its meaning, its possibility, to sink in: to seek to live amidst the multiple overwhelmings of life in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes our responses to the others.

Glory

And if we dare to look for that ‘one thing’, then the Epiphany season (which is really the Christmas season continuing to unfold) points us to ‘the glory of God’: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14). In Jesus, in Jesus’ human flesh, says John, we see the glory of God. And that glory is full (to overflowing) with grace (we’ll come back to that in a moment), and truth.

Truth

Truth is a timely word right now. What could it possibly mean to be ‘truth-full’ in what is increasingly being described as a ‘post-truth’ world?

A little further on in John’s gospel, we’re offered one answer to that question: ‘This is the judgment,’ says Jesus: ‘the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because those who do evil are afraid that what they do will be exposed [brought to light]’ (Jn. 3:19-20).


The light, of course, is Jesus himself. The baby recently-born in the Bethlehem manger. In the light from this child, we are able to see as clear as day – so goes John’s gospel at least – what those who do ‘evil’ hope to hide, ‘bury’, ‘shred’. And while we can all, I would imagine, think of things that we would be keen to hide, in a week when Republicans in the US Congress attempted to shut down their own Office of Congressional Ethics, we might not need reminding that those with the most to hide are often those with the most power in our world.

Look at the magi, kneeling before the baby. They recognised the truth about where real power lay. Eventually, at least – after a costly detour to Herod’s Palace. Herod recognised it too – remember his response, the response of all tyrants to any challenge to their power – to try to silence, expel, eliminate their opposition.

But what about us? What does ‘letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the truth of this child’ mean, for us?

In October 1996, the Archbishop of Bukavu, Zaire, Christophe Munzihirwa, was assassinated, while seeking to defend hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from genocide. Just a few weeks before, he had spoken these words:
‘One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act... [P]eople of good will must never be disheartened when faced with the sudden unleashing of violence. In the midst of it all, the seed sown in the soil of our heart slowly germinates. When God becomes a child, he knows that there is no better way for him to express himself than through the weakness of that child. This is love telling us that it comes unarmed.’
Where, into what situations, relationships, encounters are we being invited to go with ‘unarmed’, ‘undefended’, love? What are we being invited to see that can only be seen, in Archbishop Christophe’s words, ‘with eyes that have cried’? Where are we being called to open ourselves to being overwhelmed, out of passion and compassion for our fellow human beings? It was Leonard Cohen, who died in November last year, who sang of the ‘crack in everything’ that’s ‘how the light gets in’. Through what cracks in our world, in our lives – however painful, at times – might we glimpse God’s glory, full of grace, and truth?

Grace

I wonder if ‘grace’ is perhaps a trickier word even than ‘truth’ for us? It’s become a technical, theological word these days. But its meaning is gift, generosity... un-earned, un-deserved, un-engineered, un-expected... evading any attempts at ‘accounting’, ‘record-keeping’, ‘calculating’... exploding the logic of our economies of exchange and payment, debt and credit...

What might it mean to let ourselves be overwhelmed by grace? The Christmas season might seem to be the very best time of year to ask that question, and to think of real, tangible answers to it... Except... how many of us have ever found ourselves doing exactly such calculating and book-keeping with Christmas presents? ...how much do we normally spend on X, we ask ourselves (quietly, usually, in the private safety of our minds)? Or even more quietly and privately – how much do they normally spend on us?! Because we wouldn’t want to over-do it... or under-do it...

Such calculations are the polar opposite of grace, of course... But thankfully, there is another Christmas story... a story we don’t have to travel as far as Bethlehem to encounter first-hand – because if we open ourselves to be overwhelmed by grace, we discover it all around us, in our homes, in our church community, in our neighbourhood... So let me just give you a few glimpses of my Christmas story – which, for many of its chapters, might well be something of your Christmas story too, our Christmas story here in Hodge Hill...

Tom's lights, and Santa's sleigh...


There’s a young man called Tom, who lives with his mum and dad on the Firs estate, who every year has hung out bigger and better Christmas lights all over the outside of their family home, and raises money (from people’s donations) for the Make a Wish Foundation, helping to make dreams come true for seriously ill children... As if that wasn’t enough in itself, this year Tom agreed to drive his Santa’s sleigh (complete with light-up reindeers and seriously amplified Christmas songs) around every street of our estate, on a couple of Wednesday evenings before Christmas.


Our very own Pete Burrill was Mr Claus himself, with a good friend from the Hub, Clare, being Mrs Claus. A whole team of us walked along with them, rattling our collecting buckets, ringing our bells, handing out Christmas cards and chocolates to anyone who came out of their houses... and they did – they really did!


We must have spoken to hundreds of our neighbours, and many, many more came to their doors, or windows, and waved. The stunned looks of disbelief on the faces of some of the children were enough on their own to make it worthwhile, but it was so much more than that. And people gave generously to Make a Wish – we collected over £500 from the two evenings.

The 'Street Nativity'...

And then there was what we’ve come to call the ‘Street Nativity’. Our third one, this Christmas. ‘Mrs Claus’ swapped her padded red coat for a blue shawl to be Mary, and her new-born grand-daughter was our baby Jesus. The angels dazzled the shepherds amid more Christmas lights (this time for Alzheimer’s), the 4 magi came out of St Wilfrid’s Hall to join us, and Sonny at the Shawsdale chippy did a swift costume change from nasty King Herod to generous chip-shop owner, feeding us all for free with piping hot fish and chips. Even the donkey, kindly lent us by Curdworth Stables, got to gobble a tasty chip or two...


Countless quiet acts of hospitality and generosity

So much more kindness and generosity goes on out of the limelight though. I could mention the couple from St Wilfrid’s who invited a single mum and her son to join them for Christmas dinner, a link made through the new support group for parents with children with autism, set up by one of our fabulous Street Connectors, Jo. I could mention the immense generosity of folk from church here, who gave gifts of food for a Christmas hamper, and gifts of money, to help take some of the pressure off Christmas for one of our ‘Unsung Heroes’ and her family – and the kindness and hospitality Sarah and I were offered when we took the gifts round to them. I could mention Genny and the Old Rectory providing space for the Barrett family as we’ve sought refuge from the building work on our house, for a couple of months – and all the cooking, baking, crafting and games that our children have loved and learnt from Genny while we’ve been there...

'Cascades of grace'

All of these are just a few examples (alongside the many more that I haven’t seen personally, or heard of from friends and colleagues) of what the writer Ann Morisy calls ‘cascades of grace’ – a ‘domino effect’ where one grace-filled connection sparks another, and another, and another, and so on...

‘We have seen his glory’ we say with the gospel-writer John – the glory of a baby, lying in a manger... That is the message of Christmas, first told by Bethlehem’s shepherds – that is the repeated refrain of Epiphany, beginning with the magi... But like a stone dropped into a lake, the ripples of Christmas continue spreading outwards; like a solitary candle, whose light is enough to light countless others, the light, the glory of God, has come not just in a Bethlehem stable – but here, on the Firs & Bromford, across Hodge Hill, and in infinite glimmers of hope across time and space...

A quick glance at the news is enough to remember that there is much in our world that threatens to overwhelm us... but one of the biggest lies we are told is that Christmas is done and dusted, a past event, now packed back in its box and shoved into a corner of the loft. In words we’ll finish our service with today, the work of Christmas has only just started, the ripples of Christmas have only just begun to spread, the green shoots of Christmas have barely poked their tops above the dark and frost-hardened soil. Christmas begins. Here. Now. Let’s open our eyes to see God’s glory – truth-full, grace-full. Let’s open our hearts to be overwhelmed by it, transformed by it. And let’s see what cascades of grace, what ricocheting trajectories of hope, might be unleashed in our world...

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