Sermon on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity at St Deiniol’s Cathedral in Bangor
Ezekiel 2:1–5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2–10; Mark 6. 1–13
There are 174 shopping days until Christmas.
We’re passed mid-summer, and there are now 174 shopping days until Christmas.
I wonder what that phrase makes you feel? I wonder what it calls to mind for you?
I suppose that, in the past, that kind of countdown would have been for me a reminder of the inevitable, predictable passage of time — nothing so fixed in the calendar of our lives as Christmas; a reminder of the all the unavoidable, inescapable things that would have to be done, and prepared for and endured — the gifts to be bought, the family events to attend, the aunts to be nice to; a reminder of the commercial dynamics of life — the buzz of the shops, the temptations on shelves and racks and websites, the preordained January sales. Above all, perhaps, a reminder of the importance of planning and being responsible, of being in control.
174 shopping days until Christmas. Shaped — scarred — by our experiences of the last year, I wonder how that strikes you differently now?
Now, this year, I find myself thinking of all uncertainty and doubt heralded by that phrase. No longer a reliable countdown to the inevitable and predictable, I find myself thinking about all the unexpected things 174 days could bring — about third waves, and winter flu, and gamma variants, and top-up jabs. Preparing for the next sixth months seems no longer about fixed points, but fluidity and flexibility. Planning doesn’t quite seem the primary virtue that it once was; being in control a slightly delusional myth.
Indeed, I wonder whether I slightly resent the idea of a countdown towards anything much further away than next week — and not because of the risk and anxieties of a hazy horizon, but because, over the past year, I’ve come more to value those things I can hold and cherish now — these friendships and relationships; this patch of ground, that walk, that view; this use of time and set of habits and virtues; a contentedness with that which I am now, not a breathless striving for that which I may never be.
Or perhaps I just yearn for a nice, normal 174 shopping days until Christmas, just as they used to be, gifts and aunts and January sales mistake purchases and all.
There are 174 shopping days until Christmas. After this pandemic year, I wonder what that makes you feel? I wonder what it calls to mind for you? And I wonder what your answers tell you about what you value, about what is of ultimate worth to you?
Theologically, we like Christmas because of the awe of God made man in this tiny child, giving up the majestic courts of heaven to be here, one of us, like us. Here is the one who was sat at the Father’s right hand, whose mighty arm scattered the stars and summoned creation into being — here he is in his mother’s arms, his hands ones that would handle the rough wood and tools of a Nazareth carpenter’s workshop. God here, one of us, like us. What wonder; what sacrifice; what gift.
It’s good to be reminded, as we are in today’s Gospel reading, that that’s not how we’d likely react if Jesus wondered into our lives today. Jesus has returned to his home town, to Nazareth, to the synagogue there, and whereas elsewhere people have seen in his might acts the arm of the Almighty, here in Nazareth they can only see the carpenter’s hands of a local boy who has ideas above his station. Whereas elsewhere, people have caught in him a glimpse of the Son of the Most High, here in Nazareth they can only see Mary’s child… you know… the one she had before she was married. There is little sense in Nazareth of the wonder and sacrifice and gift of Incarnation. “And they took offence at him. And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”
Our everyday anxieties and fears — and, my, haven’t they been to the fore over the last year and more — can make us all captives of what we can control; they can make us hard in holding onto what we have; they can make us reluctant to raise our heads and open the doors of our hearts to the uncontrollable, challenging, eternal new life of God.
Instead of that fearful holding on, Jesus tells his disciples that they need next to nothing for their journey — no bread, no bag, no money in their belts, no second tunic. But hearts open to the uncontrollable, challenging, eternal new life of God.
After this pandemic year, what are you, what am I, clinging onto too dearly? When Christ’s love and wholeness and healing wonders into my life, as he did into that Nazareth synagogue, will I only see the carpenter’s hands, or will I also see the arms that scattered the stars and summoned creation into being? And I wonder what my answers tell me about what I value, about what is of ultimate worth to me?
Healing and wholeness walked into that synagogue in Nazareth, and people who valued the wrong things, who saw worth in the wrong places, recognized it not.
Over the course of the next week, healing will come to this Cathedral. From this coming week until September, the Cathedral will be used for up to five days a week by the NHS as a vaccination centre. And carpenters’ arms, and mothers’ arms, and respectable arms and homeless arms, and Christian arms and Muslim arms and arms of no discernible faith at all, will, in this holy place, play their part in getting us beyond our current anxieties.
Pray God that it works, that there are 174 shopping days until Christmas, that we can get beyond our anxieties and fears, that we can open the doors of our hearts to the uncontrollable, challenging, eternal new life of God; that with no bread, no bag, no money in our belts we will walk onwards with Christ in God, beyond whom there is nothing of value, and in whom is our ultimate worth.