Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Advent 4 Sunday 18 December 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: 1 Samuel 1.1-20; Revelation 22.6-end
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’
Priests who work in city centre parishes often develop a sixth sense about people: an ability to spot trouble coming; to read body language. We grow used to dealing with the mentally disturbed, the addicted, the downright dishonest: when I was a curate in Edinburgh, they always seemed to have sick or dying grannies in Inverness. The most irritating are those who deploy either unctuous piety or religious guilt-mongering: “Call yourself a Christian.”
We develop an ability to sort out the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff. Most of the time, our instincts are probably right, but sometimes we got it wrong: we end up being conned or we harden our heart just once too often – we cross the line which divides scepticism from cynicism. Assuming the worst, we fail to notice the best.
On Friday afternoon, after the lunchtime carol service, a woman came into church, went over to the Lady Altar behind me and set about wrenching off one of the candlesticks. She hadn’t noticed the CCTV which was recording her, but no one spotted what she was up to. What began, I suspect, as an attempt to steal, ended as an act of vandalism, as she ended up wrecking the candlestick. Even before we had seen the CCTV recordings, Fr. Michael had guessed who was likely to be the culprit, spotted in the courtyard while we were enjoying minced pies and mulled wine.
Churches like this one have always tended to attract a small number of what used to be known as tramps -gentlemen of the road -down-and-outs. Theft and vandalism are not new problems. In Edinburgh, the candlesticks in the Lady Chapel had “Stolen from Old St. Paul’s” engraved on the base: they used to come and go between the church and antique shops. Like many churches in central London, we are dealing with unprecedented levels of homelessness and rough-sleeping. There is no point pretending that managing this day by day is not challenging. But it is not these people I want to talk about this evening.
This is the season of carol services and Christingles and nativity plays. Carol services seem to become more and more popular. Bishop Benson of Truro, who invented the carol service as a spiritual preparation for Christmas, and Eric Milner White, the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, who popularised it by means of radio, can hardly have imagined the way in which their creation has conquered most of English-speaking Christianity: all but the most puritanical protestants or liturgically prissy catholics congregations cheerfully put them on. They bring thousands, of people, who would not otherwise be there, into churches.
Fr. Andrew Nunn, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, – where they routinely have over 30 carol services – has written recently about the effect of all this on the season of Advent. Its distinctive character and rich themes are swamped by the tide of anticipated Christmas. They are relegated to Sunday or weekday mornings – when no one ever asks us to organise a carol service.
Catholic Christians, like Fr. Nunn and us, are placed in a dilemma by this tide of carol-singing. We love Christmas and our sacramental faith is deeply-rooted in the incarnation. We go on celebrating it long after the rest of the world has moved on to the January sales and New Year resolutions; forty days long until Candlemas. We remind ourselves of it day by day in creed and canticle and devotions like the Angelus with which we began this service. But we love and value Advent, too, its hymns, readings and prayers
There was a time, when the Church and Christian communities prepared for the great festivals or faith with a communal fast. If we lived in a monastery, we still could do that. That is no longer the world’s way. The festival is now celebrated in anticipation. No sooner has it arrived than it is gone. If there is any fasting, it is only to be found in New Year’s resolutions to go on a diet. Rather than bemoaning the ways of a wicked world, we might devote some attention to recovering and sustaining those traditional disciplines.
One of the traditional themes of Advent is Judgement. It calls us to examine ourselves and that soul-searching might well include the temptation for us is to be cynical about the motives of these occasional worshipper who turn up at carol services or midnight mass. What brings them? Is it nostalgia and sentimentality, or just going along with the crowd? Is it nothing more significant than the office party or the lights on Oxford Street?
Well, the simple answer is that we do not and cannot know. But unless we are willing, like Oliver Cromwell and his fellow-puritan kill-joys, to abolish Christmas, to hand it over to the world of sales and marketing, then we must give people the benefit of the doubt; assume better motives rather than worse. For, unless we do, we may well, like Eli with Hannah, jump to the wrong conclusion. We may risk missing God’s grace at work bringing new life and hope where there had only been barrenness and despair.
To do that would be just as much to reduce our faith to a nostalgia for a lost world. It would be to assume that God is not at work in our world now; that he has undone the incarnation; unbound himself from his creation; given up on the project of making and remaking humankind in his own image; cancelled the invitation into living fellowship and communion with him, his promise to be “Emmanuel:God-with-us,” which we heard in the gospel at Mass today, of which his presence in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar is a pledge.
Ours is the God who says, at the close of the Book of Revelation:
‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
Who are we to cancel that invitation? Who are we to assume that the apparently casual worshipper at carol service or midnight mass might not hear it? And what if we, by our cold-hearted cynicism and grudging welcome, should give people the impression that the invitation is not really for the likes of them?
Woe to Christmas preachers who use their pulpits not to tell good news but to administer a verbal beating up to those who turn up at Midnight Mass but won’t be there on Good Friday; those whose awkwardness in an unfamiliar setting betrays them as occasional worshippers; who may unlike Hannah even be ever so slightly tipsy. Dare we deny them the chance to pour out their souls in the house which is God’s and not ours, an opportunity to give even silent voice to anxieties and vexations we may have no idea of? Dare we deny them the chance to hear, perhaps for the first time to really hear, the message, old and yet forever new, of God’s peace and goodwill and loving kindness towards them, revealed in the child of Bethlehem? Dare we deny them the opportunity, along with those other characters of dubious piety or absent orthodoxy – the shepherds and Magi – a place before the manger throne of the child who is their Saviour and ours? Dare we turn them away, knowing that our faith teaches us that in welcoming or rejecting them, we welcome or reject him?