A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Hale. On the second Sunday in Advent, 2015.
I spent the inside of last week with my friend and colleague Peter Murphy at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Ostensibly, we were there on a nostalgic visit re-visiting a Hostel in Leeds also attached to the Community where we started our theological training some 50 years ago. We took the opportunity to re-visit the Hostel which is now a University hall of residence and witness a remarkable transformation within the historic shell of the remarkable Victorian building. The chapel is now a common room and a large plasma TV screen now adorns the East end of the chapel where the altar used to rest. To the right of the TV screen I are the words, RELAX-good transformation!
Part of the time we shared in the life of the Community as we worshipped morning and evening, a lectio divina (bible study), and had shared meals largely in silence. The love with which the brothers received us was palpable. We made a pilgrimage to the Calvary Garden, the Community’s cemetery as we said hello again to the monks who had been our mentors those 50 years ago.
In the silence the only distractions are those which flowed through my head and experienced in my body. Distractions there were and also a great sense of simply being in the moment filled with a silence I want to name the presence of the mystery of God. It was bit like a dance. At once in the moment sensing the fullness of the silence and then my mind travelling myriads of paths of things important and insignificant.
Richard Rhor, a Franciscan monk in his book, ‘Everything Belongs’ writes this,
“The now is not as empty as it might appear to be or that we fear it may be. Try to realise that everything is right here, right now. When we are doing life right it means nothing more than it is right now, because God is in this moment in a non-blaming way. When we are able to experience that, taste it and enjoy it, we don’t need to hold on to it. The next moment will have its own taste and enjoyment.”
The Advent season beckons us to a time of waiting and attending. We are called to pay more attention to the moments of existence-the air we breathe, the autumn wind blowing on our faces, the dancing leaves at our feet, the smell of rotting and decay, the watery sun and moon. And inside ourselves to discern what is really important for us. Our daily battles with demons of many familiar faces, our anxieties about those we love, our concerns about cards and presents. How we are going to meet the seemingly conflicting demands of many people.
Weighing heavy on my heart this week is a dear friend’s huge grief at the loss of his son through cancer at such an early age knowing that his other son is also slowly dying of cancer. What do I say to him? How can I support him? Peter and I lit a candle for him and his family in York Minister I subsequently found out, almost at the point he died. I know that I have to surrender all of my thoughts and feelings and faltering prayers to the divine mystery who goes before me. And I still am concerned about what I can do.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”-words from Mark’s gospel echoing those words of comfort by Isaiah to a broken nation of Israel. What John the Baptist shows us is a passion and a zeal for the coming presence of God in our lives. How do we prepare the ‘way of the Lord’? How do we ‘make his paths straight’?
One of the downsides of the Protestant Reformation was to focus our attention so much on the spiritual journeys of individuals. Both are important-the individual journey and the community. I came away from Mirfield with a sense that God is working in the Community. It is all too easy to use the Church as a private club for the development of our individual spiritual journeys. For us to act as a community, as an alive body of people we have to spend time being with and listen to each other as we grow in trust and faith with each other. It is in the active engagement with each other we discover what the path of the Lord is for his people, how to make his paths straight.
So what do we talk about? Do we share and hear each other’s pain and dilemmas? Do we have share a future together to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart in this place? What are our church’s distractions? What are we avoiding? An examination of the agendas of our PCC’s and Synods might be worth a look!
Advent might then become a period when we think about these things and pray about these things knowing that the mystery of God’s love is already before us longing to support and sustain us in the difficult questions and the anxieties we carry.
Advent is a period of preparation then, a time when we can set aside some time from distractions and risk simply being without too many words. We live in a fabulous part of the world. The world of nature provides us with so many gifts of awareness of God’s loving mystery. Stand in the stillness of the forest and know that you are both alone with yourself and connected to one who holds the whole of life in the palm of his hand.
John the Baptist’s message to the crowds was one which pointed away from himself to the one who ‘is coming after me’. Once we know what truly distracts and fills our heads with so many thoughts and fears and anxieties that we may be able better to make an act of surrender of them in order that God’s love and energy can fill our moments. Our awareness of them may be fleeting. But it is in opening our hearts that we allow God to fill us. That is Mary’s eternal gift to us. She was beckoned by God to open herself to be filled with his Spirit and Jesus, God with us. That is the goal of our ‘preparing the way of the Lord’-again this Advent open your heart to yourself in love and to one another and all whom you meet-enjoy making the paths of the Lord straight for all to walk on.