I Would Start from Here
A sermon by Revd Richard Carter.
Readings for this service: Isaiah 64. 1-9, 1 Corinthians 1. 3-9, Mark 13. 24-end
In the flower shops you can already buy yellow spring daffodils. But I never buy them in winter. Not because I don’t like them but because I believe deep down you have to go through the winter waiting before you can reach those yellow and golds of spring and appreciate them for what they are.
I few weeks ago I was invited to meet the Chaplain of the Heathrow Removal Centre. This is the place that incarcerates about 1400 refugees and migrants before many of them are deported from the UK. Arriving at the Removal Centre the first thing you have to do is get in. There was a long queue of visitors and only one official on duty. We had to apply in advance in order to visit. Arriving we had to have our documents checked, finger prints taken, show proof of identity, show proof of address, before being led into a small room for a body search – and then through one set of security doors and then another. Eventually I am inside. And what is inside- well basically corridors and corridors of 100s of people waiting they know not how long, people who have been locked up as the Home Office waits to try and process them for deportation. They have not been charged or sentenced. They are just waiting. Here there is no grass, no garden, nothing grows, just cells and corridors, a tarmac courtyard and people locked in this prefabricated labyrinth of corridors. One room had been made into a prayer room for Muslims, another for Christians. And the prayers of those who sat inside were palpable. Next door was a music room with a set of drums which someone was beating loudly. Small cells, bunk beds and these long corridors with no way out. Some of those in this removal centre may be here for as long as two years just waiting to hear what will happen to them. They are not criminals they are people who came to our country seeking a future, a place to belong, and an escape from poverty. Human beings with all the diversity that fills this church. Somehow the institutional efficiency of it all makes the incredible tragedy and waste of people’s lives starker. It reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Nowhere to go, “Nothing to be done.” “Let’s go” “We can’t.” Living in a waiting room, waiting for a hope that will never come. Kept like battery hens waiting for the golden egg that can never be laid.
And yet what do I also see here. I see despite all that is stacked against these lives a human courage and a resilience. Yes a grace and a dignity. I don’t know how it survives but it does. In this despair it is somehow more abundantly evident than in so called liberty. Imagine spending eight years of your life crossing continents, the Mediterranean, Italy, France, the Calais Jungle and waiting to get the UK believing that once you were here you would find justice and hope- only to be incarcerated and processed to be sent back again to the place you started from. A futile exodus- like the Jews reaching the Promised Land and being sent back into captivity again- but is there is not a courage here, a faith that is ready to offer all of one’s life for a hope of something better. If you watch the BBC 4 documentary Exodus about the journey of some of some of these migrants you will not only be moved by their stories and tragedies but also inspired by them. I walk away from the removal centre free but I walk away that night held captive by these lives going round and round in my head. How can we live the Christian life when we read the signs of the times and there seems no hope? How can we dream of something better? And though I pray we will never face the same extreme – is their story not a metaphor for all our stories- how to overcome futility, how to face our despair and how to become the people we are in spite of all adversity. How to discover meaning for our lives even in the corridors of unknowing. The Persian poet Hafaz wrote these words 700 years ago:
I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being
I remember the joke of asking someone how to get to a destination and they reply: “If I were you I wouldn’t start from here.” Just at the moment it seems there is quite a lot of uncertainty about how to reach the so called United Kingdom. “I wouldn’t start from here” may seem the most realistic answer whether you are talking about Brexit, or Donald Trump or the vile Britain First Propaganda, or online pornography or a trade partnerships with Saudi Arabia in the process of starving the Yemen to death. I wouldn’t start from here. The Spiritual life is not so much about reaching the destination but how we live the path itself. So where can we start from?
Well I think today’s Gospel says- we must start from here, start from where we are now. The place you have reached. In the very space you are. Christ words do not always tell us what we want to hear. They are not just mirroring our own image, our own desire. Today’s Gospel tells us that our faith is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of the world. There will be suffering. The sun will be darkened, there will be times when the moon does not give its light and the powers in the heaven will be shaken. And yet it is in that very time when we must stand firm. This is apocalyptic language written for a community of Christian living in fear of the most brutal persecution and death, a community being called to remain faithful vigilant and alert. Called not to give up their steadfast service and their attentive waiting for the Master to return. Oftentimes we do not know the answers, we do not have the instant solutions or the remedies and yet must live faithfully and lovingly through the unknowing. Each of us face our own unknowns our own exoduses, wildernesses and waiting’s whether it be for health, or love, or for forgiveness or a new beginning-or our loved ones or children- the promised land is always onwards, so distant that it is easy to lose sight of it completely.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon with our verger Anna Yew and Andrew Aitken’s new baby Florence. We were all in adoration of the beauty of this tiny life – how trusting and yet how unknowing she still is of the vast world all around her.” She has no idea yet of what it all means,” said Andrew,“she doesn’t even call us by name yet.” Here in these loving parents of this young baby- an almost overwhelming responsibility and fear of all the dangers and a longing to protect her from the future- and yet more than that, much more than that – in this small child all the hope and the possibility and the wonder of life and all the discovery that life entails. In each life an incredible God given promise – yes BLESSING – the promise of love and relationship both with others and with God. As Andrew sat cradling Florence with total love- and cooing at her, he turned to me and said: “To think Donald Trump was once a child like this- what happened?”
Advent is the time when we recognise the choices of our becoming- both the danger and the hope. Where we become attentive to all that threatens to betray and snuff out the light but also attentive again to the incredible promises of God. A God who will say to Mary here in your own womb, in your poverty, in your seeming powerlessness you will conceive a child who will be God’s promise to the world. This child, stripped of all worldly power and might, will be the one who will bring salvation and will go on transforming us. Not through fear and hate and violence but through compassion and forgiveness and love. That divine life will be made flesh. You too will be the bearer of that life. And God’s life will never be overcome by the darkness of the world. He will go on radiating love in poverty, or on the road, or facing sickness, or in prison, or even when betrayed and rejected- even on the cross and tomb he will go on pouring out that love.
Today the Radio 4 Christmas Appeal with St Martin-in-the-Fields was made. Homelessness and destitution of all kinds in this country in the last five years has more than doubled and is evident in every city across the UK. You cannot have failed to notice it. In London nearly half of those who are destitute are refugees and migrants. In this years’ Commemoration for those who have Died Homeless on the streets or vulnerably housed- we remembered 144 people during the last year in London alone. All of them began their lives as babies like Florence cradled in someone’s arms. This year’s appeal focuses on the small and precious actions that can make an immeasurable difference- whether that is food or shelter, or friendship or acceptance, or belonging, or acts of compassion and faithful kindness. Each action for good however insignificant it may seem can bring about a greater good- wherever you are and whoever you are. These actions say you matter, someone cares, God keeps his promises through me. The kingdom of God is brought about one small step at a time but gathers momentum.
Think of those daffodils I spoke about at the beginning of this address. During this winter they are under the earth. You may have forgotten that you planted them or where they were planted. Or perhaps they were planted by others or before you. Yet they are present. Under the soil waiting. They are waiting and there will be a spring time. No act of kindness is ever wasted. Each act of loving attention is a seed planted. Each act of compassion a shoot. And each seed though seemingly lost in cold soil can begin a journey of life. One day they will burst into the gold of a springtime that will astonish you. Make your heart ready for that seed of God. Prepare for that Spring.
I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being
The Light of the One who is born in you.