A New Epiphany

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells 

Readings for this service: Matthew 2: 1-12

I’d gone to one of the best social enterprises in the city. It was widely known. I’d used it as a customer: they did a nice line in house removals and lawn care; and were a good source of picture frames. It was a great place to take students on my ethics and social engagement course: they could accommodate a lot of students at one go, tolerate their questions, and make their community open to scrutiny and enquiry.

I was met at the door by a tidily dressed man, the kind of person who takes a role on the board of a charity because his employer rewards those who do so – or perhaps finds his career peaks before he’s 50, and after redundancy decides to take a salary cut and give something back. He was accomplished at introductions, and in no time I, and those I’d brought with me were quite at home, even though we were on a compound where we were well aware all the residents were addicts, combining steady work on home removals and similar projects with engagement with a twelve-step recovery programme. The idea was that a mixture of worthwhile work and progress in facing the truth about their lives would make a profitable two-year break from the temptations of the world outside – and the rewards of their labour would support the organisation while it supported them. Let’s just say that when it came to moving my whisky bottles, the team was required to leave the heavy lifting to me.

As he talked, I started to get mistrustful of this tidy man, who seemed so much in command of the detail and the delicacy of this project’s vision and values. How could he talk in such an easy way about people’s trials and troubles, of the successes to celebrate and the failures to learn from, of the hope and the reality? Like any visitor to a complex institution, I wasn’t far from cynicism: ‘I wonder what he isn’t telling us,’ I thought to myself. ‘Of course he’d be glad of donations, and partnerships, and spreading the word. I bet a lot of days aren’t as smooth as he’s making out.’

Nonetheless, it was an impressive presentation. And the highlight was when he answered our curiosity and introduced us to a very large, early middle-aged woman, who looked more elegant than her humble clothes suggested. He said, ‘You need to know that my friend here has been living with us for nearly two years, and it’s worked out well.’ At which point his friend began to tell her story, about attending a school devoted to the arts, about finding her voice, about starting to perform, and meeting with some success. Yet she found she couldn’t entirely escape the chastening realities of her childhood – the cruelties, hurts, and memories she couldn’t completely suppress; and in trying to obscure those recollections she’d turned to drugs, first once in a while, then weekly, then morning, noon and night. Her life had imploded, her income streams became more desperate, and before long the gutter was her only companion. She said, shyly, ‘But I’d like to sing to you. I’d like you to know what it feels like for your childhood to catch up with you and yet still to feel a song in your heart. And how it feels for me to sing that song now-now that the curse has been lifted from my shoulders and I know that I’m not alone.’

And then she sang. And the whole room was convulsed like it was connected to the National Grid. ‘There’s a man going ’round taking names. There’s a man going ’round taking names. He’s been taking my father’s name. An’ he left my heart in vain. There’s a man going ’round taking names.’ I’d never heard it sung so slowly; so soulfully. It was as if each verse of the song (mother, sister, brother – and finally, ‘Oh, death is that man…’) was a year of her struggle – and a year of her recovery. After that, any cynicism abated. This was real. This was transformation. This was as deep as it gets.

After the standing ovation my companions and I asked all the usual questions. We wanted to know all about her. Would she now resume her career? What was the worst moment? Whose help had made the difference? What was it like to feel utterly alone? This mesmerising figure embodied everything one could dream of about getting involved with a social enterprise. She was the talented aspirant struck down by childhood hurt and emerging fragility, who, with the help of wise companions like the tidy man, found sanctuary, regained confidence, got back on her feet, and learned to sing again.

There was time for one more question. I said to the tidy man, his regulation blue collared-shirt, white chinos, brown loafers, like an overaged preppie kid dressed to impress the students: ‘What got you involved with this kind of work in the first place?’ It was the professor’s question, designed to show the self-absorbed students how to start on community engagement without giving up their professional trajectories. I felt I was concluding the visit well.

‘Oh,’ said the tidy man. ‘I wondered if anyone would ask about me. I was like you guys,’ he said gesturing to the students. ‘I was at college. I used to drink a lot, as people do at college. Except, when we all left, and the others stopped, I didn’t stop. I went the other way. I drank more. I had a great life. I married a doctor, and her income meant we didn’t miss the money I spent. I held down my accountant’s job for an amazingly long time, even though I’d drive into town at four in the morning to find a place to buy booze. I can’t believe she stuck with me so long. She used to throw me out and I’d come back. Eventually she meant it. And I couldn’t see my girls. Let me get out my picture of my girls. I can’t talk to them now. I rang up on the most recent birthday and my wife put the phone down without letting me speak to them. I lost all my friends long ago.

‘You probably think I run this place, or sit on the board. I don’t. I live here. I’m nearly done with my two years. My friend here (he touched the shoulder of the singer) washed up here about the same time. Took me weeks to sober up. It’s true I help with the accounts here, and some of the management systems, and they wheel me out to speak to guys like you because I don’t seem so threatening. But don’t get me wrong. I’m an alcoholic. I’m what some of you guys could become if you don’t get a measure of yourselves. Don’t be fooled. I can wear your clothes and walk like you. Maybe in a few weeks I could be living next door to you. But I’m your worst nightmare of your own future.’

The colour drained out of the faces of every person in the room. Except the singer. She knew all. It was like the oxygen had evaporated and we were all gasping for breath.

But none more than me. I was the teacher. I’d taken the students to learn how to live tidy lives and still give back. I’d assumed there was them and there was us. But this man: he was both. He blew apart any notion I retained that social engagement was the abundant reaching out to the needy. He was the incarnation of deprivation, taking on the robes of comfort. There is no tidy. The truth only appears when you see beyond appearances. What a mess.

What glory. What an epiphany.