Why Has This Happened To Me?
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Luke 1: 39-45
There’s two problems with the Christian story, from the point of view of its detractors, yet just as much in the minds of the many who do believe, but still doubt. The first problem is that it’s too extraordinary: too many angels, too many miracles, too fanciful a conviction about resurrection, too wild a notion about a God who directs the course of events. The second problem is the opposite; it’s too ordinary: an obscure man in a quiet part of the Roman Empire, a dozen followers, a fervid backdrop at a local festival, a tawdry execution, a handful of loyalists who wouldn’t let the story die.
The incarnation, which we’re about to celebrate in two days’ time – the birth of a baby who is fully human yet fully divine – crystallises this paradox of the ordinary and the extraordinary. I want to tell you this morning about perhaps the most formative season of my ministry, and how I experienced this paradox first hand.
For the six years either side of the millennium I was vicar of a parish in Norwich. Norwich is known for its ancient city centre with its countless medieval churches. But this parish was a 1930s council estate three miles to the west. Six years before I arrived, the diocese had built a very modern church to replace the dilapidated hall that previously housed Christian worship at the heart of the estate. From the outset the new building suffered relentless vandalism. Once I was asked by a teenage girl, ‘Are you the new vicar?’ I said, ‘I’ve been here about three years.’ ‘I used to know the old vicar,’ she replied. ‘I used to throw stones at his windows.’ ‘Why was that?’ I asked, genuinely interested.’ ‘Oh, you see,’ she said, matter-of-factly, ‘I don’t believe in God.’
In fact the stone-throwing wasn’t limited to the building, but was sometimes directed at the congregants as they left worship. There were times in my first year or two when the evening service felt like a siege. The 20 ground-floor windows were replaced by protected perspex, and a daunting iron gate prevented people gathering to drink in the open porch.
The congregation and I got busy. We hosted countless community activities, often at little or no rent. We opened up the church to a youth club, for up to 50 young people at a time. We invited schoolchildren to make huge 30-foot-long paper murals to put on the walls, representing the different seasons of the church year. We gave cameras to single mothers to photograph local characters and display their pictures and words around the sanctuary. We had a huge dance troupe that rehearsed and performed constantly. We joined local committees and trustees, seeking to improve the neighbourhood together. We ran after-school and holiday clubs until we were worn out.
The name of the church was St Elizabeth’s. Quickly I came to identify with this figure from Luke’s gospel like never before. Elizabeth was old. As Genesis says of Sarah, ‘it had ceased to be with her after the manner of women.’ Nothing more was expected of her life. Likewise the housing estate was around 65 years old and no one inside or out looked to it with any degree of expectation. Yet our daily prayer was that this church and this estate would, as today’s gospel repeatedly says, be blessed, and become a blessing to others.
Any new vicar knows that one of the things you have to do before accepting a job is to look over the PCC accounts, because they’ll tell you a story no one will convey to you face to face. And so it was I discovered the existence of a fund called ‘Stained Glass Windows.’ It seemed the last thing in the world the church needed. It turned out it was a fund left over from the old hall, designated to make the building look more like a church. But three years after I came we did an extraordinary thing. In two 4 by 4 foot windows, only three feet from the ground, we put a stained-glass depiction of the very scene described in today’s gospel – the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. In the left window was Mary, young, overwhelmed, yet full of joy. In the right window was Elizabeth, old, forsaken, weighed down by the world, yet astonished and filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaiming with a loud cry, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ at just the very moment the child in her womb leaps for joy. None of us could quite believe that in the very place where countless windows had been smashed just four or five years before, we were now inserting such glorious stained glass windows that spoke to the apparently godforsaken nature of the estate, and yet the youthfulness of many who lived there, and anticipated the blessing that God would bring to the whole community.
A year later, inspired by the way the windows had been enjoyed and admired by the community, we set about taking down the iron gates. More than anything else, those gates were a symbol of how frightened the congregation had become of those who so often expressed their antagonism in violent ways. The gates were transported to what was then called the Norwich School of Art, and a young woman, not much older than the Mary of today’s gospel, began a long process of transforming these oppressive railings into an extraordinary 40-foot-wide wing – an awesome and breathtaking symbol of the Holy Spirit, which almost entirely filled the space above the entrance to the sanctuary of the church. It was the most remarkable turning of a sword into a ploughshare I’ve ever seen.
The effect on the congregation was as awesome as these two extraordinary works of art. The windows made us believe that, despite adversity and hostility, we really did belong in this community and we really did have a gospel that spoke to the heart of the community’s story. And the wing inspired us to trust that what was going to happen would not depend on our strength, but that, waiting on the Lord, we would mount up with wings like eagles, we would run and not be weary, we would walk and not faint.
This experience for me encapsulated the paradox of the incarnation. On the one hand it was too ordinary. Everyone knows the jokes about Norwich: the graveyard of ambition, a town in decline since the fourteenth century, whose doctors take a quick assessment of the state of mind of their presenting patients and write above the bed the letters NFN – ‘Normal for Norfolk.’ Here was a neighbourhood so behind the times that, 20 years after the Thatcher government’s right to buy scheme, 90% of the houses were still council-owned. This was a community apparently summed up by Nathanael’s words in John’s gospel, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ I remember walking out of the vicarage and seeing a boy kicking a football against the church, and saying, ‘Can I ask why you’d want to do that? This is your church, and your community. I can understand why you’d kick a ball at another church in another neighbourhood, but why destroy what belongs to you?’ Just too ordinary, too flawed, too painfully human.
But here was an incarnate church, communicating in practical gestures and open heart that God cared about what people cared about. Here was this depiction of a babe in the womb leaping for joy, a whole community rising up on eagles’ wings, a glimpse of the wondrous and eternal in the midst of despondency and doldrums. It was just too extraordinary. It was saying just exactly what the first chapter of Luke’s gospel is saying, which is that God does the most extraordinary things through the most ordinary people. God chooses an obscure part of the Roman province of Syria, a town of Nazareth, to begin the most extraordinary story of all. God puts an underage, unmarried girl together with an overage, exhausted woman to make the setting for an exhilarating declaration. God is turning the ordinary texture of human existence into the astonishing glory of divine essence. Jesus is at the same time totally and utterly ordinary and astoundingly and gloriously extraordinary.
When you look at your life, I wonder whether you think ‘I’m so ordinary’ or whether you rather think, ‘I’m too extraordinary’ – too weird, maybe, or too unusual. I wonder if you say to yourself, ‘But I’m not special, I’m not good, I’m not clever, I’m not beautiful, I’m not rich, I’m not wise, I’m not talented.’ Just look at Mary and Elizabeth: that’s the whole point. They weren’t special in any possible way. They were a young girl and an old woman. They came from nowhere in particular. I wonder if you say, ‘But I’ve got a secret. But if people knew the truth they’d be shocked. But I can never somehow see things through. But my life is a series of false starts. But my mind is often in pieces and my self-confidence is zero.’ Just look at what happens in this story: none of it is because people are superhuman. All of it is the Holy Spirit doing extraordinary things with all-too-ordinary people. That’s what the gospel is about. Maybe that’s what your life can be about, whether, like Mary, you’re starting out or, like Elizabeth, you feel you’re about done.
Those of you who’ve been to my office will know that I keep photographs of those two stained glass windows, Mary and Elizabeth, framed on my bookshelf, as a constant reminder of how God does the extraordinary through the most ordinary. Those photographs ask me Elizabeth’s perpetual and ambiguous question, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ One day a year or two ago I got a parcel from Norwich with a framed photograph inside. Lo and behold it was an unforgettable token of the faithfulness of God. It was a third stained glass window that, 15 years after the first two, had been placed in the remaining empty window beside them. The window depicts St Anne, the apocryphal mother of Mary, grandmother of Jesus, aunt of Elizabeth, by the same artist in just the same style.
I carefully placed Anne beside Mary and Elizabeth on my bookshelf. I remembered that community, all our failures and successes, most of all those projects that opened heaven to earth and lifted us up on eagles’ wings. And I thought, ‘God is faithful. God is still becoming extraordinarily divine in ordinary flesh. This is what true beauty looks like. This is incarnation. Jesus is being born.’