Make a path straight for him

A sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service:  Isaiah 11.1-10,  Matthew 3.1-12

I wonder what your favourite film of all time is? One of the top of my list would have to be Ken Loach’s Kes. I can never forget the scene when 15 year old Billy tells his class about training a kestrel, and this kid, whose always been the bullied outsider, has everyone spellbound. If you see Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You, you will once again have your heart wrung out. Its more bleak than his last film I Daniel Blake and that was dark enough. Ken Loach whether you can watch his films or not, is like a prophet.  He wants to expose the reality of social injustice and he won’t let his audience off the hook until they feel that injustice viscerally. The film begins when Ricky Turner decides to become a white van delivery driver on a zero hours contract. Bully Malony, who is the delivery depot boss, tells Ricky as he signs up, or rather signs his life away:  “You don’t work for us – you work with us.” It’s a prime example of doublespeak, because nothing could be further from the truth. “With” means you do what we say and pay the price yourself for anything that goes wrong. His wife sells her car, after a lot of persuasion, for Ricky to put down the deposit on a white van but trying to get parcels delivered in the correct time slot, without incurring penalties,  is a complete unremitting nightmare.  I said the film was prophetic- I will never again look at a white van driver in the same way, or fail to help a delivery man desperately trying to find an address or get a signature. Their livelihoods depend on it.

As Ricky tries to make enough deliveries to survive, he’s up against the clock, dashing from place to place, forced to work ever longer hours, stressed, tired and anxious and his relationship with his family unravels in front of us. His artistic son is having an adolescent melt down. Their young daughter needs her parents but comes home to an empty house because both parents have to work late, she is frightened and is wetting the bed, the son is missing school and then there’s a phone call from the police to say he’s been caught stealing. His Dad can’t even get the time off work to get to the school or police station on time and is so over wrought that he ends up hitting his son for the first time ever, which of course makes things worse as his son goes AWOL.  Meanwhile his wife Abby, who has a heart of pure goodness, without a car is rushing from address to address, by public transport. She is a carer caring for highly vulnerable people, trying to get them washed or dressed, or to the toilet and it’s all against the clock. Of course she is only paid for the time with clients not for the journey between houses. And between houses she is trying to hold her family together and look after her children and answer their problems and needs on a mobile phone. There is a heart-rending scene in which late one evening shattered from working such long hours the family finally come together for a moment of family time to share a takeaway curry. It’s a rare moment of togetherness. And then the phone rings. It’s one of Abby’s elderly clients. No one’s turned up to take her to the toilet or put her to bed. Its Abby’s only night off with her family. “Just leave it,  it’s not your fault, it’s someone else’s responsibility, ” her husband and children  try to convince her but Abby replies: “I can’t just leave her sitting there in wet pants in the chair all night.” Abby of course goes back.

You want to reach into the film and help them. Help everyone trapped in this terrifying spiral of  poverty, tangled up more and more with no way out.  Like gentle Abby, by the end of the film you want to scream down your mobile phone at the boss Malony and the delivery company- you absolute greedy pigs, you wreckers,  what are you doing to this family and hundreds like them- don’t you care at all, don’t you care about the way you treat the human beings you employ only your profits. And can’t we and our country do better than this. It’s a horror story of inequality. But paradoxically it’s also a love story- a testament to human care and compassion. It’s because we care about the characters. We see their love though hidden and expressed in awkward, angry ways We want them to be free from the tangled web of exploitation because we recognise in them humanity, heart, compassion, longing, frustration, goodness. We recognise ourselves in their struggle. Make a path straight for them.

Contrast this with our national political debate being played out at the moment. We all note a feeling of despair among so much of the electorate. Have you heard the arguments before?  Yes over and over again repeated constantly until they stick in your guts like food that won’t digest. Like  they say its groundhog-day. And the great tragedy is that it all seems like a bombastic charade, arguments that have been rehearsed and repeated again and again because no one can afford to tell the deeper truths. Much of it seems like flannelling , bullying, evading, and spinning: the skills of undermining or ridiculing or simply making it up. The messages have been coached, designed as defensive soundbites, to reinforce support and pander to popular prejudice. No one is listening just talking over each other. We hear the constant repetition of unhelpful slogans. When the fantasies are challenged with facts the response is to assert one’s absolute certainty in the make believe and vehemently attack the challenger  All subtlety is lost as the debate becomes increasingly polarised and binary. When someone lies it seems that the practice is to go on telling that same lie as frequently as possible until you believe it yourself and there is no difference between fact or fiction. The danger is that we give up, we lose the will to believe that it matters but it does matter.

Make a path straight for him. John the Baptists words speak very directly to our times because haven’t we begun to long for a deeper truthfulness. Make a path straight for those who are homeless on our streets with a 28% rise in London this year alone. Make a path for the 170,000 people in our capital city, many of them families who according to Shelter have no home and are either homeless or very vulnerably housed in hostel and temporary accommodation. Make a path straight for those trapped for years and years in the labyrinth of our immigration system unable to worked and living destitute. Make a way for the hundreds of the elderly in desperate need of company and affordable care. Make a way for youth caught in situations of poverty and deprivation where lack of opportunity has been replaced by gangs and violence, make a way for those trapped in zero hour contracts with the fear of sinking into debt or being penalised if their child is ill and they need to take time off, make a way for those who need hospital care, make a path for those who fear losing their jobs. Make a path for those who care about our creation and fear its destruction, repenting of seas choked with plastic, air thick with pollution spoiling children’s lungs, forests on fire, rising sea levels threatening the most vulnerable of our world.

But how do we know or find that path. John the Baptist is very certain- first the baptism of repentance. Admitting our own failure. Repenting of all that has led us to this place of injustice. But there is more- one who is more powerful is coming, whose sandals John is not willing to untie. John confronts us with a powerful prophetic challenge pointing out the hypocrisy and falsehood he sees in no uncertain manner: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” His words are a stark reminder that you can’t get away forever with fabrication untruth and hypocrisy-  there will be a reckoning in which we will be judged by our fruits. It is a stark reminder of the responsibility all leaders and politicians carry and a warning that they will be called to account, but it is also a warning to all of us that we too will be judged by our own choices.

John the Baptist is the fanfare introducing the king. But how different this king is from expectation, when he comes. John presents an apocalyptic figure who comes with a winnowing  fork in his hand ready to clear the threshing floor and separate the grain from the chaff he will burn. But now we see a very different path opening up. Has John failed to understand the manner in which the king comes to us? For Jesus will come before him in complete humility, requesting to be baptised by John. Not at all recognisable as the apocalyptic judge, rather the lamb of God, the one of humility, the beloved of God, who will show us a very different vision of the kingdom. Our saviour is the one born in a stable, laid in a manger, forced to flee with his parents to Egypt to escape genocide, then brought up in a carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth of all places. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? What we see is not the rise of a warrior king but the complete reversal of this. Our King comes from the place of poverty. He does not represent the poor. He is the poor. He speaks truth, and integrity to power. What we are waiting for in advent is going to be made flesh, he is going to be the child of peace, the child of good will, the child of the forgotten the migrant, the destitute king. He is going to bring those on the edge to the centre. Because real justice comes not from the top of towers but from the bottom up.  Peace on earth and good will towards all – this is the one who brings into being the possibility of relationship- becoming the sons and daughters of God- everyone of us rediscovering our interconnectedness. Look at the vision from Isaiah we heard today, should not that be our manifesto?

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

With righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Who is this leader? I would vote for him. You can vote for him. His name is Immanuel. God with us. He the light in our darkness. He is the prince of peace. He needs us to prepare the way for his coming.