Sunday, 25 December 2011

Changing the world from a tent… (Midnight Mass sermon 2011)


(I’m going to begin and end with poems by other people.
All the muddled stuff in the middle is my own. So...)

‘This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’

(BC–AD, by U A Fanthorpe)

A tent
appeared, in the middle of this church
just before Advent,
the sign over its opening,
to the Kingdom of God’.

If you’re going to turn the world
you could do worse than begin
with a tent.

From Egypt’s Tahrir Square
to Wall Street
and the City of London,
tents have been springing up:
canvas occupations
of places
the powerful thought they had
under control;
makeshift villages
where only tanks
or tourists
or money-changers
on fantasy salaries
were supposed to feel at home;
where the rich got richer,
where power concentrated,
where the poor were sent away empty
and brushed into the shadows,
suddenly had tents
popping up
and minds
opening up
and questions
bubbling up
and hope
springing up
that there is
despite the evidence –
an alternative
and we can
imagine it
and even
begin to live it
here and now
from our village
of tents.

We have had toddlers
in our tent here.
Busy making
their own little world,
from the order
and conventions
and sometimes
disapproving looks
and anxious parental whispers
of ‘grown-up’

And we should not
have been

Isaiah for one
caught a glimpse
of wolves and lambs,
calves and lions,
babies and snakes
playing together,
and led by a little child.
A recipe
for parental anxiety
if ever there was one.

And Jesus,
told his followers,
arguing again
about who would be the greatest,
that unless they became
like little children
they would not even enter
the kingdom of heaven.

If you’re going to turn the world
you could do worse than begin
with a tent.

Or a stable.

We have had a stable here too.
With a real baby -
a girl -
and battle-hardened
who had to bend low
to get through
the stable door
have been dumbfounded
by children
by awe
and wonder
and peace
and a sense
that something exciting
and different
was happening
and that they
the children
and even the teachers
were somehow
part of it.

And we should not
have been

If you’re going to turn the world
you could do worse than begin
with a tent.

Or a stable.

Or a seed in a womb.

deep inside her
a new song
bubbling up
a new hope
springing up -
despite the evidence –
a new world
opening up
where the little ones
had been raised up
the hungry
filled up
and the rich
and the powerful
tripped up
brought down
sent away
emptied out.
And so Mary knew
and sang
and set out
and now
here we are
at the opening
the threshold
the doorway
to the Kingdom
of God.

The womb
the stable
the tent.

a big space
a big idea
a big project
least of all
a big society.

A little space
no bigger
than the eye
of a needle.

A little space
where heaven
and earth,
and future,
and new,
in wordless,
A little space
with cows
and sheep
and weary shift-workers
and tired travellers
and a teenage mum
who knows
the world
has just turned
and has dared
to open herself
to be part
of it.

‘It’s a long way off,’
said the poet
of the Kingdom,
‘but inside it,
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

(RS Thomas, ‘The Kingdom’)