Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Tuesday 25th December 2018 (Christmas Day)
Isaiah 52.7–10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1–4; John 1.1–14
I don’t want to name-drop, but every Monday I go up to Westminster, to sing in the Parliament Choir. In these last few weeks of preparation for Christmas, as I thought about what I wanted to say this morning, I decided to visit St-Martin-in-the-Fields, up the road in Trafalgar Square. Somehow this church seems to sum up for me all that I needed to think about as we reflect on what the birth of the Christ-Child means for us – the arrival in our broken and conflicted world of the saving God of love..
The character of this fashionable church changed radically after the end of the First World War, when the saintly Dick Sheppard was appointed Vicar by Archbishop Cosmo Lang. Sheppard knew only too well the poverty and squalor that lay under the surface in the city. He had been working in east London at a centre that supported the poor, and as a chaplain in a military hospital during the war in France. In the East End he had suffered several breakdowns as a result of overwork. I suppose that the Archbishop thought this comfy appointment to a fashionable and well-heeled church would slow him down, but once there Sheppard, determined to deal with the realities of his surroundings, began to turn the church into an accessible centre for all in need, earning the church the nickname “the church with the ever-open door”. He found national acclaim when he presided at the first ever broadcast service by the BBC, and later, after suffering yet another breakdown through exhaustion, was appointed Dean of Canterbury. By now an ardent pacifist, motivated by his experiences in France, his sermons attracted a huge following until his retirement in 1931.
Today the “Connection Charity” at St Martin’s continues that saving work, helping over 4,000 homeless people each year, providing accommodation, dental and medical care, skills training and creative activities. So a hands-on, down-to-earth, getting-your-hands-dirty faith – a credible witness to our belief in a God, born to share and redeem our poverty of body, mind and spirit.
To celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ at the Millennium St Martin’s commissioned the artist Mike Chapman to create something that would mark the occasion. You will find his carving of a wriggling new-born boy, complete with umbilical cord, still surrounded by the messy business of birth, set on top of a 4½-ton block of Portland stone, in the portico of the church. Chapman explained, “It seemed to me that a tiny, life sized baby carved from stone in such an enormous environment would be the best way to remind us all of just whose birthday we were celebrating.”
Most people miss it. The chaotic busyness of Trafalgar Square, and the crowds pushing into St Martin’s to eat in the cafeteria, listen to a concert, or the rough sleepers anxious to find a space beside a radiator, mean that for many this image of vulnerability remains unnoticed. I often want to stand there and hold for a moment the Christ-Child’s hand, stretching out for attention and love. By now the little figure is grubby and, despite my own messy way of living, I sometimes feel tempted to take a cloth from home and clean him. But the fact is that this tells me precisely what Christmas Day is all about.
God comes to take on our humanity with every last bit of its joys and sorrows, to share our living and transform it into a life of generosity and risky loving, a generosity and commitment that St Martin’s carries out daily. And it is precisely this same living out of our belief in the God who becomes human, spelt out in practical loving and giving, that we too are called to live out here in Upper Norwood. First by our respectful and loving encouragement for one another, our work to bring hope and life to our local community, through activities like the Hive, the work on the meadow. But Bethlehem puts before us the stark reality that we need help. The world is still fractured and conflicted. If we are going to be at all reliable, consistent, selfless, genuine workers for good it can only be because of our reliance on the power that the Word made Flesh gives us as the daughters and sons of God. We need to trace our steps to the manger, not just today, but every day – look once more into the eyes of the one who looks up at us from the cattle food trough, constantly forgiving and giving, loving, and empowering us. Because it is not only vulnerability that we see in this child, but beneath it the glory, grace and truth of God himself. “We have seen his glory,” says St John, tasted in the Sacrament true power, power that never gives up on creation or others, light that darkness can never overcome.
So I made my advent pilgrimage to that tiny figure, and remembered a poem written by Francis Thompson, the Victorian rough-sleeper and drop-out, who hung about Charing Cross, slept under the arches close by the river. He understood our need for redemption, even if we neglect to. Leaving years of medical training in 1885 to come to London to find fame as a writer and poet, he took on menial jobs, but his health was fragile, addicted as he was to opiates, taken to relieve his poor mental health. His hopes of studying at Oxford were ruined by his addiction. After three years on the streets, he was finally ‘discovered’ after sending his poetry to a magazine, and the editors, a married couple, took him in, and helped him to recover, although he still took small doses of opiates at irregular intervals to relieve nerve pain. Francis’ poem The Hound of Heaven was called by the current Bishop of London “one of the most tremendous poems ever written”. It spoke of the reality of the human condition, running scared from our one hope, the saving love of God made man. Katherine A. Powers, literary columnist for the Boston Globe, says, “His medical training and life on the streets gave Francis a gritty view of reality and a social conscience, and his governing idea that God is immanent in all things and in all experience.” And that’s what we miss – and that’s what today can re-awaken us to.
There’s a lot more going on in Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square, and Upper Norwood, than most people imagine. It is often only the most marginalised who see what we have forgotten. In one poem, The Kingdom of God, Thompson speaks from biting reality, and tells us that Bethlehem, Calvary, the power of the risen Lord are here for the taking:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air —
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! —
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places; —
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; — and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, — clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
Come to the manger, come to the altar, and take the hand of your Saviour, who will heal your brokenness, empower your living and loving.