Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler at the Parish Carol Service
22nd December 2013
Carol Services are not occasions for long sermons. The story speaks for itself and, if we have the ability to allow the story to do what stories are meant to do, stories will save us.
But familiarity can breed contempt, especially in a culture unaccustomed to memorising or internalising the story. What point in memorising, when my iPad will do the work for me, when I can Google fact, opinion and story at the drop of a hat?
The perspective of Christian faith, however, invites us not to hear the story outside of us, but to internalise it, to make it our own. To live it.
For me, at least, the ability to hear the Christmas story again, beyond the clutter of the counterfeit Christmas of our culture, is immeasurably helped by fresh perspectives, fresh takes on the story.
That’s why I’ve invited U A Fanthorpe to join us this Christmas. Not as widely known as she should be, her down-to-earth poetry, her Christmas Poems were written as gifts to her friends in her Christmas cards. They break through the sentimental, romantic Christmas of reindeer, “snow on snow” and the like, inviting us to hear again the message of the incarnation and to make it our own. “The economy of heaven/looks for fiestas and fireworks every day/every day. Be realistic, says heaven: expect a miracle”. Everyday expectations turned upside-down. Heaven on earth, miracle as standard, God in Christ in the manger. Fanthorpe, like all fine poets, asks us to respond and see the world differently. Faith in Jesus Christ invites us to make the same journey. God in Christ turns the world upside down. Nothing is ever the same again. “Do you see that?” each one of us is asked.
But there is the danger still, the ever-present risk that we will simply turn the page, move on to the next poem, and forget to stop and think. Worse still, in the information age, we will simply leave the poem external to us; even worse, from the perspective of faith, if the Christmas story remains external to us it will never save us. It will always be about something ‘out there’; it will never be about the ‘out there’ being about ‘in here’ as well.
Fanthorpe has something to say about that as well and so I leave the last word to her. The profanity that follows is nothing compared to the profanity of God in the manger…the poem is called Getting it Across…
This is the hard thing.
Not being God, the Son of Man,
—I was born for that part—
But patiently incising on these yokel faces,
Mystified, bored and mortal,
The vital mnemonics they never remember.
There is enough of Man in my God
For me to construe their frowns. I feel
The jaw-cracking yawns they try to hide
When out I come with one of my old
Chestnuts. Christ! Not that bloody
Sower again, they are saying, or God!
Not the Prodigal f****** Son.
Give us a new one, for Messiah’s sake.
They know my unknowable parables as well
As each other’s shaggy dog stories.
I say! I say! I say! There was this Samaritan,
This Philistine and this Roman…or
What did the high priest say
To the belly dancer? All they need
Is the cue for laughs. My sheep and goats,
Virgins, pigs, figtrees, loaves and lepers
Confuse them. Fishing, whether for fish or men,
Has unfitted them for analogy.
Yet these are my mouths. Through them only
Can I speak with Augustine, Aquinas, Martin, Paul
Regius Professors of Divinity,
And you, and you.
How can I cram the sense of Heaven’s kingdom
Into our pidgin-Aramaic quayside jargon?
I envy Moses, who could choose
The diuturnity of stone for waymarks
Between man and Me. He broke the tablets,
Of course. I too know the easy messages
Are the ones not worth transmitting;
But he could at least carve.
The prophets too, however luckless
Their lives and instructions, inscribed on wood,
Papyrus, walls, their jaundiced oracles.
I alone must write on flesh. Not even
The congenial face of my Baptist cousin,
My crooked affinity Judas, who understands,
Men who would give me accurately to the unborn
As if I were something simple, like bread.
But Pete, with his headband stuffed with fishhooks,
His gift for rushing in where angels wouldn’t,
Tom, for whom metaphor is anathema,
And James and John, who want the room at the top—
These numskulls are my medium. I called them.
I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.
My Keystone Cops of disciples, always,
Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly,
Cutting off ears and falling into the water,
These Sancho Panzas must tread my Quixote life,
Dying ridiculous and undignified,
Flayed and stoned and crucified upside down.
They are the dear, the human, the dense, for whom
My message is. That might, had I not touched them,
Have died decent respectable upright deaths in bed.