It has been a while, hasn’t it?! A while since I have stood here and talked, a while since last we spoke of Advent, a while since the world was in such a torment as we see today. And all you really want to know about is what I got up to on my sabbatical – but you are going to have to wait for that, it will come out in dribs and drabs, little by little, case study by case study. A valuable time was had, though. I am much refreshed, refocused, bursting with ideas – I see your delight – and stories to tell. Of New Hampshire’s sugar maples, on fire in their autumn colours, of humpback whales off the coast of Massachusetts, of standing only 30 feet from a common loon…. pretty much like this morning, then.
But seriously…. we are in Advent, a new year for the Church, a new year for worship, a new year for prayer, a new year of anticipation of the work of God in our world, and us as part of that action. A year when once again we hope that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and that nations will not learn war any more. But it is also a year of great uncertainty, as a result of a series of votes taken here and in the USA, and upcoming in France and Germany. Uncertainty for an ever-growing group of people, who fear discrimination and rejection, uncertainty for our liberal values of welcome, inclusion and tolerance. Advent sits uneasily between joyful anticipation and the uncertainty of what sort of intervention a returning Christ will entail.
The referendum and the American Presidential election have very effectively divided people at the same workplace, one against another, and people in the domestic context. Distrust simmers below the surface, which way we voted still matters to both sides, and it will only get aggravated by future developments. The spectre of fascism rises in France, a country where its devastating effects can still be remembered by some of its citizens, and where which side an individual or a village took in the resistance is still a live issue. How could they vote that way, we wonder, but we thought that about the referendum, and about Donald Trump.
No, we must be ready, we must be prepared, and we must do the work of prayer and thought and analysis, so that Christlike values of love, welcome, tolerance, inclusion and the like can and will remain at the centre of our community, can and will remain at the centre of our congregational life, can and will remain at the centre of our personal lives. And that is Advent living.
I read a play, during my sabbatical, that touched on the Flood: The Epic of Gilgamesh, a verse drama by Edwin Morgan of the ancient near eastern myth of the Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, and his wanderings. He comes across the man who built the boat and saved himself and the animals from the flood, Ziusura is his name, who, because he passed through the destruction, has remained for centuries the age he was when the flood came. Gilgamesh arrives in Ziusura’s country dressed in rags, weary, disorientated, lacking understanding. He leaves refreshed, clean and clothed, a king renewed in body and soul. Meeting the man who had survived the flood enables him to return to his kingdom an enlightened ruler, capable of welcome and inclusion, tolerance and joy in the other.
This is not an accidental parallel with Noah. This is an archetypal working through of trauma, both nationally and individually experienced, to rebuild a world corrupted by introspection and greed. The new world of Ziusura and Gilgamesh, of Noah and his family, is given a new opportunity by God to forge a new relationship with each other and with him. God limits himself in his promises to Noah – no more flooding the earth – with nothing but worship required from Noah and his family. Ziusura and his wife live out their days in joy and delight in the re-created order. The Advent message, however, is that God will act decisively when people are not expecting him to, and their surprise will be their pain, and their unpreparedness their loss.
I visited a number of social projects during my sabbatical as well as reading lots of plays – foodbanks, drop-in centres, winter night shelters – some of which were fairly recent in origin, others had been running for years and commanded budgets of £750k. A common theme running through them all was that simple, fluid management structures created a better environment for developing and sustaining the project, and that if parts of the management team – partners or trustees – had lost contact with the hands on work of the day to day experience, then the project suffered. At one project I visited, the staff had never met a trustee. At another, the staff member I spoke with had started as a volunteer, had been brought on as a trustee after a few years, and had then moved across to paid work within the project. The first project lead a hand-to-mouth existence, the second was flourishing, and has just branched out into the Wandsworth area.
The Church is a volunteer-based organisations, with a few paid professionals and a group of trustees/PCC members, and a field of work that is broad-ranging and forever shifting in emphasis and success. It alters with personnel, a moving population, groups of friends and reserves of energy and ideas. If we are to benefit as a parish from all the riches that are on offer to us with all of our people and our neighbours, then our working and management ways must be fluid and open and participatory.
I understand from Robin & Sarah that you have had a presentation on funding needs and practical assistance in the life of the parish, and that responses are coming in. Today, New Year’s Day, is a day of New Year’s resolutions, so, if you haven’t returned your response form, get it done today
I promised you dribs and drabs of my sabbatical, and you have had them. It has been light on jokes and heavy on serious issues, but this Advent is a crucial time for us to face up to the world, offer ourselves in prayer and service to God and his Church, and engage with the world in practical and life-changing ways. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus.