Rev. Andrew Cunnington
9th February 2020
Not yet in Bethlehem

Last Sunday I enlisted the help of some Messy Church children to take down the Christmas Stable.

It left a trail of straw across the church (sorry Jill), I trod on a light bulb and broke it (sorry Andy) and I couldn’t quite manage to pull apart all the pieces so that they could fit in the usual storage box, so it’s all a bit untidy (sorry Scilla).

This is more than just an example of my practical incompetence – it points to the fact that I am not quite ready to pack Christmas away just yet!

You see I am the shepherd not quite ready to leave his sheep and go chasing after the rumour of a special baby born in the town.

I am the fourth king who stands behind the other three and whilst they open their treasure chests whilst mine is locked up and held tightly and I am not ready to share the contents with anyone.

And although Mary seems to have just accepted that she will be bringing up God himself in her modest household – I am not quite ready to open the door of my home quite that widely yet.

Please don’t put the Christmas cards out for recycling, Alison – I have not truly read those greetings yet.

Don’t store the carol sheets away in the bottom draw of the office Freda – I am not sure I have really sung them.

Please don’t ask me what I am giving up for Lent – for I am still on the way to Christmas. Sitting astride the slowest moving camel in Christendom.

Last month I was away on a few quiet days in Salisbury and I spend as much time as I can haunting the cathedral.

This year there was no traditional crib scene like the one here that I put away so haphazardly.

Instead, over the nave altar three enormous drapes hung down from the roof to almost where the altar is. The choir hidden behind away behind them, getting up to all manner of mischief.

The drapes depicted the scene of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem and according to the strength of the light – the giant figures depicting all the usual characters were either strong and bold or wispy and feint.

Stunning from a distance. Breathtaking in fact, but when I drew up close – I didn’t like the faces of those figures at all – They were not authentic – Not as shepherds and wise men would have looked way back then and in that place. They were all modern day faces and that completely spoilt it for me.

Until a steward noting my disappointment explained that all the faces in the scene were members of the cathedral congregation.

You see those kings – he said pointing them out to me – one of them is the man who does the sound desk, the second one is one of our cleaning team and then with a sudden – and the third king – if you look carefully – is me!

The Shepherds turned out to be a helper in Junior Church, a lay minister of communion and someone on the coffee rota.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus? A young family who had just started coming and were wondering about getting their baby baptised.

Our Gospel reading this morning follows on after the wonderful words of the Beatitudes where Jesus pronounces blessing on all sorts of groups of unlikely people who had one thing in common, they knew their need of God.

The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle the merciful, the pure in heart and the persecuted.

Then Jesus tells them – if you know your need of God – you have to shine forth with the reality of Him, so you can in turn minister to the needs of others.

Your lives need to be like salt so they have the taste of God.

Your lives need to be like light so they have the brightness of God.

True for those who first heard these words and those who hear them today.

We need to recognise when the light and taste of God have become barely discernible in our lives and we need to take steps to sharpen the taste and kindle the light.

Back in Salisbury – I attended a wonderful service on the afternoon of the Sunday I was there.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was sung and there was a wonderful procession with clouds of incense, ending up standing in front of the drapes.

The Bishop was in the procession – but some of the others were a bit of a rag tag and bobtail sort of crowd I thought!

All those people depicted in the great drapes of the Christmas scene were in the procession. The cleaner, the sound man and the rest stood in a circle and gazed up at themselves depicted in Bethlehem. And instead of thinking holy thoughts I started to wonder how many of the cathedral congregation had turned down the offer to have their faces stuck up there – and how many were offended because THEY had not been asked.

I wonder what you would have said…?

So what is it about ourselves that we are withholding from Christ – so that the saltiest taste and brightest of light is compromised in us?

I hover in Advent on this fourth Sunday after Epiphany because what would it mean if I left my work entirely in the hands of God – as the shepherds did?

What would I be left with if I poured into the lap of the Christ child – all that defined me – as the Kings did?

There is that most precious moment in the Sunday service isn’t there – when we kneel to receive the bread and for a split second it is just you and the Lord amongst us all.

The body of Christ I say. For you is that a statement or a question, that you reply Amen to?

Is it that in this moment we are each given something we never had before. His presence coming from that holy vessel into your hand…for your strength and spiritual nourishment.

I’m sure it partly is!

But what if it were a question – are you the Body of Christ?

Is He in you, through you and with you before this bread became your own?

We are the body of Christ I sometimes say at the moment of the Peace and nobody seems to object – so why should it be any different here?

The Body of Christ?… Yes… pretty inadequately – faded and feint rather than brave and bold but yes I guess I am… or at least I’d like to be.

And if we do say yes… then how sharp is the taste of him upon your lips… how bright is the light of him in your eyes.

After these words the rest of the chapter in Matthew is even more challenging for Jesus goes on to ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions about all sorts of contentious issues.

What do you think about revenge? About unfaithfulness and selfishness. What do you think about swearing and blasphemy? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – is that what you live by?

And loving your enemies – is that a step too far… or will you at least try to do it…

I’m on the road to Bethlehem on the slowest camel in Christendom – still trying to work out what it means to come to the stable and kneel there and offer my life there and take the consequences of allowing my face to appear in a giant nativity scene that all the world could see..and have something of the taste of Him and the light of Him – upon me.

Upon the road up ahead I see another person walking – same direction – Bethlehem. I recognise that walk – I know the back of that head… it’s you… plodding along like me… fancy a ride… it’s a bit bumpy on this old camel and very slow slow… but I reckon we might make it to Bethlehem – by Ash Wednesday.

1 COR 2: 1-12
MATTHEW 5: 13-20