Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas – 31 December 2017 – St John the Baptist, Felixstowe.
Mary treasured all these words and pondered themin her heart – Luke 2.19
God give you peace my sisters and my brothers.
In the movie ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ the heroine Lily, a 14-year-old girl who is regularly beaten by her father, buries a tin in her father’s peach orchard in which she keeps a pair of gloves, a postcard of her mother, and a picture of a Black Madonna.
In one scene she lies on the ground at night and, unbuttoning her blouse, holds the picture of the Madonna against her skin while she questions the stars about the mother whom she accidently killed when she was just four years old.
Her father mistakes her devotion for promiscuity and punishes her. Soon afterwards she, and the Negro housekeeper Rosaleen, (whom she rescues after being beaten and arrested) go on a quest to find out more about her mother and the story of the Black Madonna.
Telling any more of the tale would be to spoil it for those who have not yet read the book or seen the movie so I will stop there and recommend that you follow the story for yourself; it is indeed honey for the soul.
It is Lily’s returning again and again to her memory box that gives her the hope, strength, and courage to refuse to believe the lies of her father, not settle for his continual abuse, and strike out across the countryside to find truth and love. It was a powerful box of treasures.
Do you have a memory box? It has become a more popular habit and a good thing to do. It is often actively used in different kinds of family therapy.
I have two goddaughters whom I baptised immediately before they were handed over to Social Services for adoption. It gives me great comfort that, wherever they are, and I have (nor expect to have) any idea where they now are; to know that their Social workers placed their baptism certificates in memory boxes for them.
I hope they know that there is a priest and godfather somewhere who cares and prays for them.
My personal memory box – in a state of being perpetually constructed – is a printer’s tray in which I am putting a 30-year collection of trinkets, beads, and badges that have shaped my life, energise my prayers, and call me to a deeper faith, and a greater love.
That is what memories are supposed to do is it not?
Yes, they remind us of the past but is not their true purpose to call us to the future?
This is what we see Mary doing just before the hurried departure from Bethlehem. A small moment during which the new-born mother, mother’s her own soul and ponders all that had been said in her heart.
She had had a glimpse of what might lie ahead, the archangel’s words when she become pregnant with God where challenge enough,
and now she holds in her hands a gift of myrrh; a harbinger of death to someone recently delivered of a new life.
What does she do with her ‘memory box’ of angelic words, mystified shepherds and worshipping Magi?
She treasures them, not so that she can bring them out occasionally and nostalgically long for ‘the good old days’ but so that they can strengthen her for the task ahead.
A task she owned for herself when she said to Gabriel ‘Let it be to me according to your word’.
Somewhere along each of our lives every one of us has perhaps whispered similar words to God; handed ourselves over to being the agent of God’s will.
For some of us it was many years ago and we have tried to follow faithfully and listen carefully during the heat of the day and through the storms of life.
For others our faith may have felt like it has waxed and waned with the phases of the moon. Sometimes it is so rich, ripe and full that we could almost taste it and yet at others times shallow, stagnant, and far from life-giving.
Each of us has treasured the things of the faith in our hearts in one way or another at some time or other.
The proof of that is our gathering here together: to pray alongside each other, and somehow meet Him in bread and wine.
In fellowship and service we commit ourselves to a common decision to go in peace and love and serve.
Our challenge, as was Lily’s in The Secret Life of Bees, as with Mary’s in the stable at Bethlehem, is to take the contents of the memory boxes of our faith – those things which call us back to church Christmas by Christmas, month by month, week by week, day by day – and use them to give us the hope, the strength, and the courage to strike out on a pilgrimage to the home of love.
Bethlehem is a lovely place wherein to dwell and ‘worship the new born King’ on a ‘Silent Night’ but it is only the beginning of the story not the end; it is the place for the birth of our faith not its consummation.
So, please come with me on a journey of faith into the year ahead.
Let us leave Bethlehem, bright though its star shone, and strike out in hope in a quest for the home of love.
We will need much strength and many friends on this journey.
We will leave behind old habits, old sins, and worn-out enmities.
We will discover that nothing, no matter how precious or safely squirrelled away, will ever not change.
And we will become familiar with the unfamiliar,
challenged by the different,
excited by the unexpected.
We will come to know the joy of the journey.
We will come to know the privilege of bearing each other’s burdens.
We will come to cherish the gentle caress of fellow pilgrims as they tend our wounds when, inevitably (if we are to be serious in our quest) ‘a sword will pierce our own heart also’.
To do any less would be to have a faith still-born in the stable at Bethlehem.
Memories are precious and deserve to be treasured but our faith is not about living in the past but instead a striving for eternity with the past as our lodestar.
It will be hard.
It will hurt.
We will weep together.
We will fall and fail.
But, for the sake of the joy set before us, let us strike out from Bethlehem towards Calvary and beyond with these words to encourage us onward.
‘We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song’
FLASHBACK: sometimes I feel unworthy of the task ahead and I wrote
this poem to describe my feelings. It may be a help to you as well.