Perhaps it’s just my imagination. But it seems to me that if you want to get away from the problems that beset us all at the moment, the place to go and live is in London E20. Because life appears to be so much easier there.
For those who haven’t guessed – London E20 is the London Borough of Walford. And the residents around Walford Square don’t appear to be having to face the issues that the rest of us are. I’m talking about Eastenders of course (Eastenders is a popular TV soap in the UK). And no-one in Eastenders seems to have to face the problems that the rest of us are dealing with. In fact they seem to be rather oblivious to the regular stream of bad news that we normal people are having to cope with.
I can’t remember anyone moaning about rising fuel bills or the rising cost of petrol. No one ever talks about cuts to their benefits or having to deal with universal credit. And even those who are supposed to be struggling still seem to be able to eat regularly in the café and drink in the Queen Vic and never have to resort to using the local foodbank! And those who have money never complain about falling interest rates or problems with their pension fund.
Last Sunday’s gospel reading told the story of how Jesus shared a meal with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And we hear how Mary behaves quick shockingly. Here’s what I said.
I’m going to begin with a story – a true story. It is told by William Carter , a Presbyterian Pastor from Pennsylvania. He writes:
I will never forget the furore sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.”
The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that [banknote] go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.”
A long, long time ago in a church far, far away – well, in Clapham actually – I used as a basis for my talk on Christmas Day morning the well-known slogan from the charity The Dogs Trust: A dog is for life, not just for Christmas
And I used that to go on to talk about Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas.
My talk went down really well with one young man. After the service he came rushing up to me.
“I really enjoyed your talk,” he said. Every preacher, of course, is really please when a sermon has had an effect. But before I had time to ask him what exactly about my talk had really spoken to him, he went on, “It was my advertising agency that came up with that phrase!”
Every advertising executive’s dream, of course, to come up with a phrase that becomes as embedded in the public consciousness as that one.
I thought then, and since, that lots of well-known advertising slogans could form the basis of a sermon by adapting them as necessary:
When you’re a teenager, it’s as clear as clear can be that the only role parents have is to annoy you. I remember my teenage years well and it was obvious to me that parents just went out of their way to cause quite unnecessary conflict.
Later on in life I came to see things in a different light. Because when I became a parent myself I came to understand that parents, of course, are always – and I mean absolutely always – right. I should know, having seen three children through their teenage years. Funny how the reality of a situation changes depending on where you stand, what your viewpoint is. Of course when our children were teenagers they didn’t think we, as parents, were ever right about anything. Now our daughters have their own teenage children, though, their viewpoint has also changed as well.
I remember when our older daughter posted on Facebook, “What’s wrong with teenagers – why is it so hard for them to switch lights off! And why can’t they keep their hands off the walls!” Then, a little later, she added, “Oh dear, I think I’m turning into my father”. I did remind her that she was just as bad when she was a teenager.
“Well, Jesus. You’re marooned and alone on your desert island. Well, perhaps not an island but you’re in the desert and on your own. What are your eight pieces of music? What luxury would you like to have? And what book, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare?”
We are all familiar with the concept behind Desert Island Discs (a famous radio programme from the BBC). Each week a famous person goes along with the fantasy that they have been marooned all alone on a rather nice hot and sunny desert island somewhere in the tropics with an apparently endless supply of food and clean clothing, a decent bed and toilet facilities. I’m assuming those things are all there since no-one ever seems to ask for them for their luxury.
They take part in a discussion about their life, about what has influenced and motivated them. They come up with a list of eight pieces of music they would like to have with them. And they are allowed to choose that one luxury and one book to take with them, as long as the book isn’t the Bible or the works of Shakespeare. And they are on their own – the rules state that you are not allowed to take another human being as your luxury. Except for John Cleese who was allowed to take Michael Palin on the condition that he was dead and stuffed. It’s all a bit of fun.
Some friends invite you round for a meal. And what do they do? They get out the smartphone or the tablet to show you their photos. Or if they’re really technologically savvy they show you the photos on the TV screen. First it’s the holiday photos. And then it’s the photos of the children. And you struggle to pretend that you’re really interested – your eyes start to glaze over and you keep saying, “Yes, that’s really nice …” without meaning it.
Well – this morning we’re going to have a look at a photo album. Not really, of course, but in your imagination. Over the past few weeks, since Christmas, we have been given in our readings a series of snapshots of the lives of Mary and Joseph, and of their son Jesus as he grows up. Starting with his birth, visits from shepherds and wise men, then a trip to the Temple and the flight to Egypt, and coming right up to date with his baptism, and the start of his ministry turning water into wine.
And I want you this morning to use your imaginations – imagine that all those years ago Mary and Joseph had been lucky enough (if ‘lucky’ is the right word!) to own one of the latest smartphones with a camera so that they could take photos everywhere they went.
You can just imagine what it might have been like. And I want you to really use your imaginations now. Jesus is now grown up. Joseph has died so there’s now just Mary and Jesus. Jesus has finally left home and is now working as a travelling teacher and Mary has invited you round to her house and now she wants to show you photos going all the way back to when Jesus was born.
Being caught in a storm at sea is no laughing matter. I speak from bitter experience. When I was doing my Church Army Training, more years ago than I am prepared to admit to, I spent, as one of my placements, six weeks working with the chaplaincy team at H.M.S. Collingwood. H.M.S. Collingwood is a training ship – the biggest in the navy – and as such is not a ship at all but a land base.
While I was there I had the opportunity to join the chaplain on H.M.S. Antrim, a guided missile destroyer, and spend two days at sea while the ship went out for gunnery practice. What an opportunity – and it should have been a wonderful experience.
For any minister preaching your very first sermon is a nerve-wracking experience. After that it gets more difficult.
The College of Preachers, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary – a good few years ago now – carried out a survey to discover what people think about sermons. The results were surprising. Far from dreading having to sit through sermons apparently 96.6 per cent of those surveyed actually look forward to the sermon. Which is encouraging for me as I stand here facing you this morning!
But what I found particularly interesting, and it’s rather appropriate during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was the report’s findings on the expectations of people in different denominations.
We all know those songs that, if you hear them on the radio or TV by chance, then keep going round and round in your head driving you crazy!
For me – one of the worst, because I know if I hear it, it will then be repeating in my mind for days despite the fact that I really do not like it, is the debut single from the Spice Girls. Released in 1996 – and I apologise in advance to those of you who will now be singing this in your head for the rest of the day – it’s called Wannabe.
Not placed it yet? This should help – here are the words:
Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. So tell me what you want, what you really, really want. I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. So tell me what you want, what you really, really want
Over and over!
And for those of you who would like to know what it was they really, really wanted – and I had to look this up:
Two years ago – if you can remember back that long – I talked in my sermon at the midnight mass about Members of Parliament. And in particular about what was surely the most unpopular decision that has ever been made in the House of Commons. Little did I know then what would come to pass.
I explained two years ago that the most unpopular decision made in Parliament was not a recent one, but was made back in the year 1644. It was during the Civil War, and the mostly Puritan House of Commons disapproved of people enjoying themselves, especially at Christmas. So Members of Parliament decided to pass a law banning Christmas. Yes! Really!