SERMON FOR EPIPHANY 2013
Last Sunday Mark and Linda insisted on giving me a day off, so while you were here at St Mary’s I had to look for somewhere else to worship. I briefly considered the Russian Orthodox cathedral, but they were still keeping Advent – in fact they don’t celebrate Christmas until tomorrow – and I didn’t really want to go backwards in my celebration of the season.
So I decided to explore my Welsh Quaker ancestry and go to a meeting of the Society of Friends in Hampstead. I was surprised to find that there were 50 or 60 other people gathered for silent worship there. If you have never been to a Quaker meeting, you need to know that it involves sitting in a hollow square around a table that holds a Bible and a few other books. Everyone enters and sits in silence for an hour. That’s it. There is no music, no Scripture reading, no prayers, no sacrament. If someone feels led by the Spirit to speak, they stand up and give their testimony. This happened three times during the meeting I attended. Each contribution was thoughtful and inspiring, and each one built on the testimony that had previously been given.
Towards the end of the hour, the children are led in and join the meeting very quietly. Then when the time is up, two of the elders shake hands, and this is the signal for everyone to shake hands with their neighbour. The clerk then stands up and gives the notices – some things are universal! – and asks visitors to introduce themselves. There was a stir of interest when I said who I was, and afterwards over coffee several people said they had attended our summer lectures. Plentiful refreshments were carried round and there was a buzz of friendly chat in the room that had previously been so quiet.
The Quakers are well known for their pacifism and social activism, but they are proud of another tradition they hold to about times and seasons. They regard every day as of unique significance, a gift from God, and therefore they have no special celebration of Christmas, Easter or any other day. In fact one of the three speakers remarked on how nice it was that there were no flowers on the table this week, as the absence of bling was so refreshing! I thought of the amount of bling we indulge in at St Mary’s and smiled inwardly.
I came away from the meeting with a clear understanding that the Quakers, whether or not they are orthodox Christians, and many of them would not label themselves as such, share the attitude that life is a gift. They view their fellowship as a gift, and corporate silence as a gift. Someone said in her testimony that whenever she has a big decision to make, she puts it off until Monday, so that she can bring it to the fellowship of silent worship first. She thanked the meeting for the precious gift that this was to her.
The clerk said to me after the service, of course religion is not about what happens on Sunday. And I could see that being a Quaker is a seven-days-a-week commitment. But they don’t do it alone. The time of sitting silently together is the gift they receive that enables them to be so active in the world.
Now what has all this to do with Epiphany? It seems to be a bling-filled occasion, celebrating the arrival of mysterious strangers from afar with gifts for a baby of outrageous opulence. It is often interpreted as an occasion when we should think about what we can offer God. What can I give him, poor as I am? Christina Rossetti wrote. If I were a wise man, I would do my part, yet what I have I give him, give my heart.
Of course this is right – but it is a right response. God has given us the gift first, the gift of God’s own self in a human child. We celebrate that gift at Christmas, and at Epiphany we celebrate the fact that the new light that has dawned is for everyone, Gentiles included, and not just for God’s own people, the Jews. Again, this is a day to celebrate that God has chosen to be with us as the light of our lives.
So a Quaker attitude of thankful acceptance is a good one to cultivate. It is certainly in tune with Rowan Williams’ New Year message, which I hope many of you heard or read. The former Archbishop spoke of the way so many people of faith give their time without any fuss or publicity as volunteers to make a better world for everyone. And he went on to say, “as we think about this silent groundswell, perhaps our minds can begin to open up to the deepest secret of all – the trust that the entire universe is held together by the quiet, unfailing generosity of God.”
There is a thought to chew on for the beginning of a new year. Like me, you may have made an optimistic list of resolutions about getting fit and being a better human being in all sorts of ambitious ways. But if there is one resolution that the feast of Epiphany calls us to adopt, it is this: to open ourselves up to the truth that the entire universe is held together by the quiet, unfailing generosity of God.
Let that really sink in. It is not a resolution to go about being busy, or telling other people something. It is a resolution to entrust ourselves to the reality of God. In order to do that, we have to set aside some time to stop our relentlessly active lives and receive what God is giving us.
The Quakers know how important this is. That is why they defer their decision-making until they have sat in silence together to receive what God is giving them. The togetherness is absolutely crucial.
Now I couldn’t be a Quaker, despite having generations of Quaker ancestors. I would miss the music, the incense, the art – all the bling if you like – but much more important, I could not live my Christian life without receiving the gift of God’s own self in the sacrament of the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday. But Anglicans and Quakers have this in common: we need to come together to receive what God wants to give us.
Each of you is a gift to the rest of us. When you are missing, the fellowship is incomplete. When you are present, you bring into our corporate life what God has uniquely given to you. When we meet together, thankfully and expectantly, we become aware of the amazing generosity of God, and we open ourselves to be blessed and challenged.
I don’t know what 2013 will bring to our life together at St Mary’s. Individually and as a parish, we have plenty of practical and financial concerns. And the wider Church of England seems to be in a state of almost permanent crisis and muddle. There are many things that we have to simply get on and do, so that our parish church continues to serve the local community as we are bound to do.
But sitting here together on a Sunday morning is supremely important. As the Quaker clerk said, Christianity isn’t what happens on Sunday – it’s what we live out the whole week long. But this precious hour of waiting on God together, giving thanks together, receiving the gift of Jesus’ risen life in the bread and the wine, empowers us to live our faith at home, at work, in our public and private lives.
The Quakers speak about inner light, God within us. Epiphany also focuses our thoughts on light: as Isaiah says, Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising – that’s us, the foreigners upon whom the light of Christ has dawned.
In this new year let us resolve to cherish the time we spend together, to be thankful for the gift of each other, and to open our hearts regularly and humbly to the gift of the quiet, unfailing generosity of God.