I preached last week at Nine Lessons and Carols at St James'. It's a big do, where the church is packed and a real mix of people from church and the community. I spent a bit of time thinking about how to communicate with this very mixed group of people, and this is what I came up with:
For the millennium myself and some friends decided to visit St Ives in Cornwall, and on the 31st December during the day we went for a walk and the ground was wet and we walked in long grass and hence my trousers got wet. So when returning to the cottage, that belonged to some friends of ours, I got changed and took my trousers and decided to hang them in front of the fireplace. There was a mantle piece and on the mantel piece was a pot. I used the pot as a weight to hold my trousers up whilst drying. The fire started to die down so my friend and I went over to the fire to stoke it, my friend moved my trousers and the pot fell – It bounced off my head and land on the stone floor smashed into hundreds of pieces…A picked up a fragment and there were some initials engraved on the fragment. BL. And my heart missed a beat…
I knew that BL stood for Bernard Leach, arguably the most significant British potter of the last 200 years. And I’d just broken his pot…I was horrified. The next day I went to St Ives and in the Tate was an exhibition of his pots. The whole of St Ives felt like a shrine to the man and I had smashed his pot.
Present day St. Ives is shaped in part by Bernard Leach and his contemporaries. The past shapes the present. And as I’ve been reflecting on tonight I have been asking to myself is how does that which comes before us, inspire us and shape us to live in the present and also act in the future.
As I walked around St Ives. I started to really appreciate the influence of this man and how his work and methods are shaping a whole new generation of potters and sculptures today. I am sure that he would be delighted that that which he started has flourished and grown.
We’ve looked back this evening, 400 years of the King James Version of the Bible, 130 years of the nine lessons and carols service and a two thousand year old story of the Birth of Christ. And that has been beautiful, but I want to ask ‘So What?’ And when I say so what, I mean how does that looking back inspire us to act in the present and work towards a better future. The Bible when translated into English was done so that ordinary people could read the word of God. And then once they had read it, it could inspire them to act in the present and imagine an alternative future.
We look back on a story, a story of God reaching out to each one of us – and that story should empower us to act in the present. The story of the incarnation, the birth of Christ, is one where God reached out to humanity and in the reaching out there is an invitation. An invitation to walk with God to seek a better world, to seek justice for the marginalised, to offer hope for the hopeless and good news to the poor. That is the future imagination that the incarnation brings about a future hope, and that future hope is the antithesis of modern day cynicism.
When we look back on our beautiful tradition and our evocative stories we don’t look back on them to admire them from a distance. To leave them on a mantel piece, to be dusted down once a year then placed back up there. Because one day something will happen, a death, a tragedy, a question that life cannot answer and that pot gets broken.
We look back on that tradition, upon that narrative of the birth of Christ and we begin to live that narrative.And by living that narrative in the present we create movement, a movement that changes the present and gives a future hope.
That pot, that potter provoked the imagination of a whole movement of British Potters and sculptures. That pot although gone is still alive, it lives in the collective imagination of the potters sat at their wheels, shaping the next movement in British pottery.
And that story that we look back on is still alive, it is shaping my life, it is shaping the lives of the people in this church community, it provokes our imagination to dream of and work towards a better world. It shapes our collective imagination so that we seek a better world of justice and equality because Jesus sought those things first.
It’s a history that provokes our imagination and hence inspires an alternative world view, a world view that says my worth is not in my affluence, my worth is not found in my status. My worth is found in a vulnerable child born in a stable, to a fourteen year old girl surrounded by cattle and oxen. My worth is found in the person of Christ born at Christmas. Christ who in the incarnation reaches out to each one of us and says welcome, Is the same Christ who reaches out to us today and say welcome, Welcome to God’s family and welcome to a vision for the future.