A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury, on Sunday 1 December 2019, 10.30am Eucharist. The 1st Sunday of Advent.
Matthew 24 36-44
A few years ago I sat with a young woman who was nearing the end of her life. She told me that when she was a little girl she had knelt by her bedside every night to say her prayers, and that she had always felt the presence of God around her. But now she felt it no longer. Had God abandoned her, she wanted to know?
“Keep awake” Jesus urges his disciples. “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”. This Advent proclamation runs seamlessly through the liturgy of the Salisbury Advent Procession, From Darkness to Light. What begins as one candle flame in the cavernous darkness of the Cathedral becomes an irresistible blaze of light as the final procession moves west. “I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming” are the first words sung; “Lo, he come with clouds descending” are the last. God will come, the words and music insist, and in response the worshippers are called to anticipatory wakefulness: awake to the horizon and awake to his coming; ready to acknowledge him and ready to greet him.
But during From Darkness to Light that wakefulness, that readiness, may be difficult to imagine and even more difficult to practice – particularly if you are sitting at the back of a transept, and you can see very little. There is an occasional glimpse of candleflame and a trace of glittering banners, but the horizon is largely limited to the back of the person sitting in front of you wearing a heavy winter coat. But, you know, that’s the experience of everyone who attends the service, and of everyone who participates in it. The architecture of the building and the processional nature of the liturgy mean that wherever you are will have a partial perspective on what is happening around you, and your partial perspective will be different to your neighbour’s.
It’s a vivid metaphor for faith and, indeed, for life. A panoply of circumstance shapes what we experience of the world. Age, gender, ethnicity, health, geography, wealth, sexuality: all condition what we see and understand of what surrounds us. We forget that panoply at our peril. When we do, we are at risk of mistaking our experience for everyone’s experience, of assuming that what we see and understand is what our neighbour sees and understands. I have a visceral dislike of that song that some of us remember from childhood, “you in your small corner, and I in mine” but at least it acknowledges that my corner is not the same as your corner.
The partial perspective that our particular corner affords us is why we need to hear that Advent proclamation, “Keep awake”. Jesus sketches a world in which some men and women are working in the fields and some are grinding meal. He might have added that some are in the back of the transept and some are lighting candles above the tombs in the nave. Whatever: “Keep awake” he urges us. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the field, or the grindstone, or the back row, or William Longspee’s toes are all that there is. Keep awake. Don’t let your partial perspective define your response to what is coming; don’t let it blind you to it.
The Advent proclamation has a fresh resonance in 2019, for which we can thank American hip-hop and soul music, and the power of social media. “Stay woke”, a phrase which originates in a song, has become a powerful online rallying cry. The woke are alive to the injustices of racism, misogyny and homophobia. “Keep Awake”, the command of Jesus; “Stay Woke”, the command of the Twittersphere; these are deeply, profoundly connected. Stay woke to your partial perspective; keep awake to the prejudices, overt and hidden, which distort society and your perspective on it.
Not for the first time, popular culture here reminds Christian culture of its heritage and of its responsibilities. Tom Holland’s compelling new book, Dominion, should be on everyone’s Christmas list. In it he traces two thousand years of what he calls the Christian revolution’s totalizing, inescapable impact on the way Westerners think, a revolution that has “…at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross”. Without the profound inversion of every system of power and value that human beings have ever devised for themselves that is the heart of Christian faith, Holland concludes “…then no one would ever have got woke”.
So, keep awake to the partial perspective, to the panoply of circumstance, to the prejudice overt and hidden. Test it this Advent by asking yourselves a question. To whom do you pray? To which God? The young woman with whose story I began longed to feel the God of her childhood, the God of the bedside lamp. But with her cruel panoply of circumstance - terminal illness, fear, and grief - she could not. God had not abandoned her; I don’t believe that for one minute. It was just that she was looking for him in the wrong place. She was looking for him in the bedroom of her childhood.
To whom do you pray? To a benevolent grandparent God, or to a severe sergeant-major God, or to a laid-back sandal-wearing God? If Advent is a time for waking up to our partial perspective, to the panoply of circumstance that surrounds us and conditions us, then it is, very acutely, a time for waking up to what we believe about God. I’m emphatically not saying that any of the images of God I’ve listed are, quotes, ‘wrong’. One tells us something about God’s gentleness, one about God’s righteousness, and one about God’s forgiveness. But none is the whole truth of God. And we may discover that the vision of God to which we cling is holding back our growth as people of faith in ways that we would not countenance in other departments of our lives. The young woman had had a stellar career, a happy marriage, and two children, and in the hurly-burly of life her faith had not kept up. We can’t ride the tricycles we rode as children; we can’t wear the clothes we wore as teenagers; we can’t necessarily rely upon the relationship with God that saw us through those years. We need to wake up.
Here’s the thing: perhaps the woke generation is more aligned to the truth of our crucified God than we realize. Their alignment is unconscious, but in their passion for creation and their care for the marginalized they demonstrate an account of power and value that I think Jesus would recognize. If they are to recognize in what we say and do here the God who they cannot yet name then we may need to change what we say and do. So. When you sit in the back row of the transept; when you light candles in the nave; keep awake. Keep awake to the Purbeck pillar that blocks your view; acknowledge it, and tell yourself that beyond it, even though you can’t see it, there is more. Stay woke.