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Right here, right now

A Sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer

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Right here, right now

Posted By : Robert Titley Sunday 2nd January 2022
A Sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 2 January 2022, The Second Sunday of Christmas
Reading  John 1: 10–18
 
Pity the preacher tasked with talking about eternity while a news story is breaking. Last Sunday, Canon Ed managed to include in his sermon on Stephen the martyr some deep things about Archbishop Desmond Tutu (canon of this Cathedral) whose death had been announced just hours before. Today, I have the luxury of preaching a whole day after his state funeral. 
 
Pity also the obituary writer, trying to do justice to such a life. I read one, which majored on Tutu’s role in the struggle against apartheid and his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but which also gave space to his more churchy ministry, to his support for assisted dying and his championing of LGBTQ+ people. It was a long piece – over three thousand words – but not long enough, apparently, for some readers. 
 
‘Your informative obituary,’ said one, ‘missed an important dimension – his warnings on the need to save the planet.’ ‘Your obituary,’ said another, ‘focused on Tutu’s contribution to peace and reconciliation in South Africa…[but] he also made a huge contribution to the process of peace elsewhere in the world.’ Another was ‘disappointed that your obituary made no reference to his support for Palestine.’ This says much about the man (as well as the difficulty of writing adequately about him) but also about the gospel he served.
 
Today we hear again from the opening verses of the gospel according to John. He begins his gospel by summing up God’s nature and action as ‘the Word’: ‘In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ Everything that exists, he says, exists because of the Word. John then identifies the Word with Jesus: ‘he was in the world, and the world came into being through him,’ and then the climax, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’
 
To be a Christian, then, is to follow the One we have to thank for all that exists. As we sang just now,
 
To all life thou givest, to both great and small,
In all life thou livest, the true life of all.’
 
In all life. Desmond Tutu was to explore the full scope of that, but not at first. According to the obituary, he never wanted to enter politics:  
 
No, I’m not smart enough. I can’t think quickly on my feet. I also think it’s a very harsh environment. I’m a cry-baby…not tough enough for the hurly-burly of politics.
 
His biographer, Shirley du Boulay, said that, when Tutu became the first black Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975, he was ‘less politically aware than one might have expected. His contribution to the liberation of his people [until then] had been in becoming a good priest.’
What changed him was the way being a good priest increasingly brought him up against the plight of his people. What kept him the same – always essentially a minister of the gospel – was the sheer capacity, the capaciousness of the Christian good news. 
 
If the Word has been made flesh, if God has (in Bishop Andrew Rumsey’s phrase) ‘taken place’; if the Cause of all that exists has taken a local address on the speck of cosmic dust that is our planet, and has even become that speck upon a speck that is a single human life; if infinity has indeed come among us, then nothing is outside the compass of Christian faith. There is nothing that matters to which the gospel is not relevant, nothing beyond the reach or attention of the God who takes flesh in the manger, whether that thing is the subjugation of a people or the overheating of a planet, whether it is how best to honour the different ways God has made us, or how best to care for one another when suffering is very great.
 
We are less that thirty-six hours into a new year, less than a thousand days into a new decade. The time ahead of us is full of uncertainty, though we can be certain that those causes to which Desmond Tutu devoted his faithful energies will press upon us, as they do at this moment. And our task is essentially the same as his. 
 
The Word became flesh long ago and far away, but we can receive him now. We’re invited to do that in the Holy Communion. If we do, the promise is that the Word can reshape our lives, that we can be born of God, be God’s children, and our story become more a part of God’s story, full of grace and truth. Real energy can flow from that, when you know you belong, and are loved.
 
There are many ways in which that energy might express itself through you and me. Let me suggest one, which I think bears on the church especially as we come up for air from the pandemic. John’s choice of ‘the Word’ to talk about God and Jesus suggests that communication is intrinsic to Christian faith and to the life of God which in Christ we share. So can we find words – each of us find words of our own – to say something of what God and Jesus mean to me, to you? If there is to be congregation here on the second Sunday of Christmas in 2032, we need to do some of that, to let the Word to be made flesh in us.
 
Still, though, if the gospel is about absolutely everything, and we don’t all have the energies (or the opportunities) of a Desmond Tutu, where do you start? It feels paralysing; but it doesn’t have to. 
When the Word becomes flesh in Jesus we see the immense potential of the small thing, the universal significance of the local: the salvation of the world will begin in one Galilean town; and Jesus will tell his friends that the kingdom of God begins like a tiny seed.
One day in 1940s South Africa, an Anglican priest, a white man, met a black woman walking with her young son. The end of apartheid lay half a century away, and this was a time when black South Africans were expected to step aside as whites approached. As this white man approached, however, he raised his hat.
 
It was a small piece of courtesy from a gentleman to a lady; unusual, perhaps, in those circumstances, but hardly revolutionary. Still, this tiny thing made an impression on the boy. Later, he would often recall it as a hinge experience, a sign of what could be possible in his life and in his nation. He was the young Desmond