I was walking on the hills with one of our sons the other day and he asked me how I saw retirement panning out - would I soon need to find things to do? Fair question as I’m at that stage in life which I suppose you could call early retirement and quite enjoying it. So I rambled on a bit about tending my patch and keeping up some activities and still doing a bit of work at times. And reflected quietly that retirement means such different things to different people - it really can mean anything from an extended holiday to a feeling of being rejected and thrown on the scrap-heap.
But what am I doing, it’s still the Christmas season, we’re supposed to be thinking about the baby Jesus aren’t we? Shepherds at the crib, his circumcision in the temple, and if we read on directly from where I stopped, his greeting from Simeon and Anna. We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood but what we do know seems to tell us that he was loved, accepted and included. It’s all too easy to forget the importance of that as we get carried away with what it’s all supposed to mean.
Now at risk of over-simplifying I begin to wonder whether we can imagine a simple model for life involving place, meaning and acceptance. In worldly terms a nice house, a bit of purpose and some folk to enjoy it with sounds like a good recipe for a happy retirement. And as we reflect on the nativity we can see comparable features, much is made of the place, the stable, much is made of the meaning of the signs, perhaps less is made of the acceptance and welcome that Jesus enjoyed from shepherd, wise men and prophets as well as from his mother and the long suffering Joseph. That acceptance should not be under-rated. Few things disturb us more than the rejection or abuse of an infant and the spectre of Herod as this story develops reminds us that loving acceptance is sadly not the lot of every child in the world.
Place, meaning and acceptance. They continue to matter in varying measure to this day. You’ve no doubt read about the fun and games in Bethlehem where Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests got into a punch up because someone was provocatively sweeping someone else’s patch, so the police had to step in to sort it out. Depressing? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t want to come over all puritan about it and start saying that buildings and places don’t matter - a place like this speaks of the rootedness of our faith in place and time, and as its current occupiers we should value that legacy and try our best to use it to witness to eternal truths.
Place is important, but I popped in here Friday afternoon when it was pouring with rain outside and it was properly cold and gloomy here and I have to say, I was not tempted to linger. What really makes people want to stop around for a bit? No lesser person than the pope was reflecting on that in his Christmas message to the Roman Curia. He asked why there is a crisis of faith in Europe and so few people in its churches. He contrasted it with Africa’s joyful passion for faith and said:
"Where does joy come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves."
I think there’s a lot in that. An accepting, welcoming, inclusive church has a chance of involving others in its search for the truth. The very act of welcoming and involving speaks of the value we put on what we have here.
But what do we have? What is the meaning, the motivation for all this? What do we believe? I don’t know whether it’s my imagination but it seems to me that there are more and more people addressing this matter of belief and meaning from a bewildering variety of angles.
Here’s an agnostic parable which might be taken to address our motivations.
1 One day as Jesus was walking through the marketplace, a scholar came up to him and asked: "Teacher, what should I believe?"
2 Jesus turned to him and said: "Once there were three neighbouring allotments, tended by three people, Thea, Alf and Flo."
3 "There he goes off on one of his stories again," whispered Judas to Peter. "Why can't he just give a straight answer?"
4 "Ssshh!" Peter replied. "The stories are good. People remember them. And the faithful that follow us will make good use of their ambiguity as they adapt to new times and places."
5 "One day, an environmental scientist walked past the allotments," continued Jesus, a little miffed that not all his disciples were concentrating, "smiled happily at the enthusiasm and effort of the gardeners, and asked them why they were working so hard.
6 "'Because the organic food we produce here is cheaper, healthier and better for the planet,' they replied as one.
7 "At this, the environmental scientist's face fell. 'Alas, it is not true,' he said, explaining at length that the small, inefficient nature of their endeavours did not result in cheaper or less resource-intensive food than could be bought in shops, and nor was there any evidence home-grown food had any significant health benefits.
8 "They continued to discuss this for several hours, after which, all were persuaded that their convictions had been wrong. They packed up their tools, went home and resolved never to return.
9 "A month later, the scientist was again walking through the allotments. He saw that Thea's patch remained untended but Alf and Flo were both working their earth as industriously as before. 'Did you change your views back after we talked?' he asked them.
10 "'No," replied Alf. 'We stayed at home the next day, but then we both realised that what we really loved about the allotment was the contact with the ground, seeing the food grow, being outside, watching the changing of the seasons, the camaraderie of our fellow gardeners.
11 "'We sincerely thought that what we believed about organic allotments was the reason we came. But when that belief went, we realised it wasn't about that at all,' added Flo. 'Although it was for Thea.'
12 "Several months later, the scientist passed by again, and this time he saw that only Flo was at work, and Alf's allotment had become overgrown. 'What happened to your friend?' he asked Flo.
13 "'He continued for a while,' she replied. 'Yes, he enjoyed all the things we said we enjoyed last time. But working an allotment is hard work and over time it transpired that these rewards weren't enough. Without the belief that it really was healthier, greener and cheaper, he simply did not have a strong enough incentive to persist.'
14 "'But you?' asked the scientist. 'For me, the activity is enough.'" Jesus fell silent and it was clear the parable was over.
15 "And the moral of the story?" asked the scholar. "There's always a moral." Jesus shrugged his shoulders. "People can be mistaken about how important their own beliefs are."
16 "I see," said the scholar. "So, metaphorically speaking, They all believed at the start that their 'religion' rested on a whole set of beliefs. For Thea, that was true, for Flo it turned out not to be. Alf agreed with Flo in principle but found that without belief he was not motivated enough to do the practice."
17 Jesus nodded gently. "Do you think there are more Theas, Alfs or Flos in this world?" he asked.
18 "I don't know," replied the scholar. "But isn't the main question not how many of each type there are, but which one I should be?"
19 "You can lead a man to gardens, but you cannot make him dig," replied Jesus, and he set off on his way. "Hey!" Where do you think you're going?" shouted the scholar. "I need a better answer than that! We all need answers!"
20 "Grow your own," replied Jesus, without turning his head.
Does belief matter? Perhaps I should give a straight-ish answer. Years ago I found one of our previous rector’s lines struck a chord with me - “Jesus is the lens through which we can see what God is like,” he said. For me that approach has stood the test of time and I prefer to say that the meaning matters and provides the motivation. That’s what we I believe we have here.
Place, meaning and acceptance. It’s a simple model, I know. But we have a place here which we can continue to enjoy and value. We have this book and our traditions with their meanings, insights, beliefs, whatever you want to call them which give purpose to what we do. But above all in this New Year we have each other. We may seem like a motley crew at times but really, look at the unlikely bunch who welcomed Jesus into the world and be grateful. We have each other.