Sunday, 3 January 2016

A Sermon for Christmas 2

Here we stand on the third day of a new year. The glasses have been raised, the fireworks set off, the remaining bits of turkey fricasseed or curried; so what’s next? This new start on New Year’s Day is an entirely artificial thing, really. New years could begin at any time, and indeed do, with most of the world’s great faiths having their own measurement of time. I seem to think that Christians started their year on 25th March at one time, the feast of the Annunciation to Mary. The New Year as we have it, globally, is a sort of left over from the Roman Empire, and some of the months of our year commemorate old Roman gods. One of those is January, named for the god Janus, a household god who was the protector of gates and doorways. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking into the past, and the other into the future.

However artificial the distinction between one year and the next, it does give us an opportunity to reflect on the past and to plan for the future. For some of us, it’s enough to know that a bad year is over at last, and maybe there’ll be a better one this time, but some of us at least will make New Year resolutions.

I’m not particularly good at keeping the resolutions I make, though I’ve made it as far as March, on occasions. But there is something else I’ll be doing this New Year. I became a member of the 3rd Order of the Society of St Francis when I was training for ordination, so I’ve been a Franciscan throughout my ministry as a priest. Francis organised his followers into an order of friars minor, or little brothers - what we call the First Order. Prompted by St Clare, he then formed a Second enclosed Order for women; these are sometimes called the Poor Clares, and there’s a Roman Catholic community of Poor Clares near the lakeside at Ellesmere. But he also formed a third order, for those who wished to dedicate their lives, but who couldn’t completely give up their old life.

That might be because of work or family commitments, obviously in many cases because they were married; or it could just be that someone felt a real call, but a call to add something to their present way of life, rather than give it all up and begin something else. Members of this Third Order - some clergy, some lay folk - live according to a rule of life just as monks and nuns do, except their rule isn’t a standard rule adopted by a community, but their own rule, devised to reflect their own situation; this rule will of course be based on the principles laid down by Francis, and it needs to be accepted by the society and reviewed by a spiritual director - but it’s something particular and special to that person.

So one thing I’ll be doing this New Year is to look at my own rule of life, and what it requires of me. Is it relevant to me as I am now, at the beginning of 2016? Does it fully address the responsibilities I have, the opportunities I have, the work I do? Will it help me to minister better, to represent Christ better, to speak of him and work for him better, where I am? I need my rule of life to stretch me - it won’t be too much of a doddle to keep; but I also need it to be keep-able, for a rule of life I keep failing to achieve is only going to depress and dishearten me, to no good effect.
I’ll be seeing my spiritual director in a couple of weeks’ time, so I’ll take my ideas to him, and see what he has to say. He’s an old friend, but a new spiritual director - to me, though he’s had many years experience elsewhere. He’s already said a few very perceptive and challenging things about my existing rule, so I think he and I will work together well. He’s especially going to challenge me on the issue of relevance, I think. After all, it doesn’t matter how holy my rule of life makes me feel, what it’s really for is to help me to serve Jesus, and minister Jesus, as well as I can where I am.

And I hope our New Year’s resolutions will do the same, when we make them as Christians. Don’t worry if you haven’t done that yet. My resolutions always start on the first Monday of the New Year, or even the Feast of the Epiphany, not on New Year’s Day itself; till then there’s just too much Christmas stuff left to use up! But be utilitarian in your resolution-making; by all means aim to lose weight or do more walking, or whatever else might be your personal target, but include at least one resolution that looks outward at others, and helps you serve Jesus better where you are.

We read in this morning’s Gospel that we have the right, we have been given the right, to become children of God. Last Friday the Church marked the Naming of Jesus as well as celebrating New Year’s Day. The child was circumcised on the eighth day, and named then as well - Jesus, or Jeshua, the name given by the angel. The name means “Saviour”, or perhaps “God’s Salvation.” And this child of God, this only Son of God, divine Word made flesh, in John’s words, invites us to join him as children of God.

Our own baptism began in us what is a lifelong process of becoming. John wrote that we have the right to become children of God, and that this is the work of God within us, the work of the Spirit. Discipleship is a journey of becoming what God has always meant us to be, growing into the full stature of Christ, as St Paul I think expresses it. Such artificial divisions of time as the New Year, and for that matter the various occasions and festivals of the Christian year, they can help us to grow and develop as God’s children, for we can use them as staging points, as times when we review where we are, times when we make a new commitment. We may be tempted to cancel the resolutions we make the first time we fail. But we shouldn’t. It’s perfectly all right to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start over.

That’s why there’s a prayer of confession at this and every Christian service. We don’t have to be perfect to be here; we come as folk who mess up sometimes but are resolved to keep trying. Nelson Mandela once said his definition of a saint was a sinner who keeps on trying. Amen to that. Central to my rule of life is how I handle failure; what happens when I don’t match up even to my own expectations of me, let alone God’s. Fundamental to that is that I’m not on my own as a member of that community of people who are becoming children of God. As a Franciscan I’m part of a particular organisation and family within the Church as well as being part of the Church itself. But more than that, when I resolve to be more like Jesus, he himself promises to meet me in that resolve. I believe that to be true, and more to the point I’m living proof of it, not because I’m all that good, but because I’m here at all. And with that thought in mind, may we go forward into 2016, into the year of our Lord 2016, with gratitude and expectation and hope, and with the sign of faith. Amen.

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