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Advent Ordination sermon- The Right Reverend David Wilbourne

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Given 10am Sunday 2 December 2018

‘Be alert at all times, praying that you
may have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.’

One year during Advent I kidnapped the Christchild
from Helmsley church’s crib,
put him into the basket of my bicycle and took him on tour:
Each night Jesus came to visit a different place in great humility,
to coin the Advent Collect.
I love cycling,
but I remember those journeys were so hard, so tiring,
almost as if I was carrying
the woes of the world on my bike.
I love visiting too,
no technology can even approach
the face-to-face personal touch,
the spoken word, the faith stories you chance upon
which write your sermons, and indeed books for you.
But mostly I’m like an ecclesiastical version
of David Attenbrough,
simply delighting in such wonderful human creatures,
but mercifully spared the mating rituals.

Some of the homes teemed with life and excited children,
Christ, also brimming with life in all its fullness
came into their midst.
Some of the homes were lonely places,
a widow or widower;
that night Christ stayed with them,
as he always stays with them.
Some of the homes were places where death was close,
and Christ came close.

Helmsley was a bit of a Downton Abbey,
with our own Lord Grantham.
One night I huffed and puffed
up the 1:3 hill to the Big House
in a fierce snow storm,
and knocked on the back door.
A housekeeper eventually answered
‘I’ll see if his Lordship is free,’ she said.

‘Don’t worry,’ I thought, shivering on the doorstep,
‘I’m only bringing Jesus to stay!’
Eventually his Lordship descended,
but he didn’t seem very chuffed to receive his Lord.
Lord Feversham always read the part of Herod
in the Christmas Carol Service,
so on reflection perhaps not the best choice for child-care.
I returned, 24 fretful hours later,
but thankfully retrieved Jesus, safe and sound.
After all, if Christ can survive the cross,
he could survive a cross Lord Feversham.

Next I took him to a cottage even higher up the moors,
a chilly place with such thin walls,
but such a warm welcome.
The estate worker’s wife was pregnant with their first child, and as I left the baby Jesus with them,
I prayed that their baby would be born safe and well.
Which she was.

Baby Jesus went to stay with Norman,
who like his father before him had worked on the railways,
his little bungalow a shrine to steam
festooned with model trains
and well-thumbed copies of Bradshaws.
Norman’s friend Martin often stayed over
and they received communion together.
I guess they were an item.
I once chanced upon Martin stooping down before Norman
tenderly bathing his heavily ulcerated legs and feet.
Such love. In sickness and in health…
I placed baby Jesus on Norman’s male-only mantelpiece
cheek to cheek with Sir Nigel Gresley and the Flying Scotsman,
hallowing the heart of their home.

Some weren’t homes at all.
Christ stayed with our Dentists,
Messrs Hacket and Angel, for 24 hours,
I plonked him on the counter and made a swift exit:
wherever there is pain, there is Christ.

Christ stayed in our comprehensive school.
Secondary Schools can be frightening places
– leading assemblies there
is as close as you get to a near-death experience!
But this school welcomed Christ:
the D & T class
– known as the woodwork class before we joined the EU –
they made him a little wooden crib.

Christ stayed for the night in my good friend,
the butcher’s shop.
The Lamb of God alongside lamb galore.
In the middle of his shop window
with all the hams and pork pies and turkeys
the butcher put the Christchild
in the little crib the school had made
with the following message:
‘Jesus, born in a stable, be the guest at our table.’
I’ve preached for 39 Advents,
but I couldn’t put it better than that.
Jesus, born in a stable, come,
be the guest at all our dinner tables today.

But some dinner tables are sad tables,
with an empty chair and a heartfelt absence:
Jesus, born in a stable, be the guest at that table.
Tables in the Yemen.
Not much food there,
25 million of God’s children set to starve this Christmas.
More likely that the tables will be used to hide under,
makeshift shelters from the bombs we have sold the Saudis.
Jesus, born in a stable, be the guest at that table.
If it disturbs you, Jesus being there, do something about it.

Tables in hospitals, operating tables.
I guess this moment outside the city wall
in York District Hospital
a life hangs in the balance,
and skilled surgeons and our wonderful NHS
try their hardest to save someone and bring healing:
Jesus, born in a stable, be the guest at that table.

Tables in mighty cabinet rooms across the world,
in London, Moscow, Washington and Ottawa,
where the flick of a pen
can bring peace or war,
prosperity or famine.
‘We must honour the people’s vote,’
Teresa May lectures baby Jesus,
as he sits on her cabinet table in 10 Downing Street.
‘Mm,’ Jesus replies,
‘Last time we honoured a people’s vote
they freed Barabbas and crucified me!
Now, about those bombs you’re selling the Saudis…’
Jesus, our Righteousness,
born in a stable,
come be the disturbing guest at those tables.

But most of all come, be the guest at our table here
at this Eucharist and every holy and unholy table
where our two new priests
will celebrate for the rest of their lives.
I’m a Maths geek
and I once calculated that I had consecrated
about 250 gallons of wine
at all the masses I had celebrated.
As every Tony Hancock fan knows,
each body contains about a gallon of blood,
so that is 250 Christs you will unleash upon the world
because of your ministry,
all those communicants going out
with the taste of Christ on their lips.

Bike or no bike,
pot Christchild or no pot Christchild,
Tina and Jake,
You will spend the rest of your ministry taking Christ out,
carrying Christ, being met by Christ,
and cheering the world and his church.
In those words of St Paul
‘May he so strengthen all your hearts in holiness that,
having brought Christ so close to so many,
you may be blameless before our God and Father
at the final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
with all his saints.’

Because one day,
when life on earth draws to its close
our prayer will change into,
‘Jesus, born in a stable,
may we be the guest at your table’

And our gracious Lord will reply,
‘Come, blessed child of my Father,
receive the kingdom prepared for you
from the beginning of the world.
Come to the feast.’

One PS.
I took him to Lillian’s for 24 hours,
her home a medieval hovel.
she couldn’t receive Jesus before she’d had her ‘beer’,
a tot of Dandelion and Burdock
which I decanted into a drinking bottle for her,
the viscous liquid bubbling over
and making my hands sticky: a strange communion.

In the pocket of her painfully worn cardigan
was an individual Mr Kipling’s apple pie,
which she removed and put on the sofa arm.
‘If I lie down, I might squash it,’ she explained.
Then from the very same pocket
she produced some scraps of raw meat,
which she pressed into my hands to feed her mangy dog.
‘Is there much sickness in the parish, Vicar?’
she asked, with genuine concern.
‘There will be,’ I thought,
‘if we keep carrying on like this.’

I stole into the kitchen to wash my hands,
only to be appalled that it was so primitive.
One cold tap above a chipped Belfast sink,
a battered cabinet or two,
piled high with chipped unwashed crockery,
food dried on it from goodness knows when.
I returned to Lillian, scanning the severely cluttered room.
On the dampest of distempered walls hung an MBE.
‘Goodness, Lillian, is that yours?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Oh yes, Vicar,
King George VI presented it to me, for nothing really.
All I’d done was run a Church Army refreshment caravan
for the troops in the last war.’

I realised the immensity of
all this Church Army sister had done,
hawking her caravan all over Britain and Europe,
chasing the action.
Lillian was there to comfort the troops
dragging bodies of their comrades
out of the English Channel at Start Bay,
following some doomed rehearsal for D Day.
Even there at the relief of Belsen,
which proved the most harrowing sights of all,
the emaciated victims
too late to be cheered by Lillian’s tea and buns.
She told me how
she had held a glass of water to the parched lips
of a tiny Jewish girl.
Hail, little one, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…

I began to understand why,
having witnessed such deprivation and desolation, possessions and home comforts meant nothing to her.
I cleared the cluttered sideboard
and placed baby Jesus there,
the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head
finding shelter that night with Sister Lillian.
I then held her hand as I gave her my blessing.
Or did she, the best priest we never had,
give a blessing to me?’

He comes
the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure,
and with the treasures of his grace
enrich the humble poor.

Enrich us humble poor: even so, come Lord Jesus.

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