Out of the Ordinary..
(From a sermon based on Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 and John 6: 35. 41-51)
Back in the summer, the Wood family spent a happy week in Cornwall and, as usual, I used this annual escape to indulge in a good read – a little mind-stretching Philosophy, one of my daughter’s A level English books, and a good stash of my own.
Among these was a book called “little Exiles”. This is a novel – a work of fiction – but based on the real life experiences of some of those who, as children, were shipped out to Australia to begin a new life. In the wake of World War 1, the “Children’s Crusade” rescued huge numbers of fatherless children from destitution, and took them to children’s homes in Australia (and later Canada as well) and prepared them to become farmers and farmers’ wives.
The reality was always a fairly tough one – but in the early days, the Crusade did meet a pressing need. The Children’s Crusade was founded with a high moral purpose and a clear intention of making life infinitely better for those who passed through its homes.
Little by little, however, a more high-handed attitude crept in – those in charge of the system knew best – children were permanently separated from their remaining family so that the new start was absolute – no looking back.
Any mothers who subsequently found their circumstances improved would be frustrated in any attempt to track down their own children: letters to or from home would not be delivered, no information would be passed on. Those in charge knew what was best for all concerned and they weren’t going to be budged on that.
And by the time of the 2nd world war, the organisation had a momentum all its own.
Rather than a moral crusade determined to rescue waifs and strays from the murkier streets of Liverpool or London, it had somehow morphed into an institution that needed children in over to maintain itself. And with fewer genuine cases of absolute poverty, those in charge became rather skilful at manoeuvring hapless mothers into handing over their offspring, when with a little help, a little time to set things in order, a normal, loving home life could have been sustained.
Somewhere along the way, the original vision was lost – and instead existing to give children real opportunities of a productive and fulfilling life, the Crusade sought to preserve its own life by securing a regular flow of “little exiles” – even if that meant destroying families in the process.
Somewhere along the way, things went rotten.
Just about the same time that I was reading this novel, we heard about the closure of “Kid’s Company” – an organisation which has done a huge amount of good work, over the past 19 years, among some of the most disadvantaged and challenging young people in our society today.
And we were left trying to make sense of confusing allegations of financial mismanagement and worse.
Has the same thing happened, as with the Children’s Crusade? Has the original vision been lost within an organisation that simply became too big? Did those in charge of Kids Company begin to see themselves as so important they didn’t need to worry about finances – believing someone else would always be there to bail them out?
At this point it’s not at all clear – and we can only hope that over the coming weeks we will be able to make more sense of it and that something may yet be rescued from the good work they have undoubtedly achieved.
We can I think take due warning from the fate of both those organisations, however.
As Christians we also belong to a very large and very complex institution – the Church.
There is no guarantee that we won’t lose our way, or become so convinced of our own importance that we lose the plot. And so we need to be sure of our reason for existing – of the core purpose that we need to cling to in order to prevent the rot setting in among us too.
As always, we do well to start with the gospel and with Christ himself.
Jesus says :“I am the bread of life – the living bread that is come down from heaven – the bread which I will give for the life of the world.”
Jesus IS clearly making a claim to be special – in John’s gospel there are a whole series of statements beginning “I am”, each time rooting people’s religious needs in him.
“I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life” and so on.
And yet the purpose of that specialness is life – and specifically the life of the world.
Jesus is not drawing attention to himself in order to be admired but to point to the Father. He reveals the divine life within his own self in order that others may receive that divine life – bread is given and shared in order to sustain those who receive it.
And so back to us:
We say “We are the Body of Christ” –at every Eucharist we claim that divine life among us.
What we then do with that claim is the key point, I think.
If we start to think that Christ’s presence among us somehow sets us apart from – and makes us better than the rest of humanity (as some Christians do), then I think we have a problem.
That way lies the self-importance and self-delusion that enabled the Children’s Crusade to justify its actions.
In this Gospel passage (John 6: 35, 41-51 ), the main thing that the crowds grumble about – the main accusation against Jesus – is that he is just the son of Joseph: they know his parents, they know who he is.
How can he claim to be special??
And perhaps that is the key point of this Gospel – in Jesus, God’s power and glory, God’s transforming grace, are revealed in flesh and blood – the extraordinary revealed in what is ordinary.
If we are the Body of Christ – are we then called to see ourselves simply as ordinary people graced by God’s presence? Are we charged with the task of revealing God’s presence in the ordinary and everyday events of our common life?
Is our true purpose to be like Jesus – the living bread – always giving something of ourselves in order to sustain and bring life to others – and in doing so always rediscovering the richness of God’s life within us?
If that is so, then the key to our mission lies not in grand schemes, or structures; not in seeking power and influence for ourselves, but in simple human encounter – honest and open and ordinary.
Let me return to Cornwall, and to another discovery I made there – an extraordinary idea that I discovered in a very ordinary place.
At Port Isaac, there is a converted Methodist chapel which has in it a very fine Café.
On the wall of their toilet their hangs a certificate – which reads: “This toilet is twinned with Latrine 439, Bangladesh.”
And there was a photo of said latrine – a sort of corrugated iron shed.
At first glance I wondered if it was some kind of strange joke – but there was a website listed at the bottom so I had a look. And no – it was certainly not a joke!
Toilet Twinning, I learned, is a way of sponsoring improved hygiene in a number of developing countries. Here’s the official explanation:
For just £60, you can twin your loo with a latrine halfway around the world, in a country of your choosing.Your smallest room becomes the proud owner of a personalised certificate, complete with a colour photo of its twin and GPS coordinates so you can look up your twin on Google Maps.
Your donation is used by Tearfund to provide clean water, basic sanitation, and hygiene education. This vital combination works together to prevent the spread of disease.
Children are healthier, and able to go to school; parents are well enough to work their land and grow enough food to feed their family. With better health, and more ability to earn a living, men and women discover the potential that lies within them to bring transformation.
You may be surprised that I could visit one of the most beautiful parts of the country and return obsessed with toilets – but I do think this is an excellent idea!
And so I wondered – could we make Toilet Twinning our Charity of the month sometime soon?Could we twin both our Church toilets? Could we then persuade our school to twin their toilet block with another school – or spread the idea to other groups in the town??
It’s a very unusual subject for the church to be raising! But then perhaps BECAUSE of the very simplicity of the idea, the very ordinariness of the question of basic hygiene – we might just make a real impact on people’s consciousness here and on the lives of those in other countries who need help.
St Paul urges us to be “imitators of God”. It is our calling to reflect both the generosity of God – who gives us life — and the humanity of Jesus who embraced every aspect of life, and who offered his life for us all.
There is nothing too ordinary for God or beneath his concern – there is nothing too ordinary or beneath the dignity of the Church or her members. We say, in our mission statement, that we strive “to reveal God’s love in worship and action” – let’s do so through every possible means, the more ordinary the better.