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A Sermon from Sherborne
Of toys, and gifts, and love
It is just a fortnight since Remembrance Sunday, and I for one find it difficult to do the mental and spiritual gymnastics which are required to wrench us away from the season of Remembrance and make us change gear ready for Advent and Christmas. Emotionally I am still with what we were doing on All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, and Remembrance Sunday, and Armistice Day itself, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, which I spent with Veterans in Bournemouth, representing the Lord-Lieutenant.
So bear with me if on this ‘Toy Sunday’ I tell you not a happy Christmas story but a tragic war-time one. It concerns a young man called Robert Thomas. In 1944 he was a very young platoon commander, and in August of that year he died in a hail of bullets whilst leading his platoon against a German stronghold in Italy. Robert Thomas had been educated both at Sherborne Prep and at Sherborne School, and he loved this town. It was constantly in his thoughts during the Italian campaign. In one of his last letters home he wrote this: ‘I can’t somehow picture myself living very far away from it all. I want to make Sherborne a perfect post-war town. I do so want to make people appreciate lovely things – to know what lovely things are.’
I find it incredibly moving to think of that young man in the midst of the horrors of war turning his thoughts constantly to Sherborne, and pledging, if he were to return, to help make this town perfect – to join in the work of making England beautiful again. And as we begin to turn our thoughts towards Christmas, I’m glad that this month of November is for us also a month of giving. So today you have all come to church with books and toys and games for children who would otherwise have a pretty lean time of it this Christmas, at the Mother and Toddlers Group at the Rendezvous here in Sherborne and in the North and West Dorset Women’s Refuges.
To explain why this gladdens my heart in this strange period between Remembrance and Advent, I need to read you some John Betjeman. Not the familiar Betjeman of the dear old poems entitled ‘Advent 1955’ and ‘Christmas’, but from some of his works only published this century, and originally broadcast on radio and recently recovered from the BBC archive. For example, here’s the second part of a poem broadcast on 14 December 1954, and entirely lost until a decade ago:
I’ll tell a tale to you to prove
The way in which God works by love.
I’ll call the man Emmanuel Seed –
He did not hold with any creed,
He never went to church on Sunday,
His Sunday was the same as Monday
Except that he could read of crime
And lie in bed till dinner time.
He was a decent friendly type
Who liked his pint and liked his pipe.
Emmanuel’s vicar was a man
Of guile. He had a clever plan.
He said to him, “Emmanuel,
That you’re a joiner I know well.
I wonder now if you would jib
At helping me construct a crib?
I want a model of a stable,
And make it quickly as you’re able
To be in Church by Christmas day
For when the children come to pray.”
Emmanuel thought, “Well, that is funny:
He isn’t asking me for money,
He asks me just to use my hands.
If that is all that he demands,
I’ll have a try. I’ll thatch it too.
I’ll show him just what I can do,
And then he’ll know the likes of we
Who don’t believe are good as he.”
He made it. “My! You’ve done it well,
We’re mighty pleased, Emmanuel,”
Said Harry Hawke, the people’s warden.
“It’s better than our Easter garden.
Why don’t you come and see it lit
With all the figures put in it?’
Emmanuel said he wouldn’t mind,
He’d come if so he felt inclined.
He came not once, but twice or thrice.
He thought church services were nice,
And soon he thought them more than that.
“Now what’s the vicar getting at?
I know that I have been baptised,
I’m darned if I’ll be catechised
Like any kid.” But, truth to tell,
The bishop confirmed Emmanuel.
Emmanuel’s still a pleasant type
Who likes his pint and likes his pipe
But now our friend Emmanuel Seed
Is buttressed by the Christian creed
And still the friend of all in need.
This tale is only told to prove
A way in which God works by love.
Seed built a stable for the Lord –
The Christian faith was his reward.
The spirit of Christmas is immensely strong. You may have heard again over the last few weeks the story of the Christmas Truce in 1914, when the spirit of Christmas even stopped the Great War, as German and Allied soldiers scrambled out of their trenches to exchange Christmas greetings, and gifts, and play football on the frozen earth of No Man’s Land. But the spirit of Christmas is also weak and vulnerable, as weak and vulnerable as a baby. It will never coerce, because Christ himself will never coerce. At Christmas 1915 the command went out on both sides, ‘No fraternisation’. Lieutenant Wyn Griffiths of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers wrote of ‘Strict orders … that we must confine our goodwill not only to fellow Christians, but to Christians of allied nationality. We were to remain throughout possessed by the spirit of hate, answering any advances with lead.’ By Armistice Day 1918, nearly nine million men had died.
It never really ceases to be wartime, does it? There’s always a war going on somewhere, and if it’s not the war of guns and missiles it’s a war of bitter words and bitter thoughts. There are wars in our streets, our homes, our families and – perhaps worst of all – wars inside ourselves as we battle to discover who we really are and to make our lives what we would have them be.
Yet if our God had come amongst us on that first Christmas day as a great king, an emperor, a statesman; if he had come in power and might and greatness, I for one would be in no mood for preparing for Christmas. I would long ago have given up on a God who made such large claims but was so slow to fulfil them. But God did not come amongst us in power and influence and strength. He came a little baby thing, who made a woman cry. He came into, into, our sorrows, our pain and our tragedies. He didn’t come to pull strings and change events, like some heavenly puppeteer, because that would have made us no more than puppets, destined for all time to dance God’s tune. No, he had to come, he had to come, in a way which would preserve our freedom, that glorious and blessed liberty which leaves us free to suffer and to feel pain in order to make us free to know the glorious liberty of the children of God.
And I believe that, short of the sacrifice of the Robert Thomases of this world, we discover that best when we are giving, giving, giving. It doesn’t have to be money. It can be the giving of time or concern or helpfulness or, like Emmanuel Seed, the skill of our hands or out other talents. But somewhere along the line there has to be sacrifice, or we will miss the meaning of it all. As Christina Rossetti put it long ago:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
And if we heed that truth, we can sing with renewed hope and sure faith:
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.