Sermon preached on Candlemas (2 February 2014) by Reverend Niall Weir, Rector of St Paul's Church, West Hackney
A friend of mine loves to tell of an incident she witnessed one summer morning on a platform of the London Underground Central Line.
She was standing - cheek by jowl - with hundreds of other commuters in the sultry, summertime heat, when a man standing next to her turned a funny colour and collapsed in a heap onto the platform.
An official from London Transport appeared and pleaded for people to ‘stand back’ and give the collapsed passenger breathing space. He also called for any doctors on the platform to identify themselves.
Naturally, most people did exactly the opposite and crowded round for a better look.
The official pleaded again for everyone to move back and for any doctors present to come forward.
This time, everyone did move back.
Everyone, that is, except for a six foot six West Indian man, sensibly dressed for summer in shorts and a string vest and sporting the kind of dreadlocks that - if you have a scrap of humanity in you – you’d really want to reach out and squish between your fingers.
Anyway, moving swiftly on.
The tall young man knelt down beside the passenger and - in so doing - trod on the station official’s last remaining nerve. The official let the young man have it with both barrels.
‘Will you please move back and go and find a doctor!’ he thundered.
The young man looked at the official and said with grace and patience ‘I am a doctor.’
The startled station official replied ‘But you don’t look like a doctor.’
The young man smiled in reply and said, ‘This is what a doctor looks like’ and proceeded to move the unconscious passenger into the recovery position
The station official had let his preconceived ideas of what a doctor looks like get the better of him – a reminder to us all that preconceptions – especially preconceptions about people - more often than not prove to be misconceptions.
And the trouble with preconceptions is that they often make us miss the glories and the Godsends that are often right
there under our noses– in this case, a competent and willing doctor.
This cautionary tale reminds me of a similar incident in my life when, as a young priest, I encountered a woman in her late 60’s who fetched up at our parish office one morning.
She was relatively new to our church and came, wearing the shabbiest of coats and bearing a battered old handbag. She’d come in response to an appeal for assistance with our chaotic church finances.
I presumed that she’d come not to offer financial assistance, but rather to ask for it, but I enquired anyway if she’d had much experience of managing church finances.
‘Not church finances, dear.’ was her reply ‘But I was up until recently the finance director of the John Lewis Partnership. Will that do?’
My preconceived notions got the better of me and I almost missed a Godsend as a result, because she went on to be our Church treasurer – taking control of our church finances in ways that the rest us couldn’t begin to do.
So, of your charity, spare a prayer for hapless folk like me and that station official who are prone to prejudge and misjudge and to miss the glory under our noses. We need all the prayer we can get.
And if we haven’t exhausted your charity, then spare another prayer for the victims of our ineptitude. The dreadlocked doctors. The down-at-heel finance directors.
And the countless other casualties of people’s blinkered vision.
I’m thinking of my female clergy colleagues who have to listen to people telling them ‘You don’t look like a priest.’
I’m thinking of the female taxi driver I know who has to listen to male passengers telling her ‘You don’t look like a taxi driver.
And I’m thinking of the many same-sex couples who will marry after the 29 March this year and who will probably have to listen to people telling them ‘You don’t look a married couple.
I hope all of that doesn’t diminish their awareness of the glory that’s in them and that they too will smile with grace and patience and help people to realize that ‘This is what a priest, or a taxi driver or a married couple looks like.’
If all of this dredges up painful memories of times when you’ve been prejudged and misjudged, then do talk to God about it. He’d be glad of a chat on the matter, having been prejudged and misjudged on countless occasions himself.
40 days ago on Christmas morning, we celebrated God’s arrival on the human stage in the shape of a baby – looking nothing at all like people’s preconceived notions of God.
Thank heavens for the grace and patience of the angels who showed us that ‘This is what God looks like.’
Today we celebrate the occasion when, 40 days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph presented him at the Temple, according
to the rites and ceremonies of Jewish law.
Jesus was still wrapped in swaddling clothes - looking no more like people’s preconceptions of God than he had done 40 days earlier.
Thank heavens that the aged Simeon was there to take this unlikely manifestation of the deity in his hands and say ‘This is what God looks like – I can now die happy’.
Or to use the more felicitous phrase that the Cathedral choir has just sung for us – ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’
God is no stranger to the pain of being on the receiving end of people’s pre-conceived notions. We’ve all prejudged and misjudged him at one time or another and we’ve all missed glimpses of his glory as a result.
And doubtless, God is as grateful as I am for those people who not only recognize God in his many surprising guises, but often embody him in them as well.
People who keep the rumour of God alive for seasoned preconceivers like me by challenging those preconceptions which so often get between us and the real thing.
People who point to God and say, with grace and patience, that ‘this is what God looks like.
I meet many such people in and around the church of which I’m the parish priest.
Our church is also called ‘St Paul’s’ - St Paul’s, West Hackney - but unlike this St Paul’s, it’s a modern building. It doesn’t have a dome or a even a spire. It has a flat roof and a brick exterior. Someone once said to me that they thought it was a telephone substation.
That’s an understandable error, because our St Paul’s doesn’t exactly conform to people’s preconceived notions of what a church looks like. In fact, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said ‘It doesn’t look like a church’.
But I’m also starting to lose count of the number of folk who show me ‘this is what a church looks like.’
Many of them are folk from our local community, who often find themselves on its margins. Folk for whom life can sometimes get a bit too hard – that’s all of us, I guess, from time to time in varying degrees.
Yet they are folk who keep the rumour of God alive for people like me, by helping us to find God right under our noses, where our preconceived notions of God would never allow him to be.
I’m thinking, for instance, of the 60 or so guests and volunteers who gather together at St Paul’s for our weekly Night Shelter, who point to God by the healing power of their hospitality.
I’m thinking also of the people from our two weekly Narcotics Anonymous groups who gather at St Paul’s to support each other on the road to recovery from drug addiction. They point me to God by their nigh-on unconditional acceptance of one another.
I’m thinking as well of the staff, volunteers and guests of our Open Doors project, who operate a drop-in service St Paul’s Church for people involved in the local sex trade. They come for advice and support, for a bit of love and, of course, for an unbeatable breakfast.
They point me to God by the quality of their love for one another and by giving me some of the best laughs and hugs that I’ll enjoy this side of eternity.
Many of these people are here this afternoon and I’d like to doff my cap to them for helping me to see what God really looks like and where he is often to be found.
I should also mention members of something called the Cantignorus Chorus – a pop-up choir based at St Paul’s Church and made up of people from these and 8 or 9 other groups that I don’t have time to mention.
This unique ensemble rehearsed and professionally recorded a song last year that made it on to iTunes and attracted 10,000 Twitter followers. In fact, the Choristers of this Cathedral with their signature St Paul’s sound made a guest appearance on that recording.
They taught me that you really can be given an unseen piece of music at 9:30am on a Saturday morning and have it recorded and in the can by 10. And if I can’t see God in that, then I really am – in the words Psalm 22 – a worm and no man.
And none of this would be possible without the generosity of the worshipping community at St Paul’s, who seem always to say ‘yes’ when a new group of people come to St Paul’s looking for a home.
Because so many people arrive at our churches with ‘I don’t feel like a human being’ written all over their faces – victims of the nonsense that life’s vicissitudes have led them to believe about themselves.
A church really does begin to look like a church when it can - in subtle ways - hold metaphorical mirrors up to people
and say ‘This is what a human being looks like.’
I witnessed an instance of this only the other day. Riccardo – a volunteer at our North London Action for the Homeless project - was cutting the hair of one of the guests. When he’d finished, the guest stood up and brushed himself down and exclaimed ‘That’s better – I feel like a human being again.’
People like that offer people like me pointers to God – challenging my preconceptions of him and saying – usually without words - that ‘this is what God looks like.’
Now there’s the sweetest little clock up here in this pulpit that is telling me that it’s nearly time to go home.
So I’ll end by wishing you ‘safe home’ to wherever it is you’ve come from this afternoon.
And just in case you happen to catch a glimpse of your reflection in a shop window when you leave this Cathedral and some little preconception should whisper in your ear that ‘You don’t look like a child of God.’ then here’s a word of advice.
Don’t let those sad dementors get between you and the glory within you. Just be gracious and patient like the dreadlocked doctor and reply with the courage of Joshua that ‘This is what a child of God looks like.’
That should probably do the trick, and it might just help them to see what God is really like as well.