Children, Cynics and Arctic Monkeys – the God of Surprise
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
15 January 2006, 10:30 (Epiphany 2)
This sermon is going to be hopelessly out of touch. I’m not going to mention Ruth Kelly, George Galloway or bird flu. Not even bungs for football agents. No – nothing so obvious. Because the whole point of today’s readings is that God does not choose the obvious suspects. He specialises in the unexpected.
I'd like you to imagine something that may be easier for some of you than for others. You are standing there at the dog track with £5 in your hand looking at two dogs. One is a mangy old critter with a moth-eaten ear, scruffy coat, eyes which go in different directions, and a limp. The other is sleek, beautifully proportioned with a glossy coat and alert bright eyes, fit and lean. You place your £5 on Mr Beautiful with a knowing smile, and the mangy old critter comes in first by a mile.
You are God, looking out upon people who have drifted away from you. You have a message for them. A very important message. In front of you stand two people. One is a boy with a high-pitched voice, no experience of life, bright-eyed and green as the grass. The other is a wise old man, a sage, a great respected spiritual ruler for the past forty years. Who do you give the message to? Well, it's obvious. After your experience of the dog track, you choose the boy. And you would be right. That's what God did when faced with Samuel, the boy, and Eli, the sage. God chose the boy.
Now, I may be jumping to all sorts of conclusions here but if I were to ask you to put your hand up if you had heard of the Arctic Monkeys I don't expect there would be many hands going up, except perhaps from a particular contingent of the congregation known as King's students. The Arctic Monkeys are a pop band made up of four young Yorkshire men who have become unlikely Davids in the Goliath music world. Rather than sell their songs to a record company, which is how most aspiring pop stars try to make it, they simply gave away some home-made recordings at their gigs in Sheffield.
The small group of fans who came to see them play, enjoyed the music, went on line, and shared these demo tapes with their friends and, suddenly, thanks to the power of the internet, vast crowds started to turn up to their gigs and they now find themselves the next big thing in the pop world, spawning a generation of bands who are not signing up with record labels but simply selling their songs as downloads from their own websites. As one reviewer has put it: "David has not so much slain Goliath as outmanoeuvred him".
I mention all of this by way of introduction to these few thoughts about one particular aspect of the Kingdom of God. It is a strange Narnia of a place where David outmanoeuvres Goliath. Where the unexpected happens because God has placed the unexpected outsider at the heart of his plans.
If you look throughout scripture, you see this extraordinary habit God has of calling and using people who are unexpected, unusual and different. In today's readings it was Samuel the child and Nathaniel, the cynical, worldly wise man who felt himself above all of this religious stuff.
Think back to the Christmas story that we have re-lived over the past few weeks. Look again at the unexpected, unusual, different people who figure so highly in that story.
Mary, a fourteen year old girl. Shepherds, uneducated and ostracised within their communities. Gentile sages, outsiders.
Think of the group of disciples who Jesus chose to walk with him. Who were they? Well, in the main, artisans, fishermen, there was even a terrorist within that group (Simon the Zealot) and, of course, a man named Judas (and he’s been in the news this week...).
And this is a great challenge to the Church, which of course is part of the religious establishment today. And, maybe it's a particular challenge to a cathedral, which is often asked to carry the torch for tradition and establishment. But then again, maybe not. Because Cathedrals have an opportunity to embrace a wider community than most parish churches and to offer safe space to people who find themselves excluded or on the edge, or marginalised, or forgotten.
Today is one year on, to the day, from my Installation as Dean of this Cathedral. I have had the chance to see everything come around once now. So what are my reflections at the end of this year?
Well firstly I think there are some huge strengths for the Cathedral to build on:
The commitment and goodwill of a great many people to see this Cathedral thrive and flourish.
We seem to have the trust and confidence of the wider community and their desire to see us play a full part in building a successful and healthy society.
- And it is increasingly recognised that there is a pioneering and pivotal role for the Cathedral to play in the regeneration plans of Medway in general and Rochester in particular.
All of these things are remarkable strengths and will be the buildings blocks for the future. But where does the challenge lie to us as a cathedral? Well it's in things like this:
We need to develop a sense of our overall vision and to be able to communicate this clearly to ourselves and to others. Where are we going? What are we trying to achieve? What do we feel God is calling us to be and to do in the years ahead? We need a focus.
We are being challenged to become a missionary Cathedral - that is, a place and a people actively concerned with and planning to encourage the exploration of Christian faith. Actively engaged with the significant social and spiritual issues affecting our communities.
- It is also important for us to explore what it means to become increasingly accessible to those on the edge, or outside of, Christian faith. And this will present us with challenges in our patterns of worship, in our approach to visitors, in our involvement with children and young people, in our use of the buildings that we have been given.
If there are changes ahead in the light of these challenges, I hope we will always be guided by the eternal truth that God constantly steps outside the religious establishment to further the work of the kingdom. He calls people unexpectedly to get involved in this movement of his. Maybe even cathedrals. Maybe even you.
In fact let me take this into a very personal dimension for a moment. If it is the case that God calls and uses the unexpected, what if he is calling you? It took Samuel a while to realise God was calling his name, trying to attract his attention. Nathaniel didn't really believe somebody cynical like him could be part of God's plan. But he was wrong. God has a way of surprising us.
When I was a curate in the East End of London one of the members of that Church was an ex- mercenary who had fought in most of the major conflicts of the 1970s. He came to London hard as nails with his body shot to pieces and he had seen far too much to ever believe in God. If ever there was a nut too hard for God to crack, Joe was it. But, ten years later he found himself a changed man, on fire for God and being used greatly to bring God's love to down and outs and kids off the street. Yes, of course he still struggled with his past but God called him and he answered. And it is a beautiful thing.
One of my best friends is an ex rock musician who spent his working life in a world completely at odds with Christianity. As far away as you could imagine. As he says to me these days, Christianity isn't very rock and roll. Yesterday morning, in Birmingham Cathedral, he was licensed as a reader in the Church of England. So don't think that God is not interested in you. He specialises in the unexpected.
So, one year on from the Installation of an unexpected Dean, consider the intentions of the God of surprises - for the child, for the cynic, for the Arctic Monkey, indeed, for this Cathedral. God can lead us through the looking glass into a world where David always, and against the odds, outmanoeuvres Goliath.
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