Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Re-imagining Communion

This is the text of a sermon preached by the Revd Pauline Shelton on Sunday 18th January 2015 at St Martin's Church in Walsall on re-imaginging communion. The texts that were preached on were Isaiah 55:1—13 & John 6:1—14

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, they say. But is that right? Is it really?

The journey which brings me here this morning started nearly 20 years ago, when I had to do an essay on John’s Gospel as part of my ordination training. We’d been told that John is the most philosophical of the Gospels, strong on ideas, symbols, theologies. But when I sat and read it straight through, the thing that struck me most was how much food and drink it contains. Stories of wine at weddings, picnics for huge crowds, fresh water from a deep well, barbecues on the beach, of Jesus sharing meals with friends, Jesus saying ‘I am the bread of life . . . I will give you living water’.

So that’s what I wrote about. And I’ve gone on writing and talking about it ever since. It’s changed the way I see and experience both what we do at communion in church, and how I understand mission as learning to relate to others over food. And that’s what I want to share with you now. Because my studies took me, 18 months ago, to a church which I think has got it right: St Gregory of Nyssa, a remarkable Anglican church in San Francisco, which has helped me to see how we might do things differently.

So let’s have a look at how we ‘do’ communion. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’s teaching about communion doesn’t take place at the Last Supper, as in the other three Gospels. Instead, it happens in a long conversation the day after this miraculous feeding of the crowd. The Western Church has developed much of its eucharistic theology and practice around its understanding of what happened at the Last Supper – but how different does it look if we take John as our model for understanding communion? If we look not just at one meal, but at the many meals Jesus shared in the Gospel stories?

There are three main differences: Who is invited; What is eaten; and the sharing with others.

 1         Who is invited

At God’s picnic, all are fed. Absolutely everyone. And Jesus is following OT practice here. In our reading from Isaiah the prophet imitates the Babylonian street vendors: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!’ In John, the miraculous feeding happens at Passover time – the holiest Jewish feast which is a mark of religious identity and separateness. In that context, Jesus sees a great crowd coming towards him. He’s on the Gentile side of the lake, so we can be sure it was pretty mixed.

And remember that in Jesus’ day, devout Jews demonstrated their holiness by the people they would and would not share food with. Your table companions showed how close to God you were. So women and men ate separately, as did people of different social classes and different sects within Judaism.

And Jesus . . . Jesus demonstrates what true holiness is, what closeness to God really looks like. He feeds this huge, ragbag crowd. Clean and unclean, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. No questions asked. Free food for all.

What about us? Do we invite and welcome one and all to feast at God’s table? Well, we’re hampered, frankly, because the C of E canon law says that we aren’t allowed an open table, that people must first be baptised. I think this is deeply wrong. Can you imagine Jesus asking the disciples to check people’s religious credentials before they could share the picnic? Of course not.

At St Gregory’s in San Francisco, they have an open communion table. They expect that the way to baptism comes through first sharing at table. One person in particular is a living example of the value of this: Sara Miles. It was reading her books that took me to St Gregory’s. She describes her conversion:

Early one winter morning . . . I walked into St Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian – or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut . . . We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table’, a woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to gather round the table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh crumbly bread into my hands saying ‘the body of Christ’, and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ’, and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. (Take this Bread, pp.57—8)

Sara is now a minister at St Gregory’s, a world-renowned Christian writer and activist. This is what can happen if all are welcomed and valued at God’s table.

Every single person here this morning is welcome to share God’s food at God’s table, trusting that God will reveal himself in broken bread and wine outpoured. All are invited and welcome at God’s table.

2          What is eaten

Neither Isaiah nor Jesus offer an extensive menu. Not exactly Masterchef. I don’t know what Michel Roux and Monica Galetti would say about it. But they offer real drink, real food. Isaiah talks of fresh water, wine, milk, bread. And Jesus offers bread and fish. And lots of it – all eat and are satisfied. And it really is a free lunch . . .

On Easter morning at St Gregory’s, I stood around the altar and received a chunk of freshly baked bread. And as I ate it the most delicious flavour of warm cinnamon and spices flooded my mouth. And I involuntarily thought: ‘God tastes delicious!’ And I went on to wonder why we’ve chosen to represent the bread of heaven at communion as either wholly tasteless wafers or morsels of tasteless white bread. What is that saying to us about who God is, what God is like? We could hardly make it more joyless if we tried.

So I have come to believe that it matters to share something delicious, because that will draw us on to taste and see that the Lord is good, as the psalmist says. And so today we will be sharing some (gluten free) biscuits that I have made. And as we share, I invite you to enjoy the taste, to thank God for all his freely given gifts, his abundance of goodness represented not in an airy fairy spiritual way, but in the wonder of the ordinary, good things of live made holy and extraordinary.

3          Sharing with others

Isaiah is clear: all are fed so that the whole world will come to God through Israel. This food isn’t just for them; it’s for all. In John, this message is even stronger: a boy gives Jesus his packed lunch – barley bread was the poorest kind, so we know he was unimportant because of both his age and class. Yet because this nobody, this powerless unnoticed boy, offers what he has, all are fed.

This morning, when we gather round God’s table, ministers will offer us the bread, and we will give the cup to each other. That means thinking about each other, noticing whether the person next to you has already had the bread, whether they are ready for the cup. It means practising the great truth that communion isn’t each individual’s magic moment with God. It is communion with God through communion with each other. Much more challenging. Why should I think about you when I want to focus on God? And the answer is because it is in your eyes, your hands, your smile, that God truly meets me and ministers to me.

But it’s not just about us sharing here this morning. It challenges us to think again about how we share God’s food beyond our services. Sara Miles started a food pantry every Friday at St Gregory’s. Not from the church hall, or a side room, but from the sanctuary in the middle of the round church. The altar has boxes of produce heaped upon it. Hundreds of people come each week. And slowly money began to pour in, not through fundraising but through word of mouth, through the power of the Spirit. They have now started 18 other pantries in schools and churches, housing projects and community centres. No one has to give credentials, prove they are on benefits. If they come, they receive. And the pantry is now run, not by the church, but by its customers, broken people who have found faith, life, meaning, hope, in serving groceries. Sara writes:

This was communion after all, but with free groceries instead of bread and wine. The ‘everyone’ who Jesus invites to his table was extended, so that more sinners and outcasts could share the feast. With the literal bread of life served from the same table as the bread of heaven. This is it, I thought. This is what I am supposed to do: Feed my sheep . . . In Matthew’s Gospel, I read the story about the loaves and fishes and thought about Jesus gazing at the hungry crowd and saying to his anxious, screwed-up followers: ‘You give them something to eat’.
So we did.

This morning, come to God’s feast. The feast Isaiah proclaimed in Babylon some 2500 years ago, that Jesus practised in Palestine 2000 years ago. A feast where all are welcome, where the food is delicious and free, where sharing, both with those who are like us and those who are very different and difficult, shows us wonderful truths about who God is and desires to be to us.

Glory be to God, who longs to give us far more than all we can ask of imagine, here and now, and until we share in the great banquet when we will see God face to face. Amen.

Drawn to Jesus - Homily on Mark 3:7-12

Mark 3.7-12
A Multitude at the Lakeside
Jesus departed with his disciples to the lake, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.

·        Since his election as Pope in March 2013 Pope Francis has made a huge impact & was named ‘Man of the Year’ by Time Magazine in 2013.

He chose his papal name due to the humility and austerity associated with St. Francis of Assisi, whose example he has followed. He has an ability to communicate in a way which people can understand, and he has a common touch. He has shunned living in the papal apartments, living in stead in the much simpler papal guestrooms.  He is a man of modesty & humility.

He made headlines when he embraced & blessed a man covered in tumours, and has washed the feet of juvenile delinquents, and the feet of a Muslim woman.

Last week over 6 to 7 million people attended a mass conducted by the Pope in the Philippines – the largest papal mass in history.

But if you asked the people in the crowd what drew them to see Pope Francis, they probably would have given you different answers.

In our Gospel reading we see too how Jesus drew vast crowds, described as a great multitude, from a vast region, with people presumably travelling many days to reach Jesus.
So great was this crowd that Mark tells us that Jesus ordered the disciples to get a boat ready, so that he would not be crushed by the sheer size and volume of the crowds that surrounded him.

Imagine the scene for a moment….

What was it that drew people to Jesus?

Some people would have come because they were curious, others because they sought healing, some to hear Jesus speak, some to know if he truly was the Messiah, and maybe others who wanted to find evidence to use against him.

What about you? What draws you to Jesus? What is your primary reason for following Jesus?

As we consider how people were drawn to Jesus, what do they see of him in our lives today?  What do they see of Jesus in the church today?

I think one of the reasons people have responded so positively to Pope Francis, is they can see something of Christ in him. What impact would it have if people could see more of Christ in us, and in the church? 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

An Unequal World?

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There were at least two dreadful terrorist incidents that took place place week which led to countless deaths, but one has barely had any mention in the news.

17 people were killed in Paris by Islamist extremists following an attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.  The horror and violence of these attacks quite rightly shocked the world.  Following the attack millions of people joined marches across Europe to remember the victims of the massacre.

The other terrorist incident took place in Nigeria, when Boko Haram attacked the towns of Baga and Doron Baga.  It is estimated that they killed up to 2,500 people, men, women and children.  One eye witness even claims that they shot and killed a woman who was in labour.  Amnesty International says that the attack has nearly wiped the towns off the map, with over 3,700 structures destroyed.  One survivor told Amnesty International that "They killed so many people.  I saw maybe around 100 killed at that time in Baga.  I ran to the bush.  As we were running, they were shooting and killing."  

Why is it that the events in Paris received so much attention, whereas the even more appalling killing in Nigeria barely gets a mention?  Is it because it is not in Europe, and therefore not on our door step, and therefore somehow less news worthy?  Is it that we accept that things like this can happen in places like Nigeria, but not in Europe?  Do we view life as being cheaper in Africa, and therefore somehow less important?  Or could it be simply that it is much harder to report from Nigeria and these areas where Boko Haram appear to be able to go about killing people at will?  

What makes the attack in Paris more newsworthy than the Boko Haram massacres which have claimed far more lives?  Shouldn't we be going on the streets to protest against the actions of these groups, and standing in solidarity with the victims of violence in Nigeria and other parts of the world?

We saw the hash tag #JeSuisCharlie trending on social media, isn't it time we say #IamNigeria trending?  

  Before and after satellite images of Doron Baga

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Becoming Like Christ


  • Who do you think you are? Popular TV programme.
  • Who do you take after?
  • My children – take after me both in physical appearance & personality

Called by to like Christ

  • As Christians we are called to be like Christ.
  • Followers of Jesus first called Christians in Antioch in Acts 11:26.  Name was used disparagingly – meaning ‘Little Christs’.  We are called to be little Christ’s.
  • Just as people are able to say “You are so or so’s son or daughter” because of our character or physical appearance, people should be able to tell that we are followers of Christ by the sort of people we are.
  • When it comes to Jesus we’re not talking about a physical likeness, but a spiritual likeness. 

Fruit of the Holy Spirit

  • Which Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 describes as the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness & self-control.   
  • These are the fruits that God wants us to experience, and the characteristics that the Spirit of God develops in our lives. 
  • Fruit doesn’t grow overnight – it takes time.  This fruit of the Holy Spirit doesn’t appear at once, but there should be evidence of change taking place in our lives, as we become more Christ like.  More loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kinder, more caring, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. 

Goal of Christlikeness

  • At the very heart of the Christian faith is transformation – transformation into being more like Christ.  This is the goal of every Christian.
  • We are created to be like Jesus.  To be fully human, is to be like Christ.  Nothing is more important. 
  • Paul tells us in Romans 8:28-29 that the whole purpose of God calling us was to conform us to the likeness of his son, to become like Jesus.  God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his   Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” 
  • When we come to faith and give our lives to Jesus that is not the end of the journey, only the beginning.  Salvation is not a destination, but a process, in which we become more like Jesus.

Work of the Holy Spirit

  • It is the Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ in us that produces Christ-like character.
  • Paul writesAs the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT)
  • There is nothing more important than becoming like Christ, and seeing the fruit of the Holy Spirit develop in our lives. 

Fruit of the Holy Spirit

  • If you want fruit to grow, you don’t polish the branches or paint the fruit, you pay attention to the roots of the tree, cultivating the soil.  Ensuring it is well watered and fertilised. 

  • In the same way in the Christian life, if you want the Fruit of the Spirit to grow, then we need to cultivate the soil of our relationship with God. 
    • To pay attention God’s word
    • Prayer
    • Commitment to worship
    • Fellowship – Christian life not lived in isolation.
  • Couples that have been together for a long time often develop similar personality traits, and even dress and look like one another.  The reason for this is because the more time you spend in the company of someone, the more this will shape and influence your personality and character. 
  • The same is true with Jesus.  The more time we spend in the presence of Jesus, then the more we should become like him, as our inner selves become transformed into the moral likeness of Jesus Christ. 
  • Christ-likeness is not produced by imitation, but by inhabitation. It is when we open ourselves up to Jesus and his Holy Spirit that the work of transformation begins.  It’s about Christ living in us.  (Colossians 1:27 NLT).
  • Jesus himself said “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
  • What the world needs is not more church goers, or pew fillers, but Christians whose lives are daily being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.
  • Gandhi – “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
  • The challenge for all of us is do others see Christ in us?
  • If we claim to be a Christian, but not to be growing more like Jesus then something is not right. 
  • Think for a moment about people you have met who were Christ like, what most did you notice about them?  

  • We are encouraged to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day.  When it comes to the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, Paul mentions 9 fruits. 
  • The first three fruits, love, joy and peace concern primarily our attitude towards God. 
  • Next, patience, kindness and goodness, focus on our relationship with others. 
  • Finally faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, focus on ourselves. 
  • But the first & most important fruit, the one that binds them all together is LOVE.
  • 1 Corinthians 13 – greatest passage in the Bible on the subject of love.  Paul writes ‘where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away…. and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ (1 Cor. 13:8, 13)
  • Love should above all else be the hall mark of a Christian’s life. 
  • Love is after all at the very heart of the Christian faith. The Bible is the story of God’s love for us. The cross is God’s love in action. Our relationship with God is based on this love, and Jesus’ command to his disciples was to love one another. 
  • Love is at the core of what it means to be a Christian, to live as a Christian and to be like Jesus. 
  • It is what we as the followers of Christ should be known for above all else.  Love is the best and most important evidence of the work of the Spirit of God in our lives.

Fruit of the Spirit

  • If there was someone who was Christlike, it undoubtedly was John Stott.
  • John Stott in his last public address given in July 2007 at Keswick Convention said that the thing God most wants for all his children is that we should be more Christlike.  This is only possible because of the Holy Spirit within us. 
  • I want to finish by saying together the prayer that John Stott used every morning.

Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may live in your presence, and please you more and more. 

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself, and cause your fruit to ripen in my life. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.  Amen.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Making A Real Difference

My wife recently told me that she often finds it difficult to listen to the news because it is so sad and depressing, I have to agree with her. 

Two weeks into the New Year and the news has been dominated by the crisis in the NHS as A&E departments struggle to cope with the pressures being placed upon them.  The Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  The war in Syria which has claimed the lives of 76,000 people last year alone, and the dreadful terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 people dead. 

It is easy to be left feeling helpless in the face of such suffering, and for any sense of hope and optimism that the world could be a better place in 2015 to quickly evaporate. 

Faced by these problems and challenges, what if anything can we do to make the world a better place? 

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14)  The thing about salt and light is you don’t need much of it to make a big difference.  A pinch of salt can help transform a meal, and even the smallest candle can dispel darkness. 

Whilst we may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, we can make a difference. 
As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Small acts of kindness done in love can change the world.  It can be something as simple as visiting someone who lives on their own, doing the shopping for an elderly neighbour, remembering always to say thank you, seeking to encourage others, forgiving someone who has hurt you, standing up for justice and fighting racism and fear. These small acts in themselves may not seem much, nor are they likely to make the news, but they do make a big difference.      

Whatever 2015 may bring, we can help make the world a better place if we strive to follow the words of John Wesley who said: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” 

The Pen is Mightier Than The Sword

The events in Peshawar in December, when the Taliban attacked a school killing 145 people, and the terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo this week which claimed 12 lives, reveals that what extremists fear the most is the power of the pen, and free speech.  This was illustrated by a Matt cartoon in The Daily Telegraph following the Paris attack, which showed the two assailants with their weapons saying to one another as they prepared to enter the offices of Charlie Hebdo “Be careful, they might have pens.” 

In 2013, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, herself a victim of a failed assassination attempt, said in a speech to the United Nations “The extremists are afraid of books and pens… So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.” 

Following lasts weeks terrible events in Paris, silent vigils were held in cities around Europe.  People of different races, faiths and no faith at all gathered together in defiant solidarity to light candles and hold up pens and banners saying "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie).  These vigils sent out a clear message that we will not give in to fear and intimidation, that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, that love is more powerful than hate, and hope more powerful than fear.  It also conveyed the message that we can hold unswervingly onto our beliefs, and yet be loving, gracious, generous and respectful to those who disagree and maybe even mock us.  As the French philosopher Voltaire said “I might disagree with your opinion, but I am willing to give my life for your right to express it.” 

Violence for the sake of your beliefs, whether it is the Inquisition, the Crusades, Mao’s religious purges, Al Qaeda or ISIS, is an affront to humanity created in the image of God and deeply sinful. 

The Apostle John gets to the heart of the matter when he writes ‘Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.’ (1 John 4:20-21)

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Finding God In Unexpected Places

Have you ever encountered God in an unexpected place or person?  

Imagine if you walk past someone sitting on the street begging for money what would you see? 

This is Alan, he is 40 years old, and has been using drugs & alcohol since he was 12.  He’s homeless & sits in a sleeping bag waiting for handouts to feed a deep rooted drug habit. 

AIan is the subject of Marksteen Adamson’s ‘Behold The Man project.  Marksteen is a photographer who befriended Alan & spent time trying to discover the real Alan behind the endless cycle of destruction that grips him & won’t let him go.

Alan & Marksteen

It was not easy.  He had to get through the bad behaviour, the sense of hopelessness, the smell & the dirt, and to focus on the human spirit, the man himself.  But as he did this, Marksteen was able to discover the real Alan, his dreams & aspirations, his disappointments & regrets, as well as the confidence, the charisma, intellect, and humour.  As he did this he was able to begin to see Christ in Alan.   

Today is Epiphany Sunday we recall the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus.

The question I’ve been pondering, how did the wise men know that Jesus was the one they were looking for?  When they entered the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was living with Mary & Joseph, how did they know that this was the one they were looking for? 
What do we know about the magi?

The magi were astronomers, who came from the East, probably Persia.

Magi were very well educated and influential people, who were employed as advisors and acted as envoys. 

Magi would have been interested in time keeping, calendars, tides, medicine, religion, alchemy and many other subjects. They would have been particularly interested in the study of the night sky, because it was thought that what was observed in the sky was reflected in the events upon the earth. Monitoring of events in the heavens, it was believed, gave insight into what was happening, or going to happen upon the earth.

Matthew tells us that they were led to Bethlehem by a star. 

Despite nativity scenes, the magi didn’t arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth, but weeks or months later.

They initially go to Jerusalem, and to King Herod, because that would have been the natural place to search for a new King.

When they arrive in Bethlehem, they found Jesus not in a stable, but living in a house. 
Matthew tells us that when they entered the house they bowed down & worshipped Jesus, giving him the gifts they had brought with them.

Something extraordinary here.  They had travelled hundreds of miles, over deserts, facing great hardship & danger, searching for the new King.  And what they find, is not a child in a palace, surrounded by courtiers & the trappings of wealth & power.  But a small child & his parents living in the simplest & most humble of circumstances.  And yet, they recognise that this is the child they’ve been looking for. 

They recognise the Messiah, the King of the Universe in the face of a small child. 
They recognised Jesus in the unlikeliest of situations, are we able to do the same?
If there is one message we can take away from the Bible, it is that we can find God in unexpected places & people.  

St Martin of Tours: Born c316  

One day Martin, a Roman soldier, rode into town & saw a thin, sick-looking man shivering in the cold by the side of the road. The man was very poor, for his clothing was old and full of holes. He had nothing warm to keep out the cold. Moved by the plight of the man, Martin stopped pulled his sword out of his belt and cut his cloak in half giving half to the poor man. That night as he was sleeping, Martin had a vision of Jesus in heaven, surrounded by angels and wearing half of Martin’s cloak. Jesus said to the angels, “See how Martin has covered me with his cloak.”

Mother Theresa: 

Mother Theresa when asked what motivated her to serve the poorest of the poor, answered "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." 

Tale by Leo Tolstoy  ‘Where Love Is, God Is’ 

Martin was a poor man, a cobbler, who lived alone & who felt he had nothing to live for, nothing to hope for.  One day, though, a traveller suggested to him that he should read the Bible. Perhaps in that there would be something which would help him. So Martin began to read the Gospels, of Jesus’ love for the poor, the sick, the lonely like himself. Gradually Martin’s heart softened & he said “if only I could meet this Jesus!”

The next day Martin tried to convince himself it was just a dream, but nonetheless, he couldn’t help peering out of his basement window hopefully. All he could see, though, was an old street sweeper, Stephanitch. Stephanitch was even poorer than Martin. On this winter’s day Martin could see that Stephanitch was freezing cold & weary. He called out to him to come inside. “Come and have some tea!” The street sweeper came in and gratefully drank several cups of hot tea, but he noticed that Martin kept looking out of the window. “Are you expecting someone, Martin?” Martin told him of his dream. “I know it is foolish, but perhaps it might happen as I dreamed.” Stephanitch shrugged – who can say what might happen in life if God wills it…? He went back out into the snow, thanking Martin for his kindness.

A little later Martin noticed a stranger standing outside his window. Was this Jesus? But no, it was just a young woman carrying a baby. Then Martin noticed, though, that her clothes were threadbare and she wore no cloak against the cold. The baby too, looked half-frozen. He went out and brought her in, gave her some soup and bread he had prepared for his own lunch, and listened to her story. Her soldier husband had died, leaving her penniless. She had no money, no food for herself and her child. As she rose up to go Martin gave her a little money, and an old cloak. He wished he could do more, but she was very grateful to him, and went on her way rejoicing.

“Who is it? “ Martin asked, peering round into the darkness.

“It is I” said the voice, and out of the corner of the room stepped the figure of Stephanitch, who smiled and vanished.

“It is I” said the voice again, and the woman with the baby came towards him and vanished.
And Martin looked down at the Bible in his hands. “As you did it for one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me”. And Martin knew that Christ had indeed come to him that day, and that he, Martin had welcomed and cared for him just as he’d longed to.

Then one night in the depths of winter he had a dream. He dreamed that Christ spoke to him. “Tomorrow, Martin, I will come to visit you.”

Then later on Martin saw a hungry young boy who had been caught stealing from an apple old lady. He went outside and settled their argument as he extended love and compassion towards the both of them. But he still did not see Jesus.

Martin was pleased to have been able to help his friend, the young woman and the hungry boy, but he was still sad that Christ hadn’t come. He went back to his basement room as darkness fell, feeling a little foolish for having trusted in a dream. He opened his Bible to read again.

But as he read he heard a voice behind him. “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”
“It is I” said the voice a third time, and the apple seller and boy emerged from the shadows before vanishing.

The magi discovered God in an unexpected place, a small home in Bethlehem.
At the start of a New Year, let us ask God to open our eyes to His presence, in unexpected places & people.  To recognise that God is present in all aspects of our lives, and to make God visible in our lives to others.

May we never again find ourselves surprised to discover God in the unexpected
places of our lives. Amen.