Clergy Blogs

Periodic contributions from Revd. Giles King-Smith, Vicar of the three coastal parishes. We also continue to show contributions from the late Associate Minister Revd. Linda Walters

Innocence and Experience

A sermon preached at Christmas 2016
 
William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" show us the great visionary poet of England exploring the tension, which we all know and feel, perhaps especially at Christmas-time, between on the one hand that primal state of innocence, wonder and delight which we read back into our childhood, and on the other the world-weariness which comes to us as we grow up and journey on through hardships, disappointments and sorrows. I say "especially at Christmas-time" because it seems to me that there is a deep sense of longing, of yearning, which underlies our bright rituals of Christmas, our carols, our light-bearing trees, our gatherings to celebrate and feast. It is the yearning of people who have seen and known too much, for an innocence we fear we may have lost. We long to have hope, to believe in one another as much as in God, and we long for the simple values of goodness and beauty and truth to become real. And we long for the cynical part of us, hardened by bitter experience - and able in our information-overloaded world to marshal battalions of dispiriting facts - not to have the last word.
 
We long for things to be put right
as they once were
at least in our imagining
many Christmases ago.
 
Here is Blake in his poem "The Lamb", with a voice of innocence:
 
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
    Little Lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?
 
    Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
    Little Lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, & thou a lamb, 
we are called by his name.
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
 
Blake knew, of course, that there is quite another way of seeing the world, and he expressed this dark, at times hopeless, realism in the "Songs of Experience". Read his poem "London" for a vision of urban misery which finds echoes in the cities of our world today. I've chosen, though, "The Garden of Love", which shines a brutally revealing light on the way organised religion can kill the human spirit:
 
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
 
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
 
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
 
What Blake was after, what he believed in, was something much closer to the radical vision of Christmas and Easter: God - a human child, dependent, defenceless, in no way exempt from the harsh realities of life; and God - a man executed as a criminal, suffering injustice, humiliation and pain. Innocence is apparently crushed by experience - and yet, as countless little stories remind us, day after day, if we can but notice them, there is a goodness which cannot be killed off, which keeps on rising up, like flowers in the desert. If we can believe it, the story of Jesus tells us that innocence wins. Goodness, truth, beauty and love can never be eradicated.
 
Two people in particular moved me this year, made me think again, convinced me that there is a way of innocence which is the only true response to the evil in our world.
 
First, Jo Cox MP was murdered (never mind by whom or why), and her husband Brendon, when asked how we should honour her memory, replied: "Fight against hatred".
 
And second, Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian Catholic priest abducted by ISIS in 2015, his life unexpectedly spared, spoke about the need to ensure that we "never make decisions out of fear" - and further, spoke of his conviction that we need a "revolution against violence".
 
"Fight against hatred", "a revolution against violence" - and of course, the fight against hatred cannot be waged with hate, and there can be no violence in the revolution against violence. This is a call to arms of a very different kind: it is a call to insist on love and peace as the motivating forces in our struggle for what is right. It is a call to a sustained innocence - if you like, a willed innocence - which is born out of hard and painful experience. It is exactly the call which the adult Jesus (perhaps remembering - who knows? - the innocence of his birth and childhood) made on his first followers and makes on us now - Unless you become like little children, there's no way in to heaven.
 
This is the challenge: for us to understand the baby of Bethlehem, like the man of Calvary, as pointing the way for us to reclaim our lost innocence, and to lay hold of a simple, single purpose - love one another. Don't think twice, don't count the cost - just love one another.
 
May you inner child be re-born this Christmas, so that, as children, you may know the joy that comes from God, and share it.
 
All God's Children
 

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

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