What Are We Waiting For?

A sermon preached by the Revd. David Walsh at St. John the Baptist, Holland Road, on 1st February 2015

What are we waiting for?

Our lives are often overshadowed by the gap between how they are and how we feel they should be.  One of my favourite songs by Paul Simon, 'Train in the distance', closes with the words 'The thought that life could be different / is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains'.

Sometimes we make efforts to bridge the gap ourselves.  And sometime we wait in hope that things will change.  Perhaps circumstances will change, things will come right.  Sometimes the change for which we wait is internal: those changes which willpower alone will never achieve, but time can sometimes make possible, as it allows healing or growing up to take place.

What are we waiting for?

The waiting in our lives can become especially intense as they approach their end. The idea that people can choose the moment of their own death would have seemed far-fetched to me before I was ordained.  But someone hanging on until a son or a daughter has made one last visit is something I've seen enough times as a parish priest, to allow me to change my mind.

Often what people are waiting for towards the end of their lives is a birth.  Another grandchild.  A great-grandchild.

Simeon, from our Gospel reading, had been waiting for a birth.  We read that he had been 'looking forward to the consolation of Israel'.  Simeon wasn't the only person in the Temple that day waiting for things to change.  The 84-year old Anna 'began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem'.  In a country and at a time when religion and politics were inseparably bound up, 'the consolation of Israel', and 'the redemption of Jerusalem' were words with as much political as religious significance.  During the previous century the Kingdom of Judea had been established as a Roman client kingdom and today's story is set around the time when part of the kingdom became a province of the Roman empire.  Those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem included some willing to fight to try to bring it about.  In the year AD 70, a revolt by the Jews against the Romans, led to the destruction of the Temple and much of the city, but even that didn't put rebellion to an end.  Around sixty years later there was a Second Revolt, and documents have been found dating themselves in relation to what they call 'the Redemption of Israel' and 'the Freedom of Jerusalem', terms fairly similar to those used in our Gospel reading.

So part of what Simeon was waiting for, part of what those who Anna spoke to were waiting for, was political liberation.  Justice.  Our gospel reading doesn't explicitly say that Anna herself was waiting for this liberation, this redemption, this consolation.  But it's not implausible to read it into the story.  A woman approaching the end of her days, waiting and longing for a sign of liberation, of freedom.

As we hear about a religious woman who finds herself centre-stage at a religious ceremony bringing years of waiting by many to an end, years of waiting for justice, I find it hard not to bring to mind the consecration six days ago in York Minster, of the first Church of England woman bishop, Libby Lane.

It reminds me also of another story, a story I know personally, about a woman called Anne, an Anglican minister who is a friend and former colleague of my wife Carys. Before she was ordained Anne had been a psychiatric nurse.  Back in the early 1980s she was working at a psychiatric institution where one very elderly woman, Mary, had been since the reign of Queen Victoria.  In all that time, she had never said a word.

But one night, as Anne was preparing Mary for bed, Mary spoke.  'It's nearly time for benediction' she said in a thin, reedy voice, weak through lack of use.  Mary then told Anne her story.  When she was a teenager, she'd been put in the institution by her family and her Vicar, horrified when she'd told them she felt a strong calling to be a priest.  Mary had responded by resolving not to speak until the calling of God on her life was about to be fulfilled. Anne was deeply moved that it had been her to whom Mary had chosen to open up, to say her first words.

When Anne came to work the following day, she discovered that Mary, overnight, had died.  Hard not to think of Simeon's words: 'Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace.'

Mary had left a gift for Anne.  A cross, which she then treasured, especially when she later got ordained as a minister in the Anglican church.  It became a symbol of this unfulfilled vocation, which Anne was now able to live out. 

And this - is that cross.

Anne did get ordained, and for personal reasons was ordained as a deacon, but not as a priest.  She is now approaching the end of her ministry.  Last summer, just before Carys's ordination as a priest, Anne gave this cross to her as a gift.  'It was a gift to me' she said, now I pass it on to you.  When you're approaching the end of your ministry, hand it on to another younger woman as she gets ordained.  And tell her Mary's story.'

Women are hardly the only group in the church who've been waiting to have their voices fully heard.  There is plenty for which we are still waiting as a church.  Even more for which we are waiting as a world.  

And each of us has long-cherished dreams, though possibly muffled through age by fear of disappointment.  They are the key to who we really are.  For those of you familiar with Orson Welles’ film ‘Citizen Kane’, they are our personal 'Rosebud'.  

Sometimes clarifying our dreams, our hopes, our deepest desires, can lead to action, giving a different meaning to the words ‘What are we waiting for?'

Today's reading - the whole Christian Gospel indeed - suggests that somehow the fulfilment of our deepest needs, desires and wishes is tied up with the person of Jesus. Our deepest desires are not the ones we’re often aware of from day to day, born out of insecurity, anxiety, vanity.  Our deepest desires reveal the people God made us to be.  We may be fortunate enough to get glimpses in this life of this fulfilment of our deepest desires.  Or even to experience truly transformative moments in which we find ourselves for a moment ´coming homé', where we'd always dreamt wé'd be. The complete fulfilment though, is something which has to wait.  Some people die unfulfilled, even heartbroken.  Our Christian hope extends way beyond that.

But for  Simeon and Anna, all waiting had come to an end, for, in Simeon’s words 'mine eyes have seen thy salvation'.

What are we waiting for?
Holland Park Benefice