Slouching towards Bethlehem - 
a sermon preached by Imgoen de la Bere at 
St Saviour's St Albans, England, January 2nd 2000
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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: 
    somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Most of us are afraid of the future. Any particular date that marks the future, like a new century or a new millennium brings out that dread.

Around the turn of last century, the poet Yeats filled with this sort of dread for the future, wrote a strange and wonderful poem called The Second Coming.


  I was reminded of the words: The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity in a terrible way on New Year’s Eve.

We had a party here in the church, and it was great fun. And full of New Year Party spirit and champagne we went home and called up various members of our family in New Zealand to see what they’d been doing. And as the New Zealand end picked up the phone they got barrage of party poppers exploding right into the earpiece, and soon the area all round the phone was festooned with coloured papers and the shells of discarded poppers.

Then I heard a story I shall never forget. A story that will be part of New Year’s Eve for ever. I hope it will be. I hope I never finish up another New Year’s Eve party without remembering being surrounded by clouds of coloured paper and the litter of great jollity, and hearing and reflecting on the story of Chris Clarke.

C hris Clarke was a New Zealand woman of about my age, and a great friend of my sister-in-law, who told us this story as best she could last night. It should have ruined the evening for us, but paradoxically, it made the party and the fun more precious, and enriched the experience of the world turning over.

Chris was a simple warm-hearted woman, a worker for the Green Party of New Zealand, involved in politics a bit, but not a political activist. She never shouted or got arrested or argued. She was not extreme or militant in any way. She worked for the Greens, who are quite a force now in New Zealand politics, until she had a stroke a couple of years ago and had to give up. She more or less recovered from the stroke, but her reactions were a bit slow. She had given up political work, but she had not given up her beliefs. She believed in certain things, and because of her convictions she joined a picket line last week at the port of Lyttelton where she lived. She just went down to the port and stood in the line with a few other people to demonstrate by her mere presence that some people thought the bosses were wrong. The picket line was making the cars in and out of the port slow down, not stopping them, just holding them up for a while to make the point. There was no violence, and little unpleasantness. But last Thursday, a man who imports boats through the port had had to drive through the picket line three times that day, and the third time he lost his temper. He was in big four wheel drive vehicle, and he was angry, and Chris Clarke was in his way, and too slow to get out of it. He mowed her down.

When we rang home, on the first morning of the new century, the family and the doctors were about to turn off Chris’s life support, because of the brain damage she suffered, and the police were about to charge the driver with reckless driving causing death.

Happy New Year rang a bit hollow. The first martyr of the millennium.

For Chris Clarke was a martyr. Not a Christian martyr, not even necessarily a martyr for social justice. I don’t know much about the dispute, and I don’t know whether her cause was noble. That scarcely matters. It was a cause. She was killed for her belief in it. She can rightly be called a martyr. A martyr is a person who stands up for her convictions, and suffers death as a result. She doesn’t have to seek death or expect death to be called a martyr, she only has to suffer it. And this woman has suffered death because and only because she held a conviction.

Now this tragic story caused me to reflect a great deal about my own convictions. I wondered if there was a single thing for which I would risk death, or even discomfort. Is there anything that matters enough? The spreading of the gospel? The relief of poverty? The abolition of child labour? The end of world debt? Fox-hunting? Prison reform? For what cause would I risk being mown down? I couldn’t come up with a thing. What about you? Do you have convictions strong enough for death? How often do we Christians stand up anywhere for anything?

The gospel tells us this: No-one has ever seen God, it is God the only Son who has made him known.

No-one has seen God. We only see God through human beings. Once through the human being Jesus, but now only through ordinary humans suffering and struggling. We don’t have a special line to God because we go to church. We have to find him in the world he created, with all its imperfections. In politics, in the Citizens’ Advice bureau, in the Open Door shelters, in fund-raising and agitating for social justice and reform, through Amnesty International, or one of thousand causes. Of course the organisations are flawed, of course they exhibit politics that are not yours, of course good causes attract nutters – we are all human beings – the only vehicle God’s got –a sorry, flawed, political lot.

Chris Clarke shines as an example to me, because she actually had a conviction which led her to do something, to be somewhere. And to risk death for it.

In the night, my party spirit terribly sobered, I found my prayer for the new year, my prayer perhaps for every new year: O Lord, this year, let me have one real conviction and the courage to act on it.