Sunday 2 January 2011  (Christmas 2)

May I start with a personal story? Some of you will remember that in 1979 when I was an obstreperous novice I was sent off to Johannesburg to live with the Community there. I think the Brethren hoped this would knock some sense into me. Shortly after I arrived,  I found myself walking down Eloff Street with Rowan Smith and Leo Rakale. It suddenly struck me how extraordinary this was all three of us African, one black, one coloured and one white, identically dressed in white cassock and black scapular. We didn't need to say a thing. We were making a terrific protest against apartheid; we showed that it was possible to live in a non racial way which few whites then believed. We were a sign of what should be. It was CR that made this possible. CR in its funny, muddled way was a prophetic sign of what God was already doing in South Africa. It was quite humbling to be caught up in that.

I was led to think of that by the words in today's gospel that we who follow Christ were born not of blood, or of the will of flesh, or of the will of man but of God. Quite where that leaves people who do not follow Christ I do not know and now is not the time to speculate. Being born of God is an extraordinary privilege and today's readings ask us to think of that. Being born of God must mean being born again in baptism. What has that to do with my walking down Eloff Street? Well, baptism set me on a course which has brought me here, as it has brought you here. We are here in CR because God brought us here. Being singled out for something by God is a joy of course, though not always a comfortable joy. I don't expect I am alone in having said, more than once to God, "Why didn't you leave me alone? Why couldn't you let me be ordinary?" However, it's not true; I don't want to be ordinary. I rather like being odd. I like being in a religious community and I like being here. Most of all I like being in that place with God where I am challenged over and over again to look for the 'grace and truth' which our gospel speaks of. That takes me back to Johannesburg.

That Rosettenville priory was an extraordinary place. I'm sure Eric remembers his visits there as Superior with some horror, finding 10 brethren, most of whom were pulling in different directions or simply doing their own thing. I think we had the highest concentration of eccentrics any house of the Community has ever known life with Claude, Leo, Noel, James, Charles and Kingston was exasperating, infuriating, maddening and enormous fun. There was no doubt they loved God and they also loved the people God had given us to care for. Some of those people were not immediately lovable Charles' rogues that he met on the street, Claude's farm workers down at Jackson's Drift, Kingston's plausible friends from Soweto Some were wonderfully impressive too: those faithful domestic servants who came to mass at 6.00 on a Sunday morning; the great figures like Desmond Tutu, Sally Motlana, and Helen Joseph; the young political activists from Soweto on the run from the police or the White boys trying to pluck up the courage to refuse their military call up. All this took place against the background of prayer, offices, silences and retreats. The special branch hung around outside with their listening gear; banned people - people of all races - gravitated to us as one of the few places where they could mix freely and find hope and believe there really was a future for people like us in South Africa. The really important thing about all this is that it didn't happen because we in CR were very clever, or very good or very holy. It happened because we were there, doing what God wanted us to do and letting God do the rest. One of the most fascinating things about being in CR for me has been seeing, over and over again, what amazing things God can do with such, frankly, tacky material! There is a well known danger in thanking God we are not as other men are but there is a real need for us to look and see the things God manages to do with us and around us and thank God for letting us be part of it.

My example was a dramatic one of South Africa in the dark days of apartheid. Does it apply here, too, in the nicely democratic well behaved west? Well, you don't have to read the papers very assiduously to find that wickedness is still everywhere and appears often to be triumphant. Occasionally some good news appears in the paper, like England beating Australia at cricket but mostly there is crime, violence, greed, deceit and all the classic old Sins. Even the apparently good news the marriages of film stars, the celebrity cult, the increase in prosperity is based on artificial values. This is God's world; he made it and he is in it and yet it rejects him. What St John said is still true, "He was in the world....yet the world did not know him; he came to his own people but his own people did not accept him." Isn't that just how it is now? Yet against that dismal story we have the most amazing promise "To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become sons of God." That is what we are and that is what God has given us.

"And the word became flesh..." One thing I have loved to see in the past few days since Christmas has been the crib, or more particularly seeing some of our younger brethren just sitting there looking at the holy family. It's as if they are drinking deeply at a well. Two ordinary looking people - a man and a young woman - and a tiny baby; it is the most ordinary sight in the world and yet it is the heart of the new creation; it's where the Christian story can be said to begin. We sit and gaze at it  and we let that new reality enter into us and set us on fire again with love for the God who came into our midst and is still with us now. What is amazing as we look at it is to know that we are seeing so much more than just a man, a woman and a child. "We have seen his glory, the glory as of the only son of the Father". That is the story we have to set against the darkness, the deceit and violence, the crime and the greed that fills our papers.

So on this second day of the new year we look forward wondering what this year will bring. Will we have a new church by the end of the year? Will this be the place where we can show the glory to a world which desperately needs to see it? Yet if we are to do that we will need to have seen deeply into that glory ourselves. That, maybe, is why God has given us this long time in exile from our church, worshipping in this uncomfortable box, eating in a cramped common room. It is a desert time, a time to understand the central realities of our faith, to gaze upon the glory revealed even here; it's a time to understand who we are and what God asks of us; it's a time to get ready for when we can speak of that glory in a new place, to a new people. That will be a time to speak of our own experience of Christ. As John again reminds us, "From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace." Well, when I stop whinging and complaining I can see that is true for me from my first visit to Penhalonga, to those crazy years in Johannesburg, to the life I live now, I have to say, it's been grace upon grace lived out of the fullness of Christ's presence in us. I'm glad I'm here.

Nicolas Stebbing CR