Sermon 31 January 2016 at All Saints, Elland

“A Pair of Turtle Doves or Two Young Pigeons”

That may seem a strange text to begin a sermon on - ‘a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons’ - but it tells us a lot about Christ, the Christ who stands at the centre of our faith, whom we worship as Son of God and the King of Heaven. It tells us his parents were poor. Not grindingly poor, probably. Joseph was a carpenter so he had a trade but there was not much money about. The first boy born to a Jewish family belonged to God. That meant, technically, that he should be sacrificed to God, as animals were but the law of Moses allowed parents to redeem their first born son with the offering of a young calf or a lamb, or if they couldn’t afford that, then a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. That’s what Mary and Joseph did. Their child, who was son of God, was redeemed with the offering for a poor child, a child born in the rural areas of a country under the oppressive rule of Rome.

Luke has made rather a point of Jesus’ poverty. He has Mary living in a small village in Northern Galilee. Jerusalem types despised people from Galilee. “What good can come out of Nazareth?”, said Nathaniel to Philip. Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room for him in a proper house. His first visitors were not exotic wise men from the east bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh but some shepherds; the lowest of the low, people who lived out in fields, almost like wild animals. This Jesus grew up among poor people and saw their needs and understood their desperation. He did not avoid them, or ignore them, or pretend they did not exist. He saw a sick man lying by the pool of Bethesda and healed him; he saw a tax collector despised and hated by his own people and called him to be his disciple; he remembered seeing a poor woman search her house for a single coin she had lost and how she rejoiced when she found it. Children in those days counted for nothing very much; they had no power, no authority, they were easily sold into slavery but Jesus took one and stood him in their midst and said “Of such is the Kingdom of heaven”.

Right at the heart of the Christian Gospel is poverty and the people who are poor. Jesus himself and most of his disciples came from this background. Later in today’s Gospel, Simeon speaks of Jesus as “A light to lighten the nations” – yet we know that most of those early disciples were poor. They were slaves, labourers, city dwellers living in small tenements. There were a few well educated people like Paul and Luke who recorded their names but most left no stories, no names, no trace. They were known only to God but that was enough. For God, each one of them was of supreme and infinite importance. Each slave child, every beggar girl, every destitute man was of the same importance as the rich and the powerful. God loves them all.

Do we? Most of us, if we are honest, will say that we don’t. As humans we find it difficult to love more than a few people really well. We are limited and we can only get to know a few people in this world. God is realistic: he doesn’t expect us to know and love every poor person, even in England. Yet he does expect us to want to grow in our love.

Lent is a time when God asks us to do this. We live and work in very small circles. God suggests we look a little way outside that circle. It may be to the refugees in Calais, to the asylum seekers in Leeds, to the people who have lost their jobs as a result of cutbacks, to the homeless who find a shelter at St George’s in Leeds. Or it might be some children in Zimbabwe whom we support through our charity called Tariro.

Tariro in the Shona language means ‘hope’. Young people in Zimbawe who can’t go to school have no hope. They will never escape from poverty. If they are orphans they will be unwanted members of another person’s household; abused, or encouraged to leave. They will support themselves by dreary labour, or by prostitution or crime. Probably they will contract AIDS and die. Without hope they have no reason to live and so they will die. We find these children and give them a reason to live.

We found a boy called Chenge who had no education but wanted to cook. He is now a chef and the happiest young man in Zimbabwe.

We found a girl called Rejoice whose mother is a sex worker but Rejoice was doing really well in school. With our help she is now safe in a boarding school on a good Anglican mission.

We found a little girl called Nokutenda who is an orphan but speaks astonishingly good English and will sail through school at the top of her class. Also a boy called Christopher, who has lived all his life in a children’s home and just longs to be loved.

We have fifty of these young people in different places in Zimbabwe. I will see them all next week and hear their stories and ask them to tell me their dreams. With your help I will help them to fulfil their dreams.

These are the poor who are at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Jesus was lucky; he had a father and mother. Most of these children have lost at least one parent, often two.

People think of Africa as a kind of bottomless bucket into which you pour aid and nothing happens. Actually things do happen. Africa is getting better. Well directed aid does good. We keep our money out of the hands of the politicians and the administrators and make sure it reaches the children. These are the children who will build the new Zimbabwe but they will also be the new generation of Christians. We send them to good Anglican schools, make sure they grow up in the faith. We teach them life isn’t all about themselves. They must share the love they have found with others.

Joseph and Mary may have been poor but they were loving parents and gave Jesus a wonderful home. Because he had a wonderful home he could grow up into the wonderful person he became. Can you  help us do the same for our children in Zimbabwe?

            Nicolas Stebbing CR