‘The Broken Croziers’ ~ Christmas Day Sermon 2012 from Bishop Paul Colton

‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;’

1 Corinthians 1.27

Not surprisingly, I stand here this Christmas and, in my mind’s eye, I can see my mother and father sitting in the front pew with my family as they ordinarily did on this day.

One of my father’s greatest gifts was his ability with wood. Some of the things he fashioned are in daily use in this Cathedral. Around the Church of Ireland his work includes the religious – altar crosses, nativity cribs, candlesticks, paschal candleholders; as well as the utilitarian – bookshelves, noticeboards, and handles for bellows on organs.  Then there are the croziers, made for a number of bishops, including the one he made for me and which I consciously chose to carry today. Like so many woodworkers, wood-turners and joiners, through his carpentry, my father seemed to have a conduit for both spirituality and service that brought him close, in his own way, to Saint Joseph, the carpenter, and to Jesus, labelled by the locals in St Matthew’s Gospel as ‘the carpenter’s son’ (Matthew 13.55).

The first crozier my father fashioned was for your former Dean – Richard Clarke – when he became Bishop of Meath.  I was very moved to discover that the new Archbishop had chosen to carry it at his enthronement ten days ago.

By now, no doubt, many of you will have heard, however, that when the new Archbishop made the approach to the west door, and raised the crozier to give the customary three knocks, he hit with such force that the top of the crozier splintered off. The short television clip was an instant hit on social media. The Irish Times photo reporting the enthronement captures that very moment of crozier decapitation. I don’t think my father had crafted the crozier for use as a battering ram; but I do suspect it would have given him a good laugh. The new Archbishop was also able to see, the humorous side, and said to me since that my father ‘…would be chortling at having discomposed an incoming Primate in such a spectacular manner.’

I was surprised to be told in recent days that the broken crozier episode is not unique.  A similar experience was had at that same west door by another Dean of Cork arriving to be enthroned as Archbishop: George Simms. On that day in 1969, it was the Sicilian Baroque silver crozier. Simms buckled the crozier, bent the end and weakened one of the joints. Like Archbishop Clarke ten days ago he had to hold it together as he walked.

The episodes of the broken croziers shape my reflections this Christmas.

What appeared to the eye, on that day in 1969, to be a lavish silver crozier, proved to be hollow; it buckled and twisted under the force of the blow.  Ten days ago a sturdy piece of durable ash (a wood used by the Romans, because of its density and strength, to make spears and agricultural tools) splintered.

‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;’

The baby whose birth we celebrate today was born into a far from idyllic, very broken world; a world of political unrest and turmoil; a world in which Herod ordered the slaughter of children; a society from which the young family with their new baby had to escape and seek asylum in another place.   Then as now, there as here, all this is a very real world; yes with its immense opportunities and joys; but also with its actual, its material challenges and brokenness.

There are no sanitised, idealised nativity scenes in the Gospel version of the first Christmas events. There’s nothing artistic or poetic about it. The Victorian carol, the fun of the festive jumper (this year’s fashion whim), the jolly decorations and the humour of the seasonal pantomime will not be found in this account of this baby’s birth.  This is not, as the carol would have us contend, a ‘no crying he makes baby.’ No, this is a baby who is vulnerable and hungry; born in the dirt of a place used for sheltering animals, to a perplexed couple who were nobody special in a divided and needy society. That was his world; it is our world today.

On first hearing the claim of this Christmas story that this weak baby is ‘God with us’ it appears foolish.  How, possibly, can this be the one to bring hope and light?  How can this be the ‘Word made flesh’? The broken staff, like the babe himself in the manger, reminds us that God chooses the fragile and the vulnerable and the powerless to bring in the Kingdom of his love.

‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;’

Shepherds visited that baby, whose birth we celebrate today, that night. They carried, no doubt, the almost universal tool of their work – a long slender stick  – a rod or staff – used for support and to do their work; to protect and defend; to discipline; for the welfare of the sheep, to stop them wandering into danger and to nudge them back among the others.  It is used to reach out, to guide and to comfort. Over time the contemporary crozier-rod, has become a symbol of oversight and pastoral care.

In the broken staff of the new Archbishop’s enthronement, amidst the positives of our times and all that there is to be celebrated in our own lives and the joy of being human, I see also a parable of brokenness; the vulnerabilities and challenges with which so many of us struggle in various ways and at different times of our lives.   I see too the fractures and strains of our society and world.

Is it not also an allegory of the brokenness so much in evidence in the Church itself? – a divided Church where ecumenical progress has been significant but is still patchy, sporadic and far from complete; and a church in which we genuinely and passionately struggle among ourselves about what some see as issues of faithfulness to the Scriptures and others see as matters of God’s justice.

I have a great concern about one of the principal dangers of this brokenness.  As we within the institution are increasingly all-consumed in an inward-looking, self-obsessed way with our own great matters, our proclamation of the love of Christ is being damaged. Many ‘out there’ inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, are getting on with being as ‘Christ-like’ as they can, but without the Church.

By its failure to love and include and embrace and to welcome and to love as Christ loved, the Church – or more pointedly, by our failure to love and include and embrace and to welcome and to love as Christ loved, wewe are driving many away from the baby in the manger, away from Jesus, into the arms of secularism and unbelief at worst, and into the fold of non-institutional, residual, post-Christian spirituality at best.  It is my experience, fear and shame, that the Church is pushing many away from the love of God.

Yet, at the same time, the ministry of a broken Church should not alarm or dismay us – paradoxically, it should encourage us that the Church in its life and ministry has always manifested brokenness.  Foolish as we are, with all our human weaknesses and vulnerabilities, all our own brokenness, God chooses all of us who are baptised and calls us to journey with him and to serve his people.

More important, has it not always been the vulnerability and suffering of the grown up Jesus at the time of his torture, suffering and execution that has given many inspiration and strength?

‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;’

In adulthood Jesus referred to himself as the good Shepherd.  It is a metaphor of God himself: ‘thy rod and thy staff comfort me.’  Didn’t the prophet Isaiah (11.1) remind us that there will be a ‘rod of Jesse’ –the tree of Jesse.  This is a family tree that Saint Matthew traces indeed to Jesse, a farmer, a breeder and owner of sheep, and father of King David.  The new shoot is not only one with kingly origins, but is rooted in humble and vulnerable beginnings.

‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;’

In the times of our own brokenness; as we address the sharp divisions in and challenges facing our society; as we, in a divided Church, struggle to become the people God calls us to be, it is Christ himself who is the staff.

The silver crozier, which buckled in 1969, reminds us of what we know only too well in life; what we see on the surface is not always the underlying reality; much of our display is inevitably transitory and hollow. The wooden crozier, to all appearances strong and utilitarian had, nonetheless, its limits and it fractured.  It is not rods and staffs such as these which sustain and comfort us.  As vulnerable Christians individually and, as an inadequate Church together, we learn and relearn constantly, that while we are endeavouring faithfully to carry Christ into the world, it is, in fact, Christ, the root, the rod of Jesse, who is carrying and sustaining us.  We lean on; we depend on; we trust in him, for our journeys and our tasks, and in the times of our own brokenness.

To many in our time this sounds foolish. Many laugh at it and oppose it. Countless others throughout history have discovered the wisdom of kneeling down, offering their gifts and putting their hand into the hand of the weak baby at Bethlehem.

‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;’

1 Corinthians 1.27

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