john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Revelation 5 / Luke 3 - On Worth

    Good Shepherd Holy Communion 17/12/2006

    Revelation 5, Luke 3:7-18

    She was an angel for a day. Her mum still has the photos of her in the school nativity play, aged seven, in that lacy white dress with the two golden-painted cardboard wings, smiling a big toothy smile.

    Looking at those pictures now, her mother asks herself, whatever happened to that angel?

    While she was a pupil of Chantry High School the young girl had dreams of being a pop star, but life got tougher for her as she grew up in an Ipswich housing estate and ended up in a series of low-paid jobs. She began to seek solace and escape in drugs and eventually her life went into the terrible decline experienced by all addicts.

    She became a stranger to her mum and brother who she still lived with, and to her father who said, "Unfortunately drugs took her away into her own secret world, a world that neither of us were aware of." [1]

    On 30 October she was reported missing by her mother, who had not heard from her for 48 hours. Forty days later came the report that the body of 19-year-old Tania Nicol had been found on 8 December, by police divers searching an area near Copdock Mill, near Ipswich. [2]

    And if we have the heart to do so we might imagine her mother Kerry looking at those old pictures of Tania now, and asking, whatever happened to that angel?

    Angels have been our theme over advent. There were angels in our readings today and there will be angels again in this talk before I finish. But to take us to that point I want us to consider a question which has been behind the news reports which have caught our attention this week, how much is a person worth?

    Many people have been quick to say that a prostitute is worth very little. That a prostitute is not worth the amount of money which will be spent on a major police murder investigation. Sex workers and their clients are always putting a price on themselves - usually a very low price which demonstrates just how little they think they are worth.

    But if we were to listen to the families and friends of the murdered women, who knew them best and loved them, I expect we would hear that they were worth far more to them.

    Many people have been quick to say that a drug addict is worth very little. That a druggy is not worth the amount of money the police and health and social services and all sorts of other agencies put into them. Some addicts even say this about themselves. One of the other murdered women, 24-year-old Paula Clennell apparently said that her drug problem was so bad that she would be dead by 25.

    But the Ipswich vicar Andrew Dotchin, who knew the women because they used to congregate near the church, said that "In a parish like ours, which is full of shops and pubs, everyone is asking what is happening. But it is out of concern and compassion - certainly not judgement." [3]

    His words help us to understand something very important - about how we decide how much someone is worth.

    Some people use money to decide how much someone is worth. If a person has a lot of money then they are worth a lot. If they are poor they're not worth much.

    Other people use prestige to decide how much someone is worth. The son who has got himself a good job and moved away to a house in a 'better' area is worth more than the son who has stayed put, the unambitious one who just does the odd jobs on and off.

    And others decide how much someone is worth through friendliness. If that person is friendly to me, if they are a good neighbour, then I think they are worth a lot more than that other person who doesn't give me the time of day.

    But the Ipswich vicar's words suggest another way of deciding how much someone is worth. That is through concern and compassion, not by judging them on money or prestige or friendliness.

    After all, aren't we all valued the same by God?

    The Christian writer Duncan Forrester was shocked when he visited India for the first time, because of the intensity of the visible poverty and inequality, so much more obvious, extreme and horrifying than anything he had seen up to that time in Britain. [4]

    Beggars were everywhere, he said, often with missing limbs or other physical deformities; women with hungry children in their arms; legless men, hauling themselves around on ramshackle wooden trolleys a few inches above the ground, hungry sick children pathetically holding out begging bowls...

    Forrester stopped to talk to one man, 'a beggar, a burnt-out leper, with a clawed hand and hardly any toes', who regularly begged by a railway bridge near the college where Forrester was teaching. His name was Munuswamy and Forrester hoped that one day he might have the language and the courage to be his friend.

    It was then that Forrester began to think about the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the 'great gulf' between these two bible characters, the 'unbridgeable chasm' between them in Jesus' story. And he began to realise that there was the same great gulf between himself, with all his security, health, opportunities, independence, respect, and the broken, frail, illiterate, disrespected beggar Munuswamy.

    But surely, Duncan Forrester asked, aren't I and Munuswamy worth the same to God? Surely the message in the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that all lives are worth saving. Surely the problem in the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that the rich man couldn't see that until it was too late. Because he'd been judging himself on money or prestige or friendliness rather than pure human compassion.

    Our bible readings today are concerned with worth.

    John on the Isle of Patmos, in the middle of his revelation, saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and to break its seals?'

    I preached about this passage a few months ago. [5] Explained that John thinks that this scroll holds the key to life, that when it opens it will reveal the words which will put things right in the world, it will release goodness, herald healing, restore righteousness to a broken world.

    And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, 'Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.'

    And the Lamb took the scroll and the angels sang a new song:

    'You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
    for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
    you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
    and they will reign on earth.'

    Then John looked, and he heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels, he said, singing with full voice,

    'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
    and honour and glory and blessing!'

    And the whole of earth and heaven blessed the Lamb and fell down and the elders worshipped him.

    The Lamb is worthy because he has come to make all things new in a world of inequality and shame.

    John the Baptist was sure that he knew who the Lamb was. When he saw Jesus coming to him for baptism he said,

    'I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than me is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'

    John the Baptist agreed with the angels. While we are all worthy of the salvation of God, the one who is worthiest is the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ.

    Jesus is the worthiest because he has come to make all things new in a world of inequality and shame. He is the worthiest because he baptizes us with the Holy Spirit of God and purifies our lives with a spirit of fire.

    Now I admit that I made up the story about Tania Nicol being an angel in a nativity play. I guessed that she might have been once, as most little girls are. But she may never have been an angel. She certainly grew up with the devil in her. She certainly grew up with many people believing that she was worth very little.

    But God says, this how much a person is worth: a person is worth saving.

    We may find that hard to agree with, given that we're bound up in judgements about each other. She's wasted her life, he's never done anyone any good, I'm useless, she's the lowest of the low.

    God says, this how much all people are worth: all people are worth saving.

    We may find that hard to agree with, given that we tend to make comparisons between ourselves and others. We find it hard to accept that not only the churchgoers and respectable people but even the most awful, most lazy, most shameful, most hateful people get the invitation to God's kingdom.

    But this is why the angels sing: because God says that all people are worth saving.

    As we join in the songs of the angels this Christmas we might ask the Holy Spirit to purify our hearts and help us see ourselves and other people like God does, see just how much we and all other people are really worth.

    [1] Source: BBC News
    [2] Source: BBC News
    [3] Source: Church Times
    [4] Duncan B. Forrester, On Human Worth, p1-2
    [5] Sermons, 15/01/06, Revelation 5 - Who will open the scroll?