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Sermon at the Centenary Service for Diocese of Birmingham

Sunday 4th December 2005

A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, for the Centenary Service for the Diocese of Birmingham.

Once upon a time I had an aunt who taught in Balsal Heath.

No there is more.

But it was she who lent me the first ever book that I ever read about the church in Birmingham. It was written by the then incumbent of Ladywood, and it was called The Forgotten People. It was a book about how post-war planning had blighted the lives of people in Birmingham, and not only in Birmingham. It was a book about how various conceptions of how you ought to invent a city had done everything except think about people.

But there's more than one kind of forgotten person, and one of the things about the history of this diocese is that it seems at point after point to have had the courage to ask itself whose being forgotten now. At various points it's been people in the estates, it's been ethnic minorities, it's been children and young people, but the crucial question has kept coming back. Who are the forgotten people? Because surely if the church means anything, the church is a place where over the entrance there should be a large placard or banner saying 'these are remembered people'.

You'll notice in the Bible how, very often, this language of remembering and forgetting comes back. He, remembering His mercy, has helped His servant Israel, has God forgotten to be gracious? God remembers his people. God's mind is filled with the image of His people, because God's mind is filled with His love for His people. Out of that memory and love we cannot fall, we as His beloved children are above all, not forgotten and neither the living nor the dead fall out of that universal all-encompassing memory of mercy. But, as we look around in out world, there are forgotten people enough. You don't have to go very far from here to see them, people who are convinced that they are not remembered, that God has forgotten to be gracious and has shut up his compassion. There are those who are in that wilderness where things and people are forgotten.

To feel yourself forgotten, to feel that you have no voice, no leverage, no presence, that is a wilderness. So we need to be reminded every Advent that it is in the wilderness that the Gospel begins. The Gospel starts by going to the heart of that sense of being forgotten, has God forgotten me? Have others forgotten me? Have I forgotten myself? Because I no longer know who I am. Sin or suffering have overlaid who I am, I don't even know my own face any longer. And here I am in a desert place with no neighbours and no landmarks.

Into that desert strides the figure of John the Baptist to say that God has remembered His mercy, God is mindful of you, His mind is full of you. And so when we begin to try and share the Gospel, that's where we go and that's what we say. We go to where people feel forgotten, where they have forgotten to be themselves, where they have forgotten how to speak to God, and forgotten that God speaks to them and they feel lost. And in the wilderness and we say God's mind is full of you. So 'who are the forgotten people' is the question to which we who try to be disciples return to again, and again, and again. We try to make the church a place where people sense that they are remembered, where they can be mindful of themselves and of each other. And of course who gets forgotten changes, as I've hinted, from age to age. And we need a real sensitivity, open ear and eye and heart, to pick up who it is in our vicinity, and further away, who is likely to feel forgotten now. We need to know who we must be mindful of because God is mindful of them.

Part then of what we give thanks for on an occasion like this, is a history of the struggle to be mindful. So to pray ourselves, think ourselves, and feel ourselves, into the perspective of God, into the mind of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that our mindfulness, becomes a powerful sign of God's remembering for the lost in the wilderness of this world. And here we are gathered at God's table, remembering what Christ did for us and praying remember us Lord when you come in your Kingdom. Yet, as we gather at Christ's table, I have a sort of fantasy of the Lord presiding at his table and looking round and saying, 'Who's not here?' And as we might on ordinary human occasions, perhaps we start looking a bit nervously at each other and saying, 'somebody forgotten, somebody outside' and Jesus says 'well you might just go and see, go out of that door and see who's not here'. Remembering that amazing parable of the wedding feast. Jesus imagines the king saying 'go and make them come in'. And while in the past the church has sometimes treated that as just a little bit too literally for comfort, I think it's one of those moments when Jesus is indulging in a mixture of comedy and exasperation, as he often does in the Gospel. 'Make them come in for goodness sake' he says and we say rather dimly 'how? You can't make people do things they don't want to. You can lead a convert to water but you can't make them drink?' And Jesus says 'I don't care, sing to them, stand on your head, wash their feet, hold their hands, listen to them, but make them come in. Show them that they are remembered, because if they believe that they are remembered by the host of this table, they'll come.

If we can persuade the world that it is invited, that it is welcome, they'll come. Jesus seems to think so, and it is quite a sound principle that what Jesus thinks, goes. I hope that is still the basic tenet of the Church. 'So', says the Lord to us, 'don't waste time, go and see who's not here, go and see who's forgotten and then use all your talents and imagination and all your capacity to make an idiot of yourself so that they believe that they are invited so that they know that they are not forgotten'. In the wilderness, make the road straight and that of course gives us one last thing to think about here, make the road straight, because, as John the Baptist says, 'it's somebody else who is doing the inviting, it's somebody else who's making the change'. It's not us, we're trying to get out the way of the God who is coming in such splendour and love and terror and judgement and beauty that anything we say and do is going to be inadequate to what that coming will be like. And the life of an individual in the life of the world universe. And that's part of the good news we have to proclaim. It's not frightfully good news if the church and its representatives go out and say 'Trust me'. People look at you a bit oddly then. Trust Jesus Christ and the God of Jesus Christ in the strength of his spirit. Well that's a different proposition, quite rightly, and that's what we have to make way for, make room for.

We are gathered then here, at that table, and Jesus is saying 'get ready to see in the next hundred years or two hundred years, or thousand years, get ready to see hour after hour who the forgotten people are. And make them come in, make them come in says Jesus, not because I want them to come and fill in their forms and satisfy the requirements, but because, I long with all my everlasting divine heart, for their company. Can you persuade people that God longs for them with that sort of longing? Because that's what mission comes down to, so go and do it. Go and invite, go and tell people they are remembered, go to the wilderness, clear the way, make them come to this table where all are welcome, all are called, all are equipped by the Spirit to join in God's work, through Jesus Christ, of renewing the face of His creation.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.


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