Beggars can’t be choosers, and when a beggar finds food and water, he will tell his friends so that they also can go and eat and drink. It’s often said that evangelism is exactly that: one beggar telling another where to find food. So permit me to be a beggar this morning and share something that has touched me.
First, the context. Taizé. At the risk of being a Taizé bore, let me explain a little. Taizé is a small village in Burgundy, France where a visionary young Swiss Pastor named Roger Schutz founded an ecumenical monastic community in 1940. (PS ecumenical means both Protestant and Catholic). Since then the community has grown to about 100 brothers and throughout the year they welcome tens of thousands of young people, and a few old people too, for a week of prayer, community and reflection. A group from this church has visited every year since 2010. What do we do? Well, we go to church 3 times a day for prayer – much of which is sung, using the beautiful and characteristic Taizé chants, some of which we use here in church. There is a Bible introduction, both for young adults and for oldies, translated into different languages. This year I heard Brother John as he spoke in English, then translated into other languages in little groups huddled around an interpreter: German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Polish. Then there are chores: clearing litter, cooking, washing up, toilet cleaning – you get the picture. And we have an amazing amount of fun doing all of that. This year I don’t think there were any disasters. We’ve had a few. The Camping Gaz canister which I accidentally and dramatically opened and then, with it, sprayed liquid propane onto Vicki’s trousers at St Pancras Eurostar terminal in 2010 is history now; so is the freezing cold Easter when our tents turned into sheets of ice; and the year when Ben Harwood’s tent pretty much dissolved in sheeting rain. And we do actually believe that the Italian lady who owns the pizza restaurant in Cluny recognises us now. She gave me and Vicki a hug and kiss anyway. It felt for real.
What I came away with this year crystallised in the first few words that Brother John spoke on the first morning. ‘The Christian faith is not an ideology or philosophy, but it is the life we live’ He then went on to describe how all that happens at Taizé – the prayers, the singing, the meeting other people, the Bible introductions, the chores, the fun, the pointless games – all of it is connected, it’s a whole. The heart is the love of God and the love of our neighbour: love is a way of living. The focus on God is given concrete expression in the prayers three times a day. For the men who have taken the monastic vow of poverty, celibacy and obedience, to actually join the community and become brothers there is what’s called a ‘Rule of life’, a specific guide to the way life is to be lived in the community of Taizé. Brother Roger himself wrote this and it contains much wise direction and counsel. At the centre of it is this: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’.
‘The Christian faith is the life we live’. The Christian faith is not primarily a system of belief which we hold in our heads, waking up every morning and checking whether we still believe it. It is the life we live. And if it’s true in Taizé, then it’s true here too. It is the life we live. We embody it. I was thinking about this as we met some old friends of Rosemary’s in Canada this summer. I remember having arguments with them, decades ago, trying to defend our Christian faith and not getting anywhere at all. We spent a week with them, and we talked about our faith not in terms of ‘we believe this, that or the other’ but ‘this is what we are and do’. We are members of a community of faith – that’s all of us and more – who we know as trustworthy friends. We meet every week for worship and prayer, and to share a common meal in the holy communion. We are focussed on the life and teachings of Jesus. We eat together. We help each other and hold each other up. This is the place where we celebrate birth and marriage, and mourn death. We watch unusual films together and talk about them. We welcome newcomers. We are all in different walks of life – paid work, unpaid work, parenting, caring, school, retired and that is part of it too. Our faith is expressed in love in action: in the school, in the café, in social justice and fair trade. It was much easier to talk about such things, to feel enthusiastic and inspired, because it’s actually what we do. Because when you think about it, it is wonderful. And it’s undeniable. It is the life we live.
I have these three words going round in my head: joy, simplicity and mercy. Brother Roger of Taizé, crystallized the teachings of Jesus, especially expressed in the Beatitudes, into these three words and said: this is to be the expression of the life we lead. It truly expresses the life of the community at Taizé with joyful meeting of others, prayer and worship; simplicity of life (profoundly true for the food) and acts of mercy – more about that in a moment. How about letting joy, simplicity and mercy both express and shape our lives too? To say, our life as church and individually is joyful, simple and merciful. So much of what we do already fits this. Can we see it as a whole? I would like to suggest that consciously embracing these words might help us to put it together, to see the different parts of who we are as church and as individuals operating as a whole, joined up.
Joy is something we both receive and give. It is the natural expression of the life we live. It’s an elusive thing, and it comes when our lives are properly ordered and we face in the right direction. We receive it from others, friends and strangers. It leaks out when we know that we are beloved, accepted, treasured by God. If we look at the words in our liturgy, the words of the service, we will find much reason for joy in them – have a special look today! We can also give joy by passing on the same thing we receive: acceptance, care, love: by laughing, by telling jokes and stories, by eating together, by sharing time. This is perhaps part of what Vince would call realistic Christianity: it is the life we live. In saying this, we acknowledge at the same time that there is much pain and hardship in life too and none of us are immune from that. In times like that, joy can be very distant. It is then the task of others to love and support, to care, to in time bring about a reconnection with joy.
Simplicity is the way we live. This touches how we spend our time and money and how we conduct our relationships. How we treat the environment. As a very practical suggestion, may I just give a gentle plug for a short document produced by Green Christian on ‘Nine ways to live gently on the earth’ – you can pick up a copy from the table in the foyer, and ask Rosemary if there aren’t any left.
Mercy is something we both receive and give. We receive God’s mercy towards us all of the time. It is His merciful acts, embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit that brings us into the family. It is our merciful acts towards others that expresses that and passes it on. Probably the most moving moment at Taizé this year was on the Monday evening when Brother Alois, who is the Prior of Taizé, introduced 12 refugees from South Sudan and Afghanistan who had been taken into the care of the community both as an act and a sign of mercy. One of them, Ibrahim, read out his story in halting French, translated into around 30 different languages around the church full of 2000 or so mainly young people. Of how he had lost most of his family in the fighting in Sudan, seeing several of them killed before his eyes; of his journey to Libya, and then a perilous crossing of the Mediterranean to Italy, and finally his acceptance by the community of Taizé. He told of how he gave thanks to Allah for the community, how he had never met a Christian before, but now he had and it was a good. Brother Alois just put his hand on his shoulder. It was a deeply moving moment. Not many of us will be able to do something like that but we can practice mercy, and its sister, forgiveness, in our everyday lives. It is the life we live.
I would like to land that last thought, about mercy, on the gospel reading today, the healing of the crippled woman, bent completely over, in the synagogue. Jesus carried out an act of mercy, affirming her as a ‘daughter of Abraham’ and it drew the wrath of the synagogue ruler – but the joy of all the people.
Vince suggested that I might like to pursue each of those themes: joy, simplicity and mercy in a series of three sermons in the autumn and, if he’s still up for that, will do so. What would really help is to get reactions and suggestions from you!
Let me finish by introducing you to a new Taizé chant, which is a prayer written by Brother Roger. It’s in French, I can’t make it scan in English, apologies.
Heureux qui s’abandonne à toi, ô Dieu, dans la confiance du coeur.
Tu nous gardes dans la joie, la simplicité, la miséricorde.
(Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart.
You keep us in joy, simplicity and mercy)