What then will this child become?
At Winchester Cathedral on Sunday 24 June, Christian Aid Chief Executive Loretta Minghella delivered a sermon on the theme 'What then will this child become?' Below are the sermon notes.
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Father, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts, and set them on fire for love of you, Amen.
Please be seated.
Good morning everyone and thank you so much for inviting me here to be part of the service this morning.
There are so many privileges involved in being the Director of Christian Aid. Worshipping with you today in this beautiful and historic place already feels like it will stand out as one of those privileged times.
‘What then will this child become’?
This is the question that we hear asked of John the Baptist at the end of the Gospel reading this morning? What will he become?
My daughter Olivia finally finished her A Levels this week, enabling everyone in our house to breathe a sigh of relief.
We’ve lived through every minute of the run up to papers on Biology, Religious Studies and English, so much so that we feel we’ve done the exams ourselves! And now my husband and I are wondering: ’What will she become?’
Olivia’s hoping to read Law at university like I did, but I know that you can be a lawyer as I was and that won’t necessarily be what you will do for ever. God may have other plans.
I’d spent twenty years of my adult life as an agnostic lawyer feeling something important was missing in my life when I walked into a church in Dulwich ten years ago.
I was accompanying my daughter, then only eight, because she was interested to see what it was like. And so was I.
Instead of finding another cold and uninspiring hour or so stretching ahead of me as I expected, I found something altogether different, altogether extraordinary. My God waiting for me there, despite everything I was not, in spite of everything I had not been.
And I knew as I have never known anything before or since that I was home and that I was welcomed and loved.
As I adjusted to this massive disruption of finding my faith again after decades managing without it, I found myself facing difficult questions about whether my life as a financial services lawyer was really what God wanted from me. And it became clear that it wasn’t.
It scared me hugely to think that I might be expected to give up the comfort of what I knew, what I’d trained for, and all the certainty of success that had gone with it, to respond to God’s call for change in my life.
Vocation in the church is often thought of as referring to ordained ministry but I think we all have a vocation. Everyone here is known by God who calls each of us by name. To have a sense of vocation means responding to God’s call to you.
It might be that God is calling you to learn more about your faith, or to get more involved in the life of the church, or, dare I say, to take up some great cause on his behalf.
I can’t tell you exactly what it is but you can tell yourself. You’ll know – and you’ll know you know when it feels uncomfortable. Because hearing a calling is almost always uncomfortable. It requires us to change.
But the Bible is full of great words of comfort for those of us who feel our calling is beyond us. And today in Isaiah, we hear the soaring reassurance: ‘Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.’ Yes, we may be weak and the passage goes on:
‘All people are grass,
‘their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But God is our strength. He comes with his might to protect us. And he is gentle with us when our courage fails us.
We can afford to trust in him.’
After much soul searching about what it could mean for my life to respond to God’s calling on me, I found myself moving from a job bailing out failing banks, spending billions of pounds sometimes in one day, to the amazing privilege of a job I have now, running Christian Aid.
After two years, it’s still an enormous learning curve, and part of it is learning and praying about the call God is still making on me in the way I carry out my work. And realising that, with God’s help, this is something I could learn to do better.
My job involves travelling round the world to see our work to tackle poverty in more than 40 countries to ensure that I never lose the sense of the full scandal of poverty close up, that I understand better its many complexities, and can help make sure that Christian Aid’s work in the field is the best it can be.
My trip to Sierra Leone in March served just that purpose.
Sierra Leone, a small country with a population roughly the size of Scotland and rich in natural resources like diamonds and titanium ore, but with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
Sierra Leone, where I learned that there are whole communities eating on the 000-001 basis, once every other day. Areas where half the population have no access to clean water at all, and are forced to draw their water from dirty rivers.
Christian Aid has worked there for many years now, trying to help those in dire poverty find ways of supporting themselves, tackle HIV and other health issues and holding the government to account.
We travelled over the worst roads I have so far experienced. When my team told me they had booked me into the best place to stay in the remote rural area we were about to visit, I was a bit worried that it might be a bit too fancy.
I needn’t have been. It might have been the best in the area but there were no sheets on the mattress and it had no running water, no fuel for the electricity generator and no food. It was called ‘The Promised Land’.
Although there was no running water, there was a large en-suite bucket. You could request water to be brought and so I did, ask for some hot water to be brought in the morning to wash with.
I didn’t specify an amount and of course I had hopes of a full bucket, hard to lift. The young man who looked after the place brought the water as requested in the morning. I want you to see his smile as he handed it over and look with me into that bucket and see what I saw.
It was not a full bucket. I would estimate that there were two to three inches of hot water in the bottom. Each drop a jewel, no doubt hard work to collect and heat and so no doubt hard to part with.
As I registered the sincerity of his smile, I felt hugely humbled by the mismatch between my calibration of my needs and his calibration of my needs. Here was what he clearly thought was a rather magnificent offering.
Without knowing it, he showed me how much I still have to change. It was, indeed, a rather magnificent offering. Because he did me a great service in that moment.
And he made me more determined than ever to work for change, to close the gap between his expectations and mine, to make the world a better, fairer place.
There are some great privileges to being the Director of Christian Aid, and that experience has proved to be one of them.
Every time I have one of these humbling experiences, I feel a new sense of liberation, because in these moments you get a glimpse of the truth, and as Jesus taught us, it’s the truth that sets us free.
You get that sense of liberation in the gospel story we hear today.
John the Baptist’s father Zechariah had been going about his business when the Angel Gabriel had told him his ageing wife Elizabeth, who it seemed would never be able to have a baby, was going to have a son who was to be called John who was to be called to great things.
Zechariah’s faith didn’t quite stretch far enough to believe that, he didn’t believe this was going to be his calling and he was struck dumb.
When the baby was born, Zechariah’s father came to see that what the Angel had said was the truth. He responded to the call God was making on his life, to flout convention and cause a stir by giving the baby boy a name other than his own.
And he wrote down that the baby was indeed not to be named Zechariah as people would have expected, but was to be called John. Voicing that truth liberated him, and he could speak again. It is the truth that sets us free.
It can be very uncomfortable indeed to face the terrible truths in the world around us today, because they require each of us to make a change.
Let’s look in the eye some of the truths about poverty:
• a billion people live on less than a dollar a day and will go hungry tonight;
• around one thousand women will die in childbirth today in the developing world for want of proper maternity provision;
• millions of children born this year will not live to see their fifth birthday.
In a world where so many people have so much, is this the best we can do?
Sometimes it feels like it may be. The problem seems too big. But ‘comfort ye, comfort ye my people’. There is a way through this. And a time of uncertainty, about the economy and so many other things, it depends on holding on to some core beliefs. Here are three.
First, I believe that poverty is not inevitable and that together we can make a difference. Since 1950, life expectancy in developing countries has risen on average by 20 years, child mortality has more than halved, and the number of children accessing primary education has now grown to just under 90% globally. Christian Aid has been part of that story.
So many of you here have been part of that story alongside us: raising money in Christian Aid week, campaigning for change and keeping us, our partners and those in poverty in your prayers.
We are so grateful for that. It has helped us hold unswervingly to the hope we have, to a vision of a world without poverty.
Second, I believe that we have to change our tactics to respond to the changing face of poverty since the dynamics of poverty are changing.
It becomes clearer and clearer, as countries like Brazil and India become better off but still have huge numbers of poor people, that people are stuck in poverty because they are treated differently for some other reason, whether it be their race, their faith, their colour, or some other reason, because they are female, because they are from the wrong caste, or some combination of all of these.
This inequality has to change. At Christian Aid, we have to test all our policy and practice to ask whether it is entrenching inequality or tackling it as we go.
Third, whilst our tactics might change, our values must remain constant. So in our work at Christian Aid, whether we are supporting a partner to export fair trade coffee from Nicaragua or to import solar lighting for a rural community in India or campaign for more robust tax collection to provide essential public services in Zambia - we must be driven always by love, placing the needs and hopes of others on a level with our own.
And we must also recognise that we are nothing on our own. We need to partner with governments, businesses, churches and other organisations like ours if we’re going to be successful.
Crucially, we need you.
We need to know you are standing with us, praying with us, campaigning with us. Even as we have grown over these last ten years, what we raise in funds is very small next to the size of the problem of poverty, so every single 10p, 5p and 1p matters to us.
Thank you to every one of you here who has listened to God’s call on your life to stand in solidarity with those in poverty and help make the world a better and a fairer place. It is an inspiration and a privilege to stand with you.
I had another privilege earlier in the week, when I was invited to represent Christian Aid at a reception at the Foreign Office to welcome and honour Aung Sang Suu Kyi, here on her first visit to Britain in 24 years.
She has been on my list of people I would like to see before I die for many years and then suddenly I’m in the Foreign Office with her and being described by the Foreign Secretary along with the other guests as a ‘great friend of Burma’.
I cannot take personal credit for being a great friend of Burma but Christian Aid can take that credit, and that is only because you and thousands of others like stand behind us.
Together we can take that credit.
With your support, we have for decades campaigned for the rights of the poor and the marginalised in Burma and supported refugees who have fled to Thailand from Burma and now we can help support the democratisation of Burma.
The strength of your support has enabled Aung San Suu Kyi to respond to her calling, to become a beacon of hope to a whole people, and through her inner strength and courage and serenity to be an inspiration to the whole world.
So I hope you were celebrating this week, too, what you have helped make happen. I know you can change the world, because you are already changing the world.
What the will this child become? It’s the question that lingers today for each of us. A question for each one us, wherever we are in our lives.
When Zechariah’s tongue was loosened, and he could speak again, he used his voice to praise God.
I praise God for each one of you, for the contribution you have already made in the fight against poverty, for the contribution we have yet to see, and for the inspiration that you are to me and to all of us at Christian Aid.
May God go with you.