Some of you may have seen the film ‘Little Voice’ which was released in 1998. The film is centred around a young lady living at home and dominated by an overbearing mother. As a result of a difficult upbringing, she was a bit of a recluse and had a little, quiet voice. However, she came alive when she sang – she somehow got in touch with the very core of her being. The little voice which few people could hear became a big voice that lit up and electrified the places where she sang.
As I was reflecting on today, this film came into mind because the readings for the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist (the saint to which this church is dedicated) and the occasion of today’s licensing are all about the voice and the Word. John the Baptist is described as ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ He could never be described as ‘little voice.’ But, as we heard at the beginning of today’s reading from St. Luke, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a man of no voice. He had lost his voice. People could no longer hear him, when, as a priest, he could not believe what God was doing. He had been told that he and his wife, well beyond their child-bearing years, were to have a child, but he did not believe it. If he could not believe what God was able to do, then he had nothing to say about God – people had no reason to want to listen. But in the reading today, he was given back his voice because he believed and he said ‘yes’ to God. He was willing to stand up against years of tradition which demanded that his son be called Zechariah after his father and made it clear that he was to be named John. He believed. He said ‘yes’ to God and his voice was again heard. His son, John, himself became the voice that was to point to Jesus Christ revealing him in places and among people that one would least expect him to be.
As we celebrate this new beginning, this new chapter in the life of this parish and in Alyson’s ministry, the story around the birth of John the Baptist reminds us that the Christian community can only have a voice when it seeks to listen to what God is saying. It is important that we are proactive, that we live and say what we believe, but we cannot speak unless, at the same time, we listen. People will not hear what we have to say: we will be like little voice or no voice, unless what we say is based on deep authentic listening. As this new ministry is launched tonight, I want to suggest three ways in which we need to listen.
First, we need to listen to God and we need to listen to God with our heart, our head, our eyes, our ears and, lastly, with our voices. This kind of listening is in the DNA of this benefice because Nurstead Church is dedicated to St. Mildred, who, 1400 years ago, not long after the foundation of this diocese, used to run a community of nuns in Minster, Thanet. She travelled far in order to listen to God. Prayer and worship are ways in which we open ourselves to God and try to discern what God is saying to us. We listen to God through the revolutionary life and example of Jesus Christ who encouraged his followers and challenged conventional wisdom when it went against the Spirit of God.
For many generations, prayer and worship have been at the heart of this Church and, with this beautifully re-ordered church and with Alyson’s guidance, this will be continued and refreshed. Walking the Christian way is not a leisure activity but it is a way of life. Something new is beginning today as we forge and bless this new relationship between priest and people. New gifts will be released and new possibilities will be opened up, but they will only be discovered with a deep, authentic and prayerful waiting on God and listening for his guidance.
Secondly, we need to listen to society and, in particular, this community and when I say ‘listen’, we need to listen to what God is wanting to say to us through it. God is already active and working outside of the Church and we need to go out and join the party. We need to take on the role of John the Baptist and find God at work in places and people and situations where we wouldn’t naturally think of looking. We can start by listening to the young people in our schools, the elderly unable to get out of the homes, to the people who commute daily from this place. We can continue by spending time with people who are broken and hurting. I thank God that there is a good and lively relationship between church and community, where is God wanting that to go? Deeper? Wider? Or both?
But just as we are alert to our local community, we need to listen to what God is saying to us through events on the national and international stage. It would be so easy to end up depressed at some of what invades our television screens and fills our newspapers. There are times when we want to weep – and I am not just referring to the World Cup. There are also times when we want to celebrate and give thanks. We need to listen to what God is saying through these occasions.
Finally, we need to listen to what God is saying through the Church. The role of the Church is to point to Jesus Christ at work in the world. We do have a Gospel to proclaim and we want to encourage new disciples to help us in proclaiming it. But we proclaim it in a spirit of confidence and humility and we proclaim it by the way we relate as Christians; by the way that we look for God at work in each other; by the way we can celebrate together and by the way that we can disagree with each other. As a Church we have challenging times ahead and difficult decisions to make – the way we make these decisions and handle the difficulties will tell the world whether or not we are really in touch with the God we proclaim. What is God saying to us through his Church?
These are exciting times for this benefice. God has given to us a voice. But people will only hear if what we say is based on a deep and authentic listening to the God we proclaim and the Lord Jesus Christ that we follow.
The licensing of Revd. Alyson Davie to the Benefice of Meopham with Nurstead, Kent. 25th June, 2014.
Readings: Malachi 3.1-6;Luke1.57-66,80
Second image: St. John the Baptist, Meopham, taken by Hywell Williams