Diocese of Hong Kong IslandDiocese of Hong Kong Island   Hong Kong Sheng Kung HuiHong Kong Sheng Kung Hui   St. John's Cathedral, Hong KongSt. John's Cathedral, Hong Kong

 

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Kingfishers catch fire
10-September-2017
Preacher: The Revd Will Newman

 

Have you ever seen a kingfisher?


If you have seen a kingfisher, it is not something you quickly forget. That brilliant flash of bright metallic blue, almost turquoise feathers, and the vivid streak of orange. I have seen a kingfisher three times. Twice in the trees beside the playing field down below the Chapel, and once many years ago when I was in India, in a bus travelling beside a lake, and a kingfisher came and flew beside the window of the bus, at the same speed as the bus for about 30 seconds, almost close enough to touch, and then it flew off across the lake. 

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, loves the image of prayer being like birdwatching. You go to the place where you expect to see a special bird, a species you don’t commonly see. Sometimes you sit in the rain all day and see nothing out of the ordinary. But then comes a day when you catch the flash of the startling colours of a kingfisher, and all the waiting was worth it. 

I am not a birdwatcher. I didn’t go out to look for a kingfisher. The times when I saw a kingfisher were by chance. But to see it at those times, I needed to be aware, I needed to be awake. Maybe there have been other times when a kingfisher flashed by and I was looking the other way and missed it, I wouldn’t know. But years later, I remain excited and thankful that I have seen a kingfisher, three times.

The church today gives us three bible readings: three opportunities to catch a glimpse of a kingfisher. I missed the kingfisher in all of them on first, second and third readings. But the advantage of looking for kingfishers in a bible reading is that, like a film that you can replay, you can go back and read it again and look to see if there’s a kingfisher you missed. 
 
 In today’s first reading, from the story of Moses, God gives detailed instructions about selecting, killing, cooking and eating a lamb. It is beyond my poor skill to see the kingfisher in this reading. Does God really care whether the lamb is boiled or roast? I doubt it. To me it’s more like sitting in the rain, watching and listening with expectancy, but seeing and hearing nothing special. But maybe I missed what’s special, because this is not just God’s kitchen recipe for Sunday lunch. The key is that this was a meal to be eaten urgently and quickly because the moment of freedom was at hand! The Israelites had to be ready to move! All those years of toil and hard labour, the time of slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh, were coming to an end! If I was suffering under oppression and longing to be free, that could be my kingfisher moment. It wasn’t, and I missed it. Did you see the kingfisher?

How about the third reading, the gospel, where according to Matthew, Jesus gives detailed instructions about how to settle a dispute between two people in church? The way it’s written sounds so unlike Jesus, who always gave guidance rather than instructions, that I have to agree with the bible scholars who suggest that this is not in fact Jesus talking, it’s Matthew’s recipe for settling disputes among the early Christians. What makes it sound most unlike Jesus talking is where Matthew ends up ‘Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax-collector’, seeming to imply that church members who fail to see that they are wrong and you are right, should be treated as outsiders by good Jewish Christians. But of course for Jesus the opposite was true: he welcomed Gentiles, called Matthew, a tax collector, to be his disciple, and was criticised for eating with tax collectors. ‘Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector’, if Jesus ever said that, would imply that you welcome them, not exclude them.  But I have to say I don’t see any kingfisher here, no exciting flash of inspiration or insight. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there’, rings more true as something Jesus might have said, and that’s a very well-known saying, and often quoted among Christians, especially when the group is smaller than expected. For me it’s not quite that kingfisher moment, but maybe I’ve missed that inspiration. Maybe that’s your kingfisher.

I wonder if you caught just a glimpse of a kingfisher in the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, the command that encompasses all other commands, that could be a kingfisher, if the colours have not been dulled by endless repetition, if we could see the bright flash of those words again as if for the first time. For me, the kingfisher moment in this reading is in the words ‘Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep’. Have I been asleep? Have wonderful, exciting, demanding, challenging things been going on around me, and I didn’t notice, didn’t get involved, wasn’t even aware of them? The kingfisher is flashing past, and if I’m asleep, I’ll miss it!


As Kingfishers Catch Fire
BY GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men's faces. 


All things according to their nature speak of what they are. We, when we act justly and with grace, are acting the way God sees us, which is as Christ. And God sees that we are lovely.
 
Rowan Williams wrote a little book called ‘Being Disciples’. He says that to be a disciple is to be a learner, and for Jesus’ disciples that involves not just turning up to class, but being with Jesus full-time, listening, learning, starting to see things the way he sees, absorbing his way of life.

Rowan says, ‘The disciple is not there just to note down ideas and go away and think about them. The disciple is where he or she is in order to be changed, so that the way in which he or she sees and experiences the whole world changes.’ Awareness as a disciple is trying to develop the skills that help you not to miss God. When we are aware, we watch with expectancy and listen with expectancy. 

And so when somebody asks ‘Why do you go to church?’, I trust that you can say not only to see friends – though that is important; not only for the refreshments, delicious though they are; I trust that you could say ‘I go to church because there’s just a chance that I might see a kingfisher.’ 

Amen.