May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
Amen On the 15th of May 1974, half a century ago, a poet called Ted Hughes looked up into the Devon sky and this is what he saw
'...Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
of needle. 'Look! They're back! Look! And they're gone
On a steep
Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky-summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening
For air chills-are they too early?'
Fifty years ago, Hughes could celebrate the return of the swifts with the words
'They've made it again,
Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's
Still waking refreshed, our summer's
Still all to come...
As I speak our own swifts are themselves returning to their nests in the church roof- go outside after this service and look up into the skies and if you're lucky you'll be treated to seeing them behave just like they do in the poem.
'veer[ing] on the hard air...
Screaming as if speed burned,
Head height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity, and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves...'
To see those tiny birds come screaming down towards the church eaves and pull up at the last moment as they zip into their nests at sixty miles an hour is to marvel at the wonder of creation, just as Ted Hughes did 50 years ago, and to feel reassured that in some respects the globe really is still working.
But this evening's service reminds us that for many millions of people across the world that's not how it feels today. We've heard from Chiedza about life in Zimbabwe and our video showed us the reality of what's happening in Rwanda. Earlier this week at a meeting of the Lewes Green church group we heard a message from the Reverend Jean Pierre, Deputy Legal Representative for the Assemblies of God church in the Democratic republic of Congo. Jean Pierre had emailed his friend Rob Hoy here in Lewes with this message…
'On the night of May 4 to 5, 2023, a torrential rain fell until it caused material and human damage, with more than 400 dead, not counting the missing so far, houses, churches, schools swept away…the survivors of this catastrophe remain without shelter, without food, without blankets, without kitchen equipment. The children no longer go to school…. this incident happened in the province of South Kivu...in the territory of Kalehe, not far from Bukavu.'
In his message Jean Pierre asks us to empathise with those who are mourning and to pray for the community. I think it's important, encouraging even, that this account of a devastating experience hasn't come to us via the BBC, or Christian Aid, or some form of social media, but because Rob Hoy here in Lewes knows Jean-Pierre in the DRC. Two people speaking to one another in friendship across thousands of miles. Chiedza's presence with us this evening is because the two of us have become friends since she came to work as a carer here in Sussex. And perhaps its partly through friendships such as these that our hope for the future lies. It may be that through listening to one another's stories and making friendships with people in countries where living with climate change is a matter of life and death, we can discover how to act together to bring about change. This is what tonight's service has tried to do; we wanted to bring together different voices from different times and places to enable us to reflect on the actions we can take to make a difference. Our reading reminds us that seemingly tiny and inconsequential things, like a mustard seed, or an email from thousands of miles away, or a small donation, can grow massively; in Matthew's Gospel the mustard seed becomes a tree, and the tree enables the birds to nest. This year Christian Aid are inviting us to see the mustard seed as a metaphor for our own actions; they're asking us to give as little as £5 to buy seeds for farmers in Malawi; as their leaflet puts it: 'by sharing £5 you can help buy seeds, equipment and training in drought-proof agriculture-starting a process that will not only feed a family, but transform their lives.' That's why we'll be inviting you at the end of the service to take an envelope, and perhaps one for a friend; think of your donation as a mustard seed….it may be tiny today but in a few months' time it may have made a huge difference to someone facing the challenges of climate change.
On the screen is an image from a woodcut by the owner of another of the voices we're hearing from tonight, an American artist, Kreg Yinst, illustrating the story of St Kevin and the blackbird.
Seamus Heaney retold this ancient legend in these words:
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown
When I emailed Kreg to let him know we were going to be reflecting on his image in this service I asked him what he thought his St Kevin is saying to us today about our part in the network of life, and this is what he said…
'St Kevin extends his arms outward in prayer, only to find himself in the precarious position of having to sustain life-to care for Creation. His prayer remains lifted to God through an extended period of time, and through his straining, patience, and waiting, his prayer is birthed and takes flight.'
I like to think that our church building is acting just like St Kevin, not just holding out the promise of safety and security to the swifts who've flown thousands miles to reach this place, but also sustaining life. Kreg Yinst's St Kevin invites us to reflect finally on how we can link in to what Heaney calls the network of eternal life. It may be, like St. Kevin, by a combination of prayer and action, it may be by joining a local group like one of the ones gathered here tonight... It may be by reaching out to communities like the ones described by Jean -Pierre. And it may be by giving to the work of Christian Aid.
And with every action that we take, and every conversation we take part in, however small and apparently insignificant we may feel those things are, we can be confident that we're acting to help ensure that 50 years from now it will still be possible to celebrate the return of the swifts with the words 'the globes still working'.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,