The True Rebel never advertises it, he prefers his joy to Missionary Work - or walking a little further with the Magi

Lew Welch fishing
A few people who find it hard to get here each week have recently asked whether I could record the sermon and put it up as an mp3. Well, here it is - link below this paragraph. Let me know if it is helpful and/or horrible - maybe both! - and if I should continue to do it. OK - on we go. The injury I refer to at the beginning of the address is a fairly big cut to my forehead sustained when I smashed my head against the arm of the sofa looking for Tolstoy's 'Gospel in Brief' which I thought had fallen behind it . . . 

MP3



The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Guard the Mysteries!

Constantly reveal Them!

On Epiphany Sunday three years ago I introduced you to this poem by the beat-poet Lew Welch which, for various reasons, I recently re-read. It seems not inappropriate to take another look at it again in connection with the season of Epiphany. Although there are similar themes between the two addresses it's far from being the address as I gave in January 2008. As before I'll take it stanza by stanza. Also, deliberately echoing Philip Pullman's important caveat printed on the cover of his most recent book 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ': THIS IS A STORY.

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.


It seems not to be out of character to suggest that there must have been something of the rebel in each of the Magis. After all, they were prepared to leave behind them important secure roles in their own societies as astrologer priests and to undertake a risky road-trip (something the Beat Poet Welch would certainly have appreciated) simply to see what they might see in this thing that had come to pass in Bethlehem and to let themselves be open to the possibilities for new insight and understanding it might afford them. Yet the story nowhere suggests they, themselves, were interested in advertising their rebelliousness instead, and touchingly I think, Matthew only tells us of their joy and desire to acknowledge the worth in the child they came to see. You will remember that vv. 10-11 of chapter 2 reads:

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.


It seems also worthy of note that, despite the fact they are Zoroastrian priests, they do not seem to have been at all driven by any missionary zeal at all - they are not out to tell the world about themselves but only to open themselves up to the possibility that the world might be able to say something of note to them. Their quiet, hidden rebelliousness seems to consist in this abandonment of the usual priestly way of proceeding; they may have known lots of stuff and been given authority by their tradition but, like Socrates a few centuries earlier, at heart they seem to have understood that only true wisdom is in knowing you know very little indeed and so must, at all times, remain radically open to the possibilities of life.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.


People who, like the Magi and (at times) Lew Welch, manifest such a joyous attitude and who value radical openness to future possibility are, naturally, going to be highly suspicious of all things bureaucratic - (that's their rebelliousness) As many of us know to our cost churches, that is to say religion, all too often become painfully bureaucratic.

But Welch's stanza is not totally dismissing the potential importance of church but making a rather more subtle point and he does this by using the example of the Post Office. You need to know that Welch was a great letter writer and his collected letters in two volumes entitled 'I Remain' are a very moving account of what it is to be a poet struggling with both inner personal demons and the indifference of his own society to his work and vision. His letters were central in his life and they helped him work through difficult questions about life, to trial some of his poetry, and they allowed him to be supported, often quite beautifully, by his friends. In other words Welch knew he needed the Post Office to facilitate this creative, life-giving exchange. But even as he knew how important the Post Office was to him he also knew that it was not, in itself, the centre of his interest.

It reminds us that in the same way this church (as an institution) must never become for us the centre of our interest instead it must be the opportunities it offers to us of ongoing dialogue and community. But, and what a huge but it is, if this church in its institutional form is not supported by us we begin to close down these same opportunities for dialogue and community. It should be clear to us all that if we value these opportunities but don't come to the church for months and months on end or chip in regularly to the coffers, one day you may well turn up here to find it closed and boarded up or, perhaps even worse, turned into a Wetherspoons. It would, by the way, make a very good Wetherspoons - like a number of other churches I know.

My mention of Wetherspoons - a secular business - is a reminder that the problem I've just noted exists across our society. If we are not careful then pretty soon all our Post Offices will be banks and our community centres shopping outlets.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind


It seems to me that here Welch is gesturing to the importance of being directly and fully in the world, open to the wonder of it all and to greet it, like the Magi, rejoicing exceedingly with great joy and finding in it something of great worth and meaning - something worthy of their worship. This is not an analytic rational encounter with the world - important though that is - but the kind of wonder which, when later like Mary we ponder upon it, helps us find ways to go deeper and to see through what has already been seen. For James C. Edwards this is, as I reminded us on Christmas Day, to approach the world with the attitude that it is a riddle to be solved, but instead with an attitude of what he calls 'loving attention'. As Edwards notes:

"From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos [impressiveness] of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgement, not control, central" (Ethics without Philosophy by James C. Edwards, p. 236).

We may imagine something like this 'sound understanding is being practised at the moment the Magi kneel by the cribside.

Lastly, Welch concludes his poem with what might at first seem to be some contradictory advice.

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!


We may turn to a very brief poem by another extraordinary poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), to help us explore this final thought a little more:

Tell the truth but tell it slant, Success in circuit lies; Too bright for mind’s infirm intent, Is truth’s sublime surmise. Like lightning to children eased, Through revelation kind; The truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind.

It seems to me that Matthew's telling of the story of the Magi, even as we may be sure he is trying to show or reveal to us something important about the world, he does this by always keeping something back, guarding it, and he does this by revealing things, not head on, but slant.

Here I think it is important to notice that the mystery of the world - for the Magi and for Matthew and Lew Welch - is that things are always capable of giving us more than they are - which is to say, as I said earlier, that no story is ever over, no depths are ever fully plumbed and that the world and its beings remain a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted.

What Welch's poem and the story of the Magi seem to be gesturing to us is that the truth of our world and our place in it - one of the things I presume we come here to find out - is always elusive, it is never fixed, it is always alive and capable of change and growth right up until the point we leave the banquet of life to allow another guest to take their place at the table of life. We are helped to see that the perennial question about who we are, the 'I am', is not fixed and, (as Peter Thompson observes) 'The "Am" which will exist at the end of the process is not the one who sets off on the journey in the first place, but the one who arrives at his genesis AT THE END of the journey' (Introduction to Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009, p. xiii. By clicking on this link readers interested in this book can hear a panel discussion about it recently held at Birkbeck College.) We are not yet - we are always becoming. In this lies our freedom to live and love which releases our hearts from captivity.

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