s005ao01 Christmass Lockleys 25/12/01
May I wish you all a happy Christmass and a safe and prosperous New Year - "you" in my real congregation - as well as "you" in my virtual congregation :-)
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Isaiah 9.2
As I was driving to speak to my Spiritual Director one evening I was thinking how hard it is to talk about one's relationship with God. Those who have come to know me a little will by now realise that I don't think of myself as any different from the rest of humanity. If anything, one has to be more than a little crazy to be a member of the clergy! But even with so many years of full-time study and ministry behind me, I still find it difficult to quantify or evaluate my relationship with God. Now this is a bit awkward when one is about to visit one's spiritual director, because, on the face of it, the whole exercise of spiritual direction is to enhance one's relationship with God. It's a bit difficult if one really doesn't know where one is to begin with!
So here I was driving along, thinking about what I might talk about with Elizabeth, when I suddenly realised that God really isn't interested much in having a relationship with me at all. What God is interested in, is in me having just and true relationships with others. In fact for all my searching to find God, I experience God "backing away" as it were. It was our then newly elected Primate who alerted me to the passage where Moses on Mount Sinai is granted to see God &endash; but not the face of God &endash; only the back &endash; God's "nether regions". Like us - even the great Moses &endash; can only follow God. Exodus 33.23
So for all my zeal to cultivate this relationship with our heavenly Father who loves me and all of humanity, I experience God backing away. God says to me, in no uncertain terms that I am going in the wrong direction. God is saying to me: "Cultivate just and true relationships with those around you É"
For the reality is, for you and for me and for all people, God loves us all. There is nothing we can do to make that love stronger or better, because it is founded, for me and for you and for all people &endash; not on anything that I or we have done, but - on the Cross. I do not need to worry about the love God has for me. I do not need to worry about the love God has for other people, for I cannot change that in the slightest way either. I don't need to try to get other people to realise how much God loves them, for this may in fact just make them feel guilty. No, the only thing I need to worry about is trying to act justly and with care towards other people.
Someone was saying to me recently they had come to realise the truth of the statement: "I'm sorry, I think you've mistaken me for someone who cares ..." Soon after that I was reading an account of St Ignatius Loyola's concept of "Indiferençia" saying that "through what Ignatius would later call indiferençia", (the great) "Augustine gradually allowed the call of his ... connectedness to open his eyes to the traces of truth unconcealed in the world about him". This says, in big words, the truth that to be at peace with the world and with God, it is often necessary for us to cease striving so much.
God loves us as we are &endash; this is the light that people saw so long ago. And the fact that God loves us as we are - is the very same light that people continue to see, each Christmass, as we come and acknowledge the Christ &endash; Child. And it is the people, the ordinary people - who see and appreciate this as good news for them - not the religious authorities who feature not at all in the Christmass stories. Most of the religious authorities were hell-bent on putting the ordinary "run of the mill" people "in their place", and generally making them feel inadequate. Jesus came and accepted people's offerings and made them feel worthwhile, as Jesus came to be brought up by ordinary peasant parents, to accept their love and care.
We are bidden to look at the Christmass Crib and think of Jesus' humble birth to poor peasant parents, and realise that this means that there is no one that God does not love and care for, just as they and we are.
And yet we all need help to see the incredible truth of this love, because the concept that we have to earn love is so thoroughly imbued in us all. We have all been brought up by less than perfect parents and so often we feel we have to live up to the expectations of others to be accepted. No, God has already accepted us as we are.
Somewhere down the track we realise that this Immanuel &endash; this "God with us" - tells us that the most important place we will find the Christ-Child, is not in picturesque mangers, or in temples of great beauty - but the most important place we will find the Christ Child is in my heart and your heart and in the hearts of all whom God loves.
The most sacred object in this Church building is not the blessed sacrament, altar, or the cross, or the aumbry or the organ. The most sacred object in this building is you and me. Jesus coming to live amongst us - is God genuflecting - to us.
It is as we give of ourselves to others, that we most truly follow Jesus, and that elusive relationship we crave - we find is actually already in place, strong and true, in perhaps the most surprising place of all, in the secret places of our own hearts.
The salvation history of the Bible is often portrayed that God has done something to help humanity and selected individuals "see" it - and are told to get out and tell others who haven't. But my text for today says that a different paradigm is occurring here, where ordinary people "see" the significance of what has happened and the "religious" people are caught "flat-footed" and they either deny what has happened, they try to regulate the process or actively try to stop it happening.
And it is not the Jewish religious authorities who were the culprits especially, I draw your attention, especially at Christmass time, to the attitude of Jesus' own disciples had when others brought their children that Jesus might touch and bless them. Jesus' own disciples tried to stop them. They had decided that they would try to regulate just who Jesus might bless and who Jesus might not bless. A synagogue official seemed not to mind people coming to Jesus to be healed, but tried to tell them that they should come on a day other than the sabbath. The so-called "cleansing of the Temple" was in fact a cleansing of those who got in the way of ordinary people and tried to regulate their offerings. The people have seen a great light É because Jesus has cleared out all the people who got in the way of the light.
In the event of the incarnation which we celebrate at Christmass, God is sweeping away everyone else who might get in our way to God, and not unnaturally, this is exceedingly good news to ordinary people - and less than happy tidings for those whose religion is based around regulating just who might approach the Almighty, and just who the Almighty might approach.
So, jumping to the here and now, some church people may lament that churches seem full at Christmass but not at other times, yet I actually think that this witnesses to the truth that people still do perceive, in the Christmass event, something of the goodness of God for ordinary humanity, which can sometimes be lost at other times of the Church's year. We have the same choices before us as members of the Church, as we respond to the fact that ordinary individuals come and worship the Christ-Child. We too can deny the reality, we too can try to regulate others, we too can try to stop it happening, or we can welcome people with open arms, thankful because God has led them to this place.
I think sometimes we can, in our worship, unintentionally put the Holy Family above the ordinary "run of the mill" people like us. One of the ways we can do this is by emphasising the Blessed Virgin's perpetual virginity, as if this were a good and desirable thing. Well, let me say that I don't want to be a perpetual virgin (it is of course a bit late for me anyway :-) and I actually don't think that God calls anyone to live like this, and I certainly don't want anyone else to undertake this.
Or if we look at how the Church is often perceived as trying to regulate God's blessings towards others. Most frequently I see this happening when we talk about how people live their lives. The Church is often seen as railing against a whole range of destructive lifestyles &endash; you name it and someone in the Church will rail against it. I mean, in times past, anything which could be enjoyed seems to have been criticised. Dancing was frowned on in some quarters. Recently we have been made aware of a number of young Christians from another denomination who have vowed to "save themselves" for their marriage partner. Now this is a commendable aim; yet I wonder if this does not, by implication, suggest that God blesses people who do this more than people who don't. So this form of Christianity is perceived as regulating who God blesses and who God doesn't.
Or we can try to stop this "Immanuel" &endash; God with us - happening, and of course it was the crucifixion which was the ultimate attempt to stop Jesus mixing with ordinary people and accepting their offerings.
But there is good news for us in the Church too, for the incarnation actually means that we can welcome all people with open arms. We do not need to question motives, beliefs or lifestyles, because we have realised that all come because God has touched their lives. We need have no qualms whatsoever welcoming people, whoever they are, whatever they believe, whatever name they call God, however they choose to worship, or however they choose to live their lives. For we too, in this Christ &endash; child, have seen the great light of the mercy of God for all people, as the people did so long ago.
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