The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s005g04 Lockleys Christmass 25/12/2004
"a sign .. a child" Luke 2.12
I must admit if I was looking for a sign to testify to the truth of something, then the appearance of a multitude of angels in the sky, singing the Gloria in Excelsis, would be somewhat more convincing than finding a new born child, "wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." I have no idea how many mangers there were in Bethlehem, but finding just one occupied by a family of refugees, with a newborn baby; would not be especially remarkable, particularly in such a time of enforced mobility. I suppose that when I think about it, the shepherds could not be certain that they had actually found the right baby and parents.
This year there were an average of 245 babies born every minute, 129,358,036 a year. If this sermon lasts 10 minutes that means 2,450 new born babies in this world.
I have been reflecting recently some of the forms of abuse that exist. The census ordered by Emperor Augustus is, I suppose, a form of institutional abuse. In our censii, people are counted where there at; but we are told that Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem; everyone had to go to their own town. The arbitrary wishes of the Emperor overrode what was important for people's daily survival.
But perhaps more importantly for us, there are instances of, certainly unintentional, of abuse wrecked by passages in the Bible. One of which we are all familiar is the fifth of the Ten Commandments: 'Honour your father and mother'. I could name a couple of Churches in this Diocese where the Ten Commandments are printed out on one side of the Altar for all to read. But this fifth commandment, so familiar to us all, gives no one any exceptions. For those with abusive parents; how can children be expected, or even asked, to honour the very people who are abusing them? I certainly couldn't! It is fascinating that my version of Microsoft "Word" suggests that the words Ten Commandments need to begin with capital letters! By magnifying the importance of deferring to one's elders, we in the Church have, albeit unintentionally, been complicit in keeping some people in abusive situations.
If you think I am being far fetched saying this at Christmass time, just think of the words of that carol: "mild, obedient, good as he". The one time when lots of people come to Church, all are reminded of the virtue of children being seen and not heard! Sadly we often forget that there are other passages in the Bible, such as the words of St Paul: "Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart". (Colossians 3.21)
How often have you heard someone say that religion "is good for the children". Well not all religion is good for all children, and some religion, when it is centered around kindness and respect for all; is a message good for adults as well. If Christianity is just about children respecting their elders, this seems to me to be a perfect recipe for things staying as they are; and that is not really what any of us want. Christmass surely tells us that children are important and that contained within them is our salvation (or our damnation).
More recently in our country the abortion debate has been reignited. I would be the first to say that abortions are a very heavy handed form of birth control. However it does concern me considerably that the same people who are reigniting this debate come from a Church who officially disapproves of any form of contraception. So fundamental is this disapproval that even married couples using condoms to assist the fight against AIDS is opposed. Recently I heard on the radio that one prominent member of the Church believes that condoms are unreliable! This is scary stuff. It seems to me that ordinary people are being abused when they are not allowed to think for themselves.
Christmass can be a time when families get together and sadly old conflicts can be renewed. People are forced out of their normal routines and tensions can rise. But superficially Christmass is meant to be a happy time. It is meant to be a time when people are contented.
There are some people of the female type who cannot be happier than when they have a baby to their breast. Other people are content in the garden. Others are content in the kitchen or the garage. Some people get lost in books, in crossword puzzles. Each of these has an element of newness. New life is fed, new things planted, made, learned, discovered or "nutted out". In each of these places "the world" and it's concerns recede and one can just be.
We might think that the work of God is done when decrees from on high are promulgated, where everyone has no choice but to obey.
Or we might be particularly impressed with angels singing the Gloria in Excelsis. I'm sure they wouldn't have dared but sing it to the musical setting we use here at St Richard's :->
But no, the angels point rather to an ordinary couple, bringing to birth an ordinary baby! God's work is done in our own homes and families, for this is where (hopefully) kindness and nurture are to be found.
Christmass reminds us all of what is important, you and me and all people. Christmass reminds us that God's blessings surround us each and every day; not in the exercise of political or religious power or heavenly devotion. We do the work of God when we are nurturing one another and being kind to one another. It is not particularly spectacular. We will not make a great name for ourselves.
Some time ago I had to use the teller at the local bank. Usually I use the ATM, but this day I hadn't got my deposit book of slips with me. As I waited in line, there was another customer giving the teller a hard time and she was being ever so patient trying to attend to his request. Eventually he stormed off, unsatisfied, though curiously apologetic at the same time. I thought to myself, gee, I'd hate to be married to him! I'd have to be doubly gay!
I pondered that we might care to occasionally think of a world where nurture and kindness doesn't exist and realize what God's blessings we already enjoy at the moment. And all we have to do is make the most of them; by sharing them around.
The sign is indeed true. But they are just signs, meaning that we are never going to be forced to believe but all are invited to look. God's blessings are actually found in the last place we would expect to find them, in the care and nurture of one person with another, in your life and in mine, and in the lives of all people.
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