The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s005g05 Lockleys Christmass 25/12/2005
"the word became flesh" John 1.14
I began thinking about my Christmass sermon last month. Amongst other things I was spurred on when I read Peta Lemura's article in the Weekend Australian Review (Nov 19th p2).
She said: "When I was young I entered a convent. I thought I was being noble. I thought I was giving up all sorts of worldly possibilities. I had no idea." She went on to explain about the religious life: "I didn't have to negotiate relationships with anyone else .. I was fed .. not once did I raise a hand to cook anything .. for 12 years I did not set foot in a shop or supermarket .. I taught in the school .. on the same premises as the convent, so I didn't need transport .. all teaching materials .. and professional development was provided .. holidays? Of course .. I could study alone .. access to the library guaranteed .. if I was not well the doctor was called ... everyone was so kind, so helpful, so loving, so Christian .."
But then: "After 12 years I left. And here's where I really learned to live and to give. Career, husband, mortgage, children, other people -- close and not so close -- responsibilities, health realities, shopping, household maintenance, and occasional short holidays and so on. Boring? No way. It's called life; live it! I am so glad I didn't leave it too late."
We are so conditioned to think that "incarnation" for Peta was in her former life in the convent; but I want to suggest that actually it is much more evident in her later life when she shared it in the "real" world.
I have nothing against the life of a monastic; and I am not sure just where "real life" is actually to be found. But the enthusiasm that is plainly evident as she describes her new life tells me that she has had an experience of the incarnation leaving the convent of her youth.
The Christmass message of God becoming human is not an invitation for us all to go into the convent, but to find God in our lives as we are already leading them. For some this will be leading a contemplative life, but it is also certain that God can be found in our ordinary day to day existence.
I have no doubt that each and every one of you here feels the call of God to be who you are. We would think of a teacher or a doctor being "called". I would feel "called" if I were a doctor or teacher. Your training and personal skills have brought you to that place where you can really be a help to others. But this applies to all of us really. Some young people who are students may well think that they are not important because they are not contributing much to society, yet those very studies are part of the processes of your discernment of who you are; your very studies are God leading you into the place you are meant to be. This is an aging congregation and many are retired. It is often those who are active in retirement that can contribute much to society in terms of service clubs and the like. Those who are less able will find that they may be called to accept the help of others, as graciously as possible -- to give someone else the joy of feeling that they can help another person who needs it -- just as in the past it has been a joy to be able to help others. I know that my own father, a retail watchmaker and jeweller saw himself called to provide for others gifts by which they could express their love for one another. It is no wonder that I don't complain about the commercialisation of Christmass.
And I want to say that this is true. God calls us to service in the world and we come to Church to thank God that this is so.
We come to Church, and as we look around at all the beauty of this building, we might think that this is a sacred place -- but time and again I point out that the most sacred thing in this building is you and me.
Some people think that clergy are particularly sacred, a bit like the religious, like Peta. It is not true. What is the role of the priest and the church in all this?
I reflect that the first murder committed in the bible, when Cain killed Abel, was over a perception that one person's offering to God was more acceptable than the other. So the job of the church and the job of the priest is the same; and both are vital; to accept the offerings of all.
When I went to theological college, it was the end of the Vietnam War, and there were endless arguments over what was the true Church -- the High Church Anglican, the Evangelical Church or the Charismatic. And the arguments haven't stopped really. More recently it has been about the Ordination of Women as Bishops and over sexuality. It is still about that age-old debate, whose offerings to God are more acceptable and whose aren't. And so, is it any wonder that God isn't blessing the church?
Talking about arguments, I was grateful to read Fr Norman Kempson's review of Nathan Mitchell's book: "Real Presence -- the work of the Eucharist" in "Market-Place" (9th Nov 2005 p13). "At a Eucharistic conference in 2000 he said: "The ultimate goal of eucharist is not to change bread but to change people, to transform the celebrating assembly into what it receives, viz the body of Christ." Centuries of Christians have avoided this change by arguing about what happens to the bread and wine.
Avoidance. The church is often perceived as mainly concerned about regulating physical intimacy between others, when the bible has a lot more to say about religious intolerance of others. Again, the church is often perceived as being mainly concerned about sin, when our old liturgy spoke repeatedly of the "Lamb of God, who hast taken away the sin of the world". I wonder if we in the church do not use our concern about how others relate intimately and how others need to repent to avoid any challenge to our power and position.
The beautiful thing about Christmass is that it's about the birth of a baby, and the birth of a baby is all about helplessness and care. I am grateful for our Archbishop reminding us of the words of Jurgen Moltmann: "A child is defenceless. A child is innocent. A child is the beginning of new life. His defencelessness makes our armaments superfluous. We can put away our rifles and our clenched fists. His innocence redeems us for the curse of the evil act, which is bound to breed ever more evil. The liberator becomes a pleading child in our world, armed to the teeth as it is". (Moltmann, J., The Power of the Powerless, London SCM 1983). Birth is an event to which ordinary people can relate. It is about joy and thanksgiving and the wonder of new life. It is not about theological debate -- beating others into submission, appropriate intimacy or sin; these things real people find cloying.
Rejoice this Christmass because the message is that you are loved by God where you are now. The new Archbishop for York, John Sentamu recently said: "The call is to live and be good news to everyone. It would be fantastic if people not only said of Jesus Christ, "What sort of man is this?" but said of us followers, "What sort of people are they? Their gracious actions, and the language on their lips is of God's goodness and love. Let us get to know them. There is something extraordinarily normal and wonderful about them." (Market Place 7/12/2005 p2)
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"