The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s005g10   Christmass  24&25/12/2010  Hanmer Springs

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them’  (Luke 2.20) .. and they were never heard of again ..

Christianity is a strange religion.  The most significant events we celebrate, Christmass, Good Friday and Easter, each celebrate things that happen in places other than in church.    Jesus wasn’t born in a church, cathedral, synagogue, temple, mosque or other ‘sacred space’.   The cross likewise happened outside the city, the resurrection in a ‘bury patch’.   Despite this ‘christianity’ makes a big deal of going to church.  

The birth of Jesus happened in no different way than all other births.   Having been at a couple as no doubt some of you have as well, it is a painful, inglorious and bloody affair.   Modern obstetrics do a very good job to lessen the pain, the indignity and the mess, but essentially childbirth, which happens many times each day globally, doesn’t change.   Similarly the God of Good Friday and Easter is found in a degrading death and an empty tomb, other taboos of sanitised religion.   Sanitised religion rejoices in peace, dignity and order.   It abhors pain, indignity and blood.  

Today we celebrate the fact that the most significant event of Christmass happened not in a church, cathedral, synagogue, temple, mosque or other ‘sacred space’, but in an event that is replicated in the day to day lives of so many people.   This is where God is found, not in churches, cathedrals, synagogues, temples, mosques or other ‘sacred spaces’.  

I mean, the doctrine of the virgin birth implies that Mary and Joseph were never physically intimate - how unreal is this!   It is nothing that I could live up to even if I wanted to - which I don’t!

If you are coming to church this Christmass, because you have believed the message that the sanitised church has successfully proclaimed, that this is where you will come closest to God (and only if we’re wearing our ‘Sunday best’) - don’t believe it!   I think sanitised religion is wrong.   You and I find ourselves closest to God when we are living in the real world of pain, indignity, blood, birth and death - when we get our hands dirty.

‘Christianity’ - like most other faiths - is inevitably tainted with neo-colonial aspirations: that our success is determined by the number of bums on pews or dollars in the collection plate.   But Christmass turns this upside down and inside out and says that God is not ‘in here’ but ‘out there’.

The Jesus whose birth we celebrate today told us to love our enemies not convert them into replicas of ourselves, to read the bible like we do, to worship with us, believe the same things as we do and be intimate when and with whom we approve (so it becomes so much easier to put up with them).   None of these things were ever mentioned by Jesus, but sanitised religion blithely ignores this.  

Why then do we come to church and celebrate these things?   Well, perhaps because we rejoice that the real God is already present in our lives - in the day to day activities when we get our hands dirty with the affairs of this world.   There are a multitude of ways that you might have perceived God in your life, and indeed I would encourage you to look for God when you’ve got your hands dirty.   There is no one way of experiencing the divine, one kosher way, and certainly not here.   But having found God in our day to day lives, it is good to celebrate this with others.   We come together not to suggest that others have to find God in an identical way to us, or to suggest that we are better or more spiritual than others - for these are again an attempt at a neo-colonial spirituality.   But we come together, because it is good news that God is found out there, and it should be a delight to recognise that my experience of God is both unique and not unique.  Our God, by whatever name we call him or her, continues to touch each and every one of us ever so gently.

Some of the great Christian theological themes reflect precisely this.

Often you will have heard some ‘christians’ speak of being born again - but usually they are born again into a ‘holy huddle’.   But Jesus was born into the real world and those who have retreated into a ‘holy huddle’ are precisely the ones who need to be born again into the real world, not those who are already there.

Another great theme of Christianity is the atonement, where ‘christians’ talk about being at one with God.   Well at Christmass, Jesus came into the real world.  If we speak in orthodox language the event we celebrate is Jesus leaving the Father to be at one with ordinary humanity.   So Jesus says the most important thing is being at one with the world - not God.   It was precisely those who were most conspicuous in their devotion to God - those who would claim that they were at one with God - who had Jesus killed!

A third theme of Christianity is repentance which is mostly interpreted by ‘christians’ as something other people have to do, by coming to church, believing the things we do, and being intimate only when and with whom we approve.   Recently some Anglicans called on the Anglican churches in America and Canada to not ordain openly gay and lesbian persons as bishops and to stop blessing same gender couples.   Their ‘communiqué said the two provinces must show "genuine repentance" for actions that it said show they "continue in their defiance as they set themselves on a course that contradicts the plain teaching of the Holy Scriptures on matters so fundamental that they affect the very salvation of those involved."  ‘   The unfortunate thing for such ‘christians’ is that Jesus words about repentance are directed towards those who were most conspicuously devout and who separated themselves off from others.   It was they who had to repent of their separatist and neo-colonial aspirations.

Today we celebrate that Jesus came to be with us as real people, not when we are devout, orthodox or when we do the right thing.   Jesus came, not to Anglicans, Christians, or people of faith, he came to all of humanity, whatever name they use for the Almighty, however they worship, whatever race or language and with whom they choose to share their intimate affections - and this is good news for all - well it is good news for all except for those with separatist neo-colonial aspirations!

Our service today is but a vessel, a structure provided so that we can come together and each severally silently express our different thanks, prayers and concerns to the divine.   It doesn’t need me or anyone else to put them into words to make God hear.   The essence of the divine is that whoever he or she is, they accept difference.   As someone has quipped, God must love ordinary people in all their diversity, for he or she made just so many of them!

Christmass and christianity say that dignity and sanctity are to be found in ordinary life, in the times when we are in the world relating to others.   Dignity and sanctity are found in school room and hospital ward, in community groups, when we get our hands dirty; indeed when we are intimate in the bedroom.

The aim of Christmass and christianity is that people live together in harmony, yet often the Church, being the church, is a cause for disunity.   I well remember in another country in a community noted for its ethnic diversity, the city council proposing an interfaith service, celebrating the various cultures and faith traditions that brought such richness to everyone.   It was, of course, the fundamentalist ‘christians’ who opposed the proposal.   It is interesting that the term ‘fundamentalist’ is mostly associated with Moslems, yet there are as many and as vicious fundamentalist ‘christians’ about!   And church people wonder why the community has given up on the church?   Is it any wonder hospitals want chaplains like a hole in the head!

So actually there is something real to celebrate this christmass, indeed it is worth remembering and celebrating regularly, that God gives dignity and sanctity to our ordinary existence.   We might do this in church, or we might do it looking at the mountains, the sea, looking at or creating a fabulous work of art, listening to or playing a piece of music, having some quiet time to ourselves.   It does call us to recognise the presence of the divine in others too, a message the ‘church’ is as apt to forget as well.   And if we take the commandment to treat others as we would be treated ourselves, if we want others to recognise the divine in us, we must surely begin by recognising the divine in others.   I mean - that’s what Jesus said, didn’t he?  (Matthew 7.12)

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