Sermon, Christmas Eve 2013
Those of you who are parishioners will know that we place a lot of emphasis here at St. Mary’s on how we live out our faith in daily life. For us, church is about much more than Sunday. It’s more about sharing an attitude, or a disposition, that shapes all of life. We have a strong and thriving Faith at Work group here who meet once a month or so to share their experiences of work and some of its challenge. I was in a meeting with the leaders of the group the other day when one of them admitted, rather sheepishly, that – although a lifelong church-goer – she found it difficult to admit to going to church whenever a work colleague asked what she was going to do at the weekend. This, apparently, is a common problem amongst the rest of the group.
If she feared my disappointment she need not have worried. My experience was similar to hers until I was ordained when it seemed rather ridiculous to continue hiding the fact of my faith. It is interesting though, to ponder the reasons why Christians find it so difficult to admit to going to church. In some ways I guess it’s pretty obvious. After all, going to church isn’t exactly “cool”. It’s a bit like wearing tweed, except that my lovely and fashionable daughter reliably informs me that even tweed can be cool these days, in which case there is surely yet hope for the church!
There is also the problem of seeming credulous in a generally unbelieving age, with some seriously arguing that to believe in God is the equivalent of believing that fairies live at the bottom of the garden. And of course to some, the church can seem exclusive and ungenerous. Were I in a long-term gay relationship I would be unlikely to feel happy about the church’s (official) hostility to recognising and blessing my relationship, and were I a woman I would be pretty likely to feel offended by the Church of England’s failure to install women bishops although, thank goodness, we seem to be getting that one right at last.
Beyond all this though, there is another reason why Christians may feel reticent about admitting to their faith, and that is that it contains what can be a difficult and unpopular message. In this evening’s gospel reading we are told by St. John that Jesus was rejected by his own people – “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”.
In fact, the story is a bit more complicated than that. Had we had the other reading set for this evening – that of the birth story in Luke – we would have heard of a good deal of rejoicing on the part of the shepherds to whom the heavenly host appeared to announce Jesus’ birth. Why the difference? According to the New Testament, the question of whether Jesus represented good news or not often depended on your position in society. That the angels appeared to poor shepherds in St. Luke’s account was no coincidence, for the God revealed by Jesus is a God of justice above all else. And when Jesus talked about bringing good news to the poor it was not good news in some airey, ethereal future life, but justice NOW. By contrast, the rich and the powerful tended to reject Jesus especially, it has to be said, the religious authorities. I often find myself wondering whether those who trumpet their religiosity loudest would welcome Jesus if he were to make a return to us n now.
All this begs the question: are poor, powerless people inherently better than rich, powerful ones? Surely not. No one in their right minds wants to be poor in the sense of not having sufficient for the basic necessities to live a decent life. As former Hollywood A-lister Burt Reynolds once said “I’ve been poor and unhappy and I’ve been rich and unhappy, and I sure know which I’d rather be.”
The truth is though, that when you are poor you can’t hide from the fact that you are vulnerable, whereas the problem with riches and power is that they foster the illusion of invulnerability. As a result we cling to them as a kind of security blanket – albeit an entirely false one. For whatever security you currently enjoy can be taken from you in an instant. No amount of wealth, no accretion of power however great, can ultimately protect you from the vagaries of lie – from stockmarket crashes, redundancies, and office politics, from illness, accidents, from – heaven forfend – terrible things happening to those you love most. The poor don’t need reminding of this, for they live with this naked truth the whole time.
The refusal to dodge this awkward, inconvenient truth is what makes our faith so challenging. What Jesus demands of us is a reordering of priorities. Pursue wealth and power for their own sakes and you’ll end up disappointed. In Jesus’ words, you’ll end up gaining the whole world at the cost of losing your life. Instead, Jesus calls us to a different kind of investment, one that is above all in relationships – in family, in community and in that ultimate Other that some of us choose to call God. These are the things than endure.
How often in my working life have I heard colleagues encouraging someone working very long hours to stop work and go home with the words “no-one ever died wishing they’d spent more time in the office”? And yet, for all the truth of those words, our success-driven, acquisitive, ultimately inhuman culture, too often manages to trump the real and lasting values which Jesus preached. There is, of course, nothing new in this. It’s the way of the world and always has been, which is what makes following the way of Jesus so very hard.
To follow Jesus means being content with having enough and enjoying what we have more, rather than constantly wanting more. But make no mistake. Jesus was no killjoy. He loved eating and drinking, so we should have no guilt when indulging in our Christmas excess. From what we can tell he would have loved it.
It also means sharing. We should share both because simple justice demands it and because too often, in our selfish pursuit of wealth and power, we impoverish and weaken those who are already weak. And if you don’t recognise yourself in that picture, just spare a thought for the wage slaves of the developing world who work in appalling conditions for miserably low pay to bring those of us fortunate enough to live in the rich west cheap food and clothing.
So, as I said, it’s not a popular message and as such it is easily rejected, which I think goes some way to explaining why Christians are so often reticent about their faith. But it is a true one and one that is nothing less than essential for the flourishing of each of us. And that’s why, for all its manifold failings, people still come to church. They know, deep inside them, that there is something not right with the world the way that it is that no amount of money, or possessions, or power can put right.
It’s not for nothing that the enduring image of Christmas is a little baby in a manger. For the real power of that image lies not in the schmaltzy sentimentality of a thousand Christmas card scenes but in the painful – but necessary – reminder that we all of us, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, share in the naked vulnerability of a new-born baby.