Freshness and delight.

This is a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.

Rumi wrote a poem on “Two Kinds of Intelligence,” and it runs thus:

There are two kinds of intelligence; one acquired,
as a child in school memorises facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information.  You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox.  A freshness
in the centre of the chest.  This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate.  It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

 

It seems to me that with different imagery, both Rumi and the author of today’s Psalm were reflecting on some of the same sorts of experience, especially when we come to the Psalmist’s comments about delight in the law, on which they meditate day and night.

Both Rumi and the Psalmist are describing a positive experience; an experience of a relationship with God which was affirming and satisfying; a source of confidence rather than anxiety as they navigate life.

And in the Psalm particularly the key idea underpinning that confidence is that God is reliable and trustworthy.  That reliability and trustworthiness of God is known and experienced in a well-ordered world, deliberately crafted by a good and loving God, in which we have a secure place.

So creation – everything that exists – is purposeful, well-ordered, reliable and life-giving.  In this sense, creation isn’t something God did in the past, but it’s about our ongoing experience of God’s dependability and generosity, lavished on us.  Life – our frail and vulnerable life – exists under God’s protection.

So under that sacred canopy of God’s protection, we can live our lives in freedom and delight.  We don’t have to achieve everything in our own strength, we don’t have to build our own world; but we can contribute our efforts to the goodness of the world knowing that our efforts find their results within the work that God has already done, and that our work finds its meaning and purpose by being aligned with the creative and meaningful purposes and work of God.

And – the Psalmist said – they delight in the law – the Torah – of God.  Torah here is part of God’s good creation; in some ways the pinnacle of God’s good creation, because through Torah God works with the people of Israel to create a good and well-ordered society, in which people can flourish like trees planted by streams of water.

And here’s where Rumi’s idea about two kinds of intelligence is useful; because what the Psalmist does not have in mind here is memorising a set of rules.  “Do this; don’t do that; wear this; don’t eat that.”  That’s not the point of the Torah.  The Torah is meant to be a wellspring of life, something provided by God which bubbles up inside you and overflows into your relationships and social context and constructs a coherent and peaceful society which functions for the good of all its members.  Hence the delight!

And while Christians don’t keep Torah in the same way as Jews, we can still have that wellspring of life within us which overflows from us to those around; in our case, rather than law-keeping, it ends up being expressed in mission; in sharing good news, teaching, nurturing and serving.

Now of course, we can’t read a psalm like this naïvely.   This is a psalm which reflects the goodness of creation, and the goodness of the Creator; but we know that there are other experiences in human life which also need to be taken into account.  This isn’t a psalm for a time of disaster!  Not that disaster makes this psalm untrue, but this truth isn’t the whole story.

And in particular, given the way that this psalm links prosperity with goodness, we do need to be careful that we don’t read it in a way which justifies an unjust status quo.  The purpose of the psalm is not to denigrate those who are not currently experiencing prosperity, or demean those we might like to think of as “wicked.”  Those judgements belong to God, not us.

Even more than that, when we remember that ancient Israelite faith was very much a communal faith; not individualistic as we tend to be, but looking at the welfare of the group before the individual, then there can be implied judgement of a society which allows some of its members to suffer a lack while others have much.  It is the role of the community to ensure God’s goodness is reflected to, and experienced by, all members of the faithful community, and not just some.

No, for those who are faithful but not currently experiencing prosperity, psalms like this can be an expression of hope; a statement that how things are now is not God’s good purpose, and that God will continue to be at work to bring those good purposes to fulfilment.  All of us can appreciate this note of transformation and new creation; our experience isn’t static, even when God’s goodness is taken as a given.

Or to put that another way, the psalm can help us to see that God’s good purpose for the world is resilient.  It won’t yield or be thwarted in the face of evil, but creation will be brought to the fulness of what God intended it to be.  And this is ultimately because creation isn’t independent from, or cut off from, its Creator; but we exist in ongoing and dynamic relationship which has the flourishing of the good creation as its aim.

And the relationship is the point; and it’s the point of the poem I started with too.  You can’t experience the fulness of life by knowing about it, just as you can’t experience being in love by being able to list the hormones involved; you have to live within it, have it flowing within you, take your place within something larger and let it shape your identity… like the tree beside a flowing stream, or what Rumi calls the “freshness in the centre of the chest.”  That’s the wellspring of our delight in God, which inspired this psalm, and should be part of our life together too.

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Respect

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

A mistress of novices went to see her abbess, to discuss her concerns about a novice who was struggling.

As they walked through the convent garden, talking, the abbess picked a flower bud and handed it to the other nun, asking her to open it.  The blossom fell apart in her hands.

“Why,” the abbess asked, “does the bud fall apart when you try to open it, but when God opens it, the flower is beautiful?”

After walking in silence for a time, the mistress of novices replied, “When God opens the flower, He opens it up from the inside.”

This morning I want to pick up on our reading from 1 Corinthians; and in particular what St. Paul has to say here about respect.  We don’t necessarily talk about respect a lot in churches, but I’d argue that it’s very difficult to truly love someone whom you don’t, on some level, respect; and since we’re commanded to love one another, I thought it would be worth spending some time unpacking what we mean by respect, and what it looks like in a community like ours.

And I’d say we have to start here; every single one of us is made by God.  Our respect for one another is ultimately anchored in our respect for God as creator, and our reverence for what God has wrought in one another.  God made each of you, just as you are, precious and treasured… so how can I despise you?

We need to have that attitude, as a stable and robust foundation for our relationships with one another, if we’re to be a truly respectful community.  But what does that respect look like, in practical terms, when it’s lived out?

Beyond the satisfaction of our basic needs – for safety, food, shelter and so on – we all have relational needs; needs which have to do with what it is to be a creature who lives in community.  Those needs are things like attachment and respect.  And so creating a community which nurtures the wellbeing of all its members, means creating a community which meets those relational needs for its members.

In particular, as a faith community, creating that kind of community which is a network of mutual respect, we reflect God’s love for each of us, dare I say God’s respect for each of us, in concrete and tangible ways.  (And if you’re challenged by the idea that God might respect us, I’d suggest that the fact that, as human beings, we have free will, rather suggests a surprisingly high degree of respect).

St. Paul talks about how we treat our weaker or less honourable members with greater respect; today’s ethicists would talk about how vulnerable people have a special claim to the restraint of those with power or influence.  These are different ways of articulating the same concern; that power or status not disrupt the healthy community which meets the relational needs of its members.  Respect, as St. Paul talks about it, is about allowing everyone a degree of status or standing in the community, even where there is structure and hierarchy.

Now the ethicists largely think and write about this status or standing in terms of freedom.  That is, if you have my respect, I will allow you to make your own choices and will not interfere.  I won’t frustrate your choices, won’t arbitrarily remove options, won’t place penalties on some choices, won’t misrepresent or be deceitful about options.  A clear example we’re all familiar with is, for example, in giving informed consent to medical treatment.  It’s not ethical or respectful if the doctor doesn’t give you all the options or isn’t honest with you about what those options look like.  But the basic principle goes far beyond the limited situation of medical decision making and includes all sorts of things like choices about whether or not to speak, and what to say; how to develop your own spirituality; how you spend your time, and what you do with your money or goods, and so on.

So, for example, it would be disrespectful of me to guilt trip you about missing church, or to try to set a benchmark for how much money you should give.  It would be disrespectful of me to refuse to listen if you want to speak to me.  And in reverse, it’d be disrespectful of you to try to tell me what I can and can’t talk about in sermons or Bible studies (and I have had a parish try to do that!); or to try to micro-manage how I structure my work time.  In one absolutely classic example I saw from a colleague this week, a congregation member had offered to take his wife shopping for “more appropriate” clothes.  (The mind boggles).  These are – sadly all too common – examples of how things often go wrong between minister and congregation, and of course there’s a whole other set of issues that often happen between congregation members.  And I mention these not because St. Faith’s has a particular problem with them, but because the more aware of them we are, the more able we are to recognise that sort of disrespectful dynamic when it starts (even in our own heads) and nip it in the bud.

Now obviously there’s a limit.  Respecting one another doesn’t go so far as tolerating destructive or damaging behaviour.  But as a general rule, it starts with allowing one another each the space to be the person God created them to be, (in the story that we started with of the nuns in the garden, allowing each person to open from the inside, not trying to force what they will be, or the timing that it happens in); not seeking to control or dictate what that will look like.

So much for the ethicists; their perspective is valuable as far as it goes, and there’s a lot to be said for it.  But I would suggest that in a Christian community, respect needs to go beyond passive non-interference with others (allowing them to make their own decisions; although that would be a really good first step), and into active building up of one another; encouraging, enabling and equipping one another; expanding the range of options available to others, and doing what we can to invite and give permission for others to explore the options available to them, to the full.  (This is why teaching is such a crucial part of the Church’s mission; because it is by teaching that we expand the range of opportunities open to people in which they can flower as God created them to).

So in the Church, respect might not just be about others not controlling what you do, what you say, what you wear… but actively creating opportunities for you to try new things, develop your gifts, and be involved in different ways, so that you can discover the place and role that is most fitting for who you are.  That’s not easy to do, but I’m definitely always open to a conversation with anyone who would like to try something new, or even isn’t sure where they fit, but would like to think about it!

In the end, this kind of respect allows people to feel that they truly belong.  That the network of relationships here will sustain them in a healthy way, allow them freedom and integrity, and encourage and equip them as they grow in maturity.  And while ethics and “being a good person,” or even a good Christian, now often plays out for us on a much larger, even on a global, scale; taking care and paying attention to our local network of relationships, creating that space of respectful and safe belonging, allows us to create what one ethicist has described as a “moral homeland.”  A place defined by its relationships where people can truly and deeply belong, grow, and flourish.

St. Paul spoke of that network of relationships as a body; but whether you think of yourself as one part of a body, or at home in a respectful community, or indeed as a flower in God’s garden; the reality it describes is the same; and it lies with us to ensure that that becomes a defining characteristic of who we are, here in this parish.

Whatever he tells you.

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is John 2:1-11.

This is a fun gospel reading, isn’t it?  Jesus’ best party trick.  Water turned into wine, a good time had by all, and no overtones of plotting or angst.  Isn’t this the Jesus we’d all like to have around to dinner?

What struck me when I read it, though, is that the passage very carefully doesn’t quite tell us how it happened.  Look at how events play out.  The hosts run out of wine.  Mary approaches Jesus about this expecting, what?  We’re not quite sure.  Jesus seems to brush her off, but Mary still tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.”  And Jesus gives the servants instructions about jars and water, which they follow.  Then the chief steward tasted “the water that had become wine.”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

But I find it fascinating that Jesus didn’t command the water to become wine.  He didn’t breathe on it or wave his hands over it.  The text doesn’t even say that he changed the water into wine in any way; it just notes that the water “had become” wine.

That’s very intentional, specific use of language.

And while there are a number of different ways of looking at this, I think one of them is that Jesus didn’t do this on his own.  He saw what needed to be done, and provided direction to those around him; and in that collaborative effort, a remarkable transformation was able to take place.

I think that’s worth thinking about, in our own context.  Sometimes we are so stuck in our problems, or we have so much given up hope that we can make things better, that if we imagine our situation changing at all, we fantasise about someone breaking in from outside and somehow, magically, solving our problems, while we look on in astonishment.

I wonder if the servants at the wedding grumbled when Jesus asked them to fill the jars with water?  I wonder if they thought it was a waste of time and effort; after all, it was hardly going to fix the wine shortage, was it?  I wonder if they felt the request was an unreasonable imposition on a night when they no doubt already had more than enough work to do?

What I’m getting at is that for the most part, in the life of faith, signs – experiences where God touches our lives – don’t happen without our cooperating in some way.  Without our obedience.

What we have here is a pattern for the transformation of our difficulties; bringing those difficulties to God, and then being prepared to do whatever he tells us.  And then responding with praise when our difficulties are transformed, often in profoundly unexpected ways.

It’s timely, I think, for us to ponder these things now.  As those of you who receive the weekly email already know, and as I’ll say a bit more about at the notices, we’re about to embark on a parish conversation about service times, styles and content.  That’s a confronting process, but it’s being undertaken out of a desire to be a community faithful in mission; and out of a recognition that in working together at worship we have responsibilities beyond simply providing ourselves with experiences that we like.  We have to take thought for the needs of those who have not yet ever walked through our doors.

More generally than that, we need to take a hard look at the reality of being a shrinking parish, and what will be involved in turning that around and growing again.  I was reading an article this week which said that churches which say they want to grow, but they don’t want any change, are like people who say they want to lose weight, but they don’t want to give up their regular bacon cheeseburger.  Or perhaps, in terms of today’s gospel story, like people who say they want more wine, but won’t fill the water jars.  The transformation God brings does ask something of us.

And while of course we should, in seeking to work with those difficulties, look at best practice in other churches, and research that has been done, and theological scholarship, and outside expertise, and all of those good things; the action which should be our starting point is taking those difficulties to God, and seeking to discern what God is telling us to do.  And then all of the best practice examples and research and so forth can inform our strategy for doing whatever he tells us.

This is all about obedience.

And that’s a hard word for us, I suspect.  It’s rarely understood in a healthy way.  To most people it means surrendering all responsibility for our actions and behaviour; and either we see it as something which no one in their right mind should do, or we embrace something like a cult mentality, believing that giving up all responsibility is the only way to please God.

And – as a result of that – our relationships which have any dimension of authority in them start to break down.  Because we rightly fear giving up all personal responsibility, we have an aversion to working with authority, knowing that obedience is integral to those relationships.

But the word “obedience” comes from a root which means “to listen well.”  As Christians, we believe that God calls each one of us into being and wills us to live and work in a community of love.  As human beings, we are made by God to be capable of growing into our full potential only in communion with others.  And we must listen well to one another to be able to do that in creative rather than destructive ways.

So rather than seeing obedience as loss of self to another, perhaps a better working definition might be something like “responsible listening.”  I have read one author suggest that true Christian obedience is always a dialogue, and that’s what we saw in our reading today; a give and take in which both human beings and God listened and responded appropriately to the other.  As responsible adults, partners with God in his work in the world, we should realise that obedience is not a power struggle but a dialogue in which we can better understand God’s will and our own capacity to embody it.

This isn’t always easy!  My second curacy, in fact, was a position that, when it was first offered to me, I took one quick look and said, “No.”  It was not, at all, what I was looking for.  But the more I kept looking for another curacy (and not finding one; God can be annoying like that), and the more I explored the situation I’d been asked to consider, and what I had to bring to it, the more I could see the sense in going.

Many of you have heard me talk about that having been a very difficult role and one I was relieved to leave, but I do believe even now that it was right for me to be there for that time, and that God did some valuable things with that community while I was there to help and support them in that.

That was an exercise in responsible listening, for me, and for the people in the two churches I was working in.

It’s a process; a process of questioning and listening and being willing to try things out, even if we’re confronted with something that’s not what we thought we wanted.  I find it interesting that in the reading, even Jesus initially seems to be reluctant to act.  And yet he is open to listening and responding!

So maybe it’s not quite such a fun, feel-good, party Jesus reading after all.  Maybe there are things here which will prompt all of us to ask the hard questions about what God might want each of us to do, or be willing to try.  “Do whatever he tells you” strips away our evasions and excuses, and points us firmly in the direction of obedience as the path to glory.

Whom you know

This reflection was given at the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is 1 John 3:21-4:6.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

That saying might be true in all kinds of ways in human societies, but it’s also the same point being made in our reading from John’s first letter.

You see, already there were teachers getting Christianity mixed up with other ideas; saying that the gospel itself wasn’t enough, that what would really enlighten or save you was secret knowledge, imparted to initiates of the mysteries, about good vs. evil, and spiritual vs. material, and light vs. darkness, and so on.  And that this secret knowledge would bring you closer to God.

But what John emphasises, over against that sort of thinking, is that you don’t need secret esoteric knowledge; you just need to know God.  And that’s open to everyone, because any one of us can go to God in prayer, in our own hearts at any time.  “If our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God…”

Abiding is about relationship; it’s about personal connection with and intimate knowledge of God.  It’s not just intellectual assent to a statement, it’s about being bonded together, so that your identity is now bound up in God’s own identity.

We have everything we need for a flourishing Christian life, in our abiding in God.

And anyone who says that we don’t, that we need something more or something else, particular experience or status, is not from God (what John calls the antichrist, the one opposed to Christ; although he’s quick to point out that the antichrist has already been conquered, and therefore is not to be feared).

Believe that Christ truly came in the flesh for our salvation, love one another, and in this way you know God and abide in God, and God’s Spirit abides in you.  It is enough.  You are enough, because you abide in God.

Happy families

This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas.  The Scripture it references is Colossians 3:12-17.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s the opening line to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina; but the week after Christmas is a time when I find many people reflecting on the many ways in which families may be unhappy.  Perhaps it’s not surprising; we expect a lot of our families; our physical and emotional safety, a source of our own identity, values, and a sense of our place in the world; ongoing support through the various phases of our life, and so forth.  And when you have many people all with different needs pulling the family in different directions… maybe it’s not surprising that there are many ways for families to be unhappy.

Of course, we talk about church as family too; especially for small (or family-sized) churches like ours.  And while the metaphor of church as family has strengths and limitations, it does tend to mean that we bring a lot of our family baggage into church life.

It’s a bit like when a couple get married, but come from very different families; and part of marriage preparation means that you have deep and meaningful discussions about everything from how often you mop the floor to how you handle money, to significant celebrations and how you mark them.

Except when you join a church, you don’t necessarily have the same deep and meaningful conversations, so it’s easy – and very common – to make the mistake of assuming that the patterns you learned in your own family are what should happen at church as well.  Whether it’s the person who’s absorbed the lesson that all disagreement is bad and we must avoid arguments at all cost, or the person who’s come from a very authoritarian family and thinks we should all work to a leadership model that says father knows best, or whatever it is… we all bring that stuff with us.

And even more than that, we tend to bring the roles we played in our own families.  The person who took on the role of being peacemaker at home will tend to be peacemaker at church; or the decision maker, or the contributor of ideas, or the one who makes sure everyone has fun and laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, not at all.  But the reason I point it out is that sometimes, it helps if we’re conscious of it.  I know when I talk things over with my supervisor, he’ll often encourage me to reflect on what has shaped my own expectations and reactions and patterns of behaviour… and sometimes how I feel about something in the parish has nothing to do with this parish at all, but with some other context I’ve been in before; and often, because of the power our families have to shape us, those earlier contexts are familial.

But the reason I’m thinking about this now – apart from it having just been Christmas – is because of the reading we had today from Colossians.  In it, Paul describes the loving dynamics which should characterise a Christian community – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on – and which we so often learn (or fail to learn) in our families.

Paul often describes the church in familial terms, and in effect, he’s saying that the church should be for us what a family should be; a place of safety; a source of our identity, values, and orientation to the world; a place for mutual support.  But where church perhaps goes beyond family is that church also has a mission, a purpose, beyond meeting the needs of its members.  The church should be always reaching out beyond itself, proclaiming the good news, responding to the needs of others, and so on.

And here’s the thing; an unhappy church, a church which doesn’t have its internal relationships in a healthy and functional state, is not going to be effective in mission.  Part of the deal with family is, as the saying goes, that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family; the same is true of church.  By our common baptism we’re bound together whether we want to be or not, and we have to learn to get along and work together even with people we never would have chosen.

And this is also part of why Paul starts this section of his letter by reminding the Colossians that they are God’s chosen people; it’s God’s initiative which has brought each of them into the church family, and it’s not up to any human being to try to countermand God’s choice.  God chose each of us, and therefore nobody has the right to decide that any of us don’t belong or have a place, or don’t need bearing with when we hit a rough patch in life.

And not only are we chosen by God, but that choice sets us apart from the world (that’s really what the word “holy” is about; about being set apart), in order to accomplish God’s purposes.  That’s the importance of mission again.  So we are chosen, we’re set apart for a mission, and in order to be able to carry out that mission we must have our internal affairs in order; hence the need for compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on.  Each of those virtues could have a sermon of its own; but for now perhaps it’s enough to note that they are mostly other-centred.  Compassion is about our ability to recognise and respond to the sufferings of others.  Kindness is about our benevolence to others.  Meekness is about how we respond when we find others difficult.  Patience about our emotional steadiness when frustrated with others.  And so on.  We are to clothe ourselves with an all-encompassing loving attitude to others, one which in every situation seeks the good of others in ways which enable the church to function well.

Now this doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour.  Paul isn’t here telling you to tolerate – or forgive – ongoing mistreatment, and neither am I.  But it’s about how we choose to respond, so that we can put proper boundaries in place, end bad behaviour… and then forgive and move on, not letting old conflicts hamper us indefinitely.

It’s probably true – with apologies to Tolstoy – that all happy churches are alike, but each unhappy church is unhappy in its own way.  What Paul has given us this morning is a prescription for a happy church, and if we follow it, we may also find ourselves able to give thanks in whatever we do.

In the beginning, relationship.

This is a sermon for the morning service for the Birth of our Lord.  The Scripture it references is John 1:1-14.

In the beginning.  In the darkness, the nothingness, the timelessness before there was light or time or energy or matter… there was relationship.

John tells us about this relationship: there was the Word, and the Word was with (or slightly more accurately, if awkward in English, the Word was “towards”) God.  Later on John’s language will shift to describing Word and God as Son and Father, but already, he’s portraying an intimate relationship.  There is unity here (the Word “was” God), and yet also distinction.  In being “towards” God, the Word is oriented to God, sharing a sense of purpose, sharing what in human terms we might call attitudes and outlook, and… sharing love.  Before anything else existed there was love between Father and Son (and Spirit, although John doesn’t spell that out for us here; but don’t forget that the Spirit too is part of creation and recreation).

John taking us back to the beginning is meant to remind us of that other narrative of beginnings; what we read in Genesis, when God creates light and land and life; man and woman; and declares them to be good.  And John fleshes out what we already understand about our own creation.  We know from Genesis that we’re made in the image of God; now John tells us that God is relational.  That loving relationships are an intrinsic part of God’s own being.  In being created in God’s image, we, too, are created for relationship.  We have, to some extent, blurred that image.  Call it sin, call it lovelessness, call it brokenness; but humanity has clearly failed to fulfil our potential for relationships in which we thrive and adequately love one another.  In John’s gospel sin is always about rejecting life and relationships, and turning to darkness.

And after we’ve messed it up, pushing that God away, refusing to listen to God’s words or to be “towards” God in the way that the Son is… God still pursues relationship with us.  And that image of God in us is renewed as that God takes on our very human nature.  This is the Word of God resonating in the darkness of the world, entrapped in death and alienation, calling all that exists to new life and re-creation.

Paul described the incarnation this way:

“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Christ “emptied himself.”  Laid aside the power, the knowledge, the wisdom of being God, and entered into human life; was born helpless, dependent, frail, vulnerable.  Why?  Because God is relational.  God exists as a network of relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit; and the whole point of creation is to expand that network of relationship to include us, too.  And when we don’t get it, when we’re lost in the darkness, confused, blind to the purpose of our own existence… God will not give up on us, but will pursue us, staying faithful, committed and open to us, even when it’s costly.

Even when it means entering our own broken, lost and confused world; building connections across the divide between us, by accepting all of our limitations and burdens; taking on human flesh.  “Flesh” here is not just about having a body of bone and blood and tissue; it’s about the whole human life of Jesus; body, mind, identity.  Everything the Hebrew Scriptures told us about the Word of God – sparking creation, the origin of the Law and wisdom, the inspiration of the prophets – that’s the awesome, unfathomable Word that has entered the material world and human life; building those most intimate relationships of a child to its parents; of a brother to siblings; of human connection in shared life and touch and speech.

Speech is particularly important to us, of course.  We don’t have the privilege of knowing Jesus as an infant, a child, a young adult, of seeing him in person; holding his hand or hearing the resonance of his voice.  But his words have been remembered, handed on, written down so that his invitation to relationship remains open to us as well.

All through John’s gospel, Jesus – the very Word of God – invites us to hear, keep, remember, and even abide in his words.  Invites us into a relationship where we can be nurtured, refreshed and renewed.  Where we can come into intimate contact with the one who is the source of all life, and draw our own life and identity and strength from Him; life that ultimately isn’t limited even by death.

That’s the invitation to us as we come to the manger.  Not to a moment in the past, but to a relationship in the present; and into the future.  A relationship in which we wait for, receive and listen to God; in which we allow the depths of our being to resonate to the voice of our creator.  And then we respond; in loving and personal and intimate reply, but also in speaking to others, bearing witness to God’s love offered to us, and inviting others into that relationship for which they were created.  Not just in words, but also in actions; because it’s when the meaning of the words is made real in people’s experience – is incarnated, you could say – that the gulf is bridged and relationship is built.

This is why, centuries later, a bishop could tell his flock that “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”  If you can’t live out the meaning of Christ’s presence to us in how you respond to and treat the people around you, then that meaning will be lost on you in even the most sacred context.

This is how we come to know reconciliation, forgiveness and peace; how we come to be, like the Son, “towards” the Father in our fundamental identity, and thus to share in God’s purposes, attitudes, and outlook.  And it is outlook, or looking outwards, always seeking deeper and richer relationship, and doing whatever is necessary to make that possible.

No wonder our reading this morning finishes with glory, grace and truth.  Light, restored identity as the image of God, and restored relationships are what Christ came to offer us.  Let’s make sure we take up the offer.

Peace on earth

This is a sermon for the midnight service for the Birth of our Lord.  The Scripture it references is Luke 2:1-14.

It wasn’t a peaceful night.

Oh, it was probably pretty.  The lack of electric lights would have meant the sky – even before the angels turned up – would have offered a starscape of glory and depth that you and I seldom see.  And outside the small towns, the rolling hills and the fresh greenery of the rainy season would have had a certain charm, especially if you didn’t have to earn your living from them by the sweat of your brow.

But that’s not the same as peaceful.  This was occupied territory.  A foreign military held the power of life and death over every native inhabitant.  That foreign power had no compunction about disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods for its own purposes, which is why Mary and Joseph were far from home, in Bethlehem, in the first place.  Rome wanted to work out how much tax it could extract from this territory, so it ordered everybody to, in effect, line up and be counted, so it could work out how much it could manage to exploit them.

This census was not a peaceful affair; the residents of the area were so incensed and fearful about what it implied that there had been riots, violence, and the removal of Jewish leaders not adequately currying favour with Rome.

No doubt the shepherds had seen brutality; executions and the bodies left on display.  Knew that doing or saying the wrong thing could come with deadly consequences, for them or their families.  And knew that if they did, by some miracle, manage to lift themselves economically above a simple struggle for survival, their money would be forfeit to a government which culturally, linguistically, and religiously, viewed them as inferior, useful only as long as they were of some benefit to their rulers.

Grief, trauma, anxiety and exhaustion were far closer to being their lot, as they watched over their flocks, than peace.

But then the angels burst onto the scene.  Well, first one angel with a message; and then a whole multitude singing; glory to God and peace upon earth.

This is not a throw away line, a platitude which sounds good in a carol but doesn’t have much in the way of practical implications.  It’s more akin to a declaration of revolution.

Peace – God’s peace, the peace that was promised through Moses and Isaiah and so many others – was being announced in riotous celebration.

It helps us if we understand that peace, the way it’s meant here, isn’t just a word for “not being at war.”  This kind of peace is an all-encompassing vision; it’s the absence of violence, yes, but also the absence of oppression; it implies power structures which serve and protect the most vulnerable and needy, and provide for the good of all.  It’s about justice, and harmonious relationships in communities.  It’s about health and welfare and – because it’s the ancient near east, after all – large families and the success of crops and the thriving of livestock.  It’s about opportunity for everyone to flourish and experience all that is good in life.

This is not the peace that Rome brings, the peace that means everyone behaves because dissent is brutally crushed.  It’s on a whole other level; peace and wholeness and wellness for the whole person, the whole community, the whole land.

Of course, that peace hasn’t arrived in its fullness yet.  Christ was born into a brutal world which crucified him for offering a radical alternative.  And Christians have long since come to terms with the idea that this peace in all its fullness is for the end of time, when Christ will return and all of creation will be remade.

The mistake we’ve often made, though, is to give up on peace in the meantime.  We forget that, like the angels, our job is to announce that peace now.  To claim it both as a real possibility and as a vision which should shape our priorities; personal, communal, and social.

You see, humans are social creatures.  Our psychological make up means that we function in groups.  Those groups can have a culture of violence, hatred and oppression; and we will tend to get caught up in those things because of the way we socialise.  Or those groups can have a culture of peace, justice and openness to those who are outside the group (those who are “other”); and again, we will get caught up in those dynamics.

The church’s calling is to make sure that we are the latter kind of group.  That we build a culture of peace, justice, openness; that we create those dynamics in ways which affect positively everyone with whom we come in contact.

And that is our calling because that is the nature of Christ, the one we follow; the one we worship as very God in the flesh.

We can’t necessarily fix everything, and certainly not all at once.  But the important thing is that we actually do something; see the pursuit of peace as an integral part of our reason for existence as a church, and an indispensable part of our mission.  Pursuing peace can happen at a number of levels; personal, local, national or international.  They’re all valid, and all part of God’s all-encompassing vision of peace on earth.

The process of pursuing peace will not always feel good.  It will make us angry, as we pay closer attention to all that is wrong in the world.  It will hurt.  Grief and anger are normal and healthy responses to a broken world and broken people.  And being grieved or angry doesn’t disqualify us from being a people of peace.

The way forward is learning the art of constructive anger.  It’s emotional energy which pushes us to act, to force change, to make a difference.  To say that no child should die for lack of clean water; no community be devastated for the enrichment of individuals.  It’s closely twinned to a passionate sense of justice.

“Glory to God, and peace upon earth,” the angels sang.  We join them not just by singing the words but by being involved in making them a reality.  Their song is a call to roll up our sleeves, to get our hands dirty, to put our hearts and our selves on the line.  Christ is born; the oppressive forces are on notice; their day will end.  The very creator of the universe will set things to rights; we cannot, in the end, lose.  Violence and brutality will not have the last word.  Instead we press on toward the final reality John recorded in his book of Revelation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Peace on earth, indeed.  Come, Lord Jesus.