Friday, December 26, 2008

Holy Innocents

I remember a few years ago trying to find my way around in one of the grottier parts of our city, in Northbridge a few blocks over from the smart restaurant strip, leaving my car in a dubious-looking parking lot and trying to find my way through this part of the city that just seemed to be one gigantic building site – massive holes filled with concrete footings in between dilapidated 1940s era office buildings, warehouses and disreputable-looking shops.  It was one of those grey afternoons when the city streets act like wind-tunnels, and your eyes get filled with dust and grit, the gutters full of fast-food wrappers, the traffic was banked up and behind the wheel of every car sat somebody in a foul temper.  Pedestrians avoided eye-contact, walking quickly as though they’d rather be anywhere else other than where they were, or at least that was how I felt.  There was a constant noise of jackhammers and car horns, and to top it off I couldn’t find the address I was supposed to be going to. 

And then I saw what could only have been an angel.  It’s not as though there was no colour at all along the street, a few of the shops had window-boxes with tired-looking geraniums in them, and there were some scrappy trees along the footpath, but still, everything looked grey and depressed.  Or maybe it was just me?  I don’t exactly know.  But then I happened to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye, something fluttered that wasn’t a chip wrapper, and I saw this tiny butterfly, kind of scittering sideways because of the wind, all yellow and black and red and orange.  And it delicately landed on top of a parking meter and sat there flexing and stretching its wings.  Utterly out of place.  Utterly simple.  Utterly beautiful. Utterly fragile. Utterly different.  And it paused there just for a moment, while I gawked at it, and then it took off again, navigating uncertainly, straight up into the concrete canyon. 

And it seems to me that that is how God comes into the world.  Into the grottier parts of our lives and of our world.  Into the backstreets of Bethlehem, insignificant but much fought over, both then and now.  Born to a peasant family, pushed halfway across the country at the bureaucratic whim of an occupying power, arguably illegitimate, coming to rest for a brief and achingly beautiful moment before fleeing the murderous insecurity of another petty tyrant.

Utterly out of place.  Utterly simple.  Utterly beautiful. Utterly fragile.  Utterly different. 

So different, in fact, that I wonder if anyone really noticed.

Sure, we’ve had our Christmas lunches and our plastic Christmas trees and fake Santas, and maybe we’ve done the right thing with Kevin Rudd’s Christmas handout.  Personally, I ate far too many prawns and Christmas pud and fruit mince pies.  And I’ve had a marvellous time the whole last fortnight or so, singing Christmas carols at Bentley Hospital and Castledare and Agmaroy and here at St Michaels.  I’ve enjoyed the cuteness of our little nativity scene on our mantelpiece in the Rectory and the icicle lights and the poignancy of waiting through Advent even though I know how the story is going to turn out.  I feel like I’ve really ‘done’ Christmas this year.  And now here we are on the downward slope again, the season that the Church calls Christmas but the rest of us are already mentally on to the next thing, just counting down the 12 days before we can stick the fake Christmas tree back in its box.

Actually I read the other day, an editorial in The Australian, about the parents who insisted their child not receive any religious education at school because they didn’t want her little head filled with superstitious nonsense.  But then they complained to the principal because their little girl wasn’t allowed to go to the Christmas party.  Everybody knows, the parents wrote, that Christmas parties have got nothing to do with Jesus.

Well, maybe they’ve got a point.  All this partying and eating and spending up big.  All this goodwill, especially toward retailers who looked a fortnight or so ago as though they were going to miss out, but it turns out they’ve had a good one after all, $500 million more than last year, so all’s well that ends well.  It seems to me we’ve so loaded up the whole Christmas thing, that we’ve piled it up so high with paraphernalia and obligation and busy-ness that it becomes that city street all over again—our senses numbed by the sheer excessiveness of it all that we’ve effectively blinded ourselves to the simpleness of what God is actually trying to tell us, and show us.  The utter incongruity of a fragile butterfly descending on to a gritty, noisy city street. The utter incongruity, the sheer ephemeral fragility of a God who comes among us as a baby born to a homeless couple.  What sort of a sign is this, actually? 

And I think that’s why the church gives us today’s sobering counterpoint—right after Christmas day. There are actually three days after Christmas to recall the martyrs.  Stephen, John, and now, perhaps the hardest of all, the infants of Bethlehem.  What a shift of gear!  What a discordant note as the happy sounds of Christmas carols fade!  The murder of children.  The death of innocent babies.  Surely the lectionary writers could put today’s readings somewhere more appropriate – maybe somewhere in Lent when we’re already in a sombre mood?

It jars us back to reality.  Back to the world that we know so well.  Where children are the victims of the powerful.  Where they die from hunger, bombs, and disease so that those of us who have enough can enjoy the privilege of the artificial—happily numb to the reality around us.  Happily deaf to the cries of Zimbabwean and Congolese mothers over their children who are no more.  Happily oblivious to the fate of Aboriginal children in our own wealthy country born with a life expectancy 20 years less than the rest of us, children in remote communities as young as five suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. While we nostalgically sing of silent nights and kings and stars.

And so, just in time, the church reminds us that this infant is not some pretty dream to insert into our self-serving preconceptions.  That, quite to the contrary, this baby is a threat.  This good news—that God is with us—is dangerous. 

Herod the Great, first in the convoluted line of Herods celebrated in the Gospel stories, was actually sophisticated, intelligent, ruthless and amoral.  Just the sort of puppet king the Romans loved, in fact.  And Herod was right that the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the magi could only lead to trouble.  Schooled in the brutal realpolitik of the Roman Empire of the first century Herod understood only too well that this child—this potential king of the Jews—this Infant Jesus—threatened his power.  He understood that this delicate, fragile entry of God in the world had the potential of turning his kingdom on end. 

Because this child was a sign of a different kind of authority.  Authority not defined by power or the size of an army or the security of borders—rather authority defined by the tender compassion of God that hears the cry of Rachel weeping for her children.  Authority defined by smallness that, barely perceptible, catches us completely off guard.  Authority defined by weakness that terrifies the strong. 

Because this child is the sign of hope.  Dangerous, uncontrollable hope.  Hope that can see that this world isn't the way things have to be.  It is not God's will that power should come through violence.  It does not have to be that for me to have enough, someone in the developing world has to go without.  It does not have to be that to keep peace and prosperity and democracy innocent men and women and children have to be pushed into refugee camps.

And I know this because God comes to us as a child.  God intrudes into our ways of death with life—tiny, beautiful, fragile life.  With tiny hands and butterfly wings, much too small to make any practical difference at all, God touches the tears of Rachel weeping, and pleads with us in the words of the prophet Jeremiah—maybe there is hope for our future if we can just allow the sound of her weeping and the softness of her tears to melt our hard hearts.

But we are too easily frightened by our own security.  We are disturbed by this God breaking open our priorities and pointing us to something different—something terrifying and holy and new. 

And in our fear, this tiny, fragile life is shattered on the cross.  God’s hands nailed to the cross, over and over again, all through history and into our own time and our own world.  But here’s the most powerful lesson of all.  With butterfly wings and wounded hands, this fragile life proves more indestructible than the most powerful violence of this world.

Something has changed in our world for ever.  A mutant strain of beauty has been sown.  A beauty - fragile as a butterfly - that resists the age-old truth that the possible and the permissible are defined by concrete and exhaust fumes and petrodollars.  And there is hope for your future, says the Lord.  Amen.


One of my very favourite movies of all time is the 1980s classic, ‘Groundhog Day’.  Actually, the first couple of times I tried to watch it, it felt like Groundhog Day, because I never got to see the end – the first time it was an old videotape that collapsed and died halfway through, I think the next time was when it came on TV and there was a power blackout halfway through, the next time after that I settled down to watch Groundhog Day I got called away halfway through.  It seemed to go with the theme, Bill Murray as a self-centred TV cameraman doomed to relive the same day over and over again, never quite getting lucky with Andy MacDowell, groaning with despair every morning when the radio alarm comes on with the same cheesey song and realising that it’s still Groundhog Day, he’s still trapped in his own private time-loop, the exact same trivial, pathetic, silly, sad and tragic events are going to happen in the exact same sequence as they did the day before and there’s nothing he can do to change it.  And I think it’s a feeling that resonates with our own real-life experience, we all feel like that sometimes, stuck in a groove that we can’t get out of – we know just what it’s like for the character stuck in time because we’ve all been there in one way or another – and I know I’m right because it’s not so very often that the title of a movie instantly becomes part of the language – it’s even in the Macquarie Dictionary, in fact, just groan and say to the person next to you, ‘oh I can’t stand it, the same Christmas sermon every year, it’s Groundhog Day’ and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

And actually, if you’re feeling like that then good, because what I want to suggest is that it actually is Groundhog Day.  The whole Christmas bit, and not just the churchy bits either – the Christmas shopping, what on earth to get for Aunty Ethel, working out whose turn it is in the extended family to have the crowd around for Christmas lunch, the excess of tinsel, fairy lights and nativity scenes, the same corny Christmas movies on TV, the round the world sailors needing rescuing all over again by the Australian navy, the kids getting tired and emotional, eating too much chocolate and finally – blessed relief – the Boxing Day Test starts tomorrow, silly season finally arrives and we can all go to sleep. 

The whole point about Groundhog Day is the external circumstances don’t change.  It’s a little American country town re-enacting a small-town ritual at the end of winter, the day the groundhog wakes up and has a look around and decides whether spring’s really here yet.  And because Bill Murray’s stuck in time, every day the groundhog decides it isn’t spring yet, and goes back to bed.  And every day the same thousand and one things that happen in a little town happen.  People fall in love, people hurt and humiliate one another, lies get told and dishes get dropped, appointments get forgotten, hopes get dashed, somewhere a homeless person dies of cold, a child falls out of a tree, somebody writes a poem.  And I guess in the movie the reason Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day is that none of this stuff matters to him.  People don’t touch him.  He just doesn’t notice the beauty and the sadness of what’s happening all around him every single day.  And so it keeps happening, over and over again, in the exact same sequence, until he does start to notice, and until it starts to dawn on him that the one thing that actually has to change, is him.

It seems to me that every year of my life, Christmas – or at least the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, has been a time of waiting for something to happen.  At first it was about waiting for Father Christmas to come, and knowing how important it was to have clean fingernails on Christmas night, putting out the fruit cake and glass of cordial and trying desperately to get to sleep because you knew he’d never come while you were awake  And somehow that got all mixed in with waiting for baby Jesus, and feeling the suspense as the little family made their way to Bethlehem and looked for the room we knew wasn’t there – and knowing that somehow, the safe arrival of this little baby made all the difference, that the world was a better place for children and shepherds and wise men alike, because God loved and trusted the world enough to allow his Son to be born in it.

But at some point in my life I found myself reflecting on the fact that the world wasn’t going to be a safe place for baby Jesus, and that God must have known his Son was being born into a world that didn’t want to hear his message of forgiveness and love – and it seems to me that by daring to be vulnerable God was really, really asking for it.  And that the world we live in still hasn’t got the point of that original Christmas Day, because it’s still not a safe place, and the same trivial, pathetic, silly, sad and tragic events keep happening.  And maybe, like me, you find yourself asking, ‘why is that, God?’  Why do you keep doing Christmas, every single year, why keep offering us the hope of Christmas Day when you know very well that it hasn’t changed anything yet?  And for me one of the bittersweet rituals of Christmas is to think about the stuff that happens because men and women haven’t got the point yet, or because we don’t know how to stop being the way we are, or because we feel powerless to make any difference.  And to ask God to do something about that.

And when we gather it up, there’s quite a collection of stuff to put under the tree this year.  Stuff about our world that we’d like baby Jesus to make right, if only we thought he could.  The same collection of wars and famines we have most years, in fact, lots of them are the same wars and famines.  Ones we forget about because they’ve been going on so long they become like a sort of background noise that we screen out.  Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka.  A really good Christmas present would be for human beings to try to work out ways of solving problems that didn’t involve killing each other.  Sudden natural disasters: an earthquake and tsunami in Burma, an earthquake in China that remind us that the planet we live on is alive and sometimes unpredictable.  The slow-motion crisis of global warming, species extinctions, climate change and water shortages that challenges us to change the ways we live or else imperil the generations that follow us.  The collapse of global financial markets that reminds us that greed isn’t good, after all, that the unsustainable pursuit of wealth has got real-world consequences.  The scandal of homelessness in our own lucky country, where over 10,000 people sleep rough every night of the year.

What’s baby Jesus going to do with that little lot?

It seems to me that in the birth of Jesus, God is trying to drop us a couple of very broad hints about who we are, and who God is.  Because, first of all, it’s a very intimate message.  God, it turns out, isn’t remote, isn’t some set-and-forget deity up there in the sky who vaguely wants the best for the world, but one who takes the risk of being part of the world on its own terms in order to have a real relationship with us.  And what that tells us is that there’s a connection between God’s life and our own lives.  It’s a message that says: ‘this is how much I love you’.  But even more than that, it’s a message that says ‘this is how I operate’.  It’s what we might call the principle of incarnation.  The principle that God makes a difference in the world, not by being all-powerful, but by being vulnerable.  A God who typically chooses to work through human hands and human hearts.  And who keeps on confronting our humanity until we notice.

In Groundhog Day it takes Bill Murray thousands and thousands of incarnations.  Thousands of Groundhog Days, each one mind-numbingly the same as the one before.  Until gradually, he starts to notice that the meaning of his own life is connected with the lives of everyone else stuck in the time-loop with him.  And as soon as he gets the point, as soon as he begins living face-forward to the future, oriented toward hope, then time starts travelling in the right direction again.  And he does then get lucky with Andy MacDowell, but that’s probably just a fringe benefit.

And that, I think, is what the message of Christmas is all about.  It’s not remote, it’s personal.  It’s about the connection between God taking on the weakness and the vulnerability of our humanity, and us learning to look at the suffering of the world through the eyes of God.  About us working out that the one thing that needs to change, is us.  That the shopping list of what’s wrong with the world has got something to do with how we live, and what we live for.  About us learning the principle of incarnation that says: God still works through human hands and human hearts.  Ours.

And the wonder of Christmas is that, like Groundhog Day, we get to keep reliving it, over and over again, until we get it.


Advent 3

A lady who taught Sunday School once told me about how she had been trying to get the kids to think about heaven – ‘If I had a garage sale and sold everything I had and gave the money away to poor people, do you think that would get me into heaven?’, she asked. ‘No’, they assured her with confident shakes of the head. ‘Tough crowd’, she thought to herself.  ‘Well, what about if I came to church every day and made cups of tea for everybody and helped out at the Op Shop, would I get into heaven then?’  ‘No way!’ they told her, quick as a flash.  ‘Well, what about if I took in lots of stray cats and dogs and was kind to kids?’  ‘Still no!’, they all said, without even thinking about it.  ‘Well’, she said, ‘how can I get into heaven?’.  ‘Silly!’, a smarty-pants little girl told her condescendingly.  ‘You can’t get into heaven unless you’re dead’.

Our Advent lessons lead us to thinking in terms of absolutes.  Isaiah especially, the prophet of the grand vision and the big picture.  Sin and salvation, judgement and vindication.  If we’re not thinking uncomfortably about our own moral shortcomings during the four short weeks of Advent, then we’re obviously not listening.  And to be honest, most of us probably hear the message in fairly individualistic terms.  If we’re being saved, then what from?  God’s punishment, perhaps, the just desserts of our own sinfulness?  Or somebody else’s sinfulness, a divine rescue mission to pluck God’s faithful people out of the swamp of contemporary Godlessness and moral relativism?  And what does salvation mean for us?  Getting to heaven?  Of course for many Christians that’s exactly what it’s all about.  And the work of evangelists and preachers is about convincing as many people as possible to get with the program, get as many people as possible into heaven before they close the doors.  Except that if we stay at that level of the story then - as the kids pointed out to my friend - the one essential prerequisite is to be dead.  The problem with the Christian story if we focus on the afterlife is that we end up not thinking seriously about the shape of the world we actually live in.

And so, by week three, we need to start listening carefully to what the prophets are actually saying.  Because both Isaiah and John the Baptist – and for the first time this week, also Mary of Nazareth, in the song of praise Luke puts in her mouth as her response to an angel’s good news – all of them are talking this morning about salvation.  And guess what?  None of them are talking about heaven.  All of them are talking about salvation as God’s priority for the world that we live in, salvation as a wake-up call, something that should be galvanising us into action in the here and now.  Salvation as nothing less than the in-built bias of God for human freedom – freedom from hunger, freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice.  The sort of salvation that, let’s face it, sounds a whole lot more enticing to the final year apprentice whose boss has just told him he’s being laid off because of the recession we didn’t have to have.  Or the self-funded retiree who has just seen her retirement savings halve in value because of the global share-market crash.  Or the Zimbabwean mother whose daughter is lying in a makeshift hospital with cholera caused by the Mugabe regime’s wilful destruction of the basic protections of an entire population.

Actually, there’s no avoiding it.  Isaiah, or to be more precise, the third big chunk of this prophetic text that spans a number of centuries and different episodes in the story of God’s people – the so-called ‘third Isaiah’ – is talking to people who barely remember the heady days of liberation from exile – the return of the captives was celebrated in Isaiah chapter 40, in our reading last week – and this week we’ve swung forward to a later period, a period when God’s people are stagnating, when the excitement of homecoming no longer has the power to sustain the imagination and God’s people are living in the doldrums of a half-finished Temple and the reality of being an economic and geo-political basket-case, and they’re asking, ‘is that all?’ – and in response the prophet starts talking about justice, and the recognition of human need, and that oft-misused word, ‘righteousness’, which means to live within the circle of covenant relationships that give life.  ‘My job’, the prophet says – whether speaking of himself or the one who is to come it hardly matters, because later Jesus is going to pick up exactly the same phrase and apply it to himself – my job is about setting people free to really live – and that’s good news for people who are used to being bullied – it’s good news for people crippled by passivity or negative self-image, or by the controlling agendas of those with more power.  The priority of God for relationships that give life – the prophet announces – means that we experience God’s blessings in our lives to the extent, and just as soon, as we start living as a blessing for others.  The transformation that you yearn for – that happens just as soon as you start living like a transforming community.

And then onto the stage steps Mary of Nazareth.  We’re going to hear a little more about Mary over the next few weeks, we know that.  And when we get there, to the stable in Bethlehem, there’ll be so many babies and animals and so much hay that we run the risk of overlooking what’s so special about this pregnant peasant girl setting out on an epic journey across Palestine on the back of a donkey.  So the lectionary gives us this snippet today, and Mary of Nazareth who, to be sure, starts out praising God for choosing her to be the vessel for bringing God’s salvation into the world, telling a story of meekness and radical dependence on God’s promises – abruptly shifts a gear and starts sounding a whole lot like the Isaiah of chapter 61, also a whole lot like the feisty Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel who anointed King David.  And if we read Mary’s song as just a reflection about personal salvation, God’s noticing of Mary despite the poverty of her personal circumstances, then we miss half the message.  Because, as feminists used to say back in the fiery 60s, the personal is the political.  Mary signs on to the big themes of Isaiah – justice, the radical reversal of the world’s status quo – and the point is that the personal and the political go together, the great work of justice and compassion that Mary of Nazareth tells us is God’s number one priority necessarily involves us in personal transformation if we dare to get on board.

We know it’s the exact same message that Jesus picks up, and the key to understanding Jesus’ whole message and his whole career.  Too often, though, the Church has missed the point, selling salvation as the other side of the coin of personal sinfulness.  For the people these prophets were talking to, salvation meant somebody being prepared to stick up for the underdog, salvation meant radical fairness, and that’s what it still means today.  And in the picture Luke gives us of Mary’s response we see the simple contrast between the truth and a lie – God’s peace, God’s salvation that depends on radial self-giving love, versus the lie that props up Rome and every status quo ever since – peace as the result of power and conformity.

And so to John – the baptiser, that is, not the Gospel writer – who today announces his job to bear witness to the light that enlightens all things.  Not for this Gospel the confronting demand for personal repentance but the more nuanced image of light that lights the way for everyone – not the false light of Empire that’s just illuminating for the top end of town, for mining magnates or Telstra executives.  And in a direct challenge to the myth of Empire, John claims that this light is made known in a human being, one whose life grows out of God’s own life so intimately that we recognise the light of God shining through him – not the Emperor Augustus who calls himself the Son of God because he has the power to, but Jesus, who is the Son of God because he gives form to the promise of God’s salvation.  And perhaps we recognise that that’s the way it has to be – that salvation, which is the lived experience of God’s priorities – can only come to us and be enacted for us in the flesh and blood actuality of a single human life.

Far from needing us to be dead first, as the price of entry, salvation starts to look like a game for the very much alive.  A game in which God needs us to provide the hands and the heart, to be God’s daughters and God’s sons, the ones who give shape to the priorities of God in our own church, our own community and our own time.  The question is, are we up to it?  Is that the good news we actually want to live by?