Friday, December 27, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas - Holy Innocents

How was your Christmas? Alison and I had our extended family over on
the evening of Christmas Day for what turned out to be a perfect mild
evening of relaxed and happy company with a marquee on the back lawn
and everything you could wish for by way of food and drink and
conversation. On Boxing Day we caught up on some way overdue sleep –
so all around our celebration was pretty much perfect. I hope you
also had the opportunity to take some time out for family and
pleasure.

Today however – the first Sunday after Christmas which is often called
Holy Innocents – we come back to earth with a thud. Isaiah tells us
of God's solidarity and saving presence among Israel – Judaism's
understanding of incarnation that predates the Christian message of
Christmas by centuries. Psalm 148 is an appropriate response to that
– the marvellous hymn of praise that depicts not only human beings but
the whole of creation singing with delight. Then Matthew pricks the
party balloons, because he tells us the blindingly obvious, he tells
us what of course we already knew but would generally prefer to gloss
over. The incarnation of God is not pretty. Not only does the birth
of Jesus take place in the midst of poverty and hardship but the birth
of Jesus – and the wild rumours of hope that swirl around it – provoke
a violent and shocking reaction from those in power.

Herod – as we know not only from Scripture but other historical
sources – was for all his long reign an insecure tyrant, put in place
by the Romans when they conquered Jerusalem around 40 BCE. Herod
cemented his grip on power by murdering several members of his own
family, and he knew that he held power only as long as he served the
interests of his Roman patrons. He made extensive use of a sort of
secret police, for example, in order to keep the lid on protest and
dissent. Today's story, then, is utterly in character. The rumoured
birth of a messianic king reported by visitors from the east meant a
new focus for popular aspirations for freedom and hope. And Herod
acts with typical decisiveness and ruthless brutality.

The grimness of this story for us, as we read it two thousand years
later, is that it is essentially modern. It follows a pattern that we
continue to see in the world we live in today, and it comments on
similar ruthlessness – and complicity – in our own world. A
population is decimated, and survivors flee across a border. A tyrant
butchers families and villages and ethnic minorities – sometimes with
swords, sometimes with poison gas or artillery rounds – we see grainy
images shot with mobile phones of the aftermath of a massacre, and men
and women and children carrying meagre possessions trudge across
deserts and mountains to whatever dubious welcome they may receive
somewhere – anywhere – else. The message of Christmas is that God
shares our reality, our circumstances, and that gives cause for hope
because that makes the circumstances of our lives holy. But which
circumstances exactly is Jesus born into? A homeless peasant woman
has a baby, saved only by the kindness of a stranger from having to
give birth in an open field. The child is born into a heady mix of
political and religious expectation and attracts some international
interest. Is this the expected messiah who will save Israel? And a
countryside is put to the sword. The baby's father listens to the
prescient anxieties of his own dreams and manages to flee the
impending massacre. Our Lord is a political refugee.

Two things we need to notice in Matthew's story. Firstly, notice that
Matthew is very careful not to say that any of this is God's will.
This is hugely important. He doesn't say, for example, as he does
elsewhere, that 'this happened in order that the scriptures might be
fulfilled'. He says, 'Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through
the prophet…'. Matthew is reminding us that not even the most
chilling human evil can thwart God's compassion or power to save. And
then in just one verse – half a verse – Matthew describes
matter-of-factly a deed so evil that we can't bear to hear more
detail. Instead, we hear only the voice of the matriarch Rachel,
crying for her children, as Matthew evokes her voice in mourning over
these latest of her lost children.

The second thing to notice is that it is Egypt that the Holy Family
flee to. And Egypt, in Roman hands since 30 BCE but beyond Herod's
jurisdiction, was in fact a popular place of refuge at the time.
Ironically, the place where Jesus' ancestors were enslaved, the place
from which they were led to freedom by Moses, is the place to which
Jesus and his parents escape. Egypt stands in the Jewish story of the
Exodus both for captivity and for freedom and safety, as it does in
Matthew's story. We might ask ourselves whether there are any
'Egypts' in our own lives – places of refuge which are also places of
loss.

Our Lord is a refugee. This isn't a glib left-wing point to be scored
from the Christmas story but a central reality of God's commitment to
the solidarity of incarnation. In Jesus we see the reality that God
is present in the heart of human suffering, that where inhumanity and
brutality diminish human life, there God is. That where men and women
and children flee the violence of the powerful and seek an uncertain
refuge, then God is with them. God is not apolitical. God takes
sides.

The Christmas story indicts political power, and it indicts the
complicity of passive acceptance of that power. This is an
uncomfortable challenge for us, as Australians, right now. Our Lord
is a refugee.

Our country is led by insecure politicians. What makes them insecure
might take too long to go into, but it is to do with our loss of
confidence, as a nation, in who we are and what we stand for. The
Labor government was insecure and ineffectual. The Coalition
government has inherited its own brand of insecurity, but we don't
know how that's going to play out yet. Our governments don't lead and
inspire, they follow the latest opinion poll. And both sides of
politics in Australia believe that what gives them more security, what
buys your vote, is to be cruel and paranoid towards asylum seekers.
Both sides enact ever more punitive and harsh measures in an attempt
to buy your approval. And we distract ourselves by shopping, and we
vote for whatever will make the problem seem to go away. Our own
insecurity makes us complicit in what is done in our name.

Amnesty International visited the detention centres on Nauru and Manus
Island and released a report just before Christmas. You might not
even have heard about it. Of Nauru, Amnesty comments that detainees
are housed in army tents that offer no privacy and have barely any
room between the stretcher beds. Every single tent Amnesty inspected
was leaking, temperatures inside the tents reaching over 40 degrees
during the day with 80% humidity and no outside shelter. Most
detainees find it impossible to sleep at night due to the extreme
heat, rodents and insects. The mental health situation is dire and
medical facilities are inadequate. Amnesty concluded the conditions
do not meet the UN minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

On Manus the conditions are similar but here there is also a shortage
of drinking water, with detainees being given as little as 500ml per
person per day. Detainees must queue for hours in the heat for their
meals, their feet are burned by the hot stone surface of the compound
and requests for shoes are denied. Personal space is limited with one
dormitory house containing 112 men. Basic hygiene is problematic as
there are insufficient shower and toilet facilities. Detainees report
that requests for improvement are met with the advice that if they
don't like it they should go home.

On Christmas Island, where families with children are housed, a woman
lost her baby just before Christmas because she was denied an
ultrasound test. When she pleaded for the test she was told she
needed to 'lower her expectations'. As Christians, we remember a
refugee family who were given assistance at a birth and hospitality in
a foreign country. Our own country uses cruelty as an instrument of
public policy to force refugees to return to the very situation from
which they fled. We do this, not because we are unable to afford to
be hospitable, and not because we face any sort of security threat,
but because we feel insecure and threatened by our own uncertainty
about what we stand for. We feel insecure because we are a wealthy
country and don't want our privilege watered down. We try to insulate
ourselves from the suffering and the poverty of the world around us.
When it comes down to it, we only believe in globalisation of
opportunities, not of problems.

Our Lord was a refugee, and what this means is that when we look into
the faces of refugees, we see the face of Christ, and we stand
indicted by Jesus' accusation in Matthew, chapter 25: 'truly, I tell
you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to
me'.

A Bible commentator I read as I prepared this sermon commented about
the soldiers who carried out Herod's brutal order. How could they
have done that? What moral responsibility do they bear? What about
the inevitable informers who tell the troops, 'yes, Mrs So-and-so down
the road has just had a baby' – glad to see them leave their own
doorstep. The point is that we can be several steps away from
violence yet still, indirectly, responsible if only for not naming it
and resisting it. The soldiers' 'just following orders' excuse is
false and deadly - and challenges us to examine where we collude with
evil by not intentionally standing against it.

If we see Christ in our world by looking into the faces who have not,
or who are pushed aside and marginalised – then where in our world do
we see Herod? As Christians, what are we called to do about it? In
what ways might God be calling us to get out of our comfort zones? If
we did, might it not be that we would experience God-with-us in a new
and life-giving way?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas

What do you actually want for Christmas?

I guess for some of us, if we're honest, the answer would be, 'to snap
our fingers and all of a sudden it's Boxing Day, the family have all
gone home, the washing up's done, the tree's been put out with the
garbage, everything's gone blessedly quiet and the cricket's on the
telly'. There's no doubt, the season of peace and goodwill is
stressful – trying to find a carpark at Carousel is bad enough at the
best of times but it only gets worse when you find yourself in the
mall wedged in by a crowd of frantic last-minute Christmas shoppers on
the same desperate mission as yourself. Or the office Christmas party
that you just know is going to make you shudder with embarrassment all
next year. The guilt of getting Christmas cards the day before
Christmas from the long-forgotten relative you thought was safe to
leave off your own list. Maybe I'm starting to turn into a grumpy old
man, but isn't Boxing Day the best day in the whole year?

So, what do you want for Christmas?

I guess the answer depends on what sort of year you've had. My
grand-daughter Charlotte has had a very good year. This year she
finished Grade Two. She's cheeky and clever and a good reader.
Alison and I spent a few days this year in Adelaide, taking Charlotte
to the zoo, and to the beach and the movies – her energy was boundless
and her knowledge endless. At the zoo Charlotte insisted we had to
see every animal – we crossed them off a list. She insisted on having
her face painted like a tiger – and made tiger-faces at the real ones.
For a lot of people, like Charlotte, this has been a year of wonders
and new experiences – the first year of going to school; the first
boyfriend; the year of leaving home; getting a job; getting married.
The universe is expanding, jam-packed full of possibilities – and
Christmas with a baby lying strangely in a box filled with straw
surrounded by shepherds, angels and exotic kings is just one more
example of the infinite goodness of life. God's birthday present to
the world that says, this is how amazing it is to be alive – this is
how much I love you.

But, what do you want for Christmas?

You might not have had quite such an exciting year as Charlotte. The
longed-for family reconciliation that still didn't happen. The
nagging awareness of debts that you know aren't going away. The
dullness of being in a job that bores you. The growing knowledge that
none of the bright ambition you once had is really achievable. The
letter out of the blue that changed everything. The diagnosis you
didn't want to hear. The first year you have to celebrate Christmas
without the one you've shared your life with. The world you live in
maybe seems narrower and less friendly than it did this time last
year.

The big events of the year are swirling around in our grown-up heads
on Christmas night. Another year of listless violence on the world
stage. Two million refugees from the miserable conflict in Syria
huddle tonight in flimsy tents in the winter cold. Business as usual
in Afghanistan, Iraq and a fresh conflict in South Sudan. A hurricane
in the Philippines where the poorest of the world's poor face an even
more precarious future as extreme weather events become more frequent.
Our lucky country makes a lurch towards inhumanity and selfishness in
our treatment of refugees and cutting $4.5 billion from the money we
spend on foreign aid. We hear shocking revelations of systematic
child abuse within the Church make a hollow mockery of its moral
teachings. In a world where integrity and humanity seem to be in
short supply, maybe that's the only Christmas present worth asking
for.

So, why are you here? If, as the angels shout from the rooftops over
Bethlehem every year, the birth of Jesus is God's way of sending us a
message, what does the message mean? What's the good news about
Christmas? To be realistic, can Christmas really give you cause for
hope?

I have a friend, a priest who said to me a little while ago, 'Evan,
nobody wants to hear a sermon on Christmas Eve. Don't preach a
sermon. Just tell them why it's good news, and then sit down.' So
that's what I'm going to do.

I think Christmas is good news for two reasons. Firstly, because the
birthday present God gives to the world at Christmas time is not just
something we thought we wanted, or even thought we needed. The
birthday present God gives us is God's own self. As the prophet
Isaiah tells it, the baby of God's promise is called Immanuel, God is
with us. The baby born in Bethlehem is called Yeshua, God saves us,
and we get that, because we already know how the story is going to
end. We know, as tonight we read this story of angels and shepherds
that years later as he dies on a Roman cross Jesus is going to be
called something else by an awestruck Roman centurion: 'surely this
man was the Son of God'. We hear tonight's story knowing that we
encounter God in this baby born tonight, in the life of Jesus of
Nazareth we see God's purposes and God's priorities laid bare – that
in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we see God's
intention for all human life exposed. We know Jesus as Immanuel, God
with us, because in Jesus we are brought into a living relationship
with the God who created us. In Jesus we encounter the grown-up
reality that God with us is not a feel-good formula or a false
expectation of happiness ever after, but the assurance of
thick-and-thin solidarity – the God-with-us we encounter in Jesus
knows something about loss and compromise and failure and chooses to
be at home with us right in the middle of the mess and the heartache –
as well as the joy - that we call real life. That's good news.

And the second reason it's good news? Well, if the birth of Jesus in
a stable in Bethlehem is a message that God is sending to us, it's a
message in code. But not, fortunately, a code that's very hard to
break. Luke spells it out very clearly. You see, Jesus wasn't the
only royal personage known as a Saviour round those parts, certainly
not the first. The other one was another divine being known as the
Emperor Augustus – the peace on earth that the angels sing about at
the birth of Jesus comes right in the middle of another, more
officially sanctioned version of peace on earth, called the Pax
Romana, the peace of Rome which was based on Rome having the
best-equipped and best-trained armies the world had ever seen. The
birth of Jesus is good news because in it God is proposing a very
different sort of basis not only for peace but also for power in the
world that you and I live in. The birth of Jesus turns the accepted
logic of the world upside down – and note, even today, 2,000 years
later, it still contradicts the accepted logic of the world we live
in. Because Jesus doesn't get beamed down as an emperor even more
powerful than Augustus, Jesus doesn't make short work of evil-doers
even though that was really the sort of Messiah everyone had been
hoping for. Instead, we see something totally powerless, totally
vulnerable – a naked, helpless baby born to a poor family in an
insignificant part of the world. A baby who, you and I know, is going
to grow up to be rejected and crucified as a criminal, deserted by his
followers. How's that for a Christmas present? Certainly not he one
we asked for!

And I think the reason is that in the birth of Jesus, God is proposing
a completely different basis for power. Because, make no bones about
it, the God of the naked, vulnerable Jesus is indeed a God of power.
But the power that God reveals to us in the birth of Jesus is a
paradoxical power, what we could call relational power, the inverted
power of vulnerable, self-giving love, the power of recognising our
essential kinship with one another that, in the long run, out-trumps
regime change and terrorism and nuclear weapons every time. If God is
giving us a message, it goes something like this: 'think deeply.
What's most important here? Look at the people on either side of you
– the ones you came with as well as the ones you find yourself sitting
next to quite by chance. Think about the people you share your life
with, about the people whose lives are affected by the way in which
you live your life. Think about what it really is that connects you.
That's what takes on flesh and blood at Bethlehem. That's my
Christmas present for you, this year. Think about it – and watch it
grow in you and change you, and then watch it start to change the
world you live in.'

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent 4

What should I do next? It's a real question that most of us need to
seriously ask ourselves from time to time. Living as we do in a
hyper-individualistic culture that places huge value on freedom of
choice, the irony is that most of the time we don't seem to have any!
Mostly we get about our business from one day to the next doing the
next thing that has to be done, attending to our responsibilities at
work or in our family lives, exercising real choice over nothing of
any greater importance than what brand of cereal to buy or where to go
for our next holiday. But every now and then, at pivotal moments of
our lives it hits us – 'what I do next is going to make a real
difference to the rest of my life'. For example, 'should I marry (and
if so – is this person right for me? Am I right for them?)'. Or,
'what should I do for a living?' 'Should we emigrate?' And when we
make the big choice then we commit ourselves to a new direction, we
don't know what our lives would have been like if we had chosen the
other path. But – how we choose is the question.

Sometimes the choice seems to be about what is right – the contest
might be between what we might prefer and the good or the ethical
thing to do. It comes down to who we know ourselves to be, and who we
actually want to be. Other times the choice might be between what we
feel like doing right now and what might lead to more lasting
contentment. That's also about self-knowledge, and having a clear
understanding of where our lives are based. Or it might be between
our own self-interest and the good of somebody we love. That's a hard
one. Or simply about which direction might lead to the better
outcome, in a situation when – well – we can't read the future. As
Christians, we know our choices aren't arbitrary, and that God's Holy
Spirit does lead us and nudge us, that God does want our lives to open
up and flourish in a particular direction. Sometimes we really do
know deep down what God wants for us and we rebel against that. Other
times we honestly don't know what God wants for us, and we pray for a
sign. A really clear one, please God. Sometimes we reflect on what
lies ahead, and we ask the advice of trusted friends, and we pray –
and we still make the wrong choice! How do we learn to be sensitive
and to discern correctly the signs that God gives us?

Today's readings focus on two very different men – one a king of the
ancient kingdom of Judah eight centuries or so before the birth of
Christ, the other a nondescript tradesman – the Greek word tekton
basically means tradie - Joseph wasn't necessarily a carpenter, he
could have been a stonemason for example – but both Ahaz and Joseph
are practical men, realists, and as it turns out, men who aren't
afraid to make decisions and act on them. The other thing they have
in common is that we find both of them at the cross-roads wondering
what which way to turn.

King Ahaz had the dubious privilege of being born into what the
Chinese call 'interesting times' and finding himself on the throne of
the southern kingdom of Judah at the ripe old age of 20 surrounded by
the dangerously charged-up kingdoms of Moab, Aram who had formed a
political alliance and were eyeing off a Judah weakened by decades of
political infighting. It was essentially local trouble, but Ahaz,
ignoring all the best political advice, decides he needs to take
decisive action and so with the northern kingdom, Ephraim or Israel,
Ahaz decides to ask the super-power of the day, Assyria, to come on
over and sort out his troublesome neighbours. Ahaz is a man of action
– something clearly needs to be done – this is something, therefore
I'm doing it – unfortunately he hasn't read the signs very clearly.

Joseph's dilemma is a bit more personal, but equally sticky. He's
just found out his fiancée is pregnant, and he knows it isn't him.
Marriage in the ancient world was a bit different to our modern custom
– Mary had probably been promised in marriage since early childhood
and the first stage of the marriage process – the betrothal – had
already taken place. So Mary in effect is already Joseph's wife
though she still has to live under her father's roof until she's old
enough to be taken into Joseph's house. Knowing that he isn't the
father of her child, and knowing that with the paternity of the child
under doubt he risks losing his own honour just as much as Mary seems
already to have lost her own, Joseph's dilemma is not so much whether
to divorce his wife as how to go about it. Being a compassionate man,
Joseph opts for divorcing her quietly, let her slip away without
asking any more questions. The alternative might have meant a public
accusation which could have led to her being stoned to death – a
penalty that even though it wasn't often applied in the first century
was still well and truly on the statute books in Deuteronomy.

But as soon as both Ahaz and Joseph have worked out their course of
action, each of them receives a visitor who challenges him to think
again.

Ahaz finds the prophet Isaiah on his doorstep with a message from God –
"Don't do it, Ahaz – ask God for help instead – whatever you like – as high
as the heavens or as deep as the grave…" Ahaz, however, is too proud,
too stubborn to look to God. He's the king. Making decisions is his
business. This is his problem. He can sort it out. Unfortunately, he
turns out to be mistaken. The Assyrians are more than happy to come
and deal with his neighbours. They obliterate them. But while they are
in that neck of the woods they think they might as well obliterate
Israel and Judah as well. They besiege Jerusalem and decimate the
northern kingdom, seizing its treasures and enslaving its peoples,
while Judah also stands on the brink of destruction. Ahaz should have
listened.

Joseph's visitor is an angel, who appears to him in a dream, but the message
is the same – think again. "It may not make much sense, Joseph, but actually
this is God's work. Stick with Mary – God knows what God is doing…" But
unlike Ahaz, Joseph decides to listen, to wait, to trust God, even if he has
no idea how it is that God can bring any good out of this whole sorry
mess. And we all know what happens next.

The reason of course that we read these two stories today is because
they are connected by the strange words of the prophet Isaiah, which
Matthew quotes, "the young woman is with child and shall bear a son
and shall name him Immanuel." What sort of a name is that? It means,
"God is with us'. Bible scholars still argue about what Isaiah means
by this - almost certainly he is referring to a real woman who is
pregnant right now, and he is saying, look, by the time this baby is
ready to be weaned the enemies you are afraid of now are going to be
dispersed – but this is more than just a roundabout way of saying all
this will happen within 12 or 18 months – for Isaiah the baby itself
is a sign of a new beginning, a new relationship with God. The baby
itself is a sign, a message from God.

Matthew takes those words and uses them, rather out of context and with a
few twists, to refer to Mary. Because he's using the Greek manuscript
of Isaiah instead of the Hebrew one his quote from Isaiah uses the
word 'virgin' instead of translating the original Hebrew word 'almah'
which simply means 'young woman'. It probably wasn't a huge
distinction at the time but it has thrown the Church into overdrive
ever since with endless arguments about whether or not the virginal
conception of Jesus is an absolute necessity of faith. The danger
with getting too hung up on this is that we get distracted from what
really important, the really crucial point about these strange words.
You see, it isn't really the mother that is the point, it's the child.
God's sign, says Isaiah – his message to faithless Ahaz and frightened
Joseph, is the baby itself.

It's a sign that Ahaz doesn't want to read, and he decides to stick
with the DIY model of international relations – history tells us that
he crashes a bit further down the road. Joseph, the man of action who
also pays close attention to the truth of dreams, reads the sign and
acts on it.

The point, of course, is how do we read the signs? Like Ahaz, we find
ourselves in a world global alliances and economies are fraught with
danger and human lives are filled with anxiety. The path to peace is
just as elusive as ever, and we watch in helpless frustration as
millions of refugees from the miserable war in Syria huddle in
makeshift tent cities against the freezing winter. We live at a time
of unprecedented concern about the very future of the planet we live
on, and we increasingly have cause to question our own judgement about
the use of its resources. Like Joseph, our lives are filled with
anxiety over personal dilemmas. We find it hard to live with
integrity and trust, we find it hard to believe in the future when we
also have to live with bad news – the job we so badly wanted, the
relationship that should have been for ever. Where is God in the
middle of all that?

And God sends us the same sign this year. A baby with a funny name.
Immanuel, God still with us. The answer to our questions is a baby.

So what sort of sign is a baby? A baby is a symbol and a reminder of
newness, isn't it? It is a new life, a new personality. When a child
is first born its future is a mystery, its character is a mystery –
unknown and unknowable. It is not a repeat of an old pattern, even if
it does have its mother's eyes or its father's nose, and it's not a
clone, it's something that has never been seen before, a completely
new beginning. Having a child is an act of faith – you don't know what
will happen to it or how it will change you.

Every baby, everywhere, is a sign of the wonder and the miraculous
underpinning of life, a sign that the everyday world we live in is
woven through and through with God's own life. But this baby, born at
this time and into this intersection of historical circumstances – if
we are willing to see it, this baby is the sign of God with us, the
sign that we no longer have to be self-sufficient, we no longer have
to be overwhelmed by anxiety because from now on human history belongs
to God, just as Creation itself belongs to God, so now the future also
belongs to God.

Like every baby, the arrival of this baby means we have work to do.
The future doesn't make itself, trusting God's promises isn't an
excuse for passivity but on the contrary, a reason for committing
ourselves wholeheartedly to the future that the baby both promises and
needs. Nobody cares more passionately about the future, nobody works
harder for peace or equality or for the environment than parents of a
newborn child. The meaning of Christmas, is imagining the possibility
that the Child of Bethlehem, who lets face it comes every year around
this time, change us and renew our love.