Thursday, 27 December 2012

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown loses the plot.

There was a most bizarre piece in last weekend's Independent. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown meets a compassionless right-wing woman at a party and concludes
The only lesson learnt from the Nativity story (and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol too) is that presents must be given and received, stuff none of us needs or even wants. Three wise men gave to Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. So now we all must buy, buy, buy. Bearded Brad Pitt selling us Chanel perfume is our own wise man; and the Tiffany boxes that will be opened tomorrow are Christian offerings.

What a stain all this is upon that great faith and its beginnings. Christianity is dying not only because people would rather shop than go to church on Sundays, but because it is not longer true to itself and has sold its soul to capitalism.

So, let's get this right .... people shopping rather than going to church on Sundays -- presumably these would not be Christian people, then -- means that "Christianity" has sold out? She then compares her imagined compassionless consumer-fest of the modern secular Christmas unfavourably with the original Christmas story in the New Testament, as I would guess the great majority of Christian preachers were tempted to do and many probably did in one form or another (in fact, as I did -- see previous post 'A Tale of Two Stories') and concludes that 'Christianity' has rejected its own story in favour of a narrative that despises the poor and blames them for their own misfortune. And all of this with no evidence whatsoever.

The only way I can make any sense out of it at all is if she is equating the prevailing culture of this country with 'Christianity' (in other words, this is a 'Christian nation'). Are there any Brits still around that believe that Great Britain is the model of a Christian nation? I think she's confusing us with the United States of America.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas Day sermon : 'A Tale of Two Stories'

A couple of years back there was an atheist bus advert : "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Well, as I've said many times before, the first sentence there is just a pointless statement, anyway. It's as sensible to me as saying "There's probably no reality". But let's pass on that for now. The real problem with this message is the suggestion that if it weren't for this troublesome worry about God's possible existence, you could just get on and enjoy life. If only those bothersome religious people would go away we could all enjoy ourselves. And that is often the message of Christmas : "Happy Christmas! Merry Christmas!" — but finding a Christmas card that has any reference to the Christmas story is quite a job these days.

What is 'enjoyment'? 'Enjoyment' is just one of a thousand human emotions, and a fairly fleeting one at that. Look at the Christmas story and see if you can find 'enjoyment' there. What you'll find is the whole gamut of human emotions : pride, joy, faith/trust, wonder, humility, sense of rejection, hatred, tenderness, anxiety, fear (even terror), resentment, puzzlement, trepidation, pain, hope — the whole gamut of human emotions. Pretty much everything, in fact, except possibly 'enjoyment'.

It seems that anything that gets in the way of 'enjoyment' at Christmas somehow doesn't belong in the story of our secular Christmas. Including religion, which doesn't sound very 'enjoyable'.

Now ask yourself which version of Christmas most reflects real life. The one we're supposed to be living in, in which there is perpetual enjoyment — or the 'mythical' story in the New Testament? The one in which everyone walks around with a perpetual smile on their face, or the one in which, moment by moment, we experience a whole range of feelings?

Seems to me that it's the Merry Christmas that we're supposed to be living in that's the mythical one. In fact, if I were cynical — maybe I am — this Merry Christmas is actually a myth devised to sell us things. After all, the only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products.

I've nothing against enjoyment — bring it on! You know me — the highlight of my month is to be sitting in a pub with a glass of beer on the table, a melodeon on my lap and a bunch of friends around me playing English traditional dance music. I could happily do that eight hours a day. But to say that life is to be enjoyed — just enjoyed — "is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare." (a quotation from Francis Spufford's 'Unapologetic') Life is richer than that, and that richness is all there in the real Christmas story. Everyone finds a place in that story. It's quite remarkable.

People sometimes talk to me about the 'real meaning of Christmas', but to be honest I've no idea what they mean by that. They often seem to think I must know what the 'real meaning of Christmas' is, being a minister, but to be honest I don't think there is a single meaning. It's a story. What that story means depends who, in the story, you identify with.

Maybe you've recently become a mother, in which case you may identify with Mary. What might you learn from her? Maybe you're a step-dad, like Joseph. Or run a fully-booked hotel. Maybe you are a powerful politician, or a political refugee. . . . or a poorly-educated peasant looking for the revolution . . . . perhaps, a foreign intellectual and scholar.

Certainly, at the centre of the story, there's a mystery. The story revolves around that mystery. Who is this child? And (the story suggests) each of us has to ask that question "what does this child mean — for me?"

Some will conclude that the child is the bearer of hope — an eternal hope. Some that he's the leader of the Revolution. Many will conclude that the world would be better off without this child. The story goes on to tell how this child was not wanted, and why. As the old carol says : "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee . . ."

There is light in this Christmas story, but actually you have to dig really deep to find it, because it's a dark story, full of foreboding as well as promise. You have to dig deep into the whole story of God's people in the Old Testament in order to find the light of God's promise being fulfilled, but also being twisted — not being fulfilled in the way people expected or even wanted.

The problem with the story of our secular Christmas is the opposite one. Really, it's just a load of froth with a single empty message : "Be Happy!" And you have to dig down past the froth to find why 'being happy' might not be as easy to achieve as it is to go shopping for stuff. That story, told in a thousand adverts, just doesn't work; it's not true. Underneath the froth, we all know that our emotional life is more complicated than being happy all the time, by magic.

If we believed that modern mythical story we wouldn't need to be looking for the light of hope. But, unless we're living in a fairytale world, we are looking for hope. And although the Christmas story sounds a bit like a fairytale, it really, really isn't. It tells it how it is, and it points us towards the light, the source of that hope.

That hope (says the story) is found in different ways by different people, living in a messy world. But the hope is embodied in this child — a child embedded in a greater story of God's dealings with his people. Look for this child in your world. Look for this child in your own personality. It is a gift of God : treasure it!

Christmas Eve sermon : God like a baby (vulnerable but demanding)

The power behind the Christian sacrament we celebrate tonight is the greatest power there is : the power of love.

Love doesn't work like money. If I have love, it doesn't mean that you have less love. If anything, it means you have more. You can't trade love without devaluing it — turning it into something less than love. You could say "I'll love you if you do x, y or z", but that's not love, as Christians understand it.

The Love which is symbolised by this bread and wine is nothing like money or material goods. For a start, there is an infinite resource of this love — there need never be a shortage. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the love in this world takes the form of communion bread and wine. You can't store love in a bank account or strongbox, to be used later. Love is minted fresh whenever it's being spent. Love :

needs nothing, competes with nothing, compels nothing, exists at nothing's expense

from Francis Spufford "Unapologetic"

If love is perceived as a threat by anyone you have to ask "what's wrong with them?"

But unfortunately love is perceived as a threat, because there is a lot that is wrong with humans and the rules their societies make (often with the best of motives). So it is that the love of God ended up taking this terrible form — symbols of a man's broken body and spilt blood. Because love — real love, God's crazy, forgiving love — is, unfortunately, seen as a threat to the world we live in.

Tonight of all nights we remember that love — infinite love, the love of God — takes the form not just of bread and wine, but of a baby. That is an important story that illustrates God's power. It tells how God comes in weakness, in vulnerability, in powerlessness, in dependence. God doesn't come forcing himself down our throats, forcing us to use his currency.

But ask any parent : a baby does have power all right. A baby makes demands, all the time. It can't feed itself, so it cries. Middle of a phone call, middle of the night, it cries and won't stop till it's satisfied. The world revolves around a baby.

And all creatures are tuned to respond to their babies' cries of distress — it's deep in our nature. It doesn't have to be forced; it's there in our makeup. A baby's cry stirs a response. We can't help it.

And that is how God comes to us — utterly powerless, yet completely demanding. God's like a baby — that's what the Christmas story seems to say. The world revolves around it. This baby is a sacrament of God. And if — if — we could hear God's cries of distress in this world, then if we were fully human (and not hard-hearted) we couldn't help ourselves responding — freely responding, as if to a baby in distress. That's how God's Spirit works. Always drawing us to God, but always leaving us free . . . always drawing us to God, but always leaving us free.

To eat sacramental bread and drink sacramental wine — Jesus's body and blood — is to respond to God's cry of distress which God shares with the world. Like a baby's cry of distress. It is to recognise God's vulnerability (as of a baby). But it is also to be renewed by the great, crazy power of God's love, vulnerable as a baby, stronger than death, always 'on tap'.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Embrace the Mess

I've been rather tempted away from blogging towards Twitter (@greenwolff) in recent months but have decided to post up my three short Christmas addresses here. Here's this morning's (Sunday 23rd) :

John the Baptist — renowned as a hellfire preacher. "You snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (The coming wrath being the wrath of the Messiah). But when the people ask "What must we do to be saved?" his advice seems very mild. He tells the soldiers to be content with their pay and not extort money from innocent people with menaces (i.e. run protection rackets). He doesn't tell the tax-collectors for the occupying power to stop collecting the Romans' taxes, but he does tell them not to add a secret supplement and pocket the difference. (i.e. it's OK to collude with people's oppression but don't abuse the power they've given you). And he urges those who are wealthy enough to have more food than they can eat to share it (well, you'd only have to throw it away); and those who've got two coats please give one to someone who is in danger of freezing to death at night (because in that world your coat was also your sleeping bag). We do that in this country, albeit through the tax and benefit system. At least, we used to. So basically, John the Baptist's repentance need cost us nothing.

On the other hand, when Jesus's disciples asked what they must do to be saved Jesus advises them to sell everything they have and give the proceeds away, abandon their family ("leave the dead to bury their dead") and follow him - if necessary to a humiliating public execution. And yet he's the guy portrayed as meek and gentle, the baby in the manger.

All fall short of the glory of God, according to Jesus. Even Jesus himself does, it seems, conscious though he is of being God's 'beloved Son'. "Why do you call me good?" Being good all the time is not an achievable goal for human beings, and it's dangerous nonsense to pretend it is. All share 'the human capacity to mess things up'. Jesus's message represents a radical levelling. Jesus walks through the purity laws that define the righteous from the sinners : purity, marked out by laws that define the boundary between good and evil. The difference between a good person and a bad person is really not very much in God's scheme of perfection, it seems. Certainly not enough to allow a person whom the world considers 'good' any complacency.

I think that after he was wowed by John the Baptist's preaching and accepted baptism ("Why do you call me good?") Jesus hears God's call to mission and goes out into the desert to reflect on it. I think he sees the danger in John's message : it doesn't go far enough. It leaves too much room for self-righteousness. It doesn't go to the root of the human condition. It imagines that if more people behaved a bit better — especially the world's rulers — the Kingdom would come. And that isn't true. That's not how humans are. They mess it up, terribly, sometimes for the best of reasons. They can't help it.

So humans being humans, we need laws :

God knows that we need justice, without which no human city can stand. There must be rule by rules, or force will tear down every wall. Since blood will be shed no matter what, humans being humans, better that it should be shed to try to protect the weak from the strong, to guard the widow and the orphan and the traveller on the road, to settle quarrels without massacres. Innocence and guilt must be portioned out. Punishments must be assigned. Judgements must be made. Our nature requires it.
But God's nature doesn't. The law is needful for us, not for him. .... The law says that everyone should get what they deserve, but God already knows what we deserve with terrible precision, and he wants us to have more than that. ... He comes to us, right now, where we live in the grip of our necessities, to bring us the rest of his gift, to complete the work the law began.

from 'Unapologetic' by Francis Spufford

Jesus represents the opposite of John the Baptist's call to 'come out from amongst them' and be a righteous sect in a dirty world. The greatest evil is self-righteousness, because it's such a travesty of the truth. If humans are righteous it's more by luck than design, and the chances are that our best attempts at righteousness will mess up eventually. The good things we do will get twisted and end up doing harm. That's just what humans do.

No, the Messiah's message is not John's message of 'come out from among the unrighteous, and stop breaking God's laws' but 'do the opposite — enter the world of 'sinners'. The messed-up world. Don't avoid the messer-uppers — get to know them. You're one of them. Love them (if you can) with God's love which is the only pure and infinite love. Remember, you are one of those humans. Maybe you've been luckier in the opportunities you've had and the choices you've made, that's all. There, but for the grace of God . . .'

As we will remember tomorrow night and Tuesday morning, that is exactly what God does in the Christmas story. Maybe one day the wheat and the chaff will be separated, but here we see God entering our human world to puncture the pride, vindicate the humility, shatter the boundaries between the classes, the religions and the nations. And not one of us can say we don't need the challenge, the forgiveness and the hope that he brings.

tomorrow night : God like a baby