Monday 24 December 2007

Christmas Sermon 07

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

When I was preparing this sermon that verse from St Luke Chapter 2 kept going around and around in my head. For some reason I could not let it go, especially the last phrase: “because there was no place for them in the inn”.

On reflection I think I know now why that verse was so prominent in my mind. For the last few weeks our son Aaron had been preparing for his role in his school nativity play in St. Anne’s: He only had two words to say – he was an innkeeper in Bethlehem and the two words were: “NO ROOM”. These words were repeated ad nauseum from morning to night and thankfully when his moment came the words were shouted out in no uncertain terms! NO ROOM! And Mary and Joseph shrank away to that stable where it all began.

And so the Messiah, the Prince of Peace begins his life as a homeless person… invisible person….a person of no substance or worth… outcast!

It’s a strange celebration this time we call Christmas – we romanticize it and sanitize it – but in reality Jesus is born in chaos and squalour. The stable is a shed – it is probably cold and draughty, smelly and unhygienic - It’s a long way from a lot of the Christmas carols we sing!

Listening to Christmas music this year I have been struck by one song which while not overtly religious portrays more effectively than any other the brokenness that is an integral part of the Christmas story.

That song is not a new song, nor is it an ancient one: It is Fairytale of New York’, sung by Shane McGowan & the late Kirsty MacColl which shows the ups and downs of the live of a young couple – high hopes and shattered dreams – its all there! And as the music fades we see in the accompanying video they are still dancing together through it all……somehow in their brokenness they find a way through. That irreligious song may in fact be far more religious that some of the pious sentiment in our traditional Christmas hymns and carols. They are beautiful and they are inspiring and they do add to our experience of Christmas but sometimes they only tell part of the story….they speak of the light but shy away from the darkness. And as we know the light is only the light when it illuminates the darkness!

And there is plenty of darkness in the Christmas story: Jesus is born in a shed to an underage mother…..his paternity seems to be a mater of some confusion….he is homeless and his parents will soon have to flee with him to escape Herod’s wrath….he is to be a refugee! It doesn’t get much more messed up than that – we love to talk today about dysfunctional families but Jesus’ early family circumstances leaves even the most unusual family I have ever encountered looking decidedly NORMAL!

And yet! With his birth nothing will ever be the same again……God has intervened in human history in the most concrete way possible by becoming as one of us! And who does he come as? ….. A King, a ruler, a great warrior, a wealthy businessman…….NONE of these! A homeless refugee! Just like the refugees of today who daily die in their thousands for want of food, medicine, shelter and safety! NO ROOM!

This is how Jesus first came into our lives and as he was ignored and despised by many then so today he would certainly have the same experience. Homeless people aren’t top of the list of the guests we invite to our homes and our hearts at Christmas or any other time of the year for that matter: NO ROOM!

I have been reading recently a book called THE IRRESISTABLE REVOLUTION by a young Christian called Shane Claiborne. He is a founder member of a modern monastic community in Philadelphia called THE SIMPLE WAY and they live among the poor and the marginalised building community and hope in places of despair and lonliness. A lot of his work is among the homeless and he tells a wonderful true story about a group of about 40 homeless families who had been living in a tent city and through flooding and rat infestation had to abandon their tents and found refuge in a disused and abandoned cathedral! Predictably enough after 48 hours the caring local church served an eviction order on them. However they were not alone – a body of over 100 college students moved in alongside them and refused to budge until homes were found for these people. The protest went on for weeks and months and eventually the church authorities used health and safety legislation to serve another eviction order on the grounds that the building did not meet fire regulations! This of course presented a huge problem for the occupiers of the cathedral: How could they possibly meet fire standards? The night before the inspection was due there was a knock on the door. It was almost midnight and as the occupiers opened the door they saw 2 firemen standing outside. In fear thinking the inspection had been brought forward they tried to close the door as the two firemen protested – “Don’t do that – We’re here to help! – What’s happening isn’t right and we want to help you get ready for the morning – we could loose our jobs for doing this but we can’t let them do this to you! - We know what they will be looking for – let us help you!”

And so they did - they brought in boxes of signs, fire-xtinguishers, smoke detectors and worked all night to get the building up to standard. The next day the fire marshall had no choice but to pass the building and ultimately the protest only ended when the city authorities finally opened up empty housing and other private individuals actually gave houses to homeless families. And as Shane Claibourne comments in conclusion – “we never saw the firefighter angels again!”

I don’t need to point to the terrible irony in that story – It is blindingly obvious!

And it is a caution for all of us who call ourselves religious that what we say with our lips is in harmony with what we do with our hands and feet. Are we as Church – as the people of God - able and willing to respond to the needs of the poor and abandoned, the marginalised and unloved? Are we prepared to do more than just dip our hands into our pockets and dispense loose change or are we really prepared to get our hands dirty and befriend and embrace the broken people we encounter at a distance? That is the uncomfortable implication of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth! Because of what God did in the squalour of that shed in poverty and depravity then God is calling us into those places of brokenness and ugliness to discover the beauty that is in every human being created in God’s image!

That is the Gospel of the Incarnation – It’s a big, big package, it breaks down doors, it takes risks, it demands our everything and our response can sadly only be NO ROOM unless we get rid of a lot of the worthless baggage and ballast that enslaves and traps us in lives of mediocrity and safety.

The Gospel is not safe, nor secure, not predictable nor tidy but it is life in all its extraordinary beauty, fragility and brokenness, epitomised in the birth of a helpless infant born in squalor and fear who can through weakness transform and beautify the most ugly parts of our lives.

Have we room?………Have you room in your hearts for HIM?

Friday 21 December 2007

Armed robbery at TESCO

Went to TESCO this evening to buy some of their budget photocopy paper. I picked up a sealed box of 5 reams and headed for the till. That was when it all started to go pear-shaped! The checkout girl scanned the barcode on the box: Error! Then she manually entered the code and same result: Error! She then informed me that she couldn't sell it to me if it didn't scan. I calmly suggested that she open the box and scan the reams inside which seemed like a moment of genius to her! She then looked helplessly at the box which was sealed with one of those unopenable seals as used to seal bales of briquettes. Realising her predicament I helpfully suggested: "I have a knife" and took out my trusty swiss army knife. Only when she stepped backwards and looked at me in terror did I realise she thought I was about to steal a box of A4 paper at knifepoint! Just before she hit the alarm I managed to say: "It's not a threat - I was only going to open the box!"
Still visibly shaken she watched as I opened the box and she duly successfully scanned the paper.
Happily the rest of our transaction passed without incident. Though in future I will keep my weapons concealed! :-)