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Thursday, 26 December 2013

Pah ruppa pum pum

SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH
OF SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
CHRISTMAS DAY 2013

Biblical scholar N.T. or Tom Wright in a now famous sermon from 2007 challenged his listeners to rediscover their inner child at Christmas time. Citing that other Tom, T.S. Eliot’s enigmatic line ‘There was a birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt,’ Wright correctly in my opinion sees the two great festivals of the Christian calendar to be intrinsically entwined, life and death and in each case so much more, and to know that both these festivals do not genuflect to but critique the short-sighted analysis of human rational thought.  The Magi of Eliot’s poem entwine Christmas and Easter perhaps because they have grown old and the tendrils of dementia are tangling their memory banks, but perhaps also because there is and can always be no birth without death, no death without birth, and each is a tentative step into the miracles of God and of God’s universe.

There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The magi, at the end of their lives, remember a transition, effected by an encounter with something beyond even or especially the comprehension of the wise of the powerful, and know that their lives were changed irreversibly, confusingly, bewilderingly, but irreversibly.
It is de rigueur to sneer at simplicity. Not, paradoxically at simplicity of visual art, where a simple transept of lines or indeed an interconnection of wiggles can evoke deep analysis and awe-inspired reverence in an art display, but simplicity of faith and thought. The awe of a child at Christmas is seen to be cringeworthy, surpassed only by the silliness of adults who continue to believe six impossible things before breakfast. The birth of a child from a peasant girl’s womb, or the mysterious transcendence of that other inescapable Tomb on Easter morning, these are seen to be the things of ridicule. Not least clergy and theologians back away from any sense that God might break out of human expectation, transcend our myopia, and in one mysterious solitary life two thousand years ago permit the mysteries of eternity to be incarnate in the mundanity and sometimes sheer tedium of human being.

Theologians and clergy will sneer, too, at simplicity, losing sight of its profundity in their satisfaction with their own erudition. It is popular to sneer for example at the gentle wisdom of the Romantic Centuries’ telling of the Incarnation in the carols of Christmas: no one is pretending, really, that the birth of Jesus was quite as the carols suggest, but that most of these have been useful if sometimes flawed vehicles of the unpretentious awe and mystery of a God who invades and transforms human existence. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. Even the folksy tale of the Little Drummer Boy, considered infradig by religious purists, and made famous originally by the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame in the 1950s, points to a profound truth: what is the best from our poor lives that we can give as appreciation to the God who draws near to us in Christ? 

We can’t intellectualize our way to faith. Paul referred to faith as foolishness to the wise, and we like to see ourselves as wise. Indeed we as adults have so lost touch with the inner child that we have taught our children not to be children. With deft and determined strokes of the sociological pen we have forced then to grow up too fast in a myriad of ways, some more deeply demonic than others. In doing so we have been stripping from them and ultimately from ourselves the awe inspired by a God who draws near, touches, transforms human lives.

Can I explain all this? The magi of Eliot’s poem flounder: ‘were we lead all that way for / Birth or Death?’ I suggest we cannot encounter the resurrection hope of Christ until we allow ourselves to learn awe and mystery and awe once more: was this a birth, or a death? The answer is “yes”. The God who infiltrated the womb of Mary, who transcended the Tomb of Joseph of Aramathea, and who still enters and transforms willing human lives can turn both birth and death into a God-filled, sacred journey into fullness of existence: the onus is on us to discover again the childlike, un-cynical expectation that says “Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray”

TLBWY

Friday, 20 December 2013

Be born in us - even today

SERMON PREACHED AT THE ORMOND CHAPEL NAPIER
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(22nd DECEMBER) 2013

Readings:
Isaiah 7: 10-16
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
Romans 1: 1-7
Matthew 1.18-25

The contemporary routines of Christmas – probably contemporary for nearly a hundred years now – create a psychological ‘disconnect,’ a parallel narrative of which even Dr Who might be proud. Our readings, prayers and intercessions take us on a journey that begins with expectation of the second-coming of Christ, and then segue clumsily into preparation for the first coming of Christ at Bethlehem to millennia ago. In the meantime our secular western world celebrates the madness of the Capitalist frenzy, with retailers doing their utmost, understandably, to ensure that all their survival needs and then their profit needs are met and hopefully exceeded in a gut-busting orgy of marketing and selling. In the midst of all this the Christchild and Saint Nicholas, in his commercialised rebadging as Santa, compete for attention, with the Christchild losing badly, and both in any case sneeringly dismissed as ‘fairy tales’ about an ‘invisible friend.’

It is not an easy time in which to recapture the heart and soul of the gospel writers’ tale. Of course, as I suggest in my notes on the gospel elsewhere (see my Pivotal Pokes blog of December 21st), it was not easy for them either. They were using the best tools available to them to express the inexpressible, the God incarnate in the person and work and life and death and resurrection of a prickly prophet, the son of the wife of a carpenter from Nazareth. Those tolls can still work two millennia late, but as John Lennon wrote (though he meant the words in a very different way) ‘Christ, you know it ain’t easy.’

The stories do not translate easily into our world. They can be distorted by well-intending or less well-intending believers, or mocked by those who for whatever reasons are antagonistic to the message of Christianity. We must wear that, as the early Christians did: the first known non-Christian reference to Christians and their message is not of the ‘boy born in manger saves world’ type much loved by somewhat clich├ęd Christian signposts, but graffiti portraying Jesus as a crucified donkey. The artist is conflating no doubt the Triumphal Entrance story with the Good Friday story, but demonstrates incidentally that the Christian gospel was not altogether easy to convey. Oh how I wish, sometimes, that God had performed these revelations of the saving self, the saving purpose of God in other ways!

But it is not our job to second guess God. What in any case can God do? Can there be a message more intimate than incarnation? A sort of celestial email pleading, bribing or otherwise coercing humans into belief and acceptable behaviour is poor substitute for enfleshment in the midst of human experience. A series of neon lights across the sky telling us what to do, believe, say, is unlikely ultimately to touch and transform the yearning human heart (and in any case is not every almost every sunset, almost every sunrise, almost every awesome display of aurora borealis or its southern cousin, is not every display of a peacock’s tail or a monarch butterfly’s wing or a chameleon’s mind-blowing transitions a display of the poetry of the Creator, and even yet so easily dismissed with the sneering superiority of some science?). Neither a divine email nor an inescapably bellowed divine voice is substitute for the gentle, nurturing presence of God that can but only can be experienced in worship, in fellowship, in meditation and in study of God’s story.

The Hebrew people longed for a coming Messiah – and indeed still do. We long for the touch of Christ in celestial return, winding up the suffering of the cosmos that we are blithely destroying, winding up, too, the sometimes immeasurable suffering of human lives that we witness either around us in person or around our world via the media. We cry, perhaps with puzzlement and with the first Christians ‘come lord, come, maranatha.’ As the psalmist put it, ‘how long will you be angry with you people’s prayers … let your face shine that we may be saved.’ Isaiah’s people longed for a sign, and perhaps they missed it, though in saying that we need to recognize the way, the many ways we their cousins in faith continue to miss signs of the work of God in our midst. Paul spoke over and again of grace, the invasion of human lives, undeserving all, by divine love. Matthew spoke of an angel’s words, ‘God is with us.’ Sometimes, as so much changes and our churches seem to collapse around our ears, symbolically and literally, it seems as though Joseph must have been misled, fooling himself and his successors. I though don’t think that’s true: it is fashionable to belittle our romantic carols, but there are few lyrics that resonate more within my own life experience than Phillips Brooks’ famous words ‘Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today,’ and ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’

It may not be fashionable to hang on to the seemingly archaic, odd, even risible tales of the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew but I believe, though they were never meant as scientific analysis of the DNA of Jesus, they point to an essential truth of the gospel: God does not email us from a distant star but, by invitation, enters into our very essence, transforming even our journey from darkness into light, and ensuring that, while it may not yet be apparent, even humanity’s deepest darknesses are penetrated by resurrection light.

TLBWY