Christmas Day Sermon
2020 12 25 Alan Storey
The restoration of the CMM sanctuary is now complete. This is due to the incredible generosity and hard work of so many people. No one has sought acknowledgement for their efforts in any way, and this makes the gifts received even more beautiful. Thank you therefore, not only for your generosity, but also for your humility.
We have tried our best to restore the beauty of the sanctuary and retain its simplicity. Beauty and simplicity are values in and of themselves and we trust that everyone who enters the sanctuary will experience this to be so. As people discover that the CMM sanctuary is a cared-for-space, may we always remember that we care for the space in order for it to care for people. The building exists for people, not people for the building.
When everything is sparkling clean, it is tempting to make it our main priority to keep it like this forever, but it is a sanctuary, not a museum. It is a sanctuary that keeps its doors open for all. A sanctuary where people, especially vulnerable people, are reminded of their exquisite beauty and priceless worth. A sanctuary where the poor hear good news, and the captives find release. A sanctuary that brings strangers together around a font of water – and declares by grace that everyone is one family. A sanctuary in which we find a table that welcomes all to the feast of fairness – as we all eat from one loaf and drink from the common cup. A sanctuary that we can return to over and over again when we are lost to find our bearings that rest on the most sacred truth: You are born in love, by love and for love.
Last Sunday, around the perimeter of the sanctuary, we planted what we hope will become a Spekboom Forest. May it be a sign of life and beauty and a reminder of the resurrection power of nature that we all depend on, yet seldom acknowledge – the transformation of carbon dioxide into oxygen.
We had hoped to celebrate in the Sanctuary by coming together this Sunday (29th November) which seemed appropriate on the first Sunday of Advent, but as a result of the very serious spike in Covid-19 cases in the Western Cape Metro, we have decided to delay all in-person activities. We will reassess this decision in the new year. In the meantime, we will continue to hold services via Zoom at 10 a.m. each Sunday. This will include the 10 a.m. Christmas Day Service. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the zoom link.
Please take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously. I know we are tired of it, but the hospitals in the Metro are once again being stretched to capacity. Positive cases are increasing, and people are dying. Let us therefore limit time in crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. This means that we should all be re-thinking our Christmas and New Year gatherings to make sure that they do not become Covid-19 catalyst events.
Finally, don’t forget to practice the Trinity: 1] mask up, 2] wash hands and 3] physical distance by 1.5 m.
Christmas is about Jesus. And Jesus is about the Utterly-Loving-Creator-God’s determined desire for all of creation to know that we are utterly loved.
Like Edwin Markham’s poem: Outwitted
He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
Christmas is God’s outwitting move – drawing the largest of circles that take us in. I hope that each and every one of us will know God’s loving encirclement today.
In this loving encirclement healing resides.
Knowing we live and move and have our being in God’s circle of love liberates us from the fear to love and be loved. And when all is said and done – to love and be loved is what each of us is born for.
We love because we have first been loved. We literally have to be loved into loving. This is the mission of Jesus: to love us into loving.
“Accepting Jesus” means accepting that we are loved…and thus lovable. We are saved from ourselves. “Following Jesus” means loving others as we have been loved…and thus loving. We are saved for others…especially those the world considers unlovable.
In loving encirclement,
Helpless God as child and crucified,
laid in a cradle and cradled on a cross:
help us discern in your submission
not weakness but the passionate work of love.
You tell us you are poor in every age:
naked, hungry, and without a home.
Help us in your poor cradle of today
to see what is of you and what is not:
that suffering does not often save,
or helplessness redeem our sorry lives.
And so forbid us sing when we should weep.
Yet come to us and all of ours,
O child of Mary and of God,
in all the poor who saw you first,
and laughed with you, and heard you well.
And now run back from nowhere with their news,
to plant their seeds of hope in our dry ground.
~ Michael H. Taylor
In protest over the commercialisation of Christmas Art, Conrad placed a Father Christmas on a 5m high cross in front of his home with the inscription: “Santa died for your Master Card”. That is quite a statement. But one thing we can be sure of is that Santa will never be enough of a threat to be crucified by the powers that be. The mascots of money are courted not crucified.
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” [1 Corinthians 1:20]
Yes I know Paul was speaking about the Cross when he penned these words but they are equally true about the “foolish” birth of Jesus. Paul continues: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” [1 Corinthians 1:27-28].
What a foolish God this is to choose to be born into poverty within a country under hostile occupation. Jesus needed saving before he could start his saving work. A refugee child on the run is how Jesus’ life began.
What a foolish God this is to choose to be born as a “nobody”. I mean, why not come as someone powerful or at least popular? Someone who could “get the message out” far and wide? One who had access to important people with money and who could influence the real decision-makers?
What a foolish God indeed.
As it was in the beginning so it was with Jesus’ birth. God specialises in creating out of nothing. All through scripture we see God doing wonders with so-called nobodies. Now this is affirming news when we feel like nobodies and it is also a reminder that the Divine more often than not comes to us from the unwanted margins of society. Those ignored and maligned, downtrodden and forgotten are who God uses to turn this world right-way-up. Christmas invites us to take our lead from the despised and marginalised.
CHRIST THE HUMBLE CHILD AMONG US
Humble child of Bethlehem, whose parents found no room in the inn,
we pray for all who are homeless.
Humble child of Bethlehem, born in a stable,
we pray for all who live in poverty.
Humble child of Bethlehem, rejected stranger,
we pray for all who are lost, alone, all who cry for loved ones.
Humble child of Bethlehem, whom Herod sought to kill,
we pray for all who live with danger, all who are persecuted.
Humble child of Bethlehem, a refugee in Egypt,
we pray for all refugees throughout the world.
Humble child of Bethlehem, in you God was pleased to dwell,
help us, we pray, to see the divine image in people everywhere. Amen.
David Blanchflower 1987
As another year passes I wonder if there is still enough time to become the person I was created to be but am not. The difference between the two is an aching gap and sometimes it is just a gap without the ache which is worse.
The Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner, writes: “In bygone days, we wanted to become holy. Once we desired to wear ourselves out completely for God’s honour and for the kingdom of heaven, we wanted to burn our life in the ardent flame of love. And we did not become holy.”
He goes on to write: [But] “why should we think that the selfishness of our heart in its secret pride is so powerful that it could plug all the cracks against the pressure of God’s grace?”
He continues, “We want to shun the secret fancies (our ultimate pride) that our evil stubbornness could be victorious over God’s gloriously strong love, which, when it will, dissolves even the obstinate insolence of the heart. We also want to let God be greater in our life than our barren heart and admit that he can reap a harvest even out of the stony field of our soul, a harvest that praises the power of God’s grace. We have become holier.
“But we haven’t become holy. Not because we haven’t worked any miracles or converted any nations or directed the inexorable stream of universal history … but rather because we haven’t loved God as we really should, with the whole heart and with all our strength. We cannot yet forego this duty. We cannot be satisfied with ourselves yet. Our heart doesn’t love without measure and without bound as it could love and must love.
“It loves a little, yes; but a little in this matter is almost worse than nothing. For the heart that completely denies itself still hasn’t found its master. One thing is still left; the heart must surrender itself entirely and without division.
“But who will gather up this divided, disunited heart and make it sincere, so that it can surrender itself to God, all at once, without division? Alas! Our poor dilapidated heart! It is so strange: it yearns a little for stronger love, and conceals a wicked annoyance at the boundless demands of love; and bother of these together are covered over by a feeling of weakness and feebleness.
“The heart of a man (sic) who is growing old, and who did not become holy, feels like this. The heart is well disposed, but it feels too keenly its weakness. The real opportunities for unconditional, boundless love (can we want to love any other way?), the inevitable opportunities that are sent to us — not chosen by us — no longer present themselves. Did we really waste the best hours of our life, the precious opportunities for love God?”
Do you hear the regret in Rahner’s final question to us? Does it resonate within you? What of the gap between what we are and what we have not become?
As the date changes reminding us of the passing of time I invite you to pray the prayer of St Richard:
Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.
I cannot think of a more needed prayer to be prayed by anyone: May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.
I love the way Charles Wesley describes the incarnation: “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man (sic)….He deigns in flesh to appear / Widest extremes to join… And we the life of God shall know / For God is manifest below.”
Nothing could ever be so unexpected. The God of heaven has an earthly address. As Karl Rahner has written:Now we no longer need to seek God in the endlessness of heaven, where our spirit and our heart get lost. Now he himself is on our very earth, where he is no better off than we and where he receives no special privileges, but our every fate: hunger, weariness, enmity, mortal terror and a wretched death. That the infinity of God should take upon itself human narrowness, that bliss should accept the mortal sorrow of the earth, that life should take on death — this is a most unlikely truth. But only this — the obscure light of faith — makes our nights bright, only this makes them holy.
I met someone the other day from Belgium. She came to be in South Africa especially for the 10 days of mourning that followed Nelson Mandela’s death. She was irresistibly drawn to be here — to the soil and the people — to share and to love and to hold. Having visited South Africa before she carried a permanent sense of connection within herself for us. “I just had to be here at this time”, she said.
God’s earthly visit to share and to love and to hold is what Christmas is all about. And forevermore God carries a permanent sense of connection within God’s self for us.
Look around you. God is near. Look inside you. God is near. Take comfort because God is near. Tremble with awe because God is near. And get this … now it is impossible to escape God loving you.
Prayer of Preparation
YOU are with us!
YOU are with US!
YOU are WITH US!
YOU ARE WITH US!
O Lord give to us the gift of knowing your presence and the blessing of peace and courage that flows from it. Amen.
This poem below by Jack Gilbert defends the right to delight in a world saturated with suffering and division. I share it with you because Christmas is God’s invitation for us to delight…
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Forget all the pictures you have seen of Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus painted in serene holiness. This modern day picture from Palestine is probably much closer to the truth of their experience.
Mary courageously consented …
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
Source: “Annunciation” in Breathing the Water
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
Source: Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas