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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist 1st Sunday of Christmas

Sunday 29th December 2013
Cathedral Eucharist
Heb 2:10-end
Matt: 2:13-23
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A voice in Ramah wails with loud lamentation.

Rachel weeping for her children.

Voices wail in Syria and South Sudan.

Women weeping for their children.

Fathers refusing to be consoled.

They are no more.

Today's Gospel is as far from the sparkle and happy ending of the John Lewis Christmas ad as it is possible to get.   The Christ child was born into a world like ours: where tyrants still preserve their power by killing the most vulnerable;  where parents still ask 'what threat does this child pose?'.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that a good portion of the evils that afflict humankind is due to the erroneous belief that life can be made secure by violence.  Herod is not only one to succumb to this delusion. His position was precarious for he depended on roman patronage; if he lost control of a troublesome outpost of the empire, he would be at their mercy.  Fear of insurrection, rebellion and challenge made him fearful and cruel.

When he hears the magi speak of Jesus' birth, his fear was roused.  He was acutely aware of the impact of their message politically - the land was longing for liberation from oppression.  The stability of the empire was threatened by rival rulers; his own position was at risk.  Herod enacts the erroneous connection between stability and violence.

Power couched in fear draws its strength from death.   Herod began by hating Jesus and ended up hating and murdering children.  This is what the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauwerwas calls the politics of murder. 

We are called to an alternative.  To the work of acknowledging fear, including our own; and to the demanding process of transforming conflict.  Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father.  That reality shapes our lives. Our readings are full of allusions which help us make sense of this.

Joseph had to confront his own fears.  In his dream, God speaks and he listens.  He acts in trust for the sake of Mary and for the child who is Emmanuel, God with us.  His fear is turned into action: love, solidarity, compassion, protection.  He takes his family to a place of sanctuary. 

Egypt is a place full of memories and meaning for the people of God.  They found relief in famine, were enslaved and brought to freedom.  Joseph finds safety in exile; he waits to return home in hope.

It was Moses who liberated and led God's people out of Egypt.  Yet in Jesus, the hopes and dreams of a people longing for the fulfilment of a promise take on fresh form. In him, there is redemption for the whole world.  Magi came from the ends of the earth and worshiped at his cradle; following his death and resurrection his disciples are sent to al the nations. 

The contrast between Herod's rule and the one born in Bethlehem is stark: as a refugee in exile; as he dwells in Galilee; as he walks the land; there are none of the usual trappings of power.  As Hauerwas puts it, there is no power but power which comes from his love of the lost sheep of Israel.  Such love is the alternative. Our

human existence is to be centred on the Word made flesh; God with us.  His life, death and resurrection creates an alternative community and way of living. 

He suffers and feels the intensity of pain and temptation; he shares our common humanity - and is the pioneer of our salvation.    He defeats suffering and death and reveals the depth of God's love for us.  His victory is our redemption. However fragile our existence, God's mercy and steadfast love are made manifest in Jesus.

The ideals we cherish of freedom, equality, justice, the dignity of each person are worthy goals; but our capacity to embrace and honour them is flawed.  We need to reconnect such ideals, our vision for God's Kingdom, with the one who proclaims and embodies them: Jesus is the kingdom in person.

We too are called to narrate and embody the Kingdom.  That is the profoundly challenging and unsettling calling of the Church.  How do we hold on to that vision in the midst of a brutal and complex world?

Donald MacKinnon manages to hold hope and honesty together.  He acknowledges that the  victory of resurrection does not mean that children are no less dead; or parents are any less bereaved.  Resurrection makes it possible for the followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed. 

Killing of children a dreadful atrocity.  There is no comforting explanation or justification; the cries of lamentation and unconsolable grief disturb us and call forth a response.  The one who is God with us takes us to a place alongside them. A place of silence, challenge, compassion and questioning.

Some of you may remember John Humphries'  asking Rowan Williams in the wake of  the massacre in Beslan: 'where was God yesterday morning?' The silence that followed was shattering in its honesty - refusing to offer platitudes or complex justifications, Rowan said nothing.

Before repeating the question: Where was God?

In Beslan, in Bethlehem, in Syria, in Sudan, in Aberfan, in Dunblane.

Rowan's short answer was:  God is where God always is, and that is with those who are trying to comfort and bring light in any such situation.  As, he surmises, a older child puts arms round a younger child, you might see God.

In our world, innocent people get hurt; justice is not done; rulers are ruthless.  We have to face our own fears in the midst of this: to we align ourselves with forces and systems based on the abuse of power and control, as all Jerusalem colluded with Herod? Or do we dream and act with vision and risk as Joseph did?

Jesus faces the full weight of that pain, sorrow and destructive/vindictive violence; yet human wrath does not extinguish love of God.  How to live in the light of that hope is challenging.  It is the suffering of children which most calls forth our compassion and most arouses our horror at the lengths human beings go to to seize or retain power. 

Children draw us into the future; they remind us that we have responsibilities beyond our own good.  Their love and need and potential is overwhelming.  What they learn and experience from us sets a trajectory for the future.  When we pressurise, neglect or harm them; when we witness the destruction of their stability and the ruin of their lives we have to ask ourselves is this rooting the world in God's future .  It is in this season of Christmastide that we remember that that is how God chose to communicate his love to us. 

Kings come and go; God's Kingdom has begun.

Not in a place; but in exile. Not in might; but in a child.  Not in fear; but in compassion.

The Church is called to be a movement manifesting this alternative by refusing to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history. Love has won in birth, death and resurrection.  To quote Hauerwas again: the movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God's patience, to challenge the worlds's impatient violence by cross and resurrection.

God has given us gifts of bread and wine to be offered to that the world may know that there is an alternative to Herod.  Here pain is names and joy is glimpsed.  Here we are reminded in the loving, reconciling providence of God in the face of the tragic;  here we are honest about the cries of our world and here we are reminded of the cost of God's redemption.

In the face of refugees, violent rulers and untimely death, we are called to offer practical help, resistance and challenge.  In the incarnation, Jesus humbled himself to share our humanity; we are called to share the life of his divinity in embodying the Kingdom as he did.

We are to be light and hope in our world.  It is in small things that we begin to turn the tide.  Jesus knew the love and protection of his family, who themselves took risks; we can't avoid the risk and cost of love.  Jesus is God with us, immersed in the world and confronting its cruelty; we to have to embrace that reality.

We are to walk in the light one step at a time; trusting that hope will be multiplied.  The Kingdom is journey - surprising road; may find ourselves strangers/at home, with unexpected allies.  Small things.  Acting for God's Kingdom is to resist being enslaved by the power of others; acting to make a difference with whatever freedom we have.  In small acts of generosity and comfort we reveal God's enduring love for that person.  God's Kingdom breaks in.