|Minister's Sermon - 24th December 2019|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church |
Tuesday 24th December 11.30pm
This first Christmas service is my Dad’s favourite service. Even after he’d stopped going to church every week he still took us to midnight mass. And even ‘though either my sister or I felt faint, and we’d have to go home early, he still went the next year. There’s something special about coming out in the darkness, each from our separate homes, to be together to welcome the birth of Jesus. There are many ways of expressing what we’ve come for. Isaiah, talks about people, “seeing a great light.” The angels tell the shepherds to go and see “a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.” While Charles Wesley’s hymn invites us to share with all of earth and heaven in praising “in songs divine… our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” That’s a sermon in itself, but not the one I want to preach tonight, because there’s another phrase I keep coming back to. It’s from a reflection by the Iona Community. And it’s this. “When the world was dark, and everything was very quiet, you came. You crept in beside us. And no one knew.” “You crept in beside us. And no one knew.” The momentous thing of which our hymns and readings speak, were hidden, and happening out of sight. There was light, but it was only on the edge, and as the story continued, it was hidden from sight. And just as Jesus “crept in,” so our coming together happens almost silently, hidden from view, while the world continues to prepare for a Christmas that has little to do with the readings we’ve just heard.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, begins with emperor’s decree, that “all the world should be registered.” So, everyone travelled to their own towns to be registered, at the whim of an emperor who cared nothing for the upheaval it would cause ordinary people. There’s no record of Emperor Augustus’ decree. And the dates when Quirinius was governor of Syria don’t match the date of Jesus’ birth. So, there are enough problems with the first two verses of this story, for atheists to dismiss it as a fairy tale. And yet we recognise its truth. An ordinary family has their life disturbed by the decisions of those with power. For whether they’re legitimately elected governments or dictators, gangs, armies or terrorists, religious authorities or people with business interests, the decisions of those with power, still have greatest impact on ordinary people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ birth takes place, in the middle of an extraordinary movement of people displaced from their homes. But Mary and Joseph’s experience isn’t unique. There’s nothing particularly special about its circumstances. It’s been replicated many, many times in mass movements “all the world”. In the past, because they happened out of sight, they were out of mind as well. In our time, high-speed communication means people fleeing war, poverty or oppression are visible more quickly. Yet even so, in the first few days - and sometimes weeks if the world’s attention has been captured by something supposedly more important – many such tragedies, remain hidden. A few years ago, we watched an exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, and one news item told the story of a young mum whose baby was born while they were fleeing their village. The camp she’d arrived at was overcrowded. The medical facilities couldn’t cope. So, she’d had to move on to another camp, walking for miles with a tiny baby. And it’s a repeating pattern. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan and Yemen. And tonight, there is news of another mass movement of people, fleeing Idlib in Syria following bombing, and they’re now trapped in the North because Turkey has closed its borders. So, as Nell Frizzell says, “There are young women right now travelling across borders, pregnant and scared, preparing to give birth in camps and in sheds…” It was into such hidden places, at a time when everyone’s mind was on other things, that God slipped into a small, marginal province, far from the seat of earthly power, and was born to a young unmarried couple on the road. “When the word was dark and everything was very quiet, you came. You crept in beside us. And no one knew…” God came. God crept in beside us. God was born among us – as one of us. And no one knew. And no one knew…
Well at least to begin with no one knew. And then there was a bright light beyond the edge of the town, as “an angel stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” When the angels appeared to shepherds living in the fields outside Bethlehem, it really was a case of “no one knew,” because shepherds were nobodies. They had no status. No power. Shepherding wasn’t an occupation people choose. Shepherds were despised, and those who had the misfortune to have become shepherds, were scorned as dishonest scroungers, because they allowed their flocks to graze beyond the common lands. But just in case we think they’d profit. They didn’t. They didn’t own their flocks. They belonged to rich landowners who only cared that they were returned fatter than they were when they’d been handed into their care. Shepherds were outsiders, marginal to settled communities, and as long as they stayed hidden from their view and did their jobs, they were tolerated. But attitudes hardened against them when they came to close for comfort. Some of the most marginalised people in our time are child refugees. And there are hundreds sleeping rough in Calais right now, with no toilet or running water, waiting to be reunited with their families. One of the things left out of new Brexit bill, is the right of children, to join a family member living in the UK. The news of this is devastating young asylum seekers. A few days ago, Clare Moseley, director of Care4Calais was with an Afghan boy whose mother is dead and his father is in the UK. His only hope in life is joining his father. “The idea that he won’t be able to join his father at all, is horrific,” says Clare. The family reunion law was preventing young people from being exploited, being trafficked for sex, or trying dangerous ways of getting here. There are now hundreds of defenceless and desperate children in Calais with no legal means of being reunited with their families. They are outsiders. Largely hidden from view. With no discernable future. The story Luke tells about God coming amongst us, is that the good news of God’s coming is told first to the outsiders, the hidden, to those with no power, no access to resources, and only limited means to gain them. It isn’t given to the obvious people but to shepherds. And it is this way, Luke tells us, because the new world order coming with the birth of “a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” works differently from the old. It comes first to those who have no stake in the old world. And because they had nothing else to hope in, they trusted they angel’s songs of peace, and in the words of the reflection from Iona, “dared to believe that God might do something different.” “When the world was dark and everything was very quiet, you came. You crept in beside us. And no one knew. Only the few who dared to believe that God might do something different.”
God is born among displaced, oppressed people, hidden from view. And the news of God’s birth is told first to people on the edge, who are scorned and rejected, hidden in plain sight, ignored as nobodies. God enters human history among people who are powerless. And it’s among them that God starts to establish a new world order. Because a humility born of need, seems to be required for accepting the offer of joy, that this new world brings. If this is so, what does it mean for people like us, people with power that comes from material resources, authority, and self-confidence? How will God come to us? And how will we hear the good news? I think we need to pay attention to what is hidden on the edges of our lives. First, for the voice of God, in people living on the margins of the world. And second, in those things we struggle to acknowledge, within. When I was at Hinde Street, we ran an annual series of lectures, and one year the theme was “Voices from the edge.” I wanted to give five people, who knew what it was to live on the edge of the church and society, the opportunity to share their stories. To tell us what it was like to be excluded outsiders. As we listened to their stories, our horizons were expanded, and we also heard about the new world God is creating in the communities they represented. But we don’t only learn about this new world from others. It can also emerge when we pay attention to the things that are hidden and silenced within our own lives. This isn’t easy, because Western society insists we must be self-sufficient, fit in with the crowd, not be too dependent on others. So, we often keep our fears and fragility hidden - whether they’re illnesses or disabilities, the person we are or long to become, or something we’ve done or haven’t done. Yet until we accept our own fragility and recognise our need to depend on others, we’ll miss what God shows us, as God is born among us as a child. That being human means being dependent on each other, on creation and on God, for life. That Jesus is God with us in our vulnerability, fragility, and humility. And because a humility born of need, seems to be required for accepting what the new world brings, we’ll never quite grasp the love at the heart of Christmas, until we accept that we have needs, and begin to recognise them for what they are. Reminders that we are all simply human. No more or no less than anyone else. And that we share our humanity with Jesus who is God with us and with all who live hidden lives out of sight and out of mind.
It’s this, I think, that drew Dad back to midnight mass each year. He wouldn’t have said it like this, but year after year, he came with others like us, who also want to know that God is with us as a vulnerable and fragile child, born as flesh and blood, as one of us.
“When the world was dark,
and everything was very quiet, you came.
You crept in beside us.
And no one knew.
Only the few who dared to believe
that God might do something different.
Will you do the same this Christmas, God?
Will you come into the hidden places
to save your people from death and despair?
And will you come into the hidden,
quiet places of our lives,
not to distract us, but to embrace us?
We ask, because the fullness we long for,
depends on us being as open
and vulnerable to you as you were to us,
when you came, and crept in beside us,
trusting human hands to hold their maker.
So, will you come into our lives
and do something different?
When the world was dark,
and everything was very quiet, you came.
You crept in beside us.
Do the same this Christmas, God.
Do the same. Amen. (1)
Sue Keegan von Allmen
24th December 2019
(1) Adapted from Christmas Intercessions 1 in Cloth for the Cradle, The Wild Goose Worship Group, Wild Goose Publications, 1997, p 92-3
References(1) Adapted from Christmas Intercessions 1 in Cloth for the Cradle, The Wild Goose Worship Group, Wild Goose Publications, 1997, p 92-3