Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Day Sermon

(A Christmas Day sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church for Christmas Day 2014)

Last week, Sydney CBD was shut down because of a siege in a cafe, which ended tragically with the loss of three lives. Even as the siege unfolded, reports spread quickly about the religious identity and nationality of the gunman, as well as the involvement of a black flag with the words of the Shehada, the Muslim affirmation of faith, on it. Anti-Muslim sentiment rose quickly in some parts of the community, with people quickly jumping to conclusions. The primary hashtag, #SydneySiege, came to embody the occasional and predictable ugliness of the internet, with xenophobic and anti-Muslim tweets. An ultra-right group, the Australian Defence League, threatened confrontations in the Muslim-majority Sydney suburb of Lakemba. The ABC Radio in Sydney received calls from Muslim listeners saying they were too scared to ride on public transport and to be in public places.

We live in a culture of fear. It fills the air, even in the Christmas season.

People of goodwill in Australia quickly realised how vulnerable Muslim people would be in any backlash.  

It was incredibly heartening to see how social media quickly enabled a wave of support, using the hashtag, #illridewithyou. The hashtag appears to have come from a Facebook post from Rachael Jacobs who was riding on a train, and noticed a Muslim woman quietly take off her head covering, the hijab, ostensibly out of fear of being targeted. In her Twitter post she said: "I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with you.” An act of compassion, solidarity and support.

Another woman took to Twitter and wrote: "If you regularly take the bus between Coogee to Martin Place, and you wear religious attire, and don't feel safe alone: I'll ride with you”.

In the face of overwhelmingly complex issues in our world, here was an opportunity to make a small practical gesture, responding to the sorrow that someone would ever feel unwelcome and unsafe in the community because of their beliefs. In a climate of fear and uncertainty, the Australian community has banded together to show their support for the Muslim population, which comprises less than 2% of the 23 million people in Australia but has a great deal more of unhelpful media attention.

The twitter hashtag, #illridewithyou, has gone viral around the world, prompting a social movement with many acts of kindness to strangers.

It prompted my own imagination. I’ll ride with you. I’ll walk with you. I’ll be with you.

The church proclaims Emmanuel on this day that indeed God is with us. The story of the Hebrew people is an endless rhythm of turning towards God and turning away from God. The rhythm echoes in our own lives. Turning towards God, turning away from God.

And the story we celebrate this day is that God was revealed most fully in the life of Jesus Christ, born as one of us, human in every way. It is as if God has said, I’ll ride with you. I’ll walk with you. Wherever you are, I’ll be with you.

The prophet Isaiah (57.15) had described God as "the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity," and by and large, though different language and symbols are used, all the major faiths of the world would tend to agree. Judaism calls God Yahweh. Islam calls God Allah. Buddhism and Hinduism use terms like Brahman-Atman or the Void or the One. All of them point to the ultimate spiritual Ground of existence as transcendent and totally other. The reality of God is so radically different from anything we know as real that in the last analysis we can say nothing about God except what God is not.

The essential message of Christmas - Emmanuel, God with us - invites these questions: Who is this God - and how is God with us?

To the first we may answer from our tradition, ”The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity”.

And the answer to the second question is the claim that Christianity makes for Christmas: that at a particular time and place God came to be with us. In a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One who inhabits eternity comes to dwell in time. The One whom ‘none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The God of all mercies is placed at our mercy. The hope of the world, born into a culture of fear - fear of the Romans, fear of Herod, even a distorted fear of God.

Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told - raw, preposterous, holy - and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen. It was a profoundly human event - the birth of a human being, by whose humanity we measure our own. It also gave birth to a movement that quenched retribution and hate with redemption and love

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth," says the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:14). Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, God moved into the neighbourhood.

Emmanuel. God with us. God who walks with us on our ordinary and sometimes complex human journey. God who rides with us through the storms of life. God with us. Emmanuel.

And this child would grow to be a man - God with us - who walked with people on those dusty roads, who ate with people, who wept with people, who laughed with people, who shared common humanity with people. A man who believed it to be true that there would be good news for the poor, that prisoners would find pardon, that the blind would recover their sight, and the burdened and battered freed (Luke 4). This man, who had the echoes of his mother’s song ringing in his ears that the proud would scattered, the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things. (Magnificat, Luke 1)

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.

In a sermon about Mary’s response to God, Barbara Brown Taylor once said: “If you decide to say no, you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room and you are alone again. Then you smooth your hair and go back to your reading or whatever it is that is most familiar to you and pretend that nothing has happened…. Or you can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body. (From “Mothers of God ” in Gospel Medicine)

Smuggling God into the world, as Mary did. That others may recognise this God within each of us. That this Christ Child may be born and grow in us. That we may be the ones who smuggle God into the world in our own lives as we say to others, to the poor and lowly, to the vulnerable and those who have lost hope, to those seeking safety and comfort: I’ll walk with you. I’ll ride with you. I’ll be with you. May it be so. Amen. 

(This sermon includes media reports of the siege, and some of Frederick Buechner’s reflections)

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