Listen (preached at S. Mary the Virgin, Bickleigh)
Text: Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
With the birth of the Christ child still fresh in our ears, we move away from the crèche and towards the reality of living in the presence of a living God. We quickly move from the crystal starlight over the stable scene to a scene of warnings, dreams and severe human suffering.
For Mary and Joseph, the consequences of caring for their small infant son, the Emmanuel – the God with us – meant further dislocation and further isolation. This faithful couple, always ready to follow God, were being led away from everything and everyone that would support them while they cared for this child. Our Gospel moves us from the gentleness of the incarnation to the harsh reality of life.
These new parents had to flee from their homeland and their people and go to a strange land that did not know them. They became aliens, immigrants forced to flee away rather than run home to their village. For the families in Bethlehem and surrounding communities the consequences were much worse. Small children were slaughtered because a ruler was tricked by some wise elders from a distant tribe. There was blood everywhere. The awful reality of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is recalled by the Church yesterday, whilst today this genocide forces the Saviour of us all to become an Asylum Seeker. The consequence of human anger with access to absolute power is clear in our Gospel today. The word of God made flesh reminds us today of the responsibility we have to the innocent and the alien. How easily we forget this lesson. The next time we read one of those poisonous newspaper articles about Asylum Seekers we should remember the story of the Christ-Child and his experience.
The harsh reality of the genocide inherent in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents invites us to move our gaze from the pastoral crèche scene, the wise men and sheep, to the world to which God came. We are invited to see the same broken world that is about us today. We are called to witness this same world, full of terror, in which angry and selfish political leaders even today destroy innocent lives.
Jesus came into the midst of terror and enters into our terror.
We, like Our Lady and St. Joseph, are called to move out from soft places, from warm rooms and safe havens, to the places where innocence is challenges, where faithful tender lives are at risk, and carry the God incarnate to alien places so that we might all be free.
A friend was recently in an airport waiting for a connecting flight. In the next row sat a family of six, mother, father and four small children. They were all dressed quite inappropriately for the season and the location: they huddled together, sleeping fitfully and speaking very little. When they did, it was a strange and unfamiliar language. As they boarded the plane, it was obvious that they were very confused by the seating and signs. My friend tried to help them as best she could but there was little was of communicating except by pointing.
This family of refugees were coming to a place where very little was familiar. How could they raise their children, find their way, communicate their basic needs? And yet they came with a weary willingness to protect and care for their little ones, to find a new life, despite all of the challenges and dislocation that were behind and in front of them.
This is what love does within in each of us. It gives us the courage to take on responsibility for the innocent. Love incarnate empowers us to turn away from the comforting familiar, in order to let love incarnate thrive.
Here is our call, our responsibility this Christmastide and all through the year. God with us, Emmanuel, encourages us to face the power of this world in order to protect the vulnerable and the needy.
Three days before Christmas, a Tory MP, Mr Mark Pritchard tweeted:
He’s probably right: The Church should preach a little more gospel and a little less politics. We should be focussing on Jesus, after all – not involving ourselves in the grubbiness of the world. For one thing, church people are hopeless at claiming expenses. And so I go to the Gospel. And I read…
From the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25
“the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Now the thing is, if you feed the hungry – that is a political act. If you set up a food bank (and the churches have, quite a lot), that’s a political act. If you wonder why there’s so many people needing food banks, that’s a political thing to think.
If you see someone who needs clothing, and you sort them out with some clothes, that’s a political act as well. I’m sure David Cameron would think that was part of his “Big Society”. After all, now he’s dropped the term, there’s a lot of Big Society, on a small scale, about. There has to be.
If someone is sick – and you don’t even necessarily know them – but you’re there for them anyway, that’s a political act. You’re saying you won’t allow them to lie there in hospital on their own, if you can do anything about it. And if someone is in prison, and you visit them, then that’s a political statement. You’re saying that it’s not good enough just to stick people in chokey and throw away the key. You’re making the walls porous – keeping people in society that others would want to keep locked out.
Jesus’s birth, in the first place, is a political act – God siding with the poor, the dispossessed, the homeless. And the belief that he will come back and judge the nations is not a piece of apocalyptic wish-fulfilment – it’s saying that the ones who rule, the ones who abuse, the ones who push down, will one day be judged. More fairly than they have judged, as well. Which might or might not be good news. Apocalyptic is always political.
The incarnation is political – Christ taking on human flesh in this grubby world. Not standing, shining, off in glory but arguing with priests, politicians, taking on kings and local rulers. Walking through the middle of all the mess, that people can choose to follow his way, or not. Demanding justice – isn’t that a political concept? Being the Prince of Peace – isn’t peace a political idea?
Consider the Magnificat “the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up” – each Evensong – each night – this radical call to action is heard.
And then – all the people that Jesus knocked about with, and who followed on from him. I mean, clearly Churches shouldn’t get involved in equal opportunities – after all, just ask St Paul:
Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
So I did what Mr Pritchard wanted. I’ve looked straight at the Gospel. And do you know what, it’s full of politics? I guess he’s going to be disappointed, and it calls us to something far more. It challenges us in the not-very-fluffy reality of the Incarnation
This Love made Flesh challenges us to see the face of God in each refugee, each alien, each immigrant, every stranger, every sick person, every hungry person, every prisoner, every one.
The Prince of Peace calls us to look away from the comfortable and the pastoral to see the stark reality of suffering and terror in our world. We are called to see with the eyes of the Word of God – eyes which see everyone as relatives, tribal members, kin, family, equally welcomed at God’s table.
May these days of Christmas be times of looking outward, seeking the family which has been left outside, bringing home those who have been refugees, aliens and strangers.
As later in his ministry, Matthew recalls this fleshy-God saying “whenever to visited or welcomed or cared for one such as these, then you did the same to me”. The Refugee, the Asylum-Seeker, the Poor, sick, frightened or destitute remain, and it is our Christian duty to shelter the next Holy Family which flees for survival to our land.
with credit to the Archdruid for reminding me what this is all about and the Twitter-troll who accused me of being a communist this week when I mentioned library closures. I pulled these things together with him in mind.