Jesus in the filth

maxresdefaultThe text of my Midnight Mass talk at St Luke’s earlier ….

Tonight is a holy night.
A night when we remember, celebrate, the birth of Jesus.
The Christ child.
The Saviour of the universe.
God incarnate.
Tonight is most definitely a holy night.
But what is holiness.?
Surely it has something to do with Godliness.
And I seem to remember from when I was a child that Godliness is somehow connected to cleanliness.
And I suspect many of us have grown up with that sanitised image.
To be holy is to be clean, dazzling, white, pure.

And with those images, many of us have grown up not only thinking that we can never be holy ourselves, because lets face it, none of us have clean, dazzling, white, pure sparkly lives, but also that we end up believing that we are never really good enough for God.

I have chatted with many people of varying ages in the cafes and bars of this area. Although each conversation has been unique and individual, there has been an amazingly common thread that has gone through each one. Most people tell me that they believe in God, but that they are not religious. Then those same people tell me that they don’t go to church because ‘well, if I did the roof will probably cave in!’ In other words … that person thinks they are not good enough, not clean enough, not pure enough to come before God.

But, is Godliness, or holiness, really linked with cleanliness. Where did that saying come from? Many think that it is a quote from the bible. It’s not. It’s actually a quote from Francis Bacon, and he didn’t write it until 1605.

As I look at the scene before us on this holy night, I am not convinced that Holiness, Godliness and cleanliness go together at all. I am not convinced God cares that much about how clean our lives are, but maybe more interested in our intentions, in our motivation?

The scene before us on this most holy of nights of two young parents, Mary and Joseph, who had travelled dusty roads for 4 days from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary on the back of a donkey, sleeping under canvas on the way, who then end up in a stable with the stench of animals and the muck around, even having to use the feeding trough for a cot to lay the newborn Jesus in – none of that sounds very clean to me.

It seems to me that we have made this amazing story all cute and lovely with fluffy animals and smiling shepherds and nice warm overtones. But, this was a filthy stable! Stables are not great on the cleanliness scale!

To try and illustrate how shocking this scene is before you, can you imagine the uproar there would be if Princess Kate, was forced for one reason or another to give birth to Prince George or Princess Charlotte, in a stable somewhere!? The doctors would be having fits because of germs and risk of infection, the authorities would be wound up in the red tape of health and safety, Corbyn and May would be firing accusations across the house of commons floor, the Queen would not be amused and newspapers would be split over the reason for the scandal. For a scandal it would be.

And a scandal it was … THE royal baby, God incarnate, the ruler of the universe, the saviour of the world, was born not in the luxury and relative safety and security of a palace or a royal hospital … but he was born in the muck, dirt, grime and filth of a drafty stable.

A stable is just no place for a baby!
And yet …. this is what we have.
Jesus, the most holiest of babies, was born into the filth of this world.
And while that may shock us, that is precisely why the birth of Jesus is good news for all of us.

In tonights readings we find Jesus in the ruins of Jerusalem in Isaiah, we find Jesus in the messy process of creation in Hebrews,  and we find Jesus as a light in the darkness in John. One interpretation of that darkness could be the dark uncomfortable places in our society of fear, torture, hunger, homelessness – the messy places that the media like to sweep and hide away. Jesus knows exactly what the tough places in our world are like.

If we look at Jesus in the gospels ‘One of the teachings he resisted was ‘holiness-as-separation‘ the idea that you need to stay pure to be acceptable to God.

Jesus got involved in the dirt and mess of his creation. Jesus ministry is not to gather the clean and sanitised and take them into a private club. Jesus ministry is to those who are told they are unwanted, those who hurt, those who feel they are not good enough, those who feel they do not have holy lives, those who do not have sparkly whiter than white pure lives …. those like you and like me who desperately want to belong, but don’t believe we can.

The birth of Jesus in the stable on this holy night means that not only we can belong, but that we do belong. Because Jesus was born into the reality of this world, he understands, he knows how we feel, and he can be found standing with us. Because we are worthy of his time, we are good enough to be in his presence.

Holiness has not so much to do with how we are, but how Jesus is with us. It is the presence of Jesus in our lives that makes us holy.

So …. this Christmas, why not come back to your creator, Jesus, and take on board that good news; the good news that says  you are loved, you are accepted, you are good enough and you belong and that, yes, you are holy too!

Amen

 

everyday vulnerabilty

vulnerable spiderLast night my good friend, Terry, preached a blinder at St Mark’s on friendship … and drew out that friendship cannot happen without vulnerability. (I guess you will be able to listen for yourself soon from this link)

Terry used the friendship of Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 18 as one illustration. Jonathan hands over his robe, belt, sword and bow … in both an act of trust/friendship but also one of great vulnerability. From such vulnerability comes a strong relationship.

I think last nights sermon hit on the crux of friendship … but maybe even on the whole of Christian life … friendship, relationships, work, ministry. As I have thought over night I have realised this should come as no surprise really if we consider the Christ child.

The incarnation, the God taking on flesh stuff and moving into the neighbourhood, is an image of total and complete vulnerability. The creator of the universe becoming a foetus in the womb of a teenage girl in a pretty rough end of the world, growing as a child in society totally dependant on a successful harvest and at the mercy of pretty primitive medical facilities if things started to go wrong. There were 30 years of that normal everyday vulnerability before Jesus starts his work and moves into that last week leding to that Friday where we see vulnerability at it’s most raw!

As I look at my week ahead, and my weeks gone past, I think vulnerability is key to what I do. I think it is key to what everyone does in reality. We all live a daily life of everyday vulnerability …. whether we walk a high street with a dog collar on, or whether we stand in front of a class of students, or whether we run a bank, or whether we keep a home going …. each role entails us giving something of ourselves, being vulnerable. Interestingly in places I have worked it is those who pretend and give nothing of themselves, those who refuse to accept or give their vulnerability,  who are the bullies or the people that people don’t wish to work with very much.

Terry is totally correct that friendship, real friendship, cannot develop without vulnerability. I would add that Christian mission, or life, also cannot genuinely happen without being vulnerable. It is in our vulnerability that people see that we value, care and love them for who they are. As an aside some Christians in our country complain about Christian rights … that has always jarred with me. I follow a Christ who made himself totally vulnerable …. to be vulnerable means you give up your rights and rely on God. How can we campaign for ‘Christian rights’ when we follow the Christ of Good Friday?

In today’s thought from Richard Rohr we read: When vulnerable exchange happens, there is always a broadening of being on both sides. We are bigger and better people afterward.

Without vulnerability I don’t think we have much. It is something unique about humanity. It was something unique about Christ.

I wonder …. being made in the image of God … maybe there is something there about sharing in the vulnerability of our creator … as he made himself vulnerable … so maybe we are to do so as well …

And then .. by our vulnerability we become more the person we are created to be.

surface and depth

sacred secularFor some time I have struggled with the sacred/secular divide that to me seems to be quite prevalent in popular church culture. I might be wrong, as I am aware of a tendency I can have of generalising (being accountable to your best friend and wife means such things are pointed out to you on a regular basis!), but … there does seem to be a populist divide that seems to say … ‘this stuff is ok and ‘holy’, while this stuff is not good and should be ‘treated with care’.

Now clearly not everything is good for us. If I went out today and drank 15 pints of my favourite, and beautifully created by God, ale the likelihood is that I would not wake up. Alternatively if I pray all that for my next door neighbour to receive badly needed food and simply stay on my knees in my house with my full cupboards there is a possibility that she won’t wake up. But, the abuse of something good does not make that ‘something’ wrong or bad for you.

Richard Rohr’s thoughts this week have been exploring this sacred/secular thing at more depth. I have been nodding away and smiling as his words have reminded his readers that all of creation was created by God, that God is everywhere, that God is both within and without (a Gatsby link!), that all people are created in the image of God. Now if all that is true then it goes that there is no where where God cannot be. If God is present then by default the place where God is must be sacred, so … everywhere is sacred. It’s simple although messes with my head quite a bit.

I think of Moses at the burning bush. He takes of his shoes as he sees the flames and hears God’s voice. Does he take off his shoes because the ground suddenly becomes sacred, or does he remove them because the ground was always sacred and he has just realised? I think it is the latter. The ground I walk on each day as I wander Gillingham High Street is sacred …. that is quite a mind blowing thought for so may reasons!

I think today’s thought from Rohr kind of hits this on the hed for me. Maybe it is not so much about sacred and secular, but more about surface and depth …. ‘Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you go into the depths of it’ read more here as Rohr puts it better than most ever could!

incarnationalism

713I find myself resonating immensely, or loudly shouting ‘YES’ after reading Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation today:

Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: to come to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping free from the enticements of the system. — James 1:27 (The Letter of James is perhaps the most primitive and straightforward letter in the New Testament before Christianity had become theoretical and theological.)

Whenever the human and the divine coexist at the same time in the same person we have Christianity. I don’t know that it finally matters what Scriptures you read, liturgies you attend, or moral positions you hold about this or that—as much as “Do you live trustfully inside of God’s one world?” This creates honest people, people who don’t waste time proving they’re right, superior, or saved, but just try to live and love the daily mystery that they are in the loving presence of God. “God comes to you disguised as your life,” as Paula D’Arcy loves to say. Imagine that!

There are basically four world views: 1) Reality is just matter, 2) Reality is just spirit, 3) Through religion and morality we can work to put matter and spirit together (the most common religious position), and 4) The material world has always been the place where Spirit is revealed. You cannot put them together. They already are—as in Jesus. Only the fourth position, “incarnationalism,” deserves to be called authentic Christianity. It has to do with the right reality, not the right rituals.

I long for people to stop arguing about what is right or wrong, what is ‘holy’ or ‘not’ . God in the everyday normal common things of normal life. When I was teaching about Holy Communion recently an 8 year old boy asked …. ‘Rob … do you think Jesus was saying through the bread and wine that we can see him in the normal everyday things of our daily lives?’

Yes …. the truth from a child!

 

 

Leaping Lord!

leaping-at-sunsetOver the last five years I have come to love some of the language of Common Worship Daily Office. I find the space for contemplation and meditation stills me and allows me to notice what I would otherwise be missing, even in my un-busy life of loitering with intent.

Today I said Evening Prayer within the walls of Cookham Wood prison in the multi faith space. No one else was present, and praying while in the prison is something I obviously do whenever I am there.

The words of the refrain for the magnificat really hit me today … full on in the face, it was like a wave crashing and sweeping me off my feet with both the exhilaration and fear for your life that goes with that experience.  I was challenged by the beauty and excitement of the language, which spoke with wild freedom in a place where every single door is always locked.

When peaceful silence lay over all,
and night was in the midst of her swift course:
from your royal throne, O God, down from the heavens,
leapt your almighty Word.

Isn’t that language amazing. We rightly think of the coming of Christ as this 9 month slow but painful journey which we read of in the gospels. This refrain gives a whole other side to the incarnation …. when all was still, when we were not expecting it, Christ leapt down from the heavens to experience creation as we do. The deliberate purposefulness of the language is striking. This was no second plan or impetuous decision … this was planned and deliberate.

It is still Christmas … God has leapt into this world …. to restore us … to experience our humanity … so that we might share the life of his divinity.

is my self image too small in this?

star-of-bethlehem1I have been struck by Richard Rohr’s thought this morning:

‘We, like Bethlehem itself, are too tiny to imagine greatness within us, but God always hides, it seems, inside of littleness and seeming insignificance. God lets us do the desiring and all the discovering.

Those who can recognize God within their own puny and ordinary souls will be the same who will freely and daringly affirm the Divine Presence in the body of Jesus and also in the body of the whole universe. It is all one and the same pattern. Get it once, get it everywhere!’

I don’t think anything needs to be added to the challenge of those words … go ponder ….

the time was right …

Some amazingly beautiful words from Abbotsford:

When the time was right
God spoke
And the light slipped through
When the time was right
God drew breath
And the word was delivered
When the time was right
God hesitated
As the son fell from heaven to earth
When the time was right
God cried
As the saviour was given to redeem the world
When the time was right
God knew
This was the moment of birth
And when there was no more time
God laboured
And God knew the time had come