Not much of a God . . . . and yet . . .

December 16, 2012

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Preached by the Very Revd. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, at Evensong on Sunday 16th December 2012, the Third Sunday of Advent.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (Frederick Buechner)

The sermon fell apart after the news two days ago of “the slaughter of the innocents” at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty little children were slaughtered. The New York Times yesterday quoted a mother: “Who would do this to our poor little babies?”

How do we respond to such news in this season of the divine child? At first sight, things are made worse by the fact that we’re presented with not much of a God! A child from “nowhere”. Bethlehem was “no place”! The Word of God is a baby who cannot speak a word. If we’re prepared to go deeper, we find that judgment hangs over us all if we cannot  discern the mystery of the child. Those dear dead children are a sign of judgment on a world that cannot decode the glorious gift and mystery of being human. Each of us is a wonder, unique and unrepeatable. And, St. Paul reminds us that we are stewards of these mysteries. We’re given a baby – the promise of a new world, a new beginning. The message? Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Something “big” is happening in the world. With all the upheavals and unrest,  how is the human family going to survive and flourish? Christmas is a sign of God’s generosity. It’s about a new way of being human. But we’ve ceased to be shocked by the Christian message! It’s deceptively simple stuff – an act that turned the world upside down. The simple truth that God has created us neighbors, made us one people.  It’s deeply shocking but we don’t notice it anymore. We either ignore it or make it into something simple-minded and sentimental.

Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.

There’s a story of the early rabbis arguing about which was the most important text in the Bible. Rabbi Akiba said the greatest principle of Torah is found in Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Only one rabbi challenged this.  He argued that the simple words ‘This is the role of Adam’s descendents” were more important because they revealed the unity of the entire human race.  The human race is one.  – one human family, one ethnic group. God created us neighbors. There are no “others”. All  are our brothers and sisters, without exception.

This isn’t just a nice idea. In fact, for most of us the discovery that the world is one and that we are all neighbors is very distasteful.  It’s something that’s happening all over the world. We often fail “to acknowledge the sheer diversity of this increasingly mixed-up world. More than ever, that must include the diversity to be found in a single human skin, mind and heart.”[i] There’s only one people. And it’s us – all of us – together! This is the heart of the Christmas message of the Mother and her Baby.

No, it’s not much of a God – a Baby who cannot speak. Our challenge in these few days leading up the Christmas is to get in touch with the oddness of it all –  the proclamation that we’re all related. It’s shocking. And our way back into it’s shocking generosity is simple – just to look at a woman with a baby. Don’t, in the first instance, get cluttered up with a set of beliefs – just look as woman with a baby. See your own flesh and blood.

We love babies because a baby is a sign of possibility. We look at a new-born  and think — even if only for a moment — that there is a chance that the human race might make it after all! Loving babies isn’t sentimental. It’s wonderfully and deadly serious.

            E.B.White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, wrote a light but deceptively simple poem about 70 years ago:

            Hold a baby to your ear

            As you would a shell:

            Sounds of centuries you hear

            New centuries foretell.

            Who can break a baby’s code?

            And which is the older –

            The listener or his small load?

            The held or the holder?

The Advent question? Who can break the baby’s code? Do you know what’s really real? The poverty or richness of our loving determines what we think is real. That’s what matters, that’s what’s important, that’s what the Baby is trying to tell us. There are no others – only brothers and sisters. God has created us neighbors. We are one flesh. And don’t expect the realization of this truth will always be pleasant!

Think for a moment about how odd it is that you’re here and alive – you, unique and unrepeatable, an instance of wild improbability and deep significance.  It’s amazing. You’re amazing. Most of us have lost sight of the fact of the oddness of our being here at all! And in Newtown, Connecticut this week, the world has been robbed of thirty unique and unrepeatable souls.

Now think of the pathetic modesty of the revelation – not only a baby but a baby born  in Bethlehem of all places. The prophet Micah calls it a no place. It’s as if I were to announce that  Jesus is coming and he’s coming to Wimbledon (my birth place), or, as we heard in the cathedral earlier this week, the birth place might just have been Walthamstow!  

Remember, the revelation of what truly matters happens in a place of no importance – in the simple every day act of a young woman having a baby. Exactly the way you came into the world. Through the doorway of the flesh. At Christmas we learn that, as one early writer puts it, “The Flesh is the hinge of salvation!” Simple, vulnerable and holy. What an awesome and wondrous thing it is to be alive, to be human!

Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.

How do we recover the wonder of the everyday and commonplace?  through flesh and blood – a woman with a baby? Roman Catholic theologian Andrew Greeley puts the outrageousness  of it all very simply:  I often think that maybe half our heritage is transmitted to children around the crib at Christmas time  – and especially  in the wonderfully mysterious explanation of the Incarnation to little kids that Mary is God’s mummy.”

Ridiculous isn’t it? Not much of a God. On one level is plainly daft. Too naive and simple-minded for the clever and the sophisticated.  But is it more outrageous than the proclamation that every one matters and we are all part of one family?

That’s why we need stories and myths to give shape and purpose to our lives. Carl Jung wrote, Anyone “who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet of contemporary human society. This plaything of his reason never grips his vitals.” The killer in Connecticut had no inner story to help him move through his craziness and pain.

Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.

Mary is God’s mummy! No, I haven’t gone off my head. I simply believe that there is a profound truth here. And it comes home to us when we look at Mary and her Baby. When we look with the eyes of love we find ourselves at a place of unraveling, unweaving – we cross a boundary into another world – or better – another way of looking at this world. Remember: The poverty or richness of your loving determines what you think is real.

This why cathedrals are important. Look around you! The builders of this place – what were they thinking. Those who built the cathedral in Seville said,   “Let those who come after us, when they see this, say, ‘They must have been mad!’” I’ve visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres every year now for several years in a row. Like Winchester, it is one of those borderland/boundary places. Its focus is on Mary who presents us with the infant Jesus as a sign that we too are the place where God chooses to dwell. Each of us matters that much. 

I don’t know about you, but I need pictures and stories, which take me across the boundary where I meet people like you who are also on a boundary-crossing journey. Not “others” or aliens, but brothers and sisters.   Neighbors.

What do we have in common – the motley crowd that shows up at places like this at Christmas? We share a common vulnerability in that we’re not always sure that we’re in the right place at the right time. Yet we have an instinct that the most fruitful place for crossing the boundary is “in those areas of our life where we feel at sea, not understanding, not succeeding.” Where a mystery overtakes us and we let go of life as a mechanical thing.   We cross the boundary into our deeper selves when we really see that Mary is God’s mummy. We come to understand that the poverty or richness of our loving determines what we think is real. This discovery is the real gift of Christmas. And we discern that . . . Jesus is God’s Word to us about ourselves and this good news  comes to us in  the form of a baby who cannot speak! How strange is that?  The imagery is stunning. You can hold the Word  (God’s communication to you) in your arms. You can   suckle the Word at your breast. The Word – the communication – is as vulnerable as that. In the flesh.

            Hold a baby to your ear

            As you would a shell:

            Sounds of centuries you hear

            New centuries foretell.

Don’t get caught in the sticky mess of doctrinal controversy. Look! Look! Look! See your own mystery in a form that you can touch and handle. Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.  

The tradition tells us that there are two births. Listen to the words of St. Simeon, The New Theologian. “The ineffable birth of the Word of God in the flesh from his mother is one thing, his spiritual birth in us in another. For the first, in giving birth to the Son and Word of God gave birth to the reforming of the human race and the salvation of the whole world . . . while the second, in giving birth in the Holy Spirit and to the Word of knowledge of God, continually accomplishes in our hearts the mystery of the renewal of human souls. Thus . . . . anyone, married or unmarried, who lives with integrity towards God in the deeper level of their being may not, like Mary, bear the Son of God in the flesh, but they can and do become, like her, and will be God-bearers to humankind.”

How about that! Mary is God’s Mummy and you are invited to allow God to come to term in you and be a God-bearers to the human family!  All in the fleshy messiness of everyday life. Allow the strangeness to get under your skin. If you do, Christmas will be different this year. You will light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

So, before you plunge into the hectic last days of Christmas preparation, experience your own oddness. Entertain, for a moment, the idea that Mary is God’s mummy and in the light of that find out who you really are. Find out what’s important. This Christmas give yourself away. Be a neighbor, be a brother, be a sister, be your true self – be the best present anyone can give. And if you have the chance . . .

            Hold a baby to your ear

            As you would a shell:

            Sounds of centuries you hear

            New centuries foretell.

            Who can break a baby’s code?

            And which is the older –

            The listener or his small load?

            The held or the holder?

And . . . don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.  Know that the worst word isn’t the last word. The baby’s coming and that’s good news.

Closing Prayers:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered


If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives


If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies


Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable


People really need help, but may attack you if you help them


Give the world the best you have and you may be kicked in the teeth


A Christmas Prayer – For Winchester, 2012

The world waits for the coming

of the Prince of Peace.

Our hearts ache for justice for the poor

and carefree safety for our children;

for laughter in our homes –

the singing and dancing

native to the human spirit.

We thank you for the glorious

sounds of Christmas – tokens of our longing

and signs of your love.

We ask you to bless

the families represented here:

the whole ones;

the broken ones;

the scattered ones.

We commend into your gracious keeping

 all those caught

 in the spiral of violence and poverty –

here at home –

and in other cities –

Jerusalem, Baghdad, Kabul, Damascus, Newtown.

Especially protect the children,

and in your spirit,

help us so rebuild the world for them

so that your joy may fill their hearts

and your peace heal the nations.

Let’s switch off the world’s distorting noise

until we hear our own heart beating.

Let’s listen to its inner rhythm,

whispering, “God is with us.”

Revelation is all around,

showing us that every baby

is well-connected

and every one

the dwelling place of God.

Thanks be to God!

May the angels of God watch over us.

May Mary and all the Saints pray for us.

May the Lord lift up the divine countenance upon us

And give us peace, now, and forevermore.


[i] See Timothy Garton Ash in NYRB, November 22, 2012, “Freedom and Diversity: A Liberal Pentagram for Living Together”, pp 33 ff.

[ii] From a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhava, the Children’s Home in Calcutta (Mother Teresa) alt.