December 25, 2016
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem, Acting Dean, using Luke 2.1-20 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 25th December 2016, Christmas Day.
My beginning today was made simple by a personal connection. Former neighbours of ours in the Cathedral Close, Fuad and Farah, are Azerbaijani. We’ve kept in touch since they left and they currently split their lives between a house in East Winchester and Ankara where Fuad has a job building a power station for the Turkish government.
When their friend, the Ambassador Andrei Karlov, was gunned down in a Turkish Art Gallery, therefore, we didn’t experience this simply as news but as a shocking loss within our circle. Facebook showed our friends sharing dinner with the ambassador and his wife Marina a few weeks earlier, and we heard that Farah was at that very moment with Marina, comforting her.
I promised that we’d remember Ambassador Andrei in our prayers in the following days and that I would honour him in my sermon, which I do now gladly. I do not honour his assassin, a 22 year-old Turk, though I must mention him and dwell on his motives.
What could have possessed this young policeman whose training and duty was to protect others, who used his police licence to enter the gallery and with cold premeditation shoot the ambassador in the back?
And we know the answer – the pursuit of justice. Allegedly he shouted as he committed murder, ‘Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget, Syria. As long as our brothers are not safe, you will not enjoy safety’. In his eyes he was calling the world, and Russia in particular, to justice.
I don’t feel equipped to pronounce upon the convulsions of Syria from a political perspective. It’s a humanitarian crisis which has touched even this city – 22 refugees have made a home with us at the last count. I do want to address the problem of evil, however, and particularly the evil that manifests itself as altruism, as a concern for our brothers, our group, our clan; and we’ll do it with a story.
If you remember nothing else from what I say today, please remember this; the story of the birth of Jesus Christ is about a completely new start – it offers a completely new start. You may not believe it because we had the same story last Christmas and we’ll have the same story next. Nonetheless, the birth of Jesus always means a completely new start for humanity.
We know this because it’s the story of a birth totally outside the cycle of human begetting. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ asks Mary, Jesus’ mother. And the angel sent from heaven by God explains: this new beginning springs from God’s holy heart, by the Holy Spirit, who will overshadow Mary, bringing forth a child, who himself will be holy.
This is no ordinary child; this is God’s son, the son of Adam, the universal Newborn, who is given entirely out of God’s favour towards us. All other children born into the world we might rightly class as belonging to a particular tribe, group or clan, but Jesus, though born a Jew, is conceived by the direct, creative work of God and is born to someone prepared to receive this utterly new gift, Mary, his handmaid. So let’s ponder with her what this birth might mean.
The young man, the assassin, whose job it was to protect others in riots, believed that to stand in solidarity with his brothers, he had destroy others. This is not God’s logic. The one born to Mary belongs finally to no human family, no tribe or clan, because he is God’s Son. To have Jesus Christ as our brother is to be adopted into a universal family, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity.
It is a basic human fact that we form groups by defining boundaries, by standing with some and against others. Like the Welshman marooned on a desert island who built two chapels, the one he went to and the one he didn’t go to. ‘As long as our brothers are not safe, you will not enjoy safety.’ You others are the faceless ones, who we can shoot in the back.
In the story of Jesus’ birth it is remarkable how quickly a universal family is formed around Jesus. The instant Jesus is born, away in a manger, outside normal human society, not even in a travel lodge, others are drawn in. Shepherds abiding in the fields are sent to see the good news for themselves. They also are outsiders, the hidden night-shift workers servicing the city, but they’re suddenly as much a part of the story as the holy family. They bring to them a message from angels, another piece of the puzzle of who this baby Jesus might be. They may be outsiders to society, but they are insiders when it comes to God forming a universal community around this nativity.
In God’s family, Christ is born as the universal brother. And this means that in this world there is no room for tribalism, especially not in the Church. Archbishop Justin talks in his Christmas letter of a visit he made to Pakistan, where only last Easter innocent worshippers were slaughtered in Lahore, our sisters and brothers in Christ; yet Justin’s call is not to take up violence, but to pray and stand with all who are forgotten, vulnerable and marginalised.
Now I’m not stupid and nor are you. We know that Syria is like a bursting cyst, and surely we understand the thirst for justice for our own sisters and brothers. Others can’t wallow in comfort while the innocent bleed, while helpless ones are treated as trash, bulldozed by an advancing army, without thought or mercy. But if we take the path of ‘an eye for an eye’, then comes the weary cycle of violence and counter-violence as tribes, races and religions compete for justice, as each one sees it.
So can a story offer a completely fresh start? Well, it is at least rooted in our world: we’re told that Jesus was born when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. The census was taken as a way of the occupying Roman forces keeping tabs of the populace. The peace was fragile and the option of an armed uprising was always a live option among the zealots. Against this background, Jesus came in humility, wielding only the power of God’s Holy Spirit. He healed the sick, delivered the captive and taught that God’s justice was drawing near – all without violence, even when violence was done to him.
This story is realistic enough, but its credibility will only be proved by those who live it today. The most hopeful thing I did in 2016 was go with our curate to a small and rather damp office in Chelsea loaned by the Earl Cadogan to the so-called Awareness Foundation, an organisation led by the only Syrian priest in the Church of England, Nadim Nassar.
Nadim, his sister Huda and a handful of staff co-ordinate a series of revolutionary educational programmes for Syria and elsewhere. Their Little Heroes programme ‘brings hope to Syrian children through education, one child at a time’. They offer three-day summer schools where up to 200 children at a time share in group activities, celebrations, Bible study and prayer. In this secure environment they can begin to face their trauma, begin to trust and laugh again, and make new friends. In 2016 1000 children took part across the country.
And then there’s their Ambassadors for Peace programme, which takes angry young men and men in both Syria and Iraq and trains them to become peace-makers in their community. Hundreds have taken part, and so God’s story of justice becomes credible as it takes flesh among us.
The completely new start which we yearn for is given in Jesus’ story. It takes incredible courage to live it out and with a power that can only come from a holy God. We may feel like the shepherds, outsiders to religion and leading lives of marginal significance. But listen again to the angels who are visiting us. They say, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours’!
You are part of the story because in Christ we have been made one with Him. And God’s favour knows no limit because he is now born among us – Son of Man, Son of God, our saviour and universal brother.