Christmas Eve Sermon

A couple of weeks ago I preached on Christmas eve at a midnight service.  There has been a substantial written complaint to the vicar about it.  So I thought it might be worth posting it online for all to read…

 

Bible Passages: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

 

In the readings this evening, we heard first from Isaiah, who told us,

 

How beautiful on the mountains

are the feet of those who bring good news,

who proclaim peace,

who bring good tidings,

who proclaim salvation,

who say to Zion,

“Your God reigns!”

Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;

together they shout for joy.

When the Lord returns to Zion,

they will see it with their own eyes.

Burst into songs of joy together,

you ruins of Jerusalem,

for the Lord has comforted his people,

he has redeemed Jerusalem.

The Lord will lay bare his holy arm

in the sight of all the nations,

and all the ends of the earth will see

the salvation of our God.

 

2016 has not been a good year for humanity.  A selfish narcissistic misogynist has been elected president of the most powerful western country in the world.  The terrible, ongoing events in Aleppo and across Syria are destroying humanity, and we can now watch these war crimes because of the internet.  Food insecurity in Yemen, has turned into utter devastation and famine in the face of war.  Bombings in Istanbul. The Zika virus is a pandemic in progress, causing babies to be born disabled.  In France, a terror attack on Bastille day, left 86 people dead and over 430 injured.  Regardless of how you voted in the EU referendum, the resulting racism has been hugely damaging to many in our communities.  In the US, the police have regularly shot dead unarmed black people.  Harambe the gorilla was shot dead in Cincinnati zoo and the world turned its venom on the mother whose child had got in his cage.  24 hour news and the ubiquity of the internet means that we can hear the voices of the suffering, see their faces, be confronted by the pain.  It’s no longer far away in a distant land.  It’s in our phone, in our pocket, in our handbag.

 

How can we rejoice when this is the world we live in?  Isaiah wrote the passage I just read prophetically, envisaging a time when God will save humanity.  And yet, we don’t lice in a time when peace, good tidings or salvation abound.

 

You may be sat there thinking, “Oh Natalie, please don’t remind me of the state of the world!  It’s Christmas, and we should be thinking about nice things.  Turkey dinners.  Presents.  Time with family.  Rest and relaxation.”

 

Perhaps your personal life is going well, and you don’t want reminding of the awfulness in the world?  Or maybe just like 2016 has been a horrendous year globally, perhaps your personal life is full of wounded-ness and loss.  Maybe you don’t have any capacity left to think about the global pain and horror that is continually assaulting our fellow humans.

 

As Christians, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the world.  Jesus berated the Pharisees for tithing herbs while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and the love of God.  We can’t focus on only tithing herbs, or doing our bit on Sunday mornings, or having an occasional quiet time, or trying to be a nice person.  We must be sure to focus our hearts and minds on the weightier matters of justice and the love of God.  What does that look like in Aleppo?  In Yemen?  For black people in America?  For people from minority backgrounds across the UK?  For parents of children affected by the Zika virus?

 

How do we make sense of the world as Christians, when the world is such a huge mess?  And perhaps for some of us here, when our lives are a huge mess too?

 

As people living in the west, the narrative of our lives often resides in fairy tales and superhero movies.  The superhero, with his enormous power, comes in and saves the day.  Then they all live happily ever after.  Amen.

 

That is not the Gospel.  The reading from John tells us:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

 

Jesus is not a superhero.  He is the God of all creation.  He is the Word that brought life into being.

 

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

Jesus did not use His great power to save us all into happily ever after.  He gave up His great power and saved us by living among us, becoming one of us.  Ours is not a narrative of happily ever after, but of a God who loves us enough to walk in our shoes, live our life, die instead of us.  He was not celebrated or honoured, as this passage tells us.  Instead, He was vilified, ignored and killed.

 

Verse 5 which I missed out before says,

 

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

Jesus is the light of the world.  And no matter what evil is perpetrated or what pain is endured, He remains the light of the world and the darkness will not be able to overcome Him.

 

Tomorrow we celebrate Jesus’ birth as a human baby.  It is a day of celebrating life; Jesus’ life, family life, new life and our life in Christ.  And hopefully it will be a positive day for each of us, no matter what trials we face personally, or as humans in a pain filled world.

 

Jesus didn’t stay as a human baby, He grew up and His life, death and resurrection are what will save us and will eventually transform our planet.  Yet I am reminded of Teresa of Avila’s words, which are an instruction to us all:

 

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

 

We are Christ’s body and each of us are those who bring the light of Jesus to those we know, to our communities and to our world.  And I will finish by reading words Jesus spoke to the disciples shortly before He died, later on in the book of John, in chapter 16:

 

20 Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy…

 

He goes on to say…

 

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Advertisements

One in Christ Jesus – A Sermon

After tweeting earlier today about my sermon I thought I’d post it online in case anyone is interested in reading it…

 

This week has been a difficult week.  Though it may not have been reported as such, the death of Jo Cox was a political assassination.  And her death is directly linked with some of the rhetoric within the EU referendum.  Yesterday I was on local authorised preacher training and someone said that we shouldn’t make preaching political and that voting is a personal thing.  And the choice of who we vote for is personal, but the impact certainly is not.

I wrote this sermon before Jo Cox was murdered, so I will speak further about that later on.  When I saw that this passage was to be preached on today, I told our vicar I would love to preach on it, as one verse in particular has great significance to me.  Galatians 3:28..

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I love this verse so much that it is the name of a project I am involved in, Project 3:28, which is all about addressing the lack of representation of women in Christian culture.

Last month I participated in a debate at Oxford University “This house believes religious practice hinders gender equality”.  I was on the opposition with a Hindu woman and a Muslim woman.  The proposition included an atheist woman, a cultural Muslim man and a “post Christian theologian”.  Her name is Daphne Hampson and she is a post Christian theologian because she used to be a Christian and she rejected the Christian faith because of how it oppresses women.

She’s not wrong…

Though it may not have happened in our church, the experiences of many in Christian culture and in churches is…

  • Women told by church leaders to stay with an abusive husband
  • Women told they cannot lead, teach, fulfil their calling
  • The failings of male leaders often colluded with.  “Restoration plans”
  • Real work seen as male, intellectual.
  • Model of spirituality often aligns with men who often have less caring responsibilities
  • Assumptions women will do childcare in church
  • Men often encouraged into leadership roles

Women’s full inclusion can be perceived as a “secondary issue”…

Yet for Daphne Hampson and many other’s it is the reason they have rejected the Christian faith.

In today’s post-modern world, it is ethics and not reason or proof that is standing in the way of many people accepting Jesus into their lives.

How do we declare Jesus as liberation when so many who bear His name are contributing to the oppression of women?

Today is Father’s Day.  Both Mothering Sunday and Father’s Day can be amazing, positive days for those of us with loving parents.  But for many they are complex days.  For better or worse, our parents are usually the biggest influence on our lives.

And for those of us who are parents what a great responsibility it is to recognise that is also the case for our children.

Our father may not have been present in our lives or perhaps he made choices which have deeply wounded us.  Perhaps we were adopted or do not know who our father is.  Or there may be men here who hoped to be fathers and it never happened.  Or fathers whose children are no longer with us, or perhaps who are estranged.

Often the church can be a difficult place to be if our family doesn’t fit the 2.4 nuclear family that is often idolised by Christian culture.  We can feel alienated and isolated if we are single, it we do not have children, or if our family background is complicated and messy.  Just as women (and men) can be alienated from the church because it seems oppressive to women, so can those who don’t fit the nice, happy smiley family structure.  How often when we’re asked how we are at church on a Sunday do we put on our church smile and say we’re fine, even though life is actually deeply painful?

Can we be confident that the non-Christians we know with messy family situation will not put the church off them because of the mess?  Do they feel the church is a place of inclusion or of judgement?  Do they know that us people in the church have messy lives too?  Are we willing to be honest about our pain?  Be vulnerable?  Or do we want to present ourselves as a model person, as a model family?

In 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  I imagine myself as a broken jar of clay, with a light inside.  It is through the cracks that the light of God can get out.  It is not my strength or competence that most clearly reveals God to the world, it is instead my brokenness.

In the past week we have witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.  49 people were killed and 53 people injured when a man claiming to represent Islamic State opened fire in a Gay Nightclub in Orlando.  I have gay and lesbian friends who have been horrified and left deeply scared by this homophobic terror attack.  It can be easy to look at this terrible atrocity and condemn Islamic State, without examining how Christianity has often been deeply homophobic.

We can look at the murderer’s religion and consider Islam as the problem.  Fear of ISIS has fuelled hate crime to those who don’t have white skin.  Earlier this week we may have looked at Orlando and assumed it happened “over there in America, where everyone has guns”.  Yet, what happened later in the week?  An MP, shot dead.

Just as women and those with complex families can feel the church and Jesus is incompatible with their lives, so can lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  Do we have friends who are gay or lesbian?  Do we have work colleagues or family members?  Are there people in our congregation?  People here today?  Do they know that we care about them?  Or is their assumption that we are homophobic because we are Christian?

As we consider how to vote on Thursday (and there will be people here who vote both ways) as Christians, our vote must not be based on how the referendum will affect the price of our house.  As Christians we must prioritise firstly loving God and then loving our neighbour.  And who is our neighbour?  WHO is our neighbour?  If Jesus was here today, the story of the Good Samaritan would perhaps be about our neighbour being Muslim people or refugees.  As Christians we must vote based on how that vote will affect the last, the least and the lost.

The passage from Galatians includes a statement of equality that was unheard of in that time.  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  We must always be careful not to elevate one passage above others when discussing theology, however this passage has special significance for us today.

In Jesus, the prejudices that separate us from each other dissipate.  Those people unable to accept the Christian message because it is sexist or misogynistic have a place to come in the Bible which suggests a difference truth is possible.  Maybe our differences are not as important as the love Christ came to bring to us?

Though there are many stories of how the Christian faith can be oppressive to women, we must also acknowledge that the reason women can vote today is because of the pioneering work of the suffragettes, many of whom were driven by their Christian faith.  So however the Christian faith can be a force of oppression for women, it can also be greatly liberating.

When we delve into the Bible further we find that far from 2.4 cereal box families, the Bible story is full of messy families.  Cain killed Abel, Abraham impregnated Hagar his wife’s servant, King David refused to deal with his son raping his daughter,  Joseph’s brother’s sold him into slavery, Rahab was a prostitute, Jesus was raised by a step-father.  We have a faith founded in the messiness of real life and people’s bad choices.

We don’t have to be ashamed of our messy families.  Though we may need support and help to overcome the challenges, the church should be a place we can be honest and know that messy families are in our faith’s DNA.  Let me challenge you today, if anyone asks you how you are after the service, to be honest rather than offering the default church smile and the very British “I’m fine thank you.”

As for the Orlando massacre and the many people who have been affected by it.  The church has a complex, theologically difficult road to walk with issues of sexuality and gender identity.  However, we are called first to love.  And may we represent the Jesus of love and life-in-all-its-fullness to those who currently find the Gospel to be oppressive.  May we be people who love deeply and live honestly, even when it hurts.  And may we know the God who binds our broken hearts; the God who is truly the greatest Father and Mother each of us can ever have.

Free the Nipple Debate Speech

I thought people may like to read my speech for a debate I participated in a few weeks ago.  I was asked to speak for the proposition on “This house would free the nipple.”

Good evening, women and men.  My feminist, socialist tendencies won’t stretch to addressing you as ladies and gentlemen, so I do hope you will indulge me with that.

I am proposing that we should indeed free the nipple.  For those unfamiliar with the Free The Nipple campaign; it started in the US and campaigns to address indecency laws which criminalise women whose nipples are visible in public.  Men’s nipples have no such law attached to them.  Few US states distinguish between the legality of women stripping off and women who are breastfeeding.  Also in the campaign’s sights are social media sites like Facebook and Instagram  who ban photographs of women’s nipples as they breach the sites’ decency rules.  This includes photographs of women breastfeeding their children.

In the UK it is not illegal for women to share their nipples with the world, and actually in many places men’s nipples are also banned from public display, for instance in seaside towns across the country, men’s (and women’s) shirts are required to be on in cafes and other premises.

So, if in the UK, the nipple is already legally free, why am I here suggesting we should free it?  What should it be freed from?

As with most aspects of women’s oppression, the nipple needs to be freed from patriarchy.  The sexualisation and objectification of women across society means that as women our humanity is consistently reduced to us being a three holed ornament with breeding capacity.

Breastfeeding is not indecent.  It is feeding a baby.  And starving a baby is far from decent.  Women’s nipples are indecent only because they have been wholly sexualised.

I’m not a pro-pornography feminist, I don’t believe that the sex industry liberates any one, it increases the power and wealth of men (and gives few women even a decent or sustainable income).  The sex industry dehumanises women as sexual objects to be violated and degraded (regardless of the individual choices of individual women).  It also dehumanises men as they become less human in their choice to objectify and degrade other human beings.

I’m not unrealistic.  Freeing the nipple on Facebook or Instragram is not going to liberate women.  Yes it may give breastfeeding mothers opportunities to share photographs as they feed their babies.  However, the winners will of course be pornographers and abusers.  We’ve all heard about the rise of so-called “revenge porn”.  I can only imagine how abusers would use the new found female nipple freedom to further abuse a current or ex-partner on social media.  Facebook and Instagram would be flooded with Page 3-esque images.  Freeing the nipple by simply changing decency rules and laws is not going to liberate women.

Yet freeing women’s bodies from the male gaze and being sexually objectified is a feminist imperative.

Freeing the Nipple must be a cultural strategy, it will never be a quick win.

We must:

  1. Raise girls to love and own their own bodies, to see their whole being as not solely sexual, yet to know that it’s okay to have a sexuality, to not be ashamed.
  2. Raise boys to recognise girls as empowered and fully human.
  3. Have proactive conversations with children and young people about pornographies and sexualisation.
  4. Challenge the representation of women and girls in the wallpaper of every day life, we could boycott companies like Lynx and American Apparel who sexualise women to sell products.
  5. Educate men and women to be active bystanders, challenging language which objectifies and degrades the opposite or same sex.
  6. As women, acknowledge the ways we are encouraged to compete for the small amount of power we have access to; measuring ourselves against other women.  Let us celebrate other women and build the sisterhood, united we can stand.
  7. As men, own the privilege afforded to you, while acknowledging the wounds created by patriarchy that insist on self-sufficiency and maintaining power based relationships with other men and with women.
  8. Protest, campaign and live lives of integrity that seek to be a light in the darkness of patriarchy.

Freeing the nipple is not the biggest issue facing women.  Being able to strip off here or breastfeed publicly without shame is not going to change the fact that 25% of women will be abused by a partner in the UK.  That 72% of girls in the UK will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend and 32% will be sexually abused by a boyfriend.  It doesn’t address the reality that 85,000 women will be raped in the UK this year or the global rates of female genital mutilation, child rape, breast ironing, unfair marriage laws, trafficking, female infanticide and the many other types of male violence towards women and girls that cause immeasurable suffering.

However, the nipple being free from patriarchy is like one of those starfish on the beach that the boy is famously described as throwing back into the sea.  In the drip drip drip of patriarchy, every act towards women’s liberation is part of the solution.

I was a teenage mum.  When I had my daughter at 18 I chose to breastfeed her.  It took all of my courage to start feeding her in front of people.  But I did it because I wanted the best for her.  After attending a youth event in which I needed to feed her, the youth worker involved took me to one side and asked me to no longer breastfeed publicly at youth events.  He explained that the parent of a teenage boy had complained.  He said I could feed her in the toilet if I needed to.

As a teenage mother I experienced great stigma.  To all intents and purposes I was then excluded from a gathering of my peers because someone chose to sexualise me feeding my baby.

That experience didn’t destroy my life.  It is simply one story of many I could tell you about the ways patriarchy and male violence have hurt me.  I propose that we should free the nipple because patriarchy must be smashed and though freeing nipples may only make a hairline fracture in the seemingly impermeable structure, it is with each blow that it becomes weaker.