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.”

Wake Up.

Trump is the president elect.  White evangelical Christians supported him and voted for him.  They justified his actions, defended him and endorsed him as the Christian candidate.  Mainly because he said he’ll overturn abortion laws.  Also because he is a white man who is an expert manipulator and a narcissist.

 

Over the last few days I’ve seen a number of Christians reject evangelical as their label.  They can no longer align themselves with a Christian culture which is misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, bigoted, self-aggrandising and seemingly incapable of self-reflection.

 

Bill and Beni Johnson are the leaders of Bethel, a globally known megachurch, famous for its worship songs and healing ministry.  Bill Johnson took to Facebook this week to justify why he and his wife had voted for Donald Trump.  Using the Bible.  Bill Johnson-ology (a new brand of theology) is very self-esteem oriented…  Poor people lose self-esteem if the state helps them.  Rich people lose self-esteem if they are taxed because it robs them of their choice to show compassion.  Abortion also features highly (point 1) of Bill Johnson-ology.  It also involves a whole load of double standards where Hilary Clinton’s behaviour is unforgiveable, but Donald Trump’s is forgiveable.  Immigrants should not be helped, because citizens come first and actually Donald Trump is like Jesus because both of them suffered for not being politically correct.

 

After reading this, I then attended an Evangelical Alliance (EA) event in London.  It is 170 years old.  In its infancy, the EA had many disagreements, including Britain refusing to allow slave owners to join the alliance, standing against some Christians and their organisations in the US.

 

The event shared lots of things the EA is doing.  Its mission, evangelism, work with public leadership and its advocacy.  Yet, no one mentioned that evangelical is quick becoming a byword for bigot, racist and misogynist.  The UK and US media are telling the world that evangelicals voted in Trump.  Because we did.  Evangelical is synonymous with TRUMP VOTER.  And the EA doesn’t seem to realise what this means for their alliance or for the future of evangelicalism.  It doesn’t matter that US evangelicalism is different to that within the UK, because that’s a complex nuance and a false dichotomy.  Especially when so many evangelicals voted Brexit because they believe the EU is about to usher in the antichrist because they read it in a Left Behind novel or something.

 

I wish I could make this my Farewell to evangelicalism.  But I can’t.

 

I love Jesus.  I would be dead without Jesus.  And I love Jesus in an evangelical, unapologetic, charismatic, raise your hands to the sky and sing your lungs out kind of way.  I love the Bible and think it’s inspired by God and I believe in capital-T Truth.  I live in the tension of being a woman liberated by God while reading Bible passages about women oppressed by that same God.  And I don’t want to just explain it away by making it say what I want it to say.  I raise my kids to know that Jesus saves and my daughter got baptised in the sea and I tell them that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, whilst also trying to equip them to overcome the toxicity of evangelical culture.

 

Why does Bill Johnson get to maintain the label evangelical, when he’s misrepresenting the Bible so horrifically?  When he’s doing such great violence to sacred Scripture?  Why do sexual abuse apologists, racists and bigots get to keep the label evangelical, when they’re defiling God’s temple just the same as the market sellers Jesus chased out with a whip?

 

Evangelical culture left me vulnerable to abuse.  Cultural constructs of forgiveness, submission, consent and the status of women left me ill-equipped to deal with male violence.  And consequently a man almost killed my child and drove me close to suicide.  But Jesus saved me and He saved me back into the evangelical church.  So I’m not leaving, because this is my home.

 

“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

 

Wake up Church, wake up Evangelical Alliance, wake up all you Christians.

 

Idolatry and the love of power wreak destruction in the holy places of God.  Our so-called brothers and sisters (oh God, how I weep that it was our sisters too) have elected an anti-Christ man to the most powerful office on earth.  Now is not the time for diplomacy, for platitudes or misrepresenting Trump’s insincere speech as “gracious and moderate”.  170 years ago, the leaders of the UK evangelical alliance stood against the US church in their perpetration of slavery and today we must stand against them once again.  For if we do not, we are culpable as bigots, racists and sexual abuse apologists.

When Men are People and Women are Novelty

This week Donald Trump’s misogyny became clearer to the world.  We now all know that he likes to sexually assault women.  Many were upset because they have wives and sisters and daughtersOthers were upset because he used bad wordsYet others wanted people to grow up and stop being so sensitive about the things men say in private.  Even when those things are a man admitting sexual assault.

 

Another thing that happened this week is that two brand new Christian events were announced.  Naturally Supernatural is a new event from the Soul Survivor team and replaces Momentum.  And Jesus Culture announced a new event that will be happening in Manchester.  These new events that haven’t happened previously.  Currently the Naturally Supernatural line-up includes five white men, one black man and one white woman.  The Jesus Culture event has seven white men (two of them are called Chris) and one white woman.  This event has more Chris’ speaking than women speaking.

 

Now, dear reader, you may be wondering how on earth Donald Trump’s misogyny is related to two new Christian events.  So I shall tell you.

 

Donald Trump’s misogyny started as a seed.  It grew in a soil of white male entitlement, wealth and power.  It grew as he was socialised to understand that men are people and women are novelty; where his power and wealth gained him impunity.  It has been cultivated most recently by white, male conservative Christians, who have either been silent on his comments, have undermined the seriousness of them or have reluctantly admitted that he’s in the wrong.  When these same conservative Christians have expressed concern, it’s because they are fathers and husbands.  It seems it’s only possible for men to care about women if they are emotionally invested in one.  Because men are human and women are novelty.  I wrote about that HERE.

 

These new Christian events are contributing to the soil.  At a very fundamental level they are saying men are people and women are novelty, in a Christian world where 65% are women.  Jesus Culture say, “There is a stirring.  God is on the move.  A hope for the nations.  The inescapable truth that He will do great things in our day.”  If Jesus Culture are unable to discern that God’s move involves a whole load of women, I’m not sure we can trust that they are really hearing from Him.  The world is changing, the roar of woman is finally being heard across our nations and yet Jesus Culture are deaf to her voice.  Because for them men are people and women are novelty.

 

Naturally Supernatural is “Equipping the church to live spirit-led lives.”  The Kingdom of God currently has a female majority, yet as an event they can only find enough women for novelty.  When the men who attend this event can only be upset about Donald Trump’s actions because of their wives and daughters, who can blame them when women’s only roles at the event are as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters?  There will be little that shows women are Christian teachers and leaders, competent and skilled, capable and trusted by God and by well-known Christian organisations to bring God’s Truth to all.

 

We can all imagine that we are nothing like Donald Trump.  That his words and actions are disgusting.  But unless we are actively working to create a world where women are no longer novelty, we are part of the soil.

 

Ali Campbell has also written about this over on his blog and has some really great stuff to say!  Read it HERE.

Political Narratives and Vulnerable Women

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about a vulnerable woman from Pennsylvania.  She was subjected to severe sexual harassment and discrimination in a male dominated workplace.  Successfully suing her employer, she was awarded $450,000 in damages, to then have the “verdict overturned by a federal judge who did not question the facts of the case but decided that the matter had been handled appropriately”.

 

She continued working in an environment where she explains that men were abusive to her every single day.  Her sister became seriously ill and died of cancer.  She was sacked from her job after making a dangerous decision in the midst of severe anxiety and has been left with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

 

Yet, the article was not about the appalling injustices the woman, Melanie Austin, has faced or the ways she has suffered.  Written by Stephanie McCrummen, THE ARTICLE focusses on Melanie as a passionate Donald Trump supporter.  It is brilliantly written and powerfully shows how Trump’s political success and approach to campaigning validates dangerous and ludicrous ideologies; views more at home on conspiracy theory websites than in a presidential campaign.  Reading it, I variously laughed aloud, made shocked faces and loudly exclaimed “WHAAAAAT?” to myself.

 

Melanie Austin believes President Obama is gay, that Michelle Obama is a man and that their children have been kidnapped, possibly from a family in Mexico.  She was involuntarily hospitalised after stating online that “Obama should be hanged and the White House fumigated and burned to the ground”.  The fact that Donald Trump’s campaign (and the people who support it) has validated and normalised her views is one of the most shocking things about the article.

 

Usually my empathy levels are extremely high when I encounter women who have been sexually harassed, emotionally undermined and/or dominated in ways that leave them anxious, their confidence decimated and their lives in tatters.  I feel their pain, I feel anger and outrage at what they have been put through and the ways structures and systems have damaged them even further.  However, as I read the Washington Post’s article I did not feel much empathy for Melanie Austin.  I was incredulous of her views, horrified by her politics and disgusted by Donald Trump’s political campaign.

 

The empathy deficit that occurred as I read was because the narrative caricatured her rather than focusing on her as a multifaceted human being.  Just as a cartoonist may enlarge their subject’s facial features to create an exaggerated likeness, so this article enlarged and attended to Melanie’s offensive political views, without really examining the system in which those views have been cultivated.  And I became complicit as I read openmouthed about her.  Her views reduced my capacity to see her as a human being.  To conclude that I (a passionate supporter of women, particularly women who have been broken by male abuse and by patriarchal institutions) had dehumanised this woman who had been damaged so badly, shocked me almost as much as Melanie’s views about the Obamas.

 

As we navigate this complex and extremely stormy political waters, we can become fixated on the extraordinary views of individual people, unable to step back and see that their views have grown to fruition in a soil of lies sold to them by large media corporations, politicians, multinational companies and also (much to our shame) faith leaders.  We of the “educated class”, look at the likes of Melanie Austin and, alongside our horror, we feel relieved that we are not so stupid, so ignorant, so disgusting as to believe such utterly vile lies.  And in so doing we dehumanise Melanie as stupid, ignorant and disgusting.  We are enlightened and we can be sure that only stupid, ignorant or disgusting people would vote for Donald Trump.  We are, of course, the superior class.

 

And yet, Melanie has been subjected to abuse, systemic injustice and is living with the consequences of that.  She looked for answers and found them in the conspiracy pages, in right wing politics, in televangelists and in Donald Trump.  She views herself as a Christian.  She prays daily, sings hymns and says she feels, “happy and blessed.”

 

I write this article from the UK where the threat of Donald Trump (and his most passionate supporters) are a whole ocean away.  Yet Brexit may be perceived in similar ways to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  The demonising of immigrants and false and misinformation abound.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally Brexit has validated racist and xenophobic ideologies and people are divided, not along traditional political lines, but by deep values that are hard to even recognise, never mind articulate.

 

Stephanie McCrummen’s article expertly enables us to see the danger of Donald Trump, but at the expense of the humanity of a vulnerable woman with a long history of trauma and hurt.  She becomes a parody, no longer a person, but a spectacle for those of us with more progressive views to stare at.  Her humanity is lost as she becomes a vehicle for demonstrating the danger of Trump.

 

It is in our realising Melanie Austin’s humanity that we have some hope of changing the narrative.  Rather than dehumanising her and seeing her as the enemy, we could seek to find ways to relate with her and offer alternative answers to her struggles.  Jerry Falwell has told her that September 11th was the fault of the “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.”  Instead of feminism giving her an analysis of the violence perpetrated against her, she sees it as causing a terrorist attack.

 

We must make visible the systems and structures that created Trump supporters, just as we must find ways to demonstrate how Brexit is the result of political decisions (by both the Labour and Conservative parties), a lack of political education, class inequality, long-term biased media reporting and the capitalising of the injustices facing the least powerful in society.

 

As Christians, this mandate is clearly laid out by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12).

 

And Jesus taught us how to behave in these situations, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:44-48)

 

“If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”

 

As Christians we may be fighting for our voice to be heard above “Christian” extremists like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, but we must choose not to ridicule or dehumanise Donald Trump’s supporters, for what reward will we get for that?