sermon for st johns camberwell, 30 dec 2012
Christmas is one of those times when I am very glad to be a Christian. It’s not because of the beautiful music at church or the quaint nativity pageants (Lord, no!); it’s because that if it wasn’t for the grounded reality of a virgin teenager giving birth in an animal enclosure, I would become thoroughly depressed by our contemporary culture’s fantasy of the perfect family Christmas. A perfect day with perfect weather, perfectly behaved children and adults, uncomplicated relationships and enough money to pretend Santa loves your kids and provide an extravagant feast for a loving network of family and friends.
Some of us would have had a lovely day on the 25th, complete with all the trimmings, but most of us would have had at least a moment or more of the grim reality of family life: anger, grief, anxiety, sadness. Perhaps there are people whom you love who were missing from your table. Perhaps there are people whom you love who belong to someone else’s table. Perhaps there are people whom you love who were making life difficult at your table!
The Christian story of incarnation does not permit such fantasy. Instead, it gives us the resources to live in reality and a vision of living which is far more powerful to transform the everyday relationships in our lives. The key to the story today, is in the epistle reading, Colossians 3:
‘As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’
If we go back to the ancient story of Samuel’s family, we begin to see what this means. When Hannah couldn’t bear children, what did she do? She trusted the LORD and he answered her prayer! When it came time for Hannah to act on her commitment to God in that prayer, what did she do? She trusted in the LORD and released her longed-for first-born into the service of the LORD at the temple. She trusted the LORD and the LORD blessed her again with more children. I can imagine that if I was Hannah I really, really would have struggled to keep my promise to give up my child when it came to rub of releasing him from my arms. Think about what the actual experience would have been: miraculously becoming pregnant after decades of painful barrenness, nine long months of carrying the child, the labour of birth and the outpouring of love in nursing a baby. The promise to God might have seemed a distant memory, easily eradicated from consciousness in the thrill of realising her dream. I can think of a million excuses for Hannah not giving up her child! It is a heroic act of faith from Hannah; a determined choice to trust God with every blessing in her life. A child was not just a romantic form of self-fulfilment in the middle east of Hannah’s day. A child was about survival: you needed workers in the extended family economic unit and you also needed children for social status and respect. The moment Hannah hands over Samuel to serve in the Lord’s house, she doesn’t choose survival, she doesn’t choose fear, she chooses to trust God despite the heartache and regardless of the cost.
In the apostle Paul’s advice in the letter to the Colossians, we are urged to ‘forgive as you have been forgiven’. But we can also state this in the positive, which exactly sums up Hannah’s actions: as you have been given, so you also should give.
No one is immune from family struggles, so it is only when we give up the fantasy of the perfect family that we can begin to deal with what actually is. The principles from Colossians are key to how the people of God are to live in the messiness of everyday life, for their own sake as well as for the betterment of the world. Whatever happens, whatever your particular family disfunction or disappointment, in life, in love, in brokenness… live as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, not because that is ‘right’ or ‘good’ or ‘reciprocal’ but because that is how God has treated you!
I feel that I can speak from experience here, because in the face of terrible betrayal four years ago I committed myself to this course of action. I enlisted the help of my friends and set myself the goal of maintaining my own principles for relating to others out of the love that God has poured into my heart by the holy spirit (Romans 5), rather than the hurt inflicted upon me by the choices of another. Thoreau said there is no remedy for love but to love more. When your heart is broken, anger doesn’t fix it. Bitterness is a poison not a healing balm. Only love heals broken love, and no matter what life asks you to endure, God loves you.
I’m sure you are familiar with the cycle of anger which can disable families: Fred upsets Hilary, Hilary is furious so she lashes out at Fred, which makes Fred even more angry so he deliberately hurts Hilary and on and on it goes, until one person decides to opt out of the cycle. As people loved by God, God is inviting us to be the people of peace, following in the footsteps of the King of Peace, standing against the flow of anger, because we are people who have the inner resources to contain the hurt and make better choices. The invitation is to treat others not as others have treated you, but as God has treated you. Do unto others as God has done unto you. God drawn near to us through the love of a virgin mother and her faithful husband: but again, let’s take care to be real about the holy family, this is no perfect fantasy.
Even the Holy Family were not immune to painful misunderstandings at times of major celebrations it would seem. In the gospel reading we have the story of Jesus asserting his independence as a 12 year old, remaining behind in Jerusalem whilst his parents assumed he was part of the larger family group making their way home after the festival. Was Mary right to admonish her son for causing his parents grief? Was Jesus right to rebuke his parents for their lack of understanding? Actually, I think like in most family disputes, who was right and who was wrong is a distraction, what is more important is the choices that come after the event.
There is not a lot of detail in the text about how this family dispute resolved itself. There is no indication of apologies being made and family group hugs but they all headed back to Nazareth together so clearly they moved on somehow. And Mary ‘pondered all these things in her heart.’ She was on her way to understanding her son, but clearly her perception of what God was doing was incomplete at this stage. However, Mary doesn’t need to understand any more than she does at this moment, in order to be able to respond according to the Colossians principle. When push comes to shove, we don’t need particular painful situation to be resolved and we don’t even need reconciliation to be realised before we choose to start to act as God has acted towards us.
Be careful to see the middle step however: the step between heartache and choosing to love – the key to it all – is the turning to God. We can’t do it without turning to God. Forgiveness, bearing with one another, it’s emotional and soulful hard work: the hard work of prayer which is an inner dialogue between our deepest selves and God. Of letting God fill you with God’s love until you can act out of fulness of heart again, rather than the hurt of brokenness. Love only comes from love; we are always able to love because God loves us. So when the love from your family isn’t forthcoming, you can still fulfil the Colossians principles, because when Paul says ‘clothe yourselves in love’, he means God’s love. God’s love for you.
This kind of prayer requires time, stillness, silence. If you think about how long it takes to sob uncontrollably, yell and scream into the pillow, fall asleep exhausted and then have a calming cup of tea, that’s the kind of time we need to spend with God in prayer when we are hurting. Often there are no words which suffice and our tears and grief speak for us in God’s presence, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit who prays with us. There are fellow travellers in this kind of praying, but there are also long times of solitude, for our pain is our own and must be felt in our own unique way. Our brothers and sisters in Christ support us with their own prayers, but more importantly but gently directing our attention back to the love that is still present even in the darkest hours.
The grounded reality of God incarnate doesn’t deny the messiness and disappointment of life. God doesn’t expect you to have the perfect family – in fact the exact opposite is true! Because God knows we humans can’t get through the life of family without stuffing it up and hurting the people we love. God comes as one of us, to be disappointed by love along with us and to reveal to us God’s greater story, that God’s love never fails.
So, if there is fallout from your Christmas this year, be encouraged: just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you have the capacity to forgive those who have hurt you. Just as the Lord has given to you, so also you can give to those who have betrayed you. Just as the Lord has loved you, so also can you give up retaliation, give up bitterness, let go of the hurt, and clothe yourself with love.