Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Christmas Day 2018
Today is Christmas Day, the third most important day in the Church’s calendar and possibly the most widely-celebrated Australian public holiday (although I suspect it jostles with ANZAC Day for top spot). As I mentioned last year, Christmas has never been an exclusively Christian festival, and it most definitely isn’t here in Australia. Australians of other faiths, as well as those of ‘no faith,’ often join in the Christmas gift-giving and feasting, sharing the love and peace and joy of the day. Sadly, Christmas can also look like ‘just another day’. The story of the Christmas Day Truce during World War One, when men in the trenches on both sides sang and played football together, is amazing and beautiful – and profoundly unusual. Wars don’t usually stop for Christmas. Death and hunger and sorrow and pain do not suddenly disappear because we are celebrating the birth of Christ. Natural disasters don’t care about the liturgical calendar.
But Christmas reminds us that the world is not just made up of war and famine, death and destruction. We recognize beauty and hope. We speak and hear of joy and peace. We experience the love that is at the core of creation. We see the light shine in the darkness, and know that the dark cannot overcome it. Christmas reminds us to pause where we are, here and now, and celebrate the coming of the light.
In some ways we’re doing what the people to whom Isaiah prophesied were doing. Isaiah was warning his people of the Exile, when Jerusalem would be ruined and its people taken in captivity to Babylon. And yet in the midst of that warning of war and death Isaiah also prophesied hope. Isaiah knew that no matter how long and difficult the Exile would be, the time would come when God’s people could again rejoice ‘as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder’. One was coming who would be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’. Throughout the prophecies of Isaiah we see the same message: God reigns; the Lord has comforted his people; there will be justice and righteousness; all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.
We see this salvation, this reign of God, in the birth of Jesus, in the Word made flesh. We see it even more clearly at Easter, in the resurrection that follows the crucifixion. We will see it most completely at the eschaton, the parousia, the end time: when people shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; when the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid; when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We haven’t reached this point yet, but we’ve seen the foretaste of the new world’s coming in the light that shone in the darkness.
The churches have not been particularly good at modeling God’s world of justice and righteousness this past year. The fallout of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has continued; very senior church leaders have been found guilty of crimes. The Ruddock Report into Religious Freedom has been released, which has led to demands from some churches to be allowed to discriminate against people by way of exemptions from the laws that apply to other institutions. There’s not much justice and righteousness in that.
And yet, and yet …
I want to again read you a poem I read last Christmas Day, because it still seems to me to sum up what we are celebrating today, and how far we still have to go. It was written by an indigenous woman, Maureen Watson, born on her mother’s Kungulu country in Queensland, who left school at 13, then later studied at the University of Queensland and became an activist and founding member of many indigenous organizations. It’s called:
Memo to J.C.
When you were down here JC and walked this earth,
You were a pretty decent sort of bloke, .
Although you never owned nothing, but the clothes on your back
And you were always walking round, broke. –
But you could talk to people, and you didn’t have to judge,
You didn’t mind helping the down and out
But these fellows preaching now in your Holy name,
Just what are they on about?
Didn’t you tell these fellows to do other things,
Besides all that preaching and praying?
Well, listen, JC, there’s things ought to be said,
And I might as well get on with the saying.
Didn’t you tell them ‘don’t judge your fellow man’
And ‘love ye one another’
And ‘not put your faith in worldly goods’.
Well, you should see the goods that they got, brother!
They got great big buildings and works of art,
And millions of dollars in real estate,
They got no time to care about human beings,
They forgot what you told ’em, mate;
Things like, ‘Whatever ye do to the least of my brothers,
his ye do also unto me’.
Yeah, well these people who are using your good name,
They’re abusing it, JC,
But there’s people still living the way you lived,
And still copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate,
Getting crucified by the fat cats, too,
But they don’t call us religious, mate.
Tho’ we got the same basic values that you lived by,
Sharin’ and carin’ about each other,
And the bread and the wine that you passed around,
Well, we’re still doing that, brother.
Yeah, we share our food and drink and shelter,
Our grief, our happiness, our hopes and plans,
But they don’t call us ‘Followers of Jesus’,
They call us black fellas, man. ·
But if you’re still offering your hand in forgiveness
To the one who’s done wrong, and is sorry,
I reckon we’ll meet up later on,
And I got no cause to worry.
Just don’t seem right somehow that all the good you did,
That people preach, not practice, what you said,
I wonder, if it all died with you, that day on the cross,
And if it just never got raised from the dead.
This is the person whose birth we celebrate today; JC, ‘a pretty decent sort of bloke’. This Christmas, let’s not forget what JC told us. Let’s remember those ‘copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate’; those abused by church leaders; LGBTIQ teachers and students at religious schools. Let’s remember that in each one of these people we see Jesus’ face. Let us truly celebrate the coming of the light at Christmas. Amen.