I’d sort of given up on this blog for a bit. I got pretty disheartened by the internet’s capacity for mean spiritedness. Rather a weak response, I know. Well let’s start again with my sermon for Christmas, including a story I think is the most beautiful of any news at the moment, of a small church in the Netherlands, and a young refugee family.
So, I’m terribly proud of our stable scene under our altar. Proud for two reasons. The first, as an asthete, because it looks beautiful, the second, as a yorkshireman, it cost about twenty p. It’s basically cardboard cutouts of old master paintings.
But the conesquence of using those beautiful oil paintings is that all of those characters in the scene share a certain look. It’s all very elegant. No-one is disgusted. But they should be. This was a child born into filth.
And I was thinking about that, thinking, why a stable.
Because there was no room for them in the Inn, yes we know. But why would anyone give a pregnant woman was given a stable? I mean even if you had to give up your own bed, wouldn’t you do that?
It’s such a familiar story but when you think about it, it’s bizarre. This was Joseph’s home town, where he was born, with a population of a few hundred. Most of the people in Bethlehem must have known Joseph, he would have had family there, and they would have heard about Mary.
And that is I think why they were given a stable. Because they’d heard about Mary. Pregnant before they were married.
The Gospel writers go out of their way to tell us stories about Mary’s disgrace and the family’s rejection. Doing the will of God meant that she was shamed by society. Even if you think this is just a story, it’s a story of a woman pregnant before marriage, of a man coming back to his own home to be rejected by the whole town, visited only by outcasts such as shepherds and foreigners. The Gospel writers work as hard as they can to emphasise the disgrace. It’s a gutsy move.
I think it’s there to tell us something about this child, and this religion. It tells us that doing the will of God, doing good, can sometimes disrupt society. Christianity is intended to be disruptive. Our religion is one of compassionate disruption. If it isn’t, it isn’t Christianity, not really. Because if we are to follow the God of love, we need disruption.
If you look at all the historical dictatorships, the great corrupt regimes in the world, there is one thing they all have in common. They are very well run. They are huge bureaucracies. Because without compassionate disruption, every system has the capacity to tyrannise those who live by it. Systems will always dominate us unless we let love dominate the system, and that is by compassionate disruption.
Capitalism as a system only works as a moral force for good because there is a compassionate disruption. Without that, the poor would get poorer. Capitalism works, because we interfere with it, because we care.
Democracy only works when there is compassionate disruption. Without it, there would be no room for minorities. President Benjamin Franklin once famously said that democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty was a well armed lamb questioning the vote. But the reason we don’t need to be armed to get justice and liberty for minorities is because we are compassionate disrupters. We don’t vote purely in our own interests – we are not wolves. And that stops the system being unjust.
The child that was born in the stable became the worlds’ greatest compassionate disrupter. The image that Christ chose for himself was that of a shepherd, one the outcasts that had visited him at his own birth. And because of his compassion, and because of his ability to let love dominate the system, he changed the world. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. He changed the world, because he gave love full reign.
If ever we do lose sight of that, then Christmas becomes nothing, the detritis from a once great feast, not the feast which feeds the hungry. But when we remember it, when we live it, something wonderful happens. Outcasts know they are valued, that they matter. Everyone matters when love dominates.
And that breaks every system which causes division and hatred. And that can make everything bearable, everything beautiful, everything possible.
There is one church in the Netherlands who are living this spirit of Christmas, this spirit of compassionate disruption, in a very real way. Bethel Church in the Hague took in a refugee family from Armenia, who were seeking asylum from political persecution.
The family were about to be deported by the government. Like many countries the far right has gained a foothold in the Netherlands, and this has resulted in tighter immigration policy. The Armenian father had been a dissident and he had a good chance of never being seen again had they returned to Armenia, their children had grown up speaking Dutch. So the church felt they had to do something, and offered them sanctuary.
Only the government repealed the sanctuary law. The police told the church that they were going to take the family away after the Sunday morning service. But there is an ancient Dutch law which says a church service cannot be interrupted, even by police. So the church decided not to stop the Sunday morning service.
It went on all of Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon, and when it came to Sunday evening, more people turned up to take over, taking part in disrupting what they felt was a system which was not compassionate, and worshipping God in the process.
Today, like so many churches throughout the world, that church is worshipping as we are, right now, celebrating the coming of the Christ child. Only they have been worshipping non stop for sixty days and over fourteen hundred hours, and when we’re settling down to our turkey and crackers, they will still be singing the praises of the God of love, And while we put our heads on our pillows they will still be singing, and into the night, and in the days to come. SO far they have a rota of 650 clergy from 15 different denominations, because if there’s one thing the church is good at it’s rotas. They have invented what they call hoovering services, so they can clean the church and keep worshipping. And they won’t stop. Because they can’t. Because once you start doing what love demands, you begin to know that you can’t stop until love wins. Day after day, as long as it takes they will be worshipping God. Because they are Christians. And because of them, there is a frightened Armenian family who know they are loved. And they worship a child who was born in a stable, because no-one would give him house room.
Our Christmas story is the story of a child born into poverty, and rejection. The very thought of that calls love out of us and inspires us to help. We don’t want to be the ones who say “no room”. We open our doors, we open our hearts, and indeed we open our wallets, to help those in need. And that’s what makes this story beautiful. Not the scene, not the crib, not the old master paintings. But our response. Our compassion.
Because now we know what homeless travellers look like. They look like a child in a manger. Now we know what women who are no better than they ought to be look like. They look like his Mother Mary. Now we know what asylum seekers look like – they look like this holy family, who fled the tyranny of Herod. So now we know what to do, when we see someone outcast by society. We give them room. We open our arms.
And when we do, just like that small, elderly church in the Hague, we worship the King of Love who makes all things new. And indeed, in the words of the hymn, Christmas comes once more.