A Radical Christmas
Sermon for the Bishopsgate Institute Carol Service
I am a Trustee of the Bishopsgate Institute in my capacity as Priest in Charge of S Botolphs Bishopsgate. The Institure describes its vision on its webiste:
'Bishopsgate Institute's vision: Dedicated to opening minds, challenging perceptions and enriching lives.
Since 1895 we have been a home for ideas and debate, learning and enquiry; a place where culture, heritage and learning meet, and where independent thought is cherished. '
It was to Shepherds that the Angels gave the good news of the birth at Bethlehem. Shepherds were thought of as being pretty disreputable people. No one wanted to do the job of a Shepherd, because it was dangerous, cold, wet, and very badly paid. Shepherds were proverbially rough types. Forget Little Bo Peep, and think about slightly violent, slightly drunk rough sleepers and you have the picture.
Yet it was to these people, living on the edge of society, to whom the Angels gave the good news: Glory to God in the highest and peace to people with whom he is pleased. Unto you a Son is Born, unto you a child is given.
The birth of Jesus Christ was announced to those who were on the edge of things, and the child himself was pretty much on the edge. We all know the pretty story of the stable means that there was not even any room in the cheap two star inn in which they attempted to stay. He may have been of the house and lineage of David, but his good family did not mean very much, and there was a bit of a scandal hovering about old Joseph and his young wife who seemed to have become pregnant without Joseph having anything to do with it.
There is a word for being on the edge, liminal, and Jesus was on the edge.
Why should this be? Srely if we are celebrating the birth into the world of Almighty God, which, let us be clear, is what Christians do in this season, we should not be talking about about things that are at the edge but about things that are at the centre. Why the liminality?
Austin Farrar, a great Oxford theologian and teacher pointed out that it is weakness which is attractive. Everybody will go to a pram and who cluck over the baby, and the whole world will come to the crib who would not attend throne. Liminality has a power, a power which comes from weakness, and that power God incarnate shows. Even had He come as the greatest monarch who has ever walked the earth He would have been infinitely less powerful than He is in himself; but in his incarnation Christ comes amongst the poor, marginalised, and those who stand at the edges of society.
Both our church and our Institute stand on the edge. S Botolph’s is famously named for a saint of the gateways. The churches around the edges of the city of London were named for him, Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate. He was the patron saint of travellers, of gateways, and possibly of tax collectors, for his parishes, being long and thin around the edge of the city walls were under the control of the King as opposed to the City Fathers and therefore were the places where the Royal taxation was gathered as people went in and out through the city walls. Today we still have a ministry to travellers as we are hard by Liverpool Street.
Physically on the edge, and on the edge of jurisdictions, the churches were and are places where people came to pray as they moved from one place to another, marking the fact that we are all on the journey moving from this world to the next, and, thanks to the fact that God came into this world to be with us, we journey in hope that we shall be with Him.
We know of course that the Bishopsgate Institute stands on the edge, having at its heart the concern and interest of those who stand at the edges of what is acceptable and in the liminal place of society’s outward behaviour and intellectual interest.
Right out on the far edge is Jesus Christ and his church. Love of God with self-sacrifice and a refusal to depend on the power and authority of this world; love of neighbour which calls us to turn away from our own will and what we want and look towards God what he wants for us; the assertion that the greatest love that we can show from neighbour is to proclaim to him the gospel of the God who came into the world to save sinners: these things challenge modern society. Some of the things which appeared to be mainstream when society took them up for a time are now liminal again as the church continues to teach the law of the Kingdom as society moves to different places. It is perhaps easier to see the edginess of the church now than it has done for 15 centuries.
And yet the weakness of the Christ child, his very edginess, His liminality, is precisely what causes so many to come to him in this season, to sing songs about rough shepherds and virgins great with child, to listen to the proclamation again of the truth that we live best when we sacrifice our lives love of God and love of neighbour and do not seek our own will but the will of God, but our own righteousness and our own ideas about right and wrong, but what he has taught us, that for the best results of the world we truly should follow the Maker’s Instructions.
Christmas spirit is a dangerous thing, because it stands on the edge, and in the church in the gateway and in the Institute which is at the edge of acceptable thinking we challenge the political correctness of the age, even as it shifts from one age to another, and steadfastly refuse to be mainstream, but stand out in the fields with the shepherds and in the stable with the child.
And all this of course is good news, for in it and through it we rejoice in the true Christmas inclusivity by which God includes us in the infinite life of the glory of heaven into which he calls all those whom he has created. Thus being on the edge is truly to be drawn into the infinite centre.
Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth, for unto you is born this day the saviour, and you will find Him swaddled and in a manger.