Strangers in the Night
Our 3rd advent service included some ‘prayerobics’, gift giving, Communion and the following welcome and reflection:
Because there are 8 sleeps left.
Because of Bing Crosby, Slade and Mariah Carey.
Because the Christmas Radio Times has arrived!
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because of laughter
Because Father Christmas is coming
Because there really are angels
Because the blind will see,
the deaf will hear
and the lame will dance.
Because those mourning will be comforted.
Because the dead will live again.
Because there is good news for the poor.
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
Because of love.
(Adapted from Brad Reynolds, S.J., America: The National Catholic Review 2006).
Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a; Matthew 2:1-12
Over the last couple of weeks, when time has allowed, I’ve enjoyed watching the odd episode of a contemporary, cutting edge programme on the TV which offers deep psychological insight into the plight of the human condition. I don’t expect many of you hear will have been watching this niche, high-brow programme but perhaps you’ve heard of it…I believe it’s called “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”. Anyone?
Yes, I confess that I am a bit of a fan of the show in which celebrities face their fears and eat somewhat interesting dishes in the hope of staying in – or leaving – the Australian rainforest. I won’t bore you with the reasons why I think the show is actually a hopeful programme or why I would love to be a contestant myself…but thought I might briefly share one interesting plotline that occurred this series.
In previous years, the show has seen friendships and even long term relationships blossom between people from very different backgrounds – such as the unlikely friendship that grew between newsreader Michael Buerk and rapper Tinchy Stryder – but this year, alongside these friendships, a darker dynamic was witnessed. By the end of the first of three weeks, the campmates had experienced the various highs and lows of jungle living and had bonded into a very tight group. It was at this point that two new contestants were added to the group, upsetting the established equilibrium. Viewers cringed as the original campmates sniped at the newcomers and gossiped about them. The founding group members even became a little paranoid about the outsiders, regaling in rumours of hidden agendas and game playing by one of the new pair which simply never existed. So if one of the new campmates did well at a task, the old campmates decided it was because he wanted the limelight. And if he did badly, it must be because he wanted the sympathy vote. He simply couldn’t win and so he soon became isolated, frustrated and upset. Given a couple of more weeks, it could well have descended into a modern retelling of ‘Lord of the Flies’.
“Poor celebrity darlings,” you might well think. And you’d be right, of course but we know all too well that what was witnessed on that show is replicated time and time again in playgrounds and workplaces, halls of power and even in churches the world over. Suspicion of the stranger. Fear of the foreigner. Antipathy towards anyone who looks, acts, loves or believes differently to me can feel rife today which is worrying as it’s ignorant, insidious and inimical to the good news of the Christian story.
The command to welcome the stranger, take care of the foreigner, to love all of God’s children is a golden thread that runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures and into the New Testament. We see it in Abraham and Sarah’s experience near Mamre where they welcomed three strangers and shared a meal with God. We see it throughout Jesus’ ministry from the beginning, where a suggestion that God was working through and blessing those beyond Israel almost led to an early bath, throughout his sideways stories, where Good Samaritans go from heretic to hero and Great Banquets are put on for all; to his death and resurrection where God’s love for the entire cosmos is revealed.
Little wonder then, that at Jesus’ baby shower, it’s the foreigners – the star-gazers from the East – who bring the presents! From Jesus’ very birth – or nursing years, depending on which timeline you follow – God was bringing together the native and the immigrant, the friend and the stranger, as they swapped stories, shared wisdom and together bathed in the blessing of the Christ-child. I bet it was a bizarre, noisy, wonderfully chaotic, and chaotically wonderful affair. I bet it didn’t look so very different to our church hall last Saturday, where Christian and Muslim, Syrian and South Walian, Punky Mom and embarrassing Dad, swapped stories, shared food and drink, laughed and loved and together bathed in the blessing of the Christ-child. Last Saturday, I believe the Star of Bethlehem might well have been spotted over St David’s Uniting Church!
Our ongoing work with our friends from across the globe is something for us to be thankful – and we should offer our continued prayers, support and gratitude to those within our congregation who are able to offer their time and gifts in welcoming, visiting, teaching and learning alongside those who were once strangers to this land…including those of us from across the Severn!
Yet before we lull ourselves into a pre-Christmas self-satisfied slumber, it’s important to remember that the strangers in today’s New Testament reading were the gentiles. Whilst the Jewish people were familiar with the idea of a Messiah – albeit having very different ideas of what that might mean – those coming to worship from afar, those seeking the divine in the stars and finding God in a baby, were those outside the holy family’s religious tradition. We’d do well to remember that this. This evening, as some of us travel to the Cardiff Reform Synagogue to share in the Hanukkah celebrations with our Jewish sisters and brothers, we’d do well to remember that we gentile believers were the guests, not the guardians, at Jesus’ birth. We’d do well to recall that there were great disagreements within the early church about whether us gentiles could even share in Christ’s good news. We’d do well to recapture a sense of being those outside the religious in-crowd – of being those beyond the norm, without power or the expectation that everyone should live in accordance with our particular set of beliefs for this is the reality of the world in which we live and this is no bad thing for in becoming the stranger once again, we might travel beyond our places of comfort to find God at work in all kinds of surprising people and places.
In becoming the stranger, we might find ourselves humble enough to find God in the hospitality of others. We might even dare imagine that by becoming the stranger we could become angels, just as the strangers at Mamre; could become the messengers of a God who is good news of great joy for all people. As we head towards the end of 2017, perhaps one of our new year resolutions might be to intentionally become the stranger – to go to the pub, the bingo hall, the unfamiliar place of worship to and look out for where God is at work there.
As we journey to these strange places, we should not be embarrassed to share our own stories – to talk with others about our understanding and experience of God, whose loving character we believe was most fully revealed through the God-man Jesus. But we must do so through dialogue, with humility and always in love, knowing that we do not have the whole corner on Truth for its those who thought they did who sought to silence the heretic born in Bethlehem, who jeered at Christ on the cross; it’s those who know all the answers who start crusades and inquisitions, who burn crosses on lawns, tweet venom from golden towers and see the oppression of minorities as part of the divine plan.
We can be faithful to the good news of Jesus whilst being open to what God has to teach us through the world, through the stranger, even through the so-called heretic! For God is still speaking, the Spirit has yet more to reveal, and this shouldn’t be a cause for concern but an opportunity to discover fresh wonders about the generosity and justice, grace and goodness, mystery, majesty and magnificence of God.
Walking the way with wise men and women today, then, means walking and talking with seekers of all faiths and none. It means welcoming the stranger and learning from them; becoming the stranger and finding out what God’s up to out there. It means gathering around tables in church halls and synagogues, by campfires and Christmas trees, with halal delicacies, pub grub, morsels of bread and sips of wine – and there glimpsing, glorifying the God-with-us. Amen.