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Christmas 1, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 29, 2013

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

The ongoing story of salvation’

"On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me ... five gold rings ..." According to several sources the popular carol was/is a means of teaching the faith. The five gold rings represent the five books of the Torah. Our gospel about the vulnerability of the baby Jesus - in the context of terror, of fear and violence - recalls an account in the Torah about the vulnerability of the baby Moses, in a similarly frightening context. These revelations of divine love show us the pattern of salvation - in and through terror - in and through the faith of lovers and dreamers. God be with you ...

The five gold rings, for us, today, can be five aspects or dimensions to the gospel: the political, the cultural, the personal, the ecclesial and the ecological. There's something to be said for each of these aspects, for these five at least.

The political. "Zimbabwe's ambassador to Australia has lashed out at the regime of President Robert Mugabe and is seeking a protection visa that will allow her to stay in Australia. Jacqueline Zwambila has asked the Australian government for asylum because she says she fears for her safety if she returns to Zimbabwe." Ms Zwambila's flight from persecution is an all-too familiar analogue to that of the holy family in fear of Herod the tyrant.

"With four days remaining in the role, Ms Zwambila has moved out of her residence in the Canberra suburb of Red Hill. She has no intention of using the business-class plane ticket given to her by her government to return home on Tuesday. Ms Zwambila will rely on a bridging visa after her diplomatic status is cancelled and a small number of family members who have been with her in Australia also hope to gain protection under her application," writes Phillip Thomson.

"Ms Zwambila, who is politically aligned to Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, was recalled from her post without being offered another job after Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won the country's general election on July 31. On Friday, Ms Zwambila said Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF had stolen the election and increased the number of arrests of MDC supporters on trumped-up charges.

"The ambassador said she feared indefinite custody if she returned to Zimbabwe. She plans to pursue her activism from abroad" (SMH, 28/12).

The cultural. Our gospel refers to Rachel weeping for her children. One account of violence toward children calls to mind many more, calls to mind all that threatens the well-being of children. The reference can be for us a call to reform traditions and institutions - to foster respect, care, attention, education opportunities, inclusion, community and restorative justice - all that upholds the worth and dignity of children and young people. Also a call to respect the mothers and other adults for whom there is no simple consolation in the face of neglect and abuse. We accept and affirm whatever helps to keep our traditions and institutions open to critique and reform - in the name of Rachel who weeps and in the name of God who regards each and every child as precious ...

The personal. There's a Greek verb that appears for the first time in Matthew's Gospel here in chapter two. It is the verb "to withdraw" - anachorein - with reference to the holy family's withdrawing from hostility to seek asylum in Egypt, then later in Galilee. The decisions to withdraw follow dreams and warnings to Joseph. The family takes refuge in Gentile territories. They do not, at these points, engage or challenge the corrupt powers, but rather evade, outwit, withdraw. We might think about times of comparable evasion. A time for prayer and rest, for retreat. A time for leaving a dangerous place. A time for leaving a place of conflict - a home, a family, a congregation or denomination (many people exiled from Christianity or in secular exile from constricting/unthinking/uncaring religion). When, with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, have you withdrawn from conflict? When and where might you do that?

The ecclesial. I'm thinking today of Pope Francis and potentially hostile reactions to his reforms. Anne Summers writes of the speed and zeal of papal reforms - including an eye-popping remark on appointing a woman cardinal! - with an eye to domestic issues. "In July, the Pope chose for his first official trip from Rome to go to Lampedusa, a tiny island in the Mediterranean that is, essentially, Italy's Christmas Island except for the fact that floods of immigrants, mostly Muslims from Africa, arrive there - rather than the trickle that ends up on our shores. There have also been many hundreds of lives lost to drowning as asylum seeker boats capsize and sink.

"In stark contrast to [PM] Abbott's puerile 'Stop the Boats' sloganeering, Pope Francis spoke of 'immigrants' rather than 'illegal boat people', describing how their boats 'which were vehicles of hope became vehicles of death'. His visit and his words made Lampedusa, and asylum seekers, an issue that Europeans could no longer turn a blind eye to.

"Abbott, on the other hand, asserted with breathtaking insouciance in his Christmas email: 'We are a good and generous people and I hope this Christmas we will remember everyone who is doing it tough and lend a hand where we can.' His idea of lending a hand evidently does not extend to providing adequate medical assistance for Australia's asylum seekers, or even basic shelter on Nauru or Manus Island. Those former detainees who are permitted to live in society but not to work and who, therefore, must crowd together in accommodation now risk being returned to detention if callous neighbours find these living arrangements offensive.

"Pope Francis' idea of lending a hand was to have an archbishop give out phonecards to the crowd of immigrants who watched the pontiff celebrate Mass on the upturned wreck of a fishing boat.

"Francis is of course the first Jesuit Pope, so it would be reasonable for Abbott, who was educated by the Jesuits, to feel a particular affinity with him and possibly even be guided by his values. James Carroll points out in his illuminating profile of the Pope in the current issue of The New Yorker that after Vatican II, the Jesuit order redefined itself around the concept of 'faith that promotes justice'. While we of course demand secular government in Australia, many of us would welcome a bit more justice in the Abbott government's approach to many policies. Think National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski changes, disability pensions, asylum seekers.

"Carroll quotes the Pope as saying, 'How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor'. Pope Francis appears to be redefining the wider Catholic, as opposed to simply Jesuit, concept of faith to centre on justice (rather than retribution), and that includes love and respect for those, such as gays, Jews, Muslims and others who were in effect spurned by previous pontiffs" (SMH, 28/12).

The ecological. The "massacre of the innocents" can seem far-fetched, fabulous. The reality is probably much worse. The earth is soaked in blood. The violence of one empire after another, the exploitation and pollution/destruction of natural resources in the pursuit of power and domination. Terror in pursuit of territory. Misinterpretation of the Torah injunction (in Genesis 1) to "serve and care for" the earth and its creatures may well lie close to the heart of the problem. There is terrible blindness when it comes to the "massacre" of "innocent" and endangered species, destruction of habitats - when it comes to consumption, greed, waste. If such a mindset - selfish, disrespectful, tyrannical - does indeed lie close to the heart of the problem, then Christmas as a season of self-indulgence might truly be terrible. A terrible call to conversion.

The good news is that the story of salvation continues. The prophecies resonate with wisdom. Our God works miracles in spite of evil. There is love. There is “deep love and profound mercy”. Amen.