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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Christmas 1, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 27, 2015

1 Samuel 2:18-20,26; Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17

‘Holy (Extended) Family’

“Christmas is the traditional time of gathering together with family,” one homilist observes. “This [may be] absolutely enjoyable and fun or it may [be] boring, or it [may be] downright stressful” (Jill Friebel). Some combination of fun and boredom? Fun and stress? In recent days one member of the congregation spent quality time with a frail-aged mother and felt the pain of an adult child’s eviction. Another has announced her engagement (so nothing boring at all with regard to that particular family get-together!). God be with them, and God be with you …

One of the myths informing the Santa Claus story is that of Thor, god of the hearth, the home and the home-fires. It can have a very insulating influence. An uncritical acceptance of this “meaning” of Christmas sees many a family gathered at the “fireplace” for gift-giving rituals (Thor, like Santa, is depicted with a long white beard and dressed in red). Santa Claus, à la god of the home-fires, is readily a patron of our modern Western family the nuclear family: parents and children living together and more or less independent of wider family members and neighbours and the hearth becomes a site where hurts resurface, tensions explode, and expectations of harmony go up (the chimney) in smoke.

Who’s been a good boy? Who’s been a good girl? Difficult (potentially enlightening) realities beyond this kind of binary moralism often induce panic and hostility, drinking and yelling. All this pressure on the nuclear family can be very intense.

Before going any further I want to acknowledge how wonderful a Christmas witness is offered by many in this place. Christmas cakes and kind messages have been shared in concern for many beyond the bounds of nuclear family. A Jesse Tree of hope and miraculous genealogy was constructed and decorated (with Isaiah-themed cards). Lunches were prepared and shared. That’s such a wonderful thing. Prayers and offers of support were made to friends recovering after surgery, or struggling to handle domestic and other pressures. And new visions of church emerged visions of church (the body of Christ in this place, community of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forbearance, forgiveness and love) as a broad and safe place where family is redefined even as children and adult carers are affirmed as bearers of gifts …

We have the Orthodox Icon of the Nativity before us again today. It shows the theological meaning of Christmas.

Joseph is some distance from Mary and the baby Jesus. The figure beside Joseph represents the Satan who plays to Joseph’s doubts concerning the advent of God in the world and concerning the part he is to play within his family and world. Mary looks with compassion towards Joseph just as the church I’ve described (in the Spirit of Paul’s letter to the Colossians) looks with compassion towards those on the margins of nuclear families those who don’t fit the conventional moulds, those who feel frightened and/or limited within their homes, those whose roles will involve redefinition of family and community, and thus the salvation of the world …

(The story of Jimmy Carter’s resignation in 2009 from the Southern Baptist Union, an act of solidarity with girls and women denied equal rights and freedoms according to patriarchal and fundamentalist authorities, is finding contemporary resonance. We can probably think of other examples Tanya Plibersek’s repeated calls for unity around marriage equality legislation.)

Mary looks with compassion towards Joseph just as the church looks with compassion towards those on the margins of nuclear families those who don’t fit the conventional moulds, those who feel frightened and/or limited within their homes, those whose roles will involve redefinition of family and community, and thus the salvation of the world …

Samuel was a small boy when his parents dedicated him to God and left him with Eli the priest and the wider members of a monastic community. His nuclear family had little to do with his upbringing and others shared in the responsibility. It couldn’t have done him much harm because we read that “year by year Samuel continued to grow into an impressive young man. Everybody liked him and God was pleased with him.” Luke makes the same comment about Jesus, probably making the same point by basing his story on that of Samuel. “With each passing year, he grew in wisdom and maturity. God was pleased with him and everybody liked having him around.”

Jesus wasn’t raised in a monastic community as such, but neither was it a nuclear family. It is obvious from the story that his parents didn’t miss him until the end of a whole day’s travelling.

Eastern families were and still are more communal and include the wider family where various adults have care and responsibility for the children in the clan. It is easier to blend in and not be missed by mum and dad. In situations where there is only one parent there are others who can take on the roles important for the formation and care of children, and the children are drawn into the wider network of the family giving more stability and a greater sense of belonging. This can have positive and corrective effects where the biological parents or parent simply can’t provide all that is needed for child raising.

Who, alone, is up to this overwhelming task? I think I sometimes have expected too much of my parents. Did I expect them to meet all my needs for nurture and guidance?

So much can go wrong when we are isolated within a nuclear family unit, or a single congregation, and the world is kept out …

It’s not healthy. Young women need older women, young men need older men (children need dependable elders), those who can guide and love and lead them into wisdom and maturity and teach them about real love and relationships in the world. Cousins need cousins. Congregations need presbyteries. Evangelicals need catholics. Christians need Muslims …

Samuel and Jesus received a communal heritage where God was honoured and worshipped … There were rites of passage as the children grew and it created security and safety and stability and connected them to an ancient tradition.

Jesus was an impressive young person, attesting to the skills of his parents, but we read today how he takes leave of his parents (there is more than a hint of adolescent impatience with parental concern) and moves towards the God he calls Abba. He is 12 in this story and so immersed in his spiritual heritage that he was able to hold his own with the teachers of the temple. I don’t think this was just head knowledge. He felt secure in God’s love, he was in the (infuriating) process of transcending his earthly parenting and already communing deeply in the silence with his God.

Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not theirs to possess. Children are a gift from God who is the mother and father of everyone. Children are given to us to protect and nurture and love and to be raised in the wider family of God’s people, God’s kindom which is one reason it’s so important for the church to have its act together when it comes to caring for children and teaching children. Of course, there is still much for us to do (much to lament), and there is much for us to be grateful for: we do enjoy the trust of children and we do have gifted teachers and carers here.

The Colossians reading today describes the church as a diverse and holy family. “Christ has called you to be a cohesive body, permeated and held together by his peace … Persevere with each other. No doubt there will be times when you will disappoint and hurt one another, but be forgiving. The Saviour had no hesitation forgiving you, so follow God’s lead and forgive each other. Cultivate a mindset of gratitude.”

We, too, are challenged to commune in silence with our God. We are who we are in this prayerful and communal silence.

The things that keep me from prayer at this altar-table are often deep and painful and associated with things I am unaware of. It is by sitting in the silence and allowing God to speak into my chaos and mess that I can begin to see myself as God sees me. Focused, narrow-minded, hyper-sensitive, needy … It will be confronting and I will need trusted others (including elders) within the holy family, others who are known to be wise and mature, who can help me hear what God is saying to me.

My experience of family can be extended and even transcended within this kind of community. God is indifferent to social, political and biological determinism.

I invite you this Christmas season (over 12 days of contemplation which can be a lot less stressful than the excitement/expectations of just one day) to allow the Christ-child to be formed in you; to be like Mary who pondered these things and was an obedient and loving disciple of her Beloved.

In the silence, and before the Icon of the Nativity, to what roles are you called within the holy family? Come/Venite/Gawi Jesus, come into our hearts and lives …Amen.

Draws on homily by Jill Friebel.