a sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2017
This morning, being a Sunday morning, I ... went to the cinema.
As you do - or at least, as we do in our family on Christmas Eve. I had cancelled the usual morning services, not to go to the cinema, but - keeping in mind 2 services on Christmas Eve and 2 more on Christmas morning - to avoid ending up as a frazzled heap of brain-dead vicar.
Anyway ... as we trooped off to see "Star Wars - the Last Jedi", I was reminded of my dear colleague and friend Linda Walters, our Associate Minister who died in February - and specifically, of how much she loved going to the cinema. Every time a half-decent film arrived in Ilfracombe or Barnstaple, or sometimes even in Taunton, you could mention it to Linda and she'd say - oh yes, saw it last Thursday - really, really good. Very rare that you could beat her to it.
So, as we watched, I thought of Linda. And (rather sadly) I started thinking about my Christmas sermon. Having seen some of the previous Star Wars films, and read the reviews of this one, I knew that it would be about a bunch of heroes of "The Resistance" defying the interstellar military might of "The First Order" - which is basically an evil empire with ambitions to rule the galaxy. And as I watched, I asked myself the question I'm now going to ask you:
Am I / are we part of the Resistance or part of the Empire?
Don't feel you have to answer that straight away, but let me instead gently shove you in a particular direction. While I don't believe that those who hold power on our planet are necessarily evil, it seems to me that there is a great deal of evidence (even looking back over a single year) of deeply embedded injustice, of things that are plain wrong - which we are called to resist. (And by "we", incidentally, I mean Christians and people of other faiths or none who believe in fairness, truthfulness and compassion.)
For example, I believe we are called to resist an economic system which leads to gross inequality - that is, more for the rich, less for the poor. Thinking of the year past ... wherever the immediate responsibility for the Grenfell disaster may eventually be found to lie, what it exposed with brutal clarity was the yawning gap, in a single London borough, between the uber-rich and those living in lethally unsafe housing. And all the while, less dramatically, here in North Devon as elsewhere, ordinary people were (are) falling between the cracks, and food banks have never been busier. Resistance is needed.
And again, this year we discovered that, after so many years of superficial equality, all along there have been powerful men who expect to manipulate and dominate women (and men) who are less powerful. And we discovered that racial and religious hatred have somehow been emboldened to spew out their poison again - witness the poignant words of the footballer Raheem Sterling after he was the victim of a violent racial attack: "I didn't think this could happen in this country, in this day and age." More tragically, terrorist attacks continue to remind us that there are evil forces at work whose aim is to divide us and make us replicate their paranoid hatred of those who are "different" from us. Again, resistance is needed.
I could go on, but I know you haven't come to church on Christmas Eve to hear the vicar ranting on. Simply put, there are times when we are called to resist. And resisting means refusing to accept the way things are when the way things are is plainly unjust.
At one point in "The Last Jedi", one of the Resistance leaders talks about their motivation being to fight for those who are downtrodden in every corner of the Empire. In other words, being part of the Resistance means being on the side of those who have little or no power to stand up for themselves. It means finding a way - by giving, protesting, voting, praying, and not least by how we spend our money - to stand with the poor and the vulnerable, with the people who are forgotten, overlooked, downtrodden.
Yes, I know, the rant wasn't quite over. And you may want to ask: what does all this have to do with baby Jesus? What's the connection with the Christmas story? Can't we just enjoy a peaceful Christmas and wish each other a happy and prosperous New Year, without any fancy ideas of being involved in "Resistance?
Simple answer: Jesus was born poor and stayed poor. Whoever you think he was, if he has anything to do with God, then what we see in him is God's resistance to a world order in which the rich and the powerful lord it over the poor and the vulnerable. And as Jesus grows into a young man, a wanderer with no home or possessions who prefers the company of society's outcasts, and as he is eventually silenced and put to death for the threat he poses to the powers that be, we are able to discern in him the shape and purpose of a God who has no interest in worldly power, a God who resists all power except the power of love.
Jesus is of the Resistance, not of the Empire. And though in "The Last Jedi" there is a strong sense that the Resistance have their backs to the wall, that the odds are stacked against them, with a final crushing defeat the most likely outcome, in the end they live to fight another day. Just so, at Easter - and not only at Easter, but every day, including Christmas - we celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead, and the decisive foretaste it gives us of the ultimate victory of good over evil.
God is with the poor and the powerless. And God is with us, insofar as we are able to begin to shed our love of power and wealth, our me-first-ness, our collusion with the Empire. Can we bring to the stable nothing other than our simple selves, and worship the one who will show us how to resist evil and how to fight for good, armed only with the power of love?
Are we part of the Resistance or part of the Empire?