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Building a Home Together?

Bishop Helen-Ann's Christmas sermon

Bishop Helen-Ann preached at Midnight Mass at the Waikato Cathedral of St Peter, Hamilton.

John 1.1-14


I have experienced many unusual things since I became bishop of Waikato, but last Sunday I found myself on all fours with a rather unlikely episcopal scenario trying to fix Joseph’s head back on his body.  I had my suspicions about this nativity scene when I first saw it: Jesus was disproportionately huge when compared to Mary and Joseph, and had such a startled look on his face that he looked like he should be in another genre, perhaps a zombie nativity?  Mary, as I discovered was actually a statue with two individuals, the other head was covered in a blue cloth giving Mary a somewhat alternative sort of look with a mysterious bulge off to her left; but clearly with Joseph there was a major problem.  I stood surveying the scene with Eric, church stalwart from a farming background, a man of choice words.
‘Hmm, Joseph doesn’t look too good’, I said,
‘yep’, replied Eric, ‘he’s lost his head’.
‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I wonder what’s happened there?’
‘I don’t blame him’, said Eric, ‘if I had gone through everything he had, I’d have lost my mind’.
‘Oh’, I replied, ‘well shall we have a look for his head?’
‘Yep’, said Eric, ‘I can’t get down there because of my hip, but you go ahead bishop’.
Me, on all fours, sound muffled as I was by this stage rooting round in poor lighting underneath an altar.
‘I think I’ve found it! Oh hang on, that’s the tea-towel…wait a minute, ah got it!’ And up I came victoriously holding Joseph’s head aloft!
‘Right’, said, Eric, ‘can you put it back on?’
‘I’ll try’, was my reply.
After a very careful balancing effort of head on shoulders with a strategically placed tea-towel, Joseph seemed ok, though his head maintained a very off-centre lean towards giant zombie baby Jesus.
‘Good as gold’, said Eric.
There is something quite reassuring about depictions of the nativity because you can almost always guarantee that something is not going to go quite to plan.  Whether it is an appearance by spiderman guarding the holy family, or a wise man or two going on strike, or maybe even the presence of starfish and crocodiles by the crib.  Or the vicar trying to talk to a classroom of children about the true meaning of Christmas: and a small boy insisting that Jesus’ name was in fact Wayne because we all know the carol ‘A Wayne in a manger’, or slightly problematically with said carol, unfortunate rumours that someone has gone away with the major.  On the other end of the spectrum are attempts to make Jesus’ birth somehow fit modern culture (however that may be construed).  One of the more interesting depictions of Christ’s birth that I saw recently was a nativity scene known as ‘Hipster Jesus’ featuring Joseph taking a selfie with Mary and Jesus (Mary incidentally looking like she had given birth in a private hospital and showing no signs of the reality of labour and birth), the wise men delivering amazon boxes on Segway scooters; and a cow feeding on gluten-free cattle feed.  The reality is that Jesus’ birth was probably more bogan than hipster.  Jesus was born into the politically complex and messy world of the 1st century Roman occupied province of Judaea, and we might say, what has changed? How can this birth that we celebrate this night bring hope to the desperate and needy, to the streets of Aleppo, Berlin, and places of terror and displacement?  A year ago I reflected that the birth of Jesus reflected a new hope for the galaxy; this year, we might say indeed that a long time ago in the Roman Empire far far away a rogue one was born to herald hope in the midst of terror and anxiety.

So how can we truly say that Jesus’ birth is good news to a broken world?  ‘The word became flesh and lived among us’ John tells us in his grand narrative of faith that takes us right back to the very origins of life itself, and here perhaps lies a clue that gives meaning to the hope promised through this most wondrous of births?

I live in the north of our city, and on my morning walk I pass houses being built.  The expansion of Hamilton is rapid.  Increased house building raises questions about what it means to make communities.  A house alone doesn’t make a community; it needs more than a building.  Our identity is bound up both with where we born but also where we live, and with a sense that both are expressed in an understanding of life as a journey or a pilgrimage.  When John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us he is actually saying that the Word tabernacled or pitched its tent in our midst.  Identity through place but always open to both movement and new understanding.

In his book ‘The Home we Build Together’ the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth Jonathan Sacks asks readers to imagine three different scenarios each involving the arrival of 100 strangers who have been wandering around the countryside looking for a place to stay.  The first 100 are greeted warmly.  Their host gives them empty rooms and tells them to stay as long as they wish.  Everything is done for them, but they remain as guests in someone else’s home.  The second 100 wanderers have plenty of money and they are welcomed at a hotel.  Theirs is a purely contractual relationship with the hotel’s owner; but so long as they don’t disturb the other guests they are told they can stay for as long as they wish.  The third 100 are welcomed by the mayor and civic leaders.  There is no house or hotel available but the community does offer some land, building materials and help with the laboring.  Their offer is: ‘Let us do this together.’  These three parables offer three different ways of thinking about society and identity.  The first 2 lead to isolation, the third to integration and the sharing of gifts [1].  Rabbi Sacks wrote this book in 2007, well before the current crisis of displaced peoples and refugees seeking welcome and a place to call home.  The challenge for each of us is how might we encourage a more open and inclusive society that is genuinely interested in a sharing of gifts, with all the vulnerability that brings?

Jesus’ birth is traditionally depicted in a stable because there was no room in the inn.  But a more accurate reading of that narrative is in fact that Jesus was born in a family home, albeit not in the usual guest accommodation (because that was full) but the room in the lower part of the house which would have been reserved for animals [2].   The point is that Jesus was not born in isolation, but right in the middle of the messiness and complexity of family life.  That puts the incarnation in our midst, and challenges us out of comfort and complacency into a profound recognition that our lives are bound up in the lives of others: the least, the last and the lost.  

Love Trumps hate; may the force be with you, and Happy Christmas!



[1] Jonathan Sacks The Home We Build Together. Recreating Society’ Continuum, 2007, pp. 13-15.

[2] I am grateful to the Rev’d Dr ian Paul for this reminder on his blog post ‘Preaching Christmas without a stable’ (

Story Published: 25th of December - 2016

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