Video available on YouTube, Facebook
I have tried to think of ways to do this Christmas sermon without referring to our billboard. As a congregation we dealt with it last Sunday. But I suspect that for many who visit us more occasionally it is still on your mind. If I don’t mention it, it will be the elephant sitting on the pew next to you whispering in your ear and you will never hear my message. So let’s deal with it and get it out of the way. Besides, since I daresay it will be mentioned in Christmas sermons around the world why not in this one?
Since a big part of my mission at St Matthew’s is promoting progressive Christianity, going “viral” on the internet is the illusive holy grail. As our friends and foes alike know, Glynn and I’ve tried repeatedly in the past to get people’s attention with controversial sermons, articles in the Herald, billboards, media releases, and some of the events we permit to happen here. It hasn’t happened in a significant way-- until now. It may never happen again. It is like winning the Lotto. While I have heard from many about how angry it made them, interestingly enough their anger only fueled the story. If our opponents were honest they would thank us for our Christmas gift: the opportunity to express their opposing opinion to millions. Frankly, without the billboard no one would’ve listened to them. On the other hand, contrary to Garth George, one of New Zealand’s more conservative columnists, non-believers I’ve heard from not only found humour but hope in it. They are the ones for whom the gift was intended. Because of them, I don’t feel bad in the least about our decision to put it up.
The advertising team I work with is both gob smacked and over the moon about the worldwide reaction. They are an international company and no one on the team has ever experienced this kind of reaction. To some degree we are all a little bit mystified by it. It was just a billboard after all. The total time it was up after being vandalized and stolen twice was less than twelve hours, but the image will live on in cyberspace forever as well as in our imaginations. It will be in a prominent museum of poster art in Switzerland, in print media, on t-shirts, coffee mugs, Christmas cards and refrigerator magnets for many years to come. While untold numbers condemn us for that, the fact that there is a market for the billboard speaks loudly that there were many, in and outside of organized believing, who understood it was about love, not performance, and thought it was a hoot. One Anglican online news site called it “Virgin Mirth.” The only thing I regret is how the reactions of some within the church confirmed for others outside the church that religion too often prefers to reside in self-righteous and self-satisfied indignation. What I had hoped they would learn is that true faith practices eutrapelia.
I know eutrapelia sounds like just another kind of perversion that the church needs to cover up, but it is a wonderful Greek word that Aristotle used to describe a wittiness somewhere between buffoonery and boorishness. He considered it a virtue. While Paul’s use of it in Ephesians (5:4) is often translated as “coarse jesting,” I like a friend of mine’s definition best: it is the great big belly laugh of God. He thinks the divine played giggle belly with Adam and Eve in the Garden and God had so much fun his laughter spilled out into all of us. As my friend has written, “God’s laughter [is] the stuff of our fiber, and our home address.”[i] Thank God for the gift of laughter, even when it is at our own expense; even when not everyone gets the joke. For apparently gift-giving isn’t always as easy as it should be, even for God and according to the news, not for Santa either.
While our attempt at humour was to get us to think beyond Santa to the true meaning of Christmas, in Great Britain Santa tried to live it out and it wasn’t quite so funny. The Guardian reports “it started out as a well-intentioned attempt to bring festive cheer to some of society's most neglected members – the hundreds of children who each year are caught up in the UK's asylum system.
“But when the Anglican church's leading expert on Father Christmas, dressed as St Nicholas himself, arrived with one of Britain's most distinguished clerics to distribute presents to children held at the Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, things took a turn straight out of Dickens.
“An unedifying standoff developed that saw the security personnel who guard the perimeter fence prevent St Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the imprisoned, from delivering £300 worth of presents donated by several London churches.
“In a red robe and long white beard, clutching a bishop's mitre and crook, St Nick – in real life, the Revd Canon James Rosenthal, a world authority on St Nicholas of Myra, the inspiration for Father Christmas – gently protested that he was not a security threat, but to no avail.
“Then as St Nicholas, accompanied by the canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, attempted to bless the gifts, the increasingly angry security guards called the police.
“The row comes amid mounting concern about the treatment of children in [these] centres. Last week senior doctors called for an immediate end to the "profoundly harmful" detention of children in immigration removal centres.
" ‘St Nick has never been turned away from anywhere before,’ Rosenthal said. ‘I hope the kids realise that they will be firmly in my prayers.’ "[ii]
This story begs the question of what is truly blasphemous: our billboard lampooning the Virgin Birth or imprisoning immigrant children? This story with accompanying videotape now on YouTube has gone viral on the web just like our virgin mirth. It is interesting that while Jesus’ birth did not make headlines in either of the centres of power in his day, Jerusalem or Rome, those inspired by his birth today can make a worldwide impact in a matter of hours. That is the nature of God’s love. It gets up the nose of those seeking to maintain the status quo. Otherwise Garth George would not still be taking notice of us nine days after it hit the wires.[iii] The joke is that the more they try to contain that love, the further it spreads. Even before the internet, it was always thus. That’s how a baby in a manger changed the world. It is how we continue to do so.