Being a downtown church

Sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas
John 1:1-14

In the Gospel according to John there is no journey to Bethlehem, no manger scene, no shepherds, no Magi. John leaves those pieces of the narrative to be told by Luke and Matthew, and instead begins his account of the life and work of Jesus by proclaiming, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It wasn’t all set in motion that night in Bethlehem, in other words, for “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” It is an extraordinary claim that John is making here; that from the very beginning the Word, the Son, the Christ, has been active and present in creating, redeeming, and sustaining the whole of the world.

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At a very particular moment in time, though, “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” or as Eugene Peterson renders it in his translation, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” God-with-us, in our midst as one of us; so much like one of us that many were unable to accept him for who he was. People had their preconceived notions of what messiah should look and act like, and Jesus didn’t fit any of it. Some were so appalled at the claims that this Jesus of Nazareth was making—both in his words and in his actions—that in time they would see him put to death. The Word becoming flesh to live in our midst was filled with risk; real risk. “But,” John write, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

To be a Christian is to receive him, believe in his name, and so to be counted among the children of God. To be a Christian is to dare to incarnate—to en-flesh and live out—the presence of Jesus wherever we are. Just as in the person of Jesus, God became human and moved into the neighborhood, so too his people are called to be that presence in our own various neighborhoods. Sometimes that is literally your neighborhood—the street on which you live—but ultimately our “neighborhood” is the world in which we live. And to en-flesh the presence of the living Christ is not without risk.

Many of you will already be aware of the theft of some of our offering envelopes on Christmas Eve. The person who stole them had been in the church with us through much of the liturgy, and had interacted with several people. I know of at least two people who gave him the $20 he said he needed for his room for the night, and I suspect there might have been others who, in a gesture of Christmas kindness, did the same. I had an extended interaction with him, and because he said he was out of work and out of money and far from his home in Nova Scotia, I offered to help make some connections for accessing some support locally. It is not the first time we’ve been joined by someone who is looking for help or a hand-out, and it won’t be the last. It is simply the reality of being a downtown church; it is our neighborhood.

A few minutes after speaking with him, I walked back into the sacristy—the room through those doors where all of the worship supplies and vestments are kept. As I came through that first door, I saw him hurrying out the exit door into the back lane. I asked him to stop, but it still took me a couple of seconds to realize what had happened. In a flash he was out the door running, gone into the night. Apparently during our post-worship hospitality time he’d been watching all of the coming and going though that door as the tidy-up team stored things away, and took a chance that that might be where the offerings had landed. He’d guessed right.

Through the rest of the evening and on and off during the next couple of days, I had all of these reactions: angry, saddened, embittered. We’ll just lock the place down tighter, and get hyper-vigilant about anyone who looks at all dodgy. I fretted about how to best notify everyone, wondered about how much cash had been stolen, worried that some people might have lost cheques they really wanted to be included as part of their charitable donations for the tax year. I entertained these scenes in my head in which I’d gone back through that door just 30 seconds earlier and caught him in the act… or tackled him as he went out the door. Not that I’m exactly built for a football tackle, but then again Larry was just outside the door…

But you know, I began to see that if I got stuck in all of those emotional reactions—the anger, the resentment, the anxious worry, even the football tackle fantasy—he’d have stolen more than just a handful of offering envelopes.

When I was in grade 12, I was inspired to read Victor Hugo’s magisterial novel Les Miserables. What began as something of a personal challenge—it is a massive book—turned out to be a personally transformative experience. Set in France in the early 1800s, the novel opens with the convict Jean Valjean being released from a nineteen-year term on the prison galleys. Released, but not truly free, for he was forced to carry the yellow passport of the ex-convict. One night he is taken in to the home of the kindly Bishop Myriel and given a hot meal and a bed for the night, but Valjean rises before dawn and makes off with the bishop’s silverware. Early in the morning Valjean is stopped on the streets by the police, and in short order is taken back to the Bishop’s house to verify the theft. The response of the Bishop, though, is not what anyone has expected.

“Ah! There you are,” the Bishop said, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Why I gave you the candlesticks too, which are also silver, and will fetch you 200 francs. Why did you not take them away with the rest of the silver?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes, and looked at the Bishop with an expression which no human language could describe.

Jean Valjean is freed from the charge of theft, but more than that the Bishop gives him a deeper freedom:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. I have bought your soul of you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and give it to God.”

It is the beginning of a new life for the ex-convict. Shattered by such mercy and grace, he sets out to re-create himself under a new identity, and as the story unfolds he becomes prosperous and successful… and though still burdened by his past, he learns how to himself be merciful. There is, though, another character in the book; one who stands as a counter-point to the good Bishop. Years later the police Inspector Javert begins to suspect the true identity of this successful man, and with a rigid sense of justice he vows to trap Valjean in his assumed identity, arrest him for fraud, and return him to prison. Where the Bishop saw the possibility of redemption, Javert can think only in terms of a highly literal adherence to the law. Javert is consumed by it, in fact, and in the end when Valjean mercifully spares Javert’s life, it is the very idea of such mercy that quite literally destroys him.

What was so transformative for me when I first read the book was the power of the Bishop’s forgiveness; how he incarnated in his own life the very Word who had become flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. What I came to see later was the equal and opposite power of the Inspector’s relentless quest for his very rigid version of justice.  To clutch justice so tightly is its own kind of prison.

Now in telling you this, I’m not suggesting that had I gone through that door thirty seconds earlier and come across that man stealing that handful of offering envelopes that I would have given him the rest of the offerings as well. And you can assure the All Saints’ congregation that I also wouldn’t have given him their silver candlesticks either… I’m also not saying that in future I won’t tuck the offering envelopes away in an even safer location. In fact, that safer location would be doing a kindness to anyone whose desperation or addictions or whatever is inclining them to pull off that kind of a theft. Jesus famously coached his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” and maybe that’s the best advice for a situation like this

What I do know is that the swirl of emotional reactions I experienced brought me closer to the spirit of Inspector Javert than to that of Bishop Myriel. All the responses and emotions churning through my gut were beginning to consume me; left unchecked they would begin to distort and compromise my willingness to be present to our own particular neighborhood.

And there was just so much good about that night; in the grand story we proclaimed, the music we offered, the communion we shared, and the hospitality we celebrated together. So much good, gospel stuff enacted in that time together, that I simply have to forgive that man his deception and his theft, and let it go. He stole some offering envelopes; that’s just true. When he ran out into the cold of the night, we just can’t let him take from us our willingness to extend a welcome to the stranger, compassion to the broken, mercy and grace to all who would draw near.

3 Responses to Being a downtown church

  1. Byron O'Donnell says:

    Jamie…you may have found yourself injured by this fellow, so I am happy you didn’t arrive sooner. The best advice police offer is to turn over the goods/money and let the man get away. These things can be replaced, you can’t. Larry more than once told me, in a statement I find most admirable, that if someone stole clothing or groceries from his unlocked car, they probably needed these things more than he did.

    • stbenedictstable says:

      Oh I know Byron, I know… the police officer who took my statement said the same thing (“Lucky he didn’t pull a knife” were her exact words…). The thing that I needed to sort through was all of those emotions arising from within me. That’s where the learning takes place.


      • Byron O'Donnell says:

        Another example of the Christian struggle. On the face of it the answer is simple…forgive and move on. In reality we still must deal with all the emotional and moral questions such an incident presents to us. there are no easy answers to this. I had a somewhat similar incident over the holidays, and although I would like to be convinced I did the right thing, I have my doubts.

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