Christmas Sermon 2013

[UPDATE: The Herald newspaper covered this sermon as a front page story here:]

Here’s what I said in my Christmas Sermon this year.

It has become something of a commonplace that Christmas, at least in the life of the shops and the media starts all too early. Even at the end of September, the trees were being dusted down and the fairy lights for shop windows tested. The piles of mince-pies were arriving in the supermarket, all clearly marked with a best-before date of Halloween or before.

My local newsagent seemed to have done pretty well at resisting this kind of thing. I was pleased to see when I went in for a paper during the first week in Advent that they were only then getting out a new box of chocolate confectionary which was all wrapped in shiny paper. These delicacies were in a bright gold box which was placed right under my nose as I stood there on Advent Sunday. And clearly on the box was marked the slogan: “Cadbury’s Crème Eggs – your number 1 Easter Treat”.

Somehow the world seems to have become a bit muddled by when the Son of God appears.

And then the same week at the start of December I was driving down to the farthest end of the Diocese for a special service in Stranraer. I could only pick up one radio station in the car and it was one of the local stations down that way.

Come along, the announcer entreated me, come along to the shopping centre for our specially sponsored competition. Come and sing a seasonal song and see if you can win. Come down today. Maybe you will be crowned winner; the winner of our X-mas Factor Competition.

And as I was driving along I could hear myself start to splutter and exclaim. “It isn’t Xmas, it’s Christmas, I shouted at the poor unsuspecting radio announcer who was thankfully unable to hear a world.

And I drove on realising that I had suddenly become all my grandparents rolled into one. All I lacked was a walking stick to attack the radio with.

But now, the day has arrived. The Lord of Heaven and Earth has come and is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

And it is our joy and delight to worship him today.

There is no question now. We can sing our carols with gusto. We can enjoy the feast. Food will be eaten, wine will be drunk, presents and cards exchanged and all for the sake of a child. Born in a manger. Born a long time ago.

There is such goodness there lying in that manger. For there lies joy and challenge, peace and promise, blessing and love – all wrapped in the swaddling of all our hopes and dreams and expectations.

God is come into our world.

And there’s the thing.

When the world starts to celebrate the birth in September or October or November, it isn’t entirely wrong.

For though we rejoice in the coming of the child today, the news we celebrate now is that God is in this world. Always here. At home here. An inhabitant with us of this spinning, turning world.

We celebrate today the incarnation but that is just the theological name, spruced up in its Sunday best for the truth that we celebrate every week which is that God lurks in this world.

Here in this place we preach weekly of a God who is here. A God who knows us, share our joys and shares our sorrows and loves us to distraction, come what may.

What we celebrate at Christmas is not merely that God came into the world and gurgled in a Bethlehem cowshed but that God is here in Glasgow and in every place on this earth all ready to be encountered anew. For God is only a glimpse, a breath, a prayer away.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. In heaven, an unknown factor. But not forever, for the Word took shape and came amongst us to show, to tell, to proclaim the good news that God is with us in everything and that with God, all that is ill can be transformed.

Today, all eyes are on the manger. The city of Bethlehem is the place on all our lips. And Bethlehem is one of the cities that is twinned with this city, the city of Glasgow.

In the year that is to come, the city in which we live will become for a brief time the place that everyone is talking about. The City of Glasgow is the place where many eyes will be looking as we host the Commonwealth Games.

And we must not shirk from naming that which is ill. For all is not well in the Commonwealth. Sadly, driven by the legacy of British colonialism, several Commonwealth countries should be held to account when they come to us. After all, it will not merely be sports people who are here but their political leaders.

With Sri Lanka unable to face questions about war crimes; with Uganda and India even in these last few days attempting to turn the clock back for those who are gay, with human rights abuses across Commonwealth countries too numerous to mention, There must not simply be silence when so much of the English speaking world comes to sport and play. In these last weeks we have been reminded by the celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life that ordinary people can bring about massive change for the better.

For all that is ill can be transformed. For God is with us, already here now, working in us in this world.

We celebrate the birth of a baby – a real live baby with lips and hands and tiny feet. And in doing so, we celebrate the fact that God’s lips and hands and feet are now those of our own bodies. God incarnate not simply in this world but God incarnate right here in our own lives.

Here in this church, we know that God is here. In fact, we know that God is here, there and everywhere. For God lurks in this world wishing and hoping and praying that we will join the conspiracy of those who seek to put the world to rights and bring in the kingdom of justice and joy that all people of goodwill ache to see.

When I was driving down in Galloway earlier in the year, in the silence, having slammed the radio off, I had enough peace in the car to hear the truth of the announcer who spoke of the Xmas Factor.

Now, of course, I know that the X is the Greek letter Chi – the first letter of the world Christ. I know that the X abbreviation has been used since Christians first celebrated the birth of their Saviour.

Here in this church today, I tell you that the Xmas Factor is here. The unknown God is born and has a name. The God who was once unknown, the Logos, the X-factor – has now been born. That God has a name, for God is found in Jesus – the wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the prince of peace, and is here and lies in the manger.

For the God Factor is here.

The God Factor is everywhere.

The God Factor has come into this world.

And God blesses you this day as you come to this place to worship.

In the name of God, Father, Son of Righteousness, Holy Spirit.


The Day Today

We’re going on a journey

Crib Service starts at 4 pm – bring a torch

A couple of years ago, there was a new initiative in St Mary’s – someone suggested that we should have a crib service for children at 4 pm on Christmas Eve. We kind of expected a few children from the young church to show up. In the event there were about 50 people in the place and it was judged a great success. A year later, the turnout was just about double. I spoke to some of the people afterwards who told me that they were so pleased to find it because none of the other churches in Glasgow were doing anything for children at Christmas. I disputed this but they told me that no, they had checked online and that no-one was doing anything. More than that, someone said, some of the churches are not having Christmas services at all – you can tell, there’s nothing on their websites about Christmas at all.

Now, there’s two things to learn from this. Firstly that churches which want younger people and children to come to them need to get on with providing services which are suitable. Secondly churches which want anyone at all to come to them need to face the reality that if they are not online then they will be perceived not to exist and if they don’t put their service details online then no matter how good the services are, people will presume that nothing at all is being done.

There are still Episcopal churches in Glasgow who are putting out a strong message online this Christmas that they are not doing anything to celebrate it. People from those parts of town will come to the cathedral instead of going to their local church. It isn’t particularly that they like what we do – though when they get here they love it and will tend to come again. It is simply that they can’t find out about what is happening locally and draw their own conclusions.

St Mary’s is a place where we are quite clear that Christmas is not just for children. We are not a congregation that thinks that Christmas is just a family time either – church and Christmas is for everyone. (I thought John Bell’s Thought for the Day today was particularly fine, by the way).

I’m really pleased though that these crib services have become established here on Christmas Eve now. Tomorrow’s Crib Service starts at 4 pm and participants are asked to bring a torch if they can. We’re going on a journey and we don’t know who we are going to encounter on the way…

How to be Single at Christmas – repost

This post was first published in 2010

I find myself wanting to write something about being single at Christmas. After all, I’ve got some experience to draw on. There was a time when I used to find being on my own at Christmas a tricky thing to think about, but these days its one of the times of the year when I genuinely think I can be thankful for my single status and would prefer to sit down to a nice Christmas dinner on my own than to be a guest any number of other people’s tables.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve been learning.

If you like being with others on Christmas Day and others invite you to join in then go for it. However, decide some time before the big day what you want to do and stick to it. If you don’t want to be with others then make your mind up to resist all invitations. Don’t be frightened of saying to people that you like your Christmas and you wouldn’t want to miss out on it. They will look at you in awe and wonder. They may tell you that you are brave. Smile in a knowing kind of way and murmur, “No, I’m vulnerable too sometimes” and this will confirm them in their view that you are more valiant than Braveheart or the Bruce.

Being on your own at Christmas is one of those things that can seem daunting. However, if you make it through and enjoy it, think how pleased you’ll be. Remember the first time you went to see a film on your own, or sat down in a restaurant on your own and got a kick out of it? (Not achieved this yet? – stay tuned and I may write about it in the new year).

If you don’t want to be on your own, but find that you will be, do some planning before the day. You might like to volunteer to help other people out. You might opt to work if your place of employment offers work on Christmas Day. Otherwise, make some choices and decide to do something that reflects what you would most like to do if given the gift of a bit of time to yourself.

I work a lot over Christmas doing what I love – celebrating in sign and symbol and razzmatazz the good news that God is come into the world. If you’ve never gone to church much at Christmas, don’t be shy. There isn’t a congregation the length or breadth of the country worth its salt that wouldn’t welcome you in to whatever they do. Cathedrals offer lots of special things at this time of the year and are very used to people coming on their own. One of the reasons that Cathedral congregations are perceived to be doing relatively well at the moment is that single people are welcome through the year. Its a place where it ain’t odd to come on your own and you can choose whether to scoot out of the door the moment the organ plays at the end or hang around and chat afterwards. Safe topics of conversation are – the weather, the music and how glamorous the Provost looked in that cope. If you really want to blend in, seek out some of the servers and ask them to show you some thurible tricks in a quiet corner.

When it comes to spending Christmas Day on my own, I tend to make sure that I’ve got good food in. I also am apt to buy a couple of treats in case I want entertainment – a DVD of an obscure film that no-one else would want to see, a salacious book (other than the Bible) and a pot of Waitrose custard are all it takes to make me sure that I’ll be OK these days. Nice magazines and mud-based face-packs for a sneaky spa afternoon are optional but highly desirable.

Be assured that you don’t have to play by anyone else’s expectations. If you want pea and ham risotto rather than roast a whole turkey for yourself, who is to stop you? And risotto is such comfort food at this time of the year. But stir it slow now,  stir it slow.

Decorate as much or as little as you like. I tend to like a minimalist Chirstmas with trees firmly in place and decorated at church but not at home. However I knew someone once who did out his whole house in pink feather boas and twinkling lights just to celebrate the birth of the Bethlehem babe.

In all your planning, remember the golden rule of coping at Christmas on your own: It is your choice.

Make it.

This post was previously posted on this blog. Previous comments can be seen here.

Midnight Mass Sermon 2012

I don’t know whether you are ready.

I do know that this year, for me, the cumulative effects of coming back from sabbatical just recently and then succumbing to one of the nasty bugs that has been going around the city at the end of last week, has meant that my pre-Christmas rush this year seemed to be condensed not simply into a couple of days but a couple of hours.

Cesar Augustus may have decreed that everyone was to return to their own town to be counted for a census, but this year the Provost of St Mary’s has decreed that henceforth, all Christmas Cards shall be known as Epiphany Cards and that everyone who receives them shall be grateful.

In short, my planning has gone a little awry.

Thus, I found myself at lunchtime today in one of the nearest shops to where I live. It is a greengrocer and I had to decide that most of my Christmas food shopping this year was going to be bought right then and right there or not be bought at all.

As I bundled veg into my basket, the proprietor looked at me and raised an eyebrow. [Read more…]

What’s on your church website right now?

Just a gentle reminder that people are looking for church services and Christmas events to go to right now. (Yes, right this minute. Today. Really.) It is worth asking what they will find if they go to your church website.

One of the things that astonished me last Christmas was hearing people at St Mary’s saying that they had come to us because their local churches were not having any Christmas events or services.

“Oh yes they are!” I replied in true panto style.

“Oh no they’re not!” they replied, “we’ve looked, there’s nothing on their websites”.

The time in the year when people are most eager to try out a new church and most welcome invitations to church seems to be around Christmas. Can I suggest that everyone reading this take a look at their own local church website and if they don’t find the details of the Christmas services prominently displayed, get hold of whoever does their website and very gently and lovingly and with every ounce of Christian compassion you can muster, bend their ear.

That includes those responsible for diocesan websites which give a page to each of their churches. Remember, if those pages are there, google may well find them first. If people find webpages which list churches where the latest news is any older than last month (never mind last year) and where the words “No events at present” are shown in the week before Christmas, it might be said that you can’t really blame them for not turning up.

Times of Christmas services at St Mary’s can be found here. Note that they don’t follow the same pattern as last year. We’re living on the edge, we are. 

Right on the edge.

Carols at the Tron

The Presbytery of Glasgow are having a Carol Service in St George’s Tron on Sunday afternoon.

Details below
Please support this if you are able. From the Presbytery Clerk of Glasgow.

I am pleased to say that a Presbytery Carol Service will be held in St George’s Tron Church of Scotland, Buchanan Street on Sunday 23rd December at 3pm. The guest preacher will be Rt Rev Albert Bogle, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. I would appreciate it if you could publicise this service as widely as possible, by written and verbal intimation (suggested wording below),
encouraging members of your congregation to come and share in this service.

It would be good to show that the living church has not left the building as the former Tron tried to publicise but that the living gospel is alive and well all over Glasgow.

Very Rev Bill Hewitt

Single? …a reminder

Just a reminder of the post I put up a couple of years ago about How to be Single at Christmas.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering what I’m eating for Christmas dinner, let’s just say that Lidl’s promotion of Rudolph Steaks is very welcome in Praepostorial Towers.

It’s the Internet, stupid…

Quick quiz question to begin the day:

Which is greater – the number of people who have visited this blog this year, or the number of people who are present in the Scottish Episcopal Church on a typical (ie the week before Advent when the figures are counted) Sunday?

It is an unfair question in a number of ways because it compares one day with a whole year and doesn’t measure engagement or committment. However it is a question that ought to make us sit up and take notice all the same. The answer is of course that this blog has had considerably more visitors this year than turn up at Episcopal churches on any normal Sunday.

I pose this teaser as a way into saying something about Christmas attendance at St Mary’s. There’s no getting away from the fact that we’ve had a busy Christmas. Numbers were significantly up at all services, the new service we put on for children on Christmas Eve was a runaway success and collections were double (yes, you heard me) what they were last year.

Now, there are some reasons for this. Last year we had a lot of snow, so that makes comparison difficult. (Though Christmas Eve was horribly wild this year too). Then there is the fact that we’ve a new member of staff this year and increasing numbers was the very reason we took him on.

However, one thing niggled away at me through Christmas. How did those coming to St Mary’s know about the services? After all, we changed the timetable quite radically this year – the Carol Service was on a Thursday evening instead of the Sunday before Christmas. How did the people know when to come? The new service for children and accompanying adults was a success and drew in people whom we’d never clapped eyes on. Who were they and why did they come?

There seems to me to be two forces at work. Word of mouth is one. (And one which I don’t underestimate). The influence of the internet is the other. (And most people I know considerably underestimate that).

The truth is, we don’t do much publicity these days that is not on line. We used to advertise in the Herald, but that form of communication was left by the wayside long since.

I was particularly struck this year by people whom I’d not met before saying that they came because they couldn’t find a church to go to near them. These were people from posh South Side (stop sniggering those of you in the West End, I’m being serious), Kelvinside and Anniesland. Particular comment was made about the fact that churches in other parts of the city did not appear to have Christmas services and that there was nothing for children.

I was so surprised about this that I started checking out what other Episcopal churches were up to.

It seems to me that we have a problem. According to the websites of quite a lot of our churches, there was nothing on at Christmas at all. Moreover, the Diocesan Website seemed to give out a message that the diocese was closed.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to help congregations engage online in easier ways. It seems to me that the mission of the church depends on it.

However, I am a lone voice whom no-one takes any notice of. (Well, except the tens of thousands of visitors this site gets).

There is almost no mention of online engagement in either the Provincial or the Diocesan mission planning processes. Nor in most of the mission literature I read.

If that continues to represent the reality in congregations, and they simply don’t engage with the way the world communicates then I draw a rather obvious and bleak conclusion.

And you all know what it is.

20111224 Midnight Mass – Sermon

When you come up to communion this evening, you need to keep your eyes open. There’s plenty to look at near the front of the church – lovely decorations, candles, baubles and twinkling lights. But keep your eyes peeled for a couple of strange, ethereal, beautiful creatures standing on either side of the altar.

Strange, ethereal and beautiful.

And I’m not referring to Cedric and myself. [Read more…]