In My Father's House

Sunday 30th December 2012
Year C, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 2:41-52

My dearly beloved grandfather, who received a medal from the Pope for his services to the Roman Catholic Church and a medal from the Secretary General for his services to The Trade Union Congress was that most peculiar of phenomena in the English ecology, a Christian socialist; and so, not unnaturally, even though he had left school at the age of twelve to go into the mill, he taught me the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the history of socialism. But as I got older there was less teaching and more argument which we both loved. And he has turned out to be right about almost everything: about the repetitive issues in politics, about the way human nature works, individually and collectively, and about me; almost everything because he believed that as we grow older we become less radical. Not me. I'm still going the other way. And why? Because I am conscious of running out of time to do what needs to be done so I am in ever more of a hurry.

And so, although, like all of us, I am only a terribly imperfect copy of Jesus, I can feel him sitting in the Temple, in his father's house or, as the Authorised Version would have it, "about his Father's business". I can hear the questions about the extent, depth and adequacy of the law, a theme which came to be dominant in his adult Ministry. Was the Law, as it stood, promoting the building of God's Kingdom on earth or was it acting as an obstacle? And we can recall numerous instances of where Jesus said that he did not want to overturn the law but he wanted to improve on it, not in a dry, legalistic way, but by crowning it with mercy and love.

One of my unpleasant but necessary Christmas tasks has been to read a book called Spirit Level [1] which studies the link between inequality in nations and their levels of, among other things, educational achievement, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, violence and mental illness. And it will not surprise you to hear that the greater the inequality in a society, the more prone it is to all these ills, and many more; and that this sorry state most sharply affects the poor but that, in time, it affects even the rich, so that it is in the self-interest of the rich to ensure a greater measure of social and economic equality for the poor.

Now I know that there is an old saying that you shouldn't mix religion and politics but there comes a time when the evidence is such that it is dishonest to ignore it. Although one of the richest, we are also, along with the United States, one of the most unequal countries in the world; and it is getting worse. And so we have selected a number of strategies to try to tackle the situation, the three most prominent of which are credit-fuelled consumption, education and health.  On the first, for the first time in history the poor are fatter than the rich, with obesity reaching crisis levels. On the second, in spite of state education, the achievement gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. And, on the third, the so-called 'health service' is in fact the back stop for our increasingly self-harming lifestyles. And now we know that disadvantage passes down the generations as predictably as our genetic make-up.

In a contemporary phrase, I need to declare an interest: for the past year, as a person with a serious disability, I have been dropped into the bin along with other work-shy scroungers. Not me individually, of course, but as one of an identifiable group of people which is not pulling its weight: the poor are responsible for their poverty; the unemployed are responsible for their unemployment; and the disabled are exploiting their condition to collect state benefits. But, on the other hand, the rich and the powerful don't seem to be responsible for anything.

The situation is now so bad for the poor that if we really are committed to building God's Kingdom on earth, to being about Our Father's business, then we can't just wring our hands. On this Feast of the Holy Family we need to think about families which are degraded and bereft, torn or shattered, or which never really were families at all. As a Church we need to settle the issue of women bishops in 2013, not spending another three years on it; and we need to be less worried about gay families and much more interested in these desperate families. It is all too easy to become sentimental about the family, not least the Holy Family; but it surely faced periods of hardship: no work for Joseph, Mary not sure where the next meal was coming from, Jesus being bullied for being a Bible swot; and, not very far in the background, dark tales of Mary's disgrace; and, of course, the unpredictability of the occupying power. Even at the best of times, being in a family is hard work which is why, I suspect, we are more comfortable with friends; but if we take ourselves seriously, if we really do believe, as we say we do, that the family is the foundation of church and state, then we ought to care more about our own; but also care for families who need help most.

We can give to charities that support families; we can push our laggardly church into completing its current agenda and focusing on Christ's mission; but none of this exempts us from politics. Not only, as Christians, do we have an obligation to vote, we also have an obligation to engage, to think and to advocate. We are the strong and the articulate; it is our duty to speak and to act, secure in our conviction that we are doing what Jesus wants us to do, to be in our Father's house, about our Father's business.

[1] Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate: The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Penguin, ISBN: 978-0-141-03236-8