Adapted from a sermon delivered by David Clough at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon on January 7, 2018.
Romans 8:18-24: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creations waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but ty the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?"
Advent and Christmas
How was your Advent and Christmas?
I have to confess to you that Advent brings out a fundamental conflict among my family. My starting point is that the celebrations of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, which means my preference would be to put up Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve. My wife Lucy and our three children are keen to get things started sooner, so we have an annual tussle about when our decorations go up. This year we compromised on the weekend of the 16th December.
There’s another difference between us about expectation during Advent. The other members of my family are impatient for Christmas to come. I tend to be more aware of all the work I have to get done before Christmas, so confess that I sometimes find myself wishing it further away, rather than closer. It’s the same with my domestic preparations: I’m always late with shopping for Christmas presents, and deciding what we’ll eat, and what we’ll need to buy to cook it.
Traditionally, Advent was a time of repentance for Christians, second only to Lent, a time for Christians to consider God’s judgement and prepare themselves, to make sure they were ready to receive the Christ child. This has something in common with my more mundane sense of feeling like I’ve got a lot to get done before I’ll be ready for Christmas. But I’m sure I’m not getting Advent right: I spend too much time on the mundane jobs I need to do, and nowhere near enough time on preparing my heart for the coming of Christmas. That means I often have the feeling of being in church and unready to celebrate the coming of the Saviour, caught off-guard by a moment in a nativity service where we sing with our children a familiar song and suddenly the story fills my eyes with tears and sends a shiver down my spine, once again.
Epiphany: Living after Christmas
I hope you had a good Christmas. We did: everything did get done, somehow, we sang the final verse of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ celebrating Christ born this happy Christmas morning and in the days that followed continued the celebrations with family and friends during Christmas and New Year. But that was a week ago.
Today is Epiphany, when we traditionally remember the visit of the kings to the Christ child, and Herod’s massacre of the male babies in Bethlehem.
Epiphany confronts Christmas with the realities of political power, and its cruel abuse of the vulnerable. The question Epiphany presents us with is, what does Christmas mean in the everyday world as we know it, the world where Christians are killed leaving church in Nigeria, where famine still threatens millions of lives, where controversies still rage about the exit of Britain from the EU, and where President Trump remains true to form in boasting about the size of his nuclear button amid growing evidence of mental incapacity?
Epiphany challenges us to consider how Christmas makes a difference in the real world. That’s our challenge this morning: what does it mean to live as Christians after Christmas?
Surely the transporting vision of our God taking on vulnerable creaturely flesh like ours and our celebration of God taking up the cause of God’s creatures by becoming incarnate in our world, should make a difference for how we live in it? How do we return from the holidays to our everyday life and bring what we have seen and felt of Christmas to the world as we find it?
I think the words we have heard from Paul in the 8th chapter of the Letter to the Romans can help us with the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas to the everyday. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome who were living through difficult times, subjected to persecution on grounds of their faith. Neither Jesus’s birth nor his resurrection had been an escape from tribulation for these early Christians. Their faith in the victory won in Christ was maintained amidst many signs that all was not yet right with the world. Paul acknowledges the depth of their sufferings. He compares what they are going through with the pain women feel in childbirth. I can only claim second-hand knowledge of this pain, through being with Lucy as she went through labour three times over. Paul’s experience of labour pains is likely to be one step further removed, but his comparison must be meant to acknowledge that the sufferings of the world are extreme, demanding, and costly, and call for serious courage and resilience to endure. To live in a world going through labour pains was never going to be comfortable.
But the comparison Paul makes is not just about the depth of the suffering involved. It links to our thinking about the progression from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany because it’s suffering with a meaning, with a direction, and with a trajectory. The groaning of a woman in childbirth is unlike the groaning of someone who has suffered injury because the pain is a result of something hoped for, the birth of a new child. The pain is almost unbearable, but the bearing of it takes place in the expectation that it is the means to bring about nothing less that the gift of new life. That’s what Paul means the Christians in Rome to know, too. Neither Christmas nor Easter means they are freed from the suffering of the world, but Christmas and Easter mean that this suffering is not the final truth about God’s world: these sufferings are the birth pangs of a new creation, liberated from its bondage to decay to be brought into the freedom of the children of God.
This doesn’t make the suffering ok, of course, especially when its burden is unjustly redirected in our world by the powerful to the burden the powerless, by the rich to the poor, by men to women, by white people to people of colour, by straight to queer, and so on. We must continue to work to resist these injustices, while knowing that such efforts cannot bring the groaning of creation to an end.
Here is Paul’s answer to the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas into our everyday world: Christmas doesn’t mean killing will end, or famines will not take place, or leaders will not fight futile wars, or the strong will stop exploiting the weak, but it does mean that such dreadful woes are not the final truth about God’s ways with the world. Christmas means that Christians engage with those woes of the world in faith that in doing so they witness to the mighty work of God in redeeming creation.
Living with Other Creatures
After Christmas, we encounter the world anew in the context of a Christian hope that the coming of God into our world in the form of a baby means that God has taken up our cause and will not allow evil to reign triumphant. We are left, though, with the question of how we are to live as Christians in this post-Christmas world, and in the final part of my sermon I want to consider one particular aspect of the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas into our everyday life in the world.
When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church to which I belong, preached on this passage from Romans in 1772, he was struck by the way Paul’s vision included not just human beings, but the whole of creation. He saw the plain sense of the passage as an affirmation that God would redeem all creatures, and was drawn immediately to reflect on the many cruelties he saw inflicted on animals in the streets. Christians who believed in a God who was their creator and redeemer have reason to oppose such cruelties in the strongest terms, he said.
There’s another link with Advent and Christmas here. Christians often recall the prophecy in Isaiah 11 during Advent, where Isaiah prophesies the Messiah coming from ‘the stump of Jesse’. The first sign of the coming of the Messiah is peace between humans and other animals, wolves, lambs, leopard, kids, calves, lions, and little children (vv. 6–9). This new peace is made present in the Christmas nativity scenes in which the animals in the stable are the first to recognize the coming of the Christ. One part of making Christmas present in our lives, therefore, might be to seek ways to witness to the peace God seeks between humans and other animals, and to the redemption of all creatures described by Paul.
But as soon as we acknowledge this connection between Christian Christmas faith and animals, we must recognize, just as Wesley did, that the ways we are currently treating animals are at odds with this Christian vision, subjecting them to many unnecessary cruelties. We have bred broiler hens to grow to slaughter weight in windowless sheds in just six weeks, suffering pain from legs too immature to support their unwieldy bodies. We ignore the complex social intelligence of pigs, and confine sows in stalls that do not even allow them to turn around, raising their piglets in monotonous sheds that prevent most of their natural behaviours. We raise cattle intensively in feedlots, subjecting them to castration and other mutilations without pain relief.
And, as Gretchen Primack’s heart-breaking poem reminds us, following the labour pains of their mothers, we take calves from their mothers, sometimes before they have even met, and force the mothers to eat constantly so we can take the milk meant for the calves we have killed, often keeping them confined without being able to graze grass, before they are culled for beef after 3 or 4 lactations when their milk yield drops. Those who live near dairy farms describe the loud groans of grief and protest from mother cows who have had their calves taken from them, which can go on for days. I can’t think of a more direct example of the groaning of creation Paul wrote about, and in this case, we’re the cause. These are modern animal cruelties, unknown in Wesley’s day, which should appal Christians today just as the eighteenth century cruelties appalled Wesley. It seems to me that we have sleep-walked into farming animals in ways that are a practical denial that they are fellow creatures of our God.
And it’s not as if it’s good for us, either. The unprecedented amounts of animal products we are eating are bad for our health as well as theirs, are wasteful of land and water resources, and are damaging to our environment. We currently devote 78% of agricultural land to raising animals and feed 1/3rd of global cereal output to them, when growing crops for human consumption would be a far more efficient way to feed a growing human population. And raising livestock contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transport globally, but has been largely ignored in climate change policy-making. Reducing our consumption of farmed animals would therefore be good for humans, good for animals, and good for the planet.
The good news is that this is an issue where our actions make a difference. I don’t know how to stop Donald Trump threatening Kim Jong-un, but I do know that if I and other Christians cut consumption of animal products, fewer animals will be drawn into the cruelties of intensive farming.
CreatureKind seeks to encourage Christians to take steps to reduce their consumption of animals and to move to higher welfare sources of any animal products they do use. Doing so makes a practical connection between our everyday practice of eating, our relationship to the wider creation, and our faith. I offer the possibility to you as a late Christmas present, the opportunity to reconceive even our ordinary eating as a sacramental. We have a six-week course for churches that would be ideal to run in Lent to help Christians think more about what their faith means for animals and how we treat them. Perhaps first steps could be communal, rather than individual: thinking how the food you share here at church could reflect the recognition of animals as fellow creatures.
So I’ve suggested that the challenge of Epiphany is how to bring Christmas into the everyday world, how to live a Christmas faith day to day. I’ve suggested that Paul’s vision of the groans of creation as labour pains of the new creation God is bringing forth can help us make sense of the suffering world we engage with as Christians. And I’ve suggested that as Christians we have reason to care about the suffering we currently inflict on farmed animals, and that we have faith-based reasons to stop contributing to its cruelty in our everyday life.
May God gift us this Epiphany with a new vision of how to live out an expectant Christmas faith in the everyday world we encounter and the disturbing and inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit as we seek to align our lives with God’s ways with our world. Amen.