Are you religious ?

Sermon preached at the United Benefice Lessons and Carols service by Father James Heard, St John’s the Baptist church, December 9th 2018.

I’d like to start with a question: are you religious? I wonder whatthat word – religious -means to you? Many people are reluctant todescribe themselves as religious but are quite happy to refer tothemselves as spiritual. I wonder why that is?

It seems as though humanity is deeply religious, even when we thinkwe’re not! The former Director of the National Gallery, NeilMacGregor, puts it is like this: ‘Homo sapiens is also Homoreligiosus’. In his recent book, Living with the Gods, he shows justhow entrenched the spiritual has been in humans and in society overthe last 40,000 or so years.

To be human is to grapple with questions about our purpose, identity,and destiny. Many of us connect with our spiritual side in a varietyof ways: from meditation to yoga, from poetry to music, from walkingin beautiful countryside to… even coming to church.

It’s tempting to think that this is simply a personal, individualjourney… but it’s much more than that. It’s about connecting with God,the source of life and love, and it’s about connecting with others.

MacGregor recognises that religion is a corporate affair. We searchnot simply for ‘my’ place in the cosmos, but for ‘our’ place. In ourindividualistic Western society this might be difficult to grasp, butfor the majority of human history, it’s been too obvious to evenmention. The way in which humans have chosen to live with their godsis the other side of the coin of how they live with each other.

So the question for us today is who are our gods and who are we? Whatdo we worship?

In today’s world, we tend to worship things like money, status, power,and image. And if we become like what we worship, where does that takeus? What will our values be? What do these things tell us about ourpurpose, our identity and our destiny?

The Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, shows us a different way tolive and begins to answer some of these questions.

This story is NOT that of a powerful king with an army behind him.Rather, it’s the story of a vulnerable baby born into relativeinsignificance and poverty. And yet, there was something about thisbaby, this child, this man, that was so remarkable that… Well, here weare, 2000 years later reflecting on him, celebrating his birth. Why?

One clue may be that in his life, Jesus demonstrates what it is to befully human. He shows us how to live a life where love overcomeshatred, peace is stronger than violence, and compassion is morecompelling than competition. And that our identity is as belovedchildren of God.

Might this be what religion is all about? Could this Christmas messageof hope, of compassionate love, of knowing we are beloved by God,could this inspire us to live life to its fullest, to face life’schallenges with hope, and to love our world and all within it?

My plea tonight is that we don’t leave this message ignored until nextChristmas. And that we don’t view it as mere superstition, as amagical story for children. Because this isn’t just a story but rathera deep truth that has the power to change lives and change our world.

What the Christmas story gives us is a confidence that however darkour world seems, we have hope. Hope that, as John’s Gospel puts it:“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcomeit” (John 1.5).

I’d like to close with a prayer from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.


Nick Spencer, FT, November 30, 2018
Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book, Hodder and Stoughton 1995