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Christmas, it seems to me, is a time of contrasts. This Christmas I was fortunate enough, as I hope you were, to be able to celebrate with my family and to see my grandchildren and to hear about their excitement on Christmas morning and the thrill of the familiar Christmas rituals.
But I also read in the newspapers of young refugee children and their families in Syria who face a terrible time in wintry conditions in refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan and the Lebanon. More than 2.4 million people, half of them children, are estimated to be homeless because of the conflict in Syria.
I'm sure all of us were able to enjoy a Christmas that was at least warm and secure, and able to enjoy enough of the basic necessities of life - perhaps even to overindulge. But thousands in this country and millions throughout the world wake up every day to anxiety, deprivation and hunger. This Christmas foodbanks in this country helped to feed those who literally have to choose between paying the household bills and putting food on the table - over 300,000 across the country who are not feckless but who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.
And this Christmas, and today, we can come together in our churches and cathedrals in perfect safety and harmony to celebrate Christmas and Epiphany, indeed we take it for granted, but in some parts of the world Christians risk attack, imprisonment and death if they openly practice their faith or gather for worship.
I tell you of these stark contrasts, not to depress you our make you feel vaguely guilty, but to emphasise that somehow the good news we celebrate at Christmas and Epiphany must be for those on both sides of the divides I have mentioned. The good news we celebrate must be truly for all people, not just the fortunate ones, and must release the energy needed to help us all build a better, fairer, kinder, world.
The birth of Jesus is part of God's plan to draw us into His divine generosity, equipping us to build together a little taste of heaven on earth and so to enrich the lives of others beyond our own immediate circle. The New Testament is suffused with the challenge to build 'a new heaven and a new earth' - in the words of the book of Revelation - through following the teaching and example of Jesus, who said that when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, we are actually ministering to him, to Christ himself.
Let me give you couple of particular examples of what this generosity might mean in practice; First, The Trussell Trust, FairShare and other organisations have helped set up emergency food banks throughout this country to help those struggling to feed their families. Over 400 have been opened to date, many of them instituted and run by the churches and other religious groups. Not, as Ian Duncan Smith recently stated, in a kind of symbolic opposition to welfare reform, but simply to meet the very real needs of those who are struggling to make ends meet. It's a simple, practical way to help one another.
Another example of God's generosity in practice is XLP, a Christian organisation that creates positive futures for inner city young people, and based at All Hallows, London Wall in the City, works to turn around young lives that are at risk. Leanne for example, one of many young people who have been helped says 'I've been through a lot, but XLP have stuck with me and given me the guidance to prevent me becoming just another statistic.' Again, practical Christian love in action. And there are many other examples both here and overseas.
We do have a choice: We can look at, and be overwhelmed by, the problems out there in the world, or we can look for the hopeful signs of the energy and generosity of God, alive and at large in the world, and be rightly proud of the amount of social capital and goodwill that exists within religious organisations and specifically within the Christian churches - 'active citizenship' - that takes place locally and quietly, without fanfare, in thousands of places across the UK.
God, when He communicated with us, came in person to draw us all into his way of self-giving love and compassion. This Epiphany and New Year, Jesus invites us to make a resolution - to respond to that invitation to love and generosity in the way we live our lives, and to remember that we are judged, not on our achievements, but by the measure of our faithfulness and our love.
We are called to respond to the needs, and the neighbours, that Christ places before us, which are none other than himself - in the faces and bodies of those whom perhaps we might prefer to ignore because of their strangeness or their neediness.
Yes, there are enormous divides in the world today, and we are fortunate in our own situation. Thank God there are many people working to bridge or to eliminate those divides, to make the Good News real and active in the lives of those who struggle to see God's glory because of their own situations and their suffering, to build a little taste of heaven on earth.
We don't know what the future looks like, we can't always see the challenges and the opportunities we face, but we can put our hands, at the start of this new year, into God's hands, and ask his light to guide us through the coming year, and in the way we live and the response we make to our neighbours both near and far, to become part of God's divine generosity. Amen.