Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Christmas Morning December 25th 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul
Nothing seemed to change. For countless generations down the years, it probably seemed as though nothing ever would, in spite of the hope and the longing, as people faithfully waited, while struggling with the challenges of the everyday. The prophets of old had spoken of it of course: “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, prince of Peace”. The people who sat in darkness continued to wait faithfully, hoped and prayed longing for that Light to dawn, to shine upon them.
A young woman, a refugee teenager heavily pregnant, forced from her home, travelling with the young man, a carpenter, to the town of his birth. Like so many of their people, life was hard living under severe and often cruel military occupation. It seems so long ago that she had made that profound commitment to God. Did she have any idea what that “yes” would entail – the joy and the pain that awaited? Almost certainly not, but in profound faith and trust in God, Mary, the young woman who had found favour with God, responded with her “yes”, utterly unaware that her voice would echo through eternity.
Through the cries and pain of childbirth, God is born into our torn and divided world, breaks into our humanity, in the whimpering of a tiny baby, utterly dependent and vulnerable as all babies are. God entrusts himself to the arms and care of this young refugee, an unmarried mother and the carpenter at her side.
In the midst of the seemingly ordinariness of this night, God, the voice of creation slipped into our world leaving traces of hope and drops of courage along a troubled and at times dangerous path.
And on this morning of all mornings, I find myself wondering what Mary and Joseph might have been feeling as they cradled their infant; I wonder if they were able to comprehend the shimmering light of God in this moment, amidst the bickering, quarrelling and warring of humanity.
This young couple have no safe place to call home; just the shelter used for the animals and a feeding trough for a cradle.
Too many people share their experience today – people forced from their homes, their communities because of military occupation, war, unemployment or poverty; people forced to give birth on flimsy boats floating perilously at sea, so far from the people who really care.
Yet now for Mary, with her baby safely in her arms, and despite everything, this tiny life was reason to hope, reason to dream as all new parents do.
The only people who initially appeared to notice them, to show any signs of wonder and joy at the birth of this baby were the very people many regarded as ‘nobodies’ – shepherds from the surrounding hillside. It was to these, people on the edge, deemed unworthy of society’s trust, that God entrusted his good news of great joy; a baby had been born who would change everything and they would find the baby, of all places, in a feed manger. Music filled the heavens! Glorious disorder as shepherds become angels or messengers (for that is what the word angel means). They could have stayed on their hillside – after all there is a sense of safety in the familiar; but they risked everything, travelling into the town looking for the sign given to them. Then finding the family and the baby in the feed trough, shared with them their utterly amazing, surprising experience on the hillside. It is as though in the telling of their story, the shepherd themselves receive confirmation that, however improbably, it is all true!
The shepherds returned to their hillside, to the business of everyday life, as indeed we all have to do, but they did so with hearts bursting with joy because what they “had heard and seen” was exactly “as it had been told them.” We hear no more from Luke about the shepherds, but I wonder how life changed for them following their extraordinary experience. For surely you cannot be touched by God and remain unchanged, can you?
This is both a familiar story rooted in the history of our faith; but also a very contemporary one, as thousands of families forced from their homes by the warring and bickering of the world give birth far from all that is familiar and in the breath of that new life, new hope is born. The birth of this child, indeed the birth of any baby, causes us to stop, to reflect and to want to make a difference for the sake of this child and the world in which he will grow.
Earlier this month, I heard Lucy Winkett, Rector of St. James, Piccadilly talking about a remarkable piece of artwork currently on display in the church until early February. It is called ‘Suspended’, created by the artist Arabella Dorman. Lucy was talking about the experience of unpacking clothes used in this artwork and salvaged from refugee camps in Lesbos in Greece. She, and the volunteers assisting, were moved to tears as together they unpacked tiny pairs of jeans, colourful sweatshirts, torn tee-shirts and little shoes. 100’s of these pieces of clothing now hang above the nave of St. James in a state of suspension, bringing to life the experience of refugees escaping war, whose lives are stuck, unable to go home, unable to move on. Lucy reflected:
“The clothes we unpacked yesterday, now empty, are highly evocative of the young people who were just a few months ago, wearing them; and we will try to make a difference in the name of our faith……..But what silenced us yesterday was a baby-grow, covered in teddy bears, without doubt belonging to an anonymous little boy brought across on one of those flimsy boats to an uncertain future. On the little hood was a message that it felt as if his parents were sending directly to us, something they new about their baby son, hoped for him, dreamed he would become. Where is his new life, we thought; and we hoped he is safe, as we read the words on his hood. Not “The Prince of Peace”, but something equally silencing. The echoes of the Gospel story were almost too much to bear as we imagined his parents’ courage, and fear, and the danger their son had been born into: “Prince Charming”.
Traces of hope and drops of courage. And as people gaze upon that artwork and reflect upon the lives of the people that in so many senses gave birth to it, I wonder how their lives will be changed by the touch of God, and how in turn God will enable them to bring light into the darkness of those lives.
God, slipping into our world as one of us, as a tiny utterly dependent baby in the care of the powerless is a reminder to us of the sacredness of all human life; is a reminder to us of the manner in which God builds His Kingdom – not through wealth, or might or power but through vulnerability and powerlessness. As we look out at the hundreds of refugee camps across our world, as we listen to the stories of people in our own lands struggling with poverty, poor housing or homelessness we look out at the waste of potential with lives lived in limbo, God is calling us to seek the traces of hope and drops of courage in a world wearied by division and strife.
This morning, listening again to the story of the shepherds, we are reminded that God utterly surprised them by calling them to share in his work of proclaiming the Good News. In the same way He calls us to step away from our places of comfort and our communities of refuge, to go out into the messy, dirty and uninviting places of our town, our country and our world to proclaim not in words but in action His love, His hope.
“When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.”[i]
Emmanuel, God with us leaving traces of hope and drops of courage
[i] Howard Thurman, African American theologian & civil rights leader