A sermon by Revd Katherine Hedderly,
Readings for this service: Isaiah 62, 6-end; Luke. 2. 1-20
I wonder how you have arrived at this Christmas Day, grateful for peace because all your visitors have come and everything is ready and you can enjoy one another; on your knees from exhaustion because you have a busy job and worked up to the last minute to get everything off your desk; grateful that, for a little while, you have permission to have a ‘tech pause’ and turn off social media; on your own this Christmas and seeking companionship; here travelling from another part of the world; longing for light, missing a loved one, thankful, expectant, hushed, hurting or harassed.
I’d like to invite you, however you have arrived at this Christmas Day, to come to the place where journeys meet, to the stable where we find God with us, in a tiny child and kneel down. It is the only way to see and experience Christmas. Kneeling so that you can see with God’s eyes the things that otherwise you would miss; kneeling, (or in whatever way you would translate that physically for yourself), because by doing that you’re saying there’s something far greater than me here; kneeling because it puts your heart closer to God’s heart, beating in this little baby. Today, you’re invited see what God sees, to be open to something far greater than yourself, to feel God’s heart beating for the world, and to make room for that heart to beat in you.
It takes a lot to disrupt our natural inclinations. We are quite resistant to choosing the lowest place, but it is surprising when we do – when we stop, realign ourselves and see the world from a very different perspective. This Christmas Day gives us a radical perspective on the world. We see things differently if we place ourselves where Jesus is, and see from God’s perspective, with those who have no choice.
The shepherds are the outsiders in the nativity story, welcomed in from their itinerant lifestyle, from the lowest social position. They already have a march on the rest of us because they spend their time looking at the world from a very different perspective, outside, with animals, their lives wrapped up in the cut and thrust of nature and weather, birth and death, the immediacy of tending for delicate newborns and sheltering the vulnerable ones. What does the world look like if you place yourself with them?
A few days ago in the busy rush before Christmas, coming through the underpass of Charing Cross Station, I came across a group of homeless people gathered there down on the floor, a mass of sleeping bags and belongings. Recognising one or two, I stopped and crouched down and chatted with them for a while. When one of them asked me to say a prayer I put my arm around her, and prayed with them, for their wellbeing, their safety that night, for the friend who had died who had been homeless too, for all their hopes and fears. The nonchalance lifted, the jokes stopped, for a few moments, time stood still as we were aware of the presence of God, in that draughty, in-between place. Together, everyone joined in the Amen. For a little while that mangy mix of mattress and sleeping bags, had become a manger. God come down among us. The place we cast our eyes away from, as we walk quickly past, becoming the holy meeting place with God.
As we kneel at the manger, we draw alongside all who are vulnerable in our world, and we find that in this child, God is saying, ‘I am there with you’. Today, this Saviour, Messiah, and Lord has come to transform the out-of-the-way mangers of our world with all the possibilities of his love. See the ways God calls you to be in that place with him.
In that lowly place, the shepherds are met by angels. It is as if the whole cosmos has been holding its breath and is now singing, for a child. It is news, not just for these outsiders and for the world they inhabit, but for the whole world. It is a sign of heaven and earth meeting, that something greater than ourselves is here.
Someone who heard singing and whose whole life was transformed with the hope that it gave her, came to this church a few days ago. This person had written a letter to the Missing People choir, a choir formed from families who have a loved one missing. They sing here at the Missing People carol service held each year and in the summer they reached the final of Britain’s Got Talent on television.
‘To The Missing People Choir’, she wrote: ‘Although I am crying my eyes out as I write, I know that it is something I have to do. Your performance on television has profoundly touched my life, not least because your beautiful voices captivated the heart of the nation, but more personally because you changed my future. A year ago, I was a teacher and although challenged by juggling a busy career with caring for a parent who was ill, I had a very ordinary life with a wonderful partner and home. Then, things changed. My parent died, I’d lost my job through caring and I became ill myself. I became increasingly unwell and then left my home with the intention of never returning. I had lost all hope. I went to a completely different city over 150 miles away and was declared a missing person.’
The catalyst for my coming home,’ she said, ‘was you. I had heard your choir on television, and when I had spoken in my despair to someone on the telephone, was advised to find a safe person to tell and to give them my missing person number. I did just that and stopped running.”
At the end of the service this year, a woman approached me at the door. ‘I am that woman’ she said. The hardest part of the whole experience, she said, was that for all of her professional life she had been on the other side of trauma, in social work and teaching. Then, she said, “I find myself in a doorway being told to ‘move on because decent people use this place’. It has been so humbling.’
She had stopped running because she had heard, what for her, was the singing of the angels. Angels who had given her hope of a bigger life, of something greater, and it had changed her future. If the families who had loved ones missing could continue to hold out hope, then so could she. The source of her hope, of their hope and ours, is the gift of God to us in Jesus, placed in the humble doorways of our world. Today, listen for the angels singing that gives you hope and will transform your future.
Kneeling down, listening for the angels, hearing God’s heartbeat.
Do you find it hard to get to the most important part of Christmas, the centre of it all? The gift unwrapped. It’s almost too wonderful to take in. The vulnerability of this gift? This little child, held in his mother’s arms – a refugee travelling, amongst strangers. How can God dare to place himself there, with us? How can this be our king, the Saviour of the world? Do you find yourself asking but what if this heartbeat stopped. Stopped beating for the world, for us?
We have felt God’s heartbeat close to us in this city this last year. A city that has experienced terrorist attacks, and the Grenfell Tower fire. The abiding image from Grenfell as the weeks and months have gone by, has been a heart, a green heart. A sign, one of the local clergy in the area describes, as representing all the spontaneous outpourings of love and generosity that they have witnessed, a sign of solidarity evoking many acts of compassion, in amidst the grief and anger. In the memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral recently, we saw local children scattering green hearts that they had made, on the steps in front of the altar. Their disarming care and gentleness, was beautiful and healing for all of us. This was a sign of God’s heart beating for them and in them, and for this city.
We hear that Mary pondered all these things in her heart. She is the one who held Jesus so close and felt his heartbeat. Perhaps this is the place for us to abide and stay today. With God’s heart beating in this tiny child. Like the woman who stopped running and whose future was changed, and the homeless person who asked for a prayer, and the children who made and scattered green hearts. God is with us, in every heartbeat of our lives.
Today make room for that heart to beat in you. It is the life of the world. God come to be with us forever.