Vicar's Sermon - Christmas Day 2017
Some people track the quote back to Revd Martin Luther King.
Others put the words in the mouth of a Rabbi, Rabbi Heschel who was with King on the famous Civil Rights March in Selma.
Yet others believe it to be an ancient African proverb.
And, to top them all, St. Augustine can claim to have penned the words.
They are these: ‘When you pray, pray with your feet.’
The versions vary: ‘When you pray, make sure your hands and feet are moving too’ is a good one.
St Theresa of Avila pads it out a little too much I fear, when she says:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” But you get the gist of what she is saying don’t you?
Much shorter is the riff on the idea that says: ‘Don’t ask God to guide your feet if you’re not prepared to move’.
The shepherds used their feet. They went with haste, they ran. Perhaps you have heard me speak before of just how unusual it is for people in the Middle East to run: it’s not done, it’s not dignified…but it was the middle of the night and no-one was looking…and they were only shepherds, not the great and good, far from it….but even shepherds have standards. But they go. They go quickly. They obey. They do.
For some people the shepherds are role model evangelists. They hear the message, they act in faith, they speak the message to others. ‘They make known what had been told them about this child.’ They point people to Jesus, the one whose name is ‘Save’. ‘Here is the Messiah’, they say.
But with that message their role shifts from being slightly ‘out there’ religious folk, far too keen for their own good, to becoming a band of revolutionaries. Because remember, their message of a new King, not just any old King, is passed on under the noses of King Herod hunkered down in Jerusalem and in a country occupied by the Roman Emperor’s troops, a country that has just been turned upside down by a census that has had ordinary folk like you and me criss-crossing the country to fill in forms and pay their taxes.
‘There’s a new King born today’ says the children’s carol. Indeed. The shepherds’ message is about God doing something new. The angels have sung their hearts out but the shepherds are clear, it is the Lord who has made this thing known to them.
The child’s birth seems both wholly natural but also utterly miraculous. At one and the same time ordinary and extra-ordinary. This night transports the shepherds into a new world and they will have to wrestle, from this point on with the question of ‘how they are to live’. For outwardly, Herod is still in charge of Judea. Thank God, the Emperor is far away in Rome but if Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, then their allegiance will be due to Him and that may well prove both awkward and, ultimately, dangerous.
We don’t know how it worked out for them. We never hear of the shepherds again, they don’t make a comeback in the story, they have come and gone. But, in the end, we can’t speak for them and for their faith, we can only speak for ourselves and for ours. And Jesus’ birth asks questions of us that are summed up in that one big question ‘where does our allegiance lie?’ Which kingdom are we in? Are we living in His new kingdom of love, joy and peace…or under the old corrupt, crushing rule of Herod that continues to believe that power and wealth are all that matter in life? And if we are in His Kingdom can ‘we pray with our feet?’ Are we prepared to be people who don’t just know the Christmas story but who will live by its rules? Who recognize forgiveness as strength rather than weakness? Do we have a place for the poor, for those on the edge of our community? Are we those who recognize the power of sacrificial love, a love that takes us out of ourselves and is prepared to risk everything for others? Can we be a community that sees God present in each and every person, not just in the ones who agree with us or who look like us?
All of us are no doubt looking forward to sinking into our favourite arm chair this Christmas time. Many of us appreciate the special quietness that can descend on us at Christmas. ‘Peace on earth, peace in our hearts’ is something we want and something that God wants for us. Somehow the Christmas message of ‘God with us’ has a way of penetrating whatever anxieties or stresses we might have – ‘I am here’, He says, ‘do not fear’ and we breathe more freely. But beyond that arm chair, beyond the stillness of our hearts there is a kingdom coming into being and we are part of it. As with the shepherds, the announcement of the kingdom means that we are to move, to shift ourselves and get to work, for this baby is not just for Christmas but for ever and for always.