Posts Tagged Christmas

Christmas Eve: “Must We Go”

This homily was preached at our 7pm Christmas Eve service. It wonders what it would be like to be the different people in the Manger Story – and what roles we may have played over our lifetimes. It asks the question, ‘is it time to go to Bethlehem again?’

 

Merry Christmas everyone! We’ve come to the still and quiet hour of the year once more. The longest night has passed only a short time ago. The light is lengthening our days. We call for peace from our hearts. We gather around our tree, with sparkling light in the air, and music on our lips, waiting for a child to be born – once again – in our minds and souls – a child – a hope – for this troubled world.

We come together in community. Kindling just a little more wonder in our lives. We sing carols that bring us back to our childhood. We teach our children how to sing joy into our neighborhoods and our homes. Expectation becomes a virtue in this season of miracles. Grace can enter our lives at any time. We wait with hushed voices, or a smile on our lips. May good will prevail. May there be peace on earth. May it begin with us – again and again.

Where do you find yourself in the manger story? As a child, I remember being fascinated most with the baby. That’s who I could relate to. Wonder, newness, possibility, were all central to the story. Being cared for and loved; recognizing that others were in awe of something – all seemed to matter most. Maybe you can relate better to Mary. Being in a time of need, tired from a pregnancy and having to manage that, while on the road, or working more than anyone ought. Or maybe Joseph; not really in control of the situation, but doing your best for the people you love. Life has thrown you a few curves, and you just want a place to sleep, and safety for your loved ones.

The Wise men, the shepherds and even the animals sometimes speak more to me in some years. Sometimes we can feel like we’re bearing witness to some deep place of awe or wonder, while it seems like all the rest of the world is passing it by, never the wiser. The animal in the stable – not central to any story – doesn’t think all this revolves around them – but who stands in the presence of a certain kind of fullness – a fullness that we too often miss. The common shepherd, arriving alongside the Eastern Kings, take note just the same.

I have been struck this season once again by the story of the road to Bethlehem. Of two expectant parents traveling to be registered (in this case for tax purposes). A King who fears them though, for the son they will bring into his land. Door after door closed to them in their time of need, until the lowliest of places – a manger – becomes their sanctuary at the time when one is most vulnerable. Refugees of a sort – in need – in a land where they have no place to call home any longer – and a government that is hostile to their presence, and a populace that is all too often indifferent to their need. The Bible’s message is alive and real, still today. It continues to speak to us across the millennia.

The May Sarton poem we heard earlier, “Must We Go”, wonders if the road to Bethlehem is one we must walk once more. Did it happen only in the past, or is it a pressing need for us today? When we’re feeling worn out from the harshness of the world’s woes – ever present, but seeming worse and worse of late – the road to Bethlehem can feel just too much. …And maybe it is too much. Who would ask expectant parents to bear such a hard path? But the road to Bethlehem ends in wonder, in quiet, in mystery, in hope. Not an ending we might imagine for a desert path, but the ending we are graced with. It also teaches us that our own lessons of hope should change us; from places of hope and expectant wonder, we should turn our hearts to help birth that newness ourselves in our own lives, for the people all around us.

The birth of Christ asks us to change something in our hearts when we face those in need; those who are different; the stranger in our midst asking for a roof over their heads and a chance at a new life. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s such a hard thing to ask for, that the world seems like it’s conspiring against it. But it’s the first lesson Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph tried to teach us. It’s central to the Christmas story – the reason for the season. So we should hush our voices, still our busyness, and allow another miracle into our lives – the miracle of offering welcome to those in their hardest hours.

Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.”When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story?

This year, Christmas reminds us to extend a hand, again and again. To welcome the stranger in need, for there is a miracle hiding there in plain sight. The story is not only about some foreign place, a world away and millennia past. It is as alive, and just as pressing for the people of today. In our nation’s life, we are facing many crossroads, and the urge to be the innkeeper who decides if there is room for one more is very strong in our culture. We can choose to be a people of that culture, or we can choose to be a wise people of faith; faith in each other, faith in the stranger, faith in a different way. A way that was shown to us with the rising of a bright star; born in humility, but lived with passion and grace.

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Prayer for MidWinter

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

We gather in this bright mid-winter,

grateful for the blessings we have been graced with.

Help us to center ourselves this hour with our whole soul;

May the spirit of this time bring us to a place of rest,

where rest is hard to find;

and help us to find a place of action,

where inspiration has dwindled.

We come together as a community,

to inspire one another for the ministry of hope,

of love,

of dedication.

Mother of Peace, take us by the hand,

and lead us as we travel through our days and years.

May we be a beacon of compassion in a world that is so full of struggle.

As another year comes to a close,

may we reflect on the lessons that have come our way,

change the things we must,

and appreciate all that is good in our lives.

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Reflection: Here Comes The Sun

This reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.

For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.

The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.

This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)

Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.

I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.

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Community, Memory, Hope

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington as a response to the tragedy in San Bernardino, California this week. In community we find strength. As we begin the holiday of Hanukkah, may we light our candles in memory and hope.

As you can tell by now, those of you who have printed orders of service, the sermon topic has changed from what was posted in our newsletter. I’ve been very much affected by the news of this past week, as I know most of us here have been as well.  I’m not going to talk about gun control, or terrorism again; but I’m not sure we’re going to get to Peter Pan today either as promised by our newsletter. As we come up to the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting as well, I’m seeing more and more about memorial services out of congregational newsletters and social media, and keeping the memories of loved ones fresh in our minds. I’m also very mindful of late of the increased risks to folk in the military or all first responders these days back at home in the States. As we begin our festive approach to Hannukah and Christmas and New Years, in spite of all the horrors of the world, I yearn for a sort of Memorial Day in December, and don’t want to wait till May. One more chance to say, we get it, we haven’t forgotten, before we head off to our well-earned parties. So today, I’d like to share you a story about my Dad, and maybe a bit about childhood.

I grew up in a working class household with a Dad who had the good fortune of enlisting in the Navy between the time that the Korean War ended and before the time when the Vietnam War started. Unlike some of my friends, because of this good fortune, I both had my Dad still with me to watch me grow up, and my Dad was mentally whole and in one piece. It was a blessing and a gift that I never truly appreciated. There were times as a kid that I intellectually understood that war could have made things different, but the emotional risks and realities of this never really dawned on me. Even now, the emotional side of wartime loss – is one step removed. And for all the chaos that we’re hearing about in the news about homegrown violence, unless we have family or friends serving or affected, it might be harder to wrap our heads – really – about the reality of it all.

My Dad chose to serve, and my Dad happens to still be in my life. The same is true for both of my parents in-law as well, who served in the Air Force. We can say the same about so many first responders, but unfortunately not for all. Conventionally, the national holiday of Memorial Day we observe in May, asks us to remember those who have served and those whom we have lost from serving. That wasn’t my reality growing up. So most often, I would lean toward “Happy” Memorial Day rather than “Reflective” or maybe “Somber.” So as we travel through a national time of anniversaries of tragedies, and vigils for new horrors, maybe – we can sit a little longer in that time of reflection and humility.

Maybe there’s a way in which Hanukkah, as we approach it this night, can speak to this wintertime need, in the midst of uncertainty and grief. I grew up singing songs about dreidels, thinking about how my friends got 7 nights of presents, and a little later laughing with Jewish comedians making hysterical songs lifting up the Jewish holiday in the eyes of more people. But there’s another side to Hanukkah that we often don’t focus on – at least not publicly…. Remembering hope and possibility in the midst of chaos and war. Whether you celebrate Hanukah in your home or not, maybe we can light some candles in its honor this week, and in honor of all those lives we need to remember in the times like these we live in.

Until I was almost an adult, I had known the death of only one extended family member – and that to cancer. In recent years, that has drastically changed, with all of us having lost many friends in this Fellowship, and me having lost two friends my own age, in just the past 4 months. I’m thinking of this today, because I’m trying to make sense of the type of holiday we often don’t allow ourselves to celebrate in this season of festive joy – at a time when we clearly need it.

 Memory is important. Community is important in holding memory. Hope is important as we hold memory.

Hanukah in its deep tradition of holding memory, can be stripped of meaning in our Saran-wrapped, boxed-lunch life. Hanukah reminds us that others have sacrificed before us for purpose, and we benefit from who and what came before. I’m disappointed when the Winter Holidays turn into a simple celebration of toys and gifts, rather than being a time of gratitude for being able to celebrate, if you feel you can still celebrate. We all don’t feel we can celebrate every year.

My changed sermon topic this week is entitled “Community, Memory, Hope.” I could have swapped the words around to begin, as this sermon does, with memory. But the title reflects the reality that each of us begins in community. For those of us who have moved (or are moving toward) membership in our congregation, we are in a way, translating isolation or separateness, into solidarity and inclusion. We begin as members of something broader, something bigger than ourselves alone. The first step in the religious path is recognizing the simple truth that there is more to this immense universe than ourselves alone. The classic wisdom still holds true – It’s not about us. Well, to be fair, it’s not about us alone. It is about us – together. The religious journey begins and ends with the realization that we travel this world for a time, part of a wide and diverse band of souls. When we pause to commit ourselves to a broader purpose, we reunite our soul into the collective spiritual enterprise. The old school religious humanists would say (to paraphrase) that in seeking community we seek to transcend our individual egos and thereby nurture that which is greater than our aloneness. The theists among us remember that God loves all people; that we’re all children of God; and that as part of God’s family we should seek to relate as a family – as an ideal – even knowing we can never achieve that fully; but the striving for connection despite our failures – matters deeply.

Whether we’re learning to place the whole ahead of our temporal wants, or we’re seeking to reconnect with our human family, this congregation welcomes us all. It is from this centered place that we can achieve new life; heal the corners of the world we live in; and come to know ourselves more deeply. The religious journey beings with community. We are not a religious tradition of solitaries, despite what the Transcendentalists might have tried to convince you. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and the whole cadre of Unitarian theologians and philosophers were all meeting with one another regularly to share their thoughts and insights. They were not ascetics living in the woods. Walden Pond was written with the benefit of the occasional sandwich sent by Mom. From community we can head out into the hidden places and learn the secrets right before our eyes, but we don’t start or end there.

I recall the words of one former congregant at another congregation, “A community is a group where your contributions are never so carefully recorded as your gains from membership.” In times of chaos like these, being in community is more important than anything we do. I believe that in our consumer-driven culture, it’s rather natural for us to “buy-into” the practice of asking ‘what do we get by being a member of this religious community?’ What are we purchasing with our pledges to this congregation or paying for with our taxes to our country? There’s sometimes a tendency to track how many things we’ve volunteered to do for the community – forgetting that most of the people around us have likewise given much of themselves to bring this congregation to this next high point in its life. Because the truth is – so many people – over so many decades – have given so much freely to get us to where we are in this moment. It’s not about us, or what extra-special service we’ve performed as members. Those things are important, but if we get caught up into thinking they’re the center, we lose the message of that first religious step. The one where the religious humanists remind us that the practice of community is helping to transcend our individual egos; whether that’s in thinking we’re so great, or that it’s all about us, or that we’re only worthy if we do this next thing. Well, we are all pretty great, but we’re all that way – not some of us. Anyone that’s ever been to any congregational meeting and listened to an extended debate knows it’s not about any one person there. And if your acts of service to our community are grounded in the thought that you’re only worthy by doing so, know that you have nothing to prove to any of us. Service can be done out of love, but it should not be done for the hope of love – we all already have it.

The trap is both/and. It’s a trap to get fixated on scoring what you’ve given or what you’ve done. It’s also a trap thinking that you’re only worthy if you do and do and do. When we are in the midst of grief – and even if we shut out the news of the world, this community continues to grieve so many lost friends and family – we won’t find solace in doing. But we will find peace in giving part of ourselves to community. It’s not about how much we give; but rather that we give. It’s remembering that in community we have to be willing to serve as well as being willing to be served. For some congregations this last phrase is their mission statement – We begin our own mission statement recognizing being in community is where we heal and grow and nurture.

I believe, it’s not really helpful to think in terms of counting deeds, but rather being aware of how much more we can be in light of our community. When we’re isolated, or driven primarily by the small e-ego, then we’re as small as that. When we’re committed to the ideals of a community of people, a religious gathering centered on faith, hope and love, then we’re as large as that. And in times of difficulty, seeking to be as large as faith, hope and love, is key to healing our hearts and souls. Being part of a community, being a member, means giving of ourselves so that we broadened our impact and scope to the width and breadth of our collective vision and dream. We remain ourselves, but we begin to point to the horizon of our shared dreams. It’s in this act of pointing that we mark the trajectory of hope. Coming together, we become more ourselves, more human. Remembering where we come from; being grateful for the efforts, sacrifices and energy of those a part of us; we craft a way forward grounded in hope; predicated on the possibility that the whole is no less than the sum of its parts and likely much greater than those parts alone. I wish us all a reflective Hanukkah, and hope we can celebrate and we can remember. Together, from that place, may we find a place of happiness as well; because so many have given so much to get us to where we are this day.

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We Desert Amblers

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on Christmas Eve 2014. It looks at the story of the Magi and the origins of what it means to be grateful through gift giving.

There’s a comic making the rounds this year of the little drummer boy in the manger next to Mary. He’s about to give the only gift he has, playing his drums, when a harried Mary stops him saying, “Thanks, but please no. I just got him to bed.” I imagine many of us have been there before – with our own kids, or baby-sitting for friends or family. Or if you’re like me, with no kids of my own, but with a very industrious cat at 4am.

The Christmas hymn, “Little Drummer Boy,” always struck me as a little odd, even if it is quite beautiful, for this reason. The last thing an infant needs is a drum solo at bed time. But the song teaches us that we don’t have to have much in terms of worldly riches, to find a way to be generous. It’s a good message, and a helpful reminder, and yet, I think in some ways, it misses the mark for the holiday.

The gift giving scene in the Nativity is about a few markers. Kings of the world themselves, will bow down to this spiritual king in the manger. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were all associated with standard gifts befitting a king. Others would note their representation of Jesus’ respective roles of king, his priestly role and an omen of his later death. They’re appropriate gifts to signal his station and his purpose. And over the millennia, they’ve been the foundation for what has brought us to the consumer frenzy we see from Black Friday through Christmas, and the return sales to follow the holiday.

So the Little Drummer Boy does his yeoman best to move us back to one of the meanings of the season, calling across the centuries to turn away from the consumerism that pervades our lives these days. I’m grateful for that message. We need to hear it year after year. And yet, aside from the three kings’ gift of gold to a poor family sleeping in a manger, a late night drum solo is about as helpful to the baby, as frankincense and myrrh.

On this past Sunday’s youth-led service, our religious educator Starr Austin, asked us whether we more enjoy giving gifts, or more enjoy getting them. It’s an important lesson around generosity – not just for material things – but for all the talents we may share – whether they be drum solos, or helping those in need. Coming from a place of gratitude, gift-giving can be a holy thing, and when it’s from a place of our talents, may very well be the hope for the world we so desperately need.

But with the modern challenge around secular consumerism and it’s impact on this Holy day, I wonder something else too: When is giving gifts more for ourselves, than it is for the recipient? When do we give out of expectation, rather than desire? And what would the Christ-child really ask of us, if he could have spoken?

In our contemporary reading this evening, by the Rev. Lynn Unger, I think we have the answer in the words of the camels. “What would such a child care

for perfumes and gold?”… “We saw what he would need:  the gift of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way, making do with what there is, living on what you have inside. The gift of holding up under a burden, of lifting another with grace, of kneeling. To accept the weight of what you must bear.” For me, these are the lessons of Christmas. These are the gifts I think Jesus’ parents would have hoped for him, and what they ultimately taught him.

For me, the heart of the Christmas story, is not about the gifts, or even about generosity – two things we often think of this time of year. It’s about the lessons of hardship that can be overcome. It’s about enduring what is necessary so that what might be, can become. It’s the story of a man that was gifted with power – not the worldly kind – who was in fact born into weakness and frailty, poverty and a migrant life, living in a nation that was held by foreign powers – and through a life of vulnerability — despite inherent power – showed us all another way: how to lift another with grace and how to kneel when it’s time. We adore this child, not for his cuteness lying in a manger, but for his awareness of when to hold back, despite the power he may have.

The story of Christmas is likewise about the recipients of that grace. If holding back our power at times is a a sacred act, helping to lift those who are vulnerable, is likewise sacred. We often hear misleading stories of people who deserve their poverty; we hear misleading stories that suggest it is not to us to be our brother’s keeper. The story of Christmas corrects these as well. Sometimes, we’re in a place where we have gifts to give. Sometimes we’re in a cold manger needing help. God is found in both these places.

The Holy is found in both these places. This is the closing lesson from our camels in our contemporary reading. “Our footsteps could have rocked him with the rhythm of the road, shown him comfort in a harsh land, the dignity of continually moving forward. But the wise men were not wise enough to ask.  They simply left their trinkets and admired the rustic view.  Before you knew it, we were turned toward home, carrying men only half-willing to be amazed.” Sometimes we come upon the holiday as these wise men, laden with trinkets and appreciative of the quaintness of it all. Sometimes, we come upon Christmas as the silent camels, staring in awe at the wonder of creation – no words to share or say – just the willingness to be amazed. That’s the inkling of the holy, that which the everyday mystics call us to witness. This too is the gift of Christmas; this too is the gift of life. To notice the baby reaching “for the bright tassels of our gear” and to not let it be lost before the humdrum of the world. To pause long enough to appreciate the precious moments of life.

All of this, held in care, is the message of Christmas. May it bear a print upon who we are, knowing that it is to us then, that we commit the life and teachings of Jesus into our lives. We are told he was born, and he lived, and he died for these teachings. To feed the hungry. To care for the sick. To clothe the naked. To lift up the poor. To remember those imprisoned – however they may be bonded. This is to keep Christ in Christmas. Tonight is the start of his story. Tonight, we renew our pledge to hold these ideals deep in our hearts. And to return, once more, to a world lit by such a glorious star, in the darkest of nights.

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The Work of Christmas

This sermon was first preached on January, 5th at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It looks at Epiphany, the day the Wise Men finally found the manger.

I was gifted with a hand-made scarf a few months ago. It’s bright, multi-colored, but not too over the top. Brian purchased it on-line at a site called etsy, where hand-crafters make a living. The scarf looks so good that people stop me on the street to say, “hey, that’s a great scarf!” In fact, I get the compliment once or twice a day, every day. It feels great – people smiling. Strangers – smiling.

It started to feel a little surreal later when I would wear it and go into NYC. It was one thing for suburbanites to stop me at the grocery store or at the coffee shop. It’s another for insular New Yorkers to stop their sidewalk arguments and turn to compliment me. I swear – I’ve had people stop in the middle of a fight to turn and spread the good word my way. And the folks that stop me on the City street come from every walk of life in fact. The magic scarf has turned urbanites gregarious.

Then. One time when I visited the City this Christmas, I was walking through Penn Station and a woman came up to me and asked, “did you get that scarf online in October? I think that’s my scarf. I made that scarf.” The knitter was, in fact, from the right state of origin – (Virginia) and was the right name – (Caryn.) I complimented her work, and passed on the word that every single random stranger seems to love it, and we went our separate ways. What followed was feverish texting to Brian to share the strange news, and confirm all the facts because I still didn’t believe it. But she checked out. What was the chance that the knitter was 500 miles from home and just happened to run into the new owner of her craft – at the right spot  – at the right time – in Penn Station to say hello – and I didn’t just ignore her and walk away…. It was a real Etsy Miracle on 34th Street!

Now when I think about how disconnected we can become in an age of the internet; with folks living further and further apart; with families across the globe and neighbors not knowing one another’s names; and unchecked electronic devices that can make us feel alone at a party or over the dinner table – this kind of story gives me hope and a little perspective. The absurdity of running into that particular stranger when we’re both away from home in a city that has 18 million people commute through it every day, tells me that it is in fact possible to live in this world full of humans and choose to maintain and strengthen our connections with the people in our lives. If I can run into that particular knitter, we can make or maintain just about any connection – if we’re committed to it. But often, we’re not.

When we moved into our new home, we got to know the two neighbors on either side of us. And at one summer BBQ, we got to meet a lot more of the extended neighborhood. But more or less, we are quiet neighbors that have busy work lives and with the onset of the winter months, the casual day to day sidewalk conversations have happened less and less. We live on a curve in the road where the road forks. Well, when it snows like this past Thursday, the neighbor across the fork helps out everyone he knows. And by “helps out” I mean he owns a bulldozer. We never got around to making the connection with them when we moved in this Summer, and so he didn’t include us in his clearing out of driveways. Alas.

It’s a small point – and it’s not the reason to make friendships or develop relationships with strangers. But there are some real benefits of living in community and putting real work into developing that community. We can’t always make it happen with everyone, nor do we have the energy to necessarily do so with everyone we may wish we could. But usually there are more connections we could foster or maintain than we otherwise do. One neighbor knows all the ins and outs of all the rules and schedules in town. Others are fire chiefs, or nurses, or police officers. And one has a bulldozer. There are things that we each are better at than the other, and when we’re generous with our gifts – when we give what we are best at – and everyone else does the same – the community thrives.

It’s the principle of socialist structures like “the fire department” or “the snow plowers.” There are a lot of things I’m rather good at in life – but if you’re relying on me to shovel out Route 25, or carry you down a ladder, over my shoulder, out of a burning house – it’s just not going to happen. There are better people to rely on for those services. And that’s true for each of us. We sometimes buy a little too deeply the myth that we can do it all alone. I have a hard time remembering to take the trash out on Wednesday and Sunday – I’d have no clue when to plow the fields.

This is one of the disciplines of religious community too. We all come here for so many differing reasons. We’re all at different stages in our lives, and we all have somewhat different needs. But in congregational life – the building up of community is one of those disciplines we have to put some back into. I hear many stories here of people caring for one another in times of loss or times of need. People hosting dinners for the holidays for those who can’t or aren’t traveling. There are those who help keep our roof up, and our floor safely on the ground around here, or who care for our kids when we’re not around. Sometimes things are really bad, and the help we give means even more.

If you’ve been coming here for a little while now, or casually for years, challenge yourself this new year to make a new connection here. Coffee hour is a good start, but it’s not for everyone. Read through our laundry list of announcements when you have a chance and check out any number of the activities, services and groups we have open to all. You never know whom you’ll find who’s a mean knitter or owns a bulldozer just when you need. (And if you find the latter, get me their number.)

In the Christian calendar, today traditionally marks Epiphany Sunday. It’s the 12th Day of Christmas, as the carol goes, and it marks the day the Wise Men finally reached the Manger with their gifts after a long road from the East. They didn’t quite know what they’d find, and they didn’t quite know where they were going, but they were committed, and despite all the absurdity of it, they somehow managed to find that manger in the middle of nowhere. And the really, really absurd part of that story is after trekking through the desert on a road to nowhere, they came ready to share their gifts, not quite knowing who they were giving them to, or what would come of it. But they shared their gifts anyway – knowing deep down – that this sign mattered. Their story is the paragon of commitment and generosity. Two thousand years later, we still mark their journey, with celebrations, in our songs, and in our pageants. We teach our kids this combination somehow matters – it’s somehow noteworthy.

We often don’t focus on them though at this time of year. The Christmas season is over. We’ve absolved ourselves of the battle and let the stores redefine the season with toy-giving almost being the point – or certainly the high-point – of the holiday. I saw friend’s photos on-line showing drug stores on December 27th whose aisles already were ready for Valentine’s Day. Pack up one holiday and prepare ye the way to the next. But if we remember the magi story – we’re a people that have heard of the birth of a prophet – and now – now -we’re on the road to change our lives in light of the teachings that will come of him.

The core of those teachings we’ve heard once more in our chalice lighting and our choir songs. Howard Thurman’s poetic rewriting goes again “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 brothers, To make music in the heart.” The first of those five things are the core of Jewish and Christian teachings, and you would be hard pressed to find any disagreement about those teachings in Islam (which also sees Jesus as a prophet), Buddhism or Hinduism. The ethical drive in our religious tradition is to care for those in need. Whether they are sick, hungry, without shelter or warmth, and to free those who are bound.

That is the work of Christmas. That is the reason for the season. We celebrate the birth of this prophet because of the impact of the teachings of this prophet. And in commitment and generosity we honor the life of this prophet by doing our best to tackle these challenges. Like building relationships with those in our community, we may not be able to help with each of these, but our religious life calls us to try for at least some of them. This congregation has a strong, on-going and long-term commitment to many of these – as a congregation. Our community-based commitment to cold-weather shelter for homeless or migrant men – HIHI – is addressing a major need for shelter, food and clothing. This is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. Likewise, the other community based clothing drives that seem almost perpetual are addressing a major need – whether due to poverty or the all-too many families still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. This is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. Although individuals may be working on prison reform – personally I feel this is another area where are congregation has room for growth in our ministry to the community. This too is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. 

We can’t do it all, and sometimes we’re at a place in life where we can’t do one more thing. Or maybe we’re going through a time of crisis and need the help ourselves. There’s nothing to be ashamed about that. We all need help at times. We all fall under bad luck at times. If you feel like you’re in need of help, please reach out to me. This congregation will help as best as it can. This too is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. It’s not about gift-giving. It’s about community building. And it takes all of us.

  This month’s theme is commitment. I encourage you to use the new year to stretch in the best ways you can. To care for yourself a little better. To care for the world around you a little better.  And if you’re not in a place to take on one more thing – use this time to deepen your ties to the community that takes each of us to build up. Our congregation becomes more resilient the more each of us supports one another. Maybe we individually can’t take on the wrongs of the world – but in caring for one another maybe you’re giving another person the strength and resources they need to do so themselves. Religion is a team sport. Community is a team sport. Sometimes we make the goal. Sometimes we make it possible for another to make the goal. And when the stakes are health, wholeness, compassion, shelter, and justice – it only matters than someone makes that goal. Commitment to those goals. Commitment to building our neighborhoods – one relationship at a time.

And by the way, after I finished this sermon, I went out for our third round of shoveling to finally clear the driveway. We had about 1/3 more to go. The neighbor with the bulldozer saw us, took pity on us, and in 30 seconds cleared out what would have taken us 30 minutes. Sometimes we don’t do anything, and people are just plain kind.

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The Shepherd Who Stayed

This sermon was first preached for our 7pm Christmas Eve service in 2013.

When I was a child around Christmas time, I remember getting into my pajamas at night and laying down on the carpet of our den and listening to the 24 hours of Christmas. It was a radio station in my area that was taken over by the holiday – probably the same in many areas – that would play Christmas music straight through with no commercials. It was so important to me that I would ask my parents to record it on cassette tapes – a relic now from another time. Each year, I wanted to somehow capture the feeling of Christmas, and the little kid in me was sure recording the sounds of the holiday would help me to hold onto the spirit of the holiday a little bit longer.

There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from my childhood that is just a single panel long. The picture of the boy and his tiger shows them curled up asleep in front of the fire. The words read, “Christmas Eve — On window panes, the icy frost – leaves feathered patterns, crissed and crossed, but in our house the Christmas Tree is decorated festively, with tiny dots of colored light that cozy up this winter night. Christmas songs, familiar, slow, play softly on the radio. Pops and hisses from the fire whistle with the bells and choir. My tiger is now fast asleep on his back and dreaming deep. When the fire makes him hot, he turns to warm whatever’s not. Propped against him on the rug, I give my friend a gentle hug. Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” That closing line sums up the childhood feeling for me. I’m waiting for tomorrow to happen, but I’m also happy being here now – waiting.

In some ways I was already experiencing nostalgia alongside the childhood joy. But mostly I just didn’t want it to end before it began. I was excited about the toys, but I was also looking forward to the religious services. Midnight Mass was a powerful thing for me as a child. I felt like it was opening up sacred doors to view a glimpse again of something I was not here for – the first time around. Maybe you could call it the opposite of nostalgia – hoping to witness what had already happened. Pining for a time or an event we had never seen for ourselves.

As an adult though, I wonder if each of us doesn’t witness the scene at the manger after all. Maybe we touch the spirit of it, in between the silly and the serious, as our children reenact it at our pageants. Maybe we glimpse the Star of Bethlehem in our own way, as we light our candles to Silent Night. The rituals and our traditions bring us back to a time we didn’t get to see ourselves.

Sometimes though, we relive this moment in unexpected ways. I feel like some of us witnessed the Christmas miracle again just this past weekend. From Monday’s New York Times, “Like Black Friday shoppers, Ms. Campolucci and dozens of others began lining up on Sunday night, bundled up with sleeping bags, hand warmers and down jackets to fight the snow and wind. They huddled together with hot tea and coffee, ducking into running cars to warm up before reclaiming their spot in line.  

“We’re just waiting with bated breath,” said Amy Wilson, who is seven months pregnant and spent much of the night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. “We’re not missing this — it’s not happening.” 

Ms. Wilson said a marriage license would mean that she and her partner of seven years, Emily Eresuma, would both be recognized as the legal parents of their daughter, with each of their names listed on the birth certificate. In case they could not get a license, they had been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure that they would both be the girl’s legal guardians. 

After a cold night, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Eresuma married at 8:20 a.m. It was a quick ceremony in a stairwell, with Ms. Eresuma’s brother performing the rites.” For this modern family, a miracle occurred in the most mundane of places, a stairwell. The most fitting Christmas present I could imagine.

Those are the stories that give me that warm Christmas glow now as an adult. In essence, it’s the messages of hope and perseverance we encounter in the most unexpected places – and for the most unexpected people. Christmas is not about the risen Christ – that comes later in the Christian story. It’s not about power or privilege – unless we’re talking about how power is overcome or or privilege is let go of. It’s not about the heroes or the rulers. Unless by hero you’re looking to a mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road. It is in exhaustion and insecurity that Mary and Joseph show the world a different path to follow.

That’s the part of the story that resonates the most for me as an adult. Maybe it’s the opposite side of the coin that we get in the Calvin and Hobbes touching cartoon, but they’re both true. Sometimes we approach Bethlehem from the story of compassion, and sometimes we come to the manger from a place of loss – of hoping for hope. Both are there – both are worthy.

Our earlier reading, “The Shepherd Who Stayed” is yet another way to enter this story. “Thieves in the wood and wolves on the hill, My duty was to stay. Strange though it be, I had no thought to hold my mates, no will to bid them wait and keep the watch with me. I had not heard that summons they obeyed;
I only know I stayed. Perchance they will return upon the dawn, with word of Bethlehem and why they went. I only know that watching here alone, I know a strange content. I have not failed that trust upon me laid; I ask no more — I stayed.”
Sometimes we’re not called to goto the manger. Maybe we’re born of another faith, or no religious tradition at all. Maybe we see Jesus as a great teacher, a holy man, or a prophet, but not the son of God – or at least not any more a child of God than the rest of us. I don’t believe that keeps us outside the heart of the Christmas story. The story is not about believing any one thing. It’s not necessarily about being ready to travel across the world with our gifts of gold or myrrh. Sometimes it’s just about seeing, as the poem says, “The hillside seem(ing) on fire”, it’s about feeling “the sweep of wings above (our) head(s).” It’s leaving space in our lives for wonder, for awe. It’s about living our lives as we feel we need, with integrity, but making room to witness the moments of sacredness between all the moments of busy and fuss. And in those moments of sacred wonder, allowing the message to infuse our being. Allowing the message to teach us that salvation, or peace, does not come from power, or privilege. We find it when we value what the manger scene shows us – A mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road.

In the year to come, remember this night; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in tonight’s story. And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night.

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