Archive for December, 2017

Not Wealth, Nor Place, Nor Power

This Christmas Eve sermon reflects on the teachings of Jesus, the work of Christmas, and wonders about the Herods of today.


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.

The story of the manger, happens after the passing of the longest night. Often, we think of it in terms of the story of hope overcoming the darkest night. But the dark of night is given too little credit in our busy, frenetic world. The long nights of the year give us pause. The noise, and work, and bustle of the daylight hours slow to a contemplative pace. We’re more thoughtful in the dark, more tentative, more deliberate. This night, the dark is not a fearful thing, the dark takes on a hopeful, wise presence. Maybe the dark is always such a force, but on this night, our hearts turn so that we can rightly know it for its depth.

It’s a time of reflection, of yearning for wisdom, of making space for the important things – the important people – in our lives. The beautiful lights we trim our homes and our streets with, aren’t overcoming the darkness, the darkness is highlighting the beauty of our spirits when we are the most poetic, the most artistic. Awe and wonder are sometimes easier to see in the dark. …The stars the wise men followed, could only be seen in the dark.

So with all the sound and noise that easily distract us in our fast-paced lives, let us be present to the lessons of the dark of night, taught in this story from ancient times. At the time of Jesus’ birth, we hear a story of a ruler who is willing to sacrifice the infants of a town, to protect his own power and life of extravagance: The wants of the most powerful, taking precedence over the basic needs of the most vulnerable. The very birth story of Jesus is a clear repudiation of the false gospel of wanton greed, of baseless ego. Salvation is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The great and the powerful are the villains of the Christmas story, and take no part in the nativity scene.

The Herods of today… take away health care for low-income children, to afford extravagance for those who have so much already. As the baby Jesus lies in the manger this night, we are watching CHIP (Child Health Insurance) being defunded in the dead of night. Low-income families, much like Mary and Joseph in tonight’s lesson, will be turned away yet again, when they’re in their most need.

The Herod’s of today… take close look at the refugee children coming into their towns, fearful that they may signal the end of their reign of greed. As Mary and Joseph seek refuge for themselves and their child, we wait with the young Dreamers – children born in our country – fearful of being deported to a land they never knew, a land they’ve never even been to – wondering if our nation can become big enough to match its highest aspirations.

The Bible teaches these stories, not as a singular theological lesson separate from the world we live in. The bible teaches these stories, these stories have life to generation after generation, because they speak to a spirituality that is embedded in human community. The adult Jesus will teach us that however we treat our neighbor, is how we are treating Jesus. It’s so important a teaching, that it’s one of the few things he says straight out, and not couched in a parable. The baby Jesus, silently draws attention to his family, in need, who are turned out again and again from inns with no room for these poor migrant workers.

If we ever wonder what role we would have played in the manger story, we only need to look to how we respond to the refugee, to the migrant worker, to the child in need of care, to the poor just trying to get by in a world that closes door after door to them. If this is hard to sit with, if this is uncomfortable to hear, remember that the baby Jesus would grow into a man who made a vocation of making people uncomfortable; uncomfortable to inequity, uncomfortable to greed, uncomfortable to corruption of the powerful. He survived the Herod of his day, to teach others to notice the Herod’s of their day. The manger story happened 2000 years ago, and it happens anew in each generation. That is why the bible teaches this story, again and again.

And then the wise men came, the three kings from the East arrived toward the end of the story. Wealth, and power, and privilege would be the last to the witness the new birth, not the first. The three kings are mostly silent figures in the story, aside from deciding not to betray the young family, and turn away from Herod’s prodding for the location of the refugees in the manger. …Is that why they were wise, listening to the warning of the angel to turn away?

Earlier, we heard a poem, “The Riding of the Kings” by Eleanor Farjeon, that as best I can find was written somewhere in the first half of the 20th century. She lived from 1881 to 1965.  “And one was old, and one was young, And one was in between. The middle one had human sense, The young had loving eyes, The old had much experience, And all of them were wise.” And all of them were wise…the poet disconnects wisdom from human sense, from loving eyes, and from experience. Three traits many of us would consider marks of wisdom. “Oh, far away in time they rode Upon their wanderings, And still in story goes abroad The riding of the kings: So wise, that in their chosen hour, As though the world they filed, They sought not wealth or place or power, But rode to find a child.” Their wisdom was not in what they achieved, or what they might have been previously known for – their wisdom was shown in the central choice of the Christmas message: Not wealth, nor place, nor power. They sought out not what was fleeting, but rode to find a child.

May we once again this Christmas, return to quiet of the dark night. In the longness of this night, may we find hope for newness, birthed in the most unlikely of places. May we grow to be the innkeepers who choose not to turn away those in need. Where we are wise, may we seek not what is fleeting, but what is eternal. Merry Christmas.


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We Are Waiting

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/3/17 beginning the season of Advent reflecting on the everyday choices we make in the face of worldly greed. This takes a hard look at the pending Tax Bill before the US House and Senate.

“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” We heard those words earlier from our choir. John Mayer made them famous in his 2006 song, Waiting on the World to Change. From time to time, I hear folks use the song to reference a certain spirit of change coming from our millennial generation. And I’m so grateful for that and for the generation after me. Please, by all means, have at it – we need all of us to thrive. But Mayer is my age peer – two years younger; I’ve always felt a strong resonance with it, and this song has always felt to me to be one of the Gen X anthems – at least for my fellow Gen X on my end of the generation.

In 2006, when this song came out, I had just finished up 400 hours of what they call Clinical Pastoral Education at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. All the chaplains were on call from time to time throughout the hospital, but we all had a focus. My focus was Pediatric ICU, the CCU and the ER. Holding eyes with patients who were going under for immediate surgery; moving family away from some of the work they would not ever want to see; talking with a stranger who was suddenly and shockingly facing what they never imagined would occur on a random weeknight. The children’s hospital was amazing; kids who really had no hope elsewhere, would find hope there. The ER was frequently used as primary care for patients without health insurance. My role was purely pastoral – being a human presence in a place where so many practical things needed to get done, and not enough time in the day.

Being located up in the 150’s, speaking Spanish was a real need in some cases, and although my Spanish is weak these days from lack of use, it was worse back then. The story from last week about my trip to Guatemala, actually came about because of this time working at that hospital. A mom and her baby were trying to get urgent care, and no one nearby could understand her. I ultimately helped her find her way, but it took way longer than it needed to. It all turned out alright, but that’s not always the case. Right after CPE ended, I booked that trip to work on my Spanish. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.

That time working at the hospital rounded out another aspect of my community work over the years: access to health care. Before the ministry, I worked for a republican mayor in NYC, focused on using my tech, and public policy training, to work with a team that got affordable health care to an additional 80,000 New Yorkers that year – including any child being eligible regardless of income or immigration status. I had the challenge of doing the analysis in such a way as to not track immigration status, while still finding the kids that needed the care. The republican mayor didn’t want to risk turning our agency into an ICE office, and wanted kids not to die for reasons that could be avoided.

Now, I’m not going to talk politics about this – I’m lifting it up as a measuring stick, as a form of marker of the times. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could go from non-profit advocacy working to pressure a particular mayor’s office to improve on affordable housing, straight to working for that same mayor to implement access to health care. There was a certain practical, sensible civility that seems to have disappeared in recent years. And even more stunning looking back, that access to health care, came about because of Mayor Guiliani. A basic conservative value said, it was cheaper to care for patients with their primary care doctors, than using emergency rooms as primary care. That seemed to get lost over the intervening decade of sound bytes and media fueled culture wars. Common discourse shifted from nuance – to needing to be right, and more importantly, needing others to be wrong. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices. Do we seek to find what’s best for all our community, or do we seek to make sure others are just wrong?

Waiting on the world to change, and for a new generation to take the lead, won’t happen some distant day in the future. It happens bit by bit, day by day. The holidays are a time of year that many of us turn toward introspection. Although we can see with the brilliance of 20/20 vision what has come before, especially after much time has past, it’s the incremental living that adds up to a new world. Not all the things all at once, but the culmination of intentions by impacts by intentions. …Even one generation leading, is a misnomer. Our mentors lead, or inspire the change we bring about. Those of you who are teachers, are setting the stage for new ways. Those of you who are parents, or grandparents, can serve as a bedrock for the next generation. To the role models in our Fellowship, know that you are avidly being watched, and followed, probably in all that you do. (I hope that is more a source of inspiration than of trepidation. We need you to be inspired right now. Even with all the chaos of the world, it’s still ok to be inspired but what still may be.)

And it should be a source of inspiration! We will not accomplish everything there is to every accomplish. But if our kids and our kids’ kids, will someday lead the way, how that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow. So in this seemingly perpetual climate of avarice, greed, and hypocrisy, choose to act, live and grow in ways that build up a more just foundation for our neighborhoods.

We have entered the season of Advent; the season of waiting for the good word, that we know will soon arrive. A miracle of new birth, that we have done nothing ourselves to accomplish. We’re called to be attentive, to be open, to what new paths of hope, joy and possibility may soon quicken in our lives. This is a spiritual teaching, but it’s also a challenging social teaching, a challenging political teaching. 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? The season of Advent is not only about waiting for the arrival of the homeless boy seeking shelter in night. It’s about waiting to see what role we will play in the story – our story – this sacred story of life. How do we act, live and grow in our everyday choices. As news turns to news turns to news, we can rewrite the Advent story to be about waiting for Herod to find the baby Jesus, (for the Vassal Despot to find the middle-eastern refugee) or we can wait for our next lines that will help to birth a new world, to be the innkeeper that chooses to make what room we can. The innkeeper that said yes, to the family that had no shelter, may not be the hero of the story we teach about again and again, but they were certainly one of the many heroes in the story. The change we make doesn’t have to center ourselves in the story, to make a world of difference; often in fact, it’s the other way around.

In light of what is going on in the wee hours of the night this weekend, I need to take a small detour from Advent, but we’ll find our way back quite soon. We had two tax bills pass this week, that were written with such obscurity, that senators were voting without having fully read it, without the public being fully informed, and with financial reporting at places like Fortune magazine, saying it was potentially the largest wealth transfer in American history, from the poor and middle class to the super wealthy. As more reporting comes out this morning, this seems to be worse and worse. At a time in our religious life where we are focused on the teachings of the birth of hope for the poor, the weak, the hungry, the sick, lost and the refugee, our government is ensconcing the very opposite in our tax code. I’m heartsick. In biblical language, this is cause to don sackcloth and ashes, rather than garlands gay and singing; a time for less Fa La La, and more a time to seek communal repentance. It’s naked avarice, pure and simple.

I had a moment of fear, when I heard the news sometime around 1am Saturday morning. I was watching the feed live on Facebook. It means less protection for health services for our elderly, and our poor. Remember the health insurance for children I spoke about working on earlier in this sermon – that program costing about 15 billion nationally would be eliminated to give a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut to corporations. It means a ballooning deficit. For my generation and the next, the impacts from our student loans will skyrocket. Practically no reputable economist disagrees – and that’s just from what we knew of prior to the 12th hour adjustments that were voted on without being reviewed. It’s more than a tax rewrite, it’s a massive rewriting of our cultural fabric, and I feared it was already too late. A colleague of mine, Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, a UU minister serving in another part of New York State, publicly reminded many of us, “Just so we’re clear on how a bill becomes a law, the disaster that passed the House has to be reconciled with the abomination that passed the Senate. Then the resulting horror will have to pass both chambers again. This fight isn’t over.” …“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.

The choice for each of us, in this sacred season of waiting, is how will you be engaged? In our liminal spaces, where we are feeling stuck between what was, and what will be, we often understand waiting as a sort of passive, helpless state. Waiting with indifference may be that, but spiritually speaking, waiting can be a deeper path. Waiting can have a tenacious quality to it. In the Advent season, we are taught to tenaciously wait for the coming of the birth of the good news; that peace and justice will someday prevail. It’s not a possibility, but the end point in the Christian tradition, the culmination of the teachings of one of the world’s greatest teachers.

Joy and hope do not come to this world from positions of power, privilege or prestige. In the weeks to come, and the year to come, as we tenaciously wait for what will be – remember this advent season; 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 this great story of a helpless baby waiting for what would soon come.

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. Will you wait with me, tenaciously, and engaged?

And if engagement for you means organzing around this issue, let me know how I can help spread the word in our congregation. We have so many that work with our shelter, and supporting growing food for our town pantry, and for helping with immigrant accompaniment locally. Maybe that way of helping and leading is too much right now in your life. It takes all of us together to make a difference, and we can’t all do everything. But maybe organizing letter writing is a thing that you feel called to do. If that’s you, let me know, and we’ll move forward together. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” Everyday choices.

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