Posts Tagged Christmas

Fear Not

This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas morning, 12/25/16. It looks at the role of Angels in the Christmas Story with a special nod to some favorite childhood memories.

Merry Christmas! Angels are on my mind this Christmas. We’ve just sung a few songs that spoke of angels. The angels from Jewish and Christian scripture, are not the cutesy cherubs from Renaissance paintings. Scriptural angels tend to begin every conversation with the words, “Fear Not!” for although they are messengers and agents of good, they are also God’s presence on earth, and quite scary when they need to be. Eternity is both beautiful and terrifying – any of us who have stared into the deep oceans know that to be true.

When Angels speak, I know the message is both meant to be vitally important, but also to be one that shakes us to our core. The world will not be the same; something is demanded of us. We must change before the newness of the next moment. Change may be the one great universal source of dread for most of us – right? And angels mean change.

Even if we fear it, all change is not bad. In the Christmas story, the angels demand once more we fear not, for unto us is a savior born. …But the world will change for it. Hope, redemption, healing – all mean change – yet too often we fear it – that which brings us further into wholeness frightens us nonetheless.

I remember another story about fear, or overcoming fear. It’s a story from my childhood that returns year after year. Every Christmas I would look forward to Charlie Brown’s Christmas special. I related to Charlie Brown – maybe a little too much. He was awkward, and made a ton of mistakes. But had a lot of friends – who in the end usually came around – but along the way were sometimes kind of horrible kids. Without going into too much detail – I’ll leave it at – I related to that as a kid. Maybe I still do, and I doubt I’m alone here in that. The annual Charlie Brown Christmas special was all of that – ramped up a few notches. At a culminating point of the story, when Charlie Brown can’t get anything right, and the Christmas pageant is about to be a total wash – and the other kids are brutal to him, laughing and pointing – out comes Linus to remind us the reason for the season. Linus is the classic kid who has it together, more mature than the others in many ways, but is still stuck to his infant security blanket. He hasn’t grown past that yet.

The story begins in Charlie Brown’s moment of fretting:

“Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?!

Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” 

Now, in most ways it’s the traditional telling of the Christmas story – Linus’ words are almost identical to the translation of the scripture we use each Christmas. But what’s always been so powerful about Linus retelling the story is the moment where he cries out as the Angel saying, “Fear Not!” At that moment, Linus drops his security blanket – Linus never is separated from his blankie before that moment, and never since. But when the Angels, when eternity, is staring at you and saying fear not, we are called to something greater than our everyday selves.

What holds you back from the change that the birth of Jesus demands of us?

Christmas is a way of telling and retelling the story of a baby who’s name was Jesus. We sing songs about shepherds, and angels, and wise men (called magi in the stories) traveling to find him and give him gifts. We sing about a mother and an adoptive father. Why is Jesus so special – why are we getting together today to honor his birth?

(ONLY IF A LOT OF KIDS PRESENT) [(Tell me – what are some things that people believe about Jesus? What did he teach us?) (love one another, caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, visit those in prison.)]

He was a great teacher, a healer, and some people believe he was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. All of us here may have different views about all of these things, but as UU’s we definitely value his message of hope, of caring for those who are hurt, and being loving to all people as best we can. Just being nice, just being caring to our neighbor may sound like a really easy thing to do – but has anyone here ever had to deal with a bully at school, or an impatient person on line at the store, or ever had a fight with their mom, or dad, or son, or daughter (anyone here ever have a fight with their family?) – those things remind us how hard it is to always be loving.

But we also believe that with every child that’s born is another redeemer for this world. The “hope of the world” as he’s sometimes called, didn’t come from money or power, or comfort. He was born in a dirty barn, among a lot of farmyard animals. Simple Shepherds were the first people to visit him – the wise men, the kings won’t find him till later. His family was traveling and homeless when he was born – and yet he would become one of the greatest of teachers.

If each child that’s born is another hope for the world – what does that say about us? Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves, sometimes other kids, other people can be mean, and it’s easy to believe the lie – it’s easy to believe that we’re not important or special. The birth of Jesus is about many things, but it’s also about how very important we each are. Fear Not! It’s about how we are each called to try to make a difference in this world. How we’re to try to leave the places we go, better than they were when we got there. We won’t always succeed, but we’re born to do this.

The birth of Jesus, and his life, has inspired so many people across the 2000 years since his time – to make the world a better place; to lift ourselves up when we are down; to birth love where this hate and hope where this is fear. May we honor his birthday by promising to strive to live with compassion, with caring, with love, and with hope.

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The Blue Season

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16.  For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?

When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.

The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.

…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?

To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.

But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.

In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:

“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”

Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?

This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.

It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.

Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.

Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.

Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.

One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.

And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.

In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.

We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.

The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.

Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.

Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?

As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

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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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