Posts Tagged manger

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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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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Sermon: The Still Point

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, NY for our annual 4pm New Year’s Vespers service on Sunday, December 30th. It looks at the renewal of the spirit and how that helps us to affect justice in the world.

 

My cat Dewey was helping me with my sermon writing this week. If you have a cat or a dog, you probably have been in the same situation before. I’ve settled down with my laptop on the couch to write. I’ve been away from my cat for two minutes too long, and he’s followed me from his comfortable perch nestled on my pillow. He jumps up on the couch, looks at me. Purrs. Rubs up next to me. Pauses to paw at my arm to show me exactly how it’s done – as if he’s saying “yeah, go ahead and pet me just like this, I’m sure you just forgot how, otherwise you’d be petting me right now.” Focused as I am, I absently give him some attention, but it’s not enough. He’s now up on the laptop, crawling up my chest, and planting his body in my face. At some point he manages to flip around – exactly how I’m not sure. In short, I have a fur-ball in my eyes, nose and mouth.

Now there are a bunch of ways to handle this. If you’re not a pet-lover, there’s going to be one unhappy kitty soon. But for the rest of us, you just have to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This little ball of life has got you by the face and is reminding you – life is happening right now, right here – and it’s not going anywhere just yet.

T.S. Eliot has a line in his epic poem, “The Four Quartets” that approaches this same lesson from … a different angle. “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” Now I don’t mean to suggest that Eliot’s referencing a cat somewhere between arrest, movement, ascent or decline – even if the image of not “calling it fixity” is very apt. (His cat poems come later.)

Rather, 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 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. Eliot’s “still point” is the lack of motion within every motion. Many of us know how to do the part of the dance very well, but find the part of being the dancer very difficult.

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 couples going up to their wedding day relates to this. All the work we do leading up to the wedding, all the logistical bits – planning the party, the caterer, the dresses, the flowers, the music, the ceremony, the guest list, the table eating and so on – are all rituals that we can really get lost in. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also all be a really intentional way of reminding us that for that short 15-30 minute wedding ceremony, we should be really present for it. We committed all this time, energy and focus over the past year 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 “I do” 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 (as T.S. Eliot writes in another section of the same epic poem) that we can return to for solace, for energy, or inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Those two words may seem like the same thing, but I believe there’s a difference. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to goto 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. Gratitude enables us to meaningfully act.

Let us return briefly to the words of Howard Thurman who we heard earlier, “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.” This holiday season we’ve stopped, we’ve celebrated the return of light, and the turning of the world. We’ve paused 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 religious call asks we begin again doing the work of Christmas; striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place. The work of Christmas isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating at Christmas – 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 resolution for us as religious people is to figure out how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison (or reduce the need for so many people in prison), to shelter the homeless. 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 that in reality is not essential – that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the work of Christmas 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 – all are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.

Mystically, T.S. Eliot’s “still point” echoes this. “Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” 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 of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.

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Opening Words for Christmas Eve

We gather this hour to celebrate the most extraordinary story birthed in the most ordinary of moments.

Where we find the promise of life within the face of a baby.

Where our heroes, a mother, a son, and an adoptive father are travelers, homeless, and resting for but a night.

We can imagine all too well a time, where the powerful fear a message of compassion, of peace, of simplicity –

when it is wrapped in dirty swaddling clothes, sleeping in a food trough among the animals and the mess of poverty.

A child born of a yet unwed mother, a father whose ties are solely love, and a lifestyle that can only be called migrant.

From the midst of vulnerability we learn a new way.

A love that moves our hearts,

a vision of peace in an age of violence,

and hope where one would never expect to find it –

begins in the quiet solitude of family,

with the meek of the earth,

with the people that must find another path,

knowing the principalities and the powers

can never satisfy the least among us.

May the Christmas story birth in all of us a sense of possibility,

a renewal of faith in the breadth of the human spirit,

despite all the failings of our world.

That with every child that’s born,

this wonder is made known:

We are given a gift that is our own.

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