The Challenge of Christmas
Christmas Eve 2018 · 8 pm
Audio: click here
We gather at this late hour
With only darkness to mark our path
A time when most days we would be
pulling the covers up
around our bodies
preparing for rest
Or, checking the day’s news
shaking our heads,
escaping into late night monologues or
the latest binge-worthy series.
Instead, tonight, we gather
unwilling to concede the day
offering ourselves instead to this possibility
of something new taking shape
in an ancient story, we believe
that it is not too late
for love to break through
to rise above
the noise of grief and fear,
performance and posturing.
as a habit of hope,
to give ourselves this
to slow down
That we might practice together
this paying attention
to make space here for
That we might wake up
even in the darkest night
to a whole new light
to kindle this fire, this flame, these promises, this story…..
There is room here
For everyone seeking shelter
There is enough of this earth to share
Enough love, enough shelter, enough life
For us to keep risking
In the journey
We are all a part of this good news.
Come let us worship, and
let us celebrate Christmas,
Lesson #1: “For So the Children Come” by Sophia Lyon Fahs (adapted Meghann Robern)
For so the children come
And so they have been coming
Always the same way they come
Created by our seeds, our souls, our love
No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where to find
The babe that will save humankind
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Parents sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end? Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping
Lesson #2: “The Nativity” by David Cole
The nativity story may be poetry and not fact, but then again, it may be something else. Perhaps it is not so much that the stories are untrue but that our own lives are untrue and the Christmas Story reminds us of who we really are. There is so much in us that is untrue to our real nature. Our selfishness often exceeds our generosity. Our narrowness squeezes our goodness. Our present is short of our potential. The nations likewise fall short of the promise. Wars, violence, hostages, and assassinations are a paradox to the promise of peace and goodwill.
But each December the sacred hope is reborn. Beneath our surface flaws lies a loving nature, divine in essence, and the nativity story brings forth the best within us. Nations pause and wars have been known to stop on Christmas Day. Scrooges become cheerful. The wonder of Christmas is that it reveals who we really are: saints in tattered clothing, children of God who hide from our divinity through most of the year. It is Christmas that is real and we who are untrue to it too much of the time.
We tell the story year after year to remind ourselves: the world’s best, last hope for peace must live in each one of us, for it lived in a small, helpless baby, poor and unwanted, lying in a manger on a cold winter’s night.
Lesson #3: A Retelling of Luke, Chapter Two by Rev. Amy Petrie Shaw
1 And it came to pass in those days that Central American countries were in turmoil, and word went out that people were going to flee to the United States.
2 (And this flight was first made when Trump was the President of the United States of America)
3 And many people fled the violence, some alone and some with their families.
4 And Joseph also went up from Tegucigalpa in the Central District within the department of Francisco Morazán in Honduras (because his house had been bombed and his mother and father murdered in their old age)
5 To seek asylum with María his pregnant girlfriend.
6 And so it was, that, while they were traveling there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son on the ground, and wrapped him in her own shirt, and held him to her heart, because there was no safe room to lay him anywhere.
8 And there were in the United States shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 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.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the heat of the desert a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes donated by Catholic Charities, lying in a cheap crib in a refugee center in McAllen, Texas.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto the Border, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, but the crib in McAllen was empty, dark, and still.
17 And so they asked about the child, and made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this infant.
18 And a refugee overheard their words and said “There were two named María and Joseph with my group in Mexico, and they had a child, but the tear gas struck them and they could not breathe. The child has died, and the woman too.
19 The child will not return for us to see.
20 And the shepherds went away in silence, uncomforted, and alone.
21 And in the darkness on the Mexican side of the border, the man Joseph used a rock to carve the names Jesús y María into a shattered board, the only tombstone for a child which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
22 Gloria in excelsis Deo.
If you are like me, the version of the Christmas story that Rebecca just read may have left you raw and aching, or maybe even angry. Why would we bring such sadness into a time set aside for joy and hope and love and peace?
Here’s the thing: whether or not we said it out loud, the sadness was already in the room. Maybe it’s sadness about the crisis at the border, or about recent losses, or about secret hurts that we haven’t even told anyone about. It’s impossible to live in this world for any length of time and maintain an unscathed heart.
This is a safe place for the brokenhearted. Breathe with me.
Joy doesn’t bloom in the absence of sadness, but in the aftermath,
When our tender hearts are touched by an act of kindness
Or a thing of beauty.
Hope’s light sparks in the midst of despair,
Like the bright stars in the night sky,
Like the candles we light, the flame we pass hand to hand.
Peace finds us when we turn inward in times of challenge and strife;
We create peace when we confront injustice
and heal the wounds of war.
And love, oh love, always woven together with loss,
Love’s inevitable price tag.
Christmas doesn’t come to banish our broken hearts.
It blooms through the cracks.
My brave beloveds, the great heart of the world beats in us.
It has kept a steady tempo throughout history,
And it will not let us down, no matter how bruised and battered
Our own hearts might be.
We breathe together.
Our hearts beat together.
And together, we go on.
Lesson #4 “Meeting the Messiah” by Jeffrey B Symynkywicz (sim-IN-kih-wich)
When we scale, at last, the walls
which our hardened hearts have built,
then we come face-to-face, finally,
with the blessedness of one another.
We see that these struggling fellow pilgrims
with whom we share this space
are no longer robbers, pirates, and thieves,
but deepest friends, most intimate souls…
To scale these walls of alienation and despair
means living our lives in truth, with justice;
neither denying the holy gifts of our hearts
and souls, nor hoarding them like miser’s gold.
It is the simplest call of all, in essence:
To open ourselves to God,
we first open ourselves to one another…
we turn and greet one another,
knowing at long last the simple blessing
of standing fully in the presence of another true messiah,
face-to-face with one like us: a beaming, holy child of God.
Lesson #5 “Christmas is Subversive” by Kendyl Gibbons
One of the great things about Christmas is that it is a sturdy holiday. Christmas doesn’t wimp out when times are hard – it comes anyway, even if there are hardly any presents, even when there isn’t much food to make a feast with, even if you’re sad, even if the world around you is at war, even if you are living in fear and danger and oppression, Christmas still comes.
And when it comes, Christmas is subversive. Christmas, with its story of an unwed mother and a doubtful father; with its legend of a helpless baby, born in a stable, who was worshipped by some of the wisest, richest men in the world; with its tale of the child pursued by the deadly wrath of kings, who escaped as a refugee to a foreign land far from home.
Christmas, with its ancient, enduring summons of peace on earth, good will to all people, everywhere. You can’t stop a day like that with a little hardship, or greed, or injustice. It will show up anyway, shining the light of a midnight star into the darkest places of our collective lives.
Do not underestimate the power of the manger, and the hope it holds. The Christmas song of the angels is not as innocent as it sounds. It has turned the world upside down before now. It still can.
Homily The Challenge of Christmas
There’s a question we have to ask ourselves, on a night when we tell this story that people have been telling for two thousand years, give or take. This story that prophecies the coming of peace, affirms human goodness and potential, and promises a better world…why hasn’t it worked yet? And if it hasn’t worked, why do we keep telling it?
One answer, of course, is that humans are thick-headed. We somehow missed the point. Or the message didn’t stick; we get all stocked up with Christmas spirit, it lasts for a few weeks, and then February cabin fever hits and our capacity for kindness frays and falls apart.
But another answer to consider is this: it has worked. This story, and the values undergirding it, have been working on our process of collective evolution for this whole time. Evolution is slow, friends! But if we pull our focus out, and look at the long arc, there is no question that it is bending, and it is bending toward justice (just as it was in Theodore Parker’s time, when he coined that phrase.)
Steven Pinker, who wrote “Better Angels of our Nature,” a book which makes the case that statistically we are becoming less violent, brought his argument up to date just last year, in response to allegations that things have gotten worse since the book was originally published in 2011. He wrote:
People always think that violence has increased, because they reason from memorable examples rather than from global data. If at any time you list the most violent places in the world, then you’ll discover that yes, it’s violent. That says nothing about rates or trends in violence. It’s only by looking at data on the world as a whole that you get an accurate picture of the trends.
He then went on to report that while “the number of battle deaths in these conflicts did increase from 0.3 per 100,000 people per year in 2011 to 1.5 in 2014, before coming back down to 1.2 in 2016, almost entirely due to the civil war in Syria,” we are still nowhere near the level we were during the 1940’s. Or the 70’s. Or the 80’s.
Deaths due to genocide are declining. Deaths due to homicide are trending down. Violence against women, violence against children, and executions are all decreasing as a percentage of population. These tragedies are all awful, and even one is too many. And yet, the statistics show the arc bending, and that brings comfort. And joy. Glad tidings of comfort and joy…
Pinker looks at global statistics and sees reason for hope. Meanwhile, we who live in this nation, in this moment, have a front row seat to all kinds of ugliness. I have said before that I believe we are experiencing the last great pushback before the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal structures finally collapse. It’s a scary and uncertain time, and it asks a lot of us.
But even here and now, there are signs of progress, if we pay attention. I was walking with Mac Cantrell the other day, and he shared with me some of the work he’s been doing with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. I had completely missed the fact that a bi-partisan carbon fee bill was introduced in congress at the end of November, the culmination of a decade of work. That’s huge! And the senate bill is in the works.
Another sign of progress? All the women and people of color and differently abled people and transgender and gender queer people who are stepping into leadership, stepping into positions of power. This is what social evolution looks like; more and more voices, more and more identities bringing their unique perspective to the table, helping us find a way forward.
Evolution is not pretty. Remember it works through mutation and death. In social terms, that looks like experimentation, risk, and failure. Progress is messy. But it’s also persistent. Inexorable, really!
But we are still needed. You are still needed. Your unique perspective, your voice at the table- we all need to lean on that arc to help it bend in the right direction. Every child born is another redeemer…that’s our faith, as Unitarian Universalists. Every one of us holy, and blessed. But also…every one of us is capable of blessing the world.
Jesus didn’t come to earth to fix things once and for all. Jesus and his radical, subversive, compassionate message helped bend the arc. His example inspires us to do our part in turn.
That’s why we tell the story, year after year after year. Because we’re not done yet. So we breathe together. We let our hearts beat together. We light our little candles. And we rededicate ourselves to the work.
Sometimes it is hard, but together, we can do hard things. Sometimes it is heartbreaking, but together, we can heal. Sometimes it is exhausting, but together, together, we find a way to keep on going. And those choices…to change, to heal, to keep on going…those are expressions of the Christmas miracle, whether they happen in December or June.
Or perhaps Christmas and those moments of courage and integrity are expressions of the same larger miracle, which is evolution, which is progress, which is the arc bending…which is love working in human history and in human hearts.
May we trust in that love, today and all days.
Lesson #6: “Fear Not” by Lynn Ungar
“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….”
Which is maybe a silly thing
for a creature made of wings and eyes
to say to a couple of schmoes
who were just hanging out with their sheep
until the heavens cracked open.
Who wouldn’t be afraid?
And who stops being afraid because
someone tells you?
And yet, “Fear not” is the thing
that angels say. Apparently.
An angel says it to Mary. And to Joseph.
“Fear not.” As if that would undo
the panic of the moment, let alone
all the hardship to come.
The story never says
if Mary or Joseph or the shepherds
were comforted by these fear-denying angels.
Likely not. But all of them moved forward,
did the next thing that was to be done,
which is about all you can ask.
And maybe when the word came from Herod
about smiting babies and they had to run—
maybe when all the daily terrors of life descend—
it could be good to have the angelic voices
whispering “fear not” all down the long road,
and reminding you about the tidings of great joy.
Lesson #7: “Now the Work of Christmas Begins” by Howard Thurman
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 flocks,
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 the people,
to make music in the heart.
Lesson #8: “Take Joy” by Fra Giovanni, Christmas Eve, 1513
There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!
Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, the angel’s hand is there.