I wrote this back in May of 2006, during the Bush years. Little did I know I would need it again.
Wheel of Justice
The wheel is rolling backward.
Listen to the voices shouting,
In anger and in rage.
The soft sobs at the end of the day
Echo through the valley of despair.
The city streets are baking,
The countryside is gray with dust.
There is a heartbeat Somewhere.
Feel it pulsing.
A small sprout of green
Rises up through the cracked pavement
A sparrow drops a seed.
If we cannot stand it
Then we have to stand.
If we cannot stand
Then we have to crawl.
Don’t wipe the tears.
Let them run
Through the fields,
Water for the crops
That we must grow.
The wheel is rolling backwards
But that doesn’t have to be.
We will feel the good ache
Of holy muscles
Working with us,
As we place
Our shoulders to the wheel
Love is more
Than a valentine
A sunset beach
Or a fancy meal
Love is more than
Than a roaring fire
On a snowy night
Or dreams of sweet delight
Love runs deep
Flows on and on
It lives in all we do
Washing the dishes
Raking the leaves
Tending the children
We sing a song
Hearing our days drift by
We pray that love
Will grow and spread
To wrap the world around
Feeding the hungry
Caring for the sick
Healing the earth
The work of love
Is just what we must do
We talk about love a lot here. Standing on the side of love is one of our slogans. It is what it says on the stole I am wearing. It is how we describe our national social justice work for immigration, for racial justice and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. Love is part of our tradition. It is the doctrine of our church. Our Universalist ancestors believed in a loving God, one that would condemn no one to hell, no matter what they believed or did not believe and no matter what they did or did not do.
But what is this love we talk about? That is a complicated question. Most of you know by now that this congregation is not a place to come if you are looking for easy answers.
We are doing some songs about love today. The one the choir just sang is a fun one. Some of you likely remember the Frank Sinatra song about love being a many splendored thing. We aren’t doing that one today, but it goes…“It’s the April rose that only grows in the early spring. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living.”
The Greeks, who were quite excellent at philosophy, broke love down into four different types: Eros, a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic feelings,
Storge, (store gay) which is family or brotherly love, something you might feel for your children or your very best friend, Phileo, is the affection you feel for the people you like, and last, but not least, there is Agape, (ah gah pee) which is love in the verb form, an unconditional love that requires action.
The Greeks distinguished their forms of love not only by the qualities of the different types of love they were defining, but also about where that love was directed: to a lover, a family member, a friend, or to the world.
What they left out was love of self, which is an odd and significant omission I think. I have no clue as to why, except maybe it was just assumed that people love themselves. The Greeks were much less guilt ridden and prone to self-esteem issues than are people in our modern culture.
It is very difficult to love anyone else if you don’t love and respect yourself. Could we apply all four of the Greek forms of love to ourselves? Can we like ourselves as in Phileo? Other people like us, so it shouldn’t be that hard for us to like ourselves as well. Can we love ourselves like a close family member? After all, we know ourselves better than we know anyone else. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with self-love in terms of Eros. We are all sexual beings; passion is part of our nature as biological beings.
And then there is Agape, love as a verb, love as unconditional. Agape love directed inward is a form of radical self-acceptance.
It drives us toward spiritual health, and moves us to make the changes in our own lives that allow us to focus that Agape love on other people and on the planet.
And it is agape love that helps us love our neighbor, and we know that everyone on this planet is our neighbor. Agape also helps us feel love toward people we don’t like, and even toward our enemies. Both of those can be difficult, and it is important to remember that it is fine to set boundaries. Spiritual maturity can even mean that you decide not to be around people whose behavior is harmful to you or others. You can love them but you can also set limits on your interactions with them. Communities, and even churches, can also define what is acceptable behavior and what is not. That can be confusing in a liberal faith such as ours. We don’t judge people for who they are or who they love, and we say we welcome everyone, but we also don’t want to let pedophiles near our children. We don’t think it is ok to steal from the offering plate or another member’s wallet. We don’t think it OK to spread malicious gossip or to demonize other people.
Let me repeat that. It is not OK to demonize other people, even when their actions are really offensive. It is hard to do that when you are hurting. It can be hard not to see the other party to a conflict as having purely evil intentions. It is especially difficult when there is a serious power differential, say if someone is president of the United States. How do we love that person even as they do harm to others we love?
Agape love calls us to see differently, to remember that everyone has pain, and that most of the time, unpleasant or even evil behavior comes from pain.
Abusers have often been abused themselves. Limits and boundaries are important ways that can help us still feel some love and compassion, even for those who behave very badly.
Healing, reconciliation, restoration, is always possible. The God imagined by the Universalists loved everyone and they believed that everyone would eventually find salvation in that holy love.
So what do you think love is? Do you think it can be divided into categories like the Greeks did?
Some quotes about love:
Rita Mae Brown: “Sorrow is how we learn to love. Your heart isn’t breaking. It hurts because it’s getting larger. The larger it gets, the more love it holds.”
Marianne Williamson:”Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.
Lord Byron: “There are four questions of value in life: What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
Everyone, it seems, has something to say about love.
The minister who officiated at my wedding asked both Anne and I what we had learned about love what was then our 39 years together. This is what I wrote:
“What I have learned about love is this: it doesn’t come easy. It isn’t a happily ever after riding into the sunset with a prince or princess by your side. Soul mates aren’t magic mirrors reflecting back how you want to see yourself or them. Reach through the mirror, pay attention to the cracks. They are how the love – and light gets in. Leonard Cohen taught me a lot with that line. You aren’t royalty either, just a frog like other frogs. Life is the swamp can be lovely though. It is not necessary to sing every song in tune or dance in time with a perfect rhythm.
Marriage means so much more if you have been engaged for decades.
I know this from experience. Because engagement is the thing, one of them, that can make a marriage, a partnership work. Be real and honest and yourself. Listen carefully. Pay attention. Hold your lover’s hand, but don’t hold them back, and try to catch them when they fall. You will stumble too. Stay engaged even after you are married. I think that might be the key.
In any case be grateful. If someone really loves you, it is a miracle.
Love, like justice, does not come easy, but with enough grace, with enough effort, it comes. Engagement is the key, in marriage, in justice work, and in congregational life.
During our wedding reception, our daughter gave a toast that expressed what she had learned from Anne and I about love. It really moved me, and I am going to read part of it for you.
“Some of you might know that last summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail. It’s a backcountry trail that runs 218 miles from Yosemite, over 8 mountain passes to Mt. Whitney, all in the backcountry. This is something I would never have considered if not for the wonderful summers my mothers spent taking the three of us camping in Yosemite, in Yellowstone, in Glacier national parks.
One of the things I was thinking about as I was hiking, was my moms. I had called them from an outpost a week into the hike, and they told me that they had been officially married in California.
It’s good I had my moms to think about because while the trail was beautiful, actually hiking it was also the hardest thing I have ever done.
My backpack was too heavy; it weighed 45 pounds.
I had to clamber up these endless 10-mile inclines, up thousands of feet in elevation, to get to each peak.
And then I had to do it all over again. Those climbs were absolutely horrible.
But then, I’d get to the top.
And the top was unfailingly the most beautiful place I’d ever been, each peak more breathtaking than the last. There were turquoise alpine lakes, wildflowers, and snowcapped peaks, the whole world spread out below your feet.
And I realized, this is what I know about love. And I learned it from my moms. It is hard sometimes. It can be horrible. There are endless switchbacks and sometimes you don’t know if they’ll end, you’re not sure if you’ll make it to the top.
But you keep working at it, you put your head down and put one foot in front of the other and you make it to the top. And at the top is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.
And then you do it all over again.”
Her words made me cry when I heard them, and they still make me a bit teary-eyed.
All of us here have known hard times over the years. Life is like that. But even in the midst of pain, we know that life is better because of love. Love can make life better.
Love can make the world better. We just have to keep our heads down and put one foot in front of the other.
The road has gotten harder lately, but perhaps we are made for these times, times where we can move and march, sing and dance our way by the light of love, by a fire of commitment that will burn within our hearts. Keep your flames bright my friends, love will find a way.
I saw Fun Home last night at the Curran in SF. This song was the best.
I pulled out my old key ring this morning that I wore back when I looked like this (I am on the left – my wife looks pretty much the same 40+ years later.)
It made me think of the need we all have for more keys, especially when there are so many doors slamming in so many people’s faces. I am going to keep mine handy. Keys are great and also can be used in self defense in case of attack. Keep your keys in your hand, lace them through your fingers so you are ready if a new executive order comes down. Pray for the lights to come on.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you are not, they are listed in the front of your hymnal.
Our principles are guides for living, an ethical framework for how we are called to live our lives. They are what our member congregations have promised to promote. We care about the worth and dignity of all, about justice, equity and compassion, about spiritual growth, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the democratic process, creating an inclusive and world-wide community, and last, but never least, we have respect for our planet. All of those things are under threat today, which is why so many of us marched or attended rallies last week.
But why do we care about those things that are in our seven principles? What do we use in our searches for truth and meaning? How and why do we work for justice?
The answers to those questions are, I believe, contained within our six sources. The sources are also listed in your hymnals. They quite literally define Unitarian Universalism’s unique place in the world of ideas and world religions. I quote, “The living tradition we share draws from many sources.”
Living is a key word here, as well as is the word tradition. Our sources are from our history; they are where we came from. But even more importantly, they are what we can use to find out where we are going.
Sometimes our sources are listed simply as a series of nouns:
- Self (or Experience)
- Prophets (or Prophecy)
- World religions
The Rev. Paul Oakley has said that the verbs are more important; that the sources are also asking us to do things, specifically to:
Renew our spirits and be open
Confront evil with justice, compassion, love
Be inspired in our ethical and spiritual lives
Love our neighbors as ourselves
Be guided by reason and avoid making idols of ways of thinking, being, and doing
Celebrate life and live in harmony with nature
Oakley says our sources are not just history, but “the wellsprings from which we irrigate our vineyards, the cups from which we wet our parched mouths.”
These sources are incredibly rich, every single one of them.
I want to encourage all of you to look at them and think about them, long terms members as well as the new folks we welcomed today. Some of the sources may have little personal meaning for you at this time. That used to be true for me. But if you pay a little more attention to those sources that haven’t moved you in the past, I think you may be surprised at what you will discover. It is a living tradition after all. We need to give it ways and room to grow. The sources are the wells from which we can draw spiritual water. Sometimes one of the wells goes a little dry. A reservoir can be emptied or the groundwater from a particular well that has been over used may no longer quench our thirst. Check out one of the others when this happens.
The first source is:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
What does that mean? Several things I think. Revelation is not sealed. We are not a faith that believes that all religious truth was written down in ancient scriptures. Mystery and wonder are all around us. We need to trust our own experiences and our own senses. If we see a rainbow and think it is a miracle, maybe it is.
Many of us have had, in our own lives experiences which some would name spiritual.
There have been times where a deep realization of an important truth has left us in awe and wonder.
It is a knowing that not everything can be understood by the simply rational. It is a sense that there really are forces that both create and uphold life, even if they are forces that are beyond our understanding. This direct experience could be a sense of having a personal connection to God, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively theistic. One of my former congregants who defines himself as a humanist tells a story about the feeling he had when he visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC. He had a moment there when he realized that everything in that fabulous museum actually belonged to him. He was part of something much larger than himself. We should never discount our own experience of the world around us. This source reminds us to think, see, and feel for ourselves. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, but we don’t have to buy into someone else’s version of reality and we can affirm what is true for us.
The second source is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
Who are your heroes? Who has inspired you? It could be someone famous, but it could just be someone you know. Many members of this church community have inspired you both with their words and deeds.
There are awesome role models here, both in service to the congregation and in working for justice. This source also leads us to look at our heroes and who they were as well as what they did.
Did they confront evil not only to bring about justice, but did they do so with compassion and love? No one is perfect, but those who would lead us to hate others are not those we should try to model ourselves after.
The third source: Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
It was the transcendentalists, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, that studied world religions, especially those that valued direct experience of the divine, that brought this source into the mainstream of Unitarianism in the 19th century. They dipped deeply into this well, and so can we.
What do the religions of the world have to teach us? What spiritual practices from other traditions can give our lives more meaning?
Yoga, Buddhist meditation practice, the Hindu concept of Namaste, and the daily prayers of Islam, are only a few places we can go for help in our spiritual and ethical lives. This source is a place awaiting our discoveries. Most of us have not looked too closely at what the different world religions have to offer us. It is important to understand context, however.
If we simply cherry pick, we don’t do this source justice and may even be drawn into cultural appropriation.
The fourth source is: Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
This source is our immediate history and heritage. Both Unitarianism, the belief that God is one, and Universalism, the belief that God loves all of creation and that there is no hell; have their roots in very early Christianity, which of course in its beginning was a Jewish movement.
This history can speak very strongly to those of us who attended exclusively Christian Churches or Jewish Congregations in the past. Some of us loved the many inspiring messages contained in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Others of us fell victim to rigid and literal interpretations of those scriptures. It can help to revisit some of them with fresh eyes and open hearts
Our fifth source is: Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
This is the source that I think most helps to keep us honest. Whatever we believe and do must make some sense in the real and rational world.
Yes, we can have understandings of mystery that are beyond the realm of the scientific method, but it is dangerous ground to rely on something that is in direct contradiction to what reason and science tell us. Angels might fly, but we humans are subject to gravity.
The Bible might say one thing, but if science tells us the world is much older than 6000 years, I am going with science. Science and religion are not in conflict.
They should both be about increasing our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
That brings us to our sixth source, the last official one, which is: Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature
How can we not live in harmony with nature when we are part of it? This is the favorite source for many of us who have come to Unitarian Universalism from pagan traditions and practices. There are seasons to our lives just as there are seasons in the year. The need for harmony with nature is also in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as well as in the various world religions. Sometimes we just need to go up on a mountain and watch the sunrise.
Those are our six official sources, places where we can go for inspiration and for solace. Is anything left out?
What would you add to this list? It is not written in stone, we can add things to it, just as we can rewrite the seven principles. There is a democratic process to do that at our national assemblies.
The sixth source was added to the original five in 1995. There was also a proposal to revise the wording of the sources a couple of years ago. It did not pass, but it could have.
What would you add?
One I might add would be something about the arts, including music, poetry, and dance as well as the visual arts. Beauty, meaning, and inspiration can come from artistic creativity.
Paul Oakley said that, “We irrigate the fields not by worshiping the water but by doing something with the water.”
He is not wrong, but we also need to go back and drink from the wells that spiritual water comes from, again and again. Living is thirsty work.
We can’t afford to ignore any of these spiritual wells just because we might like the flavor of one of them a bit more.
We are an open minded and open hearted people. Our sources are rich and life sustaining. May we drink deeply and be satisfied.
The glass has shattered
But the ceiling holds
Rose colored spectacles
Are rimmed with blood
But still we can see
The sun shining
Beyond the poisoned skies
Hold my hand
My dear my love
Put on your boots
Protect your feet
As we move forward
Into a world
Of broken glass
To rebuild again
That song by Sweet Honey in the Rock (Would you Harbor Me), an a cappella group of African American women activists, almost always brings me to tears. Who would you harbor? As Unitarian Universalists, our congregations have long harbored some of the outcasts of our larger society – religious heretics and skeptics, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are the most obvious of the groups that have found shelter with us over the years. We have also provided a religious home for interfaith couples and their children.
Today is the Sunday closest to the Martin Luther King holiday, and I think it is even more important this year that we look to his example so that we can find the courage to open our hearts wide enough so that all who seek shelter can find a safe harbor with us. Would we harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew?
Our President Elect has said he is planning on having American Muslims register with the government. Will you be willing to register as a Muslim in order to help defeat this horrible and Un-American plan?
Becoming a Muslim is fairly simple, one only needs to say the Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith, twice, with sincerity. lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadur-rasūlu-llāh or in English: There is no god but God. Muhammad is a prophet of God.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with that statement of faith. As a Unitarian Universalist, my theology is grounded in a belief that if there is a divine presence in the universe; that presence is universal, open to all and loving all. Muhammad spoke of that presence as have many others that I would name prophets of that one light that guides us all toward justice and wholeness. So think, as the days before our new president takes office grow shorter and shorter, think about what you might be willing to do.
There is one thing that is, I think, critical for our survival in this new age, and that is holding onto our dreams for a better world. Our outgoing President spoke to this in his farewell address, but it is a truth that bears repeating.
Langston Hughes, an African American poet who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and also a gay man, had this to say about dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
I don’t want to live like broken winged bird.
We cannot let our dreams die, no matter how long or how hard we have to work to make them real.
Faith can help, as in our responsive reading this morning, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
We have all known despair. Even after all these years, Martin Luther King’s dream is not yet realized. People still need to proclaim that black lives matter, because too often, it seems that they don’t. The last election fanned the flames of the racial hatred that has always been a part of the American story. It feels like we are moving backward, not forward into making the dream a reality.
A song we did not sing today because it was a little too challenging musically if you don’t know it well, is hymn #149. You might want to look it up and glance at some of the words. Often called the Negro National Anthem, it is being sung this morning in most African American Churches and many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations as well. It is a song of hope, but it also names the despair, the hard times. The second verse in particular, “stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died, yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed. We have come over a way that with tears have been watered, we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” That verse references both slavery and the civil war, yet ends with a vision of a bright star of hope.
We are entering into hard times again, but the star is still shining if we look for it.
The Rev. Dr. King was not a Unitarian Universalist, although he and his wife did attend one of our churches for a time.
It was not an accident, however, that there were more Unitarian Universalist ministers involved in the civil rights struggle movement than from any other predominantly white denomination. Some of them gave their lives, most notably the Rev. James Rheeb, who died after being beaten by a gang of white segregationists.
Our faith tradition is one that lives in this world. If we had a Holy Trinity in this faith of ours, it would be Justice, Love, and Compassion.
Dr. King always tried to live his life guided by love. He was a visionary, an activist for justice, but most of all; he was a man of faith that believed in love.
He stood tall and he walked proud.
He faced dogs and fire hoses, and finally an assassin’s bullet, but he never lost sight of love. He reached out to both his enemies and to those that hung back on the sidelines.
Near the end of his life he also worked to end the Viet Nam war and he worked to end poverty. His life was not about a single issue.
Our faith gives us so much, a welcoming place, a place where we can feel accepted, where we can be free to be who we are, where we can follow both our heads and our hearts, where we can find a place to be whole. But our faith also is a demanding one, one that asks us repeatedly to keep learning and growing, and doing. It isn’t easy to walk our talk. It isn’t easy to live according to our values.
Unitarian Universalists worked to abolish slavery in this country. We worked for child labor laws, and for women’s rights. Many of us marched with Dr. King.
We have been in the front lines in the struggle for full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We are involved in immigrant rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But action can be risky. James Reeb and Martin Luther King were both murdered. Many others have also lost their lives in similar ways. But what is most important is not how they died, but how they lived.
We don’t have to be a James Rheeb, or a Martin Luther King to follow in their footsteps, to keep their dreams alive. Not just their dreams, but also our own dreams, and the dreams of our children and all who will come after them.
I want tell you some of what MLK said in a speech he gave, at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1966. It wasn’t one of his most famous speeches and it isn’t quoted often, but it was addressed directly to Unitarian Universalists and can, I think, speak to us today.
Dr King told us that the church needs to stay awake and be responsive to what is going on in the world.
“Certainly the church has a great responsibility” he said, “because when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.
“It has always been the role of the church to broaden horizons, to challenge the status quo, and to question and break mores if necessary.”
“It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs”
MLK changed hearts and minds. He changed the world. But he didn’t do it alone. Thousands marched with him, thousands went to jail, and many were killed, as he was, by violence.
Martin Luther King did the eulogy for James Rheeb, and in that eulogy he spoke of hope, saying he was not discouraged by the future, despite the heartache, despite the tragedy that was all around him.
He faced despair, a whole mountain of it. A system of segregation that many believed would never really change. But in his dream he climbed that mountain of despair and saw a vision of the other side. He carved a stone of hope from that mountain, one that kept his dream alive.
Many of us are in despair today. We are in despair over the state of the world, the wars, the impending environmental disasters, the racism; the massive scale of human suffering that exists all around the world.
Some of us may also be in despair over something that is going on in our own individual lives, a relationship gone bad, a health crises, a job loss, a need for housing, or for even a little bit of financial security.
We need to keep dreaming. We need to keep doing, to keep on working, making the effort, and keep taking the risks. The largest problem can be tackled, step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Work for justice. Do your part to help heal the planet. Ask for help when you need it. Dare to keep on dreaming. If we keep dreaming together we can make those dreams, those visions of a better world, of a better life; we can make those dreams come true.
I will end with these words by MLK
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We are part of that creative force that will find a way to keep bending that arc toward justice. May it be so.
The winds howl in outrage
As the rain pounds down in pain
Our mother sobs
As her body turns to mud.
The oceans rise in protest
The glaciers melt in despair.
We can hunker down
But we cannot hide
Umbrellas are not enough
To clean the poisoned water
To heal our wounded earth.
Our prayers may help
If they inspire us
To turn this storm around.
I know why they call it
The dead of winter
The Christmas tree still stands
But it is dry and brown
Becoming a fire hazard
Before our rusty eyes.
The presents are all gone
Nothing left to unwrap but fear.
Lights still shine in the houses
But we no longer see the star
That bright hope and promise
A newborn babe
Peace on earth at last
It seems like it was folly.
In this dread time of winter
We await the new year
Not knowing exactly
What it will bring
But it doesn’t look good.
Let’s go back to Christmas
While we can.
It is far too long to wait
For Easter morning
And Hope’s sweet resurrection
We need it now.
Such a wonderful story isn’t it? The young couple, with a baby about to be born, and they can find no room at the inn. The animals make room for them in a stable. The cattle are lowing. Mooing that is, I assume. Shepherds and wise men see a star and follow it, bringing gifts. Angels sing and fly about.
The Christmas story, as we have come to know it, is composed of two very different versions of the birth of Jesus that are told in the Gospels of Luke and of Matthew.
Mark, and scholars are in agreement that Mark is the oldest gospel, written about 70 years after Jesus died, and Mark says nothing at all about the birth of Jesus. Who knows what actually happened at the birth of this particular child?
But it is a wonderful story, one that has been added to and embellished over the years, as often happens with wonderful stories. The writers of the later gospels of Luke and Matthew added the shepherds, the wise men and the angels. All the different animals were added later. St Francis was the first; it is said, to include live animals in nativity scenes. And was there a little drummer boy there? Pa rum ba dum dum, I have no gift to bring –
The song about the little drummer boy was first written in 1958, but it is easy to imagine him there too, isn’t it? I loved that song as a child.
Placing more people at the birth site of Jesus in song and in story is, I think, a way of living out the central message that made Jesus such a remarkable teacher and preacher. God loves us all. Everyone is welcome. When we feed the hungry, when we donate clothing to those who need it, when we visit those in prison, and when we work to liberate those who are oppressed, we are doing just as he would have done. We are serving God because God is in each of us, including and perhaps especially, in those of us who are in need.
Christmas belongs to all of us. Those that would restrict it and define it too narrowly are just wrong. They don’t get it. It is too large to be shrink-wrapped into a state of mind that could even imagine being resentful of a sweet greeting like, “Happy Holidays.”
And this particular Christmas Eve is very special. For the first time in decades it is also the first night of Hanukkah. Jews and Christians around the world are all lighting candles tonight, candles of hope that sometimes burn brightest in times of great danger and fear. Muslims too are celebrating Christmas and the birth of the prophet they call Isa, born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary.
Much of how we celebrate is also drawn from ancient customs that drew meaning from what must have seemed like rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice. Many people celebrated the solstice just 3 nights ago.
With all of these varied faith traditions coming together this week, I think we might be getting a message from the expansive and inclusive spirit of the universe. Jesus, during his ministry, called upon us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was also named the Prince of Peace. Our task, my friends, tonight and in the days to come, is to keep working together toward a vision of Peace on Earth for all. With the power of the love inside each of us, we must keep the flame of hope burning brightly, so that justice will truly rain down like the waters and even the hearts of tyrants will be changed.
So, back to the Christmas story, I do think there were angels there, and shepherds and homeless folk, little drummer boys, wise men, and of course the queens. There were people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and faiths gathered there together around the manger, welcoming a newborn child.
The donkey was there, and the cow, and probably even the tiny lizard like the one that attended worship here with us one Sunday not long ago.
Each of us was there too, that Holy night, for the story is timeless and unending. Look into each other’s faces and look into the candle’s flame when we light them in a few more moments.
It is up to us to keep singing the song of Christmas, the song of the angels, helping the light of truth, of love, of peace to be reborn. May it be so.
The religious right has been going on for years about how there is a war against Christmas. If you make the mistake of saying “Happy Holidays” to one of them, you might get blasted. Heaven forbid you say something like Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Solstice, Good Yule, or Joyous Kwanza. It is rather bizarre really; because it is in fact corporations that are waging the real war against Christmas. They urge you to spend way more than you can afford and to get in fistfights over parking spots at the mall.
As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to believe that all religious traditions contain some truth, and that we can learn from them. We don’t feel we have a lock on the truth, or on wisdom or on goodness. Because of this we think it is a rather good thing to recognize and try to appreciate the various holidays of this season. So yeah, I say happy holidays quite a bit.
And I love Christmas, the real Christmas, and the one that came after the first war against Christmas. That first war was also about social justice, something that is also dear to my heart.
This morning’s reading from Dicken’s Christmas Carol raised some social justice issues, didn’t it? The two children were called “Ignorance” and “Want.” Doom was written on the boy’s forehead, for ignorance was even more frightening than want, than poverty. The ghost mocked Scrooge with his own words – “Are there no jails, are there no workhouses?”
It reminds me of the modern day war against the poor. We have even elected a predatory capitalist as our president. We roust the homeless from the streets and destroy their meager belongings in the process. Dickens hated the way the poor were treated in his society.
Did I mention that Dicken’s was a Unitarian? At the end of the story, Scrooge is saved from himself, by his change of heart and by his actions of generosity.
Changing your heart, opening yourself to joy, is definitely a Unitarian style salvation story. The Christmas carol ends as follows:
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. ….and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Dicken’s Christmas Carol is a classic. I have always loved it, and I am sure many of you do as well. It really is pure Unitarian Universalist propaganda. God Bless us every One, indeed. Yes, the inherent worth and dignity of all. The story teaches generosity, kindness, repentance and forgiveness. Scrooge is also saved in this world, not in the hereafter.
In a very real way, the Christmas celebrations we know today in the United States would not be happening quite the way they are without the efforts of Unitarians and Universalists. We saved Christmas, yes we did! It is very fitting for a faith that maintains that all are saved. Can I hear a hallelujah? Hallelujah is similar to rock on. Say that if it is more comfortable for you.
Now some of you may not know that Christmas ever needed saving. Our pilgrim fathers (along with the Native Americans who fed the starving strangers) may have been responsible for promoting the Thanksgiving holiday, but they were not fond of Christmas. They even went so far as to try and outlaw it. In 1659, a law was passed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that imposed a fine of five shillings on anyone found to be celebrating Christmas.
They were opposed to Christmas for several reasons.
It isn’t biblical of course. No one knows when Jesus was born and the puritans knew that. A Puritan minister at the time wrote:
It can never be proved that Christ was born on December 25. Had it been the will of Christ that the Anniversary of his Nativity should have been celebrated; he would at least have let us known the day.
The second reason is that they were well – Puritans – and they didn’t like the wild Christmas celebrations that were common in Europe, which included lots of drinking and well – rather shall we say rowdy behavior that was a very far cry from “puritanical.” They also rejected Christmas as a pagan celebration, which of course it was.
They were pretty successful for a time in outlawing it. Most people today don’t realize that Christmas Day did not become a federal holiday until 1870.
Unitarian Universalists were largely responsible for that act of Congress. I am indebted to the Reverend Richard Nugent, a Unitarian Universalist minister who a few years ago pulled together much of the history that I will share with you this morning.
The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, much to the chagrin of the surrounding clergy. The Unitarians began promoting Christmas in the early 1800’s. They didn’t believe that Christmas was the actual birthday of Jesus either, but they liked the idea of a family centered holiday and thought a special season with a tradition of helping the poor and less fortunate was a pretty fine idea.
The celebration of Christmas was the most controversial subject, second only to slavery, within churches at that time.
Liberal clergy like the Unitarians and Universalists, denounced slavery and promoted Christmas, while their conservative colleagues did the exact opposite.
The issue with Christmas tied into both theology and politics. The conservative religion of the time believed in original sin, believed that only some were saved, and even worse, believed that the state of your soul was directly related to your material wealth. No need for charity. The poor were damned by their own sin anyway. Dickens Christmas Carol with his bald statement that ignorance and want were the real evils was in direct contrast to the theology and social policies of his day. The solution to poverty was to punish those who were poor, to put them in workhouses or debtor’s prisons.
Christmas was the only time of the year when the poor could expect, even demand, some charity from the wealthy. The carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” references those times with the figgy pudding verse Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer: We won’t go until we get some; We won’t go until we get some.” The wealthy did not like this tradition of the unwashed masses gathering at their doors demanding both food and drink.
Unitarians were also responsible for creating or at least spreading several of our most popular Christmas traditions. Dutch and German immigrants first brought the custom of Christmas trees to the United States, but in 1832 Rev. Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister and a professor at Harvard College, put up a tree in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and decorated it. Follen remembered the German Christmases of his youth, and wanted to recreate that magic for his son.
He cut a small tree and decorated it with candles, eggshells, and other ornaments. Two women visited his house that year, both authors and Unitarians.
One was Harriet Martineau who was visiting from England and she wrote of the tree and of the gifts given to the Follen children. The other woman was Catherine Sedgwick. She wrote a short story about a Christmas tree that was published in 1836. Their writings helped spread the tradition of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it.
Another Unitarian minister, Alfred Shurtleff, is supposed to have been the first to put lights in his windows at Christmas. I wonder what he would say about some of the elaborate displays we now see. Even if it is only an historical rumor, I love the idea of a Unitarian starting the whole Christmas light thing. As the religion of love instead of fear, it seems very appropriate to have offered the joy of multicolored lights to this season. It even speaks to the beauty of diversity, doesn’t it? How dull it would be if all the Christmas lights were of one color only, and how sad if none of them twinkled off and on in the night.
Edward Sears, a Unitarian minister, wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” We will sing it at the end of the service. Please pay particular attention to the third verse. Sears lived through the civil war. His phrase “beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong,” is a clear call for peace and justice in this life, in this world.
In case anyone is starting to wonder, no, the 12 days of Christmas was NOT written by a UU – at least as far as I know.
But back to the antiwar message,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a contemporary of Edward Sears and also, yes, a Unitarian, wrote the poem about Christmas Bells, which is in our hymnal as #240 which we sang earlier. It was also written about the civil war.
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Peace on earth, good will to men. Hate is still strong today, isn’t it? It is why young men of color are being killed and why people have needed to be in the streets proclaiming that black lives matter. It is why immigrants, Muslims, GLBT people, and so many others are very afraid of what the new administration will bring.
The Christmas spirit as described by these good Unitarians of our past, is something that can help lead us to change our lives, to change the world for the better. And in keeping with our long-standing Unitarian Universalist tradition of changing with the times, and with new understandings, the hymnal words read ‘to all good will” rather than good will to men. Yes, being willing to change CAN be traditional!
Christmas really didn’t become popular, however, until one really important thing happened. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book, The Battle for Christmas, says that ‘a new faith (began) to sweep over American society.
It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but a newer and more worldly deity- Santa Claus.”
Santa Claus. A favorite character of adults and children was really created when a famous poem was written and published. You know the poem, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was read to me as a child. I have read it to my own children. I am sure most of you have read it many times.
Originally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, it may have instead been the work of Henry Livingston.
The poem with its Jolly Old Elf, the sleigh with 8 tiny reindeer, all of it contains the defining cultural creation of Santa Claus.
Now, Moore and Livingston were not Unitarians, BUT the book was illustrated by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was. Nast created the pictures that are how we see Santa Claus today. His engravings, 76 in all, were published in Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1862. He used many images from the poem, but also added his own ideas – he was responsible for placing Santa’s home at the North Pole, for instance. A nice idea that was, as takes Santa beyond the boundaries of any one country. He also created Santa’s elf helpers, and he introduced the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe to the United States.
Christmas imagery was furthered enhanced when another Unitarian, Nathaniel Currier, and his partner, Jims Ives, began making their famous Christmas lithographs
And last but not least in this litany of Unitarians and Christmas cheer, James Pierpont, son of a Unitarian minister and a church musician wrote the popular “Jingle Bells”.
So Unitarians had a really big role in creating Christmas, as we know it. But did they really save it? Can a holiday be saved?
Let’s listen to Dicken’s Scrooge again,
“Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’
His nephew replied, ‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!’
Christmas is a time to think of other people, regardless of their station in life, as fellow passengers in life. I think that is salvation. We may have to save the holiday again because many seem to have forgotten that it is not about greed, about plenty for some, salvation for some, about over-spending, or about arguing about whose holiday it is. It belongs to all of us. And even though, as Unitarians and Universalists, we helped create this holiday, we are with full hearts more than willing to share it with everyone, in the spirit of the season. Merry Christmas Happy Holidays and May God and the Goddess bless us all, each and every one.