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.
I won’t run from fear
That orange beast that stalks my sleep
Claws trying to drag hope
Back into despair.
No. Just no.
We have been here before
This time we fight
Like life depends on us
Because it does.
Lives of children
Lives of black and brown folks
Lives of queers and Muslims
Lives of refugees and women.
For the life of our whole planet
This green precious globe
Will not be ravaged
No. Just no.
Not on our watch
Not this time.
A nightmare chased itself
Round the bend again
The serpent eats its tail
Saying facts are for fools
This power is corrupt
As vile as slime
Seeping into our foundations
Weakening the supports
Before the house falls
Around all of our heads
Pity the sad souls
That chose a poisoned apple.
We have to wake up
We have to stay woke
Truth is stronger than lies
Love lasts longer than hate.
I have held a lot of different jobs during my life, but after that reading, maybe I should add spiritual bartender to list. Like many bartenders, ministers are listeners and we try to provide what our congregants need in terms of pastoral care and spiritual nourishment.
So, what kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for here? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical? Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini? Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer. Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit. We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism. It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.
Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing. Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. It is also very easy to trigger someone’s bad memories with a word or phrase. It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve. You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well. If you hate it, no one will force you to drink it, but let other people have their caffeine in a way that works for them.
It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here. Some people may want clear cut answers to all their questions and a set of beliefs that exactly match their own understanding of the world. Those folks might need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.
Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about church growth dynamics.
This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence. The easiest definition of a family church is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services.
Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families. Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. The board has very little actual power in a family church, but a few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group.
Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around. Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted. It can feel great! You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what!
How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.
In a family style church, people that show up, do the work, and who often also donate a lot of money have the most real say in what happens. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the entire congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote.” Families just aren’t very democratic, something Anne and I made clear to our kids, but new church members can take a while to understand how decisions are really made in family sized churches. It takes some time to be adopted and even longer to be known as a valued member of the family, someone whose opinion and feelings matter to almost everyone else.
As I said earlier, UUP has been a family church for years, and is, in fact, a very healthy one. You have had smart and dedicated leadership. You have had vision and courage. You have also taken some steps toward growing larger. Moving to this location was one such step. You also increased Rev. Mary’s hours until she was half-time and you gave her some authority as your minister. You hired me, also half-time, to help you decide what you wanted to do about the future.
I have said to you before that there is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.
I have now changed my mind about that.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was anything wrong with deciding to stay a small close knit family church, tending mainly to the needs of the current members, and just inviting in a few new people every so often, people that fit in and that like the way you already do things.
But our world has changed. We saw that when our attendance at worship right after the election doubled. Many people in our wider community are looking for exactly what Unitarian Universalism can offer. If we can have a truly open and inclusive theology, if our worship services are usually both deep and spirit-filled, we can help people renew their energy and soothe their souls so they can go back out into the world to do the work of justice. We could actually be a center, a focal point, for justice making in this community, and a real-life model for what the world could be if we all really lived according to our life enhancing principles.
I don’t think deciding to stay small would be an ethical decision in these times. Our town and our world need us too much now.
And I know that if I asked each of you, the vast majority of you would say that the growth of Unitarian Universalism is important to you and to the world at large.
But growth brings change and also requires change.
Continuing to function as a family church just won’t work if you want to grow.
The reason is a simple sociological truth.
The maximum number of people who can all know each other relatively well is roughly 50. If you want to grow much beyond that then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth. Your membership is in the 90’s but the average attendance at most worship services has been well under 50.
The way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading.
“The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.”
In this representative style democracy, the influence of some individuals will decrease, especially for those who are not on the board or on a committee. At the same time, the influence of newer members can increase because when the board of a pastoral church gets input from the membership, everyone is invited. It is one person one vote.
The board holds the vision of the congregation and works to fulfill its mission. The minister is both a member of the board and in an equal partnership with them in both caring for and leading the congregation.
In a pastoral church, the minister usually full-time, preaches at least 3 times a month and is granted full authority over all worship services so that there is consistency both in quality and grounding in our faith tradition. New people in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders. Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone. One person can easily know 100-150 people. 150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.
If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t also change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people will leave.
Change is not easy. All change involves some loss.
For those of you who have really loved being part of a small church that feels like family, where you know almost everyone, where you are comfortable, the idea of growth can be frightening.
So, what will need to change if you really want to grow?
Worship is one area. You have a fine worship committee, they understand worship and they work very hard. But some of the services you have can work against growth.
Sometimes you pass the microphone around during the service and everyone gets a chance to comment on the topic. Services like that can be great for a small group of people that all know each other well. It can increase intimacy for people that are already part of the family system. Even a less than stellar lay lead service can be heartwarming for the members that know and love the individual presenting. Both of those types of services, however, can be very off-putting and alienating for many new people. If you want to grow, services like that won’t work well anymore. Chalice Circles, our small group ministry, can fulfill some of need for intimacy, but not having it in worship would be a loss that most of you will grieve.
And then there is content. I have been asked if using “God” language is necessary for growth. The short answer is “yes.”
No one expects that everyone in the congregation will want to pray or will find meaning in the language of reverence, but excluding the spiritual, not talking about the great mystery of life in all kinds of different ways, including prayer and “God” language excludes people that are looking for that very thing in an atmosphere of acceptance and diversity of beliefs. If you want to grow, your worship needs to feed the spirits of people with a wide variety of beliefs.
We can’t turn hungry people from our doors, people that need us, people that we need. We need to offer them bread that will feed them.
None of us are here to hurt each other, but it is hard work learning how to be in a really diverse religious community. If we can accept and be gentle with one another here, we can heal some of the old hurts of our individual pasts, while finding the courage to really embrace diversity. It is part of how we can bring more hope and compassion into the world.
There is one more change I have to mention. At our last congregational listening circle, no one said their name before they spoke. The assumption was that “everyone knows everyone.” It wasn’t true that day and it definitely won’t be true if we continue to grow. Please say who you are and wear your name tags. You may know everyone, but everyone doesn’t know you.
The board will be scheduling a meeting after the first of the year to discuss issues of growth and some of the possibilities for a future minister after my time with you is done. I hope most of you will attend, to listen and learn from others, as well as to express your own opinions and preferences.
It was hard for me to do this sermon today, focusing on issues that don’t seem to have much to do with what is happening in the world. I do believe, however, that it is all connected. I believe that love is deep and love is wide. I will end with this poem I read at the gathering last Thursday, where people gathered to begin the work of creating safety for Petaluma’s diverse population. It is by Denise Levertov. I will read it twice,
For the New Year, 1981
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment
to send you.
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division,
will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
May we all share our small fragments of hope, may we all find the grace to meet fear and hate with grace and love. Always love. Blessed Be.