Christmas sermon, 2016

This is (almost) what I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. from the lessons from Titus and Luke.


I’d like to think Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back into the pulpit this morning.

Merry Christmas to you all.

The Christmas story, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke, is so familiar that we might not hear the words. Even if you were not brought up in a church and are, say, under 50 years of age, there’s a good chance you learned this passage from Luke off television, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, in Linus’s staggering but guileless spotlight speech.

Mary and Joseph on to Bethlehem. No room in the inn. The manger. The angels and the shepherds: these are familiar and friendly.

But this year, it’s hard not to hear the words with renewed meaning, starting at the beginning of the passage from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

This was no simple census. It was a foreign intrusion and assertion of power from Rome. Resented, sparking the political movement of Zealots we would meet later, in Jesus’ ministry. Judea, his home, was then administered from Syria, the eastern reach of the Roman Empire, and later united with it. The holy family were vulnerable, and then threatened under Herod’s murderous rage.

The name Syria leaps up from this passage. Aleppo, an ancient city, existed then under another name, so with our new focus on Aleppo, it’s possible to imagine how it was for Jesus’ family in those days, or others like them. The terror and the dying. The wanderings and hunger. Living just beyond the reach of help, but shaped by powerful forces.

That was a time in Judea of religious and political radicalization which ultimately led within a matter of decades to the end of the temple, a radical transformation of Judaism and the end of an independent Israel until living memory. I need not tell you the state of the world today In this telling, the gospel crashes into today.

But, apart from a historical curiosity, what does that show us? That there is suffering always? Are we stuck with endless violence and suffering. If so, what joy is there in Christmas then? Or, put another way, apart from the celebrating, what gospel is there in Christmas.

First, it’s worth owning that we have a lot invested in Christmas, perhaps too much, which has little to do with that first Christmas. Christmas today is a magical, mysterious, otherworldly, amazing, terrifying, bewildering and perplexing time of the year. Its power is palpable and recognizable. I can’t think of another religious holiday in the United States that is so easily made emotionally and socially available to all whatever their religious beliefs. In some ways it is an all-purpose celebration of goodness and hope and that should be available to everybody.

This, on its own, has religious value. As Christians, we should look towards that time that in both now and not-yet, when will we be whole and God will be all-in-all. As with the Lord’s Supper, we share our feasting and happiness in thanksgiving and preparation for that Heavenly Feast before us.

But Christmas is the foundation of an even greater hope, if we can move past the conventions of the telling — the peppermint and snow-flecked trimmings — we see the world around us is not what it seems. The Gospel of Christmas is the direction, pointing us on the way we should go.

We already know in our hearts that the world is not as it should be, as it must be. The soul craves a world refreshed and transformed, and we must bear witness to it. This is the source of true and lasting gladness.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn to grow in confidence, knowing that our relationship to God is not from what we can provide God, but because of the relationship that God has initiated with us and which is manifested through Jesus’s life which we celebrate today, “we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

We have to remember that the Christmas story is not about one child who managed to attract God’s love and attention but as one child who leads us all back to God’s care. It’s also important how this happens.

The story itself is a story of a “reversal of Fortune”: a reversal of what is important.

Did God’s approved leader appear with strength and might, from a position of power, in a center of power to conquer? None of these happened.

Jesus was born to the Jewish nation, itself very small, and not in Rome, but far from the centers of power. And the promised savior appeared not as a political or military leader but as a newborn infant.

The hope of the ages is knowing that in our smallness, and our powerlessness, and our short lives, and that we might live richly and fully and yet without hurting or dominating one another.

(If you wonder why we gather in prayer the rest of the year, it’s to learn how.)

And yet we are not left alone. God dwells with us, another girt of Christmas. And so we live in hope, and with promises from God reflected in scripture and confirmed buy an inner voice of Truth.

If we are sad or distressed or perplexed or harassed, if we are troubled or menaced or persecuted or embarrassed remember that you are a child of the Living God and that God came to Earth to lead us through a child. And so we grow as children to adulthood with earnestness curiosity joyfulness and loving kindness.

So we celebrate Christmas, even if not in the conventional way. It’s not a prize for being good, but an orientation to how life should be, particularly when everything is going wrong.

The future does not belong to us. But it is before us. Let us approach it with a Christmas spirit: with kindness, love and boldness.

 

Need a Christmas hymn for your order of service? A song book?

Time again to point out the Open Hymnal Project, which has a special PDF booklet of public domain Christmas hymns, (direct link) and a ZIP (archive) file GIF (image) files of individual files that should make it easier for you to put individual hymns in an order of service, downloadable from the main page.

See this page for an index of available hymns, Christmas or not, from which you can download related files, including single PDFs and GIFs.

He Is Risen!

Christ is risen!
Khristós anésti!
Kristo leviĝis!

I would love it if we adopted the Paschal troparion, but we can, of course, hear it in another voice…

And sing, chant or recite an anthem found in our traditionEaster.

Rom. vi. 9, and 1 Cor. xv. 20.

Christ, being raised from the dead, dieth no more : death hath no more dominion over him.

For in that he died, he died unto sin once : but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin : but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christ is risen from the dead: and become the first-fruits of them that slept.

For since by man came death : by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die: even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Now unto the God of grace : for the might of his Spirit and the love of Christ;

Be glory in the Church throughout all ages: worid without end. Amen.

Happy Easter!
Alleluia!

“Away in a Manger” in a Universalist paper

Derek McAuley, the Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain, cites an article in the current
Evening Standard

I replied:

I had never heard that connection before, and I thought I’d heard them all. I got the citation from the associated Wikipedia article, and here’s a link to that volume of The Myrtle.

So, it would be interesting to see if there is any earlier citation. It would also be interesting if the poetry of the carol compares with one of the known Univeralist poets in The Myrtle

Selection_192

That said, the temperance songs on the next page are fun, if not so evergreen. Here’s the first three (of nine) stanzas of one.

Selection_191

So glad I don't preach Mother's Day

So, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. And I’m glad I’m not preaching. It’s an impossible gig. I’m really glad I’m not preaching.

  • You need to talk about Mother’s Day, as if it were traditional for churches and not a civil and cultural observance, so lacking many of the liturgical hooks that makes worship manageable.
  • You need to show how important motherhood is, particularly for those who have dedicated large parts of their lives to it, without minimizing those who did not or could not have children, or suggesting that this is the main end of womanhood.
  • You need to extol maternal love, but also recognize that some mothers are or were hurtful, abusive, or otherwise harmful.
  • You need to acknowledge the deathlessness of the love that often did exist without hurting those still mourning their mothers.
  • You may need to talk about the fact that we are all someone’s child, without harming those who lost their children.
  • You may recognize that some people grow up with no mother, but perhaps not without one or more fathers, at the risk of making motherhood a vague concept.
  • You can point out that Mother’s Day began as a peace action, but not without addressing the other points.
  • And you need to balance all these conflicts, and pray that this careful act isn’t undercut by some well meaning custom, like rose corsages. A custom that may be very well-loved by some.

So good luck, preachers.

And remember: Father’s Day is only a month away.

"Maundy"?

I’ve casually mentioned my plans this week to several people and almost every time I’ve been asked what I mean by Maundy Thursday.

  1. It’s today.
  2. It is the anniversary of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.
  3. And so it is the anniversary of the giving of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament or ordinance. It’s also known as the Eucharist, or Communion, or the Mass, or the Liturgy. The alternate term Great Thanksgiving deserves use, too.
  4. Some churches — I’m thinking of the Unitarians and Universalists here — who might not have the Lord’s Supper at any other time might have it on Maundy Thursday.
  5. It was especially beloved by Universalists, who would welcome members at the service.
  6. Some churches wash feet at the service.
  7. The term maundy comes from the Latin mandamus, “commandment” from Jesus’ new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)

How to make a palm cross

I watched a bunch of palm cross how-to videos, so you don’t have to.

My bias is to make a palm cross out of a single strip, and to have both arms, the head and of the foot of the cross folded back into the central knot. I think they look better, because they’re less flimsy and more evenly shaped crosses.

This video not only show this, but also how to strip and trim the palm.

Ash Wednesday resources

I was talking to a friend about Ash Wednesday services. They’re not my favorite — the ashes can be ostentatious, and it reflects a particular Western Christian piety that I don’t care for — but the service has become more widely observed in the last couple of generations, so I’d like to revisit three blog posts that might help those who conduct it.