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.

Argentine Unitarian Christians to hold first worship

If I’m reading the notice correctly, the Unitarian Christian Church of Argentina, in Buenos Aires, will hold its first worship service, for Christmas, at 7:30p.m. on December 29.

From their site, in its entirety:

Culto Navideño – Oración Vespertina
Los invitamos muy cordialmente a participar de nuestro primer culto como congregación cristiana unitaria a llevarse a cabo el próximo martes 29 de Diciembre a las 19:30 hrs en Carlos Calvo 257 (entre Paseo Colón y Balcarce), Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires.

A quick Google check shows the address is the Danish Church.

Three random thoughts:

  • While I know nothing about the minister — nor does he disclose anything, though customarily we recognize indigenous religious leadership — I have a hard time faulting anyone in Geneva bands.
  • Vespers is exactly the kind of worship I’d recommend for a new or small church having a Christmas service. It’s not too long but can scale with the judicious use of music, doesn’t need a sermon, and is less (over)wrought than Lessons and Carols.
  • My great-great grandfather was a Calvo, and perhaps a Carlos Calvo, but he was a Spaniard, not an Argentine publisher.

Blessings for them in this work.

A simplified Christmas service

A colleague — no names — asked around for ideas for a very simple Christmas service. Can’t help but oblige seeing as I’ve been there myself and — who are we kidding? — I love this stuff.

I’d have a reduced liturgy, described later, but having all the expected bits and concluded with a benediction. Twenty minutes, a half hours tops.

It should be solemnly joyous yet liturgically “vulgar”. That it, it should have little homespun, local touches and an ample amount of congregational participation, but with enough custom and direction to keep it from being a mess. The Thanksgiving harvest service in the form of a canned food offering is an example of this kind of action. If the congregation is small, shared “My Christmas prayer is . . . . ” might work, or setting up a creche at the beginning of the service, or a special exception to food in the meetinghouse (cookies!) passed out as people come in.

Ditch the usual sermon, too. Who has time to write something proper for the Christmas morning service anyway? Granted, I doubt the value of an original weekly sermon; rather I’d hear a really good one a third as often. There are a number of good, short Christmas meditations to fill that need. Does anyone have the citation for the Howard Thurman work from which the Singing the Living Tradition element was extracted? Do comment. If I find it first, I’ll append the citation to the bottom of this posting.

Then, take the “extra time” and sing, sing, sing. Either belly the congregation near a piano in the meetinghouse or adjourn to the parlor, but let people move or excuse themselves when the “proper service” is over.

Now that service. There’s a pretty good one in the old red Hymns of the Spirit, number twelve, but I’d strip out all the service music, the formal liturgical greetings (“The Lord be with you. . . .” etc.) and choose one, perhaps two of the collects (page 48) and never all of them.

It isn’t online but the related “red hymnal” service two is.

Morning prayer (lightened) from any number of sources would be a good alternative for non-Unitarian Universalists or those who can’t get the hymnal. The old 1960s Church of South India service number one is a robust place to start; I just discovered there was a 2004 revision which I shall investigate later.

If you have resources that would help, or directions that work, add them in the comments.