Christmas – 2017

Merry Christmas!

Today’s “sermon” is a re-post of a talk I gave in 2012 to the Unitarian Fellowship in Nanaimo. Picture from the event by Russell McNeil.

The Dream

Back in the day –  when I was teaching – I usually had at least one teacher dream before each semester began. These dreams had certain features: I walk in to the classroom and everyone gets up and leaves or everyone is turned with their back to the podium or I am in the wrong room or….and like that.

On Sunday the 16th (2012) I am to deliver a paper for the local Unitarian Fellowship after which we are planning to get on a ferry and travel to Santa Barbara to have Christmas with our friends. So last night I had a “preacher” dream!
After driving around some unknown landscape searching for the fellowship hall Karen and I arrive and I am ushered offstage to a green room just off the stage where I am to perform. I am pacing around nervously waiting for the moment which finally arrives. I go on stage and immediately half of the large audience gets up from their pews and departs. I recognize the beautiful multi-coloured tile floor and know it is the auditorium in the Santa Barbara U/U church ( Iknow this because long ago when I was a student at UCSB I landed a great job as janitor at the Unitarian Church. One summer I came to see that the floor in the main auditorium had about 15 layers of grunge on top of some rather beautiful tiles and I worked to strip the grunge and reveal the beauty beneath). I reach out to place my several page paper on the podium and drop it to the floor. The pages flutter down like falling leaves and float to various places.

I try to pick them up. I notice they are pages from some other hand written ms. and not my  Jesus paper. What to do? I cannot remember what I had written. I decide to tell a story or two. I begin. Some woman in the back is talking. I go ballistic. I march down. I face her and ask, “Do you want to do the talking?” She withers. I am embarrassed. Angry. Frightened.
I go back on stage but now the podium is gone. I look out at the remaining audience. I want to get out of there.

Then I see my family looking back at me. Support and love shines from your faces and gives me the strength to launch into an ad-lib, brilliant sermon on the greatest story ever told.
Thanks, Guys!

The Unitarian Sermon

Reading: John Dominic Crossan

“Just because the Bible says “Jesus is the Lamb of God,” it doesn’t follow that Mary had a little lamb.”

The last time I talked with you was on April 1st when I argued that STORY is important to our lives and that we should live in such a way as to make our life a work of art. As the Christmas season approaches it is good to think about how Unitarian/Universalists respond to the birth of Jesus and to the story of that birth in the gospel stories. Many of us know that story from Luke:

READING: Luke 2: 7-14

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

I want to continue today with a fairly long quote from “Christmas: A Unitarian Holiday” by Rev. Meredith Garmon because it touches on a theme I want to develop concerning story and history: all history is story, but not all story is history.
Christmas is our holiday.

Unitarians made this season what it is.

What does Christmas mean?

Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy.

That story about Scrooge has become central to our modern conception of what Christmas is about.

That’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens was a Unitarian.

 Christmas means we put a tree indoors, and we decorate it.

It was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by Charles Follen.

Charles Follen was a Unitarian.

 

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs.

It means bells that jingle, and it means laughing, all the way.

That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by James Pierpont.

James Pierpont was a Unitarian.

 

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Unitarian.

“Watchman Tell Us of the Night,” is by John Bowring, a Unitarian.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is by Noel Regney, a Unitarian.

 

Christmas means the message of Peace on Earth, to all goodwill.

In 1849, a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote the words to “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”

With the war in Europe and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Rev. Sears wrote a carol that urges us to hear the angels sing of peace on earth, to all goodwill.

Sears was at the vanguard of a movement to understand peace on earth in social, community terms – instead of merely a personal, private peace.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time.

Many people said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian.

Yes, it is.

As I grow older I find my mind circling back on a few vivid memories from the past. One of my favorites is of a time when our family went to the zoo in Seattle for a Sunday visit. Our daughter, Margaret, was a little girl, still riding in a stroller. We went to see the apes and the lions, the monkeys and the polar bears.

“What do the monkeys say, Margaret?”

“Monkeys say, uhhn, uhhn uhn!”

“What does the bear say?”

“Bear says, rrroaar, rroaarr.”

We then were walking along one of the many paths, pushing the stroller and trying to keep Margaret’s older brothers from climbing into the fields with the ruminants. At one point we saw a water buffalo grazing in the field just on the other side of the fence that the boys kept looking at as a challenge to be overcome. As we stopped by the fence we watched as the water buffalo walked towards us, curious, I suppose, about this group of non-water buffalo. As it came closer Margaret was equally curious perched there in her stroller at the height of the first strand of barbed wire. It came right up to the fence. Its broad nose was almost touching Margaret as it smelled her to determine, I guess, if she were friend or foe, or food. The five of us stood there looking at the beast for several minutes. If finally made whatever determination it needed to make and continued its grazing in the field.

“What does the water buffalo say?”

“Says, woof, woof, woof.”

“Oh, no,” I laughed, “that’s what a dog says.”

“No,” she insisted, “ bufflo say woof, woof.”

I thought about that for a moment and then I came to realize an important lesson about reading the world. So much depends upon point of view. From Margaret’s point of view, down there close to the bufflo’s nose,  it did indeed say “woof, woof” – the sound of its breathing through those big silky nostrils. To my ears, four or so feet above hers, there was no such sound, and I also had some preconceived idea of what a bufflo should say! But Margaret simply reported what she experienced. She didn’t know what bufflo were supposed to say, only what that one on that day did say.

Later when I went on to graduate school to study literature I came to realize the importance of that lesson. Literature taught me again, what Margaret taught me that day in Seattle, point of view is important.

Just as a narrative structure is necessary for the story of Margaret and the water buffalo so is a structure necessary for any story. And stories, like other experiences, are both told from and “read” from a point of view.

A second quote: Whereas Providence has adorned our lives with the highest good and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us a Saviour who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order . . . with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him… therefore [it] is Decreed that the New Year shall begin on September 23…from a decree of calendrical change dedicated to Augustus Caesar.

OK, but Jesus’s birth is surely different. A virgin giving birth? Must be a miracle. What is a miracle?

Virgin births:There are at least a few dozen instances of stories of virgin births in history that I’m aware of, mostly of religious figures.

Eighteen hundred years before Christ, we find carved on one of the walls of the great temple of Luxor a picture of the annunciation, conception and birth of King Amunothph III, an almost exact copy of the annunciation, conception and birth of the Christian God.

Roman/Greek: Demeter and Persephone, Rhea and Zeus, Apollo

In Egypt, virgin mother Isis begat Horus

In Phrygia, Attis was born of the virgin Nama.

A nymph bathing in a river in China is touched by a lotus plant, and the divine Fohi is born.

In Siam, a wandering sunbeam caresses a girl in her teens, and the great and wonderful deliverer, Codom, is born.

In the life of Buddha we read that he descended on his mother Maya, “in likeness as the heavenly queen, and entered her womb,” and was born from her right side, to save the world.”

In Greece, the young god Apollo visits a fair maid of Athens, and a Plato is ushered into the world.

From Greece comes the virgin birth of Adonis, who was resurrected after being killed by a wild boar. Adonis was revered by the Phoenicians as a dying-and-rising god, and Athenians held Adonia, a yearly festival representing his death and resurrection, in midsummer.

From the Americas comes a remarkable story of the god-man Quetzalcoatl told by the Aztecs and Mayans. Not only did he have a virgin birth, but he was associated with the planet Venus, the morning star, as was Jesus. In addition, the religion built around him used the cross as a symbolic representation. Like the myths around Jesus, Quetzalcoatl said he would return to claim his earthly kingdom.

Mithra was a Persian god who was also a virgin birth, but was more than just a tribal god. Mithra was born in a cave and had twelve companions. Mithra’s birthday was also on December 25th. Both religions celebrate the resurrection at Easter. Much of what we know about Mithracism today came from the Christians. The prophet Zoroaster was also born of a virgin.

Perseus and Hercules all experienced virgin births after being fathered by yet other gods. Horus, Mithra, Dionysus and Krishna were all born on December 25th., their births were announced by “stars”, attended by ‘wise men’, involved humble birth locations, entailed the massacre of innocents and fleeing for safety from enemies, and so on and on.

A Roman savior Quirrnus was born of a virgin.

In Tibet, Indra was born of a virgin. He ascended into heaven after death.

In India, the god Krishna was born of the virgin Devaki.

Virgin births were claimed for many Egyptian pharaohs, Greek emperors and for Alexander the Great of Greece.

[For a discussion of several aspects of the Christian virgin-birth story, including speculation on origins.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/virgin… ]

All of these are stories told for a reason by humans with a particular point of view – sort of like Margaret and the buffalo.

The gospel writers also tell their stories from a particular point of view: Mark, who invents the literary genre, and is the first of the four to write has no birth narrative at all but concentrates on the later life and works of Jesus; Matthew gives us a fundamentally Jewish narrative placing Jesus in the line of heroes and kings, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen . .. and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations, and from their deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” He emphasizes both the human and the divine origins of Jesus. Jesus is the new Moses.

Luke, perhaps the most elegant of the gospel writers, presents us with two birth narratives: Elizabeth and John and Mary and Jesus. His story has a beginning, middle and end – a well-constructed literary work. The people of the first century responded to Jesus and to the stories of Jesus in many ways including these:

·       He’s dumb, let’s ignore him.

·       He’s lost, let’s leave him.

·       He’s dangerous, let’s fight him.

·       He’s criminal, let’s execute him.

·       He’s divine, let’s worship him.

Every one of us who has experienced the birth of a child – be it our own, [Steve’s birth] or our grandchild, or even the birth of a stranger – has known the wonder-filled holiness of that moment. No matter what words we would use, we have known on some level that the birth of a child is the re-birth of hope, of salvation, of the incarnation of Love.

 Within each child is the spark of the Most Holy, by whatever name we call it – God, Spirit of Life, Eternal Love; that is what is meant by the first UU Principle – “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Within each of us is the possibility of becoming a healer, a teacher, a “prince of peace” and a prophet of justice – just as Jesus did.

The season may feel to us like the holiest time of the year, but perhaps it really is no more holy than any other time that hears the cry of a newborn.

Please close your eyes now for a moment and try to remember your own mother holding you in her arms and also the first time you held one of your own children in your arms.

2 thoughts on “Christmas – 2017

  1. According to my sister, who knew about these things, the only trouble with the Christian virgin birth story is that if Mary had a virgin birth, Jesus would have been a girl. Perhaps that is where the miracle part comes in.

    Liked by 1 person

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