Monday, December 26, 2011

Sermon - "Sharing the Light"

For Christians around the world, Jesus means a great many different things. And of course Christmas means a great many different things. For some, it’s a time to celebrate the birth of a savior. For most Unitarian Universalists, it’s a holiday of light in the cold dark winter. And it’s a time to celebrate the birth of a great spiritual teacher named Jesus.

But tonight, I want us as Unitarian Universalists to dive into the Christmas story in a deeper way. I want to dive into what it means for God to be born into a human body, in a cold dark time of year, born to an unsuspecting mother, a traveler in a foreign land without a proper place to stay for the night.

Every year when Christmas roles around and I begin to work on this particular homily I’m reminded of how rich and powerful this story is. The story of the birth itself is amazing and reminds us of the hope that rests in every single child born. But the piece of the story that I want to focus on tonight, is that God chose to be born this way. In the Christian tradition, God’s greatest gift to the world is Jesus Christ. He could have come at any time, to any person, glorious or humble. But he chose a cold dark night, and a young unwed migrant mother.

I’m not asking you to accept the details of the story. I am asking you to sit with me, and wonder what it means for the greatest gift to the world, to be born as human, fragile, vulnerable, in the cold dark night?

The power of this story is in its unlikely nature. One possibility is to point to all those details and be wowed my miracles. Another possibility is to be wowed by the simplicity. An unwed mother, travelers in a foreign land, few resources, sleeping in a stable on a cold night. All of these pieces that point to miracle, also point to the humble, to the earthly, the human.

It reminds me that the greatest gift that we can give is our humanity. The most precious thing we have to offer is the messy, humble, real humanity that rests in each of our hearts.

Just like you, I went to a few different holiday events this year. But one stands out in my mind as something special, something embodying Christmas in a special way. It was the pot-luck held at the Morris’ home. It wasn’t special in the way you might think. It had little to do with the food or decorations. It was special because of the pieces of humanity that were shared that evening. I talked with people about mental illness in the family, I talked with people about the struggle and hope to create a new life as a spouse fades in old age. I talked about the joys of parenting and the difficulty of navigating holidays after a divorce. And I was touched most of all by hearing one of our members say that this community is the only place in his life that he really feels accepted.

It’s no secret that the Morris’ have a lovely home and they throw a great party. There was plenty of food and wine. The Christmas carols were amazing. But something about this party resonated with me in a whole new way. I encountered people offering the gift of their genuine self. It was beautiful and I felt incredibly blessed to receive what was offered there.

These are the Christmas gifts that I’m interested in this year. This is the kind of giving that resonates when I hear the Christmas story. God so loved the world that he became born in flesh and blood of an infant child, to an unwed mother in a foreign land. He so loved the world that he offered the most sacred thing of all, he offered the gift of vulnerability.

You see giving the gift of ourselves is sort of like choosing what dishes to serve your guests on for dinner. Just go with me for a minute on this one. There is a choice to be made when you have gusts for dinner. Do you want to use the everyday cereal bowl… the one that you used this morning perhaps, or do you want to use the good china. It’s a choice that we make, if not with our dishes, then with our hearts. Do we want to pull out the valuable stuff, maybe dust it off, and offer something really special to the people who have gathered near. Or do we want to use the same old every-day stuff, the stuff that isn’t so rare, the stuff that’s much sturdier.

It’s true that we don’t get the most precious pieces of ourselves out all the time for every occasion. If we did that, they would be chipped and worn, and there would be hardly anything left worth enjoying about them. But if we don’t pull that nice china down from the cabinet every once in a while, if we keep our true selves hidden away, sure, they will be protected. They will sit there, safely in the dark. And they will never be enjoyed for the beauty that they hold.

If ever there is a time to pull out the special stuff and offer it to loved ones, it is Christmas. This is the season of giving, but this year I challenge you to give something more than boxes or bags. I challenge you to offer a little piece of your self, a piece of your heart, to the safekeeping of another person in your life. Because the real stuff that makes you human, the doubts and anxieties, the hopes and dreams, the mistakes, the joys, all of that messy stuff that makes us human, is the best gift of all.

This night, we gather to celebrate the story of the birth of a child. But it’s not just any birth. This is the story of how God chose to be born on earth in the form of all that is messy, all that is vulnerable and week and in need of support. This is the story of all that is good and beautiful becoming embodied in humanity. It’s that same beauty and goodness that finds expression in our messy lives. Our questions, our foibles, and joys and fears. They are the best stuff about us, and they are the best gift that we can share with one another if we choose to.

In a moment we will pass the light from candle to candle. As we do, as the room fills with a warm glow, I want you to remember that this light is beautiful, but it is only a symbol for the real gifts that we could share with one another. Unlike the material gifts that are sitting at home under the tree, the gift of our hearts is something that actually grows when we share it. Just like the candle flame that we share. Offering our genuine selves to one another is a gift that we can both give away and keep for ourselves.

The words of a lovely Christmas song sum up this idea. It’s called “Be a Candle of Hope.” The song says “Be a candle of hope, be a candle of light, a beacon of truth in a dark hopeless night. Share the light with a friend and watch the flame grow. The more light we give, the more love we’ll know. When you light another candle, you keep your light but give it away. Yet the flame grows even brighter as the darkness turns into day.”

As we move into the candle lighting and closing hymn, I want to send you with a challenge this holiday. I challenge you to let the best give you give this Christmas season not to be something that comes out of a box or a bag. Let the best thing that you give this Christmas season be a piece of your heart.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Sermon - "Hope in the Darkness" - Advent

The past week here has been glorious. It’s the perfect California winter weather. I love it, and I try not to talk too much about it to people who don’t live here. Wearing a T-shirt at the beach in mid December simply can’t be beat. I love it, and yet still somehow, I miss the sunshine. Still, in the midst of this winter paradise the days feel short now. The nights are so long. Darkness is a bigger part of our lives.

And somehow it always surprises me. Around Thanksgiving I start to feel a little down. I want to spend more time at home alone. I want to slow down. And every year it takes at least a week to realize. Oh yeah. There’s a reason for this feeling. It has little to do with me, or the people in my life. It has everything to do with the rhythm of nature.

This is a time of darkness in the Northern Hemisphere. It always has been and it always will be. It’s a time of darkness, and a time of hoping for more light. Hoping for something new. Maybe you have a simple wish for our personal lives, maybe a revolutionary vision of how Love will save the world. But it’s a time of hoping.

As you may know we have a monthly theme for our worship services here at UUFLB. It’s no coincidence that the theme for worship in December is hope. For many of us, Christmas and other holidays are a time of hope. But there’s more to it than that. During this dark month of December, we celebrate hope like a light in the night. You see hope always has a sense of longing to it, there’s something to be gained, some improvement needed. There is no hope in a perfect world.

Just last week we were talking about how for many people’s hope came in a sense of a promised land, a far off place that might offer a better life one day. You see hope isn’t wrapping up all your problems in a pretty package with a bow. It’s not the conviction that everything is perfect, or even that it will be perfect. Hope is not satisfaction, it’s longing. Just like a candle doesn’t have the same illuminating effect in the daytime, our sense of hope finds expression in the dark times, the challenges of life.

The Christians knew all of this when the developed the season of Christmas. Particularly when they developed Advent, which we are celebrating today.
Advent isn’t something that we don’t do much of in Unitarian Universalist churches. So I did a little research and I had a very helpful conversation with Rev. Elizabeth Recther at St. Mary’s. They are after Episcopalian and they take their ritual very seriously after all. What she said jives with what I know about Christian history, and really makes sense.

The first Christian holiday was Easter. By the time of Jesus’ death, there were enough followers for the community to already begin building at that moment. They knew when Jesus died. And they knew when the resurrection occurred. So, from the very beginning, Christians celebrated Easter. It was their one big holiday. Of course in Christian tradition, Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, and the promise of salvation for human kind. It is the main event.
Not long after they began celebrating Easter, some church leaders realized, well we can’t just celebrate salvation. We have to have some preparation, something leading up to it. So they began celebrating Lent for 40 days. Lent was a time of making atonement for sins. A time for fasting and purification. A time to prepare for the celebration of salvation.

Now Christmas and Advent are a different, but related story. It’s no secret that Christmas grew out of a pagan holiday. Most Christians freely admit to that today, at least the ones who take history seriously. The December 25th for Christmas date is based on the Roman winter solstice celebration. And the Christians came along and said, we have as Son that we worship too. So in the early 4th Century as Christianity was sweeping the Roman Empire, the Western Christian Church first placed Christmas on December 25. The Eastern Church followed shortly after. Over much of the word, December 25th became recognized as Jesus’ birthday. And they all celebrated the joyous occasion. Then they realized, like Easter, you can’t just jump into the celebration, you need some time to warm up to it. But Christmas and Easter are different holidays with different meaning. Christmas isn’t so much about salvation as it is about joy at the birth of Jesus. So the time of preparation for Christmas, Advent, was created to be a season of hope and anticipation. The Christians knew that to fully experience joy, we need to spend some time preparing our hearts with anticipation. So advent is a season of resting with that anticipation, longing, hoping, for a better world.

There are a lot of different symbols for hope of advent. The one we have here today is an advent wreath. The blue candles are lit on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. The pink candle is lit the Sunday most immediately proceeding Christmas to represent Mary. And the white candle in the center is lit on Christmas day and represents Christ.
And there are advent calendars. Now many of them for children have a little piece of candy or charm that they get to open, one section for each day. And there is special liturgy selected for the season. And the colors of the church change to blue.
There is a lot of powerful symbolism and ritual in the Christian church. They use those symbols well to embrace this period of darkness and waiting for the embodiment of hope. And there’s a certain power in waiting. It’s certainly not something that we celebrate much in our culture today. Patience. Maybe we need a 21st century metaphor for the importance of Advent. How about this, preparing for Christmas and the New Year, this season of hope, is like charging your cel phone. You can’t just plug it in, then take it out and go. You have to wait for the power to build up. To be filled. It takes time to charge a phone, and it takes time to prepare our hearts for the turning of the year.

So here we are, waiting in the darkness and hoping. But waiting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you don’t know what you are waiting for. As Unitarian Universalists, we are not waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ the savior of the world. I have a proposal of what we may be waiting for as a faith community. Rev. Mike Moran in Denver has created a list of things that he thinks compose a core Unitarian Universalist theology. I’ve decided I’ll be preaching on all of them this Summer. But today, in our season of waiting, our season of hope, I want to share with you one of those ideas of UU belief. It is a belief that “Courageous love will transform the world.” Like any good theological statement it is both vague and exact. Courageous love will transform the world.

It’s exact in the certitude of the statement and in the future orientation. Courageous love WILL transform the world. It is a statement of faith. Saying that any one particular thing will happen with certainty is a bold statement. And saying that it will happen to the entire world goes far beyond the normal sort of prediction.

What is also specific in this statement is the nature of the love that will bring about this force. Courageous love. Not simple or sweet love, or easy love. But courageous love. Love that risks being hurt, love that is willing to be a minority opinion, love that may not be easy to explain. Courageous love is the kind of love that has the power to make this revolutionary change.
And like any good theological statement it also has a high degree of ambiguity. He doesn’t tell us what love will change the world. He doesn’t say that love for the environment will help us turn back from a path of environmental destruction. He doesn’t say that love for our human brothers and sisters will lead us to caring more about everyone having enough food, than caring about building up a supply of fighter jets. He doesn’t tell us that love of justice will guide us toward more humane and fair forms of government. Courageous love will transform the world. He doesn’t tell us love of what. It’s my hunch that if love is going to transform the world, it’s going to involve all of these heart strings.
He doesn’t tell us what kind of love and he doesn’t tell us how it will go about transforming the world. This is perhaps the most important piece. You see the beauty of the statement, “courageous love will transform the world,” is that it invites each of us to interpret the statement on our own terms. AND it invites us to be a part of that hope for transformation.
Unitarian Universalism is a practical religion. If there’s any talk of hope for transforming the world, or salvation, then everyone has an opportunity to be a part of that hope, a part of that salvation. We’re not hoping something will be done for us, or something will happen to us. Our hope is an engaged one. Our hope is in being a part of the transformation that saves our world.
In these dark days of winter, there’s a certain amount of anticipation and energy. This week I have been thinking about what it might look like, if instead of anticipating the chaos of holiday commitments, or the gifts we might receive. What if we spent our time in anticipation of how courageous love will transform the world. It seems to me that that’s a season of anticipation truly worth celebrating.

Making religious / theological statements for our entire community is difficult business. I think Mike Moran has done a nice job with the conviction that courageous love will transform the world. It resonates with me and with our UU history.
But I want to get a little more personal. I don’t think belief or hope is something that can be just handed to you. Sometimes the phrase is used, “giving the gift of hope.” But that is really misleading. No one can be made to hope, any more than they can be made to hate. Certainly we can do a lot to influence one way or the other, but hope isn’t an object that you can just give someone. Hope can’t be given to someone who isn’t willing to receive it with an open heart.
So rather than trying to tell you what to hope for in this season of anticipation, I want you to think a little bit about your own lives and what your deepest yearnings are for the world. With Christmas and Solstice and the New Year just around the corner this is the time for setting new intentions.
So I want you to think with me, what is your hope for the world. What do you want to spend the next couple of weeks incubating in your heart? The only requirement, is that it must be something that you can personally be a part of. What hope do you hold in your heart this season?

Call them out. What is your hope? What are you wanting to see in the world?

Let us be bearers of hope for one another, and bearers of hope for a world in need. It’s not an easy task. But it is perhaps our most important task as a religious community. May our collective hope for the world be nurtured until it takes shape, until it is born, until it changes the world.