Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"A Quiet Christmas" - Sermon

A Quiet Christmas
         There are many reminders of this season. The carols, the Christmas trees, the cookies. And there are the folks collecting money outside of shops with their little red bucket and bell.
         The UU minister, Karen Solveing Anderson tells a story about her fondness for these Christmas bells and the ritual of collecting money for charity during the holidays. For years and years as a child, these bell ringers reminded her of Christmas time. And she got great pleasure tossing money into the bucket. Later as an adult she grew to appreciate the opportunity to practice generosity, sometimes several times a day.
         One year, she decided to join the fun, not just in giving her money, but giving of her time. She signed up with a charity to stand outside the local shopping mall and collect money for a few shifts. She was terribly excited to participate in this quintessential Christmas experience. For her first shift, she showed up at the mall and got some very discouraging news.
         Just before she arrived, the manager of the shopping mall had decided that the ringing of that Christmas bell was just too noisy. It was disturbing the people eating lunch at the restaurant nearby. The volunteers could stand there with their bucket and kindly ask for donations, but the bell ringing would have to stop.
         So in place of that classic Christmas bell, the volunteers were given a cardboard sign. On one side was written “ding,” and the other side read “dong.” In place of the charming childhood fascination of bell ringing and coin collecting, Karen found herself waving a sign that said “ding-dong” while passers by mostly ignored her.
         For four hours she flipped the sign in despair. Finally, ten minutes before the shift was up, she noticed a guy in black cowboy boots coming toward her. He chuckled at first, but by the time he arrived, he was bent over in full hysterical laughter. Not sure what this was all about, she flipped her Ding Dong sign with increased vigor. She was ready to kick him in the shins for the rudeness, until he said “I must say, I’ve never seen a sign like that before. Anybody that stands with a sign that says ‘Ding-Dong’ must be duly rewarded.” And handed her a crisp fifty-dollar bill.
         That encounter changed everything. It wasn’t the $50 bill that mattered so much, as the realization that her willingness to go out on a limb made someone really laugh.
         She says, “I now felt strangely in awe of my DING-DONG sign. I was unabashedly proud that I was stupid enough to stand in a mall tenaciously flipping a sign, waiting for humor and generosity to awaken someone’s humdrum spirit. Waiting for it to finally dawn on me that my gifts of generosity and time needed to lose their pretenses in order for any true generosity to occur.”

         Karen found that her pretenses, her preconceived ideas of how the holidays should be celebrated, got in the way of her enjoyment of the potential of this year’s holiday. She found that the moment not living up to her childhood dreams somehow ruined it, until she was able to let go. Let go of that particular vision of how things should be, and make the best of what is in this moment.
         For lots of us, the holidays don’t live up to anyone’s notion of what they should be. The song says it clearly. It’s the “hap-happiest season of all.” But the honest truth is, Christmas is much more complicated than that. The truth is, in the midst of the tinsel and the cookies, there is often pain involved in the holidays. It’s the pain of being away from family, the pain of being reminded of those who have died. It’s also a pain of confronting financial struggles.  
         For me, for most people I think, Christmas is a bittersweet holiday, a mix of genuine good times, and a sizeable helping of disappointment. That’s what I love about the poem that I read just a moment ago from Edward Frost. He writes

I suspect that the Christmas Spirit is Memory--
Personal, yet universal,
Shared collections of shards of other days
Pieced together in this season by common consent, …

We sing together at Christmas,
I and all my children. 

         And so it is. At this time of year, when memories flood our mind, layer upon layer of emotion and experience creates a tapestry of the present moment. We become all our children, as all the experiences of Christmases past sit with us still, all the joy and the disappointment sing with us as we celebrate another year, Christmas 2012.

         The poem reminds me of something I know I’ve shared with you at least a few times. It’s the story of one of my very few prized possessions. It’s a chalice that was made for me to commemorate my ordination.  

         This chalice is not a chalice of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, at least it wasn’t originally. I have certainly turned it into a Unitarian Universalist chalice in my own mind. This broken and whole chalice is originally comes from a Christian community, where they use one like this every week to serve communion.
         That church is called Community of Hope. It started in the late 90s as a mission to care for people living with AIDS. A very dedicated minister, a hero of mine actually, along with five other families, some gay and some straight, began to worship together.
         Their mission was to serve those most marginalized by society. They fed the homeless regularly. They taught GED courses to inmates. They traveled to Guatemala to help build houses. They provided housing for low-income families. And they dove into the HIV/AIDS crises, head on. At one point, this tiny congregation conducted an average of two funerals a month for people who died of AIDS.
         They knew deeply the reality of brokenness in the world, but they also knew that in the midst of that brokenness, each person who walked through their doors, each person that they served was whole and holy. At their very first worship service together, the chalice like this one became their primary symbol, a chalice that is both broken and whole.
         And that chalice has become a powerful symbol of my own life and theology. You will see it sitting in my office. It’s the way that I understand the complexity of our lives. Every person has inherent worth and dignity; every soul is sacred and worthy. But it is also true that every person, in some area of their life is broken with feelings of hurt, anger, loss, disabilities, addictions or a slew of other challenges. We are both broken and whole, throughout our lives. We are broken and whole at the same time.
         It is a paradox, two different realities, existing at the same time. Neither one more important or more true, both broken and whole. That paradox is never more apparent than the holiday season, when our expectations meet reality, and the layers of holiday memory pile one on top of the other. The delighted memories of childhood, the painful reminder of separations, and expectations for this year, whether good or not so good.

         Rather than continuing on about theology in the abstract, I want to take a quick poll of us gathered here.
How many of us are geographically separated from an immediate family member this Christmas?
How many of you are reminded this time of year of loved ones who have died?
And how many of you think Christmas is simple?

         There you have it, Christmas is complicated. And if you feel like it is, you are not alone. I think more than anything, today I want you to hear that you are not alone. You don’t have to pretend that this is the hap-happiest season of all if you don’t feel like it is.
         If you are struggling, if you are facing difficult memories or feelings of inadequacy, talk to someone close to you who understands. There’s a very good chance that they already know you are having a hard time, and they probably want to understand why. And if that’s not possible to bring it up with a friend of family member, you can always talk to me. I won’t promise to take your pain away. Your friends and family can’t do that either. But what we can do is help you do not feel alone in it.
         The unfortunate truth is there is no substitution for the relationship you are missing. Whether you are separated by distance or by death, there is no substitute for another human being that you care about. If there were, we could go to the shopping mall or a football stadium and feel like we were surrounded by friends. But, relationships are unique, and that is what is special about them. There is no replacement.
         But, that doesn’t mean that other people can’t bring new joy into your life. When we feel down, there is a slough of different ways of dealing with it. One very legitimate way of dealing with those Blue Christmas feelings is to find some distraction. In the Sound Of Music, as Maria sings “I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” Believe it or not, there’s some very good advice there. Of course you can’t bury negative feelings, but you also can’t wallow in them either.        At the very least spending time with other people this season is a distraction from what troubles you.
         But more than that, going to a party, getting coffee with a friend, putting up some decorations, whatever the activity is, it is a starting place to opening yourself for new joy. That’s the great thing about being alive, we can still honor the truths of Christmas past, and open our hearts to new joys of this year, this moment.
         In the darkest of times, we look to find hope somewhere. That’s what this whole season is about, in these shortest days of the year celebrating some sense of hope. For Christians that comes in the story of Jesus, for Pagans it comes with the turning of the year and the return of the sun.
         Sometimes in our darkest times, we have the energy to go out of our way and find some hope in the world. We can choose hope, and cease it. But sometimes even making that choice is too much work. Sometimes we need the blessing of hope to come to us, like a newborn child, like the return of the sunlight. Today we are trying to bring some hope and healing to you, in this dark time of year.

         This morning we are going to do something very different. As we sing our meditation song, the three of us will be offering a personal healing blessing. We will offer a short blessing of healing and hope for you in this challenging time of year. Of course if you are not comfortable with that, or if you simply don’t feel like you need that kind of support right now, please stay in your seat, and keep singing our meditation song. It is #1021 in your hymnals and the words will also be on the screen

         As I said, this is something new for all of us. I think it’s worth a little chaos to offer some hope to those in need.

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