TOILETS AND GLITTER

A Christmas Eve Homily
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 24, 2016

Friends, I don’t know about you, but this season this year, I’m feeling pretty exhausted. For me it’s more of an emotional and mental exhaustion than it is a physical exhaustion. Physical work can be hard, but if it’s not extreme, there’s even a rejuvenating quality to it because with physical work you can easily see what’s been accomplished: the lawn mowed, the boxes moved, a fence built, the garden weeded, the field plowed, the dishes in the drying rack.

But emotional and mental exhaustion is different. There’s a weight to it that physical work doesn’t have, partly because sometimes it seems endless, and you can never tell if you just completed a task, or if what you’re thinking or what you’ve done is enough. And sometimes the emotional and mental exhaustion comes when the task feels overwhelming. That’s part of what I’ve been feeling since the election, and in some other areas of my life too, that feeling of things being so big they are overwhelming.

When racism, even our own racial bias, was already a hugely challenge in our society, how will we address it under an administration that wants to go back to the “good old days” of shutting people down, beating them up and throwing them out, or in jail, when they, or we, attempt to speak up not just about our civil rights, but our human dignity?

And when it was already a challenge in the atmosphere of this corporate society to address environmental pollution and degradation, how will we address it under an administration that doesn’t just have differing environmental policies, but doesn’t even believe global warming is a real thing at all?

And when loving one another was already a challenge, how are we to live with the diversity of our world when so much fear exists, and is supported by so much of the state enforcement agencies.

So I enter this space and walk through this time with a deeply broken heart. It’s a heart that’s broken from so many hopes that have not been realized, and pain from the feeling that no matter how hard I work at making things right, the world and relationships and politics are just too big for me to respond well too, with reason and intellect and compassion, and certainly not all those things all at once.

And then today on Facebook, a colleague of mine mentions on our UU minister’s Facebook page that her child was born one year ago on December 26, but that she and her husband didn’t get the news until the 29th that he was going to be theirs. They adopted him on the 31st. She recalled getting the email that there was a baby, and did they want to show their materials to the birth mother? She and her husband had just been devastated a few days earlier after a long wait and finding out we didn’t get chosen to parent a different baby. They almost said no on the 23rd, but then said yes, and proceeded to distract themselves with holiday stuff. They didn’t even tell anyone.

But a year later she is feeling really overwhelmed remembering how they had no idea how their lives were about to change, and getting ready now to celebrate their son’s first Christmas and first birthday with their giant family. It’s a mixture of feeling lucky and happy, and sad that they didn’t know a year ago that he was born yet, and sad for his birth mother, and yet at the same time thrilled to be a family.

And in the midst of my own struggles and heartbreak, I see this message from someone else suffering from heartbreak, and about to say “no” to life, but then taking a leap of faith and saying yes. “There’s Christmas in the bathroom,” says Robert Fulghum. “And therein lies the message…Christmas is and ever will be found / where it’s looked for. / Most often close by, most always very underfoot. / Hidden away in the cupboards of our lives / waiting to be rediscovered in a rebirth of wonder – / Waiting to be dumped over / our hard heads like blessing oil / Waiting to be scattered like red glitter / on the walls and hallways of dark December.”

It’s an old story, either told the same way every year, or in an attempt to tell it differently and with pizazz, it gets told in sometimes bizarre ways. But look at us. No, I mean really look at us. Here we are, many of us who say we are not Christian, many of us who say the Jesus story doesn’t have much meaning in our daily lives, and yet here we are tonight. And not just sitting here, but packed in here, just as we are every year – and clear out into the North Room as well. We must think we can find meaning here somehow.

I’m not in a place to promise you anything. I can’t promise you that your hard work will pay off. And probably certainly not in your lifetime. I can’t promise you that I, or anyone, knows the way forward. And I can’t promise you that everything will be OK. Because for many people in the years to come, things won’t be OK.

But I do know that under the cruel and brutal leadership of King Herod, a new light, and a new life was born. A life that, legend has it, came to teach the world about peace, forgiveness and grace – and a fierce love that would not die, a love that holds each of us, before we existed, while we are here, and long after we are gone. I can promise you that if you go looking for Christmas, in your cupboards, underfoot, or dumped over your head, you are very likely to find it.

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Mary’s Song of Justice: A Christmas Eve Homily

READING: Luke 1:39-55 (NRSV)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted [her cousin] Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Mary’s Song of Justice
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
Christmas Eve 2014

This is a beautiful night.  A bit miserable and unseasonal with all the rain and fog on a Christmas Eve, but beautiful even so.  We are here, we are with family, we are with friends, we gather together at this, one of our most well-attended services each year to be together in body and in spirit as we celebrate the end of the advent season, the season of waiting.  Like those in earth-centered traditions we are waiting for the return of light.  Like those in Buddhist traditions we come seeking enlightenment and the peace that comes from non-attachment.  Like those in Christian traditions, we anticipate the birth and rebirth of peace and justice as in arrives in the birth of each child.

And yet we Unitarian Universalists sometimes struggle with what to do with Jesus.  Most of us believe that his teachings are powerful, meaningful, and still relevant today.  At the same time, most of us do not believe that he was God, nor the son of God, at least not more so than any of us are also the children of an eternally creative and powerful universe.  So then what are we doing here on Christmas Eve, a specifically Christian celebration that honors the birth of a child who will save the world from pain and suffering?

Part of our answer comes in the form of the Sophia Lyon Fahs poem, “The Gift,” the one that Andrea Heier read earlier, with the line that says, “each night a child is born is a holy night.”  It is a belief not just in the potential brilliance and good work that a baby may do sometime in the future, but in our human work to grow in our efforts toward compassion.

In fact the hymn we just sang, “It came upon a midnight clear,” was written by the Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears, a 19th Century Unitarian Minister who served churches in Massachusetts.  This hymn is remarkable – and appreciated by many Unitarian Universalists – because it does not focus on Bethlehem, and does not mention Jesus anywhere.  Instead, it focuses on today – on the “today” of Reverend Sears’ own time, and on the “today” of our own experience as well.  Edmund Sears wrote the hymn in 1849, partly in response to the recently ended Mexican-American war.  Reverend Sears was a pacifist and abolitionist.  So his hymn does not focus on Jesus, but on the angels who sing their song of peace – if only we will hear it – particularly in the third verse as it is printed in our hymnal:

Yet with the woes of [war] and strife
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And [we who fight the wars] hear not
the love song which they bring;
O hush the noise [of battle] strife
and hear the angels sing.

For Reverend Sears, Jesus was neither a primarily historical figure nor a subject for “theological pugilism.” Instead, because of the consistent message of justice and peace throughout Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Reverend Edmund Sears saw Jesus and his teachings as an integrated experience in daily life.[1]

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has a similar perspective.  In the stories that come down to us, we don’t hear Mary’s voice very often – which is a little bit strange for someone who is supposed to be the midwife of Divine presence.  I suspect though, that that has more to do with later editors than it does with what she may actually have taught.  In fact, there is evidence that an entire Gospel of Mary existed at one time, which was never included in the four-gospel cannon that comes down to us today.  Even so, when Mary does speak, she speaks powerfully.

According to the story, angels appear to both Mary and her cousin’s husband to let them know they will bear special children.  Each time, though it must have been a little frightening to be instilled with a divine vision, the first part of the vision tells both of them, “Do not be afraid.”  Do not be afraid.  Hard to do in a time of great fear and anxiety, but deeply needed.

Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, eventually gives birth to John the Baptist, who foretells the birth of Jesus, and Mary eventually gives birth to Jesus.  But before that, before either child is born, Mary and Elizabeth meet and talk over their excitement and fear about the children they will soon have.  For both of them it is their first pregnancy.  Elizabeth, though, is old, and has been wanting a child for a long time, while for Mary, the pregnancy was quite unexpected, and in her joy, she shares with Elizabeth the song for her child.

We know that in many tribal cultures around the world, parents or tribal elders create a song for each child when they are born, a song that tells them how unique and special and brilliant each child is.  So too, Mary, in her tribal culture, creates a song for her unborn child as well.  This song of Mary’s has come to be known as “the Magnificat,” taking its name from the first line when Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

The most common interpretation of these scriptures is that this entire song is a praise song to the great Divine presence.  And certainly it starts out that way.  But there is much more to this song.  Remember who is singing.  This is Mary.  This is Mary, an unwed pregnant teenager.  This is Mary, a citizen of country that is occupied by foreigners, the Roman army.  This is Mary, who must travel many days to the land of her ancestors because that occupying Roman army has declared that she and everyone else in her country must do this so that the army can keep track of their subordinates.  This is a pregnant Mary, a person in a country where her people have little to no voice in governing of themselves.  This is a pregnant teenage Mary who must pick up every piece of their daily life at a moment’s notice and travel at the very end of her pregnancy to a far away city where she ends up giving birth in a barn.  I imagine that this Mary just might be a little bit angry.

So yes, as faithful people do in many faiths, and even as people do who reside in the gratitude of simply being alive in a creative and beautiful universe, Mary feels a sense of humility and praises the Divine life and love that moves within and among and beyond all things that created her and chose her for the birth of this child.  But at the same time, she sings a song that is more than just praise.  This Mary, who lives in oppression under an occupying army, sings of the work of justice she envisions for her child: He will show great strength, she sings, and will scatter those who feel pride and self-righteousness in their hearts.  He will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and will lift up those who are downtrodden.  He will fill the hungry with good things, and will send the rich people away empty.

This is not simply a meek and mild mother gazing at her adorable infant son, this is a mother demanding justice in a world of oppression.

This is the season of Advent, the season of waiting and anticipation. But it is not simply waiting, it is a planning and a preparation for the work of justice.  This season for mystery and wonder was never meant to be a season simply for joy and celebration.  It is a season intended to remind us of the birth and rebirth of justice and compassion in a world that so often lacks both.  The “Occupy” movement and the “Black Lives Matter” movement are not just secular distractions to our season of loveliness and quiet contemplation, they are part of the focus that we are called to as people of faith, we who say we value the inherent worth of each person, and who value the interrelated universe of which we are a part.

This baby whose birth we celebrate tonight is symbolic of every child born – which means too, when you think about it, it is symbolic of our own births as well.  This baby in the story had a mother who created a song about him because she believed in him and knew the power and brilliance that existed inside him,  so much so that when he grew up he could later teach, as he is recorded as doing in the 17th chapter of the book of Luke (17:20-21), “When he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This is Mary’s song for her son, and this is our song for the world: to recognize that the divine power of the universe is within us, and in the words of Howard Thurman, “To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart.”

Down through the ages, this is our song.  And this is the song we sing to our children.  This IS our song.  This is OUR song.

[Motion to the choir to come up and sing Howard Thurman’s words. Note: this video is not our choir, but it is the song our choir sang after this homily]

[1] The information on Edmund Hamilton Sears comes from two primary pages: http://uudb.org/articles/edmundhamiltonsears.html and http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/8732.shtml