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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DEAR 605

NOTE: Every December, on the first or second Sunday of the month, I preach a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character. This year, since this will be our final Christmas season in this building before we move to our new one, I wrote my annual letter to the building itself. -Kent

Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 4, 2016

READING: Notes below taken from actual church Board Minutes and Newsletters
August 2, 1964: General Meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
Henry Norton reported on the negotiations and stated the price had been orally agreed to, but that the Wayzata Church could not commit themselves as to date until they had actually broken ground for their new building. The earliest date the building might possibly be available is March [1965]. It is the intention of the Board of Directors to acquire adequate facilities as soon as possible. The building fund drive will continue as planned. Further negotiations will be considered with Wayzata Church as well as investigating other possibilities.

November 25, 1964: Board meeting
New members accepted were David G. Opheim [and] Mary N. Opheim…

January 7, 1965: Letter to Membership
There is a good possibility that the Fellowship can purchase the Wayzata church in accordance with previously negotiated terms without the necessity of selling the 3½ acres of property that it owns on Minnetonka Boulevard. The Wayzata church should be adequate for the needs of our Fellowship over the next four to five years at which time other arrangements could be considered.

February 8, 1965
From Expression Newsletter article: STATE OF AFFAIRS AT AMITY
The membership of Amity has voted to proceed to hire a minister and to purchase the Wayzata Church building both by its near unanimous approval of the budget for the coming twelve months and by the encouraging financial support as evidenced by the results of the pledge canvass…Loan commitments are being sought so as to be able to complete the legal technicalities involved with the purchase of the Wayzata church now that both congregations have approved the transaction. Possession of the church will take place August 1.

February 24, 1965: Board meeting
Bill Merlin will act as our lawyer and has drawn up a purchase agreement for the Wayzata church, which will be signed by Joe Connell and himself contingent upon a mortgage of $13,500 at 5¾ %. We have received an oral commitment of a 10-year $5,000 loan at 6% interest from Unity Church [in St. Paul].

April 25, 1965: Annual meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
In a vote of the membership, congregation voted to change their name by a margin of 13 votes to continue with Amity Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and 47 votes to change to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka. An additional name was proposed by Mary Merlin: the James C. Reeb Unitarian-Universalist Church, but it failed to gain enough votes. Motion was made and seconded to amend the articles of incorporation to reflect the name change.

June 30, 1965: Board meeting
First Federal Savings and Loan has approved the Mortgage application. Closing date is August 1, 1965. Report of the Building and Lands Committee: Work parties were organized to begin working on different parts of the church between August 1 and September 12. Bids were solicited from stained glass companies for the cleaning and repair of the stained glass windows; John Prellwitz will paint the church sign; Bob Fetzek will make a new sign for the church property; Bill Hardacker will contract work to be done on the chimney; work is proposed on the driveway; classroom partitions being considered.

August 5, 1965: Board meeting at the home of Irene Chanin
Joe Connell reported that the completion of the church purchase had taken place on Friday, July 31, 1965. The amount paid to the Wayzata Free Church was 21,600.00 [including the purchase of the parsonage next door], with the remaining $400.00 being kept in an escrow account to pay for clearing of Title.

September 9, 1965: first Board meeting held at the 605 church!
There are some problems which remain to be solved – the problem of sound carrying throughout the building is the most urgent one. The furnace must be cleaned; a bid of $185.00 has been received. We have not as yet been able to obtain a piano: an ad has been placed in the suburban paper. Betty reported that there would be a new sign outside the church by Sunday [and] the church will be ready for occupancy on Sunday, September 12 [1965].

 

SERMON: Dear 605
Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

Dear 605,

Every year at this time, usually the first or second Sunday of December, I write a letter to a Christmas character in an attempt to explore more of their story than what we usually hear. So in the past I’ve written to Jacob Marley, Santa Claus, Elsa from the movie Frozen, Rudolf, and many others.

This year is a little different though. This year, this is our final holiday season in this building: our final Thanksgiving service; our final Christmas play by Jeff Hatcher in this building, our final annual Christmas pageant in this building; our final Winter Solstice service in this building; and our final Christmas Eve service here. It’s a momentous time. Ever since the City Council gave their final approval last May for our plans to build a new church, we have been charging ahead with great new energy, so relieved and so grateful and so full of vision and pent-up action and joy to finally be moving forward on this project after over a decade after this congregation voted to move.

And at the same time there is a weariness from working so long and hard on this project, and yes, a sadness in many of us about leaving this building. There are so many memories wrapped up here, many joyful ones and a few painful ones. So this year, rather than write my annual letter to a Christmas character, I thought I’d write this one you, 605, the building at 605 Rice Street that has housed this congregation for the last 51 of our 56 years in existence.

Today I brought my rocking glider chair from home to share this letter with you, 605, because I was inspired by a recent story from one of our long-time members, Nancy Johnson. During our Sunday service in October to honor the dead, you may remember that some of our long-time members shared some of their memories and stories of this place. Nancy grew up attending church in this building even before you housed us, 605, back when it was the Wayzata Community Congregational Church. You probably already remember this, but Nancy said her sister’s wedding was held in this church, and she remembers having church suppers in the basement because the kitchen was located down there back then. And then she said, “The furnaces were always a problem so the man who fixed them placed a rocking chair in one of the furnace rooms so he could be comfortable while he waited to see if they worked properly.”

dear-605-1

So this morning I wanted to sit in this rocking chair as I share this letter with you, 605. You see, our theme for the month of December is “Presence.” And when I heard Nancy tell her story earlier, and mentioned the man in the rocking chair, I was moved. Now, I have no idea who the man was, partly because it was so long ago and partly because he was someone from two congregations before we even arrived here. In fact, you probably know who it was. But I don’t even know if that man was sweet and kind or mean and grumpy [I learned from Nancy after the service that his name was Carl Linman, and he was very nice!]. To me though, no matter what kind of man he was, I know that he cared. Maybe he was the life of the congregation and was one of those happy outgoing people who was involved in everything. Or it may be that he was a quiet man who just knew he was good at mechanical things, and so, having faith in the congregation and the people who carried out its mission, wanted to take on one role he knew he could do – something he could do in a way that others could not.

So to me, it was a story of caring, of stepping up and stepping in when something needed to be done and a person knows they have the experience or the talent or the knowledge for it. For me, it was a story of presence. That man in the rocking chair – and others after him – was present with you, 605, all the while you were present with the people of the Wayzata Community Church, and then the people of the Wayzata Free Evangelical Church after them, and then our people after that, those of us in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka.

You, 605, have been a presence with so many people during your time. Of course, you were not the first one on this site. As the story goes, in 1881, twelve people who were concerned with their own unfulfilled spiritual needs, covenanted together to – as they described it – to “bring civilization to the wicked, uncivilized village of Wayzata.”

So in 1881 that group built a little wooden church on piece of donated property on the corner of the two dirt roads, Walker and Rice Streets at the top of the hill. The congregation grew over the decades so in 1912 they built a new church. Unfortunately that building only lasted for four years, because it burned down in February of 1916. But the congregation was resilient, and in addition to their own funds, and since they were the only church in town back then, they went through the town, soliciting funds from ALL the residents – which is partly why, I suppose, they have that name: Wayzata Community Church. In any case, in 1916 they rebuilt you, on the foundation of the 1912 building, and amazingly, completed construction in seven months during that same year. So this building that you are now is essentially the same layout and design as the 1912 building, and now you are just a few months past 100 years old.

It’s pretty amazing to think of what you’ve seen and been through. You were built just before our country entered World War I. You’ve been present through three congregations, two world wars, the Great Depression, the independence of India from Great Britain, the creation of the state of Israel, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the construction and destruction of the Iron Curtain, the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the following wars around the globe to fight terrorism, the election of our first black president, and most recently, the election of the least politically experienced president in the history of our nation. You’ve been present and witness to a world in its automobile infancy that was still largely dependent on horse power to a world that has sent men to walk on the moon and created tools to see galaxies far beyond our own.

You’ve seen quite a lot. And you’ve seen a lot of us, too. Us Unitarian Universalists. We may be the third group to be housed here, but we’re the ones who’ve been here the longest. The original congregation was here 32 years, the next was here about 12 or 13 years, but we’ve been here now 51 years!

After meeting for five years in the cafeteria of a grade school in Minnetonka, our congregation purchased you, 605, in 1965. And as I read it in our history, the people were so happy to get a new home to call their own, one where they wouldn’t have to set up every Sunday morning, then take everything down by  noon, and then gather in the homes of their members for every single meeting.

To our way of thinking, it’s also a little strange to think that our first minister, the Reverend Robert Brownlie, who was called here in 1966 – the year I was born – lived next door at 615 Rice Street, because back then, that house was that parsonage for this church. I always wanted to live close to the church I served, but never THAT close!

Much has been said this year about our time here, with our 100-year Sunday service celebration last May with the other two congregations, and the local paper write up of our history, and members who’ve shared stories and pictures this fall. I myself first saw you in the mid-1990s. I was the Youth Director at First Universalist in Uptown Minneapolis. I brought my youth group out here one time for a youth conference. And the next time I saw you was in 2007, when the ministerial search committee began to consider me as a possible next minister. That was a joyful time, for both the congregation and for me. And now, here we are, in our tenth year together – the longest relationship this congregation has ever had with a minister, and for me too, the longest job I’ve ever had.

We’ve gone through a lot in our time together too. Not only was it the five-year legal process where we sued the city in Federal court, invoking Federal law around the separation of church and state in order to build our new building, and then the last three years of raising money and working to design the building (which has taken an inordinate amount of time out of just regular, normal church life) but there’ve been other good things we’ve done as well: creating a congregational covenant together, hosting a social justice empowerment workshop that helped guide us in social justice for many years, the work around defeating a Minnesota amendment that would deny marriage rights to same-sex couples, creating new rituals like our Winter Solstice celebration, the delightful annual Jeff Hatcher holiday play, and the multiple-year process to change from an operational governance system to a policy based governance system. And now we are in the middle of rewriting our mission, and within the next six months we will move into a new building.

So I’ve come to wonder what wisdom you might have, 605, to share with us? I’ve wondered what knowledge or wisdom you’d have to share about how you might see things going on in our world today. I look up into these rafters and think about the people who built you, and what might have been going on in their lives one-hundred years ago in 1916, and I wonder if their lives, thinking about the World War that was going on, was vastly different from how we feel today, or if there is any remarkable similarity. You are not a mountain, but dear 605, you have seen a lot in your time.

You see, part of it is that I’m having a hard time. Ever since the election I realize that I’ve been grieving. As a colleague of mine, the Reverend Joanne Fontaine Crawford, articulated similarly, I feel I am grieving for the death of what I thought was my country. I realize this comes from a place of privilege, since native people and people of color have never had the experience of this country that I have – even today, as we gather in this beautiful warm sanctuary, thousands of clergy and laypeople from many denominations and over 2,000 military veterans are joining native people at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to join together in an interfaith Day of Prayer, called by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, to “unite for our children’s future.” Though not everyone can be there physically this weekend, they are asking religious people for support, to stand with them physically, or in spirit, and spend a day in prayer with them.

But I have always hoped for better. Even though I know my country has not always lived up to its aspirations and ideals, up until now I have always held those ideals as a guide, like the north star, and almost every work of justice I’ve done has been guided by both the human ideals articulated in our nation’s constitution, as well as the values and beliefs articulated by my faith. But now I am feeling deeply discouraged. I’ve seen the media be manipulated by a showman, and whatever dignity the presidency had, has been stripped away by a thin-skinned, petulant, crass, narcissistic, politically inexperienced and morally irresponsible man. And all, apparently, without regret.

I’ve always tried to be a pastor to everyone, to not take sides, at least not here in church, between one political party and the other. But this feels different. This is not normal. This isn’t Democrat versus Republican – what’s going on now is an attack on our religious values: that all people have inherent worth; that revelation is continuous; that we have promised ourselves and our world that we will direct our efforts toward creating a loving community with liberty and justice for all; and to honor the interdependent web of existence.

The attack on these things, or the destruction of them, is just not ok. I feel disillusioned, and even frightened, that we could be manipulated so easily to be our worst selves. So part of what I’m grieving too, is the myth that our country is “safe” from such things.

I am heartbroken.

So in this loving time of year, during a time in our congregational life when we are preparing to leave you, 605, and grieve your loss as well, I look to you for some wisdom, some lesson in how we may move forward with a sense of purpose and meaning, while holding on to our liberal religious values and beliefs.

One lesson I’ve learned from you, 605, is your presence. You have housed three very different faith traditions. You have witnessed a community church that was probably fairly in the middle of the road in religion, and then what was probably a more right-leaning evangelical group, and then us, on the far left of the religious spectrum. Even though people in our groups may not think they could get along, you have always been steadfast. You have always been here, offering hospitality for anyone who needs it. And for me, that is pretty much the core of any faith tradition. How they – the people who call themselves part of that faith, whatever faith it may be – how they express and practice hospitality.

Are they bitter and mean, joking about people who are not like them, people who are “too liberal” or “too conservative”? Or are they open to differences, in a healthy way that can both set boundaries but also be open to difference and unique life and belief and practice? We Unitarian Universalists say we believe in diversity, but we don’t always practice it.

So if there’s one thing this season can bring us, and if there’s one thing I hope you will be able to remind us about, even after we are gone from here, is hospitality. Though nothing is certain yet, it is looking more and more like a theater group may move into this space. It makes me happy that you will not be torn down, and that you will continue in your practice of hospitality, not just of religious groups, but secular groups as well. Your hospitality carries on and continues to inspire. Even after we move away, I hope we can stop by to visit, and maybe see a show. Thank you so much for your presence and your wisdom.

As ever, your friend,

-Kent

In the Bleak Midwinter: A Sermon in Response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings on December 14, 2012

Author’s note: In the fall of 2012 my son began kindergarten. On December 14 of that year 28 people were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, most of them children in kindergarten and first grade. Now my children are in 1st and 3rd grade and I walk them to school every morning. And because of that Sandy Hook shooting, to this day, every morning – every single morning – a small fear still raises it’s voice in my head, wondering if this will be the last time I will see my children.  Yesterday, October 1, 2015, yet another mass shooting (more than four victims) occurred at  Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In the almost three years since Sandy Hook there have been 142 mass shootings. 142. With at least one school shooting per week during that time. And still no laws have been enacted legislate gun use. Nothing has been done. I despair that if our murdered children don’t inspire us to act, then I don’t know what will. But two days after the Sandy Hook shooting I wrote and gave a sermon describing both my anger and despair, yet also pleading that we not become numb to violence, but keep our hearts open to love. Today, after yet one more mass shooting, I’m posting this sermon as a reminder maybe even more to myself than to others that the same thing is still true: being numb will not create change; but keeping our hearts open to love will.   -Kent Saleska


In the Bleak Midwinter
A response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, December 14, 2012
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 16, 2012

READING: Matthew 2:12-18
Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, [the Magi] returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

*     *     *     *

In the Bleak Midwinter
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

I am tired.  I am sick and tired.  I am sick and tired and angry of violence in America, of violence in the world.  I am angry at a shooter, I am angry at gun manufacturers, I am angry at the gun lobby, I am angry at politicians who defend and collude with the gun lobby.  In this hour, in the aftermath of this tragedy, I am angry and in anguish like Habukkuk in ancient Hebrew Scriptures who laments:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

The perversion of justice shows up so many places in our culture.  I am angry that some of our best computer minds are being used to create ever newer and more complicated and more realistic video games where the players, many of whom are children, rack up more points the more people they kill.  I am angry that violence is both glorified and deemed to be more appropriate to show on television and in the movies than naked bodies making love.  I am angry that access to guns is easier and more available in this country than is access to health care.  I am angry that the National Rifle Association continues to defend their gun manufacturers and their bloodlust with the childishly irresponsible mantra, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  And I am angry that so many people and so many politicians defend that mantra as well.

I am angry that people like former governor Mike Huckabee get to go on national television and say that we have so much violence in our schools because we have systematically removed God from our schools, and that as a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that our schools would become places of carnage.  These outrageously insensitive words are not just cruel and false, they also victimize the families of the dead with a second round of verbal and emotional violence.

In Friday’s shooting, it was reported that two of the guns found were a Sig Sauer pistol and a Glock pistol.  The slogan for the Sig Sauer gun is: “When it counts.”  The slogan for the Glock gun is, “the confidence to live your life.”  So I am left to wonder what counted at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and what unfathomable form of confidence did the shooter need to have when he went there?

And of course, ultimately, I am so angry and so saddened by the deaths of 28 people, most of whom were children.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to wait in a holding area not knowing the fate of your child.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up this second morning since Friday to once more be reminded that your nightmare continues whether you are sleeping or waking.  13 years ago I worked with teenagers and opened the paper to read about Columbine.  I just sat at the breakfast table sobbing.  More than a decade later I have a son in kindergarten, and on Friday, as I kept turning to my computer in my church office to read and hear updates about the kindergarteners in Sandy Hook Elementary School, I had a similar reaction.  I feel like Rachel, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because her children were no more.

So that we do not just remember the shooter, we need to remember the children and adults.  For each person – child and adult – I have a candle here.  If you feel comfortable, I invite anyone to come forward and (as Greg plays the music for “O come, O come, Emmanuel” ) light a candle in memory as I read off the names of the people who were lost on Friday:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Nancy Lanza, 52
Adam Lanza, 20
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto,27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

I am so, so angry, and I am so, so full of anguish.  I am almost at a loss, and I struggle mightily to figure out what to say or do next.  Sitting in my office on Friday listening to the news reports, I suddenly felt I could no longer preach what I had planned to preach.

This afternoon many of us here in our church are involved in the radio play production of the “Miracle on 34th Street.”  Each December I give a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character.  This year, partly because it’s a character in our show, and partly because I have not yet written a letter sermon to a female character, I wanted to write this year’s letter sermon to Doris Walker, the divorced single mother of the story who is trying to raise her child in the best way she knows how: with as much realism and as few illusions as possible.

I was looking forward to writing that sermon.  A divorced single mother in the 1940s was highly unusual.  Not only is Doris Walker not a sad character deserving our pity or a caricatured character easily dismissed, she is strong and loving.  She wants to raise her daughter in a way that will prevent her daughter from suffering the pain of shattered illusions, and the resulting anger and resentment that inevitably follow.

Sitting in my office on Friday, I felt I couldn’t write that letter sermon.  Instead, I felt the need to somehow address the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Yet as I wrote this sermon and participated in the rehearsal for the show yesterday, I couldn’t help but identify the similarities in Doris Walker’s conflicted feelings about raising a vulnerable child in a world full of pain and disillusionment.

In the midst of my own anger, I am reminded that I can get just as angry as the next person – and that if I let it, I can let my anger turn into rage.  And if I allow my self-righteousness and rage to run amuck, then I create defensive walls, attempting to protect my own pain by directing anger at others.  As a result, I develop the capacity to inflict the kind of violence I normally condemn.  This is where I need my religion, my faith, a faith bound together and emerging from both Christianity and Judaism, to prevent the emergence of rampant anger.

Two thousand years ago, much of the Mediterranean world was occupied and oppressed by Rome.  The people of that time in particular sought a savior, someone who would throw off their oppressors and allow them to be free once more.  I believe we are living under similar oppression today – only this time, it is an oppression of the spirit.  The heavy hand of empire is upon us, an empire of spiritual emptiness that lures us into fear, reactivity, consumerism and addiction.

“Your body is so ugly,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can be beautiful, or even acceptable, is to lose weight if you are fat, gain weight if you are skinny, straighten your hair if it is wavy, curl your hair if it is straight, dye your hair if it is grey.  And since these efforts will never be enough,” says the emptiness, “spend even more time and money and emotion on these unattainable efforts.”

“Your life is so empty,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can fill it is with more toys, bigger houses, smaller phones, more pills, more alcohol, more sex, more adrenaline rushes.  If you are not happy,” says the emptiness, “then watch more TV, play more video games, drink more beer, get more and more angry and point your finger at someone else as the cause of your unhappiness.”

“The world is such a scary place,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can be safe is to buy a gun.  And if you don’t feel safe buying one gun,” says the emptiness, “then go buy another gun.”

In the great empire of emptiness, the forces of fear become so powerful and dissonant that they scream for no restrictions whatsoever because for them the protection of gun ownership, the so-called “freedom” of gun ownership, is more important than healthcare, or the education or the protection of our children.  In this Orwellian cacophony, I can almost hear the doublespeak emerging that stops calling them “killing sprees” and instead, begins to call them “freedom sprees.”

I don’t want to live in a world like that.  Do you?  I don’t want to live in a world where doublespeak trumps common sense, where a lie repeated often enough becomes a truth.  Do you?  From my faith, I need to hear the call of deep peace and profound love cut through this nonsense.  It will not help to turn over the responsibility of raising my children by blaming the video game industry, or blaming Hollywood, or even by blaming heartless politicians or inadequate gun laws.  In the bleak midwinter, when everything is gray and rainy and foggy, the future is not clear.  Definition is difficult to determine between near and far, between up and down, between danger and safety.  So in the bleak midwinter, in the fog of our anger and pain, in the mists of our desire for retaliation and blame, when it seems we’ve lost our moral compass and our sense of direction is out of whack, we call for the birth of a savior.  We sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

“Emmanuel” means “God with us.”  When I talk about a “savior,” though, I’m not necessarily talking about God, or a god, or any external supernatural being coming to perform magic on us.  I’m talking about how we discover our brilliance and share it with the world.   I’m talking about how we dig deep to find our light that will give us the strength to overthrow the oppression of emptiness, and then walk together, with one another, as images of The Holy for one another, to bring forth that light to live our lives in balance and wholeness.  As the song says:

O come, O come Emmanuel
and with your captive children dwell.
Give comfort to all exiles here,
and to the aching heart bid cheer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within
as Love to dwell.

Perhaps this is when, like Doris Walker, we begin to rebuild our faith, or as she says, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”  This is when we call upon our faith, and on each other, to help us bond together to say to the forces of emptiness that we will not succumb to that lure of fear.  This is when we need to hear once again about the peace of beating our swords into ploughshares; about how faith, hope and love endure, but the greatest of the three is love; about the inherent worth of each person; and how we humans and nature and all the universe are intertwined and interdependent.

In the words of our opening song, “In the bleak midwinter, in this world of pain, where our hearts are open, love is born again.”

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, let us not become numb, but remain open.  May we remember that however we may name or not name God, compassion and love always show up only in the way we show up.  May we remember that however we may name or not name God, our hands are the hands that reshape the world, call on our politicians to draft laws of peace, and work to prevent violence in our lives.  May we find ways to hold one another with grace, and to remember to feel and to be present for our children.  May we behave in ways that let them know they can talk to us about anything.  And may we never forget to hug them and tell them how much we love them.