Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
Thinking back to when my sisters and I were Unitarian Universalist children, I don’t remember my parents or my church ever telling us much about the beliefs associated with Christmas. I don’t remember spending any time on the virgin birth, redemption from sin, all that traditional theology — theology which, I have to admit, I still don’t fully understand today.
The story we learned as Unitarian Universalist children was fairly simple and straightforward: We were taught that we celebrated the birth of Jesus because he grew up to be an amazing human being whose teachings transformed the world. And tonight I’d like to speak briefly with you about how his teachings could transform the world today.
When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, I didn’t hear much about traditional theology, but I do remember hearing the story of the Good Samaritan. This was a story that Jesus told after he had grown up, and it gets at his most important teaching.
If you recall, the story goes something like this: A man was traveling down the winding, steep, dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell in among thieves, who took everything he had, and left him, injured and dazed, on the side of the road. Along came a priest of the great temple of Jerusalem — a very holy person — looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Along came a Levite, another very holy person, looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Then along came a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a despised race; today we would call them a marginalized group. Along came this Samaritan. He got down off his mule, he bandaged up the man lying by the side of the road, he took him to an inn and paid for him to be cared for until he recovered from his injuries.
Part of the point of this story is that the priest and the Levite were very good at theology, and they could explain all sorts of religious doctrines to you. However, as the story makes clear, they were not so good at practical religion. By contrast, whatever his beliefs may have been, this Samaritan was very good at practical religion; he was good at things like having courage, helping the suffering, and loving his neighbors.
This was a point that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made when he talked about the Good Samaritan in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. He said: “The first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked, was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ Then the good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” This was how Dr. King explained the difference between theoretical theology and practical religion. (1)
Anyway, this was the kind of thing my sisters and I were learned growing up as Unitarian Universalists: perhaps we didn’t get much instruction in theoretical theology, but we were taught practical religion. So we heard the Christmas story pretty much as you are hearing it tonight, but the emphasis was always on what the Christmas story called us to do, not what we were supposed to believe. That is still true of us Unitarian Universalists: we don’t worry much about what to believe, but we are concerned with what the Christmas story calls on us to do.
Of course it’s not just Unitarian Universalists who focus on the ethics of Christmas. Rev. Howard Thurman, a Baptist minister, wrote a poem that sums up Christmas for those of us who prefer practical religion. His poem is titled “The Work of Christmas,” and it goes like this:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart. (2)
I would only add that Howard Thurman’s poetic description of Christmas can be boiled down to that most profound teaching of Jesus: love your neighbor as you love yourself.
This, to me, is the central teaching of Christmas. Perhaps you are an atheist who doesn’t believe in God at all. Or perhaps you believe that Jesus was the son of God. Or perhaps while you believe in God, you believe Jesus was a son of God only in the sense that any one of us is a child of God. Or perhaps you believe in something entirely different. Yet what we happen to believe matters less than what it is we do with our lives.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a person who became a great teacher, a person who explained in simple terms the great truth that we are here on earth to help one another. Jesus taught us that we should try to be more like the Good Samaritan. Jesus taught us: We don’t need to be priests or Levites, we don’t need to be really smart people who knew a lot about theological theory. Instead, Jesus taught us that we are here to heal the broken, to strengthen the fainthearted, to feed the hungry, to have courage, to rebuild the nations, to return to no one evil for evil — to make music in the heart.
This is the real message of Christmas. This is the real miracle of Christmas.
(1) Transcribed from an audio recording of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968.
(2) Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).