“And so this is Christmas…”

The following homily was preached by Rev. Dan Harper as part of the annual Christmas Eve candlelight service at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Here we are again. It’s Christmas eve. If you are someone who loves Christmas, like my friend Cindie, this is a moment of great excitement — just a few more hours and it will be the best day of the year, it will be Christmas, with all the presents and the Christmas tree and the special food and the lights and decorations and candy canes, all the things you have been waiting for over these past few months. If, on the other hand, you are not someone who particularly cares for Christmas, like my friend Lindsay who goes around at this time of year wishing people “Happy Horrordays,” if you are not a big fan of Christmas, by now you might be holding on for dear life, counting the hours until it is over.

But whoever you are, tomorrow morning will inevitably come. We will all get up in the morning, all the lovers of Christmas, all the Christmas elves and assistant Santas, all the Scrooges, all those who are just trying to survive these crazy holidays. We will get up, and go through whatever holiday rituals our family and friends and loved ones agree to. And at some point on Christmas day I seem to have this moment where I pause and look around me — look around at the remains of Christmas dinner on the table, look around at the bits of wrapping paper left on the floor, and the people I’m spending Christmas with — I have this moment where I pause and say to myself, And so this is Christmas.

That is why I happen to like the song that the Folk Choir sang for us just before the offering. It’s not one of the best Christmas songs, but it’s the song that comes closest to my own personal experience of Christmas. I have never played a drum for the baby Jesus, pa-rup-a-pum-pum. I have never actually heard silver bells playing. I have never seen a red-nosed reindeer, nor Santa kissing mommy, nor have ever I seen Santa coming down Santa Claus Lane, wherever that is.

But I have sat there on Christmas day and asked myself: So this is Christmas, and Dan, what have you done with your life this year? Or more generally, I have asked myself: Here’s another year over, a new one almost begun, and where are we now? These are the questions that John Lennon and Yoko Ono ask in their song: So this is Christmas, and what have we done?

This was a rough year for many of us. The meltdown of global financial markets has left most of us feeling a little uncertain, has left most of us feeling a little more vulnerable. Some of us are out of work, or we are under-employed. Some of us are barely getting by, as the cost of food and health care keeps going up, while salaries and pensions are either staying the same or going down.

There’s the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has now dragged on for more than five years. This war is particularly discouraging now, because we all know how expensive it is. Here we are, barely getting by financially, and at the same time we are spending all this money to fund a war I don’t understand.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono provided a harmony part for their song with words that go: “War is over, if you want it, war is over now.” Wouldn’t it be great if the war would end just because we wanted it to end? I’m tempted to be very cynical and say: How typical of a song written by two products of the hippy culture of the 1960s; how typical of a song written in 1970, to think it would be that easy to end a war; or for that matter to think it would be that easy to end a global financial meltdown.

I’m tempted to be cynical, but that is the basic message of Christmas. We celebrate Christmas to commemorate the birth of one of the greatest religious teachers the world has ever known. And that religious teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, taught that it really is that easy. You only have to do two things: love the God of the Israelites with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Some of us may no longer feel the need to love the God of the Israelites, but we still love that which is greater than ourselves, something bigger than our own individuality. The second point needs no modification; we still love our neighbors as we ourselves would be loved. These two simple teachings are why we still remember Jesus today.

It really is that simple. If you truly love your neighbor as yourself, if you truly love something greater than yourself with all your heart and mind, you will not do what Bernard Madoff did, and steal millions and millions of dollars from other people. If you truly love your neighbor as yourself, if you truly love something greater than yourself with all your heart and mind, you will not start an unnecessary war.

So how do we get Bernard Madoff and the President and Congress to love their neighbors and themselves, and to love something greater than themselves with all their hearts and all their minds? What Jesus taught us was that we start by actually living out these principles in our own lives. That’s the hard part, because it’s hard to actually live your life so that you love your neighbor as you would like to be loved yourself; it’s hard to truly love something greater than yourself with all your heart and mind. But, Jesus taught, if you and I can live our lives like this, these principles will spread, and pretty soon more and more people will be living their lives this way, and eventually we will be living the Kingdom of God right here on earth, right now.

Some two thousand years after Jesus was born, we haven’t quite gotten there yet. We are still trying to nurture peace on earth and good will towards all beings. This is the hard part, and this is why we celebrate Christmas every year: to remind ourselves that we can have a good will towards all that wouldn’t allow hedge fund managers and bank presidents to rip us off — we can have peace on earth, here and now.

We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but we will. Someday, we will. Until then, until we have peace on earth here and now, may you enjoy Christmas in your own way — whether you get your joy in saying “Bah, humbug,” as I do; or get your joy from the wonder and beauty and love that Christmas can have.