Dulce Domum

This “sermon,” based on a chapter from the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, was read by Rev. Dan Harper and Emma Mitchell.

SERMON — “Dulce Domum”

Somehow, in our culture, this December season has become associated with the pleasurable side of being home. When we dream of white, snowy Christmasses, we dream of the ones we used to have back home. This association — of home and the darkest time of year — has nothing to do with Christmas. I believe it comes from another one of the roots of our culture, the ancient Northern European pagan celebration of solstice and Yule. In ancient times in northern Europe, of course you wanted to be at home at this time of year — better to be at home, even with any family squabbles you might have to endure, than to be outdoors in the bitter cold with the hungry wolves howling.

But I’d like to believe that you can leave home and make a new home; if for no other reason than that children need to be able to grow up and move out and make their own homes. I have a story about Yuletide, and leaving home, which is from the book The Wind in the Willows. In this book, the Mole left his home one spring, and he wound up living on the River bank with a new friend, the Water Rat. Our story commences half a year later, on a cold December day:

[The Mole and the Water Rat] were returning across country after a long day’s outing with [their friend] Otter, hunting and exploring on the wide uplands where certain streams tributary to their own River had their first small beginnings; and the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go….

They plodded along steadily and silently, each of them thinking his own thoughts. The Mole’s ran a good deal on supper, as it was pitch-dark…. As for the Rat, he was walking a little way ahead, as his habit was, his shoulders humped, his eyes fixed on the straight grey road in front of him. [Suddenly, the Mole smelled something that reminded him of home — his old home, that he had abandoned so long ago. But the unsuspecting Water Rat urged him to be a good fellow and come along before the snow started…. [When much later, they stopped to rest,] poor Mole at last…cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.

The Rat, astonished and dismayed at the violence of Mole’s paroxysm of grief, did not dare to speak for a while. At last he said, very quietly and sympathetically, ‘What is it, old fellow? Whatever can be the matter? Tell us your trouble, and let me see what I can do.’

Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon another so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came. ‘I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: ‘not like — your cosy quarters… but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat –… We might have just gone and had one look at it, Ratty — … it was close by — but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back! O dear, O dear!’….

The Rat stared straight in front of him, saying nothing, only patting Mole gently on the shoulder. After a time he muttered gloomily, ‘I see it all now! what a pig I’ve been!’ …Then he rose from his seat, and, remarking carelessly, ‘Well, now we’d really better be getting on, old chap!’ set off up the road again, over the toilsome way they had come.

‘Wherever are you (hic) going to (hic), Ratty?’ cried the tearful Mole, looking up in alarm.

‘We’re going to find that home of yours, old fellow,’ replied the Rat pleasantly; ‘so you had better come along, for it will take some finding, and we shall want your nose.’…

They moved on in silence for some little way, when suddenly the Rat was conscious, through his arm that was linked in Mole’s, of a faint sort of electric thrill that was passing down that animal’s body…. Mole stood a moment rigid, while his uplifted nose, quivering slightly, felt the air. Then a short, quick run forward — a fault — a check — a try back; and then a slow, steady, confident advance.

The Rat, much excited, kept close to his heels as the Mole… nosed his way over a field open and trackless and bare in the faint starlight. Suddenly, without giving warning, he dived; but the Rat was on the alert, and promptly followed him down the tunnel to which his unerring nose had faithfully led him.

It was close and airless, and the earthy smell was strong, and it seemed a long time to Rat ere the passage ended and he could stand erect and stretch and shake himself. The Mole struck a match, and by its light the Rat saw that they were standing in an open space, neatly swept and sanded underfoot, and directly facing them was Mole’s little front door, with ‘Mole End’ painted, in Gothic lettering, over the bell-pull at the side.

Mole reached down a lantern from a nail on the wail and lit it, and the Rat, looking round him, saw that they were in a sort of fore-court. A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other a roller; for the Mole… was a tidy animal…. Down on one side of the forecourt ran a skittle-alley, with benches along it and little wooden tables marked with rings that hinted at beer-mugs. In the middle was a small round pond containing gold-fish and surrounded by a cockle-shell border. Out of the centre of the pond rose a fanciful erection clothed in more cockle-shells and topped by a large silvered glass ball that reflected everything all wrong and had a very pleasing effect.

Mole’s face-beamed at the sight of all these objects so dear to him, and he hurried Rat through the door, lit a lamp in the hall, and took one glance round his old home. He saw the dust lying thick on everything, saw the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meagre dimensions, its worn and shabby contents — and collapsed again on a hall-chair, his nose to his paws. ‘O Ratty!’ he cried dismally, ‘why ever did I do it? Why did I bring you to this poor, cold little place, on a night like this…!’

The Rat paid no heed to his doleful self-reproaches. He was running here and there, opening doors, inspecting rooms and cupboards, and lighting lamps and candles and sticking them, up everywhere. ‘What a capital little house this is!’ he called out cheerily. ‘So compact! So well planned! Everything here and everything in its place! We’ll make a jolly night of it. The first thing we want is a good fire; I’ll see to that — I always know where to find things…. Now, I’ll fetch the wood and the coals, and you get a duster, Mole — you’ll find one in the drawer of the kitchen table — and try and smarten things up a bit. Bustle about, old chap!’

Encouraged by his inspiriting companion, the Mole roused himself and dusted and polished with energy and heartiness, while the Rat, running to and fro with armfuls of fuel, soon had a cheerful blaze roaring up the chimney. He hailed the Mole to come and warm himself; but Mole promptly had another fit of the blues… ‘Rat,’ he moaned, ‘how about your supper, you poor, cold, hungry, weary animal? I’ve nothing to give you — nothing — not a crumb!’

‘What a fellow you are for giving in!’ said the Rat reproachfully. ‘Why, only just now I saw a sardine-opener on the kitchen dresser, quite distinctly; and everybody knows that means there are sardines about somewhere in the neighbourhood…. Pull yourself together, and come with me and forage.’

They went and foraged accordingly…. The result was not so very depressing after all, though of course it might have been better; a tin of sardines — a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full — and a German sausage encased in silver paper.

‘There’s a banquet for you!’ observed the Rat, as he arranged the table….

‘No bread!’ groaned the Mole dolorously; ‘no butter, no –‘

‘No paté de foie gras, no champagne!’ continued the Rat, grinning. ‘And that reminds me — what’s that little door at the end of the passage? Your cellar, of course! Every luxury in this house! Just you wait a minute.’

He made for the cellar-door, and presently reappeared, somewhat dusty, with a bottle of beer in each paw and another under each arm…. ‘This is really the jolliest little place I ever was in,’ [ he said.] ‘Now, wherever did you pick up those prints? Make the place look so home-like, they do. No wonder you’re so fond of it, Mole. Tell us all about it, and how you came to make it what it is.’

Then, while the Rat busied himself fetching plates, and knives and forks, and mustard which he mixed in an egg-cup, the Mole, his bosom still heaving with the stress of his recent emotion, related — somewhat shyly at first, but with more freedom as he warmed to his subject — how this was planned, and how that was thought out, and how this was got through a windfall from an aunt, and that was a wonderful find and a bargain, and this other thing was bought out of laborious savings and a certain amount of ‘going without.’ His spirits finally quite restored, he must needs go and caress his possessions, and take a lamp and show off their points to his visitor….

At last the Rat succeeded in decoying him to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without — sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them — ‘Now, all in a line — hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy — clear your throats first — no coughing after I say one, two, three. — Where’s young Bill? — Here, come on, do, we’re all a-waiting –‘

‘What’s up?’ inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

‘I think it must be the field-mice,’ replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. ‘They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They’re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over — they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.’

‘Let’s have a look at them!’ cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, ‘Now then, one, two, three!’ and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Here the congregation sang the Yuletide song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”

The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded — but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

‘Very well sung, boys!’ cried the Rat heartily. ‘And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!’

‘Yes, come along, field-mice,’ cried the Mole eagerly. ‘This is quite like old times! Shut the door after you. Pull up that settle to the fire. Now, you just wait a minute, while we — O, Ratty!’ he cried in despair, plumping down on a seat… ‘Whatever are we doing? We’ve nothing to give them!’

‘You leave all that to me,’ said the masterful Rat. ‘Here, you with the lantern! Come over this way…. Now, tell me, are there any shops open at this hour of the night?’

‘Why, certainly, sir,’ replied the field-mouse respectfully.

‘Then look here!’ said the Rat. ‘You go off at once, you and your lantern, and you get me –‘ Here much muttered conversation ensued, and…finally, there was a chink of coin passing from paw to paw, the field-mouse was provided with an ample basket for his purchases, and off he hurried, he and his lantern.

The rest of the field-mice, perched in a row on the settle, their small legs swinging, gave themselves up to enjoyment of the fire, and toasted their chilblains till they tingled; while the Mole, failing to draw them into easy conversation, plunged into family history and made each of them recite the names of his numerous brothers, who were too young, it appeared, to be allowed to go out a-carolling this year, but looked forward very shortly to winning the parental consent.

The Rat, meanwhile, [began to] to mull some ale…. It did not take long to prepare the brew and thrust the tin heater well into the red heart of the fire; and soon every field- mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in all his life…. [At last] the latch clicked, the door opened, and the field-mouse with the lantern reappeared, staggering under the weight of his basket…[and the] contents of the basket had been tumbled out on the table.

Under the generalship of Rat, everybody was set to do something or to fetch something. In a very few minutes supper was ready, and Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savoury comforts; saw his little friends’ faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose — for he was famished indeed — on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy home-coming this had turned out, after all. As they ate, they talked of old times, and the field-mice gave him the local gossip up to date, and answered as well as they could the hundred questions he had to ask them. The Rat said little or nothing, only taking care that each guest had what he wanted, and plenty of it, and that Mole had no trouble or anxiety about anything.

They clattered off at last, very grateful and showering wishes of the season, with their jacket pockets stuffed with remembrances for the small brothers and sisters at home. When the door had closed on the last of them and the chink of the lanterns had died away, Mole and Rat kicked the fire up, drew their chairs in, brewed themselves a last nightcap of mulled ale, and discussed the events of the long day. At last the Rat, with a tremendous yawn, said, ‘Mole, old chap, I’m ready to drop. Sleepy is simply not the word. That your own bunk over on that side? Very well, then, I’ll take this. What a ripping little house this is! Everything so handy!’…

The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour…. He saw clearly how plain and simple — how narrow, even — it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life,… to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.

So ends the Yuletide story of Mole and Rat. May you, like the Mole, have a core of something that you can go back to when the year is dark and cold. May you always have somewhere, or something, that feels like home to you, something that reflects the core of who you are. And may you always find your way back to the sun and the warmth and all that they promise; may you always have a place on the larger stage of life.

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant

The “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant” is borrowed from Rev. Jory Agate of First Parish in Cambridge, and she got it from someone else; to the best of our knowledge, it is in the public domain. This version is rewritten and modified by Rev. Dan Harper for use at First Unitarian in New Bedford. Stage directions are given in square brackets [ ].

[Dan Harper begins in pulpit.]

The Christmas story is rooted in old, old tales of the winter solstice. In ancient times in Europe, when the solstice came, our distant ancestors sometimes told stories of a miraculous child born to return us to the light. Throughout the world, people tell stories of a child born to a royal family, or to an important and rich family, who would grow up to lead humankind into a time of truth and justice.

The early Christians adapted these stories of miraculous births — but they added a twist to the old stories. Their miraculous child was not the son of a king, but was merely the son of a carpenter; he was not the son of a wealthy queen, but was instead the son of a woman whose only wealth was her moral purity. And that Christian story has been told and retold innumerable times since those early Christians first began telling it 18 or 19 hundred years ago.

We are going to recreate the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus this morning, but we are going to give it our own slant. We’ll draw on two early Christian accounts of Jesus’s birth, from the books of Matthew and Luke. Since we take the story of Hannukah seriously, we are going to make this a story of freedom and liberation. And drawing on our own Universalist heritage, we are going to make this a story of hope for all people.

Instead of just listening to or watching the story of the birth of Jesus, we are going to get inside it. Try to forget that you’ve ever heard this story before: even though you recognize the familiar characters, even though you remember the familiar plot, try to hear this story as if this if the first time you’ve heard it. At various points in the story, I am going to ask if some of you would be willing to come up here with me, and play the parts of some of the characters in the story. Don’t worry, you won’t have to speak! When I pause and ask for volunteers to play parts in the story, if you want to be in the story raise your hand, and I will call on you to take a part. Then you will move over there (always walking slowly and calmly) where Karen and Paul will dress you in a simple costume. Emma Mitchell [Director of Religious Education] will then place you in the growing tableau.

Ready? Then let’s begin…

[Dan heads down to floor microphone]

If you wish, close your eyes for a moment. Transport yourself to another time and another place. Imagine that a story is going to unfold before your very eyes, a brand-new story you’ve never heard before.

Imagine that after years and years of hearing stories about women and men bowing down before powerful kings and emperors and dictators and tyrants, you finally hear a story in which three powerful wise people kneel down alongside some shepherds before one tiny, new-born child.

Imagine that after years of hearing story after story telling of terrible wars, you are at last hearing the friendly story of a baby: the story of a humble carpenter and his wife, the baby that is born to them in a stable, shepherds in a star-lit field who go to see the new-born child, and peaceful animals who gather round in the stable where the baby lies in the cow’s feeding trough. Imagine that at last you are going to hear a story in which everyone is longing for peace on earth and good will to all persons, everywhere.

Imagine that after years of hearing stories about the results of hatred and oppression and persecutions, you finally are hearing a story about the transforming power of love.

Now slowly open your eyes. Listen and watch carefully. Let the story begin!

To start the story, I need someone to be Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.

[Karen puts gold laurel leaves on Caesar, Emma places Caesar at pulpit.]

In those days, long, long ago, a decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, saying:

“All the world should be registered so they can pay taxes to me!”

[Emma moves Caesar to stand beside pulpit on ramp, arms crossed]

Now I need two people, one to be Joseph, a carpenter, and one to be Mary, who’s engaged to Joseph. [Karen puts blue robe on Mary, and red robe on Joe.] Mary and Joseph, once you have your robes on, could you please walk slowly (because you’re making a long journey) up these stairs right here [point to stairs near floor microphone], along the chancel stage past the pulpit, and back down those stairs. Oh, and this first scene is a starlit night, so could everyone else please hold up your hands like this [show], as if your hands are twinkling stars…

All the people were required to go to the town where they had been born to register. For some people, that meant a long journey. Joseph, a carpenter, had to go all the way from the town of Nazareth in Galilee [point to rear of auditorium], to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David. He went with Mary, the woman he was planning to marry, because she was expecting a child. They started on their long journey, traveling by day, and sometimes even by night, their road lit only by stars.

Joseph and Mary knew it was not going to be easy, what with Mary almost ready to have her baby. At least they had a donkey that Mary could ride on. And at least the twinkling stars made the road seem friendly.

[Emma guides Joseph and Mary to chairs on platform, places Joseph and Mary on chairs]

Thank you for the stars — now that Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, you can put your hands down.

When Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, they discovered that there was no room at the inn. But the inn was the only place in town with comfortable beds. The only place Mary and Joseph could find place to take shelter was in a stable cut into the side of a hill. So they settled in to sleep there among the animals.

Now I need some animals: a cow; a pig; two chickens; I’m sure there was a mouse; and since this was the middle east, let’s add a camel.

[Karen places animal noses on people, and send them up to Emma at the platform…]
[Emma places animals on steps next to Joseph and Mary]

The gentle animals welcomed Joseph and Mary into their stable. And that very night, the time came for Mary to give birth. It was a stable, so when the baby was born of course there was no cradle for Mary to lay her baby in. But one of the cows was kind enough to lend her feeding trough for a cradle, and Joseph and Mary laid their new baby there among the hay in the feeding trough.

Now I’m going to need two Shepherds. Of course, I will also need Sheep for the Shepherds to watch! And I need one person who is willing to be a Messenger from the God of the Israelites, also known as an Angel of the Lord.

[Karen puts robes over the two Shepherds. Four Sheep get Sheep masks from Paul, to hold in front of faces. Emma places the Sheep and Shepherds in the center just in front of the pews. Karen and Paul then get the Angel’s wings and halo on.]

In that region, there were shepherds who lived for months at a time out in the fields, watching over their flocks of sheep by night. They had to watch over their sheep because there were wolves in the hills that would gladly eat a sheep, if they could get one.

[Karen and Paul finish with Angel, Emma directs the Angel into pulpit, places step stool as necessary.]

On this night, as the shepherds stood watch in their fields, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and this angel was truly magnificent, and the glory of the God of the Israelites shone around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, the shepherds were terrified. But the angel spoke gently, saying to them:

“Do not be afraid, for I have appeared to bring you good news of great joy for all the people of Israel. To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah. This will be a sign to you: you will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cow’s feeding trough.”

Ah — I see we’re going to need lots more angels all of a sudden. Perhaps I could prevail on everyone in the congregation to stand for a moment, as you’re willing and able, face the Shepherds and Sheep, and act as a host of angels?

Then the angel who had spoken went on to say:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth let there be peace and goodwill among all people everywhere.”

And there was a whole host of angels singing and praising God, and the shepherds were amazed.

Upon hearing the message from their God, and hearing the songs of the angel choir, the shepherds said to one another, “This is amazing! Let’s go up to Bethlehem and actually see the baby the first angel told us about!” Being good shepherds who cared about their sheep, they brought the sheep along.

[Emma directs shepherds and sheep to stand in front of Mary and Joseph]
[In preparation for the next part, Karen gets the three crowns for the three Magi and moves to the back of the church.]

So the shepherds went to Bethlehem with their sheep, and there they found Mary and Joseph and the new baby, just as that angel had told them. Afterwards, the shepherds would tell everyone what the angel had said to them about Mary and Joseph’s new baby, and everyone who heard their story was amazed.

As for Mary, she already knew her baby was wonderful. But she listened carefully to what the shepherds said, and treasured all she heard in her heart.

The shepherds and sheep gathered around the feeding trough admiring the baby. They praised their God for this wonder of new birth, and they prayed and hoped that what the angel said would come true — that there would be peace on earth and goodwill for all people, even for lowly shepherds.

Now I’m going to need three Wise People, who are also royalty. After you get your crowns at the back of the church, please begin walking slowly up the aisle, and stop at the first pews.

[Karen crowns the three Wise People, sends them down the aisle to Emma.]

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three wise persons, who were kings and queens from the Far East, came to Jerusalem.

As these three wise persons journeyed their long, slow journey to Bethlehem (actually, it took them 12 days to get there, which is why we talk about the twelve days of Christmas), they noticed that their way was lit by a large and bright star.

It looks like I’m going to need someone to be the Star….

[Paul gives the large Star, and sends the Star to stand by Dan.]

First the wise persons went to visit King Herod.

I’ll need someone to be King Herod, and you can stay seated right where you are.

[Karen will choose someone near the front to be Herod, by putting a crown on him/her.]

And these wise persons went to Herod and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the skies and we have come to praise him and bring him gifts.”

The three wise persons learned from King Herod about a prophecy which had been spoken long ago, that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So the wise persons set out for Bethlehem, and as they walked, they saw ahead of them the star as they first had seen it in the Far East.

The wise persons followed the star until it stopped over the stable where the newborn child was lying in the cow’s feeding trough.

[Emma places three Wise People on the platform, just to one side of Mary and Joseph — wherever they fit.]

When the wise persons entered the stable and saw the new baby, they were overwhelmed with joy at this new life. They knelt down to worship him, and they opened their bags and brought out gifts of gold (because the crowns of kings were made of gold) and frankincense and myrrh (myrrh was what was put in the oil used to anoint kings).

Now we are done. Let us pause for a moment. Look at this scene. It is a special night, with stars and angels and shepherds and wise persons and animals. And they are all admiring a special baby that has just been born.

Why would all these people stand around for such a long time to admire a tiny new baby? There is only one reason I can think of — because the birth of a child always brings hope for the future. And for a people who lived under oppressive Roman rule, all the while longing for liberation, the birth of a child must have been fraught with extra meaning. Will this be the child who leads us to freedom? Will this be the child who breaks our bonds of slavery and establishes a reign of peace and righteousness?

So it is in our world today. In a world that sometimes seems hopeless, we still look with hope to the future. Every time a baby is born, we hope that this child will be one of the ones who leads us to a world of righteousness. And every time we tell this Christmas story, it reminds us that we must go out and work for liberation and justice. We — you and I — are the ones who are responsible for making sure the world is a better place for all the babies that are born.

As our cast of characters hold their places, let’s all sing together — both those sitting in the pews, and those up here with me — let us sing together hymn number 251, “Silent Night.” If you don’t have a hymnal, you can just sing the first verse over three times, or you can just hum the familiar tune. At the beginning of the second verse, I will signal to everyone up here to walk (quietly and calmly) back to where you were sitting.

The Teacher of Nazareth

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, the gospel attributed to Matthew, chapter 5, verses 38-42:

“38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. [NRSV]

[Additional readings, not included here due to copyright restrictions, were two poems by Derek Walcott titled “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Part II.”]

SERMON — “The Teacher of Nazareth”

When I was about four years old, I remember asking my mother who Jesus was. Who knows what had started me thinking about Jesus. In my generation, most Unitarian Universalist four year olds didn’t hear about Jesus in Sunday school, because the educational theory current at the time held that four year olds really couldn’t understand Jesus except as some kind of mythical figure like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Maybe I had heard about Jesus from one of the other kids in preschool.

In any case, I have this vivid memory of standing in the kitchen asking my mother who Jesus was, and she gave me what I now realize was the quintessential Unitarian Universalist answer to that question, for that generation. She said, Jesus was a great teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher who had ever lived. I remember finding that answer quite satisfying. Being a Unitarian Universalist kid, I had absorbed the fact that Jesus wasn’t God, but I needed to know what kind of human he was. And since I knew my mother had been a teacher for a dozen years before she married, and her sister had also been a teacher, I felt comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a human beings somehow like my mother and my aunt.

I still think of Jesus primarily as a teacher; but my views are not widely shared in American culture today. Many Americans claim he was a part of God, and while some of those people might admit that Jesus was a teacher, they understand him to be an authoritarian teacher who was teaching us how to worship him as a part of God. Many Americans dismiss Jesus out of hand, and while they might admit that Jesus was a teacher of sorts, they would say that he was too authoritarian and his teachings are no longer relevant to us here and now. I believe it would be very helpful in today’s America for us religious liberals to reclaim Jesus as a human teacher whose teachings were not authoritarian but were designed to make us think for ourselves; that might be one of the biggest contributions

And what better place to start than some of the best-known of Jesus’s sayings, the ones we heard in this morning’s readings. Supposedly, these sayings came from a longer sermon called “The Sermon on the Mount.” The story goes like this:

When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, he left Nazareth, his home town, and went to live by the Sea of Galilee. There, he began to attract followers, fishermen at first. He traveled around teaching in synagogues, and performing faith healing. Crowds began to follow him, although perhaps most of them were following him because of the rumors that he was a faith healer. In any case, at one point the crowds became so large, Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down, and those following him came up and sat down, too. And, so the story goes, he began to speak at length, giving what later became known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

Did it really take place in exactly this way? Probably not. Scholars think the Sermon on the Mount is more likely to be a collection of material — some sayings of Jesus that were passed down by word of mouth, along with other material that later writers added in. Therefore, when we read what purports to be the Sermon on the Mount, we are probably getting a few things Jesus said, along with lots of others things that later people thought he should have said, or even things that later people wished he had said or wanted him to have said. But of all the things he was reported to have said in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, there are a few things that he probably actually did say; and what we heard in the reading today is quite likely to have been things Jesus actually said [according to the Jesus Seminar and others].

So let’s look at this morning’s reading, bit by bit, and see what kind of teacher Jesus was.

First of all, in this passage Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” What a crazy thing to say! What on earth does Jesus mean, “Do not resist an evildoer”? Of course we are going to resist evildoers! Evil is, well, evil, and we have to resist evil if we’re not going to let it get the upper hand. In fact, that’s one of the things I like best about the whole Jewish tradition. Unlike, say, Buddhism, which has a millennia-long tradition of ignoring tyrants and despots and such-like evildoers, the greatest figures in the Jewish tradition all resist evildoers: Moses stood up to Pharoah, all the prophets stood up to the injustices of their times. What is Jesus saying here? Is he saying that Moses was wrong? This is crazy talk.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s see what he says next: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” Sounds like more crazy talk, doesn’t it? Imagine if someone came up to you and struck you on your right cheek: you are not going to stand there and make your left cheek available to your assailant; you are either going to fight back, or run away. But Jesus is saying, do neither of those things. Do not run away. Do not strike back. Stand your ground, and present your left cheek for your assailant to strike. It’s really a pretty provocative act. An utterly crazy thing to do, and I’d never do it. But maybe one way to deal with violence is not to turn away, not to hit back, but to witness it with open eyes, because violence thrives on secrecy and deception.

Let’s look at what crazy thing Jesus says next. He says: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Think about this for just a minute. Most of the people Jesus was speaking to would be wearing two pieces of clothing: a coat over a cloak. If Jesus were living here today, he would have said something like this: “If anyone wants to take your shirt and trousers, give him your underclothing as well.” In other words, Jesus is saying, don’t just give one article of clothing, give all your clothing so you are standing there naked.

This I consider to be an example of a joke told by Jesus. Bible scholars call this kind of joke a “case parody.” It’s a parody of a familiar scenario leading to a ridiculous conclusion. It’s exactly the kind of thing that really good teachers use all the time. It’s funny, and it makes you think. It breaks through your regular categories of understanding, and helps you to see the world in an entirely new way. Of course, it’s also ridiculous, like something out of a Woody Allen movie. It’s crazy-talk.

The talk doesn’t get any less crazy as Jesus continues: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In those days, the Roman soldiers could force you to carry their gear for a mile, when they needed a break. It was a kind of political oppression that made people hate the Roman Empire. Jesus is saying, when you are forced to go one mile by one of the hated Roman soldiers, don’t stop at one mile. Keep walking, until you have gone two miles. More crazy-talk; crazy, that is, until you start thinking about it. If you go that extra mile with that Roman soldier, maybe he will begin to see you as a person with volition of your own, instead of just a faceless person to be ordered around. And if you walk that extra mile with the Roman soldier, maybe you’d start to see him as another person instead of as the embodiment of an oppressive government. Maybe it’s a kind of joke, but maybe the joke shows you that you can take charge of your own destiny, maybe even when you feel disempowered and humiliated.

Next Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” We lived outside Chicago last year, and I’d head in to the city once a week to go to museums or just get a shot of culture. There were homeless people everywhere, and Chicago being Chicago they weren’t at all shy about asking for money. I’d see homeless people on every block. No way could I have given them all some money, there were just too many of them. Well, I mean, yes, I suppose I could have given them all money, but as it was I limited myself to giving at least a dollar to one person every time I went in to Chicago.

Crazy-talk. Obviously, Jesus was making a joke. Only this time, maybe the joke doesn’t sound so funny, because you know what, I should have given something to every person who begged from me when I went in to Chicago. I should do the same thing whenever someone begs from me here in downtown New Bedford. It makes me realize that no one should have to beg for money, ever.

We could give money to everyone who asks for it. We could cooperate with the Roman soldier — or, in our time when fractious hate-filled partisan politics fill the air, we could think of our political opponents as people just like us, instead of demonizing them. We could parody unreasonable requests, turning them into a joke by stripping down to the buff. We could stand in unblinking witness of violence, refusing to let it escalate or to let it be hidden away.

We could do all those things, but we’re not going to. I especially want to say that if someone is indeed hitting you, please get help — call the cops, talk to a doctor or a minister, call a hotline — remember, Jesus did not know about domestic violence or rape hotlines, and remember that Jesus was a fallible human being who was probably not aware of domestic violence as he should have been. Nor are we going to do any of the things that Jesus tells us to do. However, while we are not going to turn the other cheek, just by saying that Jesus has made us think.

Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the people who got to thinking about Jesus’s teachings. He re-interpreted the idea of turning the other cheek so that it became non-violent action. It wouldn’t be such a bad world if everyone thought more like Dr. King. And that’s kind of the way Derek Walcott thinks in the two poems by him we heard this morning [“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Part II”]. Calling Newark, New Jersey, a holy place, as Derek Walcott does, that’s crazy-talk; but it makes you think, and maybe you wind up thinking that it’s true. That down-and-out guy on Sixth St., wearing the black overcoat and carrying methylated spirits? — he’s one of the Magi, he’s one of the sacred people. Not literally true, but poetically true.

Jesus taught by using some crazy examples, but he did not necessarily mean for us to take his examples literally. He didn’t give us literal precise answers to cover every eventuality. If we let him, Jesus can lead us to some deep understandings about the world, about what it means to be fully human.

The problem in today’s world is that people try to take Jesus literally. They try to reduce the teachings of Jesus to the lowest, simplest, easiest-to-understand set of rules and regulations. I am speaking here of fundamentalism in all its guises: the fundamentalism of the religious right that allows hate back into the religion of Jesus; the fundamentalism of a pope who claims that Jesus was against abortion even though abortion is never mentioned in the Bible; the fundamentalism of those who would dismiss the significance of Jesus’s teachings because they don’t approve of the teachings of fundamentalist Christians.

One of Jesus’s basic, fundamental, and most important teachings was, I believe, quite simple: and that was that nothing he had to teach was simple; that you can’t reduce truth to a few easy sentences, or to a short creedal statement. Jesus was teaching us that we have to think more deeply, feel more deeply, we have to become more fully human. He was a teacher who used poetic truth to make us think. That’s what we tell our four-year-old Unitarian Universalist kids about Jesus. Let’s tell the rest of the world, too.