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).
We stand at the turning of the year, Poised in a moment of stillness. The past spreads out behind, What is to come lies before us. The sun lies low in the sky, The days are brief and cold. Night enfolds in lingering time Our cares, our grief, our hopes. We await the return of light. [adapted from public domain material]
from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens read by 2 Narrators
A: Christmas as we know it today is a nineteenth century invention. The reading this morning is from one of the chief inventors of Christmas, a Unitarian named Charles Dickens.
B: “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
A: “Merry Christmas!” said Scrooge, “What right have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
B: “Come, then,” returned Scrooge’s nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? You’re rich enough.”
A: Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
B: “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
A: “What else can I be,” said Scrooge indignantly, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”
B: “Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.
A: “Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
B: “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time,” returned the nephew, “when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant
Narrated by 2 readers.
The minimalist costumes were made out of cardstock. Click here for instructions and patterns. You should also make a large Star out of cardboard (most art stores can sell you shiny silver or gold cardboard). You’ll also want a supply of shiny gold pipe cleaners, from which people can make Angel halos (a simple circle that you put on your head — make a sample to show people as they come in).
You’ll want to have someone pass out the animal headbands, sheep masks, shepherd’s head scarves, pipe cleaners, and Wise Person crowns as people come into the service. For those who pass out costumes, note the following: each person may choose ONE animal headband; AND they may choose a sheep mask OR a shepherd’s head scarf; AND they may take a Wise Person’s crown if they wish; AND they may choose to take a gold pipe cleaner from which to make an angel’s halo. So each person can take at most 4 items.
Be sure the Narrators have one each of: animal headband; sheep mask; shepherd’s head scarf; Wise Person crown — so they can demonstrate how to put the costume on. The Narrators will also take Herod’s crown, the laurel leaves, and the Star.
A: We are going to retell the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus this morning, but we are going to give it our own slant. We’ll base our story on two early Christian stories of Jesus’s birth, the books of Matthew and Luke. We’ll make this a story of freedom and liberation. And since we are Universalists, ours is a story of hope for all people.
B: Instead of just listening to or watching the story of the birth of Jesus, we are going to get inside it. At various points in the story, I will ask if some of you would be willing become one of the characters in the story. To make this a truly immersive theatre experience, everyone will remain in their seats. Children and adults who took costumes as you came in, you may put them on at the correct time (wait until we tell you to do so). [If you kept extra costumes to distribute during the pageant, mention this now.] And in a couple of cases, I will ask for specific volunteers to have very simple costumes.
A: Now let’s begin. 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!
B: To start the story, we need someone to be Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. I’m going to bring Caesar the laurel leaf crown (you may keep the laurel leaves when we’re done).
[Narrator brings cardstock Laurel Leaves to someone in the congregation. A good person to choose for Caesar is the board president or treasurer.]
A: 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!”
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, 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.
B: If you look carefully, you’ll see an imaginary Mary and Joseph walking on their way to Nazareth. Since this a starlit night, could everyone else please hold up your hands like this [show], as if your hands are twinkling stars…
A: Joseph and Mary knew it was not going to be an easy journey, because Mary was almost ready to have her baby. At least they had a donkey Mary could ride on. And at least the twinkling stars made the road seem friendly.
B: Thank you for the stars. Now that Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, you can put your hands down.
A: 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. Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a stable cut into the side of a hill. And they settled in to sleep there among the animals.
B: Next we need some animals. If you received an animal ear headband as you came in this morning, you can put it on now, like this [demonstrate putting on a headband]. — [If you have extra headbands, you can say: “We have extras, so if you’d like one now, please raise your hand.” The other Narrator can distribute them.] — We’re going to have cows, mice, donkeys, bunnies, and chickens.
A: 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.
B: Now we need some shepherds. If you borrowed a shepherd’s head scarf as you came in, you can put it on now, like this [demonstrate]. We also need sheep for the shepherds to watch. If you took a sheep mask as you came in, you can hold it up now, like this [demonstrate holding the sheep’s mask in front of your face].
A: 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. Do I hear any Wolves out there in the wilderness?
[Wait for someone in congregation to howl like a Wolf.]
B: Now we need some Messengers from the God of the Israelites, also known as Angels of the Lord. If you made an angel halo from the gold pipe cleaners we passed out to people as they came in this morning, you can put your halo on now.
A: On this night, as the shepherds stood watch in their fields, a messenger from God, also known as an angel, stood before them. This angel was truly magnificent, a being who was neither male nor female, and the glory of the God of the Israelites shone around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, when the shepherds saw a messenger from God, they 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.”
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.”
B: Now anyone who wants to be an angel, whether or not you have a halo, please stand up and become a whole host of angels. If you have a halo, put it on like this [demonstrate].
A: And there was a whole host of angels singing and praising God, and the shepherds were amazed.
B: Angels, you can sit down again. Now it’s time for a quick costume change, because we need shepherds, sheep, and friendly animals once again [demonstrate costume change — take off halo, put on one of the other costumes].
A: 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 angel told us about!” Being good shepherds who cared about their sheep, they brought the sheep along.
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.
B: Now we need some Wise People, who are also royalty. If you’d like to be one of the Wise People, please put on a crown, like this [demonstrate].
A: 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.
B: We need someone to be King Herod. I’m going to bring Herod a crown (you may keep the crown when we’re done).
[Narrator brings cardstock crown to someone in the congregation. It’s fun to give this to a board member or other well-known congregational leader.]
A: First the wise persons went to visit King 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.
B: Would someone be willing to hold up the star? (You may keep the star when we’re done.)
[Narrator brings cardstock Star to a member of the congregation]
A: The wise persons followed the star until it stopped over the stable where the newborn child was lying in the cow’s feeding trough.
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).
B: Now we are done. But please leave one of your costumes on, while we finish telling the story.
A: Look around 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.
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.