Monday, December 17, 2012

"The Reason for the Season" by Scottie McIntyre Johnson

A sermon delivered at the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
December 16, 2012

I had the Order of Service ready and sent off to our church secretary, Diana, before the deadline this week. I had the music chosen and certain pieces scanned and e-mailed to our pianist, Damian, ten days ago. And I had my sermon, "The Reasons for the Season", completely written and polished and ready to go by six o’clock on Thursday evening, in plenty of time for me to take off and attend a local production of "It’s a Wonderful Life" with some friends that evening. I was in a Christmas-y kind of mood.

It was a pretty good sermon, I thought -- all about how especially fitting and appropriate and right it is for us Unitarian Universalists to observe Christmas as a holiday of our own because – well, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas as we know it if Unitarians and Universalists of the past hadn’t shaped it into the celebration most Americans know and love today.

My sermon was full of the kind of the kind of little historical facts that you know I just love – how our Puritan ancestors, put an end to celebrating Christmas entirely, at least in England and then, in the Colonies, by outlawing the observance of Christmas all together.

The sermon I had written went on to say that it was, however, both Universalists and Unitarians who, at the beginning of the 19th century, lead the movement to make December 25th a day for religious observances again. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25th was probably not the day on which Jesus was born.  They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wanted to. 

And then, in the sermon I had finished, I went on to tell you about how late 19th century Unitarians pretty much invented Christmas as we know it today! Unitarians such as Thomas Nast whose illustrations in Harper’s Weekly magazine gave us our American Santa Claus with his red suit, white beard and rosy cheeks – and the Rev. Charles Follen, a Harvard professor and a Unitarian minister, originally from Germany, who placed the first decorated Christmas tree in America in his Boston home – and all those Unitarian Christmas carol writers we’ve already talked about – and, of course, Charles Dickens back in England.

The sermon I had finished by Thursday evening was a pretty good sermon, I thought, and I was looking forward to offering it to you. I was in a Christmas-y kind of mood. The sermon was happy and bright and full of the joy of the season.

And then, came Friday morning. You are all well aware of the horrific chain of events that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday morning.

I first heard the news on npr on my car radio and then I came home to watch a visibly shaken President Obama on TV express condolences to the families of the victims on behalf of the nation.

Last Sunday your minister and my mentor pastor, the Rev. Pam Wat, told an anecdote in her sermon about herself as a young preacher, a seminary student, who had to decide what to do with her prepared sermon in the wake of the tragedy that was the Indonesian tsunami – and now, less than a week later, coincidentally, I found myself in the exact same situation.

Also coincidentally, this was not the first time I have had to rewrite a sermon for this Fellowship because a mass shooting intervened. A few of you may remember August 3, 2008, when I delivered the sermon as a guest speaker here at DUUF. Cathy Sassen played the piano that Sunday; Dolores Nabors was President of the Fellowship and did the Welcome and Announcements. I know Barb Rodman was there, Doris Blaisdell and John Beckett, I think. Maybe Gerry Veeder and Jackie Gibbons? I don’t know who else. The tragedy that caused me to rewrite that sermon was a politically motivated shooting that occurred at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN. And some attending the DUUF service that morning knew some of the people killed and injured in that shooting personally because they had recently moved to Knoxville from Denton and had been members of this Fellowship.

I have the script for the service I did following that shooting four years ago – I pretty much write down word for word everything I am going to say – and when I looked at it Friday in the hope that it would give me some inspiration for today’s revision I discovered another coincidence I had forgotten.

During joys and sorrows that Sunday, I brought forth the concern of a member of Pathways Church in Southlake, with whom I had had lunch the day before – another UU seminary student named Pam Wat – who had asked me to light a candle to let you know that she would be remembering the grieving members of the Denton Fellowship in the Pastoral Prayer she would be leading at Pathways that morning.

I went back to that 2008 sermon for inspiration, but I have to tell you – reading it just made me feel terribly, terribly sad – and, then, very angry. I started out that sermon with a list of shootings that had happened in the US just at houses of worship, churches, in the decade prior to the Knoxville shooting. There were nine of them. And here we are again! We don’t have the time this morning for me to list all the incidents of gun violence that have occurred in our nation at churches, temples, mosques, schools, colleges, houses, apartments, shopping malls, work places, military bases, movie theaters. 70 mass shootings in the US since 1982 – 543 people dead -- and 2012 was the deadliest year to date.

And, although it is these mass killings that grab the headlines and our attention, the death and destruction from more "ordinary" gun violence in this country is even more astonishing. In one year, almost 100,000 people are shot and almost 32,000 of them die. 32,000 people in one year! The statistics go on and on. You can easily find them yourselves on the internet. Or my facebook friends will find them and post them – I can share them with you.

I wonder if it seems clear to you as it does to me that we must do something about this! We really must. I don’t want to be invited back here to preach at DUUF as a guest minister four years from now and have to rewrite yet another sermon because another mass shooting has occurred.

So, at first I was stumped at what to say to you in my sermon this morning. What could all this heartbreak possibly have to do with Christmas, with the reasons for this season of love and of light?

But, I was struck, when I looked back at the service I had written before the tragedy on Friday, at how well the music and the readings still worked. Longfellow’s poem that provides the lyrics to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", that Damian played as the Prelude, says, "And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. And hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men." Edmund Hamilton Sears says, in the carol we sang as the Opening Hymn, "With the woes of war and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong."

I realized that every Christmas that has ever been has happened just after, in the midst of, or in the days leading up to some tragedy or another – the American Civil War for Longfellow and Sears – the crippling poverty of 19-century London for Dickens – a terrible massacre in Connecticut for us this week. Or more individual, personal tragedies.

But that doesn’t stop Christmas from happening! In spite of all that is horrible in the world, a baby is born and everyone rejoices! Everyone - from the humblest shepherd to the wisest king to the highest archangel - everyone rejoices – because in the midst of it all, here is the proof that life goes on.

And that is precisely why we have Christmas, my friends -- whether you believe God gave it to us or we made it up ourselves, doesn’t matter. We need Christmas, because we need our stories of hope.

Maybe this will be the year that we demand sensible gun control and better mental health care, and we stop the killing and waste of human lives. Maybe this particular tragedy has brought us to a national tipping point on this issue. Maybe another child has been born – or many children have been born – who will grow up to change the world and help bring about peace on earth at last!

There are many other mythic stories of hope, of course, but the Christmas story holds tremendous power for me. How amazing it is that a tiny baby, born in obscurity under the most humble of conditions, grew up to become into a true revolutionary -- a healer and a teacher -- a shining light in the darkness. That idea truly gives me hope. One need not believe in Christ, my friends, to believe in Christmas - to believe that miracles can happen, if we make them happen.

And so, I came around, as I revised this sermon, right back to the place I had started. Back to a Christmas-y kind of mood. A little more sober than before the tragedy, certainly, but nevertheless, awakened once again to the real reason for the season. The reminder that we need not despair – we have been through things like this before – and we have always found a way forward. And we will again now. Out of the darkness will come light. It always does.

And so, I wish you, this morning, from the very bottom of my aching heart to the very bottom of yours, a New Year full of peace and hope -- and a merry, merry Christmas. May "God bless us, everyone."


"The Work of Christmas" by Howard Thurman

When the song of 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 the brothers,
to make music in the heart