Over the last few years in the United Kingdom, there’s been a growing trend of major corporations to produce very short films, just a couple minutes long, to air around Christmas. They aren’t really advertisements for their products or services, and they aren’t necessarily music videos, though some of them are.
There was one little film a couple years ago that went viral globally. It was based on the true story of a Christmas Eve truce in 1914,
the first year of World War I. The guns fell silent as soldiers in the trenches on both sides of the No-Mans-Land received letters and packages from home, and shared stories of holiday traditions.
Through the quiet, the English troops could hear the Germans singing Stille Nacht, and they joined in, singing Silent Night in harmony. At daybreak, a young man, a boy really, came out of one of the trenches with his hands up.
He was met by another boy, who shook his hand as all the other soldiers waited, fingers on their triggers.
Soon, everyone else followed. They introduced themselves to each other, took photographs together, played ball. They even exchanged gifts.
The story, though not factually precise, is true. 104 years ago, in the early days of the bloodiest war in human history, there was peace for a few hours between enemies.
We know it happened because of the huge number and letters from and diary entries by the men who were there, on both sides.
That’s what we want this time of year, to feel connected by peace, and that’s what’s so great about Christmas. It feels unifying. For a little while in December, people feel connected across the world, through family, through shared experiences like grocery shopping and everything pumpkin spice.
We feel unified through the shared story of the birth of an innocent baby, born in a stable far from home, who grew up to become a radical, and to change the world forever.
This time of year is advent, the time of waiting for that which we know will come. The date that baby’s birth is celebrated will arrive, and the longer days that are just around the corner. Not to mention spring. The light, we know, will return.
And so we gather, surrounded by thousands of little lights, in this forest we dragged in from outdoors, to celebrate together the hope for peace we seek this season, and the mystery of how to make it happen.
Unison Chalice Lighting Rickie Beck
Please open your gray hymnals now to #447. As Rev Denis lights our chalice, the symbol of our commitment to our shared promise, let’s read together the words of Albert Schweitzer:
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
Story (Rev. Denis)
There’s something about this time of year that makes children’s stories more relevant to adults. Not just stories about Christmas, but stories about wonder and mystery and hope, stories that bring us together and unite the past and the future.
This morning, I’d like to share with you a story called “A Lamp In Every Corner,” Janeen K. Grohsmeyer
Many years ago in the land of Transylvania,
in a mountain valley watered by quick rushing streams and shadowed by great forests of beech trees, there was a village of small wooden houses with dark-shingled roofs. The people in the village were of the Unitarian religion, and they wanted a church of their own. A church set on the hillside, they decided, looking down upon the village as a mother looks down upon her sleeping child.
So all the people of the village labored long and hard to build themselves a church.
The stonemasons hammered sharp chisels to cut great blocks of gray stone, then set the stones into stout and sturdy walls. The glaziers made tiny glass panes and fitted them neatly into the windows with leaded lines. The foresters sawed tall beech trees into enormous beams and laid the trusses for the ceiling, then covered the roof with close-fitting wooden shingles that wouldn't leak a drop of rain.
The carpenters carved wood for the pair of wide-opening doors,
setting them on strong pegs so that the doors hung straight and square. A bell was brought from a faraway city, then hoisted by ropes with a heave and a ho to the top of the tower. The weavers wove fine cloths for the altar table, cloths embroidered with flowers and edged with lace, [just like the one over there, behind glass.] The smiths hammered black iron into tall lamp stands and hammered thin bronze into shining oil lamps.
Finally, when the building of the church was done, the painting could begin.
The painters mixed bright colors: royal red and shimmering gold and brilliant blue, and everyone in the village came to decorate their church. They painted flowers. They painted trees. They painted designs around the windows and different designs around the doors.
And at the end of the day, when it was finished—when their church was finally done—all the people of the village stood back to admire it . . . and then to sing, a song of happiness and praise. Their village had a church now, a church set on the hillside,
looking down upon the village as a mother looks down upon her sleeping child.
"We will eat now!" announced an elder of the village, because everyone was hungry after their long day's work. "And later tonight, we will come back to pray."
So the people of the village went down the hillside to their homes and their suppers, all except one little girl named Zora and her father, who stayed behind.
They had brought their own bread and cheese. They ate their food slowly, sitting in the grass on the hillside and admiring their new church with its strong stone walls, its tall tower, and its magnificent bell.
After they had eaten, they went back inside, opening those carved wooden doors to go into the gloriously painted sanctuary.
"Oh, look, Father!" Zora cried, running from picture to picture, with her footsteps echoing off the stone walls. "See how pretty the church is!" She stopped in the center of church and twirled slowly around. "See how grand!"
"Yes, it is," said her father, looking around and nodding with pride. "Yes, it is."
"But, Father," she said suddenly, "we have not finished!"
"What do you mean?"
"There are tall iron lamp stands all along the walls, but there are no lamps!
The church will be dark when the people come back."
"Ah no, little one," said her father. "The light of the church comes from its people. You shall see!" He rang the bell to call the people to worship, then took his daughter by the hand and led her back outside. They waited on the grassy hillside, next to their beautiful church of strong gray stone.
The sun had set behind the mountains, and night was coming soon. Yet in the growing darkness,
tiny points of light came from many directions and moved steadily up the hill.
"Each family is entrusted with a lamp, little one," her father explained. "Each family lights its own way here."
"Where is our family's lamp?"
"Your mother is carrying it. She will be here soon."
The many lights moved closer together, gathering into one moving stream,
all headed the same way, growing larger and brighter all the time. Zora's mother arrived, bearing a burning oil lamp in her hands. The father lifted Zora so she could set their family's lamp high in its tall iron stand. All around the church, other families were doing the same. Soon the church was ablaze with light in every corner, for all the people of the village had gathered to pray and to sing.
All through the worship service, Zora watched the lights flicker and glow. She watched her family's lamp most of all.
When the service was over, her father lifted her high. She took the shining bronze lamp from the lamp stand. Its curved sides were warm and smooth in her hands. Her mother carried the lamp home, with the flame lighting the way.
The lamp flame lit their house when they returned home. Zora washed her face and got ready for bed by the light of that flame. "Mother," Zora began, as she climbed into bed and lay down.
"Yes, little one?" her mother asked, tucking the red wool blanket around Zora's shoulders.
"Father said the light of the church comes from its people."
"But also, the people take their light from the church!" Over on the table by the fireplace, the shiny bronze lamp was still burning. "And we have that light every day."
"Yes, indeed," said her mother. "And even when we are not in church, even when the lamp is not lit, we carry the light of truth in our minds and the flame of love in our hearts to show us the right way to be. That light—the light from truth and love—will never go out."
"Never?" asked Zora.
"Never," said her mother. "And this bronze lamp will last for many, many years. When you are grown, we will give the bronze lamp to you, and when your children are grown,
you will give the lamp to them, and all of you will carry it back and forth to church every time."
"But there is only one lamp," Zora said.
"So make another, and let the light grow. And someday, tell your children to make more lamps, too. And now goodnight," her mother said and kissed Zora once on this cheek and once on that cheek and once on the forehead. Zora closed her eyes and drifted into dreams, while her mother looked down upon her sleeping child.
The years passed; Zora grew. The bronze lamp came into her care. She kept it polished and clean, and when the bell rang out across the valley to call the people to worship, she carried the lamp back and forth to the church on the hillside, the flame always lighting her way. When the time came, she made more lamps and gave them to her children, who made more lamps and gave them to their children, and so it went, on through the years, even until today.
And always, the light of truth and the flame of love from that Unitarian church on the hillside continued to grow and show them—and us—the way.
Reading Rickie Beck
Our reading this morning is by Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, from The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, edited by Ellen Brandenburg.
The sixth Principle seems extravagant in its hopefulness and improbable in its prospects. Can we continue to say we want ‘world community’? ‘Peace, liberty, and justice for all’? The world is full of genocide, abuse, terror, and war. What have we gotten ourselves into?
As naïve or impossible as the sixth Principle may seem, I’m not willing to give up on it. In the face of our culture’s apathy and fear, I want to imagine and help create a powerful vision of peace by peaceful means, liberty by liberatory means, justice by just means. I want us to believe—and to live as if we believe—that a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is possible. There is no guarantee that we will succeed, but I can assure you that we will improve ourselves and improve the world by trying.
Sermon Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Since the beginning of our church year in September, I’ve been speaking periodically about our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles as not our creed or doctrine, but as the core of our shared identity that has been evolving since the fourth century. It’s more than just the covenant between congregations in our national association, it’s a promise between each other about the ideals we’ll uphold.
I’ve suggested that the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the seventh principle, the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part, are held in tension. The first is about the primacy of the individual, and the seventh is about our responsibility to the collective.
Our seven principles, thought of politically, are libertarianism versus communitarianism, and all of the other principles, the second through the fourth, are the methods we use to strike a healthy balance between the two,
to avoid the effects of rampant individualism or mindless groupthink.
You can find the seven principles printed at the front of either hymnal. I’ve already been through the first five principles, so this morning I want to talk briefly about the sixth: “The goal of world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all.”
As Rev. Sean Dennison said, the sixth Principle does seem “extravagant in its hopefulness and improbable in its prospects.”
After all, humans aren’t perfect. We set goals for ourselves that may be impossible to reach. We want to sow peace and reap the harmony of a global community, rich in all its diversity, but more often we seem to create individualism and exclusivity ... and nationalism. All in the name of protecting our families and immediate neighbors.
Unitarian Universalists, I know, are just as flawed as the rest of humanity.
Every once in a while — just once or twice a year — I receive a call, letter, email, facebook message or tweet from somebody who is disappointed in us as a congregation. Usually the word hypocrite is in their message, something along the lines of “you claim to be holy people, yet when I visited on Sunday, during the service or in the coffee hour afterward, somebody said something that offended me.”
I’ll admit, as often as not, that somebody ... was me. I know, offense is often taken where none was intended.
Usually, the offense says as much about the offended as it does the offender.
So I always respond the same way: we come to this place every Sunday not because we are perfect, but because we want to be better. Each of us knows we can’t do it alone. We need people to lovingly point out our transgressions, forgive us for them, and most importantly, stay in relationship with us despite our tragic capacity for getting things wrong. We need each other’s light in order to see.
Our greatest hope is that we will be better together as we try to create that extravagant improbability of world community, and each of us knows that we will mess up in some way. The most challenging thing we ask of each other is to be forgiven, and that our relationship will be made stronger as we work for peace, liberty and justice for all.
We all know, I tell people claiming offense, is that if we can’t forgive each other here, where we promise not to think alike but to journey together,
what hope do we have of forgiving others in the world, others who have made no such promise? What chance do we have of forgiving our neighbors whose values are at odds with our own? How can we be peaceful, and just, liberatory out in the wider world if we can’t practice it here in our faith community?
So ultimately, the sixth principle is about hope. Hope that we can come together, each with our tiny little lamps, just like the members of that historic Transylvanian Church-on-the-Hill, points of light making a collective light that allows us to see our work more clearly, and to see each other more clearly, in all of our blessed imperfection.
[walk over to the biggest of the trees.]
You know what’s magical about this tree?
[Touch one of the lights. Look around the tree]
Each one of these lights is teensy, slightly more than 4/10 of one watt of light. A hundred lights are only 41 watts. All the lights in this tree total 205 watts of diffuse light, producing the lumens of just a 40 watt bulb. And yet, it’s bright enough to read by at night if you’re near it, while remaining soft, mysterious, romantic even.
There’s a way in which these little “points of light” like the twinkle light on the tree, don’t so much answer the big questions,
as they illuminate the need to come in closer to reflect on the big questions.
Like me, you’ve probably heard the phrase “points of light” a lot lately, since the death of President George HW Bush, talk about the Points of Light Foundation he started. I’m not going to engage in the hagiography of the last couple weeks, the reframing of the deceased as saint-like and nearly perfect. There’s been plenty of that. But the points of light imagery reminds me that the elder Bush was among the last of a generation that was first and foremost committed to the common good. He was part of a cohort of peers, born before the Great Depression and serving on the frontlines and home front of World War II, who understood that we all need one another. Mutual need for them knew no politics. Mutual need was neither liberal or conservative. It was simply human. It still is. We just seem to forget that too easily.
That’s the power of the Sixth Princiople. The goal it speaks of isn’t just about peace, liberty and justice for ourselves and our loved ones, it’s for everyone,
for a World Community. Not just our country, but world community. Not America First, but All Nations. Together.
World community. Interesting phrase, isn’t it?
Some religions have set out quite intentionally to create World Community by propagating their own faith, spreading it far and wide across the globe. The idea seems to be that if they can cover most of the world with the adherents of their faith, creating a majority in each place,
then one country won’t want to go to war with another country, because they would be fighting people of their own faith.
Just a cursory internet search yielded some interesting discoveries.
In 1917, at the end of World War I, the Baha’i faith published a series of documents called the Tablets of the Divine Plan, with the lofty goal of World Community AND a plan to get there.
For Buddhists, the idea of Sangha, or community, stretches across the globe such that ordinary monks are responsible for leading adherents in noble discipleship of World Community.
A Benedictine monk, Friar John Main, sought to inspire World Community through Christian meditation centered around the Maranatha mantra. Maranatha means "Come Lord."
Even The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a social statement - World Community: Ethical Imperatives in an Age of Interdependence back in 1970.
I don’t know how successful any of these faiths have been in implementing their plans, but I do know that the since then The Evangelical Lutheran Church expanded to include even more formerly separate denominations, then in the last 15 years fracture back into three denominations over the issue of marrying and ordaining LGBTQ folks. But the ELCA has retained the statement on World Community as an historical document.
As wildly aspirational as all of these plans seem, it makes sense that world religions are trying. I know from my own experience in the Catholic Church that at lent the focus is no longer on self-sacrifice, but instead choosing to eat modestly in solidarity with the poor people of the world who don’t have choices.
The church focuses a different part of the world each year, so Catholics get to know what life is like for Catholics in countries very different from their own,
the countries that aren’t always portrayed in media. The goal is to create kinship around the world.
The thing that the leaders of all these world religions know is that it’s a lot easier to get along with — or to pretend to get along with — people we profess publicly to agree with. Unitarian Universalism knows no such ambition. We don’t even try to pretend we agree with each other. But, we do tend to think that if everyone thought the way we do,
the whole world would be more peaceful. Maybe that’s true. It’s sounds a little utopian to me.
Speaking of the idea of utopia: this week I learned a new phrase. Hope Punk. It’s a style of Utopian fiction writing that has been around for a while, but only labeled last year when the term was coined by Alexandra Roland. She initially defined Hope Punk as “the opposite of grim/dark.”
Grim/Dark, I learned, is a style of fiction popular among young adults, which starts with the premise that everyone has a core of evil or madness. But then Ms. Roland found out that there is a countervailing style called “Noble/Bright,” which asserts that everyone has a core of good and kindness.
In the last year, as she’s talked about the concept, she has decided that Hope Punk isn’t about good or evil, Hope Punk is about optimism. Hope Punk writing, she says, is about “resisting the pull of entropy,” resisting a gradual decline into chaos.
Hope Punk emphasizes not that the glass is half full or half empty, but instead emphasizes that there is water in the glass, and that the water must be protected in order to preserve life.
In other words, Hope Punk is about peace, liberty and justice for all, creating community in a world that seems to be careening toward entropy.
I love this imagery! All week, I’ve been happily imagining marauding bands of Hope Punks,
arriving in the midst of discord to challenge fear and old ways of thinking. Would they have spikey hair and tattoos? Or would they look like a cross between Karen Carpenter and Jesus, all long hair and flowiness?
Hope is that countercultural. It always has been. Jesus offered hope in the midst of oppression, and look where that got him.
I want to be one a UU version of a Hope Punk,
maybe part of what San Francisco journalist John Carroll called the Unitarian Jihad about 15 years ago, a tongue in cheek movement in which everyone got a code name, created by an online name generator. Mine is Brother Garotte of Mild Reason.
How’s that for a Hope Punk name?
More than 160 years ago Unitarian Theodore Parker said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways;
I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.” It was radical then. One might say punky.
More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr said “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It was still radical. Punky.
Ten years ago, when President Obama had MLK’s quote literally woven into round rug in the center of the Oval Office, it was still punky.
A lot of people — especially Obama’s supporters — complained that this idea of the universe bending toward justice seems to smack of determinism, of predestination. It seems to say that the moral universe is destined to get better, and if that’s the case, we don’t have to do anything to make it happen.
I don’t think Parker meant it that way. Knowing what I know of his life and his work,
I think he meant that the moral arc of the universe is bending toward justice, because we are making it so. We all seek, by our very nature, to make things better. We work to make things better. We have to keep bending that arc, especially when things look bleak. Not because we think everything will be perfect, or utopian, but because we have to believe that our efforts can change everything, in the long run if not now. And it will never reach perfection. We’ll just keep moving in that direction. If we keep doing the work.
The work is justice. The tool is liberty. The attitude is peace. But the goal is world community. That’s our sixth principle.