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December 24, 2014: “Christmas Eve”

Chalice Lighting and Invocation – Rev Denis

Merry Christmas, and welcome to East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church where we come from a variety of backgrounds and hold a huge array of beliefs. We are committed to a theologically progressive future, but we also respect the traditions of the past. Especially traditions that so deeply inform who we are…as individuals, as a congregation, and as a people living in this time and this place in history.

Tonight, we are going to sing some carols, and listen to a lot of music together, and afterward, you are invited to enjoy cookies and cider, compliments of Sharon Waite, Rose Bouch, and other busy elves on the Membership Committee. So please plan on staying for a little bit.

Mary, would you do us the honor of lighting our chalice?

As we light this chalice,
The symbol of our commitment
To one another to heal a broken world,
May we be reminded of our highest aspirations
Manifest in the story of a baby
Born more than two thousand years ago.

May we be reminded of the power that comes
From humble beginnings on cold nights
As we add this light to the millions that twinkle tonight around the world

The Parable of the Three Old Men – Rev Denis

A few years ago, just about this time, there were three old men who lived in a nursing home on the southern edge of downtown Cleveland. They were reading the newspaper together on New Years Day when one came across an article about the first baby born in the city in the new year.

The story of his birth saddened them.

It turns out, the mother was young. Very young. Only 16 years old and completely alone in the world. Her parents threw out of her rural home in Trumbull County when they found out she was pregnant. She made her way to Cleveland and was living in a shelter.

The men put their heads together and came up with a plan.

An hour later, they put on their best suits and hats, gathered their things, and took public transit to St. Vincent Hospital where one of them claimed to be the young woman’s grandfather. They were taken to her room, where they introduced themselves. She was so happy to have some visitors bearing gifts, because nobody had come to visit her.

The first man stepped forward, pulled a tall pillar candle out of his bag and handed it to her saying, “When you feel week, light this candle for strength, so that it may be your guiding light.”

The second man stepped forward, pulled a beautiful, delicate bottle of perfume out of his pocket and handed it to her saying, “When the difficulties of motherhood leave you feeling ugly and undesirable, put on a little of this perfume, to remember that you are still beautiful.

The third man stepped forward, pulled a simple gold ring off of the tip of his pinkie. It was the wedding band of his beloved late wife. Gently, sweetly, he put it on her right hand saying, “Wear this ring, and let it remind you that you are not alone, that there are people who care about you and want the best for you and your son.”

The four of them sat and talked for hours. Hospital staff came and went, charmed by the three men caring for their patient, and their hearts were opened to her situation.

The young woman and her baby stayed Cleveland, and every year since, the men have gone back to visit her, and watch as she and her son have grown up and made their own little family.

This story may be true. Or it may just be an urban legend, the kind of myth that could happen anywhere.

Please rise now, as you are willing and able for “Angels We Have Heard on High”

Reading – Maurea Landies

Our second reading is from the Christian Bible’s gospel according to Matthew, The New Revised Standard Version

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Reading – Justin Simons

Our third reading is from the Christian Bible’s gospel according to Luke, The King James Version

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Personal Reflection – Mary Stewart McGovern

My entire life, I’ve been told that this is the season of joy and wonder, that the birth of a child more than 2,000 years ago could change the known world forever. Growing up, I always questioned this story. Mainly because I didn’t believe what I learned in weekly Catechism classes, and I was obviously getting on the nuns’ last nerves by saying, “That’s impossible! There is NO way it happened the way the Bible says.”

I held this belief throughout my younger years and kept it until I, myself, became a parent. That’s when I started to understand. The birth of a baby should be joyous and wonderful and amazing. I know that’s how I felt about my children, and it’s how my family and friends felt. I like to think, then, that Mary and Joseph must have felt that, too.

But I still have a major issue with the Bible’s version of how this all happened. Three wise MEN came to visit? Uhhh, excuse me? For all we know, it really was three wise WOMEN who came to pay homage to newborn Jesus. I mean, it’s not like history hasn’t “white-washed” the roles of women throughout the ages. It’s possible that there were women were there, right? In fact, I’m pretty sure if there were women present, the story would have been a little different.

First, they wouldn’t have shown up 12 days after the birth. If anything, they would have been there at least three or four days early. They would have cleaned the manger and prepared meals for the upcoming weeks. They would have helped Mary deliver the baby. And they would have taken care of the baby while Mary got some much deserved rest.

And while I know the “gifts of the maji” – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – were very valuable, I’m just not sure how practical they were. Let’s keep in mind that Mary and Joseph were poor. I’m sure most merchants would have questions about how they came in possession of these valuable items. Remember, this is before the story of Jesus being the Son of God became known.

I liken Mary’s experience with these gifts to my own experience. In my case, you could tell whether a gift giver had children or not, based on what they gave. The ones without children gave monogrammed silver feeding spoons from Tiffany and Co. and Baby Dior clothing (naturally in size “newborn”.) These gifts were wonderful and generous, but not very practical.

The gifts from people with children, however, were different. They included diapers and clothing in a variety of sizes, a freezer full of homemade meals, offers to watch the baby so I could take a shower for longer than 3 minutes or take a desperately needed nap, and my definite, all-time favorite gift – a housekeeper who cleaned my home once a week for the first 6 weeks after the birth of my oldest child.

While these gifts may not have been as flashy as the famous “little blue box”, they were just as special. It’s as if the wise women in my life were saying, “Hey, we’ve been there and we understand.”

And wise women, arriving with their own practical gifts for baby Jesus? It would have been their way of telling Mary, “We’ve been there and we understand.” And they would have reassured her that, even if this baby wasn’t the Son of God, his birth still deserved to be celebrated for the joyous event that the birth of any child should be.

And isn’t that what this season is all about?

Homily – Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

The reading Nancy shared is number 621 in our hymnal, a classic Christmas reading among Unitarian Universalists. It’s popular because it lifts up reason and reality in a season filled with mystery and mythology, wonder and the warming cockles of hearts. It’s popular because it lifts up not only the child who came to be known as the Christ, the savior of a race of people, but also every child, born everywhere, every day of the year.

We let it be known on Christmas that we value every child not by showering them with tangible gifts, consumer toys at Christmas time, but by dedicating ourselves to them, by doing the unexpected, by taking time out of our lives to be present to the needs of the children that surround us. We dedicate ourselves to all children whose parents present them to us in the hopes that we will support them. We dedicate ourselves to each child who comes to us asking questions about the most important aspects of what it is to be human.

Sometimes, dedicating ourselves to children is easy, especially in the quiet light of a star-filled sky, streaked by a supernova.

It’s easy to be committed to the cute, squirming little children who, on Sunday, donned the costumes of animals and angels and shepherds and kings.

It’s tougher when things get ugly, the way the news has been lately, when we see some mothers grieving for their children, killed in acts of violence. It’s tougher when those events are controversial, and everyone involved is somebody’s child, somebody’s baby. Valued. Loved.

Two years ago, there was another tragedy that marred Christmas for everyone across the United States, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On my way to the Christmas Eve service that year, I heard a radio preacher say something that shocked me. He said there is no hope in the world. The world would always let him down. There was no hope out there. There was only hope in him.

I don’t agree.

There is hope in the Christmas story. There’s hope because the world went silent, hushed by the humility of a newborn baby, his teenage mother and his carpenter father. There’s hope because shepherds, considered at the time too lowly to live among decent people, were the first to bring their blessings. There’s hope because wisemen – kings – brought gifts expensive enough that they could finance an exit strategy that would save the infant’s life.

The story of the birth of Jesus is amazing, not because he grew up to be a great prophet, the founder of a religious movement that would evolve over millennia, constantly reinventing itself.

The story of the birth of Jesus is amazing because every year, nostalgic for the fabled circumstances of that night in Bethlehem, a large part of the world changes, if even for a moment. For a day or two, people are willing to put aside their differences, to really see the needs of others, and reach out in surprisingly generous ways. Tonight is the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Eve when German soldiers sang Stille Nacht and were joined by British soldiers and Silent Night, beginning a short cease fire, against the orders of their commanders.

A world that can often seem cold is warmed, if only for a short time. That’s the miracle of Christmas. And it’s enough. It’s enough to fuel us.

African American philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman knew how tough life could get, and what the Christmas holiday could provide. He wrote another popular Christmas reading in our hymnal, #615:

When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When 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.

And we do. We make music in the heart, and in the sanctuary and thereby rejuvenate ourselves and the world.

May it be so. And may we continue to make music together in the new year.