Monday, December 28, 2015

A Different Kind of Christmas Story

This is the sermon that Adam Slate preached on Sunday, December 27, 2015.  You can listen to it if you prefer.

Everyone here knows the movie The Wizard of Oz, right? I want to ask you a question. Remember the scene where Dorothy first lands in Oz, and her house has fallen on the Witch of the East, and the wicked Witch of the West shows up demanding her sister’s ruby slippers?

What did you think of the witch when you first met her? How many thought she wanted those shoes for some kind of evil magic?

Now let me ask, how many of you felt bad for her? How many of you sympathized with the grief of someone who had just learned that her sister had died, and thought maybe she wanted the shoes as a keepsake?

Stories are powerful things. Each time we hear a story, or experience something in the real world, we get to interpret it as we see fit. And the way we choose to make sense of it... affects what we learn from the story, and how we let it change us.

So that’s what I want to talk about this morning. In particular, I want to look at opportunities we have to interpret what we see and hear in ways that can open us up to being in relationship with each other; or can keep us separate, and isolated.

The Story of Christmas
We have been celebrating the first few days of Christmas, the time of year when Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus. As the story goes: Joseph and his pregnant wife Miriam, a Jewish couple, travel to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem to be counted in the census. When they get there, the city is crowded. They look for a place to stay and can’t find room, and eventually an innkeeper lets them stay in his stable. One night, Miriam goes into labor and gives birth to a son. Nearly all of us can conjure up the familiar image of the baby and his parents in the stable, surrounded by animals and shepherds.

Except I no longer think that's how the story goes. Several years ago I heard an Episcopal minister at a Christmas eve service tell a different version of those events that really resonated with me. I’ve since done some research, and have come to believe that the popular version of the story puts an unfortunate spin on it.

First of all, when the couple returns to Bethlehem to register for the census, the book of Luke uses the Greek word “kataluma” to describe where the couple is hoping to stay. The Reverend Ian Paul, former Dean of Studies at St. John’s Theological College in Nottingham, England, points out that “kataluma” is often translated as an “inn,” but really refers to a reception room in a private house. As supporting evidence, he notes that the same word is used in the Gospel of Mark to describe the room where the Last Supper took place. Rev. Paul says that a different word, “pandocheion,” is used to describe an inn or place where strangers would stay.

The implication is that Joseph and Miriam would be staying with family. This interpretation makes sense, as the custom in the First Century would have been for the travelers to stay with relatives. And I don't know how many of you were raised Jewish, but I can tell you that there's no Jewish son who returns home with his pregnant wife who's ever going to get away with staying at a hotel, whether he wants to or not.

Ian Paul goes on to note that it would have been customary, with a lot of relatives returning home at the same time, for the elders of the family to get first dibs on the kataluma, with younger relatives having to stay downstairs in the living area. So what we end up with is not "no room in the inn," but rather "no available guest room."

Rev. Paul further points out that the design of Palestinian homes included a room lower than the main floor for animals to be brought in at night. Their body heat actually helped to keep the house warm. The main floor of the house near the lower section had hollowed out areas on the ground filled with straw for the animals to feed. The word used to describe one of these indentations was “phatne,” or manger, and would have been a convenient place to lay a baby in an overcrowded house.

If you put all this together, it suggests that Jesus was not born in a barn, but rather in a house overflowing with family. And does it not make sense from a Christian perspective that God’s son, his gift to humanity, would be born immediately into the midst of people, rather than alone in a stable?

Rev. Paul put forth this idea in 2013, but wasn’t the first to do so. The first identified occasion was in 1584 by Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas of Spain. Although Sánchez was denounced during the inquisition for his translation, he was *not* executed, tortured, or even imprisoned--the punishments typically imposed upon heretics--suggesting that at least some people thought his interpretation made sense.

How interesting, then, that this translation of the Christmas story hasn't caught on. Over the centuries we've been so drawn to the story of the poor child alone against the world, a story now memorialized in so many hymns and carols, that we continue to dismiss what seems to me a much more plausible interpretation.

I think we tend to be so inspired by stories of individual achievement, and the “go-it-alone” mentality, that we often miss community even when it's staring us right in the face. But there are too many instances out there of people being self-serving, fearful of differences, and insulated from each other. We can't afford to miss it when genuine community comes knocking. We would do well to open ourselves up to it, and not let it pass us by.

But we often do let it pass us by. We focus on our suffering rather than the support systems around to combat it, we see our isolation and our differences rather than how much we have in common. Sometimes, we do this because we were raised to see things this way. Sometimes, we do it because of our fear of others who are different from us.

And sometimes we do it because we’re in the grip of clinical depression or other mental illness. Around the same time I learned of Ian Paul’s translation of the Book of Luke, the relative of an extended family member took her own life just before Christmas, leaving behind, among others, and teenage daughter who loved her very much. Like the misinterpreted Christmas story, I imagine that the woman’s illness led her to view herself as more alone than she actually was.

But we’re all surrounded by human support networks and communities, if only we can access them. Liberals and conservatives once famously debated the truth to the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” But there should be no question that whole villages are available for that kind of support--the challenge for all of us is recognizing and connecting with them.

The Martian
So my opinion... is that Jesus was born into a loving community, but that people have gone out of the way to think of him as having been born alone and forsaken. We find almost the polar opposite story in Andy Weir’s novel, "The Martian."

In that fantastic tale, which takes place in the not-too-distant future, an astronaut on an early Mars mission is presumed dead during an emergency evacuation and is abandoned on the Red Planet. He is left without immediate means to communicate with NASA. He doesn't have enough food to sustain himself until a rescue mission can be deployed. The title "The Martian" emphasizes that he is completely isolated from the 7 billion other human beings back on Earth.

And yet, the human population doesn't abandon him. The global community as imagined by the author takes extreme measures in attempts to both communicate with him and rescue him. So unlike the newborn Jesus, surrounded by a large family but who we’ve chosen to think of as isolated and alone, the protagonist in “The Martian” is utterly alone, but the world community isn’t ready to release him from its grasp.

These two very opposite examples illustrate how we can process our stories, and indeed the world around us, the way we want to see things. And most stories are malleable enough to be interpreted according to our needs. So what is it we need most, if not each other?

At one point in The Martian, the author reflects on the very high cost of trying to save one person stranded on Mars. "Why bother?... They did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are [people] who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do."

It’s human nature to care about each other; for people out there to care about you, and me, even when evidence suggests they might not. This is one of the stories I hope we tell ourselves when we encounter people who, say, don’t share the same politics or religion as we do, or live down a different end of the ideological spectrum: that most people have a generous and loving spirit. The truism that “there is always more room in the inn” (or maybe I should say “in the guestroom,” or “the kataluma”) isn’t only something to keep in mind when people come to us in need. It’s also worth remembering when we’re the one looking for someone to take us in.

I want to tell one more Christmas story, one that’s also about a family coming to a city that doesn’t have room for them. They are the Habashieh family, Muslim refugees fleeing civil war in their Syrian homeland. Middle Eastern people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea--fleeing their native lands in unprecedented numbers this year--have repeatedly been turned away from other countries reaching what they consider to be their capacity for taking in refugees.

According to a CNN article, France has said it will accept 24,000 refugees over the next few years. The UK will take in 20,000 people over 5 years. Hungary and Denmark have imposed even tighter restrictions. And recent action by the US Congress virtually shutting down immigration from Iraq and Syria has ensured that the United States will not be taking on the role of humanitarian champion during this crisis.

And then there are the countries making Herculean efforts to accept refugees. Turkey is struggling with about two million new residents. Lebanon has taken in over a million, expanding its nation’s population by more than 25%. For displaced people seeking new homes, compassion has come in many forms. But maybe the most surprising country to be found on this list of heroes is Germany.

Lead by Chancellor Angela Merkel--whose leadership has earned recognition by Time magazine as 2015’s Person of the Year--Germany has thrown open its country’s borders to about one million Muslims, who Merkel views as victims rather than terrorists. As a result, the Habashieh family just celebrated Christmas in their own apartment in the German city of Zwickau, after months of uncertainty about where they would end up. And in the spirit of gratitude and community, the have decorated their front door with red and green bells and glitter along with their Christian neighbors.

As the descendant of a Jewish family that no longer exists in Europe because of German atrocities during World War II, I don't take lightly how far that country has stretched to absorb so many displaced families. I would never have guessed growing up around relatives, and family friends, who survived the Nazi holocaust, that Germany would lead the Western world on an initiative like this in 2015. Is it a Christmas miracle? I don’t know. Yeah, why not? I know it is for hundreds of thousands of Middle-Eastern families.

Extraordinary community and human compassion don't exist everywhere, but they always exist somewhere. The amazing thing about love... is that there's always more room in the inn. It's our responsibility to find it, and name it when we see it, wherever it resides. And to return it when we can.

So let us strive to add to the Christmas story, and to our own lives, the message that we are meant to be surrounded by supportive communities. That even in Christianity’s central narrative, God didn’t intend for his son to be born cold and alone, visited only by strangers from afar, but rather aided and celebrated by family and friends.

And the same is true for us. May we all know the support and embrace of many of our neighbors--in our congregation, in our city, and around the world. And may we learn to see the light that shines in each of us before we see the things that make us different.

Amen, and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in our miraculous universe, bound by love ...

On the evening of November 17, 2001, Muslims around the world began their observance of the holy month of Ramadan, a time of introspection, prayer, and fasting.  From the time "when you can first discern a white hair from a black one" to the moment when you no longer can, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, impure thoughts, and bad behavior.  It is also the practice to read a portion of the Qur'an each day -- which is why copies of the holy book not only have chapter and verse divisions but is divided into 30ths, to facilitate this daily reading.

November 17th, 2001, was 36 days after the tragic events of September 11th, and anti-Muslim sentiment was running high in the United States.  At that time I was serving the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, and in response to that horrific terrorist attack we did the only thing we could think of to do:  we hosted a month-long study of the Qur'an.  A group of us committed to reading a 30th of the Qur'an each day so that we, too, would have immersed ourselves in this sacred text along with our Muslim kin.

For many, this was a challenge.  There were those who had never read much -- if any -- of the world's sacred texts.  (It can be a bit of a slog.)  Others had never had any previous exposure to Islam.  And then there were those who had heard about what a violent and intolerant religion Islam was supposed to be ... and  found plenty to support those assertions.  Take these two examples, for instance:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.  If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.  If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.  When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it.  As for the women, the children, the livestock, and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.  And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.  This is how you are to treat all the cities that are a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them ...  
See now that I myself am he!  There is no god besides me.  I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.  I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear:  as surely as I live forever, when I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgement, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.  I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.
Rejoice, you nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people. 
Of course, these calls to utterly decimate an enemy actually come from the Jewish (and Christian) scriptures -- Deuteronomy 20: 10-16 and Deuteronomy 32: 39-43, respectively.  These are not the only passages in these scriptures that describe a blood-lust that today we would find abhorrent.

This is not to say that there aren't abhorrent passages in the Qur'an.  There are.  The point, though, is that if we are to judge the holy books of Judaism and Christianity not by their worst but by their best, we should afford the holy book of Islam the same courtesy.
“…if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind…” (Chapter Five, Verse 32).
And if we are to judge Christianity and Judaism by the actions of their noblest adherents, rather than their most noxious, how can we not do the same for Islam?  In that study group all those years ago, as people began to get hooked on all of the negatives they came across I asked them to focus, instead, on passages they found inspiring.  Our conversations took on an entirely different tenor when we did this.

I also began each session with a reading from the poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the Persian poet whose works are so beloved.  It is worth noting that his lofty words about love, and peace, and acceptance, and joy were inspired by his religion; not surprising since the very word "Islam" is derived from the Arabic root "Salema" which mean peace, purity, submission and obedience (as in obedience to Allah's will), and which is rooted in the same origin as the Hebrew "Shalom."

It is December 9th, 2015 today, and the anti-Muslim sentiment that filled the air fourteen years ago is choking us once again.  As I've written before, the instinct in times of fear is to divide "us" from "them" and to see "them" as the incarnation of what we fear.  Yet that is just what must be avoided -- especially during times of distress -- because that very tendency feeds the source of the fear.

Whether you consider yourself Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, Pagan, Buddhist, Sikh, Atheist/Humanist, Taoist, Bahá'í, Druze, Hindu, a Twelve Stepper, or a person who has faith in whatever it is you have faith in, I encourage you, I implore you, to look deeply into your world view.  You will see things to be proud of, things to deplore, and you will find an affirmation of our common humanity.  At all times, but especially in times when fear would emphasize our differences, we need to recognize this commonality.

Pax tecum, and as-salamu alaykum,


PS -- a friend pointed me toward this video.  It's like they read this post before I'd written it.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

on the first friday ...

Last Friday the magic happened again.  Our Social Hall was transformed into a living example of what Beloved Community looks like ... feels like ... is like.

More than a dozen folks from our congregation arrived and unloaded nearly two tons of food from a semi-truck parked on Edgewood Lane, brought it into the Social Hall, and organized it to fill grocery bags for 70 "household units."

There were 720 pounds of potatoes; 720 pounds of frozen chicken quarters; 9 cases of grapefruit juice; 9 cases of orange juice; 9 cases of grape juice; 9 cases of tomato juice; 350 pounds of onions; 350 pounds of beets; 144 pounds of rice.  There were pinto beans, and kidney beans, and great northern beans; shredded wheat cereal, rolled oats, and grits.  (And that's not even everything!)

And as the food is being organized, people begin to arrive.  There are chairs set up around the walls of the Social Hall and folks sit down by themselves, or with their families, or with people they've come to know here.  Some of the people who have just arrived begin to help -- some with the heavy lifting and some breaking down the boxes all of that food came in.  There is an air of camaraderie in the room.  You might expec something of an "us" and "them" feeling, but it's not what you'd see if you were watching from the outside.  You'd see an US -- an "us" made up of different ages, races, gender identities, theologies, and no doubt politics and other things as well.  But none of that matters as we live into that song, "from you I receive, to you I give; together we share, and by this we live."  This is made all the more clear and true when you recognize some of the folks who've come to receive are also helping to make the giving possible, and some of those who've come to give will also take a bag of food home when they leave.

There's another thing from our hymnal that comes to mind when I think about our First Friday Food Pantry:
"I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harves and work in a row and pass the bags along, who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out."  (See #567 in our hymnal for the rest of this piece by Marge Piercy)

If you're able to come down to church on the morning of a first Friday of the month, you will not be sorry that you did.  In fact, you will be very, very glad.


Friday, December 4, 2015

in times of grief ...

We have been experiencing a great deal of loss recently.  Three beloved members of our beloved community have died within a month of each other:  Deborah Rose, Bill Spurgin, and Katie Corish.  Each one of these losses, by itself, has affected us both individually and as a community.  All three together ...

When individuals go through the grieving process they are usually advised to be gentle with themselves, to realize that life is going to be different from now on and to take the time they need to live into this new life.  Grief workers often say that it takes at least 18 months -- a year and a half -- before life is able to return to a semblance of "normal."  It isn't until we are going through the year's major events for the second time that we feel somewhat settled in this "new normal."  

Of course, our grief is also often compounded because any new loss can trigger grief from previous losses -- the death of a friend can for us once again open the floodgates of the grief we've felt at the death of a parent, for instance.  As RevWik often says during memorial services, quoting the people of the Omaha Nation, "death is difficult to face."
No one has found a way to avoid death, to pass around death; those old ones who have met it, who have reached the place where death stands waiting, have not pointed out a way to circumvent it.  Death is difficult to face. 
Three things have been repeatedly lifted up during this last month of mourning.  First, that there has been too much death; too many losses.  Second, that we have a really remarkable community that there are so many people whose deaths touch us so deeply.  And, finally, that this community is a real comfort at times like this.

There are people who help to hold our community in times of grief.  Rev Wik and Rev Alex, of course.  And Leia Durland-Jones who comforts so many (and especially our children and families).  And there's Scott DevVeaux and James Smith, whose music moves us during memorials and expresses so much when words alone cannot suffice.

There are other people who are not so visible.  Wendy Steeves and Christina Rivera provide so much support through scheduling space (especially challenging with the current lower hall renovations), making arrangements with the Charlottesville police regarding on-street parking, printing orders of service, and so many things that seem to simply "happen," yet which only happen through your staff's hard work.

And then there are the women who come together to make sure that there is a reception (which is, in many ways, a continuation of the memorial service itself).  They make sure that there is a calm and comforting space for people to gather and share their memories, that there is food to nourish the body as well as the soul, and that grieving families need worry about any "logistics" like these.

While there are certainly more women -- and men -- who have contributed to these memorial receptions, these 17 deserve special mention because of their commitment and their grace.  In alphabetical order:

Susan Bremer
Achsah Carrier
Ruth Douglas
Gayle Floyd
Jenny Gaden
Lynn Heath
Stephanie Lowenhaupt
Eleanor May
Gloria Morgan
Jill Payne
Nora Rice
Ann Salamini
Natalie Somer
Patsy Swindler
JJ Towler
Kasha Viets-Wood
Marian Wendelin

Two names that are not included on that list are Elizabeth Breeden and Carol Saliba, who go above and beyond to coordinate this important ministry.

Death is difficult to face.  So many deaths of people we love is hard to face.  In the days, weeks, and months ahead please do be gentle with yourselves and with each other.  Lean on this community.  This could be a time to use the lighting of candles and the silence during the service to be with your feelings.  You also might linger after church to walk the labyrinth or come to the Wednesday Worship to give yourself extra time for quiet.  If you chair a committee, it is especially helpful during these times of grief to light a candle and take some time for silence at the beginning of your meeting.  This is a time to listen to each other with full heart while we also do the bricks and mortar work of the church.  

And let us also remember to be grateful for all those -- seen and unseen -- who minister to us in these times.

(Note that near the bottom the Community Life Council bulletin board in the hallway leading in to the Social Hall there is a two-page flyer listing resources for grief, healing, and support from Hospice of the Piedmont's Center for Grief & Healing.)