Tuesday, January 03, 2012

10th Day of Christmas -- Why Do Unitarian Universalists Celebrate Christmas

On Christmas Eve this year, I offered a homily on Jesus at the Unitarian Church in Westport. That might not be unusual in most churches on Christmas Eve, but it's the first time, I've devoted a sermon to exploring who Jesus might be to Unitarian Universalists, who Jesus is to me, a Jewish Unitarian Universalist minister.

On this 10th day of Christmas, I offer excerpts of it here to you:

The most frequent question I am asked after I give the elevator speech on Unitarian Universalism, is “Do Unitarians celebrate Xmas?” When I answer “yes”, the next question often is “why would Unitarians celebrate the birth of Jesus?”

Or, do we celebrating the birth of Jesus? After all, most of us reject the ideas that we’ve been reading and singing about tonight – agreeing with the historical view of the Jesus Seminar, that “Jesus was not born of a virgin, not born of David’s lineage, not born in Bethlehem, that there was no stable, no shepherds, no star, no Magi, no massacre of the infants, and no flight into Egypt.” We also know that December 25th is an arbitrary date for Jesus’ birth, chosen some time in the fourth century.

So what are we doing here? For those of you from Christian backgrounds, the answer may be rooted in your family traditions and memories of past Christmases. Many of us love the Christmas traditions, the carols, the tree, the lights, and yes, church on Christmas Eve. For some of us from non-Christian backgrounds, including those of us who earlier tonight may have celebrated Chanukah in our homes, it may be the chance to share in what is now largely an American holiday, or to acknowledge that our more recently adopted Unitarian Universalist identity is rooted in Jewish and Christian tradition. Most of us are also here to celebrate the magic we make here on this night with its bells, candles, songs, family, and our beloved community.

But, I’d like to think that for many of us it does have to do with Jesus…not the Christ, but Jesus the mystic, rabbi, teacher, prophet and exemplar.

Now I didn’t know much about Jesus growing up. I’ve told you about how in second grade, bullied by my Catholic classmates into learning the catechism, I went home and asked my parents, “how come you haven’t told me about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?” I remember being called a “Christ killer” by a fellow third grader and being completely confused. I remember being puzzled by the flowing haired picture of Jesus in some of my friend’s living room – a picture that was referred to in seminary as the Breck boy Jesus – often next to pictures of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Jesus Christ” was also a swear word used in my home; when a grown up was really upset, they might even say, “Jesus Christ Almighty.” The irony of my parent’s using that as an expletive with no context was lost on them and me.

I frankly wasn’t interested and when I think back about it, surprisingly uncurious about who this Jesus was and why he was important to so many. I didn’t really learn about Jesus until I started divinity school in 1996, when a professor suggested that I read the New Testament before I began his course in Christology. He suggested that I read it like I was reading it for the first time; the reality was that I was! Growing up I’m quite certain my Jewish parents would have preferred finding pornography in my room rather than a New Testament.

I liked much of what I read about Jesus in the New Testament – Jesus who stood up to the oppressors of his time, Jesus who told wonderful stories, Jesus who welcomed everyone and said to “carry one another’s burdens” to fulfill his law and to “love one another just as I have loved you.” When I discovered the work of the Jesus Seminar, a group of theologians and historians who are trying to separate the historical Jesus from the myth, I liked their portrait of Jesus as a revolutionary and humanitarian even more. I remember saying to a Bishop friend of mine, “I think I would have followed Jesus in the original.”

Right after my first semester at divinity school, I was attending a conference that included many evangelical leaders. About 30 people were part of a group discussion on religion and politics in everyday life. Millard Fuller, the President of Habitat for Humanity, was there, and at one point in the discussion, he said:

“I really pray for my Jewish friends. Even though they are good people, I know they are all going to go to hell.”

I was stunned. How could this man who was doing so much good in the world state something so anti-Semitic so boldly? The conversation moved on, but my blood ringing in my ears, I just had to say something. I raised my hand.

“Mr. Fuller, I am just beginning seminary and I am really enjoying learning about your Jesus. But as a person from a Jewish background, when I hear comments like your’s, it makes me want to have nothing to do with the practice of a religion that excludes people like me.”

Hushed silence, like in the old E.F. Hutton commercials. Finally, Rev. Tony Campolo, a leading evangelical theologian, spoke up. He said something like, “You know, Millard she’s right. Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 25 about who will get into the kingdom of heaven: that all will get in who gave me food when I was hungry, drink when I was thirsty, welcomed me when I was a stranger, gave me clothing when I was naked, took care of me when I was sick, and visited me when I was in prison. They answered him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink.” And Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And Tony looked at me and then at Mr. Fuller and said, “I don’t think you need to worry about your Jewish friends.”

It was indeed a Christian moment, in the way that I have to come to understand and love what Jesus stands for. . Loving your neighbor as yourself. Radical hospitality and radical inclusion of all. Speaking truth to power. Taking care of those who are less fortunate. Working together to heal a broken world.

And I believe it is that Jesus we celebrate as Unitarian Universalists on Christmas Eve and that fifteen years into my ministry, I still want to know more about. May we be blessed to follow Jesus’ example and love one another. May together we bless the world. Blessings to you this holiday season. Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas.

And may I add, Happy New Year. All blessings for a healthy, peaceful 2012.


Anonymous said...

What Jesus stands for: Loving your neighbor as yourself. Radical hospitality and radical inclusion of all. Sending people to hell who don't gouge out their eyes after having sexual thoughts. Sending people to hell who call others 'fools.' Keeping The Law of Moses, which includes instructions on how to buy slaves, assertions that women are unclean because they menstruate, accusations that homosexuality is an abomination, etc.) And this is all just from the Sermon on the Mount.

Seriously? I enjoy your writings on sex, but when it comes to religion it seems you cherry-pick just like everyone else.

Tim Martin

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

What an excellent homily! I wish I had a UU congregation closer to home; I'd love to go!