This is an excerpt of my sermon for Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marietta, Georgia this past Sunday, December 9. Many thanks to my friend Jeffrey Jacoby and the worship committee for the invitation! I found the congregation vibrant and friendly. For the bulletin cover I created The Centering Thought: “What if everyone had told me I had a spark of divinity in me when I was born?” For the Chalice Lighting, I wrote:
Light comes into the world
through every baby born.
May we do everything possible
to let that light shine,
openly, honestly, imaginatively,
so other lights may be inspired
with wisdom, compassion, and awe,
bringing our world out of the shadows
and into the rainbow that is light’s spectrum.
You don’t have to listen to me to recognize over and over again how Christmas has become culturally relevant—just watch the Hallmark Channel and Netflix Christmas movies, Christmas mixes on radio stations as well as media reports of compassion and kindness toward the under-appreciated and underprivileged that are more plentiful at this time of year to know that the spirit of Christmas can lift everyone’s boats, regardless of belief.
It’s believed that the observance of Christmas that we have come to experience in the West was expanded by Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” a favorite of mine—so much so that last year a commercially well-received film about Dickens’ creation of the story was entitled, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” In all his novels, Dickens promoted social justice and equality while casting a critical eye on the treatment of the poor in England. As a child, he himself had spent time in a poorhouse that incarcerated those without resources, and his writing of “A Christmas Carol” prevented him and his family from sharing a similar fate.
Every Christmas season there are some Christians who gnash their teeth at the “commercialism” of Christmas. “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas,” they say, verbally and on their bumper stickers, without realizing the success of Christmas marketing is that the story of Christmas is so universal. Its “good will to men and women” and “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” speaks to people of every faith and of no religion at all.
Christmas has become about more than Jesus. It’s about the lifting of the human spirit. It’s about kindness and compassion and the glory of being alive!
Years ago, the late sociologist, novelist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley reported from his scientific surveys that the reason Christians are more likely to attend church in this season is simply because they love the nativity story, not because they hold to the theological assertions of the church about who Jesus was.
This is a very important point—even Christians themselves are not necessarily drawn by theological propositions, but by how the Christmas narrative touches their hearts: an unwed pregnant Mary threatened with scandal, a reluctant Joseph, a sweet baby in a manger, whose life is threatened by the government and whose family has been displaced by governmental policies, a star of hope overhead drawing sages from afar, and more angels and dreams per cubic foot of any biblical story, influencing Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, and still others. This was the original Christmas pageant!
Like all mythological stories, there are parts of the Christmas tale that are fanciful or exaggerated, unbelievable or unverifiable. Those who told these stories wanted to convey meaning rather than history. They were looking backward from their experience of what Jesus had achieved in his life and ministry, his extraordinary teachings, his healing touch, his compassion and grace, his humility and faithfulness. The Christmas narrative was devised in hindsight, what should have been the world’s welcome of one who would transform so much of the world.
Yet the few stories of Jesus’ birth are found in only two of the four gospels. Notably, the first gospel about Jesus written, Mark, included none of these stories—either because they were already well known or, more likely, because they were unknown to Mark or unnecessary to Mark’s story. The last gospel written, that of John, also contains none of these stories. John is the most mystical of the four gospels, and the author’s interest is in explaining the cosmic purpose and nature of Jesus. He grandly describes Jesus as God’s Word made flesh, an embodiment of God’s hope for the world.
It is the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke who give us the nativity stories of how Jesus was born. You will probably recognize parallels in this story to our world today.
Jesus was born in troubled times. As part of the Roman Empire, his people and his country of Palestine were not allowed control of their own land. His parents, though poor, had to deal with the unequal tax plan of a demanding ruler—Caesar Augustus—requiring their migration from the ghetto of Nazareth to Bethlehem, where his pregnant mother and doting father ended up homeless.
But they, like all parents, believed there was something special about the baby born to them in a cave used as a stable. Maybe he might be the one to deliver his people from bondage to Rome, like their ancestor Moses delivered them from Egypt in the exodus. Maybe he might be the one to unite his people from their partisanship, like their ancestor King David united the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Maybe he just might be the one to save the whole world. You know how parents dream!
So Mary sings of their vision for their child who might possibly transform life as they knew it:
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
[God] has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts,
Bringing down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifting up the lowly,
filling the hungry with good things,
and sending the rich away empty.
Talk about ending income inequality! Talk about removing unjust, arrogant rulers! Talk about empowering the marginalized!
No wonder King Herod, a collaborator with their Roman oppressors, was terrified that he might be displaced, and tried to destroy the child. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would have to flee for a while to Egypt, migrants fleeing the terror of their homeland.
No wonder that poor shepherds had a vision of an angel declaring, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Deliverer.” Then a vision of a multitude of angels singing, “Peace on earth, and good will among people!”
No wonder that astrologers from the East came from afar at the sight of a new star in the heavens! They believed the world’s fortunes were about to change.
No wonder that poor shepherds and privileged magi alike came to his crib to pay him homage, the latter with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Ultimately, what the Christmas story affirms is the vital importance and necessity of spirituality in our world. Almost every founder of a spiritual path has such stories told about them, either of their birth or of their lives. Those we might name as saints from old or saints of our own time have wondrous stories told about them as well.
And I daresay that everyone here has stories of wonder to tell—how you came to be here, in this world and in this congregation. If only we all had been told when we were born of our divine spark, of our sacred worth, of how we participate in divinity, what a different world it would be!
That, I believe, is the Gospel of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. You value all spiritual paths and everyone’s spiritual life.
As Tiny Tim, the most vulnerable and marginalized character in Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” might say in the spirit of Christmas, “Bless us, everyone!”
As a child my parents told me not to take more on my plate than I could eat. When I did, I dawdled at our table after everyone left, expected to finish my meal. I won’t make that mistake tomorrow as we celebrate Thanksgiving in America.
I’m aware of a similar dynamic as I have paused reading The Tao of Physics. Not only the science got a little too detailed for me, but the God in the details got too large, too impersonal and even frightening, more than I could “eat”! My bookmark with excerpts from Psalm 139 kept tempting me to abandon God’s incarnation in reality to welcome God’s intimate presence, “you who formed my inmost being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.” “Comfort food” theology, so to speak.
Maybe that’s why the ancient Hebrews chose to follow one God out of the pantheon of gods polytheism offered. Maybe that’s why the first Christians chose to follow Jesus out of the panoply of prophetic voices in Judaism. It was a matter of focus, a matter of admitting, in the words of Psalm 131:
My heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
I am now contemplating the Psalms in the 130’s, their uplifting poetry a pleasant contrast to dispassionately documented subatomic and cosmic interactions, though still filled with “signs and wonders” (Ps 135:9). I’ve been yearning to walk naked with God in the cool of the day in the Garden of Eden, or to share “the sympathizing tear” with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This coming Sunday is traditionally the end of the Christian calendar, “Christ the King” Sunday, when Jesus is celebrated and elevated as sovereign of the universe. By the following Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, we once again await his nativity, a baby born in a barn. Thus I’m following a pattern, perhaps, of being overwhelmed theologically and then discerning divinity in something tiny as an infant. God is indeed in the small things.
The Tao of Physics informed me, in the words of astronomer Fred Hoyle:
Present-day developments in cosmology are coming to suggest rather insistently that everyday conditions could not persist but for the distant parts of the Universe, that all our ideas of space and geometry would become entirely invalid if the distant parts of the Universe were taken away. Our everyday experience even down to the smallest details seems to be so closely integrated to the grand-scale features of the Universe that it is well-nigh impossible to contemplate the two being separated. [p 195-6]
And, addressing Yahweh, Psalm 138:3 reminds me:
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.
I once wrote a piece entitled “Advent Is a Time to Look for a Star.” It should not surprise us that the star of Bethlehem may portend an answer to a prayer like the psalmist’s.
Recently my visitors per post dropped from a couple thousand to around a hundred. Because most come from Facebook, I gather it has something to do with Facebook algorithms. Facebook would probably like me to pay to boost my posts, but I’ve never done that—it feels like “cheating,” and I couldn’t afford it anyway.
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I’ve written before that I am at “that age” when you look for connections, a time late in life indicated by recent studies. Regular readers will know that, during my morning prayers these days, I’ve been slowly absorbing Fritjof Capra’s 1975 book, The Tao of Physics. I find physicist Capra’s writing more accessible than that of Stephen Hawking, though I wonder how dated his science may be today, even as he demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of Eastern spirituality.
His recurrent theme is that Western science has come to similar conclusions as ancient, mystical Eastern philosophy. Among them, that reality is indivisible, that the observed cannot be separated from the observer, that a particular scientific analysis is not intrinsic in nature but a creation of the human mind.
Now along comes a New York Times magazine article entitled, “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science,” about deconstructionist Latour’s similar conclusions about the nature of science after studying scientists in their “natural habitats,” much like a scientist might study other primates. In our time of pseudo-science and anti-science religionists dissing real science about climate change and evolution, philosopher Latour has recognized the danger of his work being misunderstood or worse, misused.
All this brought to mind a rather prescient conversation I created in one of my unpublished novels, the tongue-in-cheek Angus Dei – A John Boswell Mystery, written in 2002. Spiritual profiler Boswell, the Catholic narrator, is trying to find the one responsible for the death of Angus MacDonald, pastor of Primitive Presbyterian in Crowbar, Mississippi. He interviews various citizens, including science teacher Annie Hepburn, who describes Angus:
“His passion for God made him stupid, just like romantic love makes you blind to reality and prompts you to idealize the beloved. It makes us closer to the animals who breed by instinct rather than by reason. But humans bring reason into any relationship. We are not bound by blind passion, whether for a person, a country, or for God. Our passion is informed. Angus’s passion for God resisted information. His idealization of God required God to create the world as if by magic, in an instant, at most in seven days, rather than through arduous experimentation and a process known as evolution. Angus claimed it was as if I were suggesting God made the world by following a recipe, or worse, some haphazard, trial-and-error plan. If God made the world though a discernible process, then he was diminished, in Angus’s view.
“I, on the other hand, find the process so awesome that it made me more of a believer than any text of scripture ever could. The world itself is the best witness for this inspiration and yearning for life that we call God. By contrast, look how petty religion can be! They argue and divide over how to do Communion, like a bunch of obsessives with varying compulsions. Lately they’ve wasted a lot of time quibbling over whether homosexuality is right or wrong, as if love is only possible between a man and a woman. And they’ve always debated the merits of personal piety versus social responsibility, as if the two could be separated!”
I felt compelled to argue the other side, if only to hear her answer. I said, “But scientists argue over experimental procedure—their rituals. They disagree over what makes for healthy human relationships, including sexuality. And there’s always conflict between ‘pure science’ versus ethical responsibility.”
Annie paused, and smiled, and I could see that she was thinking. “That’s true,” she said at last. “Science is also a mythological framework in some ways, purporting to give meaning and order to what others see as random and chance. But what is revealed in the religion that we call ‘science’ I find ultimately more hopeful and helpful. Religion is too often caught up in the past, and both religion and science are held back if either is paralyzed by the old ways of doing things, the old ways of understanding things. The very nature of science calls for breaking boundaries, breaking the supposed rules.”
I thought of my own Catholic tradition, its very nature caught up in the past, but a past begun in the divine nature of a human being whom we believe modeled how to be a child of God, a past populated by venerable but vulnerable saints who followed the model, as well as powerful demons that didn’t, demons of conformity and cruelty, violence and division—the weeds within the harvest. And then I looked at Annie, and a thought came to mind that I dared not say, that would be highly inappropriate because it would unveil her own precious vulnerability. Just as Catholicism set up an altar to honor its lover, so she had set up an altar to honor hers, her dead husband—a side table adorned with fresh flowers and two candlesticks beneath his photograph, hanging on the wall. She too had an experience in the past of love so powerful that she also remained faithful, I thought to myself. But a true Southern gentleman or lady may only think such things, one doesn’t say them, trudging on people’s personal vulnerabilities for the sake of winning an argument. This is a Southern virtue that other Americans should emulate. Of course, then there would be less for the media, politicians, lawyers, and talk show hosts to exploit.
Annie continued, “Angus also hated breaking the rules. Beyond defending the only one that he thought could possibly satisfy his longing—God—he also was defending himself, his own fortress of beliefs that held him together in the chaos that’s in every person. He was afraid of letting go. And for him, removing one stone from his fortress would cause the whole thing to collapse.”
In the wake of the recent violence, my heart goes out to the Tree of Life synagogue and the beautiful Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, which I visited years ago. I also stand in solidarity with Jewish communities everywhere in their grief and their anxiety over increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.
A reading for Halloween which seems particularly relevant these days:
This past Friday, October 12, was the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. I realized that as I read the good news that his ashes will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral alongside other national figures who helped transform our consciences for the better.
I was about to preach at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Maryland, when someone handed me a newspaper article about a young gay man who was hanging on to life by a thread after being beaten and hung coyote style on a fence in the prairies of Wyoming. Another gay-bashing, I thought, and I doubted any more would come of it than the gay-bashings friends and others had endured. Thank God, I was wrong about its impact.
Weeks later I paralleled Matthew’s life with the Presbyterian Church’s history on LGBT concerns during a “Moment for Mission” for Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City on December 6, 1998. It was printed in the March/April 1999 issue of the More Light Update, and then in a Church & Society issue on “Hate,” September/October 1999.
In memory of Matthew Shepard and the many other lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people (the latter of whom bear a disproportionate brunt of our hate crimes) similarly attacked, I’ve decided to offer this as my post this week.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him what Martha had said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother Matthew Shepard would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and those who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So everyone said, “See how he loved Matthew Shepard!”
But some of them said, “Could not one who gave vision to the visionless have kept Matthew from dying?”
The gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally killed in October 1998 was born in 1976, the year that the United Presbyterian Church set up the Task Force to Study Homosexuality. As we held our meetings and regional hearings to determine whether homosexuality was a sin and a bar to ordination, Matthew Shepard’s mother was changing his diapers and dreaming who he might become.
Matthew Shepard was just learning to walk when the 1978 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church gathered in San Diego and rejected the recommended policy of the majority report of our task force that homosexuality was neither sin nor a bar to ordination.
Although we were devastated by this outcome, at least the General Assembly had not changed the Book of Order, had not set its recommended policy to presbyteries and congregations in stone. But, as Matthew Shepard was learning to talk, the denomination’s Stated Clerk muted our hopes by declaring that the Assembly had interpreted the church Constitution in a way that made its recommendation binding on presbyteries and congregations.
Many congregations balked and, as friends and family told Matthew Shepard’s parents what a sweet little boy they had, a handful of Presbyterian churches began passing statements saying they would welcome people into their churches and into church leadership without regard to sexual orientation. Thus began the More Light church movement, which gave rise to similar movements in other denominations.
Matthew Shepard entered school as denominations across the United States resisted being schooled in matters related to sexuality. Churches kept an arm’s length from homosexuality and human sexuality by commissioning church committees to study these issues, only to dismiss and even condemn their conclusions and recommendations.
So, as Matthew Shepard was becoming aware of his own sexuality, our church and almost every church was announcing in the media that it was sinful, not God’s wish for humanity, evil, sick. Matthew would have had an easier time of it had he grown up in the 1950s when few people talked about homosexuality.
In Matthew’s final years of high school, as he was developing the normal crushes and contemplating what he would do with his life, the Presbyterian Church was busy codifying its anti-gay position by an amendment to our Book of Order.
As Matthew began a college career focused on political science and international relations and hoped someday to serve the United States government in a foreign embassy, that same government passed legislation that prevented recognizing the same-gender marriage he might have had.
And the night of Matthew’s death, the Presbyterian church was sleeping on its ecclesiastical sofa, having declared a moratorium on decisions regarding homosexuality.
Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney were coming of age at the same time, exposed to the same anti-gay messages that the church was sending to Matthew Shepard. If the church calls gay life sick and depraved, why shouldn’t they? If Christians angrily attack the so-called homosexual agenda, why shouldn’t they attack homosexuals? If Christians rob gays and lesbians of their spiritual inheritance and vocations, why shouldn’t they rob Matthew?
If the church excommunicates gays and lesbians, why shouldn’t they cast Matthew out? Excommunication means to send out of community, away from the resources needed for survival, to die of exposure in the wilderness. And in the wilderness of Wyoming, Russell and Aaron executed that sentence upon Matthew Shepard.
If the body of Christ—the church—had been there, Matthew Shepard would not have died.
If the body of Christ had been there, Russell and Aaron would not have brutalized him simply for who he was.
Unlike Jesus, the body of Christ doesn’t have a second chance with Matthew. The church cannot resurrect people. So it needs to get there sooner if it is to bring life to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. It cannot dawdle, lest its only service to gay people be to bury its failures at rescuing the spiritually abused.
“Lord, if you had been there, our brother Matthew Shepard would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
2009 Atlanta Pride parade. That's Wade in the front seat.
Along with others, Dean Lewis has been the longtime conscience and “better angel” of the Presbyterian Church on multiple social justice issues. He was on the staff of the Advisory Council on Church and Society of the former United Presbyterian Church under whose auspices the Task Force to Study Homosexuality (1976-1978) was formed and did our work. Knowing of my intern work for the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania with LGBT people on campus (1975-1976), I believe Dean was the one or among those who recommended me for the task force.
I served as its only openly gay member, appointed by the first African American woman to serve as General Assembly Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Thelma Adair, and Elder Jeanne Marshall, chair of the advisory council, who became a good friend and later advisor and board member of the Lazarus Project, a Los Angeles based ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community that I served as founding director.
In his birthday greeting to me last week, Dean reminded me that this year was the 40th anniversary of the delivery of our task force report to the 1978 General Assembly meeting in San Diego, a report whose majority of 14 recommended that homosexuality not be considered a bar to ordination.
The minority report recommended the opposite, and the view of that minority of five held sway at the assembly, putting in place a ban on the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and, by inference, transgender candidates for professional ministry and lay leadership within the denomination that lasted nearly forty years, and lingers in the less inclusive presbyteries and congregations of the church to this day.
Tomorrow, October 11, is Coming Out Day, a day inviting LGBTQ people and our families, friends and allies to come out about our “faith in the idea that God had when God made” us, in the words of Isak Dinesen (neeKaren Blixen) in Out of Africa and her Immigrant’s Notebook.
Atlanta’s Pride festival and parade/march come this weekend, moved several years ago from the traditional observance on the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion the final weekend of June because of the Georgia drought that prompted concern about the lawns and grounds of its venue, Piedmont Park. Unique to Atlanta Pride, I believe, is that it has always been an invitation for all to express pride in our diversity, regardless of sexual orientation.
Sunday I was invited to encourage the community of Ormewood Church to attend both festival and parade/march in support as part of a year-long series on “Loving Our Neighbors.” The Sunday before, Ormewood Church had celebrated our first anniversary meeting together thanks to the leadership of many fine people, including organizing pastor, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes.
When the Task Force to Study Homosexuality announced its majority/minority divide on the ordination of LGBT people in the winter of 1978, many opposed to that ordination said that, if the task force had included more lay people, the vote would have been more clearly opposed.
But the minority of five who opposed ordination of LGBT people were all straight, white, older male clergy. The majority of fourteen who saw no reason to exclude LGBT people from ordination were lay and clergy, male and female, black and white, old and young, straight and gay. Diversity welcomed inclusion.
This is especially relevant as we face this week a U.S. Supreme Court which will be dominated by five straight white men.
During the hearings on the nominee for Supreme Court justice, my spouse Wade expressed his continuing dismay that the Senate is mostly old white men. “We need a Congress that is as diverse as the American people,” he said. Amen to that!
I recently lost as a Facebook friend one of my best friends from high school when he questioned “identity politics” and I responded politely that “identity politics” has always been with us: as long as you were a straight, white male, you were welcomed into the power structures of government, business, military, and church.
I wrote in my first book, Uncommon Calling, that it was the Rev. Dr. Thelma Adair who gave me a helpful perspective on the LGBT movement as we waited in line for “The Women’s Breakfast” at the San Diego General Assembly. She said simply, “When I first started coming to General Assemblies, we [African Americans] were not allowed to stay in the same hotels with white delegates. We had to stay in private homes far from the venue.”