as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 24, 2018
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
to all good will.”
These words were penned by the great Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote them on Christmas Day in 1863. He wrote them in the middle of the Civil War, shortly after his son had joined the Union Army without his permission. He wrote them two years after his wife died. He wrote them when this country was in the midst of a profound crisis and when he was caught in his own personal crisis.
“And in despair I bowed my head,” these are good verses for tonight. Christmas 2018 finds this country and our world again in severe crisis. The federal government is shutdown. Migrants are dying at the border. Climate change continues to wreak havoc across the planet. Turkey threatens genocide against the Kurds of Syria. I do not have it within me to offer you a light and cheery Christmas homily.
Perhaps that is alright. Christmas is a complicated holiday. When we turn to the ancient texts we find much in them to suggest that the world was not right two thousand years ago. There is Caesar Augustus organizing a census to count the people of the Roman Empire. He did so not to aid the poor but to benefit the wealthy. There is Herod flying into a rage massacring “all the boys aged two years or under” because one of them might have threatened his rule. The names may have changed but the story has not. We can replace Caesar Augustus with the current President of the United States and the narrative will not be all that different. We can swap Herod with Basar al-Assad or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and our discussion of executed or planned massacres will mirror the gospel texts.
The fundamental conceit of the Christmas holiday is that two thousand years ago a child was born who threatened this great disorder of things. We are supposed to be celebrating the advent of a messiah whose birth meant that God was going to bring about peace and joy to the whole world. We are supposed to celebrating the coming of the kingdom and the reign of the divine. For Christians this event is so important that it actually divides time in two. First there was the era known as B.C., Before Christ. And now there is the era of Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord.
For Unitarian Universalists, the holiday is more convoluted. Most of us do not believe that Jesus was the messiah. A few of us wonder if he existed at all. And yet, we celebrate the holiday.
Sometimes this prompts people to tell jokes at our expense. A few of these are jokes are quite mean spirited. Others a bit more gentle, “What’s the Unitarians favorite Christmas movie? Coincidence on 34th street.”
Occasionally the holiday prompts us to poke fun at ourselves. One of my favorite bits along these lines is the late Unitarian minister Christopher Raible’s holiday hymn, “God Rest Ye, Unitarians.” Appealing to the hardcore rationalists among us it begins:
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there’s no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
A rationalist reading of the Christmas story would examine other aspects of the ancient texts as well. It would point out that their references to a census by Caesar Augustus and Herod’s massacre of the innocents are metaphoric at best. There seems to be little historical evidence that either occurred.
And yet, in 2018, Christian readings of the Christmas story that celebrates Jesus as the world saving of messiah and rationalist readings that offer “Glad tidings of reason and fact” both miss an essential point. The Christmas story, whether metaphor or fact, suggests something crucial about what we are called to do when in despair we bow our heads. It is a lesson of where we are supposed to look for hope.
When we read the story carefully we discover that the invention of Caesar Augustus’s census and Herod’s massacre of the innocents turn Jesus not only into a messiah. They turn him into a child of migrants fleeing political persecution. They turn him into a child of the least of these. The great messiah is not born to the high and mighty. He is born to outcasts so poor they must take shelter in a cave or a stable because they cannot find room in an inn.
This story suggests that we are to look for hope on the margins of society. We will not to find it by looking to the powerful. We will not find it by turning to Caesar Augustus or Herod or the President of the United States or Assad or Erdoğan. We will to find it by looking to the prisoners, the migrants, the refugees, the civilians who endure the horrors of war… all of those who bravely insist that there is another way.
I have been thinking of this dimension of the Christmas story over the past weeks as my heart has been burdened by the death of seven-year-old Jacklin Caal. She was the young Guatemalan migrant who died in the custody of the United States Border Patrol after being denied medical attention. If Jesus existed he was born into a family like Jacklin’s, a family that was fleeing violence and death.
And let me tell you, that is exactly what Jacklin’s family was fleeing. The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are some of the most violent in the world. They routinely have murder rates that mirror those of countries at war. I have gone to El Salvador and interviewed the victims of that violence. I spent years doing human rights work in southern Mexico and spoke with migrants who passed through that country on their way to the United States. I could recount their stories and on this Christmas Eve push you to despair.
If were to do so, I might tell you that the violence found in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala was produced by the powerful in this country. Their histories of instability are a result of the United States government’s systematic undermining of their movements for democracy. Their recent spikes in violence a result of our government deporting Central American gang members back their home countries in the nineties. Addressing their widespread poverty would do more to stem the flow of migrants than Donald Trump’s quest to build a wall. The budget for building a wall is almost the same as the entire budget of the government of Honduras. The budget of the US Customs and Border Patrol is about five times the budget of El Salvador. Imagine how different the lives of people in Central America would be if the money spent keeping them out of this country was spent to improve their countries instead.
But I digress. The Christmas story does not just remind us that the powerful are so often responsible for the violence of the world. It reminds us that hope is to be found at the margins of society. It is to found amongst those who have the most at stake in changing the world: the migrants who flee violent lands with a dream of peace in their hearts; the prisoners who are bold enough to imagine a world without prisons; the labor militants who believe that it is possible build a world where there is prosperity for all; the peace activists who dream of the end of war; the ecological activists who hope that there is way that we might yet live in harmony with the earth… When the world changes for the better it will be because of the work of those on the margins.
When we remember that we can go beyond the third verse of Longfellow’s hymn, “And in despair I bowed my head:” and hear the bells of the fourth:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, to all goodwill.”
My prayer for us this Christmas is simple:
May we hear the deeper peals of the bells
and, rationalist or believer,
remember that the story tells us to look for hope
not among the powerful–
the architects of wars
and government shutdowns–
but at the margins of society.
It is there
that we might find hope
just as it was there
that the ancient texts
found hope in the birth
of a child
fleeing political persecution
some two thousand years ago.
Much love to all of you,
have a wonderful holiday