Several people asked for tonight’s Christmas Eve homily, so here it is. Blessings to all this Christmas and may love and peace be yours in the new year.
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
Christmas Eve Homily – December 24, 2011
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
© 2011 Michael James Tino
Christmas, at its heart, is a holiday about a promise. As the story goes, it’s the promise made by God to the people of the Earth that something better is possible, that something better is coming. It is the promise that each of us should have hope for the future—not despair, not fear, but hope.
This is the promise of the rainbow after the Great Flood in Genesis, the promise of the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus. It is the promise of the rebirth of the Sun after the Winter Solstice, and the promise of the miraculous oil that allowed the temple to be consecrated in ancient times.
It is the promise of peace on Earth. The promise of heavenly peace.
When I first called this service “Heavenly Peace,” of course I was thinking of the lyric from Silent Night—our traditional closing song. And though I was thinking about the Christmas message of peace on Earth, I didn’t give much thought to the “heavenly” part. (I am a Unitarian Universalist, after all.)
Then Frances saw the photo I’d chosen for the cover of our Order of Service, and connected it with the view of Earth from space—from the heavens. She wondered what I’d have to say about the heavenly part of “heavenly peace.” I admitted I’d have to think about that.
And the more I did think about that, the more another song lyric kept playing through my head—the words from Julie Gold’s From A Distance, recorded by Nanci Griffith some 25 years ago (but more famously by Bette Midler in 1990). You’ve probably heard it. You might even loathe it, given how many “worst songs ever” lists it seems to be on, but that’s the song that kept coming back to me as I meditated on the phrase “heavenly peace,” the earworm with which I have been infected for weeks now as I’ve pondered this year’s Christmas Eve message.
In her song, Gold imagines seeing Earth from space, and realizes that from the heavens, the petty differences between people disappear.
From a distance the world looks blue and green
And the snow capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight
From a distance, there is harmony
And it echoes through the land
It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace
It’s the voice of every man.
In an interview in which Gold was asked about the song, she said that she “only set out to write a decent song about the difference between the way things seem and the way things are.”
The difference between the way things seem and the way things are. From a distance, we can see peace. Up close, we get pettiness, violence and inequality.
I believe that the promise of Christmas is fundamentally the promise that what we can see from a distance can actually become reality.
It is the promise of peace—heavenly peace. It is a promise that I think is often quite misunderstood.
I think that many people understand the substance of this promise without the context. They get the “what” but not the “how.”
Many people look at the story of Christmas and see the miracle of the birth of a savior. They celebrate the birth of Christ, whose life becomes a sacrifice to atone for all of human sin. They see this holiday as the promise that peace will come through the actions of God, who will eliminate civilization as we know it and replace it with the kingdom of heaven. The heavenly peace of Christmas is divinely promised and divinely created, and our job is to have the faith to wait for it to come to us.
Now, I don’t mean to be flippant about the central tenets of Christianity, but to me, that’s a lot of weight to put on the back of a tiny baby born in a stable far from home.
To me, the baby born at Christmas grew up to be a great prophet and teacher, a holy man who taught the ways of peacemaking. It is not up to Jesus to do the work of peacemaking—dare I say that much of humanity has been waiting for far too long for him to come back and clean up our mess.
No, we are shown the promise of peace at Christmas, but it is a peace that we must seek by following the example of the man whose birth we celebrate this day.
Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote, “How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few, his precepts! O! ’tis easier to keep holidays than commandments.”
Indeed, ‘tis easier. ‘Tis easier to look at something from a distance and see peace and harmony than to get up close and understand that so much work needs to be done.
Luckily, Jesus left us some instructions to follow. Love one another. Provide for the least among us. Set a place at the table for the oppressed and outcast. Judge not. Did I mention love one another?
Heavenly peace will not arrive simply by waiting. It is ours to create, on Christmas and every other day as well.
This Christmas, may the promise of peace echo through our land. May it stir us to song, call us to worship, inspire us to act. May peace be with you, and may you bring peace to others. Blessed be.
In yesterday’s worship service, I shared some reflections on giving that I hope people will think about this time of year.
A Reflection for the Thanksgiving Multigenerational Service “In Another’s Shoes”
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
November 20, 2011 – Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
© 2011 Michael James Tino
“On the road from greed to giving, love will guide us through the hard night.”
So goes a line from one of my very favorite hymns, “Love Will Guide Us.”
Today, I ask you to ponder what that road is that leads us from greed to giving, and how, guided by love, we can see giving in a different light this holiday season.
We are entering the time of year known most prominently for greed. We like to think that this time of year is about giving, but let’s face it—it’s about greed. It’s about consumption—about buying stuff. It’s about making lists to ask Santa for things, and thinking that the bigger the gift, the more love it shows.
It’s about all sorts of things that are completely the opposite of the message that different religions for thousands of years have taught at this time of year.
To religions that celebrate holidays as fall turns to winter, this time of year is about miracles. It’s about the unexpected happening. It’s about letting go of old ways of thinking and embracing new ones.
If you are Jewish you might be looking forward to celebrating the miracle of the oil burning in the temple, if you’re Christian you’re getting ready to celebrate the birth of a prophet. If you are pagan you’re likely preparing for the turning of the light at Yule, when the short days begin to get longer again, if you’re Chinese you might be preparing for Dongzhi, the returning of energy to our world.
If you are from a tradition that celebrates this time of year, chances are what is celebrated has nothing to do with greed—even if gifts are exchanged to brighten the darkest days of the year or bring joy to a time of coldness, as is the case in many cultures.
In the United States, we pause for a moment before the winter holidays to celebrate Thanksgiving—a time for gratitude, a time to be glad for what we have. What a perfect time to decide that the greed that usually greets us in the weeks to come will not be what our holidays are about this year.
Now, I’m not asking you to do away with giving gifts entirely. Just to move down the road from greed to giving.
No, in fact giving is a good thing, and giving to one another is something that makes this time of year special. But our gift-giving needs to be separated from the culture of greed that’s all around us. I have three suggestions for how we might start to do this.
First, buy less stuff.
How much you love someone should not be proportional to the amount of stuff you are willing to buy them, or the amount of money you are willing to spend on them. How much you are loved has nothing to do with the amount of stuff you get, or how much that stuff is worth.
If your family is like mine, Christmas will find you with piles and piles of boxes under the tree. Frankly, I’ve come to think of it as quite disgusting, even though I participate in it again and again. Last Christmas, I had to explain to my older nephew that it wasn’t a bad thing that the box with his name on it was smaller than the box with his brother’s name on it. It’s hard to tell a six-year-old that the big box has one toy in it, but the small box has carefully-selected, high-quality art supplies for a little boy who had declared that he wants to be an artist when he grows up.
It shouldn’t matter how big the boxes are, or how shiny the things in them are. Honestly, there should just be less stuff to begin with. So first, buy less stuff.
Second, give gifts of meaning.
Make the value of the gifts you give be the value of thought, the value of care, the value of love—and not the value of money. Two years ago, everyone in my family (except for the littlest kids) got a special basket with a theme selected to match their personality. Each had a few store-bought things, along with handmade items I put in there just for them—jars of canned tomatoes from my garden, home-infused lavender-orange liqueur, ginger-pear jam using pears from the Croton Farmer’s Market. None of it was fancy, but all of it was made with love, and selected with the tastes of the people in my family in mind.
Give gifts of meaning, and not of material wealth.
And third, give gifts that reflect your values.
Perhaps the gifts you give don’t have to be things at all. Consider giving donations to organizations doing good work in the world. Match up the passions of the people you are giving gifts to with the mission of the organization. For your environmentalist brother, perhaps a donation to the Sierra Club or Clearwater. For your cousin the beekeeper, maybe a hive of bees to a village in Africa through the Heifer Project. For your foodie mom, maybe a donation to the Interfaith Food Pantry. You get the picture.
If the gifts that you give have to be things, consider seeking things whose purchase does some good in the world. Consider things that are certified to be fairly traded—perhaps from small artisans in developing nations who rely on their handiwork to feed their children.
Consider things made by artists with whom you can actually have a conversation (I buy all of my Christmas cards from a friend who hand-makes them—it’s no more expensive than ordering custom printing from a big card company, but much more satisfying–plus, I get to think of my friend Louisa every time I send a Christmas card).
Consider shopping only at small, independent merchants who invest in the local economy. Merchants with whom you have a relationship that goes beyond buying and selling.
Our gift giving should reflect the world we would like to live in, and not the society whose messages of greed are unhealthy and unacceptable. Make your giving reflect your values.
“On the road from greed to giving, love will guide us through the hard night.”
Let love be your guide in transforming your holidays from ones of greed to ones of giving.
Today in worship, we honored the ancient Persian celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which happens on the first day of spring. It is one of the many celebrations that are part of the cultures from which our Fellowship community comes. I look forward to honoring the cultural traditions of other families in our Fellowship in the future.
As part of this celebration, we thought about how we can renew our lives and the relationships in them, how we can forgive ourselves and others, and how we can commit to doing better to keep resentment, hatred, bitterness and evil out of our lives in the year ahead. We thought about family relationships (chosen and not) that have become distant and need to be brought closer.
One Iranian tradition on this day is the reading of poetry by Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet. The poem below was our opening reading, and it has been going through my mind all day. ”I know the way you can get when you have not had a drink of Love,” writes Hafiz. And indeed, we all know how we get when we have not been imbibing large enough quantities of love.
It strikes me that one of the very best ways we can commit to reducing the evil in our world–to reducing hatred, resentment, bitterness and brokenness–is to make our love flow like an endless fountain, quenching the thirst of all who seek it. This is my wish for all of us in the coming year: May our love reach all who need to drink deeply from it.
I Know The Way You Can Get
From: ‘I Heard God Laughing – Renderings of Hafiz’ Translated by Daniel Ladinsky
I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:
Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.
Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
And into one’s self.
O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:
You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.
You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.
You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once
I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s
That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see Him
As being so playful
Just wanting to help.
That is why Hafiz says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!
All a sane man can ever care about
Is giving Love!
The beginning of February marks the midway point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, a time celebrated as Imbolc by those who follow ancient European Earth-centered traditions. I don’t know about you, but February is the hardest month of the year for me. Luckily, it’s also the shortest! It’s cold outside. I’m weary from shoveling snow. Winter has been dragging on for what seems like an eternity, and spring does not feel close enough yet.
I think Pagan folks have the right idea, then. Light candles and enjoy the sacred light and warmth that they bring. Build fires in our fireplaces if we’re lucky enough to have them. Notice all of the things around us that herald the return of the Sun–the lengthening of the days, the scurrying of squirrels, the relentless obsession with weather-prognosticating rodents, the puddles of melting snow that re-freeze every night. The word “Imbolc” itself comes from the recognition that this is the time of year when the ewes would begin lactating–a sure sign of the renewal of life.
I decided last fall to plant a pot full of tulip bulbs and stash it in the vegetable crisper in my fridge. I’ve taken them out, and soon will have tulips blooming in the dining room. My pot of sprouting tulips reminds me that spring is right around the corner. Soon, the crocuses in the front yard will be poking their heads through the remaining snow. Tulips are not that far off. They also remind me that all of this cold has a purpose–without it, the tulips wouldn’t bloom. What I forced to happen with three months in the refrigerator, nature does by itself. We might get weary of all that snow, but because of it, we will soon have tulips.