tonight's christmas eve message: we are kindred in opposing the fear...

As a rule, I don’t usually share a message or reflection on Christmas Eve:  there are too many social, personal and cultural expectations already flying around the Sanctuary on this night and crashing into one another; so I usually just remind you of God’s everlasting invitation into love and grace and let the music and candles tell you the stories your heart most needs to hear. Sometimes silence speaks louder and more truthfully than any words we might conjure.  And on Christmas Eve, I sense that is the case more often than not.

But sometimes silence implies assent – acquiescence – or alarm – especially when our souls are troubled and fear is in the air. Sometimes silence is what tyrants and bullies count on – the binding of our tongues rather than a shout of solidarity or a call of complaint. Indeed, sometimes the energy of an era aches for songs of protest, hope and opposition but all that is heard is… silence. One of the spiritual elders of the American civil rights movement, the late Howard Thurman of All Souls Church in San Francisco, put it like this:  “When refugees seek deliverance that never comes and the heart consumes itself if it would life; where little children age before their time and life wears down the edges of the mind; where the old soul sits with mind grown cold, while bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death and Perfect Love seems long delayed: Christmas is waiting to be born – in you, in me and in all humanity.”

That is why I’ve chosen tonight to alter my usual Christmas Eve habit of honoring the silence and speak to you of the Christmas waiting to be born.  It is clear to me that the dangerous clouds of religious hatred are gathering on our horizon:  in a recent Berkshire Eagle poll it was revealed that 40% of our friends and neighbors in this county support the vicious bigotry and fear-mongering that Donald Trump and others are currently encouraging.  That means that about 50,000 people whom we love and care for in our region have exchanged the promise spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, the Magi and later the disciples of Christ for an idol:  Fear not” the angel proclaimed,  “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of a great joy which shall be to all people: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

I believe God is serious when the promise of peace and glad tidings is offered to all people – not just Jews or Christians, but Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, pagans, atheists and… all people.  Not because of what we believe or the creeds we confess, but because that is who God is – the healer – that is what Savior means – the healer: of our souls, our bodies and our common life. And right now religious snake oil hucksters are peddling fear rather than comfort and joy – and that fear is being manipulated by politicians – so that our deepest hopes and dreams are turning into acts of violence and despair.  So the angel comes to us again to say this fear MUST be challenged: FEAR NOT is God’s Christmas proclamation, a charge to empower our words and deeds with the living presence of all the Lord for this is how the miracle is multiplied within and among us. When God’s word takes up residence within us and becomes flesh, a light breaks forth in the darkness and the darkness cannot vanquish it.

+  You see, without a light shining in our dark streets, without a clear and compelling word of courage spoken at this time, fear thrives in our shadows – meaning more Muslim houses of prayer will burn, anti-Semitism will flourish unabated and immigrants will continue to be demonized and abandoned rather than embraced, nourished and resettled.

+  Did you know that to date over four million people have fled war-torn Syria – half of whom are
children?  Most have taken up residence in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt with about 40,000 in transit to Europe. Our neighbor to the north – Canada – is welcoming 10,000 refugees throughout the next month as part of their commitment to healing what is broken in the world. But given the context of presidential politics, fear and bigotry, our land has only been able to welcome 1,600 sisters and brothers fleeing violence, cold and hatred.  And our Governor, a good man, is on record against allowing the commonwealth to help out in this tragedy.

Beloved, something is wrong – something is broken – out of whack – and this brokenness calls for incarnational acts of compassion to repair the breach in our collective soul.  Some call it tikkun olam, others say satyagraha or soul force, those in this house speak of radical hospitality or deep ecumenism. Whatever our words, we’re talking about is the coming together of Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Sikhs as well as atheists and all people of good will to say NO to the fear.  We cannot remain silent.

+  We must be clear that we have one another’s backs in times like these. That we will speak with our legislators – write to our papers – open our wallets and checkbooks to those providing emergency services to refugees as winter comes upon the camps – and take a stand against any form of religious hatred or racial prejudice.

+  As I’ve told you before, the way of Mr. Trump is NOT the path to peace, it is the road to hell. The way of fear-mongering and prejudice never leads to the stable on Christmas Eve or common ground on Park Square; it only takes us to the internment or even concentration camps of incarceration and death.

Earlier this week I heard from some of our interfaith partners after my op-ed piece ran in the Eagle, including my friend and colleague Rabbi David at Knesset Israel, and they told me that they want to join us in the New Year in shaping a united public witness against religious bigotry and immigrant bashing.  Unlike some of us, these neighbors know what it means to be excluded and demonized, segregated and stripped of the human rights and dignity the Lord gave to all God’s children.  They have lived through the consequences of a reign of fear and terror – and have vowed: NEVER AGAIN!
So tonight, even as we gather to hear the ancient words and stories and songs of our tradition, we do so in the light of their witness and experiences in history.  You see, not all Scriptures are created equal.  Jesus and other rabbis and teachers before him, understood that we have to do some interpretive work if we’re going to overcome the punitive and exclusionary words that pit us one against the other. If we’re going to sing YES with the angels and encourage honesty, truth, beauty and humility in our community, we must be discerning.  In the Hebrew Bible there is an image – a metaphor for the human condition – which we translate as the vineyard. Sometimes the vineyard flourishes, sometimes it withers; sometimes it is fragile, sometimes it bears good fruit. And sometimes it is so unproductive that it must be pruned or even cut off at the roots.

Vineyards, in other words, are vulnerable – and that is probably why Jesus spoke of himself as a vineyard. It is NOT a symbol of strength or traditional power. Rather, as Lauren Winner writes, the vineyard “tells us something about the perils of incarnation – of making God’s word flesh within and among us – for clearly Jesus has interpreted his Hebrew scriptures and discovered in Jeremiah and Isaiah the most precarious depiction of humanity possible:  To say I am the vine and you are the branches is to confess that he is a fragile healer – an ally with humanity when we are most endangered. Whenever we are producing bad fruit or living in ways that are the farthest from pleasing God, Jesus is already there with us.  Our brokenness is not alien to this vineyard: That’s why He comes to us as a vulnerable baby tonight to show us the riskiness of incarnation.” 

So tonight our own vulnerability and the fragility of our neighbors calls us to interrupt our regular
Christian tradition and do something risky before singing “Silent Night” Tonight we gather to honor God’s call to FEAR NOT. Tonight we embrace one another as kindred, lighting the candle of peace not as souls from separate streams, but rather as family, countless currents flowing together into one great river of life. Tonight we own that our vineyard needs help.

+  The tradition of Judaism says:  You know what the Lord requires, dear people, it is to do justice, love with compassion and walk with humility throughout God’s creation.

+  Christianity is clear: In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

+  And the Qur’an of Islam says: whoever saves one human life shall be regarded as though they had save all of humankind.

On this night of silence, the time has come to share the light of peace in human solidarity. So let me ask you to join with me in two ways:

+  If you are interested and willing to help Rabbi David and I strengthen our interfaith connections and offer a public alternative to immigrant bashing and fear-mongering, leave me your name and a contact number or email in tonight’s collection plate and we’ll make this happen in the New Year.

+  If you sense the time has come for us to stand up for peace – inner peace, peace among the races, peace beyond the divisions of faith – then join with me in singing a song another angel once shared with our people as we light one another’s candles of peace.

We shall overcome – we shall overcome – we shall overcome someday
O deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.
We are not afraid…
We shall live in peace…

O God of new beginnings, who brings light out of night's darkness
and fresh green out of the hard winter earth:
there is barren land between us as people and as nations this day,
there are empty stretches of soul within us.
Give us eyes to see new dawnings of promise. 
Give us ears to hear fresh soundings of birth.
And give us strength to embrace our people’s fears 
with your boundless but vulnerable love.
For we pray in the name of all that is holy. Amen.
(adapted from John Philip Newell)


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