Occupy Church – Christmas Day Sermon

Occupy Church
Christmas Day Sermon, December 25, 2011
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland
Rev. Jeff Liebmann

Chalice Lighting

We light this chalice as the flame within us,
But also as the beacon light for seekers,
The hearth flame for the homeless and hopeless,
And as the torch to engulf injustice

Opening Words
From “The Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Time for All Ages – Jericho Road

Throughout his ministry, learned people questioned Jesus, testing his knowledge of Hebrew law and his understanding of the Kingdom promised to the Jewish people. On one of these occasions, a lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied (one might imagine in a slightly condescending tone), “What is written in the law? What do you read there?…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Now, perhaps the lawyer saw this as an opportunity to trip up the young rabbi, for Jesus gave what might be considered a stock answer, quoting Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So, the lawyer asks a seemingly innocent question, “And who is my neighbor?” In his usual fashion, Jesus replied with this story, but with a somewhat shocking twist.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, any listener of the day knew that this road was notoriously dangerous and difficult. The Jericho Road was known as the “Way of Blood” for all the victims that had fallen to attacking thieves on its winding curves that were perfect for ambushes. Jesus continued, explaining that the man indeed fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Jesus continues, saying that a priest (possible a Jewish Pharisee) was going down that road; and when he saw the prone victim, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite (who in this context is likely meant to portray a Jewish politician), when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. Now, we must be careful here. Our quick temptation would be to assume that Jesus is skewering Jewish religious and political leaders – which may well have been his intent. However, on the Jericho Road, one’s likely first assumption might well be that this situation may well be a trap and that a stopping traveler would himself be ambushed. Also, strict purity rules applied to priests and Levites that could well have prevented them from touching an apparently dead body.

Now, here comes the big twist. A Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Now, the people of Samaria were not Jews. In fact, Samaritans were hated by Jesus’ audience. The Samaritans in turn hated the Jews. Tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the first century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover with human bones.

So, when Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” the lawyer likely grudgingly says not “The Samaritan,” but rather, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This important parable is only one of many times when Jesus clearly articulates that his message was not meant for only one people, but for all.

From “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” by Rev. Martin Luther King
(Speech delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City)

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…

The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” …A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood….

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

Sermon – Occupy Church

When I tell people that I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, their faces usually assume a quizzical gesture that often does not go away even after I explain what that means. Sometimes, people have actually heard of us, even attended one of our congregations.

The reactions differ significantly when I attend a gathering of clergy. Non-Christians – rabbis, imams, Buddhist priests – almost universally welcome me into the group. Among the Christians, the reactions can vary across the widest spectrum. Some smile broadly, and share discussions of their participation in social action projects with Unitarian Universalist ministers. Others simply turn away.

Then there are the rare few who do little to hide their disdain, but stay to engage in theological debate. These ministers often dismiss my assertion that there are many Unitarian Universalists who consider themselves Christian. And when they learn that I consider myself a religious atheist, the intensity of the debate kicks up several notches. It is not uncommon to be grilled regarding my definition of words like “prayer,” “religion,” and other reverential terms.

When I have the opportunity, I ask them to describe to me the God they worship. Interestingly, they often articulate an essential, universal mystery that they are surprised to learn that I believe in, too. Often, the only real stumbling block arises over the nature of the man Jesus.

I explain that I believe that Jesus (or an amalgamation of concurrent prophets preaching the same message) existed. I agree with the essential teachings. I simply do not believe in his purported resurrection from the dead, the actual details of which the four canonical gospels wildly disagree.

But, that is enough. For these clergy, that one dogmatic assertion is all that matters to turn me into one of “them.” And this is such a shame. Because right now, at this critical juncture of our history, the great teachings of all the world’s religions have come together in common purpose.

For every major world philosophy and religion teaches against the pursuit of unbridled wealth, against greed, and against failing to care for your brothers and sisters as you would care for yourself. Charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma, one of Hinduism’s great yogis, names greed as the source out of which all other evil arises: “Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.”

The Tao Teh Ching tells us that, “There is no crime greater than greed.  No disaster greater than discontentment. No fault greater than avarice.” The Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs, asks: “Where there is greed, what love can there be?” The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism teach us that enlightenment cannot be achieved so long as we suffer, and that suffering is caused by desire. Greed, hate, and ignorance are the Three Poisons that bind us to desire.

From the commandments against stealing and covetousness, to countless citations against greed, the Hebrew Bible abounds with warnings against the love of money. And, as one of the seven deadly sins (arguably the most important), Christian texts have spoken against greed for centuries.

But, let us return to the focus of this day. The four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John generally portray Jesus as a relatively even-tempered, if passionate, person. When is the one time in all four accounts that he completely loses his temper? When he enters the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place of his faith, and sees people buying and selling animals and changing money. He overturns the tables, and chases them away, even using a whip of cords in John’s account. One must find it interesting that even Jesus, the Prince of Peace and avowed opponent of taking up the sword, was moved to violence when the house of prayer was corrupted and perverted by those pursuing money.

My clerical colleagues and I often have very different concepts of “God,” of that unifying principle of life. Whatever form that force takes, however, we can all strive to tap into its power. Our Universalist ancestors preached this message by simply saying that “God is Love.” Even a nonbeliever, whether you are non-religious, agnostic, even atheist, can develop a willingness to accept that simple definition. We engage with the wonder and mystery of our universe, of all existence simply by loving each other. And if it helps some people to call that “God” so be it.

I know that many people struggle with that concept – not just the “God” label, but implications of accepting that God is Love. How do I love a stranger? How do I love my nameless neighbor, the co-worker I barely know, that clerk that makes my coffee in the morning? We start by caring. We start by stopping on the road and helping the beaten and robbed – by being as concerned for the well-being of everyone as for our own well-being.

Dr. King described this beginning in his speech: “This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all…This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept – so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force – has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of [humankind]. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

But, this is just the beginning. The next step is to tear up the Jericho Road we have paved with unchecked greed, corrupted oversight, and indifference. We must rip up that pavement and lay a new surface. We must root out the hiding places of the bandits, lining the highway with inviting paths and resting points. We must remove the tollbooths restricting access to free travel. We must straighten out the dangerous curves and widen the road so that all can walk together, side by side.

This work may be back-breaking. We will not always agree on the direction of the road, or how to traverse obstacles that arise. At times we may find ourselves laboring over a lonely stretch with no end in sight. And, let’s be realistic. We will not want for nay-sayers, people with money and power wishing to stop us in our quest, and for masses too consumed with their own lives to help us wield the picks and shovels.

But, this is the real work of Christmas – not pageants and concerts; not mangers and myth; and certainly not layaways and credit cards. The real work of Christmas is the message of Jesus, not the details of his birth – but rather to find the lost, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, and to rebuild the nations.

On several occasions during his ministry, Jesus articulated the roadmap for creating this new highway, the Kingdom he foresaw. The Beatitudes were blessings Jesus bestowed on all the people as a blueprint, a design for this new world that included Jews and Samaritans, priests and paupers, politicians and prostitutes.

Today, in the 21st century, we who are working in the here and now, striving to create a human world of equality and justice, can learn from these teachings. We can adapt them to our own actions in this life.

  • Blessed are the dispirited: for they most understand and welcome necessary changes to our broken and corrupted economic, political, and social systems.
  • Blessed are they that mourn: for they help others comprehend the depths of sorrow created by war, hate, greed, and ignorance.
  • Blessed are the nonviolent: for they shall model a better way to those who equate force with power and killing with justice.
  • Blessed are the searchers, the questioners: for they shall be open to new experiences and to finding new answers to our problems.
  • Blessed are the merciful: for every act of love and caring is returned to us one hundred-fold. A universal law of every human philosophy teaches us to love our neighbor as we would ourselves be loved.
  • Blessed are the sincere and innocent: for they understand that the business of humankind is not profit, but is humankind itself.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall lay the way to common purpose and understanding in society and in concert with our planet.
  • Blessed are those persecuted in the name of justice: for their sacrifice motivates us all to act and to have faith in the power of commitment and love.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.

Prayerful Reflection

Spirit of life and love that we know by many names, be with us as we enter an attitude of reflection, meditation, and prayer.

Dr. King continued: Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.  Let it be so.

Extinguishing the Chalice/Closing Words

At the end of his speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell:
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.

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