First Parish in Bedford
Christmas Eve 2016
A Thought to Ponder:
“The people that once walked in darkness are
no longer prepared to do so.”
“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”
WHOSOEVER on ye nighte of ye nativity of ye young Lord Jesus, in ye great snows, shall fare forth bearing a succulent bone for ye loste and lamenting hounde, a wisp of hay for ye shivering horse, a cloak of warm raiment for ye stranded wayfarer, a bundle of fagots for ye twittering crone, a flagon of red wine for him whose marrow withers, a garland of bright berries for one who has worn chains, gay arias of lute and harp for all huddled birds who thought that song was dead, and divers lush sweetmeats for such babes’ faces as peer from lonely windows —
To them shall be proffered and returned gifts of such an astonishment as will rival the hues of the peacock and the harmonies of heaven, so that though we live to ye great age when we go stooping and querulous because of the nothing that is left in us, yet shall we walk upright and remembering, as ones whose hearts shine like a great star in our breaste.
We gather tonight that we all may walk upright and remembering, as ones whose hearts shine like a great star in our breast.
Welcome, everyone. Welcome to those of you here for the first time; welcome to those of you who have been here forever; welcome to you who are here, well, annually. May we all be here together as if for the first time, with fresh eyes and cocked alert ears and open open hearts. After all, that’s what this whole fandango hullabaloo is about: In the direst of times, when we least expect it, we gather in hope that something new, and something good is being born now, not a minute too soon!
Welcome to you who are excited, you who are joyous, you who are anxious, you who are burdened by apprehension, you who are bored, you who already are exhausted and you who cannot possibly go to sleep. Welcome to friends and families from near and far brought – thrust – together by this holiday. It is said that a good thing about Christmas is that it is mandatory; as we can neither skip a day nor keep this moment forever, we must persevere through Christmas and we do so together.
We will get through this together. We will move forward together and take not one step back!
Welcome believers, unbelievers, and agnostics; welcome those comfortable, those afflicted and those ambivalent. Welcome also to those who might be ambivalent but are unsure.
Welcome to you who hang on as by a slender thread; welcome to those upon whom foreign and domestic affairs weigh heavily; welcome to you whose emotions are thick and rich and running over and jumbled. May the complexity of your varied anticipations, dreads, expectations and yearnings be tenderly soothed.
Let us perceive the possibilities of birth and hope in our own lives and in our hurting world. Let us affirm all that is worthy. Let us resist all that is not. On this, Noel, we recall that James Baldwin did say unto certain poor folks, “The people that once walked in darkness are no longer prepared to do so.”
Let us pray for the sanity of the powerful, the power of the powerless, the serenity to accept that which we cannot change, the courage to change the things we must, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Tonight we, poised precariously here – our heads beneath shimmering stars, our feet upon ancient timbers and this our endangered earth, with arms and hands free to hug and to heal — may we each be bearers of small inextinguishable gifts of light.
Whenever we make ourselves subject to some vision or purpose larger than ourselves – when we take unto ourselves the lost and lamenting hounde, the shivering horse, the stranded wayfarer, the twittering crone, he whose marrow withers, one who has worn chains, ye huddled birds who thought that song was dead and such babes’ faces as peer from lonely windows – we shall be proffered and returned gifts of astonishment, that we may yet walk upright and remembering as ones whose hearts shines like a great star in our breast. In that spirit of astonishment, welcome, welcome, welcome, all.
Christmas 1974 by May Sarton
In the year of the darkness,
In the year of the words,
The millions of words,
Accusing, excusing, breaking,
Demanding, lying, refusing,
In the year of the desert,
In the year of the bombs
When hatred pollutes the air,
What we long for is silence.
There have been so many deaths
But no one funeral,
No way to mark the place,
Set terror at rest, say Finis,
No time for mourning,
No healing zone.
In the year of the failure,
The drying up of waters,
We have been stricken
One by one, as though by plague.
No one sleeps without dread.
Each struggles to survive
Deeply afraid in the night.
Even the whales are dying.
Who punishes? Who forgives?
What have we done?
Must we go to Bethlehem,
Make the hard journey again,
Dying of thirst as we are?
Must we go to the place of hatred?
And war without end?
Must it all be done again
From the beginning
After two thousand years?
Yes, sick at heart,
Plagued, lost as we are,
Let us make the hard journey.
Who can be sure?
But perhaps if we go there,
It will happen again,
It will happen to us,
An infant will be born again
Out of blood and on filthy straw.
How naked, how vulnerable,
How desperately in need
This breath between past and future!
The infant Hope…
Yes, let us make the journey.
Perhaps it will happen again.
Christmas Eve 2016
“Home by Another Way”
Rev. Megan Lynes
Sometimes when the journey is long, and the night is dark, the road to Bethlehem is hard to find. As the poet May Sarton put it, many of us are sick at heart, stricken and lost, wondering what have we done and what is to come. This year when so many in the world struggle simply to survive, we long for hope. Vulnerable, desperately in need, we find ourselves and our nation, limp and gasping on the filthy straw.
I read this week that the Dalai Lama believes “when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to be born — and that this something needs us to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.” We are skeptical of course about letting ourselves hope, yet how much we want this to be true. Somehow again, for a night, and for a season, we journey to Bethlehem.
Now as the Christmas story goes, King Herod, the King of the Jews, was threatened by the foretelling of a new king, one guided by Love, not by the law of the land. Herod stated that he would seek out the newborn child and pay homage to him, but his secret plan was of course, to eliminate him. Our archetypal King Herod, however, was motivated by fear, and the need to prevent any threat to the power and control which he had worked so hard to acquire. To maintain his power he needed to continue to oppress and to exploit those under his rule, and to eliminate any competition which might dilute his dominance.
The Wise Men on the other hand, believed the child to be the long-awaited Messiah, and were eager to bring gifts to the baby who would some day usher in a glorious new realm of peace. Guided by the movement of a bright star in the East, the Wise Men set out with hope in their hearts. The text in the gospel of Matthew says that they were warned in a dream that after visiting Jesus, they should not return to King Herod and instead they went home by another way. In doing so, the Wise Men avoided the seductive lure of prestige and power and influence to which they might have been privy had they joined Herod in his upcoming murderous plans. And they also chose not to return violence for violence by fighting the most powerful ruler of the land. They chose a third way forward, a subversive option which left them alive to tell the tale of great hope being born. It is this concept of a third way, a way forward that is neither cowardly submission nor a violent reprisal, that holds our attention this evening. At this time in our living history we too hear a call to resistance against oppression, hatred and bigotry. Tonight is the first night of Hanukah, and we are reminded that freedom of conscience is still stronger than any historical tyranny.
The child, Jesus, the story goes, became known as the King of Kings, the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace. He was there to love and support the poor and the outcast, to promote social and economic justice, all the things which would be a thorn in the side of Herod, and weaken Herod’s tightly controlled world. Jesus’ message was to love God and love your neighbor, and it was also to urge us to transcend oppression and injustice by finding a third way forward, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent. He articulated, out of the history of his own people’s struggle, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.
Those who have lived by Jesus’s words – Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, Muriel Lester, Martin Luther King Junior, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez,… And countless others less well-known – all point us to us a new way of confronting evil through personal and social transformation.
Like those in Jesus’ day, we too may find ourselves waiting for a savior. But so often, the greatest leaders are right here beside us. We don’t need to travel far. They are humbly born. They are poor, or lost, or weary or angry, just like us.
Mohandas Gandhi, the master of non-violent resistance once said, “it is impossible to move oppressed people directly from submission to active nonviolence. They need first to own their feelings of rage and even hatred and to be willing to fight against their oppressors. They need to be energized by their anger. Then they can freely renounce violence for a nonviolent alternative that transforms the energy of their anger into a dynamic and resolute love.” 
Tonight, through the gorgeous music of Handel’s Messiah, we hear again the ancient arc of the Christian story. Jesus came that we might follow him, and his subversive, intelligent radical leadership, to care for the poor, to protect the marginalized, and to bind up the broken.
It could be argued that the church was first founded as a community of resistance, to bring power back to ordinary people rather than the rulers and oppressors of the day. Of course, through the ages the church itself has also in various ways been corrupted by the powers that be. Any institution or nation can turn against the ideals that built it, and the humans who supported the effort. We live now in a culture uncertain of itself, a social order with no order, interrogating its own soul for someone to blame. Our culture today needs a dignified moral agenda that benefits the common good, not only a select few. This is why new communities of resistance are rising up again, in churches, synagogues and mosques, and at PTA meetings, in youth groups, and on social media… people are uniting to care, to build understanding and respect, to collaborate, to create new ways forward. Where is the hope this season, some of us have been asking. Well, it’s right here with us.
Desmond Tutu puts it this way, “As an old man, [I say] start where you are and realize you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems. My heart leaps with joy at discovering the number of people who say “we want to make a better world.” And you will be surprised at how it can get to be catching. Do what you can, where you can.”
Here are some recent creative methods of resistance I have noticed just recently. You will of course, have your own examples, equally inspiring. I hope you tell them to each other, we need these stories of hope, like fuel for the journey. A couple weeks back a young adult queer woman from Texas, Natalie Elle Woods, paid for the entire meal of a homophobic family seated near her in a restaurant when she overheard them insulting their transgender teen. Her message on the receipt was “Happy holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. P.s – Jesus made me this way. Please be accepting of your family.”
We hear of atrocities all the time, but sometimes the stories of hope don’t get as much press. What or who is a savior we might ask? Well, it might be Miss Antoinette Tough, the school teacher who talked down the gunman who broke into her school with a machine gun and held hundreds of children hostage. She called 911 and what happened next was all recorded on the call. She started talking to the man as a person, relating to him. “We all go through something in life,” she said. She started to talk about her divorce, and how she has a disabled child. “You know I tried to commit suicide last year, after my husband left me,” she told him. “But look at me now, I’m still working and everything’s ok.” She finally talked him down, and he dropped his gun and he gave himself in. For whatever reason, instead of making this man the enemy, the other, someone to be shunned and shot, she saw part of herself in him. She related to him. She made a connection to him. Elizabeth Lesser, the co-founder of the Omega Institute was talking about this story on the radio. She made the point that unless we learn to connect with people whom we consider the other, or even possibly the enemy, we’ll continue to spread the darkness of misunderstanding and division and even violence.
Some of you know that this past month I traveled with some other ministers to Standing Rock, in North Dakota, to support the Indigenous people’s leadership to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline which was being illegally placed beneath the land owned by the Native people there. One frigid morning, the sheriffs department put out a call to the local communities around the Oceti Sakowin Camp, asking for supplies to support the morale of the police.
As my traveling partner and ministerial colleague Shayna Appel writes, among Native Peoples there is a deep commitment to own one’s own actions as well as the impact those actions have on others…even if you disagree with them. So, the young indigenous people, who started the action at Standing Rock, immediately realized that the need of the Law Enforcement officials was a result of a movement they had started. Therefore, they felt an obligation to answer the call. The teenage and young adult girls filled up a truck with snacks and large containers of water, and headed to the Sheriff’s department.
When they got there they knocked on the door. A sheriff answered in a simple work uniform, and told them to wait so he could get his sergeant, and left.
Keep in mind that, just the previous weekend, these same law enforcement personnel had unleashed a brutal attack on the unarmed water protectors at Standing Rock. They tear gassed them, pepper sprayed them, hit them with rubber bullets and concussion grenades…and when none of that worked, they unleashed a water cannon on folks for over three hours in sub-zero temperatures. The teens stood beside their bottles of water, each inscribed, “Mni Wiconi,” water is life, and waited.
After quite some time, the sergeant appeared. In full riot gear…flak jacket, helmet, visor, and AK-47 semi-automatic rifle.
As Gandhi taught, “the first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.”
The young Native woman standing nearest to the door when he appeared, did the one thing she could think of at the time…she hugged him!
As I look around me at the state we are in here in North America, and I allow myself to fully experience the radical vacuum of qualified leadership our government now faces, it helps me to remember these words from Scripture: “And it came to pass…”. Maybe what we are seeing in our traditional halls of leadership is an old thing getting ready to die. But somewhere, out on the North Dakota plains, in the dead of winter, holding fast at the margins of society, is a new thing being born. Now…where have we heard that story before?
All around us, despite everything, there is something very big and lovely that is trying to be born. When the incoming administration threatened the American populace with Muslim registries and racial profiling, the progressive response was collective and swift to say non-Muslims would register as Muslims. I was thrilled to hear that this past week President Obama dismantled what remained of the Bush-era Muslim registry, making it significantly more difficult to reinstate it in the future. And as I witnessed myself at Standing Rock, when Native Americans camped out in the freezing cold to oppose a pipeline so detrimental to the earth, 4,000 veterans came to stand with them. We truly have grown stronger together, and with each new assault upon our dignity and humanity, we will grow stronger still.
I believe we are embarking on a third way forward: not violence, not passivity, but resistance. So welcome to the resistance. Take heart. It’s where the next heroes of our movement will emerge. Be ready. Be vigilant. Be strong.
Like the Wise Men, let us all go home by another way, but whatever we do, let’s not make that journey alone. The great Sufi mystic Rumi writes, “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard, they cannot hope.” It is this: “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.” We need companions for the journey of hope. Family. Friends. Comrades. Lovers. “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.”
May the journey we travel together, strengthen each and all of us to resist the powers that be when they fail to serve human kind, and instead let us serve the law of Love, and work for the realm of peace on earth.
“May hope find its way into our hearts even when our minds tell us there is no hope; may charity speak to us even when we have nothing to give: may loving kindness be with us when our store of love is exhausted. Let it be so, for a time, for a pageant for a season. And perhaps that season will linger and linger and take hold of us, never to let us go.”
In the gospel of Luke it is written, ”By the tender mercy of our God, May the dawn from on high break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet and hands into the way of peace.”
Deep calls unto deep, joy calls unto joy, light calls unto light. Let the kindling of this flame rekindle in us the inner light of love, of peace, of hope. And “as one flame lights another, nor grows the less,” we pledge ourselves to be bearers of the light, wherever we are. (Gordon B. McKeeman)
William Carlos Williams:
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat — since
the world it opens is always a place
a world unsuspected
beckons to new places
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May we, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
From CANDLES IN BABYLON / Denise Levertov
Through the midnight streets of Babylon
between the steel towers of their arsenals,
between the torture castles with no windows,
we race by barefoot, holding tight
our candles, trying to shield
the shivering flames, crying
‘Sleepers Awake!’ […]
As Theodore Roethke has said, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
At the conclusion of the next piece of music, candlelighters will come forward to have their candles lit. They, in turn, will light the candles of those at the end of these pews and you will pass the light on. Please keep the lighted candle upright; only the unlit candle should bend. Fire is bright – it also burns. Please watch your candles carefully.
When all our candles are lit, we will be given the musical cue to sing “Silent Night.” We’ll sing two verses: German, English, what-have-you. Then we will hum it through again together. You are invited to take your candle home with you – to light again at some appropriate time during your holiday celebration, thus carrying the light from here out into the world.
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart
“¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!”
The people, united, will never be defeated!
(Slogan of the 1970s Chilean resistance).
Now raise high your light and look around at the surrounding light. With your candle before you, make a Christmas promise to yourself. And when it is burned upon your heart and when you are ready to carry its flame within you, blow your candle out.
A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the
Not much triumph going on here—and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angels hovering overhead?
(“For Maia” by Gary Johnson)
I check the locks on the front door
and the door,
make sure the windows are closed
and the heat dialed down.
I switch off the computer,
turn off the living room lights.
I let in the cats.
Reverently, I unplug the Christmas tree,
leaving Christ and the little animals
in the dark.
The last thing I do
is step out to the back yard
for a quick look at the Milky Way.
The stars are halogen-blue.
The constellations, whose names
I have long since forgotten,
look down anonymously,
and the whole galaxy
is cartwheeling in silence through the night.
Everything seems to be ok.
(“Going to Bed,” by George Bilgere)
Let the people say–
Amen! May it be so!
Shalom! Salaam! Peace!
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.
 “The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace,” Introduction by Howard Zinn. Page 119.
 ibid. p 147.
 Story as told by Marlin Lavanhar in a sermon on Dec 18th, 2016. “Syrian Solstice” given at All Souls Tulsa, OK.
 “The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace,” Introduction by Howard Zinn. Page 102.
 Shayna Appel.
 Richard Gilbert.
  Luke 1:78-79 (adapted.)