Christmas Eve Homily
December 24, 2015
Rev. John Gibbons
The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
Tonight, in story, song and ritual, we honor the birth of a teacher, a prophet, a messenger of peace, a giver of light, a bearer of good tidings, he who today inspires 1.6 billion followers (23% of the world’s population).
I refer, of course, to the Prophet Mohammed whose birthday, in the lunar Islamic calendar, is tonight – the first time in the last 457 years that the birthdays of Mohammed and Jesus have coincided!
We honor these prophets – a small minority of whose followers have both persecuted and been persecuted for their belief and their apostasy. We honor these prophets’ timeless messages of peace.
It was extraordinary and quite wonderful when, last Friday, at the largest mosque in New England, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph Gants, assured worshippers that he and the constitution stand with American Muslims at this difficult time. “You do not stand alone,” he said. As a Jew, Gants added, his own people were “strangers in the land of Egypt” in ancient times, as well as unwelcome newcomers to America more recently. Wave after wave of immigrants and enslaved people, he said, have been vilified and ostracized.
“If you add up all of those who are Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans – all those who were once strangers in this land of Egypt – you end up with the vast majority of this nation. So I hold firm in the hope that if we remember…that we, too, once were strangers in the land of Egypt…together we will get past these troubling times.”
Ralph Gants is Jewish but he is a friend of this congregation, a former Bedford resident: he has preached here; his parents are buried in our memorial garden, and he was here this morning to celebrate a wedding. Ralph Gants makes us proud because he recognizes and defends our common humanity.
This night is about our common humanity. In the last week, here in this room, we have honored the life and death of a beloved parishioner; this morning we honored a young couple’s love (and, by the way, their generosity: they asked all their guests to bring things for the homeless folks at the Lowell Transitional Living Center. It’s not every wedding where guests come bearing gifts of men’s undershirts and granny panties!)
And tonight we honor the miracle of birth, our common humanity, and the circle of all life.
Of course, each night a child is born is a holy night. (so said our pioneering religious educator Sophia Fahs):
“Each night a child is born is a holy night—
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.”
We honor birth and death and love, our common humanity.
And yet this year there has been so much that sought to separate and divide – Muslim, Jew, and Christian; nativists and refugees (those for whom there is no room at the inn); there are the fearful, the fear-mongerers, the fence-builders, and – we must remember – the fence-menders.
Let us this night honor birth, and death, and love, that which brings us together, that which we share, our common humanity.
Tonight, let us recommit to be attentive to all who are on the margins; and while certainly there are vast implications to all this, I’ll save most of my political pontification for some other time: for now let’s make this as personal and real and here-and-now as possible.
Our common humanity includes the people you share that uncomfortable pew with; our common humanity includes our friends, our children and families, our neighbors, our strangers, and sometimes our selves (for we can be strangers to ourselves). Our common humanity includes everyone in this room and in your living room and the busy sidewalk, the city sidewalks, and in what the poet Wendell Berry calls “the great room” of all who live or ever lived. In all these rooms, let us be attentive to those on the margins, the outsiders, the cornered ones.
It says in Hebrews, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
E.B. White once sent his Christmas greetings to, among others, “intellectuals and other despised minorities,” “old men asleep in libraries,” “couples unhappy in doorways,” “all those who think they’re in love but aren’t sure, and “those who can’t stay in the same room with a cat.”
Our common humanity.
Not only am I not going to get all political and hifalutin’ and Christological and theological on you, I’m going to break this down for you as simply as I know with one of my favorite parables told by my colleague David Rankin. He called it “Does the World Know I’m Here?”
He says: “It was a restaurant for confused tourists and local residents who had pawned their taste buds. The waitress took the parents’ order, and then turned to their small son.
“What will you have?” she asked.
“I want a hot dog! . . .” the boy began.
“No hot dog!” the mother interrupted. “Give him what we ordered!”
But the waitress ignored her.
“Do you want anything on your hot dog?” she asked.
“Ketchup!” the boy replied with a happy smile.
“Coming up!” she said, as she walked to the kitchen.
There was silence at the table.
Then the youngster said to his mother: “Mom, she thinks I’m real!”
The odor of thick and greasy food permeated the room—but his was a hunger beyond all power to suppress.”
Tonight, on the occasion of the birth of prophets, we honor our common humanity. In every heart, in every pew, in every room, in this great room we are privileged to share, keep an eye out for the ones at the edge, on the margins, in the corners. Include, bring in, welcome.
Edwin Markham’s simple and true words:
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in !
In our common aspirations for love and peace and justice and simple acceptance, we share a hunger beyond all power to suppress. If we remember that we too were once strangers in the land of Egypt, together we will get past these troubling times.
Make our circle wide.
May it be so.