Preached on January 7, 2018
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better seen.
Glennon Doyle says this in her Ted X talk called “Everything I know I learned in a mental hospital.”
A former addict and bulimic, she describes college as a haze of binging and purging in the morning, and booze and drugs and boys in the evening. She says:
“….I hated the sunrise.
I closed the blinds, and I put the pillow over my head when my spinning brain would torture me about the people who were going out into their day into the light to make relationships and pursue their dreams and have a day – and I had no day; I only had night.
And these days, I like to think of hope as that sunrise. It comes out every single day to shine on everybody equally. It comes out to shine on the sinners and the saints and druggies and the cheerleaders. It never withholds; it doesn’t judge. And if you spend your entire life in the dark and then one day just decide to come out, it’ll be there waiting for you — just waiting to warm you.
All those years I thought of that sunrise as searching and accusatory and judgmental. But it wasn’t – it was just hope’s daily invitation to come back to life. And I think if you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited.”
It’s a new day; a new sunrise; and we’re still alive. Let us accept hope’s daily invitation to come back to life, and let us hold out that invitation out to others.
Because it’s very dark.
This country is fearful and anxious and often ugly in its rhetoric and division. There is saber rattling daily about nuclear war; hatred and killings seem to feed our daily diet of what the world we inhabit is really like. No matter what political party we associate with, we know that we have a contempt problem fueled by separation and alienation.
It’s very dark.
Here in our congregation, so many of our beloveds have been recently diagnosed with cancer, have terminal illness, are struggling in crumbling marriages, are mired in substance abuse, are unemployed or under-employed, are scared of what the future holds. We are all mourning deep loss. Many of us have lost hope.
This time of darkness is the best time to celebrate the festival of Epiphany. Because Jesus was born to be the light of the world in a time of terrible darkness.
The story of Epiphany goes like this:
King Herod heard tell of a baby born in Bethlehem who was to be king of the Jews. Herod erupted into a raging, vengeful, murderous jealousy. No one could be king but him! So he called on his constituents--three Wise Men--to follow the star to where this tiny baby lay, sleeping in heavenly peace. He wanted these guys to reveal this powerful baby’s location, so that Herod could destroy him.
The wise men set out to follow the brightest star they had ever seen out of the darkness, journeying for days with no map or direction, not stopping to rest, not knowing the final destination. They simply relied on the wisdom to know the journey would lead them to a new understanding; new knowledge; new hope. They just kept doing the next right thing until they got to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men do, in fact, find the baby, and they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There’s a joke that goes, if the wise men were wise women, they would have brought practical gifts like diapers, wipes and maybe one of those vibrating bassinets that plays lullabies. (They would have also brought a casserole, lanisoh cream, and cleaned up the stable.) But the wise men brought impractical presents because they were gifts fit for a king; fit for God.
The wise men have a dream that night that spooks them enough that they don’t go back to Herod to tell him where the child is. And Joseph has a dream telling him it’s a good idea to move his little family to Egypt to protect them, so he does.
When Herod finds out that he had been tricked by the wise men, he goes into a rage. Like the jealous, thin-skinned, easily threatened, narcissistic, impulsive leader that he is, he retaliates by killing all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. That’s right. Herod is so spiteful, thin-skinned and easily provoked that he kills all of the young children in Bethlehem, all in response to his fear of a little baby who challenges his leadership.
The parents of Bethlehem are inconsolable, of course. The weeping is deafening: wailing and loud lamentation.
The Epiphany story is the story of a tiny baby boy shining God’s light of Truth into the darkness of empire, great sorrow, and terror. It is the story of a journey to follow that light not knowing the destination. It is a story of becoming wise; an invitation to hope’s promise.
My favorite stories are epiphany stories. My favorite stories include heroes like you and me who decide to accept the invitation to hope the sunrise offers. My favorite protagonists take a journey out of the safety of darkness, not knowing where they will end up.
And so my new personal hero is Christian Picciolini, and I want you to know his epiphany story. I was introduced to him last week on Sarah Silverman’s show “I Love You, America.” He recently wrote a book called “White American Youth: My Descent into America’s most Violent Hate Group, and How I Got Out.” After I saw his beautiful interview with Silverman, I watched his Ted talk, and then a 60 Minutes show dedicated to him and the black man who forgave him. I wept openly watching all three, something I rarely do.
Christian Piccolini’s story begins as a young child growing up in Chicago with Italian immigrants for parents. He came from a good family, but as recent immigrants to America, his parents had to work all the time. They had two jobs each just to make ends meet and Christian was alone a lot, and feeling emotionally neglected. As a young middle schooler, he was small and bullied often. He didn’t fit in at school, and generally didn’t have a place to belong. He was angry.
One day, at age 14, he was smoking a joint in an alley, and a man twice his age came up to him, took the joint out of his mouth and told him, “you know, the Jews and communists want you to smoke this to make you docile.”
Christian admits now that he didn’t know any Jewish people at the time, and that the only communist he had heard of was the antagonist in his favorite Rocky movie. He also admits now that he had no idea what the word “docile” even meant.
Nevertheless, that man gave him an identity, a purpose, a place to channel his rage, and a place to belong that day. Within a week, Christian had joined the most notorious and deadly white supremacist group in the nation. He rose up as one of the biggest leaders in the movement quickly, starting a white power punk rock band and touring the world, and recruiting young, vulnerable white boys into the community.
As a teenager, Christian was expelled from his high school six times, three of those for beating up the same black classmate. He was finally kicked out of his high school for good after calling the African American principal horrific racial slurs, threatening the lynching of all of the black people in Chicago, and trying to start a fight with the African American head of security at the school. He was restrained by that same man, and later arrested.
A high school drop out and skinhead, Christian got married young at 19, and soon after had two young boys. So at 21, his hard shell was cracked open a little bit, and a tiny ray of light shone in his darkness. (Little babies have the power to topple hate and empire, after all. They have the power to save the world.)
Christian started to ask himself who he really was: a white supremacist, or a husband and father. He started to have a new sense of allegiance, belonging and identity to the young family he had given life to. He left the streets in those years to protect his family, but he still didn’t leave the movement.
Instead, Christian opened a record store to sell his white power music; the only true “business” he knew. People would come from all over the country to buy it. He knew, though, that if he only sold white supremacist music, the community would see him as a threat and shut his business down, so he also sold some hip hop, punk rock, and other genres.
As a result of the diverse array of music his store sold, Christian began to meet and form relationships with people in the communities that he had long purported to hate.
One day a black man about his age came into his store, and he was noticeably shaken and tearful. Christian decided to ask him what was wrong and he found out that the man’s mother had breast cancer. Christian felt compassion and kinship for this man because Christian’s mother was also recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Another week, a gay couple came in, and Christian watched them tenderly care for their little boy. He had a sudden realization that this couple loved their little boy just as much as he loved his children, and he related to them instantly.
Another week, he met and talked with recent immigrants. Their story reminded him of his own parents’ immigration story, and how hard they had to work just to survive and take care of him. Suddenly, instead of hating immigrants for taking jobs, he remembered that he, too, was the son of hard working immigrants.
Christian slowly began to see more in common with the people he once hated than the hate group he was associated with.
He began to be embarrassed about the primary source of his income now that he had made these new connections. He closed the store, and as a result, lost everything he worked for. However, he didn’t denounce the white power movement entirely, so his family left him soon after.
He was depressed and lost. Eventually, a friend got him a new job installing computers. One day, Christian had to go to his old high school to install a computer. Terrified to confront his past, Christian saw the African American head of security that he fought with years before, who still worked there. Christian followed the man to the parking lot, and tapped him on the shoulder. The man stepped back in fear, recognizing him. Christian couldn’t think of what to say. Finally, he stammered, “I’m sorry.” And the man moved forward to embrace him.
“I forgive you,” the man said. “But I ask that you do one thing. Go out and tell your story to everyone who will listen.”
That day changed Christian’s life forever. He says: “I received compassion from the people I deserved it least from when I least deserved it, and that helped change me.”
He has now counseled over 100 people out of the white supremacy movement through his organization “Life After Hate.” He speaks in prisons and in schools. He wrote a book about his journey, and teaches about the spread and psychology of hate groups. He shines light, every day, in the darkness of hate.
And he does it with love. When Christian meets with young white supremacists, he doesn’t try to convince them they are wrong or bad. He just listens with compassion. He listens for the potholes in their life, and fills them. He listens for alienation, and he finds them community. He listens for anger and loneliness, and he offers them hope and connection. He helps them get job skills, tattoo removal, counseling, and self-esteem building.
And he doesn’t stop there. He brings them to meet people that they purport to hate. He says that hate comes from fear of the unknown. It is almost impossible to hate people when you know their story.
In our scripture from Isaiah, the glory of God shines upon the nation’s darkness, and the nation reflects God’s light like a mirror. The light of God shines upon them, and they arise and become a light for others.
Christian Picciolini allowed light to pierce the darkness of his hate. He followed the light though it meant leaving the safety of his community and way of life. He just kept doing the next right thing until he made it to Bethlehem to kneel down before the Christ child. And then he offered his gifts fit for a human divine king. Christian, acting as a mirror to reflect the light, asks others to do the same. He challenges his audiences to find the people who least deserve our compassion, and give it to them. Impractical gifts that just may be fit for God.
Beloved Epiphany people: Christian’s task is our task. We must let the light of God pierce our deepest darkness. We must follow the light though we do not know the path, and have no map to follow. We must do the next right thing until we reach the Christ child. We must offer our impractical gifts fit for God. We must accept hope’s daily invitation to come back to life. If you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited. Invite others to come with you. Find someone who doesn’t deserve our compassion, and give it to them.
Arise, shine; for your light has come! Lift up your eyes and look around! The glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Happy New Year!
*Watch the TedX Talk that inspired this sermon by Christian Picciolini here.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.