A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on December 11, 2016 (the third Sunday of Advent)
at The First Church in Sterling, MA
sermons are better heard. You can listen to this one here.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas present,” the spirit said. “Look upon me!”
Today on our advent journey with Ebenezer Scrooge, we meet up with the Ghost of Christmas present. He seeks to help Scrooge peel back the curtain on the world as it is. To LOOK UPON IT. To wake up to the suffering all around him.
The Ghost takes Scrooge to see little Tiny Tim, who is a young crippled boy, and the son of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit. The ghost promises Scrooge that Tiny Tim will not live much longer if his present predicament does not change. If he is not given the health care he needs, or the fair wage his father deserves. The food and medicine he needs to survive. Right now.
And Scrooge cries out in anguish, his heart changed by a small child’s squandered promise. ‘Oh no, kind Spirit, say he will be spared!’
We, too, need to peel back the curtain on the present and real suffering of the world and allow it to thaw our hearts for the sake of the children.
So let’s talk about the present day, in our own little town of Bethlehem.
It was a tough week in Sterling. There was a bomb threat at the elementary and middle schools on Thursday. It was credible enough that the kids had to be evacuated, bomb sniffing dogs and state police sweeping the school. The children and parents were terrified. The police, fire, school administrators, teachers and seniors at the senior center were AWESOME, and kept our children safe, loved, and calm. Chiefs Chamberland and Hurlbut are heroes among men. The state police, Sterling police and fire department, school administrators and teachers, also heroic. So are our fierce town grandmas and grandpas at the senior center, where some of the middle school kids were evacuated. I am proud to live here, and raise my children here among these lovingly kick butt adults.
But the real Sterling drama happened earlier this week on Facebook.
The so-called “War on Christmas” came to Sterling, the news of which overshadowed all threats of a bomb in the schools. Last year the war came to Starbucks, fought with those “un-Christian” plain red cups. Remember that? As if Jesus is more angry about his lack of likeness on a cup than he is that we spend $5 on a latte and then throw that cup in the trash, amen?
Anyway, this year, the war was fought on the frontlines of the embattled Houghton Elementary School. Parents on social media raged that the principal of the school took away elf on the shelf, letters to Santa Claus, and reduced the amount of Christmas songs in the holiday concert and then didn’t alert the parents to this change in curriculum. “Political correctness has taken over our school!” Parents cried on Facebook, on a thread that was shared over 100 times, and all over the country.
Comments said things like: “This is America! We celebrate Christmas here! The minority has taken over the majority and we’re not gonna take it anymore. What about our rights? Buncha (pansies). Buncha snowflakes. The principal should be fired.”
I can’t even say aloud in church some of the words that were said against our principal, he was called disgusting names. People talked about staging protests by dressing their kids up in Christmas clothes and having them sing carols outside his office. Someone suggested that the parent who asked Cipro that more holidays be recognized was a cry baby liberal who needs safety pins for their diapers. Someone suggested we find out who the concerned parent was, and publicly expose and humiliate them. One of the lone parents defending diversity in the school got called out: “it must have been ‘this broad’ who complained. It’s people like this who ruin our children’s life long memories. It’s disgusting!” Someone wrote, “Go Trump.” “This is a Christian nation. If you don’t like it, homeschool your kids.” When the debate meandered over to the Fox 25 Facebook page, someone blamed the downfall of America on all those Muslims.
There were hundreds of comments. All talking, no listening.
What a beautiful display of Christian values. All for the sake of defending the celebration of the birth of the prince of peace.
“There are some upon this earth of yours," the Ghost of Christmas Present says, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
The elementary school principal, Tony Cipro, responded by telling parents that he seeks to recognize the diversity of holidays the students celebrate in the school, which are all about sharing love, joy, peace and giving at this time of year. “This year we will seek to have a more balanced approach in the symbols we display and the activities we engage in with our shared, most prized possession, our children,” he said.
“Teachers may continue to display a Christmas tree, Santa, Menorahs, wreaths, dreidels, candles, garland, gingerbread people, poinsettias, and more. Bulletin boards are available for all types of holiday themes. Children's literature on December holidays can be displayed, read for read-a-loud time. Children will continue to be able to wear holiday hats in school and we will have our annual school sing-a-long which will include traditional holiday songs,” he said.
Yesterday, the Houghton school sold all kinds of Christmas decorations at their wonderful Holiday Fair. Thank you, PTA!
In other words, the real story is there is no story. In other words, we continue to sensationalize the narrative we want to hear: a proxy war for our adult political fights, using our children as pawns.
Well, the news media loves a good story on the War on Christmas. And so reporters from Fox 25 News came to Sterling on the day of the bomb scare to drum up their favorite Christmas story for the news at 5. And I was interviewed saying that Christmas has not left our little town, that my children in the school did not come home and say that the principal had cancelled Christmas, that we still celebrate Christmas with gusto in our house and church, that the real story is a bomb scare. I said that this was a time for measured calm. (An angry parent who thought the “other side” was not well represented called me a “very soft spoken pastor”, which is the first time I have ever been called soft spoken in my life. My meditation practice must be working.)
The next day, I was approached by channel 4 on the street outside the church. “Are you the Reverend?” (Who knew I would get famous living out here in Sterling?) “We reporters love a good war on Christmas story,” he said, “but I see you have a Christmas tree right here on the town common. And the town hall is decorated in Christmas decorations. And apparently the principal is still recognizing Christmas among the other holidays. It kind of seems like we have no story.” “Yes,” I said. “I think the story is DEFINITELY that you have no story.” He interviewed me anyway. I invited everyone in Massachusetts to church here at First Church to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Strangely, the interview never aired!
So let’s talk about the true meaning, since I promised that in my never aired interview. When we think about Christmas now, we think about letters to Santa, the Nutcracker, sugarplums, reindeer, and that creepy little Elf on the Shelf introduced in 2008 by Walmart as a timeless treasured Christmas tradition that teaches our children what it’s like to live in a police state.
None of that is Christmas. Not even close.
Here’s the real Christmas story. Here’s the real story about the world Jesus was born into. If you listen carefully, you’ll also hear the story of Christmas present.
Once upon a time, there was a King named Herod. King Herod was a jealous, raging, narcissistic, cry baby, frightened king who couldn’t stand the idea of a little baby being born in Bethlehem, threatening to unseat 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 do, in fact, find the baby, and they offer him presents. They are awed by his miracle, and his light. They 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. (And King Herod doesn’t have Twitter, which is almost too bad, since Twitter is far less bloody.) Herod 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 real story of Christmas is the story of Bethlehem: A child born to save us from the vengeful rulers of the world with God’s rule of Love. Parents wailing for their lost children. This is the truth the light of Christ shines on.
And here’s the truth of the Christmas present we all need to look upon. Bethlehem happens now, in many places, all over the world. Bethlehem happens here in Sterling, and everywhere the darkness of empire threatens to swallow up the light of God. And everywhere, there are parents weeping for their children, refusing to be consoled.
And there is real religious persecution in today’s Bethlehem, and it ain’t against Christians in the public school.
A week ago, the mosque in Wayland, MA received a letter that was sent to mosques all over the country. The letter calls Muslims “vile and filthy people” who face a “day of reckoning . . . there’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump....."The president-elect," it says, will “do to you . . . what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Make no mistake about it, this letter is part of the real war on Christmas. Because the real war on Christmas is the war on Christ, who taught us that God is Love, and that all are one in God.
So here’s a report from the frontlines of the war on Christ: There is a war on Islam right now. There is a war on women's rights. There is a war on people of color, Jews, the GLBTQ community, US veterans, Native Americans, immigrants, the poor, the laborer, and our children. There is a war on human decency, as evidenced by every internet comment thread ever written. And because of all of the above, there is absolutely a war on Christ.
So beloved, let’s get on the frontlines of this war with weapons of extravagant, wasteful love. LOVE BOMBS. I have passed out cards to you this morning. Simple, blank greeting cards with artful pictures Linda Davis took of our church. I want you to write a message of love in it—to Mr. Cipro at the Houghton School who is only human, and doing the best that he can, or to the police and fire departments thanking them for helping us create a world worthy of our children’s promise, to the teachers, to the senior center, or to the Wayland mosque—PLEASE to the Wayland mosque. And all of the above! Let’s show them all the love of Christ—the real reason for the season. We’ll have more at coffee hour. Put them in the baskets in the front and the back of the church on the way out on in the baskets at coffee hour, and we will send them off for you. We will even pay the postage.
In this Christmas present, let us create heaven on earth for our children: a world shining with the light of truth and love. Let us ring out wild bells of the hot mess of this past year and let it die a dumpster fire death. “Ring out false pride in place and blood, the civic slander and the spite; ring in the love of truth and right; ring in the common love of good.” (Tennyson)
They will know we are Christians by our LOVE. God bless us every one.
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.