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The Christmas Truce – 12/24/2014

A few moments ago we sang, as we often do this night, the carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” You may already know that the author of that work was a Unitarian minister, Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears. His hymn was composed at the behest of our congregation in Quincy. At the time of his writing, the Mexican American war was only recently ended. Revolution had broken out across the central states of Europe and been brutally repressed. War was in the air, and war was on his mind. And so, he wrote – and here I’m going to quote his original lines:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love-song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

One hundred years ago, when the world was at war with what they would call the Great War after it was done, what we call the First World War now – one hundred years ago tonight there were trenches dug in all along the French countryside. Two lines of troops – German on one side, French and British on the other – huddled in the cold December mud behind sandbags, barbed wire, and machine guns. The distances between those trenches were measured out in the range of mortar fire – the war had broken out at a time in history when new technology made it possible to defend a position with terrifying violence and destructive power. The equipment and innovation for attacking such defenses hadn’t caught up yet, so the two sides sat frozen in the mud, grinding away at each other with one bloody, pointless assault after another.

The soldiers who sat in those trenches had been told by their governments and by their commanding officers that the men on the other side, across the barbed wire and through the void of No Man’s Land, that these were not men at all. That they were, rather, monsters; inhumane and therefore inhuman. Guilty of the most despicable sins, violent without remorse, and determined to bring death and suffering to the homelands all good soldiers serve to protect. In December, 1914, the trenches were newly dug, but the stage was set for a long and hateful conflict – and a long and hateful conflict did result: the bloodiest war in the history of human record up to that point.

But tonight, friends, is a night when we talk about miracles, so here is the miracle. In that last week before Christmas, quiet began to break out on the Western front. At points all along the line between the two forces, the soldiers began to decorate their grimy, makeshift homes. They lit candles and set up Christmas trees where the enemy could see them. Christmas carols began to be sung. The troops spoke different languages, but many of them knew the same tunes, just with different words. Eventually, some few officers here and there found courage enough to defy orders, and call a truce. The first souls, braver still, ventured out across No Man’s Land, the scarred real-estate possessed by neither army and vulnerable to fire from both, and there met their adversaries face-to-face. They shook hands, exchanged small gifts. They held memorial services for their comrades who had died – in some cases the services were held jointly, in two or three languages, as they buried men who two or three days earlier had been shooting at each other. Some makeshift, international games were played of football, or, as it is termed in American English, soccer.

At its longest stretch, the Christmas Truce, which was really many different, small breakdowns in the war, lasted only a week or so. Then, fighting resumed. There were three more Christmases spent in the trenches. The leaders of the war efforts on both sides wanted to make sure that such a truce did not break out again. Special orders were given to step up the fighting, to increase the violence, on and around Christmas time, in order to prevent a repeat. So it is the Christmas of 1914, one hundred years ago tomorrow, that stands alone as a spontaneous breakdown in the prosecution of war.

In the Gospel According to Luke, the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within and among you.”[i] Just what the teacher meant by ‘kingdom of God’ may not have been agreed upon even by his earliest students, and 2,000 years later the term has no single definition. But the interpretation that makes the most sense to me, is that the man from Galilee was speaking of a possible relationship between all people which Edmund Sears pointed to in his final lines:

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song,

Which now the angels sing.

Such peace – real peace, not the false sort, cheaply bought, at the price of freedom, and the cost of our complicity to injustice – is not solely for some distant day. It is within and among us. We are counseled to wait for it, yes, but not to wait quietly. Not to accept, never to accept, that contradiction can only be resolved by violence. That difference must be a destroyer of relationships, rather than the foundation upon which new ones may be built. All war, all violence, depends upon the premise of irresolvable contradiction. Our world is full of ideas which we tell ourselves and each other must destroy or consume one another. The clash of civilizations, the culture war, the 10,000 year-old debate between theist and atheist, the nationhood of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and as it has been most recently articulated, the supposed contradiction between the sadly radical idea that Black Lives Matter, and the value that the lives of police officers matter as well. The kingdom of God is within and among us, in those places where we refuse to accept those contradictions. Where we, against the orders of a wounded culture, sing songs with our enemies, and dare to step out into the land no army may possess.

The great Muslim mystic and poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about

language, ideas, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

My dear friends, in this season of lights and songs and the turning of the year, may we remember that the promise our old, beloved songs speak of, is within and among us. We need not wait, we cannot wait, to fulfill it, if waiting means silent acceptance of the way things are. So let us seek out the places where there is a truce to be made: not by accepting the status quo, but by unmaking it into something finer. Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. May all of us come to meet there, to lie down in its grass, and, perhaps, to hear the angels sing.

[i] Luke 17:21

In Praise of Other Children – 12/21/2014

How many December birthdays do we have here this morning – show of hands? Happy birthday to you, friends. This isn’t the easiest month to have a birthday in, now, is it? For most people living in America, having a birthday in December puts the celebration of their lives into competition of a sort with the celebration of another life – one that is very difficult to compete with. Most of us don’t have songs commemorating our birthdays, or special foods that folks only eat when our day is drawing near. Strangers don’t ring church bells to celebrate the hour of our birth, and folks don’t get the day off from work or school in our honor. If you were born in December, I would venture to guess that somehow, someway, sometime or another, you have felt overshadowed by what is hard to dispute as the most famous birthday in the Western world.

On this Sunday each year our children tell us the story of that birthday – the one belonging to Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s son. As with any story from scripture –

or any story worth listening to, for that matter – one of the best ways to learn from it is to imagine ourselves as each of the figures in the story. As new and unsteady parents at the mercy of a harsh world. As far-wandering seekers, on a spiritual journey we may not fully comprehend. Even as a bitter, jealous monarch, driven by a very real fear of losing our crowns – or our heads. But stories also say something by the people they leave out. And some of the absent figures in the Christmas story, very nearly absent in the whole of the Gospels, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

The canonical Gospels do report that the teacher Jesus was not an only child. Mark[i] and Matthew[ii] attest that he had four brothers, and name them James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude. Mark also mentions sisters, but no number or name. A tradition of the very early church says that there were two, named Mary and Salome. There is dispute in the Christian tradition as to exactly how these people were related to Jesus: whether they were half-siblings, or Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, or a few other possibilities. What’s interesting to me is that almost every possible explanation has Jesus as either the eldest child in his family, or the youngest. Taken together, they make all of his anonymous and near-anonymous siblings into middle children.

A December birthday is just a taste of what it might have been like to grow up in the same household as the man who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[iii] What might those children, long grown up and passed from the world of the living, think now to watch a few billion people tell their brother’s story every year – a great many of them, every Sunday – and yet not even remember all their names?

No matter how blissful a childhood we might have had or be having, most of us have been left feeling hurt or sad for a lack of attention or recognition from our parents or other family members at one time or another. Still, I call our attention to the nearly-forgotten siblings of Jesus not in an attempt to democratize fame and veneration. It is not some theological equivalent of the much-maligned philosophy in youth soccer leagues that “everybody gets a trophy for participation.” I mention the sisters and brothers of Jesus as a reminder of the preciousness and wonder and value of every life which is just as true for the famous, as for the infamous, as for the utterly unknown. I point this out not despite the story of Christmas, but because of it. Christmas, after all, is a celebration of the man who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”[iv] Who taught, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”[v] Who understood God as a parent who has no favorite children – but whose love is so great and so unthinkably vast, that there is enough for all people, in all times, and all places.

Even if you spent every hour of December in church, or even if the words and stories of scripture never crossed your lips or your mind, there is no way to properly celebrate Christmas, and to have it be about just one child, only one person. We can only bless that one child by blessing all children. We can only honor that one person by honoring all people. So in this season, may our hearts bend further towards our friends and our enemies; towards those whom we love and those we do not yet love. May the spirit of Christmas move us to praise other children, whatever their age, or relation.

[i] Mark 6:3

[ii] Matthew 13:55

[iii] John 14:6

[iv] Matthew 5:5

[v] Matthew 25:40

Highways in the Desert – 12/7/2014

In his retelling of the life of the Buddha, contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn relates many stories and episodes. In one of these, Siddhartha Gautama, who would eventually become the Buddha, was still young and living in the house of his father, a king. He married a woman named Yasodhara, and together they travel on a tour of the kingdom, in order to see and be seen. On their journey they stayed in the homes of very humble folk, and both of them saw for the first time what life was like outside of rich palaces. “Hardship,” Hahn writes, “went hand in hand with the life of the peasants. Siddhartha gazed at children with arms and legs as thin as matchsticks and bellies swollen from worms and malnutrition. He saw the handicapped and infirm forced to beg in the streets, and these scenes robbed him of any happiness. He saw people caught in inescapable conditions. In addition to poverty and disease, they were oppressed…and there was no one to whom they could complain.” This experience prompted Siddhartha to begin his quest to find a spiritual means of liberation from suffering to share with the world. His wife, however, was focused on the practical. Yasodhara believed in her husband’s spiritual search, but in the mean time she focused on trying to relieve physical suffering by physical means, distributing food and attempting to supply peoples’ basic needs. Siddhartha returned his wife’s support for him with his own for her, so each aided the other in their different attempts to solve the problem of suffering.

I planned some time ago that in my remarks this morning I would discuss compassion, which is the second of the Buddhist tradition’s four immeasurables, the four qualities which a practitioner is taught to cultivate in themselves. Compassion seemed like the sort of topic that would resonate well with the holiday season without being limited to it, allowing me to speak to a congregation where I expect that some of us are already giddy over Christmas, and some of us decidedly are not. And then came the word from Ferguson, Missouri, that there would be no indictment – no public trial, no hint of a thought of a reckoning of any kind – in the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot dead this summer by a white police officer. Nine days later, on this past Wednesday, another grand jury in New York also declined to indict the white police officer who strangled Eric Garner to death. Eric Garner, who was a 43 year-old black man, who also died this summer, and who was also unarmed. And around the same time that both of these judgments were rendered, a 12 year-old boy who was playing with a bb gun outside in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, was also shot by a white officer. The boy’s name was Tamir Rice, and he was also black.

This is not the first draft of this sermon. The first draft would have had no words in it – just one long, anguished howl. This isn’t the second draft, either; that one had too many expletives. Instead, this is the draft where I attempt to say something worthy of being said in the face of black bodies being buried and the white bodies that killed them going free. Not just right now, not just this year, but stretching back through the mere century and a half that there has been any premise of legal equality in this country between the white lives and black.

If any one of the cases that I mentioned before, or any of the others that I could have mentioned – Darrien Hunt, Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, and far too many others – if any of these could be marked down as isolated incidents, they would be tragedies unto themselves. But they are not isolated, and instead they are symptoms of a pattern in our society, in what we call our system of justice, and in fact in ourselves. And before I talk about that pattern I need to ask you to focus with me for a second on this colossal insult which compounds the terrible injury of death itself. To have even one’s killing be a point in a pattern. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that, by virtue of his skin, there was an eternal unasked question always hovering between him and the white world. That question was, “How does it feel to be a problem?” We live in a society that treats every member of a marginalized, mistrusted, or minority group as emblematic of that group. As a white person I enjoy a sense of individuality – a sense that what I do and what happens to me reflects primarily on me – that is rarely afforded to black people by whites. So an unarmed black man or boy killed by the police does not get the same treatment of singular outrage that a white person’s death would elicit. Instead, there is a rush to argue over what this one death says about blackness or whiteness, about the police and the courts and guns and race in 21st century America.

A separate standard of living and of justice for people of color – this is one dimension of what DuBois was talking about. The pattern of looking at an entire category of people as a problem – indeed, of looking at any category of people as something which can be considered and judged collectively at all. We live in an era when explicit discrimination on the basis of race is broadly illegal and broadly condemned. But that is not enough to create an equitable society. Today the average white household has a net worth 18 times higher than the average black household. That is, horrifyingly, even higher than the racial wealth gap in apartheid-era South Africa. At the same time, our legal system criminalizes poverty and the sorts of things that poor people are likely to do to survive – Eric Garner was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. Broken windows policing is a crime-fighting strategy that focuses on using heavy police attention, and often force, on minor crimes and infractions to create an atmosphere of lawfulness in areas struggling with serious crime. It’s become a leading, if not the dominant, attitude in law enforcement in America, and it means that certain towns and neighborhoods bear the heavy hand of a police presence looking to come down hard on the most modest transgressions. And these are neighborhoods primarily populated by poor people and people of color. So it is that black people are more likely to be arrested than whites, just as they are more likely to be tried if arrested, more likely to be convicted if tried, and tend to serve a longer sentence when convicted.

The victory of the civil rights movement was in making official and overt racism publically unacceptable. But almost fifty years after its high-water mark, our legal and political systems, and much of our public discourse, seems satisfied that the problems of the past have been corrected – that everything is alright, now. The unanswered deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and too many others should make it clear to those of us who didn’t already know from our daily lives: things are not alright. People are not supposed to face the real prospect of being killed by agents of the state while walking around their own neighborhoods. Families are not supposed to have to train their children to avoid contact with the authorities at all costs for fear of those children’s lives.

In the systems that perpetuate racial injustice and in the department policies and individual choices of police officers that lead to two different sorts of justice being meted out in this country, part of what is at work is implicit bias. This is subconscious preference for or against a group, or the reflexive association between that group and some quality, image, or idea. This bias is the result of deep, persistent cultural training and it is common enough to be called universal. What the bias is, who it is about, and the degree of it all vary, but it is there in all of us and needs to be dealt with. Researchers have been studying this for some time now. One test for such bias tries to measure the subconscious association between black faces and words with bad associations like ‘awful’ and ‘danger.’ A study with over 2 million participants found an average degree of bias somewhere between slight and moderate. This is the human mind doing unconsciously something that our society often does subtly. On the basis of race, people are treated with different expectations and different standards of evidence, funneled towards different neighborhoods or different sorts of work. This teaches us to associate certain colors of skin with certain essential qualities and outcomes – our individual choices make up the culture, and the culture feeds back into our individual choices.

The research indicates that this implicit bias doesn’t just help create the ongoing racism of our society: the stronger this sort of categorical thinking is in a person, the harder they find creative thinking and problem-solving. But the research also points toward some ways to combat this bias in ourselves, and one of the most promising is the experience of difference and diversity. I don’t only mean that direct relationships with people from another group helps to break down your preconceived ideas about that group – that’s relatively obvious. But the research also suggests that direct interactions with people from any other group helps to mitigate bias against all groups. Stepping outside of our comfort zones and experiencing others across boundaries helps to better align our unconscious and conscious selves.

What is really at issue in all of this is compassion. In the Buddhist understanding, compassion is the wish that another being should be free from suffering. That wish is grounded in a sense of the realness and valuableness of the other person. For most of us, our sense of who is real and valuable begins in our self and works outward, based on relationship: family, friends, community. There’s an emotional proximity that impacts the reach of our compassion. The goal in Buddhist practice is to cultivate total compassion towards all beings, but below the plane of spiritual perfection, it is easier to care about, to show compassion towards, those who feel closer to us – because we know them personally, or because they match some identity we feel connected to. Without such a connection, it is as though there is a great distance or obstacle between one person and another – like a mountain, a desert, or an ocean. The 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah is one of the pieces of scripture associated with the season of Advent, which we are now in, by the Christian calendar. We heard a musical rendering of its first lines earlier in this service: it begins, “Comfort ye, my people.” A few lines later, the text declares, “Clear in the wilderness a road for the Holy. Level in the desert a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain.” We need to forge highways to connect us across the spiritual deserts that divide us.

Meditation, that essential element of Buddhist practice, attempts this with a focus on mindfulness, a particular sort of engaged attention. It contends against distraction, and the things that interrupt such attention. There are different approaches to meditation, and so there are different strategies for dealing with distraction, but doing so is a part of any meditative practice.

This is where we come back: to the racial iniquity in our society, to what our response can be and needs to be, and to the story we began with, of Siddhartha and Yasodhara. Their hearts were awoken to the injustice and the sorrow that surrounded them, that was baked-in to the society of which they were apart, because they met people experiencing it face-to-face and they did not turn away. Nationally, we have had a lot of Siddharthas and Yasodhara’s these past few weeks: people who are seeing what, at least to them, feels like a first deep look into the wrongs with which many others are living day-to-day. The discipline of attention called for in meditative practice also needs to be mirrored in this experience. There are lots of ways to be distracted from the profound suffering and cosmic wrongness of parents burying their children and families spending a first holiday without a loved one at the table. I’m going to point to two of them.

The first is to focus on the details of one case over the implications of it and many others like it. To argue about whether the person now dead brought that death upon themselves because they broke a small law, or played with the wrong toy. To point at conflicting witness accounts and throw up our hands. To complain about protests – too loud, too angry, too uncontrolled – so as not to have to grapple ourselves with the terrible and righteous anguish that the drove the protests in the first place.

The second is to grasp at and rush towards a false and hollow resolution. To use any bright moment, no matter how small or tangential, to look away from the bleakness and refuse to turn back. To allow our insulation from this struggle – for those of us who do feel insulated from it – shield us from having to think about it, wrestle with it, and play our part in its resolution.

The desert is a hopeless place. Its nature is harsh and unforgiving. Its possibilities are narrow, and few. The desert of misunderstanding and disconnection that divides us from each other is no place to live. Crossing the spiritual expanse between ‘us’ and ‘them’ requires hard work and creativity. It requires recognition of another person’s suffering, the appreciation that it is real, and deep, and the determination to do what we can to reduce that suffering. Compassion is the road across the desert. It’s not a path that we walk only one time – the road is always there, always in need of being re-measured, re-shaped, and travelled anew.

Thwarted Hope

On Monday night, I watched the long, painfully drawn-out announcement that there would be no indictment in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO this past August. It was something I’d come to expect even as I’d hoped against it, and six states away from the courthouse it still hurt. It may be that you were watching too, or following the story at least, and so were subject to the same aching wait that so many of us were over the last days and weeks and months as the grand jury process unfolded.

One of my colleagues described this time as a Strange Advent – referencing the season of Christmas’ anticipation which begins this Sunday. The observance of Advent is about the faithful expectation that hope will be renewed. The Christmas story is one of wondrous and surprising things happening in a dangerous and bitter context. Still, it plays out liturgically as a vigil of increasing optimism building towards a celebration that always arrives on time. Waiting for the Ferguson verdict meant waiting an unknowable number of days for a ruling that seemed more and more likely to dishearten and disappoint. And then the verdict came, and did just that.

But this modern pageant of woe – still in process and unresolved – shares some qualities with the Christmas narrative that we rarely consider. In the two Gospel stories of his birth, the teacher Jesus arrives in a land under occupation, where arbitrary death is a very real prospect. So real, in fact, that Jesus himself suffers it. And while the celebration of Easter affirms the ability of his students to continue to work in his name and endure his murder to continue his mission, the simple fact remains: at the end of the narrative of his life, Judea is just as violent and tormented a place as at its beginning. His people, many of whom seemed to hope he would be their liberator, remain just as oppressed as before.

The story of Hanukkah, which collides with Christmas mostly as an accident of the calendar, contains this same difficult truth: hope does not triumph in every instance, and victory does not always go to the most righteous or deserved. Also a story of Judea’s occupation by a foreign empire, Hanukkah is a story of liberation from oppression and the struggle for religious freedom, but it is not an uncomplicated one. The Maccabees, the heroes of the story, are hateful towards anyone outside their narrow faction and go on to establish a dynasty – the Hasmoneans – so universally despised that both Jewish and Christian religious authorities view it with almost equal disdain.

As a faith born of heresy, Unitarian Universalism ought to have a firm appreciation for the fact that the best idea does not always win in a dispute. That wars are won by power more than justice. That laws more often serve the mighty than the meek. That, “time is neutral,” as Martin Luther King wrote from his jail cell, and it, “…can be used either destructively or constructively.”

The arrival of the winter holidays can feel inexorable. Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa – each fall on their dates no matter what we do. But their meaning – the joy, renewal, and hope they represent – only arrives when and where human beings work at it. By telling the stories. By observing the rituals. By finding ways to make the ideals and aspirations of these holy times manifest by our actions. Part of life is waiting for things beyond your control to happen. Sometimes those things disappoint, and that disappointment might be minor, or it might be written in fire and blood. Hope can be thwarted. That doesn’t mean we stop hoping. It means we need to recommit to it again and again. The greatest wrong is not justice denied, it is justice so long in absence that all the yearning for it dies out. May we keep that yearning alive, then, friends. We will need it to drive us on, in the direction of new hope.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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