Message Five, December 20, 2009

By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

All of us have heard, I am sure, the basic Christmas story.  A teenage girl named Mary discovers she is pregnant and is informed, by an angel, that the Holy Spirit has placed within her a child.

And we know that Joseph, the husband to be, tries to protect Mary from public ridicule by hiding her until delivery.  But, after being told by another angel that all is OK and that Mary was actually impregnated by God, Joseph goes ahead and marries her but does not consummate the marriage.

Blending together the two gospel stories from Matthew and Luke, shortly before the ninth month, Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth, which is in the north of Israel, to Bethlehem, which is in the south – a distance of around a hundred miles.

They travel in order to fulfill the requirement of census takers – the idea being that one must return to his native town to be counted.  On reaching Bethlehem, they find no place to stay except in a humble structure – either an area where animals are kept connected to an Inn, or in the home of a poor family in which the animals lived with the people.

And in this area a son is born to Joseph and Mary who name him Jesus according to the commands of the angel.  Shepherds appear at the Inn, after having been told by angels that it is there they will find a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

To most Jews of the time, this indicated that the long awaited Messiah was at hand and that he was God – Lord being a translation of Yahweh – the word Jews used to refer to God.

At some point and, depending on how the story is interpreted, three Kings from areas east of Israel are led toward Bethlehem by a star.  They came bearing expensive gifts because they had been told that an infant in Bethlehem is the new King of the Jews.

When the current King of the Jews, King Herod, hears that the three kings travel to meet a purported rival for his throne – he calls the three Kings to him where he asks them to go find this new King – Jesus – and bring him to the palace – ostensibly to be worshiped.

The Kings are led by the star and they do find Jesus and offer him their gifts.  Being afraid of King Herod, however, the Kings do not return to him but go home another way.

Joseph is warned by an angel that Herod seeks to kill Jesus and he takes his new family and flees to Egypt.  Herod, in his fury that the Kings did not bring Jesus to him, commands that all male infants in Bethlehem be killed – but Jesus is safe in Egypt.

After Herod dies, Joseph brings Jesus and Mary back to Israel where, according to Luke, the infant Jesus is circumcised and dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple before going on to Nazareth.

This Christmas story is woven together from the two accounts of Jesus’s birth in Matthew and Luke.  The stories are similar in some very basic ways but they are also quite different.

Luke does not mention the three Kings or the flight to Egypt to escape certain death by Herod.  Matthew does not mention that Mary was told by an angel of her pregnancy nor that she prayerfully and humbly accepts this news.

Matthew also does not mention that shepherds come and worship the infant or that Jesus is circumcised and dedicated according to Jewish law.   The stories are different in their detail and in what they describe but, regarding the basic assertion that Jesus was born to a virgin mother and was conceived by the Holy Spirit, they are identical.

Of additional interest to us is the fact that nowhere else in the Bible is the birth of Jesus described or mentioned.  In the oldest of the gospels – Mark – and the one which was clearly used as a source by Matthew and Luke – a description of Jesus’ birth is not offered.

Jesus merely appears at the beginning of the time when he became an itinerant teacher – when he was baptized by John the Baptist.  Many scholars wonder why Mark – the definitive and original Jesus historian – leaves out such an important event in Jesus’ life as his supernatural birth.

In John’s gospel, there is no birth description either.  John was the theologian and philosopher of the four gospel writers and he opens his account of Jesus’ teaching years by saying that he was the incarnation of all Truth – the Word – or Logos with a capital L.           John writes that in the beginning was capital L, Logos, and that this source of all Truth came to be in human form.

As John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory…”

And so we have the Christmas story that has been celebrated since around the fourth century CE.  It began on the orders of the first Christian Roman Emperor who decreed that the old Roman holiday celebrating the winter solstice be converted to a commemoration of Jesus’ birth.

Next to Easter, Christmas is the holiest of days when those who call themselves Christian commemorate the direct intercession of God in human history – the birth of the messiah who redeems and saves mankind from a fallen existence brought about by the original failings of Adam and Eve.

For us, though, does Christmas have to mean that we celebrate a literal belief in the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth?  Many respected and well known scholars have seriously questioned the validity of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke.

They point out the inconsistencies and variations of detail.  Also, ultimately, there is no way to prove Jesus’ divine conception since, according to the story, only Joseph, Mary and God were involved.

  • If a man named Jesus lived and taught, as I believe he did, could not Mary have simply been an unwed mother?  Of course.

But, to the writers of the gospels and to church leaders living hundreds of years after the man Jesus, the messiah could not be illegitimate nor could he be God in the flesh unless he was the product of supernatural means instead of by normal procreation.

  • If these doubting assertions of scholars are true, however, must we throw out the baby with our skeptical bathwater and reject Christmas altogether?

I hope not – and that is not just because I really like Christmas as a seasonal holiday.

Just as we found last week themes within Hanukkah and Kwanzaa that are inspiring, I believe the same is true for Christmas.

In the midst of many themes in the story, I found one which I believe is significant and ultimately accounts for the popularity of not only Christmas but Christianity itself.

In a world where the ethic is so often one of self-advancement, greed, egotism, aggression and competition, the Christmas story is, at its heart, one of genuine humility.

In a story about God – the ultimate source of power and Truth in the world – we find characters such as

  • a poor young pregnant,girl,
  • a family so poor they must sleep with animals,
  • a few nomadic shepherds,
  • and a father so frightened of a powerful King that he takes his family and flees.

Where are heroic figures riding in on a white horse, large muscled gods or beautiful goddesses?  Where are scenes of immense celestial palaces or images of great wealth – gold, diamonds, silver and marble?

I believe the essential message of Christmas is far from what it has become today.  We all aspire to the perfect Christmas of happy family gatherings, good food, beautiful gifts and abundant joy with life itself.

Sadly, for many, this Christmas will be lonely and spent without lavish meals or wonderfully wrapped presents.  We have taken the Christmas story, I believe, and perverted it into something which can be good for business and good for building wealth, but sadly deficient in building our souls.

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and someone nicknamed the mouth from the south, once said of himself, “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect!” Whether Mr. Turner was being wry and ironic in his self-assessment or blindingly obtuse, his statement rings true for Christmas itself –          if only Christmas had a little humility, it would be perfect.

The funny thing is, though, the Christmas story does have lots of humility within it.  I believe our culture just tends to forget those elements of the story and focuses instead on the gifts of          gold and frankincense          and bright shiny stars          and herald angels.           Joy!                    A Savior is born!           God is here!           All is good!

  • But how often do we consider the woeful plight of a desperate fourteen year old girl who finds herself pregnant?

Despite assertions that she was a virgin, I imagine the real mother of Jesus had to fight accusations of sinful conduct all her life.

  • And what do we make of Joesph, the husband to be, faced with the dilemma of either accepting Mary as an unfaithful fiance or else marrying her and bestowing a gift of legitimacy?
  • Why else would it be necessary for him to marry her if it were not for the implicit idea that Mary had sinned – had cuckolded him – and had been a wanton woman?

And then he leads his poor family, in the dead of winter across nearly a hundred miles over mountainous terrain, to his native city – where they must dwell in a barnyard.  His son Jesus – the boy God – is born next to sheep and cattle.

The other characters in the story are just as humble – just as low and as unheroic as possible.

  • From the shepherds who worship Jesus – the lowest of professions,
  • to the three Kings who travel many miles to meekly offer gifts to an unknown baby King,
  • to the brutish King Herod, a megalomaniac so insecure in his own position that he slaughters an entire town full of male children,

we find no heroes and no grandiose figures who inspire awe.

But that, for me, is precisely the point.  And, I believe, that is the real power of the Christmas story. The universal god-force alive in all people does not call us to a perfect Christmas or even to a perfect life of presents, lots of money, merriment and wonderful food.

It calls us, instead, to lives of genuine humility with ourselves and with others.  Do not count yourself as greater then anyone or anything else.

A Black Elk native American tradition says that the one who seeks truth often weeps, in a humble cry, at the recognition that compared to the Great Spirit, one is nothing.

And the Buddha said that, “The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man; the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed.”

Paul, in the book of Philippians, even recognized the very humility of Jesus himself when he wrote,                   “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

  • What does this message of Jesus, this story of Christmas, mean for us?

I believe it certainly means we must try and add some humility to our Christmases.

Ed and I just this past week talked about how much money we each wanted to spend on the other for Christmas.  For us, this seemed very practical – how do we so love each other that we don’t embarrass the other with over or under spending?

But, of course, our practicality gets it all wrong.

  • How can we so love each other so that money or even gifts do not matter?
  • How do we humble ourselves and our Christmas so that it is not a matter of what we materially get or give but in the intangibles of what we offer – how we care for, love and treat the other?

Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, once said, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” I could not agree more.

  • And is this not true of the Jesus and Mary and Joseph we encounter in the Christmas story?

We do not have to literally believe in the details of the story, but the characters become real to us in their very simplicity and humble natures.

The most influential person in history – Jesus – was born to a fourteen year old, poor, out-of-wedlock-impregnated-girl, in a barn.   That is astonishing stuff.

  • Can we give the gift of being real to each other?
  • Can we give that humble gift of ourselves?

I believe that our real gifts this Christmas or on any other Christmas is what I spoke of last week with regard to letting our light shine.  This is that inner light of innate goodness we each have,          that innate love we each want to give away and that innate desire to reach out and connect with others –          with the intimacy of touch,          the listening ear,                   the act of love and affirmation.

In this regard, I do not propose that material gifts giving be abolished.  What I ask of myself and propose to you is that our motivations and desires change.

Indeed, the giving of gifts often fulfills the human law of love – it is a fundamental way we reveal it.  If Christmas giving has become too commercial and too material, let us at least bring it back in our minds and in our hearts to its humble origins as a love offering.

I cannot physically give to you a piece of my heart but here is a symbol of my heart, a gift from me to you.  Imagine, if you will, our hearts pouring out to others – loved ones or strangers – gifts of money or riches.

It is not the item nor the cost of these gifts but the act of giving that is essential.  In giving, we honor the god force in us – the moral imagination, to repeat a phrase I often use.  Giving to others is like a flow from our spirits.     I love you.   I give to you.

And, fundamental in our humility and in the humility of the Christmas story is that of offering honor and worship to another.

As Paul again wrote in the book of Philippians, we are to “esteem others more than ourselves.”

  • Is that not what the shepherds did for Jesus when they came to the manger?
  • Is that not what the three Kings did?
  • Is that not what Joseph did for Mary – conferring on her the seal of legitimacy despite her suspect pregnancy?
  • Is that not what we do each and every Sunday when we gather together here?

Each Sunday we esteem something mysterious as greater then ourselves – whether that be God,          our collective moral imaginations          or the simple idea that we are unified in our quest for pondering and meditating on the great questions of life and meaning.           In a non-religious sense, I believe this is worship.  I believe this is humbling ourselves before something greater then us.

And, indeed, such is the beauty of the man Jesus – the story of his life that modeled humility.

From calling us to love our enemies          to teaching that the blessed are those who are poor in spirit,          meek,          impoverished,          sick and          persecuted, Jesus exalts the humble and the lowly.

He identifies them with himself when he says that by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked,          visiting the sick,          taking in the stranger          or coming to the imprisoned, we do all those things for him.

As Mother Theresa once said, when she looks into the face of a dying, impoverished person, she looks into the face of god.

How humble can that be?  Instead of a King,      a pauper.  Instead of a hero,       an outcast.  That is, for me, the REAL baby Jesus I can celebrate.

The Amish take the lesson of Christmas to heart and make its theme of humility a central part of their culture.  They are self-effacing to a fault and it is evident that even they struggle with the notion of being individually recognized.

The Amish shun photography since it might lead to vanity and they purposefully reject modern technology since they believe it will lead to individualism.

Of greater preference, for them, are labor tasks requiring group effort.  This builds community and helps to reduce the individual spirit.

Other forms of modernity like electricity, are avoided to prevent the acquisition of material things which brings status and stifles humility.  For the Amish, living a life as close to that of Jesus is the goal – simplicity in everything and a living ethic echoing the words of John the Baptist about Jesus, “He must increase while I must decrease.”

But Christianity is not the only world religion that focuses on humility.  The Chinese Taoists make it the third element of their three principles or treasures.

To be a complete human, Taoists emphasize the character traits of

  1. compassion,
  2. frugality and
  3. humility.

Each of these three personal treasures, as they are called, are inextricably linked – one leading to the other and operating in an almost circular fashion.

Compassion or love causes one to live frugally or simply since only in that regard can one have the resources to be compassionate.

  • If one lives extravagantly, how can one be fully compassionate towards others?

And these two – compassion and simplicity – lead to humility for that calls for one to never live above anyone else.  One must never allow oneself to be preeminent.

I cannot help but think of the contrast between our prevailing Amerincan culture and the Amish or Taoist philosophy.

  • We frequently lack genuine love for others in this world because we fail to live simply or humbly.
  • We have allowed ourselves the pride of preeminence and the extravagance of wealth.
  • And, in that regard, we are too often violent and aggressive in our behavior towards the world – the opposite of loving our enemies or being meek as Jesus taught

For practical purposes – and without moving to an Amish community, – or without becoming world-class wimps –  how do we apply such lessons and examples of humility in our own lives?

I propose that genuine humility must be just that – it cannot be false.

  1. As such, we must first recognize and appreciate our true abilities and talents.
  2. Second, we must conduct an honest appraisal of ourselves.  As I offered a few weeks ago in my message on self-awareness, we can ask ourselves a series of questions that dig deeper into honest reflections about our true nature.  Sheets with these questions are still on the information table in the other room.
  3. Third, in order to be humble people, we must recognize both our own talents and the talents of those around us who have expertise in areas that we don’t.  Added to that, we must not compare ourselves to others but simply understand that others have talents we do not.
  4. Fourth, we must not be afraid to make mistakes but must be willing to try new things and new undertakings.  This will always teach humility.
  5. Fifth, as Mike Shryock pointed out in what he had to say to the congregation a few weeks ago, we must seek to help others.  Nothing gets us out of a focus on self then on assisting others in need.
  6. Sixth, I believe we should never lose our sense of wonder at things and people all around us.  To be cynical or jaded is to think we have seen it all or know it all.  Can we not be in awe at simple things and simple acts and everyday miracles all around us?
  7. Finally, humility calls for gentleness in all things.  If we are gentle with those we love, with ourselves and with the flaws we see in others, we are humble people.           As Jesus wisely said, before we should be pointing out the simple speck in the eye of another person, we should first pluck out the enormous log in our own eye. In other words, don’t point to the flaw in another when we are likely even more deficient.

In a reflection on Christmas humility, I offer a brief personal story.

Several years ago in the fall, my father and I had a particularly angry argument.

I was assisting my father with some business affairs in his work as a surgeon.  And one of the tasks I performed for him was contrary to his wishes and he became enraged and violent with me – throwing an item on his desk at me and yelling at me to get out.

My father has an outsized ego – something that seems to come naturally to those of his profession.  He lives out the old joke that the difference between surgeons and God is that at least God does not think he is a surgeon.

At any rate, I promptly left my dad and then resolved that if he could treat me in that fashion, I would passively-aggressively punish him.  I would have no further contact with him and I would not allow my two girls – his granddaughters – to visit him until he apologized.

This separation lasted for several months – past Thanksgiving – and it was a serious family rupture.  My mother was distraught but my father and I, in our pride, refused to reconcile.

Two weeks before Christmas, I decided I could not live with this burden.  Not only was I hurting myself, I was hurting my two girls who love their grandfather.  I sent a note to my dad asking him to forgive me for my actions and saying that I and my family would be at their house for Christmas.

The next day, as I was doing things around my house, the doorbell rang and, as I opened the door, there stood my dad.  Looking down at his feet, and obviously quite awkward, my dad simply said he was sorry.  And then, in an act that still resonates with me – as it is the first and only time he has said so – he said, “I love you.” He turned around and walked back to his car and drove away.

Needless to say, Christmas was a happy occasion for our family that year.  My mother was ecstatic.  My father and I never spoke of what happened between us and we likely never will.

But, I will always remember the courage he took and the humility he was forced to wear in order to personally come to me.

Apologies and sincere expressions of love are always the greatest of humble expressions.  In doing so, I think, we live out the ethic of reducing ourselves and increasing the other.

And so, this Christmas, in that deep center inside ourselves, let a bright star shine down upon the god in us.

  • This is the god we all know and all want to be.
  • This is the god of our darkest selves who knows us as we really are.
  • This is the god of love and compassion and goodness we each have.

Indeed, this child god inside us was not created or given birth by our minds or abilities.  This Jesus was indeed born of our virgin souls – pure and holy and good.

  • This is the Jesus of our ancestors,
  • the Jesus of all peoples and all religions.

He or she is not heroic,          grandiose,          rich or          powerful.

This Christmas Jesus, born in us as he was in ages past and ages yet to come,

  • gives without hesitation,
  • honors without prejudice and
  • loves without fear.

And in that Christmas child’s cry of our heart, we hear the plaintive voice, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all.”