Last week I was hiking in the Smokies, climbing up to a ridge on the Anthony Creek trail, where the sound of cascading water flowing over rocks offers a kind of calming meditation. When my path connected with the Bote Mountain Trail I was struck by the fact that while everything around me was stone cold gray – the thicket of mountain laurel in front of me was still green.
Perhaps it was an unexpected encounter of this sort with unanticipated greenery -somewhere in the distant past -that provided the genesis of so many of our holiday traditions. Decking the halls with bows of holly, decorating evergreen trees, kissing under the mistletoe. In a season of barren, desolate landscapes it is encouraging to encounter signs of life.
Many of the traditions of Christmas predate the birth of Christ and the spread of Christianity throughout the Western world. Some of those traditions have to do with generosity. There is something elemental about this impulse. Winter reminds us of our interdependence. In the cold we need each other for warmth. In the midst of the harsh winter winds we need each other for shelter. In a time when our provisions may be running low, we need each other in order to be fed. During this season we are aware that the impulse to hoard everything for ourselves makes the world barren and our impulse to share gives us life.
This time of year is a season of generosity. Many charities collect almost all their money this time of year to fund programs year round. I’ve heard many community organizers say that this spirit of generosity should be spread more evenly throughout the year. However, I feel a certain resonance with this seasonal phenomena, as the days grow colder our hearts grow warmer.
The tradition of Christmas caroling has it’s roots in the tradition of wassailing, where people go door to door to share a song, but also in the expectation that the community will share it’s wealth. The words, “So bring us some figgy pudding” are not so much a request as they are an expectation. That’s why the next verse in that song is, “We won’t go until we get some.”
There is a dignity to wassailing that is different from common begging as the song Here We Come A-Wassailing about the tradition includes the verse,
We are not daily beggers
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before
The underlying spirit of wassailing is that we are not beggars- we are neighbors. We are not strangers -we are members of the same community.
There is a story that is often told in Appalachian churches that illustrates the attitude behind wassailing. One Sunday morning the preacher told his congregation, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money to fund all our church ministries. The bad news is it is still in your pockets.”
The wassailing tradition is based on a similar premise. There is good news we have enough food for everyone but some of that food may still be in your cupboard. There are enough resources for everyone but some of those may be in your bank account. As another verse of the wassailing carol tells us.
We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.
In our contemporary culture the tradition of wassailing might seem like a shakedown, a very polite form of extortion. But this is because in our culture we prize our independence over our interdependence, our sense of mutual obligation, mutual connection, shared responsibility and community.
Yesterday was International Human Rights Day. I have been impressed with the Knoxville Homeless Collective’s process for drafting a Homeless Bill of Rights – people in need are not objects of our charity but human beings who deserve our respect. The rights outlined therein are not special rights but basic rights, rights that everyone should enjoy. And the efforts to restrict these rights impact everyone.
In San Antonio, Texas, a chef was fined $2,000 for feeding the homeless. A church is Maryland was fined $12,000 for helping the homeless. A 90 year-old World War II veteran in Florida was fined $500 and is facing the possibility of a sentence of 60 days in jail for outreach to the homeless. According to the National Coalition on Homelessness 71 cities have passed or attempted to pass laws criminalizing feeding the homeless. It is in response to these kinds of efforts that the Homeless Bill of Rights asserts that every one of us has,
The right to give food or water to others, and the right to eat, share, and accept food and water in public spaces; The right to give shelter or assist those in need by helping them find shelter
While there are sometimes legitimate concerns about food safety and neighborhood zoning laws these concerns must be addressed in ways that are consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And while there may be disagreements on the best way to honor these rights at the very least I think we can agree that we do not want the government to become The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
The government and the Grinch are not the only ones who can steal Christmas. We can do it ourselves even when we have the best of intentions. Robert Lupton has written a book called Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help in which he tells the story of delivering toys to needy children during the holidays. He was feeling good about this act of charity. However, he noticed after many visits to a variety of different homes that the fathers of the families would disappear into the back bedroom when the toys arrived. He wrote, “I was witnessing a side I had never noticed before: how a father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family…even the most kindhearted, rightly motivated giving…can exact an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity.”
Even with the best of intentions charity can reinforce a sense of superiority in the giver and a sense of inferiority in the receiver offering an unintended insult to injury of poverty. The gift may be offered in humility but received in humiliation.
Robert Lupton would probably describe himself as a compassionate conservative but I have heard similar sentiments at the Highlander Center just down the road, an institution that helped to train Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, labor unions and environmental groups, and many other people and social change groups known and unknown who work for justice. I was out at the Highlander Center this week for a workshop where I heard one of the participants say, “It is not what we do for each other it is what we can do with each other that’s important.”
For this reason, I think it is important for us to know that when our congregation supports the work of SEED (Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development) which trains young people in our inner cities for green jobs in a green economy on a green and peaceful planet we are doing the work of Christmas. When we pay a living wage and when we advocate in our community for a living wage for everyone we are doing the work of Christmas. We may not get to see the eyes of children light up on Christmas morning but nevertheless our efforts are instrumental in creating a world where children wake up on that morning with excitement and joy and are embraced by parents who feel good about themselves and the world. It is a gift when we move beyond charity to heart felt sense of solidarity.
So whenever you see a rally outside of a fast food restaurant where people are demanding a raise in the minimum wage holding up the Fight for 15 signs I hope you will remember the tradition of wassailing where it is perfectly appropriate, and completely respectable to cry out for social justice and say, and you can say it with me.
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
So bring it right here
We see some of that same spirit of solidarity in the thousands who gathered at Standing Rock last weekend for an interfaith prayer service to oppose a pipeline going through the sacred lands of Standing Rock Sioux; the power of prayer facing the power of militarized vehicles; the power of prayer facing the power of tear gas, fire hoses and military weaponry. The Corp of Engineers gave the tribal leaders good news last week. In all likelihood the pipeline will be rerouted, although vigilance will be required to ensure that this decision is not undermined by a new presidential administration in January, but for now the decision is a welcomed gift.
The movement at Standing Rock reminds me of a story told by the Native American leader, scholar and author Vine Deloria who often wrote about how white people just don’t seem to “get” Native American culture. Once when Deloria was on a radio talk show he got this question from caller, “Before white people came to America how did the Native Americans celebrate Christmas?” Fortunately, it was a good time for a commercial break because Deloria just couldn’t stop laughing. He couldn’t control himself. He had tears streaming down his face.
At the risk of stating the obvious before Christians came to America there was no celebration called Christmas but that does not mean there wasn’t any religion here. When the Christian missionaries tried to convert the Seneca Iroquois leader Red Jacket he told them,
“We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers…We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. We worship that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive; to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.”
This week I heard a conservative Christian commentator crow about the election results by saying, “The war on Christmas is over and we won.” So what can I say, unlike the Seneca tribe, we do quarrel about religion. Too often in our culture we celebrate Christmas with a culture war.
So if you ever grow tired of the sanctimony of television commentators or weary of the vitriol of talk radio or disheartened by the diatribes on social media, I recommend that you go outside for a walk in the forest. If you do, you may discover that in an otherwise barren and desolate landscape there is still some green. Most trees will have lost their leaves but if you pay attention you may still see signs of life, and what you experience on your walk will be similar to what people have felt long before you were born, long before anyone came over to this continent from Europe. If you keep your eyes open you will see what the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Seneca and the Sioux saw before you and you will discover that before there was Western European religion in this land there was already a religion here. And before there was anything called Christianity there was an experience that we now call Christmas. In that spirit, let me say to everyone of every faith and every belief of every kind, Merry Christmas.
(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on December 11, 2016)