Kibbitzing Around the Christmas Tree

This week I got a text from Claudia Pressley, our Director of Administration, informing me that the alarm for the church building went off in the middle of the night. Claudia reviewed the video on our security system and discovered a mouse had walked in front of one of our electronic sensors. So it was a week before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring except for a mouse.

The season is upon us. Walking through the bustling halls of our church this morning I found myself singing; (to the tune It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas)

 “It’s beginning to look a lot like multiple holidays. Let’s name them all…”

That’s when I had to stop singing because I needed a comprehensive list. There’s Advent, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Yule, Festivas for the Rest of Us. There’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. 

This year Chanukah and Christmas overlap so we will  have latkes and mistletoe, dreidels and caroling. Sometimes the pairings seem dissonant. For instance, after church today we are having “Hotdogs for Hanukkah.” Rest assured kosher hot dogs. This year it seems especially important to remember that many of our favorite Christmas songs were written by Jews. White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin. The Most Wonderful Time by George Wyle, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow by Samuel Kahn, Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland by Felix Bernard and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Johnny Marks. 

And for this reason I thought a good theme for this year’s service would be Kibbitzing Around the Christmas Tree. Before I say more about Christmas trees let me turn to Rabbi Naomi Levy for a good definition of the word kibbitz. 

“Kibbitz is a Yiddish word that encompasses all that amazing nothingness you do with your friends – hanging around, joking, gossiping, teasing, storytelling, unburdening, listening, laughing and more…” 

And so today seems like a good day for… (to the tune of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Kibbitzing around the Christmas Tree

At the interfaith party hop

Celebrating all the holidays 

So religious rivalries stop. 

All humor aside, our church has hosted many interfaith dinners and interfaith forums and these are the very heart of spirituality for us. In the Unitarian Universalist church we draw wisdom from all the great religions of the world. We also draw joy from all the celebrations. 

This interfaith spirit is not an exercise in postmodern political correctness. It is about “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.”  Today we are mindful of the rise of antisemitism and hate crimes in our country. The local synagogues and the Jewish Community Center have increased their security during this season due to possible threats. Today people of all faiths light the candles of the menorah as a sign of solidarity and a prayer for peace. 

Many of us are familiar with the story of a pagan who approached Rabbi Hillel and said to him, “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you, this is the Torah, all the rest is commentary.” 

All the great religions of the world have similar teachings. 

“Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” teach the Buddhists.

“Lay not on any soul a load you would not want laid on you,” teach the Bahai. 

“Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you,” teach the Hindus. 

“No one is truly a believer until you wish for others what you wish for yourself,” teach the Muslims. 

Bill Fields says, “It isn’t the holidays unless there is a baby Jesus in the room” so here he is. Last year we had a hard time finding our baby Jesus for the Christmas pageant (and I was worried we might have a hard time this year.)  However, here he is. Of our baby Jesus we can truly say, “He once was lost but now is found.” 

Jesus taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And it is the sentiment found in all of the different versions of the Golden Rule that underlies all of the holidays of the season. In Shintoism followers are taught to look for the religion that underlies all religions. We often find this religion when we spend time in Nature doing what the followers of Shintoism call “forest bathing.” Walking in the woods we get a sense of why Theodore Parker called “The Earth, the Oldest Testament.” 

This time of year I love to go walking in the mountains among the evergreens of the Smokies, the pine and fir,  the cedar and spruce, the mountain laurel and rhododendron, the moss and ferns, against a winter background of gray skies and brown leaves -a hint of life among the omnipresent reminders of death. Walking in the woods every small bit of green becomes an antidepressant and we begin to understand why the Cherokee, the original inhabitants of this land, teach that walking in the woods is Good Medicine. 

When I walk outside in winter I understand why the ancients before any written religion was recorded decided to bring trees inside during the darkest, coldest time of the year and decorated their homes with holly and mistletoe. Oftentimes, the sight of something green is enough to fill us with tidings of comfort and joy. 

For after we’ve had our forest bath it can be good to return to family and friends, hearth and home or come to our congregation on a Sunday morning for some kibbitzing. So let’s finish up this sermon so the kibbitzing can begin. We invite you to come to our fellowship hall for coffee and conversation after the service (or attend the online coffee hour for those watching from home.) For it is beginning to look like multiple holidays and I hope everyone is a holy day of peace for you and your family. So Merry Christmas, Mazel Tov and Shalom. 

(This homily was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday, December 18 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)


Charity: Beyond Minimum Help and Maximum Humiliation

Lately, I have been following the controversy over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. One of the things I find so intriguing is the combination of two things. First, Musk is fashioning himself as a champion of free speech and second, he is firing anyone who disagrees with him. I am intrigued by the irony of it all. However, if we are wise we can use this kind of irony to practice self-examination. Because oftentimes, if we take an honest look at ourselves in the mirror, we may discover that we are the obstacles to our own goals. We are the ones standing in the way of our  notions of progress. As the comic strip character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

Today I want to talk about charity but before I do I probably should point out that a sermon unlike a tweet is not limited to 280 characters or less. So I am hoping everyone will be charitable with me about that. Today I want to talk about charity as we enter into the most charitable season of the year. However I want us to reflect on charity with an appreciation of all the ironies involved in the process- for sometimes our efforts to help do harm, our attempts to heal cause hurt, our initiatives to empower can undermine and our good intentions yield bad results. 

 Indeed when I take a close look at our nation’s welfare system and the policies of many other non profit organizations I sometimes feel that the systems in our country are designed to offer the minimum amount of help with the maximum amount of  humiliation. Too often when we offer assistance we do so in ways that undermine human dignity. So this morning my goal is to reflect on charity in a way that helps us all practice self examination and choose to act charitably in ways that affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. My hope is that the work of the church will always be to help and never to humiliate. 

But before I say anymore about charity, I want to remind all of us of the parable of the sower, a parable that should help keep us all humble. Jesus told the following story. 

 A farmer went out to sow his seeds. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seeds fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seeds fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.

This parable reminds us our efforts to do good will not always yield the results we desire, not every seed we sow is going to yield an abundant harvest. All our efforts to do good involve some level of trial and error. Sometimes our best efforts will be trampled underfoot or eaten by birds or fall on rocky ground or get choked by thorns. However we are called to do good anyhow. We are not in the seed conservation business. We are called to sow seeds anyhow. As Mother Theresa who worked among the poorest of the poor often said, “God does not require me to be successful. God requires me to be faithful.” 

Another thought that should keep us humble comes from Saint Basil the Great who reminds us that the wealth we give away wasn’t created by ourselves alone. Our wealth comes from the commonwealth. He reminded us, “The bread that you keep for yourself belongs to the hungry; to the naked belong the clothes that you hoard in your closet; to the barefooted belongs the shoes that is gathering moth in your home; the indigent have a right to the money you hide in your coffers. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.”

Along these lines there is a Sufi story from the mystical strand of Islam where a man who is caught stealing is brought before the king. The king asks his advisors how the man should be punished. The first advisor says, “He should be roasted alive as a warning to others. The second advisor says, “He should be torn limb from limb.” But the third advisor says, “Ensure that he has the necessities of life so he will not be forced to steal to provide for his family.” The king decided to follow the advice of the last advisor to ensure that the man could live and work in dignity. 

The story reminds us that charity isn’t the solution to every problem. A living wage is worth more than a thousand acts of charity. Working for systemic change often yields far better results than individual acts of kindness. Archbishop Desmund Tutu was right when he said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Or, I might add, find out who is throwing them in. And this is the work of the church to minister to people downstream AND send people upstream to see what’s going on and change it. 

Charity is important year round. However, there is a reason that the winter season is a time when we increase our acts of charity. In the bleak midwinter the frosty winds make moan, the earth stands hard as iron and water like a stone. Sometimes when the earth is hard, our hearts soften. Sometimes when everything else is frozen our hearts melt. And so we pass the plate at the KICMA Holiday service to raise money for people who need help with their utility bills. We create a Mitten Tree and invite people to bring mittens, hats, gloves and scarves to give to people in need. We make meals for families who would otherwise go homeless through the Family Promise program. We take home a Guest At Your Table Box to help raise money for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. We buy groceries to stock our church’s free food pantry. This time of year our charity is informed by a sense of solidarity in the face of the common challenge of winter. 

Winter reminds us that charity is not something we do for others. It is what we do with others. It is what we do to face common challenges together. Recently I have been reading the autobiography of the rock star Bono of the group U2. I am interested not only in his music but his activism. He has been a leader in many charitable and justice efforts like Live Aid, Live 8, the One Campaign, the Jubilee Debt Forgiveness movement, Artists Against Apartheid, Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope. He  sometimes leads audiences in the chant, “There is no them. There;s only us.” Let me take the first part and you take the second part, 

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us. 

There is no them, there is only us. 

Believe it or not that chant is theologically sound. Google it and you will find theological commentaries (Catholic, Protestant and more) where those words are referenced as a very simple way to condense thousands and thousands of pages of theological commentary (making it the size of a tweet.)  So let’s say it again, 

There is no them, there is only us.

We can never help others through systems that shame or humiliate. Systems that shame and humiliate are degrading for both the giver and the receiver. For we hunger not only for food. We hunger to be treated with dignity. We not only thirst for something to drink. We thirst to be treated with respect. We long for not only the warmth of winter’s coat or a night’s lodging. We long for the warmth of meaningful human connection, the warmth of compassion, love and mutual respect.  And real human connection includes accountability. Everyone who’s been in a relationship has experienced tough love. My mother knew how to dispense it. Real human connection means realizing that everyone has something to contribute. Everyone has something to offer. We are all called to be part of a solution. Everyone has gifts to give. Everyone has potential to realize. There is nothing that anyone has to offer that we can afford to go to waste. We need everyone, rich and poor, to be a part of the solution. 

In recent years activists have begun to speak about toxic charity, those forms of charity that do more harm than good. Although some of the books on this topic have come from conservative authors there is some significant overlap with insights from the most progressive movements for social change. I am going to focus on that common ground in this sermon. 

One neighborhood organization describes toxic charity this way, 

Toxic Charity shares stuff, but not power or agency – making the recipients into objects of pity.  It usually doesn’t engage with systems of inequity. As a result, it tends not to have a long-term impact on the issue it purports to address.Over time, Toxic Charity can be deeply disempowering. As such, it can end up harming the people who are supposed to benefit from the initiative. It can create an antagonistic or condescending relationship between givers and recipients.” 

Too often, all the power of charity is in the hands of the “giver” and no power in the hands of the “receiver.” One way to detoxify charity is to share power, to share agency and to work in partnership together. The goal is to provide resources without robbing others of human dignity. The goal is to be able to say (in the words of our chalice light song)…

From you I receive, 

to you I give, 

together we share, 

and from this we live. 

Everyone of us needs help sometimes. Recently I was at an interfaith clergy meeting when a member of the group began to complain about the Student Loan Forgiveness plan saying it taught young people the wrong lesson. However, at the risk of ruffling interfaith feathers I pointed out that during the global pandemic many congregations  benefitted from the Payment Protection Program loans offered through the federal government and we also benefitted when those loans were forgiven. Many of us in this room work for organizations, for profit and non-profit,  that  benefited from those loans and that loan forgiveness. And if you meditate on that it gives a whole new meaning to that old familiar prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive those in debt to us.” 

An important aspect of charity is the recognition that we may be givers today and receivers tomorrow. When I was a minister of a church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, we organized a group to support the work of the Interfaith Health Clinic. Our duties were light, welcoming patients, accepting paperwork, minding the bureaucracy of a small clinic. However, it felt good to be able to give back to the community. And yet during our first year one of the members of our congregation found herself in need of essential medical care. She was low income and uninsured. Fortunately, through the Interfaith Health Clinic she was able to get the surgery she needed. I never saw her bill but I am willing to bet that the cost of her surgery was more than the value of all our volunteer hours put together up to that point in time. All of this is to say, we went to the clinic in order to give, only to find ourselves on the receiving end. 

The famous Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas, addresses words to Christian men about charity that are equally applicable to people of all faiths and every gender identity. 

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,

Wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.

Of course the mystics of all faiths teach this truth, often through sayings that are short enough to be a tweet. We are taught that  “It is by giving that we receive. It is by emptying that we are filled. It is by letting go that we gain.” The book of Proverbs tells us that our “Mercy to the poor is a loan to God and God pays back those loans in full.” Or as the book of Galatians tells us, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due time we shall reap a harvest, if we do not give up.” Or as a rock star known for championing good causes would remind us…

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us.

(Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 4, 2022)