Christmas Eve Homily – December 24, 2015
Homily – The Freedom Tree
Christmas is a time for wishing. As children most of us had Christmas wish lists, these were the toys or games we wanted most and we tried to convey those wishes to anyone who would listen. There were letters to Santa, there were constant reminders to our parents of our fervent wishes, and if we saw Santa at a store, we made sure to tell him about the baseball glove or record player we were wishing for. I know I am dating myself here, as there was no Mario Super Smash Brothers. We barely had pinball machines. When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, we did not have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads like the famous poem, but rather shiny new skates or skis, books or dolls that we dreamed would be sitting under the tree on Christmas morning sometimes wrapped in colorful paper, and other times adorned only with a large bow, especially if Santa was in a hurry. I suspect children still wish for certain gifts to appear under the tree.
We have other things we wish for at this time of year. Sometimes it is things we have no control of. Those who like the warm temperatures wish that it would stay that way, and those who like an old New England winter wish for cold temperatures and snow. Why are New Englanders never happy?. In our own families we may wish for a quiet holiday where there will be no fighting over a behavior or a point of view, or we wish that no one would feel inadequate for the present they gave, the way they look or what they don’t have. As a kid, I remember wishing for a body that was a lot skinnier or that I might someday hit a baseball like Ted Williams. I finally accepted that I would not be a hall of famer, and that my body worked just fine. It was better to be happy with what I had rather than wishing I were somebody else.
When we wish for peace this time of year we may remember what others have endured. The Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears reflected in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” on his sorrow over the Mexican War, which had just ended in1849. He wanted to hear the beautiful loving strains of angel songs rather than the violent sounds of war.
Strife is central to Jesus’ story too. It is the story of a poor family who have been made refugees by political and religious turmoil, living under a king who seeks more and more tax money. He uproots the common people for his own gain, and ruthlessly pursues those who may threaten his rule in any way In the story we see Joseph and Mary running away to survive. As they looked for a warm, dry place to prepare for a birth, fearful people turned them away. Days after the birth, the new family had to get back on the road to escape violence and persecution. This story might be one from modern day Syria or Iraq.
During the last three weeks First Parish has been the drop off spot for material items for Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey. Twice my office has been filled to the brim with food and clothes, toys like soccer balls and stuffed monkeys and basic needs like diapers. I try to picture thousands of people massed together, and wished we had a more welcoming spirit here in America. Too many politicians and fellow citizens have been saying there is no room at the inn. Among the visitors to my office was a woman who dropped off some clothes. She asked me if I knew if anything was getting through to the people of Mosul. There was a sad look in her eyes. I remembered that Mosul had fallen to the forces of ISIS last year, just as she was saying, “my family is there.” Yet it is just such a world that Jesus was born into, and families in these tents, and under siege and afraid will also know a moment of joy, a few minutes of hope, with a cry of new life, when their babies are born, with the wish, the longing and the prayer that tomorrow will bring peace, and everyone can go home..
It was not so long ago that a man named Charles Follen came to America as a refugee. We mostly know Follen as the person who introduced the Christmas tree to New England, but his story parallels that of Jesus and our Syrian refugees today. He was born in Germany when Napoleon and his French armies controlled the countryside, and soon thereafter his family had to flee when foreign armies swept through their town, Follen wanted to see a united Germany, but even after French domination came to an end, aristocratic control prevailed. He became part of a revolutionary movement. He was vocal, and his group wanted the overthrow of the government, and soon the police were investigating him. Then he had to flee from prison or worse. It reminds us of the urgency with which we must help save those who are trapped, having fallen into life-threatening situations. Follen changed his place of residence frequently, and burned his correspondence. Soon he fled to Geneva, and eventually to America.
The story goes that he wanted to spread the influence of German culture. He remembered the Christmas trees of his childhood that glowed so brightly, and he wanted to thrill his young son Charlie with this wonderful symbol of light and green growth. But it was more than that. Follen had become part of an anti-slavery society here in Massachusetts, and his group held Christmas fairs and sold gifts to raise funds to further their cause. They sang carols, and offered cards for sale and an evergreen shrub, forever to be known as a Christmas Tree.. The group also focused on children and their rights, and compared the children to the slaves. It was a time when children who misbehaved were beaten, just as slaves were beaten. Don’t all people, Follen asked, deserve basic rights to not be hurt, and to be free to develop their talents?
Follen cut a tree down, set it in a tub, and placed it in his parlor. The tree was decorated with real toys, dolls and puppets, and paper cornucopias with candied fruit for the children to eat. There were popcorn and cranberry garlands, and even whole hanging fruit, as well, not ornaments but things you could eat and play with. They were things to make you happy. There were even real candles that burned creating a magic glow filling the entire room. Harriet Martineau reported on this amazing sight and how it hushed all the voices to a silent awe. A doll’s petticoat caught on fire, but it was quickly extinguished. Follen wanted all children to have rights and all slaves to be free. Gifts were to be given so everyone would be able to enjoy life, and feel the care of others. And so this Christmas symbol was his own very green freedom tree. Today there is a UU church in Lexington named for Charles Follen who did more than give us green growing trees in a time when the earth is barren . He had a growing vision of freedom that would not die.
Charles had a wish for freedom for children and for slaves. What if you had one wish? What would it be? Would you wish for peace, and an end to suffering? Would you wish that there would be no more families who are driven from their homes? Would you wish that no one would be hurt in his or her family or in their school? Would you wish for love, or healing? If you were in a camp would you wish for a ball to play with, or a doctor to make you feel better, or an end to people fighting? Maybe a wish is just that, an empty wish. But maybe it is more. It is an idea you can think about. And you can make a commitment. You can wish to change things sometimes, and you can make it happen. Wishes can come true, and they don’t need stars or wise men, or even holy births. A wish can be a dangerous thing. It can take courage to act on a wish. Sometimes a wish is just wishful thinking. It’s too big. But sometimes you, yes you are big enough to act, or to have the same wish as others and act together, to be thoughtful about what you can do, to wish for strength and courage, and then you have it. It is born in you. What would your wish be, on this night when wishes are waiting to be fulfilled?
O Spirit of this season of darkness, from bleak days, we have gathered in community to make a dreary season shine with lights, we erect greens in our homes for new life, we hang bright ornaments to represent joy, we place gifts under the tree to show our care for each other. We are grateful for the return of the Christmas spirit. May it remind us that even though it seems that we are plodding along, that we are on a wondrous journey if we would only listen to the angelic music that surrounds, and follow the stars leading to new births. May it remind us that sometimes we try too hard with heavy lifting when what saves us is a simple word or smile, a gentle caress of the soul. May it remind us that we can be too orderly in all our arrangements when sometimes we need the messy chaos of the backyard stable. May it remind us that the quiet darkness of the night is imploring us to listen, and not talk our way out of hearing and seeing what is truly lovely. May it remind us to keep lighting candles, because even if the immediate moment seems bleak, the journey continues, and the soul can break open in love again, further down the road. Letting the light shine once more. Amen