SERMON: Being Together

Merry Christmas, dear ones! Here is my homily from Sunday. It doesn’t say much that people don’t already know, but I still think it was important to preach.  The magical moment came when the musicians singing after the sermon got up and told their personal story of being together.  We all cried and the sermon suddenly had deep, deep meaning. I hope a little of that dear gift can make its way to each of your.

Opening Words
It is good.
It is good to be.
It is good to be here.
It is good to be here together.

Meditation
We are here together, caught up in a tangle of holy days, trying to balance our everyday, ordinary responsibilities even while we open our hearts to a larger story. We have found a way through the darkest night and yet, the days are still short and there is so much to do, so much to balance, so many demands on our time and so much to attend to.

We know that in any human community—including this one we hold dear—these holy days bring a mix of feelings and memories, of hopes and worries, of celebration and mourning. We stop for a moment in the midst of it all to bring our attention to each other.

Whenever we come together, we are reminded we are not alone. We are held by a community that sustains us and which we too sustain. Whenever we come together we are reminded that while each of us is important, none of us is more or less important than the others.

We take this moment to remind ourselves that we are not alone and to send out hopes, prayers, and wishes to each other, in the spirit of beloved community:

Prayers of gratitude and joy for those among us who look forward to these holy days with excitement and who have hearts full of enthusiasm and lives full of gifts they are eager to give. May we be ready to receive and share their joy.

Prayers for clarity and comfort for those among us who meet these days with a confusion of mixed feelings, who feel the weight of expectations on their shoulders, who struggle to face the stresses of the season. May we be ready to listen and pitch in where we can, helping shoulder these burdens with a generous heart

Prayers of compassion and peace for those among us who find themselves in the middle of the holidays facing the realities of grief or loss, illness or poverty, injury or separation, pain or despair. May we be ready to listen, to hold a hand, to share what we have, to remember that the dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all is only possible in a world where we work for justice.

And lastly, prayers of safety for all who travel and for those who are in harm’s way this season. For the soldiers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, and other public servants who cannot be home because they are serving the common good, may we be aware of all the invisible hands that help make it possible for us to celebrate, and may we be gracious and grateful.

In the spirit of community we attend to these things. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Reading

“Turning to One Another” (excerpt)
by Margaret J. WheatleyFor as long as we’ve been around as humans, as wandering bands of nomads or cave dwellers, we have sat together and shared experiences. We’ve painted images on rock walls, recounted dreams and visions, told stories of the day, and generally felt comforted to be in the world together. When the world became fearsome, we came together. When the world called us to explore its edges, we journeyed together. Whatever we did, we did it together.

We have never wanted to be alone. But today, we are alone. We are more fragmented and isolated from one another than ever before. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it as “a radical brokenness in all of existence.” We move at frantic speed, spinning out into greater isolation. We seek consolation in everything except each other. The entire world seems hypnotized in the wrong direction—encouraging us to love things rather than people, to embrace everything new without noticing what’s lost or wrong, to choose fear instead of peace. We promise ourselves everything except each other. We’ve forgotten the source of true contentment and well-being.

But we haven’t really forgotten. As the world becomes more complex and fearful, we know we need each other to find our way through the darkness.

Sermon
I began today with my favorite opening words:

It is good.
It is good to be.
It is good to be here.
It is good to be here together.

I remember the first time I heard these words, in one of our congregations. I was already a minister, and the congregation I was visiting opened their service by reciting these words in unison. Even though I knew there were conflicts and disagreements in the congregation, I felt the power of the weekly ritual of these people reminding themselves that there is something more important than opinions or power struggles. It is good to be. It is good to be here. It is good to be here together.

Somehow, though I am not sure how, we have come to the edge of one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year. This is the Sunday between the winter solstice and Christmas, a week away from a New Year, and full of expectations for celebrations, parties, traditions, gift-giving, and feasting. No matter which holidays you celebrate—or whether you join in the festivities at all—the air is full of expectations and assumptions. One can try to ignore it, but the frenzy of the next few days affects us all—whether we feel caught up in the midst of it or left out completely.

Like many of the most important things in our lives, these holy days are becoming less and less our own. They seem to belong more and more to corporations and retailers who bombard us with images of diamonds and cars and electronics and glamour, putting the emphasis on acquiring (either as a giver or as a recipient) the perfect gift, the perfect décor, the perfect stuff.

It’s my job—and it’s either very easy or as hard as taking on our whole culture—that it is not about the stuff. All the winter holidays—Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year—are about something far more important and far more life-giving, than stuff.

When the various committees chose the themes for this year’s worship and community, we chose questions. This month’s question is “What Can We Celebrate?” and you’ve heard some of my answers: “Light in Darkness,” “The Turning of the Wheel,” and today: “Being Together.” When it comes down to it, these holy days are times for recognizing and celebrating our communities—family, friends, congregation, town, religious and ethnic communities, the larger world, and the human race. It’s not about the stuff. It’s about being together.

This may sound simple. It is simple. But like many simple truths, it is easy to forget. Look again at the winter holidays: Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the New Year—do any of them ask you to journey off alone, to light candles alone in the darkness, to sequester one’s self in the cold night, to stay away from others? No. Not one. Each one of them asks that we gather with others and share time together.

There is a poem about Yule that reminds me of this human urge to be together:

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
to drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us –
Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Reading that, especially the few lines, “They carol, fest, give thanks, and dearly love their friends, and hope for peace…” I can see in my mind’s eye the crowd of revelers who have faced the longest night together and shared the joy of dawn. We too, support and accompany one another through the long night. We too join voices with those who have come before to celebrate the birth of hope, the return of light, the hope for peace, the joy of love.

One of my favorite holiday readings, and one I haven’t gotten to share with you yet, though this is the sixth year we’ve celebrated together, is called “Touch Hands” by William Henry Harrison Murray. It’s an interesting little poem written in the late 19th century, and reminds us that life is fleeting, even as we celebrate:

Ah friends, dear friends,
As years go on and heads get gray,
How fast the guests do go!
Touch hands, touch hands,
With those that stay.
Strong hands to weak,
Old hands to young, around the
Christmas board, touch hands.
The false forget, the foe forgive,
For every guest will go
And every fire burn low
And cabin empty stand.
Forget, forgive,
For who may say that Christmas day
May ever come to host or guest again.
Touch hands!

There is something powerful for me in the image of touching hands with the people with whom we gather. Touching hands is an intimate connection, unmediated by words that could be misunderstood. To extend one’s hand or to take another’s hand has long been a symbol of trust and a way to show good intent. The image of people touching hands around a table or hearth is a way of focusing on what is really important, being together.

So much can get in our way and make it hard to truly be together. We worry about being judged. We remember old wrongs. We insist we know more or better than others who believe something different than we believe. Some of us lock our hearts and hands away to just get through. Or we just misunderstand—having been misled by those who just want us to buy—and try to show our love by getting our kids or partner everything they could want. And perhaps, down deep, what we really want is to be together and to touch hands.

It is true as well that we cannot touch hands with everyone we may wish we could. Some have gone on before us. Some are far away. Some have shown us that it would not be safe to offer them our trust. We learn from this, even as we may grieve the loss. We learn to hold our loved ones close while they are with us. We learn ways to express our love when distance keeps us apart. And we learn to honor ourselves as well as others, keeping ourselves safe while remaining open to those with whom we can touch hands. We create and recreate families and communities that we can give our honest and whole selves too and with whom we can celebrate and grieve, hope and heal.

One of the gifts of the holidays is the opportunity to connect or reconnect with our communities. Whether that is family, friends, congregation, city, or world, we have a chance to be intentional and thoughtful about noticing and expressing the importance of being together.

Over the next few days and weeks, as this year’s holidays play out in familiar and unfamiliar ways, we can try to remember that we don’t face life alone. The precious gift of our presence with and for one another is far more important than any material thing we could give or receive. Our ability to touch hands and join hearts is a powerful part of being human. Let us remember and celebrate the joy of being together.

Closing Words

Will you reach out to the people nearest to you and join hands for the closing words?

We join hands as a physical reminder of a great spiritual truth: We are all connected.

As we go out into this world that is full of both shallowness and holiness, may we remember to attend to what is really important: the people we love, the connections we treasure, the dream of a human community that gives birth to peace on earth.

May it be so. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

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