Homily – Do Not Be Afraid, Christmas Eve 2017

2017 December 24
by First U Bklyn

Do Not Be Afraid – Christmas Eve Homily 2017

Ana Levy-Lyons

Dec. 24, 2017

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


Why do we tell the same story every Christmas Eve? I mean, we know the plot. The virgin Mary gets a visit from an angel telling her she’s going to have a special baby, she gets pregnant, they have to go to Bethlehem to register, the baby is born in a manger because (say it with me) there’s no room at the inn, the shepherds come to check him out, and the wise men give him gifts of … gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Right? We know it. We know how it ends. Enough already!

But I think we don’t get sick of it because, although we tell the same story every year, we don’t hear the same story every year. Because we change and our world changes. Time keeps flowing inexorably forward and once a year we stop and look back and hear the very same story …and it’s different. There’s something deeply comforting about this.

That’s the power of tradition. It’s really a wondrous thing because, through our new hearing, new meaning keeps bubbling up like accrued interest on the principle that’s just been sitting there for almost two millennia.

This year has been no ordinary year in those two millennia. I don’t need to enumerate for you all the upheaval, the anger, the violence, and the fear. No matter where any of us may fall on the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that this has been a painful year. And so we hear the Christmas story today with all that pain in the backdrop.

Remember that the story itself, set in Roman occupied Palestine, also takes place against a backdrop of pain. It was a time of great economic inequality. The Romans had levied taxes on the poor to pay for the opulence of the rich. They had helped the wealthy get even wealthier in exchange for loyalty. The spirit of Judaism was slowly eroding.  Meanwhile, the peasants, the farmers, the majority of the people were angry and scared. If anyone tried to fight back, they’d get crucified.

In the context of all this, there’s one particular phrase in the Scripture that leaps off the page: “Do not be afraid.” Like a slow strobe light cutting through the night of this narrative, it repeats over and over again. Do not be afraid. An angel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid;” an angel tells Joseph, “Do not be afraid;” an angel tells the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” Even though there is much to be afraid of, this phrase recurs and eventually Jesus himself repeats it and teaches his followers, “Do not be afraid.” It’s the motto of the Christmas story.

The angel does not tell Joseph, Mary, or the shepherds to do anything wildly heroic. He just tells them to keep going – do your thing. Joseph, go ahead and marry Mary and raise this child together. Mary, go ahead and be a mother to this child and share the prophecy with him. Shepherds, go witness this miracle, spread the word about it, and come back and tend your sheep some more. Do your thing. The angel tells them to do what they already know how to do; to give what they already have to give; to refuse to be paralyzed by fear of the strange and disturbing events of their world.

This is a message that we need desperately right now. Because fear, you could say, is the root of our problems. It’s fear that drives people to override our natural compassion and keep out refugees in need. It’s fear that drives people to deny climate change, risking their own children and grandchildren’s futures. It’s fear that drives people to want to deport immigrants and end DACA. It’s fear that drives people to discriminate against people of color, women, and LGBTQ communities. It’s fear that drives kind and loving people to buy semi-automatic weapons and put them under their Christmas trees. Fear, fear, fear.

All combined, the wave of fear swells and becomes a dangerous tsunami for all of us. And now there is fear on all sides, some warranted, some not, along with anger and depression and despair and distrust and sometimes outright hatred.

And so we read the Christmas story that we read every year, and we see that strobe light: Do not be afraid. And it takes on a different meaning. Because this story speaks to us from across the generations, with the long view of time. It offers the comfort of an angel, saying, “Take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay.” Which is not the same as saying that everything is going to turn out well – things certainly didn’t turn out so well for Jesus.

But it is to say that we are at a crossroads: there is a way of living our lives and making our choices based on fear and there is a way of living our lives and making our choices based on faith. The angel is telling us, “Do not be afraid. Fear is the road to catastrophe. Have faith that if you do what you can do with who you already are and what you already have available to work with, it will be okay: your actions will play a role that you can’t see from here in the long stretch of history.”

It’s been amazing this year to see people listening to that angel in whatever form the angel showed up for them.

Take Alexander Rapaport, a Hasidic Jew, who, when President Trump issued his initial executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, wanted to show his support for his neighbors in Brooklyn. So he organized community members to put Post-it notes with messages of support on the storefront of a local store owned by Yemeni immigrants, while they were on strike protesting the ban.

Or take Perman Hardy, a 59-year-old black woman in Alabama who spent ten hours on the special election day driving people to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t get there. Not only did she offer rides, but she took the time to talk with people about voting, to listen to their feelings and persuade them that their vote matters. She got 50 people to the polls that day.

Or take Dayna Skolkin and Josh Tillis, a Houston couple whose wedding got rained out by Hurricane Harvey. The food for the reception had already been ordered, so they decided to prepare it themselves and serve it to hurricane victims. They ended up feeding throngs of people a 3-course meal in a shelter.

We hear these stories and we hear the Christmas story anew this year – we ordinary people, just like the ordinary Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Alexander, Perman, Dayna, and Josh. Like them, we have no special training or expertise in how to transform the world. And yet, like them, we have the potential to play a small role in a grand narrative of birth and healing.

What would I do if I weren’t afraid? What would you do? What could this country do? What could humans do at this moment of global ecological crisis when the earth’s creatures are struggling for breath?

The gifts of the magi, gold – frankincense, and myrrh – were what the magi had to give. And they were the potions those wise men felt the baby Jesus needed to fortify his deployment into his world. Tonight, if you leave the sanctuary through the center doors, you will receive these gifts – a gold coin to remind you that you are blessed, frankincense oil to remind you that you are a blessing to the world, and myrrh to remind you of your angel’s message. Take these blessings as ordinary people doing what you can with what you have in extraordinary times. Say it to yourself, say it to one another: Do not be afraid.

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