© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December23, 2007

Part One: Rocking the Cradle

Although December tends to be a busy month, many of us want this to be a time of peace and tranquility. We see this desire for serenity reflected in seasonal songs and imagery. Christmas carols are lulling, with heavenly harmonies and tinkling bells. Nativity scenes show a sleeping baby, "tender and mild," in a quiet manger - a calm, bright, silent night filled with heavenly peace. But Christmas celebrates the birth of a man whose prophetic ministry was stormy and controversial, who angered priests and kings and whose teachings offend the rich and the powerful even today. The quiet cradle of baby Jesus began a life that ended on a cross.

We can find this tension even in the words of Jesus. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light," he told his disciples. (Matthew 11:30, RSV) "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) But he also reportedly said, "I have come not to bring peace but a sword," "he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:34, 38), and "You ... must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) How can we make the gentle imagery of Christmas fit in with with Jesus' disturbing challenges and his radical perfectionism?

Actually, I think these contrasting themes do belong together. They are opposites in a way, but the whole world is made of opposites - up and down, north and south, breathing in and breathing out, giving and receiving. And we need moods that feel opposite to each other. We need times of serenity and we also need to be stirred up. The world needs people who bring reconciliation and forgiveness, and it also needs raucous rabble rousers who speak out against oppression and injustice.

This morning we will consider how the holiday season can both calm us down and stir us up, bringing gifts of serenity and divine discontent. I'm going to preach my sermon in two parts, first "Rocking the Cradle" (the gentler side of Jesus), and then "Rocking the Boat."

Let me start by asking you, when you reflect upon the life and teachings of Jesus, how did he offer serenity and inner peace? Think about that for a moment, and then let's hear some suggestions. (Sharing.)

Thank you for those ideas. Certainly one way Jesus promoted inner peace was through preaching trust in god, which can also mean trusting the life process or the creative power of love. You have probably heard this famous passage from Matthew: "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Matthew 6:25-29) "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day." (Matthew 6:34)

Notice that Jesus is not saying peace of mind will protect us from all harm. He acknowledges that each day is likely to bring some troubles. But we can just take these troubles one day at a time, rather than paralyzing ourselves by fretting about past, present, and future all at once. Jesus was saying that as a general rule anxiety does us no good. It's better to live out of trust and gratitude and a bedrock sense of security. Even today with all of our insurance policies and individual retirement accounts we still need to hear that message of basic trust.

Another way that Jesus offered us peace was by preaching forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, the road to reconciliation may be bumpy. We may have to bring up painful subjects and get them out into the open. But Jesus commanded his followers to squarely confront interpersonal frictions. Matthew 5:23-24 contains an important Christian teaching about personal relationships. "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)

This is a remarkable passage. Jesus is actually saying that relationships are so important that we should deal with them before we come to the altar of God. Perhaps he was implying that healing our relationships is a way of worshiping God.

We can find peace by living out of trust instead of anxiety, and by clearing up problems in our relationships. I also think Jesus would have appreciated several of the more peaceful and quiet ways people celebrate his birth today. He would have agreed that we need times of closeness with family and friends. He knew that we need to explore and deepen our values, and this sometimes happens at Christmas despite all the hustle-bustle. Jesus showed respect for children, and Christmas focuses our attention on the young.

So in some ways Jesus gave humanity a gospel of inner peace. Next, we'll see what else he offered.

Part Two: Rocking the Boat

At a recent General Assembly, columnist Jim Hightower told Unitarian Universalists, "Don't be afraid to be called an agitator. The agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out." (Paraphrased.) And Jesus surely was an agitator. He was a gadfly. He was not a social reformer, in the sense that he didn't give his disciples a strategic plan for changing society. But that would have bewildered them. The idea of systematically pursuing a plan for social change is a modern invention. If he had been born into our country today, he would almost certainly have been involved in social action and the political process. Instead, he did what made sense in his own era, laying the spiritual groundwork for social change.

As a spiritual teacher Jesus was absolutely unafraid to rock the boat. Over and over he criticized the rich and the powerful, saying that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get to heaven. And many of those he associated with were outcasts, people that others sneered at, such as tax collectors. Jesus stood up for those who got put down, and it's interesting to think about who he might hang around with if he were alive today. Does anyone have ideas about that? Who are the outcasts in our society that Jesus would welcome to his table? (Sharing.)

Thank you. So Jesus rocked the boat by associating with social outcasts. If he were here in 2007 I think he would also agitate against rampant commercialization. People even want to put advertisements on the Golden Gate Bridge! Remember how he reacted when he saw how commercialized the temple had become, with people selling animals to be sacrificed on the altar? He picked up a whip and drove out the merchants and the moneychangers. So the only time he just blew his top and physically attacked someone was to protest commercialization.

Since Jesus criticized the rich and the mighty, why is Christianity now supported by billionaires and fat cat politicians? It all goes back to the emperor Constantine. About 300 years after Jesus' death, Constantine had a vision in which he saw a cross and the words, "By this sign you shall conquer." As David Korten points out,

"When Constantine embraced Jesus as his own, he redefined the meaning of Jesus's life and teaching to claim for himself ... the moral authority of the prophet of justice, peace, and love. In the words of Christian writer Walter Wink: 'Once Christianity became the religion of the empire ... its success was linked to the success of the empire, and preservation of the empire became the decisive criterion for ethical behavior.... The church no longer saw [evil] as lodged in the empire, but in the empires's enemies.' (David Korten, The Great Turning, p. 121. Italics in the original)"

(Wink continues: "Atonement became a highly individual transaction between the believer and God; society was assumed to be Christian, so the idea that the work of Christ entails the radical critique of society was largely abandoned.")

But even though Christian churches have sometimes gotten very cozy with the ruling class, Jesus himself was a renegade - yet he was also a peacemaker. To honor his example, we can try to find a balance in our own lives between serenity and stirring things up. You can tell that you're out of balance if contentment turns into complacency and you're not stretching yourself. But if you are stretching your own capacities so far that you're exhausted, it may be time to shift the balance back toward inner peace. December is a good time to deliberately foster both agitation and serenity, regardless of whether we're celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or the winter solstice.

One very specific way of putting together the themes we've talked about today is to focus on our connection with children, either our own or the children of this whole world. Remember the passage where Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God." (Luke 18:16) This story takes on even more meaning if we realize that back in that time children had low status and were often treated as material possessions. To suggest that a grownup must become as a child meant turning the world upside down. In this sense, by "rocking the cradle" Jesus also rocked the boat. Today we can rock a child in our arms, and we can also rock the boat of social change for the sake of that child's future.

Jesus' life is about a cradle and a cross. But Jesus lived one life, and this is one world. Spirituality is about integration, putting ourselves back together and bringing our world together with all its contradictions. We need to cradle ourselves, to heal and soothe the broken places. But we also need to cradle this fragile and broken world, and to mend it by agitating for justice. The world bears a great cross, and it takes all of us to help carry it.

So here's to those who rock the cradle, and cheers to those who rock the boat. And special blessings to those who manage to do both - who know when to tip over the tables of the money-changers, and when to savor a silent night.

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