A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus

This is a story of mystery and intrigue. All stories, even the story of your own life, begin with mystery and intrigue. For no one knows at the beginning of the story how a story will end, no one, not even those living it.

This story begins in a distant land, across the oceans, across a mighty desert, during the 59th year of the Roman Empire founded by Caesar Augustus. He established rule over all the lands that surrounded a mighty sea. He declared a time of peace across this empire as he had subdued all the peoples and tribes who lived within his empire. But there was one province where there was still great unrest, Judea. The people who lived there were a proud people with a belief in an unseen and mysterious God. These people longed to be free of Rome. They wanted self-rule and they longed for a leader who would fulfill this promise. But any such talk of a leader brought the wrath of Rome, which took many forms in those days. An innocent traveler could be doing Rome’s and Caesar’s bidding. So people were afraid of strangers.

It was during this time of uncertainty that Caesar Augustus called for an accounting, a census of all the people in this region. This census included a tax to further burden the people of Judea and to not register and pay the tax would mean fierce punishment. People were angered and resentful of this decree.

Now Joseph and his betrothed, Mary lived in Nazareth but the census required them to leave their home and travel to the town of Joseph’s ancestors, to Bethlehem. Traveling through the Desert Mountains was treacherous in those days and Mary was expecting a child. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, it was time for her give birth.

They looked for a place to stay. But at every inn they received the same reply—no room. Finally, an innkeeper seeing Mary was in labor offered them to stay in the stable behind the inn where there was hay for bedding and shelter. In the wee hours of the night Mary gave birth to her child, whom she called Jesus.

Now none of this story thus far sounds mysterious. But what happens next is indeed mysterious.

In the hills not far away from Bethlehem there were some shepherds keeping watch over their flock of sheep. And a bright light appeared before them and in this bright light was what appeared to be an Angel. Now most people have never seen an angel so the shepherds were filled with fear and trepidation. That means they were quaking in their boots. But The Angel shouted, Do not be afraid. For I bring you news of great Joy for the people for today born this day in the city of David (the Angel was referring to Bethlehem. Angels often speak poetically.) a savior, who will be the messiah. You will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly the whole sky was filled with Angels singing Glory to God and peace and goodwill toward all people. Then the angels vanished, just like that. (snap fingers) The shepherds still very much in shock decided they should go to where the babe was born. When they saw the child just as the angel had said, they bowed deeply before the child.

But that is not all that happened when this child was born. There was yet another mysterious thing to happen. Wise ones known as the Magi were scanning the heavens for a sign to offer them hope in these treacherous days. And a new star appeared in the heavens. They saw this star as an omen of a great person being born who would lead them to new freedom and decided to travel from the east to offer their respects to this new leader. As they drew near this new star in the heavens seemed to rest directly over the place where this new child was born. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts they presented to the child. They also bowed down before this child and declared him a king of Kings. How very odd for strangers to give such gifts and to say such things to a child born in poverty, born in a stable.

Word of this child’s birth spread through the region and had reached the ears of the magistrate of the province. He wanted to find this child so he too could pay his respect but Joseph had a mysterious dream which warned him that the magistrates’ intentions were to harm the child. And Joseph, Mary, and the child fled to a neighboring province until it was safe to return. All of these events were very mysterious. Mary, the mother of this child, held these mysterious events in her heart. She wondered what is in store for this child with such a mysterious beginning to summon angels and wise ones. And we wonder today at each new birth what wondrous things will unfold through their lifetime.

Written by Rev. Fred L Hammond (c) 2014

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Published in: on December 25, 2014 at 10:43 am  Comments Off on A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus  
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Counting the Cost: A Retelling of the Three Little Pigs

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago when pigs were able to speak there lived three little pigs who dreamed of having a home of their own.

The first little pig went to his parents and said, “I think it is time that I make my own way in the world. So I would like to borrow some money so that I can begin. “

“Well, how much money do you think you need Son?” asked the father pig.

The little pig replied, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Well,” said the mother pig, “Here’s some money that your father and I can give you.”

So the little pig said “That looks like enough money to build my house and live for a few months while I look for work.”

So the parents loaned their Little Pig the money.  And he went off to build his house.

He went to the contractor builder and said, “I want to build a house made of bricks.  Here is the money I have.”

The contractor builder snickered and replied, “That doesn’t even cover the cost of materials.  I can, however, build you a house made of straw.”

The little pig was disappointed but thought the house of straw would be warm in the winter.  So that is what he did.   He told his parents of his decisions and his parents were floored.

“A house made of straw? Don’t you remember what happened to Uncle Cecil?   A big bad wolf came and blew that house down and ate him.  Oh Son,” they exclaimed, “this will not do.  People will laugh at your foolishness and weep when the wolf eats you.”

The second little pig went to her parents and said, “I think it is time that I make my own way in the world. So I would like to borrow some money so that I can begin.”

“Well, how much money do you think you need daughter?” asked the father pig.

The pig replied, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Well,” said the mother pig, “Here’s some money that your father and I can give you.”

So the little pig said “That looks like enough money to build my house and live for a few months while I look for work.”

So the parents loaned their little pig the money.  And she went off to build her house.

She went to the contractor builder and said, “I want to build a house made of bricks.  Here is the money I have.”

And the contractor builder snickered and said, “A house made of bricks?  Why that amount of money barely covers the labor costs. I could build you a nice home made of sticks.”

The little pig was disappointed but thought a house built of sticks would be a good starter home. So that is what she did.

She told her parents and they were floored.  “Oh Daughter,” they exclaimed, “We wish you had consulted with us. A house made of sticks?  Don’t you remember what happened to your Uncle Jeremy?  The wolf came and blew his house of sticks down and ate him.  The villagers will all laugh at your foolishness and weep when you are eaten up by the big bad wolf.”

The third little pig went to his parents and said, “I think it is time that I make my own way in the world. So I would like to borrow some money so that I can begin.”

“Well, how much money do you think you need,” asked the parents.

“Well,” said the little pig.  “I spoke to the contractor/builder and was told how much a house made of bricks would cost.   I found employment and have been saving money. I have money in savings and created a budget of my expenses to my income. So if I could borrow this amount of money, I will be able to build my house of bricks and cover any additional costs that may arise. ”

“Oh, this is wonderful!” exclaimed the parents. “Very wise choice indeed and you figured out how to make this all happen ahead of time. You remember your Aunt Charlotte?  She built her house of bricks and lived a happy life.  That old wolf got asthma trying to blow her house down!”

Unfortunately, the little pig in the house made of straw and the little pig in the house made of sticks became BBQ for the wolf but the little pig in the house of bricks lived happily ever after.

Rev. Fred L Hammond (c) January 20 2013

Published in: on January 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm  Comments Off on Counting the Cost: A Retelling of the Three Little Pigs  
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Harry Potter, You-know-who, and Unitarian Universalists

Here is the story for all ages and the homily I delivered on 29 August 2010 to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL.

“Harry Potter: The Boy That Lived” A story for all ages based on the stories of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling adapted by Rev. Fred L Hammond.  Given to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL on 29 August 2010

This is the story about Harry Potter’s early years when he was just an infant.  He was born in a time of great political distress.  The source of this distress was a powerful wizard, whose name shall not be mentioned. This wizard used his magic for harm rather than for good.  He was out to destroy all who stood in his way.

Now Harry’s parents were among those who fought against the bad things this wizard was doing. They did everything they could think of to stand up against this wizard.  The wizard had learned a very powerful spell that would kill any who stood in his way.  He killed many, many people.

But the time came when the wizard came to their house to kill Harry’s entire family.  The fierce wizard drew his wand and uttered the curse of death, and Harry’s parents were struck dead.  He did the same against Harry as well, but something happened.  Harry Potter did not die.  In fact, Harry Potter lived.

Harry Potter was taken to live with his relatives where it was thought he would be hidden away and safe from the forces of evil.   And in his absence, the story spread … Harry Potter, the boy that lived.   He unknowingly became famous because no one ever lived after being struck by the death spell. Harry Potter did all the things that young boys do; the only mark that something horrible had happened was a jagged scar on his forehead.

But why did he live?  What was the source of his protection?  No one really knew until many years later.  There is a magic that is greater than evil.  And this magic is available to everyone, even to us Muggles, who are not wise in the ways of magic. Do you know what this magic is?

This magic is said to be the source of all of creation. This magic makes the flowers bloom, the birds to sing, and rainbows to appear in the sky after a rainstorm. This magic enables people to speak up for what is fair and just.  This magic empowers people to express joy when justice is served.  What protected Harry Potter all those years ago from the evil wizard is the magic of love.  His parents loved him very much and so while pain and injustices might happen, the love his parents had for him would prevail.  Love would be the ground on which he would walk.  And that foundation is what kept Harry Potter safe and alive after the evil wizard’s spells.   May we also walk on the ground of love all of our days.

“Harry Potter, You-Know-Who, and Unitarian Universalists”  Homily delivered by Rev. Fred L Hammond 29 August 2010 (c)  Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa

At the end of the movie version of The Goblet of Fire, we witness Harry Potter in a battle with You-know-who, the dark lord who is so evil that to even speak his name is feared to bring harm to those present.  In the process of this battle, a classmate, Cedric is killed by You-know-who.

So when we pick up the story in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the ministry of magic has determined that Harry Potter and the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore is lying.  The ministry of magic has used its influence to have the newspaper of the wizards, the Daily Prophet, inflame the public by discrediting Harry Potter and Dumbledore.  The paper also is declaring that all is well and that You-know-who has not returned.  The head of the ministry has come to believe that Dumbledore is stating You-know-who is back in order to take the head magistrate’s job. But as Remus Lupin tells Harry, people become “twisted and warped by fear and that makes people do terrible things.”

Fear is rampant and the ministry of magic has determined that the common enemy is Harry Potter and Dumbledore.  In order to regain control over a presumed renegade school, the ministry of magic places as the professor of the dark arts, a Delores Umbredge.  When she is introduced at the school, she states, “Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged, let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices which ought to be prohibited.”

She then begins to systematically take over the school.  She begins by scrutinizing everyone’s move, punishing Harry Potter for speaking the truth, and announcing that anyone who questions her is therefore suspect of disloyalty. An inquisitor’s team is developed to hunt out those who are disloyal and / or plotting against the ministry of magic.  Teachers are dismissed.  The dark arts become a class on theory and not on practical defense.  She resorts to posting more and more restrictive rules on the school.  She uses fear to maintain order and resorts to torture to keep control.  And the ministry of magic focuses on security as being the number one priority for the wizard nation.

Any of this sounds vaguely familiar?  We have a lot of things being discussed around our nation.  In Arizona and across the country we have hatred and fear being spewed about immigrants.  In California, hateful lies have been spread about same sex couples causing a law for same sex marriage to be placed on hold.  In New York City, in Murfreesboro, TN and in Gainesville, FL we have angry, hateful lies being spread about American Muslims and their alleged intentions.  In Gainesville, a church plans to burn copies of the Qu’ran on September 11th to send a message to Muslims living in America.  Yesterday, Glenn Beck and his tea party met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to allegedly ‘restore honor’ to the civil rights movement on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

These are all outrageous events happening.  It makes our blood boil.  This isn’t just about the politics of the extreme right versus the politics of the left.  This is about how are we to live as a people in a nation made up of minorities.  And we are all members of a minority group.  Some are minorities by skin color, others are minorities by sexual orientation or gender identification, and others are minorities by ethnicity or by religious or political affiliation, or by class, or even by life experiences.   This nation of minorities is again debating somewhat angrily, and with violence as in Murfreesboro yesterday, who gets to join the coalition of the new majority and the benefits and privileges thereof.  Do gays?  Do immigrants from Mexico?  Do Muslim Americans?  Do African Americans?  Who else should be excluded as other?  Where is the line to be drawn that says these are the real Americans?

In 1947, the US government created a short film called “Don’t be a Sucker” that dissected how a fascist government could come to power here in America. 

The process was to divide people against the other.  Tell the nation that these individual groups are not really Americans.  These others are here to destroy the American Way of life, to take from real Americans what real Americans fought and died for.  Speak of the threat to national security these groups pose. And offer the hope of a better life to the ‘real Americans’, those who have labored long and hard for freedom by passing laws that restrict these other group’s freedom.  Oh, and one more thing, have the news agencies; print, radio, TV, and internet become part of the same conglomeration so only one side of the news could be told, the side that those in power want told.

The narrator in the film stated, “We have no ‘other’ people in America.  We are all American people.”  He instructed us to stand together, to be who we are, say what we think, and “to guard everyone’s liberty or lose our own.”  There is no we and they, there is only us.

The story line in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also about fear of the other. The ministry of magic thought if they could keep You-know-who to remain underground then there would be no cause for alarm.  If hatred is kept out of public sight then all must be right with the world.  But hiding hatred or using politically correct words to mitigate hatred to something sounding less threatening does not get rid of hatred; it only causes hatred to seethe underground and then it erupts violently.

I understand the outrage at demagogue Glenn Beck and Fox News who are skillfully weaving hatred across the nation against other people, against our president, against our government.   But outrage is not going to change the outcome; it will only burn undirected energy into ash.

Just as in the story where Harry Potter and Dumbledore are on the vanguard, we need to be intentional and public with our presence of acceptance of the other. There is a need to be visible in standing on the side of love with those most impacted by the hatred. There is a need to say the word that no one else wants to say, just as Harry Potter states matter of factly Lord Voldemort’s name instead of the hushed You-know-who, we need to say the word racism and bigotry because that is what is at play here.  And there should be no apology for doing so.

Harry Potter’s story also reveals some very creative ways to combat those who manipulate fear to control and intimidate others.   The responses that Harry Potter and his friends make are responses that Unitarian Universalists can also use to address the issues of our day.

The Weasely twins in the story plan a very intricate and wonderful act of civil disobedience in response to the new tyranny that Professor Umbredge has imposed on the school.  With their magic, they disrupt the school’s final examinations with fireworks and breathing dragons made of fire.  In their doing this they show the rest of the school that they are not going to be intimidated by the forces of oppression; that they will continue to live free.  The Unitarian Universalist’s ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ campaign with immigrants, with sexual minorities, and with Muslims is a visible way to show that we are not afraid of the forces of racism and bigotry.  And there are other creative ways to show that what is happening is not acceptable in a country that values liberty and justice for all.

Harry Potter and friends search out the words of prophecy because they believe that therein may indeed be information that might guide them in their actions against the dark lord.   Search out and use the prophetic words of women and men for clues on how we might respond to the concerns of our day.  Make their words known again in editorials, letters to the editors, and paid advertisements letting others know that there are higher ideals that all can be striving towards.

Yesterday friends encouraged friends on facebook to hear the words of Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream.” Because within these words lie a dream of hope that all people of America might one day realize the power of the American creed for themselves.  The words of this prophetic leader are just one who speaks through the ages of how to be a nation, judged not by the color of our skin but by our character as a people.

I know that I have spoken much lately about what is happening in this country from a variety of angles.  As a people of faith who historically heard the call for justice in the civil rights movement, the call is being sent out to stand on the side of love once again.  The cry for justice is not just in Arizona, or in New York City, or even in Murfreesboro, TN. Yes, their cries are being heard from afar.  But the cry for justice is coming here in Alabama as well.  Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon the cry for justice will be sounded here as well.   Will we be among those who respond?  Will we be prepared like Dumbledore’s Army skilled according to our unique abilities the ways for justice?

In the words of Martin Luther King, “I refuse to accept the view that [hu]mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” May it be so.

The Parable of the Two Sons–a Modern Midrash

A story for all ages that I wrote to complement the sermon I gave on James Luther Adams’ fourth stone of liberal religion: no immaculate conception of virtue and the necessity of social incarnation.  It was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 14 March 2010 (c).  This is based on the parable from Matthew 21: 28-32.

Once upon a time, there was a family that was known through out the town for their goodness. This family was held in high esteem by everyone. If there was ever a dispute between neighbors, this family was able to find a solution that worked for both parties. If there was ever a need in the community, this family was able to support the filling of that need. This was a good family. They believed that actions that resulted in the expansion of good were important in order to have a wonderful and loving community.

Now there were two sons in this family of roughly the same age. Wherever they went, they met people who told them what a good family they came from. Hearing these things made them feel good.

In school, the teachers would tell them, “Jason and Bryan, you come from such a good family. We know your grandfather, what a good man he is. He has been so very helpful to the community. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have clean water here because he found a way to purify the wells that were contaminated.” Their grandfather was head of the city health department and made sure that the city had clean water.

The school’s foot ball coach would say, “Bryan and Jason, I know your father. He is such a good man. Why if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have a decent volunteer firehouse with a Hook and Ladder truck.” Their father was a volunteer firefighter and helped organize the community to raise the money for the truck to ensure they were ready in case the taller buildings had a major fire. One such fire happened and because they had a Hook and Ladder truck they were able to prevent a tall building from burning to the ground. More importantly the fire fighters were able to save a family that was trapped on the upper floors.

There was another time when a complete stranger came up to them and said, “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s sons?” They shook their heads, yes. “Well, your mom is one of the finest women in town. She helped my children have access to the town library because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. You see, my two children were born with physical disabilities and they are unable to walk. But your mom worked with the library and the city to find the money to put in ramps to enable my children and other children like mine to use the library. I am so glad to have met you fine young men.”

Everywhere Bryan and Jason went there were accolades given to their family about all the good things their family did for others. The stories of how their family made the community better for others continued to be told. And in time Bryan and Jason came to believe that they were good simply because they came from a good family.

Then one day something happened at school. Bryan and Jason told their parents about it. There were two girls who wanted to go to the school dance as a couple and were told that they could not go; only boy/girl couples could go. Their parents asked them if it was fair that a girl couple be denied to attend the dance. After some discussion, their parents asked Jason and Bryan if they would be willing to start a petition to give to the school board requesting these girls to be allowed to go to their dance. Jason said he would not because he didn’t want to be made fun of by his football team. Bryan said he would do it. But Bryan did not start the petition. He decided he didn’t care if two girls could go to the prom or not after all it didn’t affect him any.

Jason begin to think of his grandfather’s work with getting clean water, his father’s work on having a fire truck, his mother’s work on having wheelchair ramps at the library. He remembered all these good things that his family did to help others and so he changed his mind and began the petition after all. Jason reasoned that if the school could tell two girls they couldn’t go to the school prom, what else would they do to keep people from being themselves? On Saint Patrick’s Day would they keep him from wearing the green plaid kilt his aunt bought him in Ireland to honor his Irish heritage?

So Jason circulated the petition. Teachers, students, and community members signed it. He received so many signatures that the school board decided to allow the girls to go to the dance as a couple.

Now sometimes, Bryan gets asked if Jason is his brother. When he tells them yes, he is told, “Jason is a fine young man. He stood up to fight an injustice in the school. If he hadn’t done that, then girl couples and boy couples who wanted to go to the dance would not be allowed. He is a good man just like his parents and grandparents.”

Bryan tells them that he initially wanted to help with the petition and that Jason did not. They reply, “But did you act on your good intention?” No, Bryan would shake his head. They would sigh and say, “Good intentions mean nothing; it is good actions that make a difference.”

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 5:28 pm  Comments Off on The Parable of the Two Sons–a Modern Midrash  
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