Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

December 24, 2005

 “Christmas Eve Homily”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


“Christ a homeless stranger, so the gospels say, cradled in a manger and a bed of hay.”

Jesus of Nazareth was a man who was fiercely Jewish and fiercely critical of the power structure of his day. Jesus was not a theologian. Jesus was not a scholar. Jesus was not a minister. Jesus had no political ambitions.

Jesus was a man filled to the brim with righteous anger. Jesus was a prophet. Prophets are people who call societies to justice. Prophets appeal to our highest aspirations and call out to us that in order to live to our highest selves, we must give our attention to the least among us. Jesus was a prophet in the midst of a community that was being oppressed by an outside occupying force. Jesus insisted that his own people, who were oppressed, were also oppressors in their own way. Jesus was infuriated by religious leaders who cooperated with government authorities in order to enrich themselves and burden the poor.

Jesus was not someone looking to make friends.

Jesus spoke up for the people most despised in his society. He spoke up for the tax collector, the prostitute, the pregnant teenager, the gang member, the suicide bomber. He spoke up for the humanity of each individual, no matter how reprehensible their past behavior. But Jesus also never let the tax collector, the prostitute, the pregnant teenager, the gang member or the suicide bomber off the hook. While defending them from the attacks of those who felt superior, he also insisted that they sin no more. No one was safe from Jesus’ call to conscience.

Jesus insisted that each one of us in this moment in time is exactly equal in dignity. The only basis for judgement of a person’s character is the decision that he or she makes next. Jesus did not fret about the past. When pressed to condemn the Romans for being an occupying force, he refused to engage in the debate. When pressed to condemn a woman for adultery, he refused to engage in the debate. What Jesus always wanted to know is: what do you plan to do next? Will you choose to be selfless, to regard the lowly and despised as your neighbor? Or will you make a show of your religiosity, proving you are the most beloved of God?

Will you frivolously spend your resources and play without regard for good stewardship? Or will you take reasonable precautions, work reasonable hours, and pay your employees reasonable wages?

Will you give freely of what God has freely given you, or will you hoard your goods, for fear of some possible future need?

As occupying forces go, the Romans were not particularly oppressive. When they took over a country, they encouraged the local leaders to remain in leadership positions. They made no efforts, in general, to interfere with local religion or culture. They required little more than taxes and quiet streets. The Romans had a hard time with those feisty Jews. In Jesus’ time, the Romans excused Jews from making sacrifices to the emperor, because the Jews had this weird god who got really mad if his people sacrificed to other gods. So, the Romans were willing to cut a lot of slack to their local subjects. They were willing to work around local customs. But what they absolutely didn’t like was trouble. And this Jesus guy seemed to be, in the end, too much trouble. The Romans wouldn’t have cared too much what this scruffy guy from the sticks was actually saying, but when they saw the crowds that gathered around him, it got them nervous. The Jewish leaders from the Temple cooperated with Roman authorities, but the hoi poloi tended to throw rocks and detonate car bombs, and generally cause trouble. So, leaders like Jesus just wouldn’t do. He was an enemy combatant—held, given a mock trial, tortured and, finally, excuted by the excrutiating method of crucifixion.

And so, what happened to the people who had had such high hopes for where this man, Jesus, would lead them?

At first, Jesus’ death had the desired effect. His followers scattered. Afraid of the authorities, they stayed away. Even Peter, who stayed nearby, didn’t have the nerve to admit that he was one of Jesus’ followers.

But stories about Jesus circulated widely. In the cosmopolitan Roman world, where travel was relatively safe, and it was easy to move about from country to country, stories about Jesus spread all over the mediterranean—that this man had stood up for the poor, that this man had insisted that each person—rich or poor—look inside themselves for how they cooperated with injustice in big and small ways. This simple country man had, by simply speaking up for justice, brought the wrath of Rome down on his head. The poor throughout the Roman occupied territories saw this man as their truest advocate—a brave and good man, whose death only proved that he was speaking God’s truth.

And so the stories began to be told that he was a god—born of the union of a god and a woman. There were so many stories in the ancient world of gods uniting with women to give birth to powerful men. But the story of Jesus being born to Mary was a story by poor people for poor people. Mary was chosen by God not because she was beautiful, not because she was powerful, not because of her family or her worldly position. Mary was chosen because she was simple, humble and kind. She made no pretense of power or learning. She was exactly the kind of person for whom Jesus had advocated during his lifetime.

And this god was born not in Washington, DC, or on the upper East side, not in the Hamptons, but in a stable in Bethlehem, a backyard in Freeport, on a bridge in New Orleans. When Jesus’ followers imagined what kind of god this man Jesus would want them to worship, it was a god of homeless strangers. Not a god of power and might who helped the homeless, but a god who was, himself, a homeless stranger, a nothing in the eyes of you and me. A beggar, a prisoner, a prostitute, an old man on a rooftop, begging to be rescued from the rising waters of Katrina. This is god, this is the messiah, this is where our hearts belong.