Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Miraculous Birth — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on December 8th, 2013


A child is born.

That child grows up to change the world.

Those who follow the teachings of that child

look back upon the life that was lived,

and see that it expanded horizons,

that it changed hearts and lives,

and look to its beginning to see it as special.


It is a story told the world over,

in religion after religion, in culture after culture.

The life of a prophet, a savior, a messiah

must have been special from its very beginning.


The miracle of the teachings and example of certain lives

call us to see that miracle in their very origin…

in the birth of a special child.


There is something I want to say at the outset here…

to me it does not matter whether or not

these miracle stories about the birth and childhood

of some of humanity’s greatest cultural

or religious leaders are true.


Quite frankly, I was not there

when Gautama Sidhartha’s mother Maya

gave birth clinging to the branches of a tree,

or when Zoraster was conceived in his virgin mother

by a shaft of light, and was born laughing,

or when Sarah gave birth to Isaac at more than 80 years old.

I was not there to see the birth of the Hindu teacher Krishna,

whose mother Devaki is said to have glowed so brightly

while pregnant with him that no one could look at her.

I was not there to see Mithra born from a solid rock,

or Moses saved from a flowing river,

or to see the shock at Elizabeth, knowing she was sterile,

learning from an angel that she would give birth

to the boy who became John the Baptist.

I did not witness any of the miracle births

of the Egyptian Pharaohs,

nor did I see any of the myriad of births

of children of humans and Gods in the ancient Greek pantheon,

though I am heartened that at least some

of those births were of girls.


And, I was not there when the virgin Mary

gave birth to a son in a humble manger,

because there was no room for them in the inn.


I’ve decided for myself that I do not care so much

whether or not these stories are true.

Whether they actually happened.

Whether Jesus was really immaculately conceived,

or whether Sarah really was in her 80’s

when she gave birth to Isaac.

There is something of a deeper truth

that we humans see the miracles in the birth

of great prophets, leaders, and teachers…

and it is this deeper truth that I want to explore this morning.


I’ve thought for over a month how I wanted

to introduce the idea behind this sermon,

and I’ve come down, as I often do,

to telling you a couple of stories.

Since we are in a time of year where we are thinking

about the birth, the life, ministry,

and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth,

perhaps we could think of them as parables.


My best friend in the world,

the brother that I’m not related to,

is a man named Rev. Christopher Harpster.


When we met, we were both college students

at East Tennessee State University,

and we were both waiting tables at a local restaurant.

He and I are not really all that similar,

and yet for some reason we became friends,

and that friendship grew into brotherhood.


Neither of us were angels in college.

In fact, our plan for awhile was

to open up a private detective agency,

capitalizing on my training as an intelligence operative in the Army

and his ability to form relationships with people.

No one would ever have thought, including he and I,

that little more than a decade after college

both of us would be ordained ministers.

He is now an ordained Episcopal Deacon

and University Chaplain at our Alma Mater.


As his wife says, the two of us,

both now in the ministry?

That’s proof enough of miracles right there.


A few months ago,

I met Chris for dinner at a restaurant in Prescott, Arizona.

He was there for a spiritual retreat,

and I drove up from a military conference

in Scottsdale to see him.

As is usual for us, our conversation over dinner moved

from our families, to politics, and then on to theology.


Usually, if our wives are around,

by the time we turn to theology they have sent us

out of the house were we will not disturb anyone else.

This time however, we were alone

and therefore free to argue to our heart’s content.


Now, I’m going to do a little theology for a minute,

so hang with me…  I promise it won’t be too bad…


Not all Unitarian Universalists are Christian,

and yet both of our foundational religious traditions

arose from within Christianity,

and both the classical Unitarians and the Universalists

had well developed Christian theologies.

One of the core theological ideas

of Unitarian Universalist Christianity

is that Jesus was divinely inspired,

but was essentially a human being.

It is the idea that there was nothing

that made Jesus inherently different than you or I.

Classical Unitarian Christian theology

said that Jesus was a human being, and that God was God.

Classical Universalist Christian theology said that all of us,

Jesus included, were loved by God

and shared the same relationship to God as Jesus did.

The Universalists believed that we are all God’s children,

Jesus included.


Are you all with me on the theology?

You don’t have to agree,

although I think you may see in these two

Classical Unitarian Universalist Christian theological positions

some of who we are today,

including the concept of the inherent worth

and dignity of every person.

And, seeing Jesus as a human being rather than as God

is part of why the modern movement of Humanism

found such a home among the Unitarians and the Universalists,

and among us today.


I always know I’m onto something,

in my theological debates with my best friend Chris,

when I say something that causes his eyes to go wide

and him to have to cover his mouth with his hand…

I call it the “Oh, you are such a heretic!” look.

I will admit a certain joyful glee whenever I earn one…

and a great gladness that western society

is no longer tying heretics to stakes and setting them on fire.


What earned me the “heretic look”

in this particular debate was when I asked Chris

if he thought that the Christian Church had made Jesus into God

so that us mere humans would not be expected

to live up to his high example.


There is a reading in our grey hymnal that I love,

one that I think encapsulates what I was trying to say

to my friend Rev. Chris

with a beauty that I could only aspire to.

It is number 565 in the grey hymnal.

I invite you to read it with me, responsively.

It was written by Unitarian Universalist Minister

Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, and it is entitled “Prophets”…

Please turn with me in your hymnal and let us read it together…


Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.


It is easier blindly to venerate the saints than to learn the human quality of their sainthood.


It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than


To give weight to their examples.


To worship the wise is much easier than to profit by their wisdom.


Great leaders are honored, not by adulation, but by sharing their insights and values.


Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet sometimes gather up the stones to build the prophet’s monument.


Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision. 


I have another friend, another Christian Minister.

I’ll call him Jerrod.

I’m not using his real name,

because as an Evangelical Christian Minister

I’m not certain it would do any favors

to put it out there that he has been having

theological and church politics discussions

with a Unitarian Universalist.

As we were talking about an issue happening in his church,

it seemed to me that there was a story in the Gospel of Matthew

that was right on point…

something Jesus did that seemed to me to show

how my friend Rev. Jerrod

could handle the situation in his church.


Now, it would be a hard decision to make,

as doing what Jesus did would have meant

some significant sacrifice for my friend.

It might even mean having to leave that ministry.


I’ve spent the last two years or so

thinking over Rev. Jerrod’s response to my suggestion.

He looked at me and said

“You’re right David… that’s what Jesus would do.

But I’m not Jesus…”


I’m bringing these two stories to you this morning

because I think they point to one of the

most profound theological differences

between Unitarian Universalism

and many of the other world traditions.

It is a theological difference that asks a lot of us

as Unitarian Universalists,

and perhaps gives us a key into the deeper understanding

of the stories of the miraculous births

of so many prophets, teachers, messiahs, and leaders.


Now, I hesitated to preach this sermon,

because behind it is a premise

that I’ve not explored with you before.

It is an idea I will likely return to over and over in sermons,

and I debated whether this was the best time to introduce it…

In the end, I decided it was best if I just be up front about it,

tell you what I believe, and invite you

to be in conversation with me about it.

So, here it goes…


I believe that there are few religious practices

more difficult than seeking to live life as a Unitarian Universalist.


Let me put it another way.

I believe that choosing Unitarian Universalism

as your religious faith will ask more of you

as a religious human being

than any other religious tradition I have encountered.


With that difficulty comes amazing gifts,

with the struggle to live a Unitarian Universalist life

can come amazing transformation and growth…

but that does not lessen its difficulty.


I will not attempt to name all the different ways

I have come to this belief about our faith…

that will take many sermons, workshops, retreats, and conversations.

It is perhaps my theological life’s work

to understand and highlight living life as a Unitarian Universalist

as a spiritual and theological practice.

I will simply name this as a foundation

of my life and work as a Unitarian Universalist minister,

and to name that when I challenge you,

and challenge myself to live life

according to our shared liberal faith,

I know that I am asking you to join me

in one of the most difficult religious journeys

that we humans can aspire to.


One of the ways that the Journey

of Unitarian Universalism is hard

is that we are not free of the examples of those we admire…

of those who are great leaders and teachers.

We are not free from our prophets

by believing them to be of a different substance than we are.


In believing, as classical Unitarian and Universalist Christians did,

that Jesus was essentially a human being,

we are called to honor him not with worship,

but by “giving weight to his example”,

in the words of Clinton Lee Scott that we read together.


As we face a time in our nation and world

of greater and greater economic disparity,

of a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor,

and as we see the rise of economic empires

to rival the Romans of Jesus’ day…

I can’t help but think that our world could use

an understanding of Jesus that focuses on his charity,

on his prophetic voice against wealth and hypocrisy,

and on his compassion for the sick and the poor.

I think we are at a time where our world

desperately needs to meet a human Jesus.


I think our world desperately needs to meet a Buddha

who was not someone sitting

on a pedestal thinking deep thoughts,

but who was the young boy, Gautama Sidhartha,

who having been born to wealth and privilege…

born into the 1 percent of his day,

chose to leave that wealth and privilege behind

to seek a way to end the suffering of those around him.

A Buddha who felt such compassion for other beings

that he knew that there was no difference between us.

That we are all one and the same.


I think we are at a time when our world

desperately needs to meet a human Buddha.


We need to know the human Moses,

who, having been given a life of wealth and power

saw instead the poverty and slavery of the Hebrew people,

and led them out of Egypt…

not because he was divine,

but because he was very, very human.


We need to know the human Zoraster

who taught in Iran about humans having Free Will,

the ability to make choices outside

of the control of Gods and Goddesses.


We need to know about the very human man

who was our most prominent modern prophet,

the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King…

who struggled with his commitment,

who had doubts if he had it in him

to represent a movement toward equality,

and who was afraid that he might die a martyr.


We need to know the humanity of our great prophets and leaders,

including Unitarian Universalist Saints

like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Clara Barton…

because it is their humanity that reminds us

we are as they were.


We too are human.

We too can do amazing things…

can be part of events, and be the instigators of events

that change the world.

Look at your hands…  they are exactly the same kinds of hands

that Jesus had.

Look at your feet… those are exactly the same kinds of feet

that Moses had.

Listen to your voice… that is the same kind of voice

that Dr. King had.


This is part of the challenge of life as a Unitarian Universalist…

knowing that we have within us

the same kind of heart, spirit, and soul

as those women and men we most admire.

As those we felt changed the world.

As those who have inspired us, or challenged us.

We are the same as they.

We are human.


I began this sermon with the miracle of birth,

and I believe all of those births of great religious leaders

were indeed miracles.

The stories might not be factually true,

but the deeper truth in them is that they were miracles…

for these individuals taught us what it means to be human.

They challenged us to look at ourselves and others

in new and important ways.

They spoke truth as they saw it,

and they held compassion for others.


Jesus healed the sick and spoke out against injustice.

Buddha made compassion a religious act,

and sought a cure for suffering.

Moses has been the inspiration for millions of humans

seeking freedom from oppression.


Humanity would be less than we are

if not for these religious leaders, and others.

Their births were indeed miracles…

and so was your birth.

And my birth.

And the birth of your children.

And your grand children.

Because each and every one of us shares in the same humanity

as Jesus, as Buddha, as Moses, as Zoroaster.

Each and every one of us carries within our humanity

the ability to change the world,

to show compassion, to express free will,

to help someone to freedom.


When we celebrate a miraculous birth,

be it the Christmas Celebrations of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth,

or the Rohatsu celebration of the birth of the Buddha,

what we are celebrating is two-fold.

First, we recognize that these great teachers and prophets

did indeed change the world,

and that the world is a better place for them…

and we celebrate that each of us carries within us

the same substance as they.


We are just as human as they were…

and just as able to change the world.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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