Readings: Luke 2:1-7
HOMILY: You Can’t Stop Christmas.
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!” Sing along if you know the words. “It came without packages, boxes, and bags!”
There’s always someone with a heart two sizes too small that tries to stop Christmas from coming. And like the Grinch, they always learn that Christmas doesn’t come from a store; that Christmas perhaps is a little bit more. Quite a lot more actually. For Christmas is nothing less than the story of Love coming into the world in the most unexpected places, through the most unexpected people, and in the most unexpected ways. Even in the guise of baby born to a homeless couple required to register themselves with the government who hung out with shepherds.
At first, the story of Le Chambon seems to be about Andre Trocme and how he led the resistance against the Nazis, but like most stories, there’s much more to it. First of all there’s his wife Magda. They were a team. And when Trocme was arrested Magda led the way. Later when they came to arrest him again, he had to flee and she took over the leadership of the community once again. And there was an assistant pastor Edouard Theis. And then a village of 5000 people – about the size of Hopedale, come to think of it. It really does take a village. Sometimes a handful of villages, Le Chambon was the center but villages in the area helped too. Some 25,000 people in an entire region of the mountains of France near Switzerland worked together to bring Love into the world in an unexpected place and in an unexpected way. It took all of them. Had but one person turned informant, it may have all come crashing down.
We like to say in Unitarian Universalism that each night a child is born is a holy night. The story of Le Chambon reinforce this important point we make each year at Christmas. Yes, Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth and whether you think of him as a divine savior or a great human teacher , Christmas is a reminder that you too are a holy child of God and you may be called upon to teach the people and even save them. Just like Andre Trocme. And just like him you will not be able to do it alone.
Too often, especially in our culture we fall into thinking about history in terms of the Great Person, where a strong leader gets all the credit as a hero or all the blame as a villain. We learn that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement. We learn that Hitler killed millions of Jews in a genocide on top of causing a World War. But the civil rights movement would not have happened if not for millions who marched and boycotted and sat in on busses and at lunch counters. The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if everyday people hadn’t ignored first the absurdities and then the atrocities.
In the US we learn about World War Two largely as a horrible thing that happened because of a tyrant named Hitler, but in Germany they are taught that all Germans were responsible for the Holocaust. For good or ill, nothing happens without our participation and our consent. It takes a village to be a savior as in Le Chambon, but it also takes a village to commit genocide. What if, like some people in Germany and in France, the villagers of Le Chambon gave in to the Nazis?
In a recent Huffington Post piece, Shawn Hamilton writes of German-born Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, and how she explained the German political term Gleichschaltung – or coordination. It was used to mean “getting in line”. Arendt said, “The problem was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did. Friends ‘coordinated’ or got in line.”
People often ask How? How did Hitler succeed in getting so many people to behave so horribly? Hamilton writes:
They conceded premises to faulty arguments. They rejected the “facts” of propaganda, but not the impressions of it. The new paradigm of authoritarianism was so disorienting that they simply could not see it for what it was, let alone confront it. People rejected the uglier aspects of Nazism but gave ground in ways that ultimately made it successful. They conceded premises to faulty arguments. They rejected the “facts” of propaganda, but not the impressions of it. The new paradigm of authoritarianism was so disorienting that they simply could not see it for what it was, let alone confront it.
Until it was too late. But not in Le Chambon.
We would know nothing of Jesus of Nazareth, angels and shepherds notwithstanding, if after his death a group of brave followers risked their own lives to keep telling his story and passing on his teachings. We’d know nothing of Andre Trocme if even a handful of villagers coordinated or got in line.
Perhaps one reason they didn’t get in line is because once, they were Jews, the people who were illegal. The protestants of Le Chambon for centuries practiced an illegal protestant religion in Catholic France, and many escaped into Switzerland via the same mountain paths and routes that their descendants would use to smuggle out the Jews.
Le Chambon’s resistance began when one Jewish woman, displaced by the war and its genocide knocked on Andre Trocme’s door asking for shelter. There was room at the inn.
Trocme took her in. A simple act. He had been preparing his entire life. Inspired by a German pacifist in World War One, he became a pacifist and took the pastorate in Le Chambon because it was so out of the way, his pacifism wouldn’t be noticed. But as is often the case, the war comes to you even if you don’t want it to.
Andre Trocme, his congregation, and their village may seem heroic, but all they did was offer simple, genuine hospitality to other people. All they did was create room at the inn -and in their homes, and barns, and schools. All they did was share what little food and resources they had – a war was going on. Think about it, all they did was basically what we will do tonight and tomorrow – let people into our homes and share our shelter and our food. Except under the Nazis Jews were not people. In their simple acts of hospitality the villagers of Le Chambon refused to buy into any of the Nazis’ ideas about who was and wasn’t good enough to be considered a person. And they acted accordingly. Not only did the people of Le Chambon hide Jews, they refused to sign pledges of loyalty, or ring the church bells or do many other things required by the Nazis through the puppet Vichy government. They lived out their faith. They stood on the side of love. They practiced the Gospel of Jesus, they didn’t just read it on Sundays. When the Nazis demanded Trocme tell them where the Jews were, he said, “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.” Eventually a national protestant church leader in France asked him to stop hiding Jews because the Nazis were putting more pressure on the denomination nationally. Trocme, of course, refused.
Love is a powerful force, not a weak one. Love shines a light so powerful the darkness cannot overcome it. Maybe that’s why we say Justice is what love looks like in action. Food and shelter are simple acts of love, but in a time hatred and evil, they are also strong acts of justice. This strength comes from places so humble we often don’t expect it or see it coming: A single pacifist pastor, a group of simple, humble villagers, a baby born homeless. Sometimes it’s only much later that simple acts of love are noticed for the saving strength of their justice. Nobody took much notice of the homeless baby in the cave until years later when his larger story was told. In 1990 Le Chambon was the first community to be given the award Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Authority. the first time an entire community was so honored. Trocme and 40 individuals were also so honored.
It’s easy to practice hospitality, to love your neighbor as yourself when there’s no penalty for doing so. But when the penalty for showing simple hospitality and kindness is death, it’s then we really find out if we truly believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s then we find out if our love has the strength of justice.
I love Christmas. I love my tree and the carols and the feasting. I love my manger scene and I love it when Linus tells us the angel said to the shepherds “ for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” But the birth of the Christ, the anointed one, was not a one time thing. Our world needs all the saving it can get its hands on sometimes. So Messiahs continue to come, year after year, Christmas after Christmas – saviors – people no more or less human and ordinary than me and you. You couldn’t stop us if you tried.
When they knew the Nazis were coming, the villagers would send the Jewish people out into the woods to hide. When it was clear for them to come back, they would go the edge of the forest and sing. The way the Who’s down in Whoville gathered around their tree and showed the Grinch you stop Christmas from coming.
There will always be those who try to stop Christmas from coming – various Nazis and Grinches – and ultimately, they will always fail. You can’t stop Christmas from coming. You can’t stop Christmas from coming because you carry within you the ability to make it happen anywhere at any time of year. All you have to do is put love into action and it’s Christmas.