I want to start by saying the obvious: I am a Christian minister here in Decatur, Alabama. And that means that, for me and for my congregation, Christmas is a pretty big deal. Along with Easter, it is one of the two central moments of our faith. It is the story of Jesus’ birth, and I’ll say more about that in a second.
But next I want to say something that might not be as obvious: Rotary is not a Christian organization. Yes, it may have been founded by Christians. And, yes, it may have been created with Christian principles in mind. But, since then, Rotary has grown beyond its Christian roots. Sure, many if not most of the individuals within the Rotary world are Christians, but we’re also Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Muslims and Atheists. Of course, most of us in this room are Christians. This is Decatur, Alabama, after all. But that doesn’t mean that all of us are Christians, nor does it mean that we all should be. We are here together because we believe that our role in this community should be about service to others above service to self. What I want to say about Christmas, therefore, isn’t so much a reflection on the doctrine of a particular faith as it is an expression of hope that I believe Christmas offers to the whole world.
This time of the year, people love putting stuff in their front yard because it’s the one chance they get to do so without risking that the rest of the community will shun them for being tacky. (There’s still a chance that might happen, depending on how ostentatious the decorations are, but the bar that distinguishes tacky from tasteful is set pretty high in December.) Some of our decorations are notably secular—Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat, Frosty with wildly waving arms, Santa’s sleigh with its cohort of reindeer. Others prefer to recreate the Christian biblical account of the nativity by setting up a miniature barn in their front yard complete with hay, wooden cut-out animals, and statues of Mary and Joseph gathered around a feeding trough into which a wrapped-up baby doll has been placed. (Why the families in these big, warm houses couldn’t find a spare bedroom for the Holy Family is a topic for another day.)
The image of a young, peasant couple stranded in a faraway town when the mother-to-be goes into labor only to find that there is no room in the inn provides a compelling backdrop for Christmas. Although it’s only contained in one of the four gospel accounts, our affection for their heart-warming story is probably the reason we tell it every year. And some of us think that it’s the only story to tell. It’s easy to get lost in the details of the biblical narrative and think that Christmas is Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and angels, some lowing cattle and a silent, swaddled baby. And that’s certainly part of it. It’s how most Christians tell the story. But there’s more to it than that. Christmas isn’t just a proclamation of what so many people believed happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It’s a story of hope that transcends any one moment in time and any one statement of faith.
Like most Christians, I believe that God came down from heaven and became one of us. The fancy word we use for that is “incarnation,” but don’t let any preacher tell you that she or he knows precisely what that means. None of us does. But part of what it means is that we believe that the human race is worth inhabiting—that there is something good and worthy and promising within our very nature—within each of us. Christmas means that we all contain a spark—a light that’s worth celebrating—and you don’t have to be a Christian to look for that hope that dwells within us all.
As Rotarians, we believe that the world is worth saving, and we believe that it is our job to be a part of that salvation. Why do we work so hard to end polio? Why do we send money to Afghanistan so that girls might go to school? Why did Rick Paler choose Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Morgan County as the recipient of the gifts made in honor of our speakers? Because Rotary stands for the good that is held within every man, woman, and child from Decatur, Alabama, to Da Nang, Vietnam. It doesn’t matter what they look like or what language they speak or what they believe. Christmas is the time of year when we look for that good that dwells within us so that we might hold fast to the hope that that good might grow and one day fill the whole world.