Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting Rev. Denis
In times of darkness, people have always kindled light – to remove the gloom of ignorance, to chase away clouds of doubt, and to overcome the fear of oppression. We, too, come together to kindle light: the symbol of our prayers for peace, for hope, for freedom, and for blessings for ourselves and the entire world. (1)
Sundown this afternoon marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, that commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem.
Community Activist Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov wrote,
“According to tradition, the miracle of Hanukkah was that, when the Maccabees sought to rekindle the Temple menorah, the very little oil they were able to find lasted an unexpected eight days. But the real miracle is that they went ahead and lit the menorah on the first day, even though they did not know what the next day would bring.
It was that same miracle that enabled the Jews to endure through every generation and every exile. For had we been discouraged by our anxieties about the future, we would have long since lost the capacity to survive.” (2)
Time for All Ages (3) (Denis, Maggie, LeighAnn and Avery)
NARR: Long ago, there were two countries, one in the east and the other in the west. One day, they started a war with each other. No one had the time to take care of the fields or the cows or the chickens. And between battles, people spent their time polishing swords, making cannonballs, and sewing buttons on uniforms.
In a valley between these two countries lived a woman who did not bother with the war. She had two sons. She had a cow, some chickens, and a large potato field. To protect her potatoes and her boys from the war, she built a wall around everything she owned.
The boys loved their mother. They helped to plant, weed, and harvest. They took care of the animals. They liked their soft beds and their cozy house.
FIRST SON: Why must we have a wall around us?
MOTHER: Because the potatoes will not grow if the winds from the east and the west blow on them”
NARR: On cold winter nights, when storms and battles raged outside, they baked their potatoes in a fire and ate them. But the two boys grew up. One day the older son looked toward the east and saw a regiment of soldiers marching by.
FIRST SON: Mother, look at the red uniforms and beautiful swords!
MOTHER: I’ve seen red uniforms tattered and muddy, and swords bent and broken. Please don’t bother. Just get back to work.
FIRST SON: I’m tired of planting potatoes. Goodbye, Mother! I’m going to the east.
NARR: The next day, the younger son looked to the west and saw a regiment of soldiers.
SECOND SON: Mother, look at the blue uniforms and shiny medals!
MOTHER: I have seen blue uniforms torn and stained with blood, and medals rusting in the fields. Just do your work now, and I will make you potato pancakes later.
SECOND SON: I’m tired of weeding. Goodbye, Mother.
NARR: And off he ran, to the west. Left alone, the woman cried bitterly, bolted her door, and went back to her field. The two sons liked being soldiers. One became a general in the east, the other a commander in the west. Many battles were fought.
Sometimes the general looked at his muddied uniform and bent sword and thought of a baked potato and a soft bed. And sometimes the commander looked at his stained uniform and rusting medals and thought of potato pancakes and a warm fire. More battles were fought. The fields were empty and burned.
There was nothing to eat in the east or the west, so all of the soldiers cried for food. The general and the commander both knew where to get food. One night, the two armies marched toward the valley where the woman and the potatoes were.
FIRST SON: Mother, my soldiers are hungry. We must be strong to win battles!
SECOND SON: Mother, my men want food. Let us have some potatoes, and we shall fight for victory!
NARR: there was stony silence behind the wall, but the soldiers on both sides started to shout that they would break down the walls if they didn’t get potatoes. From the east and west the two armies crashed through the wall. A furious battle for potatoes began.
The house lay in ruins. The cows and chickens were gone. The field was trampled. Soldiers lay moaning on the ground. The general and the commander were wounded. And behind a large pile of rubble, the woman lay on the ground, not moving. Her sons looked at her, and the destruction, and wept.
FIRST SON: Mother, Mother, what have we done?
SECOND SON: Mother, this is our fault!
BOTH SONS: Speak to us! Speak to us!
NARR: But the woman was not dead. She let her sons and their soldiers cry for a while, then she opened her eyes and stood up.
MOTHER: Even though you have ruined my house and my field, I still have enough potatoes to feed you all. But before I give you even one peel, you must promise to stop fighting and clean up this mess and go home to your mothers.
NARR: The soldiers all shouted with joy and gratitude. After they ate, the felt better. They sang songs their mothers taught them. Their voices could be hear far to the east and the west, so mothers came, and found their sons. Everywhere, mothers and sons fell into each other’s arms, thanked the woman for potatoes, and said their goodbyes. They went home to the east and home to the west. The soldiers took off their uniforms and told the people to stop polishing swords and making cannonballs.
The sons buried their swords and medals. They replanted the fields. They rebuilt their mother’s house. But they did not rebuild the wall.
Personal Reflection “If You Want Peace,” Maggie Rice
While working on a documentary project in film school, I was sent to interview a nun who told me, ‘If you want peace, you must first seek justice.’ I was confused by this statement for two reasons; partially because I had grown up around nuns who sent much more distressing messages, like ‘your dog is going to hell,’ usually while brandishing a ruler as if it were the iron fist of God himself. But mainly I was confused because I couldn’t quite grasp the connection between peace and justice yet. But it struck me as a profound statement, nevertheless, and has come back to me often.
Recently I spent quite a bit of time pondering it, while under a sort of self-imposed house arrest after a pair of white supremacists who live in my town and drink at the bar across the street from my apartment, threatened to set me on fire. Their racist rage was sparked the day that Officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of murdering Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, despite having stood on the hood of their car and firing his gun 46 times.
Predictably, there were a lot of people in the street that day, and I was there to feed them. I work with Food Not Bombs, an organization that believes food is a human right, and should not be a commodified privilege. On the day of the Brelo verdict, we were short handed. Our weekly homeless/hungry meal was happening at the same time as the protest, as well as a previously scheduled march for Tamir Rice from Impett Park to Prosecutor McGinty’s house. My friend Rachael and my dad jumped in to help out.
I felt it was only fair to warn them that pro-police west side residents had told the media they would be bringing guns to the park to ‘defend their neighborhood,’ and that two Lake County men who I knew personally had posted photos of themselves holding guns and saying they wanted to shoot protesters downtown. Rachael and my dad Brian both showed up anyway. Not because they weren’t scared; we all were. But because justice is extremely important to us. I knew that my friends of color would be showing up for Tamir, and for Timothy and Malissa, no matter what. And I couldn’t let them go hungry, or feel alone. I’ve gotten to know Tamir’s family very well over the last year, especially his cousin Latonya. She and her family will never be at peace, until there is justice.
The people who support that struggle for justice, for Tamir, Timothy, Malissa, and many others, are often hungry when they show up to rallies and sit ins and marches. People living in poverty often have to choose between fighting for change, and feeding themselves and their families. Several of the people who I got to know as leaders of movements, I later learned were homeless or couch surfing. Working with FNB, I realized if people know they will be fed while engaging in struggle for social justice, it’s easier for them to stay engaged. When I’m serving vegan chili to #BlackLivesMatter activists, to Palestinian-Americans fighting occupation of their homeland, to white environmentalists or reproductive rights advocates, chants of ‘No justice, no peace’ often fill the air. These groups come from vastly different backgrounds, but we’re all connected; we’re all seeking the same thing. We’re seeking the peace that Sister Barbara talked about; not the kind of peace sold on holiday cards, or the kind that can be simply wished or prayed into existance. Because we want real peace, we are seeking justice.
[While working in restaurants during and after college, I often found myself working in places I would never be able to afford to eat at, if not for my employee discount. Still, I considered myself lucky. I averaged $15-20/hour in tips. My friends who worked in the kitchen made minimum wage. Malik Carlos and Niang, who weren’t ever going to be able to work their way up to waiting tables with me, couldn’t afford to feed their families on their full time salary, without engaging in illegal and dangerous trade on the side. I thought of Sister Barbara when I heard their day-to-day struggles. They knew very little peace in their lives, because they had not experienced justice. I thought of her words again when I started volunteering with Karpos, an outreach program that provides meals to homeless and hungry people in Lake County, as well as providing emergency shelter to people who are turned away from the homeless shelter on the coldest nights of the year. I got to know Jay and Tracy quite well, who because they had problems with mental illness, substance abuse, or were anti-religious, often struggled to find a warm place to sit or sleep, and food to eat. The injustice of this unfairly distributed aid led me to wonder how they could ever find peace.]
This morning’s reading excerpted from an essay called “Selective Empathy,” by Rabbi Zalman Kastel. It appeared in Tikkun Daily earlier this week. In it, Kastel uses the word tautology, which means to say the same thing twice, using different words.
I am disturbed to read Facebook posts by my Arab and Muslim friends rightly expressing their hurt at the implication that French lives appear to matter more to Westerners than Arab or Muslim lives. Some posts list the names of places where Arab or Muslim blood has been spilled, including the terrible attacks in Beirut. Yet, none of these posts mention the recent stabbings of Israeli civilians. I feel a deep sadness about the selective empathy so much in evidence right now.
The term ‘selective empathy’ is almost a tautology because researchers in this field explain that empathy is by its very nature geared toward people we see as being like us. We can overcome this natural tendency to limit our circle of empathy either by calling on increased compassion (which is not naturally restricted to people like ourselves) or by changing our relationships with ‘them’ so that they become part of’us’. (4)
Sermon “The Power of Peace in Food,” Rev. Denis
I’d like to start by sharing a portion of an essay by Daniel B. Syme from the Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living. It’s a lengthy quote, but he describes the history and significance of Hanukkah better than I can.
Unlike many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is not mentioned in the Bible. The historical events upon which the celebration is based are recorded in Maccabees I and II, two books contained within a later collection of writings known as the Apocrypha.
In the year 168 B.C.E., the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers to Jerusalem. The Syrians desecrated the Temple, the holiest place for Jews at that time. Antiochus also abolished Judaism, outlawing the observance of Shabbat and the Festivals, as well as circumcision. Altars and idols were set up for the worship of Greek gods and he offered Jews two options: conversion or death.
On the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 168 B.C.E., the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus. A resistance movement- led by a priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees-developed against the cruelty of Antiochus. The head of the family was Mattathias, an elderly man. His son, Judah, became the chief strategist and military leader of the resistance. Though outnumbered, Judah Maccabee and his fighters miraculously won two major battles, routing the Syrians decisively.
Although historians debate the causes and outcomes of the war in which Judah Maccabee and his followers defeated the Syrian armies of Antiochus, there is no doubt that Hanukkah evokes stirring images of Jewish valor against overwhelming odds.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” is the festival that commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple following the defilement caused by the Greeks during their occupation of that holy place. Today, the holiday reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to stand against forces that would destroy Judaism and to keep alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation.
Originally, the eight-day holiday was intended to parallel the eight-day festival of Sukkot. The Books of the Maccabees made no mention of the legend concerning a small jar of oil that unexpectedly lasted for eight days. Only centuries after the Maccabees’ defeat of the Syrians did the story of the jar of oil-which has come to be a part of Hanukkah-appear in the Talmud.
According to the legend, when the Maccabees entered the Temple and began to reclaim it from the Greeks, they immediately relit the eternal light, which burned constantly in the Temple and has a parallel in synagogues to this day. In the Temple, they found a single jar of oil, which was sufficient for only one day. The messenger who was sent to secure additional oil took eight days to complete his mission, and miraculously, the single jar of oil continued to burn until his return. The rabbis of the Talmud attributed the eight days of Hanukkah to the miracle of this single jar of oil. (5)
Why should this minor Jewish holiday, not even mentioned in the Bible, matter to a group of 21st century Unitarian Universalists? Few of us are Jewish, and even fewer still are practicing Jews, at least practicing enough to observe the Sabbath or keep kosher.
It’s important because it’s part of the story of twelve tribes, brought together by a covenant, then attacked in an act of war. The symbol of their unity, their temple, was destroyed and desecrated.
The story of Hanukkah is important because our living tradition draws from “the wisdom of the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.” The story of Hanukkah is important because our living tradition draws from “Christian and Jewish teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
We believe in Shalom, which is peace, peace that is complete in contentment, well-being and harmony. We believe in Tikku Olam, repairing the world and building for eternity.
Mostly the story of Hanukkah matters to us because I fear we may well be facing a time of revolution.
This is a time of extreme opinions and extreme actions backing them up. There is little room in the world these days for dissention or difference of opinion. It feels telling to me that the New York Times yesterday published its first front-page editorial in almost a century. Whether or not you agree with the editorial board on their already well-documented stance on gun control, you have to recognize the passion in the statement. “It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.” (6)
They’re fed up with arguing about what to so many feels like a no-brainer.
People are getting shot up continuously. This year alone, there have been 355 incidents in the United States in which more than one person was killed in a single event involving a firearm. Four of those incidents can be called mass shootings, defined until 2013 as ones in which four or more people were killed. (7)
Just since choosing the readings and putting together the Order of Worship, there was another shooting, in San Bernardino Wednesday. With another 14 dead, frankly, I’m finding it hard to feel like peace is even possible.
It feels like even talking about “peace,” even during the holiday season, feels almost dangerously unrealistic and self-indulgent.
And it’s not just the mass-shootings making me feel this way.
Here in the US we are torn apart by huge social issues in which both sides feel marginalized.
One side wants effective gun control, reasonably limiting access to some guns while protecting the civil liberties of all citizens. The other side wants access to guns as a symbol of personal freedom, while giving up other personal liberties, including possibly involuntarily hospitalizing the mentally ill.
One side seeks to protect a woman’s right to make her own decision about her body and reproduction. The other side wants to protect at all costs what it describes as the lives of the most vulnerable humans.
Most of us feel so strongly about these issues, and so many others, that eating with family at holidays is turning into a minefield. Last week, I saw a clip from Saturday Night Live in which a typical family is sitting down for a Thanksgiving meal, and the arguments about abortion and guns and race and class are about to explode. The youngest member of the family gets up from the table and turns on “Hello,” Adele’s song that had been released a couple days earlier. In their mutual love for the superstar, everyone starts lip-synching. Suddenly, they are in their own version of the music video: shot in black and white, everyone wearing big wigs, fur coats and dark finger nails. Family harmony is restored.
If only peace were that simple.
I’ve mentioned before that my sister moved to Florida last year. She and her husband, avid hunters, announced that they would be leaving Connecticut – for the warmth – since my brother-in-law had just retired from his job as a correctional officer on death row. It’s always been tough when he and I have been together. We agree on so little.
But they announced that decision two days after Connecticut passed the most comprehensive gun control laws in the nation, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Both my niece and my nephew said to me privately and utterly without guile, that they looked forward to living in a state where they could shoot first and ask questions later. They would feel safer.
Maybe it’s my own family that makes me think we’re heading toward a revolution, or even a civil war. Or maybe it’s because four years ago I was so influenced by Colin Woodard’s book The American Nations.
In it, he describes how various regions of North America were settled by different groups of Europeans with specific worldviews that influenced the ways in which they developed, governed themselves before the formation of current states and countries, and expanded across the continent. The 11 nations include New France and El Norte, which expand way south of Quebec and north of Mexico, respectively.
Yankeedom began in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but expanded into the Western Reserve and beyond into what is now Michigan, but also around Cape Horn to the West Coast. I’ve lived in Hartford, Providence, San Francisco and Cleveland. All are parts of Yankeedom, founded on the ethical principles of hard work and putting the common good ahead of personal needs, morals that still seem self-righteous and judgmental to the polite, religiously tolerant people of the Midlands, and the loyal but self-sufficient individuals of Greater Appalachia.
Every time I hear of someone moving to another part of the country where people are more in line with their values, I think about that book.
And it is happening a lot, people are moving to be among people just like themselves. As documented as early as 2004 by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.
In a nutshell, the more we’re surrounded by people like ourselves, and not challenged to think beyond our own opinions in the context of public discourse, the less capable we are of handling the challenge of disagreement. (8) As we retire, or find jobs we can do from anywhere, it’s happening more and more.
It feels to me, especially in times such as these, like we’re aligning ourselves with our compatriots in the coming revolution, and distancing ourselves from everyone else. Even our families, like the one family in this morning’s story, which I have to say gives me hope.
Now, I’m not na�ve enough to think the world is that simple. That avoiding the ravages of war is as easy as building a wall, or that all it takes to end a war is potatoes and a good mother telling the boys to behave. The story reminds me that when things get bad enough, we have to return to that which matters most. The story reminds me that it is possible, as Rabbi Kastel said in this morning’s reading, to change “our relationships with ‘them’ so they become part of ‘us.’
That was a challenging reading for me.
I’m not Jewish. I’ve never lived in Israel or the Middle East. I’ve never even been there, and I don’t – if I’m going to be perfectly honest – have a strong opinion on the state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. I don’t know Rabbi Kastel, but his essay was published in the online version of Tikkun Magazine, published by Michael Lerner. I don’t know Lerner, either, despite having met him once briefly in Berkeley. But I read Tikkun, and find myself feeling comforted and challenged by most of what I find there. I’ve quoted him from the pulpit a few times over the years.
But I don’t agree with everything. The rhetoric of Kastel’s essay was starting to sound a little too similar to the arguments we are hear about the Black Lives Matter Movement. Some Unitarian Universalists, grounded in our first principle of affirming the worth and dignity of every human being, are profoundly uncomfortable with singling out some lives.
Personally, I’ve witnessed and experienced the marginalization of being the “other,” being “them” in a place full of like-minded people who all look pretty much alike. It can be uncomfortable. Even threatening. And with so many acts of violence resulting in the deaths of so many black people, white people like me, as the racial majority, I think should affirm that we see their lives as threatened, lives which do in fact matter to us.
Those couple of sentences were so challenging, I almost lost the rest of the message. Context got lost for me as I focused on one part of Kastel’s opinion that seemed contrary to my own. But if I stop for a moment, I can remember that we all come to our understandings – our opinions – based on our own limited experiences. And our experiences are all limited. None of us knows everything or has seen everything.
If we just stop for a moment, we may be surprised by the nun who turns inside out everything we thought we knew about nuns. Or Muslims. Or young black guys. Or old white guys. And maybe if we pay attention, we might just learn something that completely changes the way we see the world. But in order to be so changed, we have to be willing to sit down together, to eat together, rather than avoiding the potential conflict.
The truth is, I have never met anyone who agrees with me about everything. And if agreeing were the criterion by which I were to find dining partners, I would be eating alone a lot, rather than engaging in conversation that could expand my understanding.
I’d like to close now be re-reading the words that accompanied our chalice lighting: “the real miracle is that they went ahead and lit the menorah on the first day, even though they did not know what the next day would bring. It was that same miracle that enabled the Jews to endure through every generation and every exile. For had we been discouraged by our anxieties about the future, we would have long since lost the capacity to survive.”
May we find the strength to and the courage to keep lighting our flame, without being discouraged by our anxieties about the future. May the light from our candles in this season of peace, guide our way home.
(1) Siddur Sha’ar Zahav. San Francisco, CA. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 2009. “Introduction to Chanukah (Rededication)” p. 444.
(2) Miriam Glazer, Ph.D., ed. Dancing on the Edge of the World. “The Miracle of Hanukkah,” adapted from Eliyahu Kitov. Los Angeles CA. Lowell House, 2000. P. 47
(3) Anita Lobel. Potatoes, Potatoes. San Francisco CA. Harper and Row Publishers, 1967.
(4) Rabbi Zalman Kastel. “Selective Empathy,” Tikkun Daily, November 19, 2015.https://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2015/11/19/selective-empathy-by-rabbi-zalman-kastel/
(5) Daniel B. Syme. The Jewish Home (Revised Edition). URJ Press. 1988.https://www.reformjudaism.org/hanukkah-history#sthash.kXPplbFP.dpuf
(6) The Editorial Board. “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” New York Times. December 4, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/05/opinion/end-the-gun-epidemic-in-america.html?_r=0
(7) Mark Follman. “How Many Mass Shootings Are there Really?” New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/opinion/how-many-mass-shootings-are-there-really.html
(8) Bill Bishop. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Mariner Books. 2004.