Don't Let the Light Go Out!

A Hannukkah Sermon by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– December 16, 2001 –

Opening Words/Advent Candle lighting

This time of year, as we move inexorably toward the Winter Solstice, we cannot help but be reminded of the power of darkness. The sun rises so late and sets so early. It is no wonder that people, since the beginnings of recorded time, have marked this dark time with ritual and celebration. Despite our feeble attempts to keep the darkness away, even in our electrified world, the darkness is felt deep down.

At this dark season of the year, it is appropriate to light candles. Candles do little to push the dark away. They are small puny things next to our powerful electric lights. Yet, their power is, perhaps, found in the way they accentuate the darkness. The darkness is made more beautiful because of their little light.

At this time of the year, when we as liberal religious people celebrate the many traditions of the season, may we hold fast to what is common among them even in their vast differences - the lighting of candles in the dark of winter.

And so I light our earth candle on this third Sunday of the Advent season to remind us of the many lights we share with people across generations and continents. The lights of hope, freedom and peace for all people.


The Hanukkah Story – Outlined

Antiochus Epiphanes, Syrian King.

Conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple.

Wanted all to be like him. ("Be as we are or cease to be.")

No, said the Priests at Modein. They fled, and gathered an army to fight the intruders who were intent on taking away their freedom to be who they were.

Mattathias was the leader. His son, Judah, was the military genius.

For three years they (Maccabees) fought with a small rag tag army.

Despite Antiochus' superior forces, these committed warriors forced them out of Jerusalem. And once again the holy city was ruled by its own people.

The Temple had been desecrated. Pigs blood, looted, idols.

The priests cleaned and blessed and tried to restore it.

Now we discover the legend of Hanukkah.

The eternal flame that was to be kept lit with special, holy lamp was cold.

Only one vial of the special oil was found - enough for one day. Miraculously, it lasted for eight; the Temple was rededicated to Yahweh.

That’s what the word Hanukkah means: dedication.


SERMON: Don’t Let the Light Go out

The story of Hanukkah is a good one, a powerful one. UUs like to tell it I think because it speaks to our sense of justice and our commitment to religious freedom. For centuries, Jews around the world have found in this story a fierce hope. Persecuted for their religious beliefs throughout the years in almost every land, the story of the Maccabees fighting the oppressor and winning is extremely evocative. It reminds Jews (and anyone else who has ever felt the yoke of the oppressor) that freedom can be won even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

I generally love to look at religious stories from a mythical angle. For many great stories of the Bible, or of any other religious text for that matter, are mythical stories. But the tale of Judas Maccabeus and the king Antiochus Epiphanes is different. For, while some of the details have been blurred by time, the general outline of the story is true. Antiochus Epiphanes really did desecrate the temple and try to force the Jews to worship Zeus instead of Yahweh. Mattatias and his brave sons did resist and fight. And they did win. The tale of the oil lasting for eight days is probably mythical. But, for Jews, a real miracle did occur. Their guys won, beating the greatly superior forces of the Syrian army.

The area we know today as Israel and Palestine–not to mention the rest of the Middle East–was, in those days (200 years before the birth of Jesus), in a constant state of political and religious change. As a natural cross roads between Africa, Asia and Europe, this small stretch of land on the Mediterranean Sea had been conquered and re-conquered by the Persians, the Greeks, the Syrians and ultimately by the Romans. The Jewish people were greatly impacted by this as each wave of conquerors brought different demands.

Their location also meant that there were always immigrants moving into the region, and the national identity of the Jewish people–which had been established during the "golden era" of David and Solomon–began to be seriously threatened. Judaism at this time was a religion still greatly tied to place. Though the exile a few hundred years earlier had sent Jews all around the ancient world, most still believed that God had chosen "this" land and built "this" Temple just for them. While many in the pagan world had no trouble accepting the Gods of others (equating Yahweh with Zeus, for instance) the Jews were not like this. Their God was special and if they didn’t follow the laws of Yahweh, they would cease to be Jews.

This is part of the truth that sometimes gets lost in the wonderful myth that surrounds Hanukkah. The Jews who fought for their freedom from Antiochus Epiphanes were strict and harsh in their religious beliefs. They shunned, persecuted and even at times killed other Jews who did not follow their strict understanding of the religion. As John Bright writes in his History of Israel, "the community had to fight for its identity as ‘Israel’…[for] a sea of pagan and semi-pagan people surrounded it on every side. Lines had to be drawn sharply if the little community was not simply to dissolve into its environment, losing its distinctive character."

It is the drawing of these sharp lines that interests me. It seems to me we could replace the word "Israel" with any number of groups today who feel that they, too, have to draw sharp lines between themselves and others in order to be religious, to be true to their God. There are Christians in our nation, for instance, who won’t send their children to public school for fear they will be "tainted" by the secular ways of other students. There are Muslims and Jews who do the same, here and across the globe. All around the world, the most segregated places (and I don’t just mean by race) are houses of worship.

I want to acknowledge the very human tendency to worship with people of like minds and hearts. As a religious person, I understand how important religion and worship are to the spirit of a human being. To be forced to worship in a way that is abhorrent to you is very hard on the soul. Some people would really and truly rather die than set foot into a place of worship that doesn’t house "their" God or Gods or holy books or teacher. When the Maccabees rose up against their oppressors, they were doing what seems to come naturally for humans: fighting for the right to worship as we choose.

Once the fight is over, however, nine times out of ten the winner then turns the tables on the former oppressor and makes him (rarely has it been a her) and his people worship in the way of the winner. The occasions in history when tolerance of different religions has been the norm are rare indeed.

Have things changed much now that we are in the 21st century? In some ways, certainly. But we can’t help but see the echoes of the past in today’s conflicts. Ethnic and religious tension may be at an all time high. People are killing and dying for their God every day.

Is it possible that a better way can be found? I have to admit to my own doubt and grief about this. We humans really want things to be our way. The familiar is comfortable and moving outside our comfort zone, particularly in religion, is very hard to do.

Some of you may have read the recent articles about the Missouri Synod Lutherans, some of whom are seeking to replace the leader of their denomination because he took part in an interfaith event at Yankee Stadium following the tragedy of Sept. 11. They claim that pastors within the Missouri Synod are prohibited from participating in such events because, in their opinion, such acts are akin to blasphemy. It is a sin, in their eyes, to be a part of a worship service where God is not worshipped in the Missouri Synod Lutheran way.

We, here, in our UU churches, where religious diversity and freedom of thought are cherished, are likely to be dismayed at the lack of openness in more conservative religious traditions. And most of us are generally open about attending worship in other people’s congregations, or interfaith gatherings. But, in our own churches, our openness can sometimes be sorely tested. We are not immune from the tendency to want to worship in our own way. Some years ago, for example, I spoke at a church on the West Coast. I preached a sermon that was typical for me, full of emotion and what I like to think of as spirit. At the end of the sermon I did what I always did in those days, I prayed.

About two weeks after that service, I got a letter in the mail from a stranger to me, a long time member of that church who had attended the service. It was one of those letters preachers live for. She told me how powerful the sermon and prayer were to her, how she saw an aura around me that embraced others, how it moved her to tears. As much as I appreciated this beautiful letter, it also made me laugh out loud. I laughed because another person who had heard the very same sermon and prayer had berated me up one side and down the other for the very same things the letter writer had loved. They both were active UUs and very committed to their church. And they each had completely different expectations and experiences of my sermon. They each had very different understandings of what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist.

UUs are human, too, so it should not surprise us that we are prone to wanting things our own way religiously. Most people in our congregations have made a choice to come to a UU church, and most come with high expectations of what it should be like. Some of you come because you want your mind to be challenged. Others come for the company, and to meet like minded folks. Others come for the music, and still others for their children’s religious education. Some come to be moved and expect the services to touch their hearts. There is not a soul in here who doesn’t arrive with expectations, and I would guess that the reality of the services don’t always live up to what you came for.

I know that happens to me when I visit other UU congregations. Jaco and I recently attended a service in NYC led by a wonderful musician we both know and admire. His very moving prayer had me literally in tears, but I found myself critiquing the rest of the service because it didn’t touch me in the same way. Why couldn’t I just be glad that I got at least something of what I came for! Yet like so many in our churches and in religious communities of all kinds across the globe, I wanted it to be my way and was upset when it wasn’t.

I remind myself and you of this hard truth about ourselves because I want to talk about another hard truth. Trying to create a truly diverse religious community is extremely difficult. Real diversity begins when we let another into our heart, not just into our space. Real diversity begins when we accept that we can’t always have it our way. Real diversity begins when we can move outside our comfort zone and learn new ways of being with others, in worship, in community, in ministry to the world around us.

What we are trying to do in our liberal religious churches is really, really hard. We are going against just about every religious tradition there is.

We are taking a profoundly radical stand when we say to the world around us, "all are truly welcome here." We clearly don’t do it perfectly–how could we? But who else is doing it at all, or even trying? Yes, I take heart that there are public events such as the one at Yankee Stadium I mentioned earlier, or the recent Menorah lighting at the University of Maryland, where people of many religious backgrounds stood together in solidarity and respect. But for the most part, the kind of religious warfare and distrust that was almost constant in the time of the Maccabees, is with us still. And there are very few religious groups in this world who will do what we do: worship with others who do not share our exact beliefs.

This kind of religion, our kind of religion, can be terrifying to people who cannot imagine a faith without creeds, who can’t imagine a God who doesn’t take sides (especially their side). Some claim we are not a religion, for we don’t fit a narrow profile, and they dismiss us as irrelevant. Some would like to see us disappear off the face of the earth. If there is anything we share with the ancient Jews in the Hanukkah story it is this: like them, we are small in number and our religious communities are not the mainstream in our nation. And like them, we know that our way of being religious in the world is very important and must not perish.

Is our faith worth fighting for? How would we respond if a modern day Antiochus Epiphanes appeared and we were told that we could no longer gather in worship unless we expelled all the gays, lesbians and transgendered folk among us? What if we were told that women must give up all authority in the church? What if we were told that we could no longer sing "Spirit of Life" and our piano was burned? What if our lovely grove of trees was torn down and in its place an altar to an alien God was established? What would we do?

I wish I knew the answer to that question but I don’t. We never can really know what we’ll do until we’re faced with hard reality. At present, our religious freedom seems reasonably assured, at least here in our nation where it has been codified into law. But, we can’t take it for granted, not ever. Freedom will always be tenuous until our human tendency to hate and destroy those who are not like us disappears.

Perhaps, then, it is time to return to the myth of Hanukkah. For this mythical and factual tale cans still remind us of the powerful good that can be found in those who celebrate and protect their religious freedom. The story teaches us that freedom is worth fighting for. The story speaks of the miracle of faith that kept the oil burning for eight days.

Can we take from this story a humble sort of hope that miracles can happen? No, I don’t expect our chalice to suddenly stay lit for eight days! I mean the real kind of miracles, the human miracles. Given most people’s tendency to want to stay in familiar territory with familiar people, it is a very real miracle when we learn to accept difference, when we discover we can learn and grow, when we move outside our comfort zone and try to really understand another’s pain, another’s joy.

I struggle to believe that such miracles can occur. I want our world to be a place where someday children will no longer live in fear of bombs or face starvation. I want our nation to be a place where neighborhoods are full of people who care for each other no matter what the color of their skin or the name of the God they worship.

I want our church community to be a place where we can share our faith fully, even if it is very different from those with whom we worship. To create such a church, such a nation, such a world, takes love and commitment and a huge dose of patience. We may not be as brave and strong as the Maccabees but their courage in the face of great odds is a wonderful example of what is possible. They believed enough in their faith to keep its light burning in the face of terrible odds.

May we, through our love and our tears, also keep the light of freedom shining in our hearts. What we are trying to do here really matters. If we let the light of freedom go out, who will light it again for our children and our children’s children? As the song we are about to sing reminds us, "the torch must be passed with new hope, not in sorrow" to those who will follow us. May we never let its light go out.

Sing: Hymn #146–Soon the Day


Closing Words

In closing, these words from my colleague Ken Phifer:

May the light of joy brighten our lives.
May the light of truth lead us to new understanding.
May the light of courage enable us to do what is right.
May the light of freedom burn more freely in our hearts.
And may the light of faith sustain our strength.

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