Let It Shine

A Sermon by Jennifer Brooks, ministerial intern
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– December 2, 2001 –

[Sermon is preceded by opening words adapted from #629 and 663; O Come, O Come Emmanuel (defining "Emmanuel" as "God with us" noting that "God" is an uncomfortable word for non-theists, but that a friend suggested that "what we really mean when we say 'God' is "Hope";Together Time with a chalice dancer performance involving children, followed by sing-away using #399, Vine and Fig Tree, and responsive reading # 577, It is Possible to Live in Peace, by Ghandi.]

I come to this pulpit today from a place of pain. It began as a restless yearning, what our co-minister Barbara described three weeks ago as a "hunger for hope." It coalesced on Thanksgiving, as my mother said the blessing, her prayer of gratitude for family gathered safely around a table lovingly covered with food. It struck just after our hearty "Amen!" when, as if feeling my own discomfort, my mother said (abruptly, impulsively, as an afterthought), "And somehow help those poor people in Afghanistan!"

That was it. The juxtaposition of our prosperity, our abundance, with the desperate plight of the Afghan refugees lining the border with Pakistan. Living in tents, the news reporter said, in rows of tents "as far as the eye can see." In the winter. Without food. And there we were, sitting down to our Thanksgiving dinner. To feast.

"Somehow help those poor people in Afghanistan!" For a moment, no one moved. Several of us--moaned--an inarticulate noise of comprehension and grief. Then we began speaking: hesitantly, uncertainly, in half-sentences of recognition and pain. We did not pick up our forks. It was like no other Thanksgiving.

We spoke about the Afghan refugees, fell silent, and looked sadly at one another. Then my Dad, who is highly practical, said "Well, we can't send them this turkey!" So then we picked up our forks.

Today we enter another season of celebration and feasting. Unlike Thanksgiving, which is an American tradition, this holiday season is celebrated world-wide and by persons of many faiths. This the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Christmas season. Hanukkah begins in December. The winter solstice, a festival for earth-centered traditions, is December 21. This month is traditionally one of joy, when we celebrate the coming of hope in the middle of winter. Since Thanksgiving, I have struggled to find a reason to celebrate, a justification for hope, in the midst of war, threats of terrorism, and the plight of the Afghan refugees.

I suspect many of you share these feelings. The thoughts I bring to you today arise from my struggle. The world's circumstances today are complex, and there is no simple answer. But I have found hope, and possibility, and promise. I have found a way to celebrate.

I begin by recalling the origins of the religious traditions that bring this time of celebration to us in December. These traditions date back to ancient times, and they originated in places affected by the change of seasons that results from our planet's tilt. It is no mistake that these early celebrations were timed to coincide with the darkest days of the year, the longest nightsóand yet a time when, at the winter solstice, the sun's light begins once again to prevail against the darkness. We humans long for sunshine and warmth. We mourn their absence, and celebrate the hope of their return. It's a paradox: we celebrate light during the time of greatest darkness.

Defy Darkness

The waning daylight near the time of the winter solstice was frightening. It could induce desperation and despair in ancient peoples. In many religious traditions, a time of celebration and ritual was thought necessary to make sure that the sun and its life-giving warmth would come back. There is much of this in the solstice rituals, which were celebrated variously by the Greeks and Romans in the northern Mediterranean, the Celts in Britain, and the Norse in Scandinavia. The very act of celebration defied the darkness.

The Christian tradition of placing the birth of Jesus during December is thought to have originated as a way to protect Christians who were required, under Roman rule, to celebrate the winter solstice, which was also the feast of Dionysis. And Hanukkah commemorates the sacred flame that burned for eight days, far longer than the supply of oil left in the ruined temple was expected to last. Hanukkah may be called the festival of lights, but for all ancient people affected by the turn of the seasons and for us today celebrating light is at the heart of this season. Light, and hope. We defy the dark.


Defy Despair

The winter solstice is also a metaphor. Its waning light speaks to us of those dark times of the soul, the times when despair and depression envelop our spirits and wrap us in a lassitude that resists all activity. Depression is so insidious. It resists very things that can pull us out of a downward spiral: Activity. Engagement with life. Time with friends. Re-connection with family. For many people, holiday festivities can trigger or magnify depression and make it seem unmanageable. Left to itself, depression pulls us to a dark place where we see no light, because these fundamental human activities become impossible.

The winter solstice, with its symbolism of darkness and light, offers the possibility of rescue, of return to self-hood, of emergence from the dark pit of despair. The winter festivals invite us to a flurry of activityósometimes too much activityóbut managed sensibly this activity engages us with life, connects us with friends and family. This blessed madness, this human urge to thwart the dark, can draw us back into ourselves. We defy despair.

And then there's the gift-giving: again, symbolic. In ancient times, gift-giving during the winter, traditionally a time of scarcity, was an act of defiance and at the same time an affirmation of hope. Our religious traditions ring with gift-giving: At Christmas the three wise men bring their precious gifts; the little drummer boy brings his a song; the shepherds only their amazement. Gifts in a time of scarcity are a symbol of hope, the promise of spring to come.

Of course, some of our gift-giving today is hardly a symbolic defiance of scarcityóit's more like a boast of abundance. Rampant commercialism sucks the symbolism out of the tradition. We Unitarian Universalists resist over-consumption, but it's hard, sometimes, to remember the fragile web of existence and also our interconnectedness with people elsewhere on this Earth, people who understand scarcity as the ruling truth of their existence. Returning gift-giving to its symbolic place can keep us centered in our values.

Many religious traditions share the symbolism of gift-giving during the winter. Each of the eight days of Hanukkah is marked with little gifts for children. Kwanzaa, not an ancient tradition but a growing new tradition, also has eight days in which gifts linked to the earth may be exchanged. In the earth-centered traditions, food is brought to the center of a circle and shared. In all these traditions, and many others, people light candles.

And so we defy darkness, we defy scarcity, we defy despair. We assert hope. Paradox. This blessed human madness, bringing green branches indoors and promising ourselves that spring will come again.

The Heart Attached to Mind

There have been times in my life when I wondered whether spring would come again. One stands out vividly: a dark time in my life, soon after my divorce, when I was struggling to find hope. I was the mother of a two-year-old for whom, it was clear, I would have the primary responsibilityónot just of care but of love and nurture. It was a hard time, and it was winter, and I lived in Minnesota.

If there were a measuring-scale for depression-inducing climates, sort of like a wind-chill index, winter in Minnesota would be frozen at about 45 below zero. Out of this winter came a poem, which I'd like to share with you.

The pace of seasons is within each heart,
Echoes of the world beating as change meets
Us. A tree doesn't know what makes leaves start
In spring, or why branches bend when wind beats
The withered shreds of leaves away. It must
Wait naked, whipped with wind and cold-blinded,
Bearing winter's pain with no cause to trust
That spring will come again.
Life unminded
Can't find pattern in the changes that sweep
Through life. Heartbeats rise and fall with a tide
Of promise ebbing to despair; we reap
Our winter's wheat.
But summer's fields are wide.
The heart attached to mind can see in life
The way that time brings comfort after strife.

The essence of this poem is simple: a tree doesn't have the capacity to understand winter, to know that there is something better on the way. But humans, with the power of our minds, do know that spring will come again. Within our hearts we may feel wintry despair when unwanted change is forced upon us. But the heart attached to mind can see in life the way that time brings comfort after strife.

The heart attached to mind. It's what I always come back to when bad things happen. I ask, How can I use my mind to find hope in this dark time? So from the moment that my mother's unexpected cry of anguish followed the "Amen" of her Thanksgiving prayer, I have been trying to use my mind to find peace and hope during this time of war, terrorism, and starvation.

Unitarian Universalism

Relying on the human mind is a classic strategy of Unitarian Universalism. From the Unitarians four centuries ago who asserted their right to speculate about theological matters, to the Universalists who relied on reason as the foundation for their belief in a benevolent God, we stand within a tradition of freethinkers (emphasis on thinkers).It is fitting that we today make a serious effort to bend our minds around the problems we face.

So, as I said, I started thinking about the origins of the winter festivals: the solstice, Christmas, and Hanukkahóthe festivals that speak to us of peace and hope. And I found in each this defiance of darkness and scarcity. This blessed human madness that stands up to winter with light and green branches; that responds to a season of scarcity with gift-giving, that refuses to huddle under the covers in despair but instead reaches out to re-affirm the bonds that connect us to family and friends.

It's as if the whole human race, for centuries, has looked darkness in the eye and said "NO." We light our candles. It is a kind of miracle.

Mind and Miracle

Miracle. The reasoning mind rebels against miracles even though our hearts may long for them. In religious tradition the word "miracle" has often meant something supernatural. The Hanukkah lamp burned for eight days when there wasn't enough oil. The baby Jesus who was born while choirs of angels sang grew up into the man who fed thousands of people with two fish and five loaves of bread. To our skeptical modern minds, the idea of supernatural miracles is a bit...over the top. We might like a miracle today, but most of us cringe from the supernatural.

It would be a miracle, wouldn't it, if we could turn to the rest of the world and find solutions that would end terrorism, end war, end hunger? What an idea.

You know, as soon as I thought "It would take a miracle to bring the world to peace and hope," my next thought was "What about those miracles?" Now this is an old issue for me. I started asking that question in my teens, and pursued it energetically during divinity school. One interesting bit I picked up is this: In the ancient oral tradition that was the main way ordinary people centuries ago passed along information, the stories that were remembered and re-told were stories that had special meaning to people.

Hanukkah and the lamp that didn't go out. A miracle. Jesus feeding the five thousand. A miracle. And it was a miracle especially important to the poor, the uneducated, the unsophisticated people who would rely most heavily on oral tradition, who would tell and re-tell the story about how just a little bit of food was changed into a whole lot of food. Can't you picture people sitting around a fire, sharing the little bit they had to eat, and dreaming about a miracle-man who helped people eat until they were "satisfied"?

My take on this story has always been to see it as a miracle in a different way. I imagine a crowd of people listening to Jesus, the itinerant teacherópeople who had followed him into the desert because they longed to hear his teachings, even though he had gone into the desert for solitude. Eventually everyone began to get hungry. And when the disciples asked if anyone had food, only a couple of people ante'd up. Two fish and five loaves of bread? That's it, in a crowd of 5,000 people who chose to walk out of town and into the desert for a lecture? No way, I don't buy it.

You know people. Someone says, Have you got anything you can contribute? And they say, Uh, I left my checkbook at home. So when Jesus says, Anybody have food? the first reaction might have been to wait and see. What did Jesus have in mind?

Now here's the miracle as I see it. Something about the way Jesus wasóand remember, he may have been an itinerant Jewish peasant but his story started a major world religion, so I'm willing to assume a certain charismaósomething in the confidence with which he told the disciples to break the food into pieces and distribute it to the peopleósomething about being offered a tiny bit of bread when you've got a Hershey bar in your pocketó

OK, not a Hershey bar, but do you see how the real miracle may have happened? Someone with courage and vision begins, and others join in. A climate of sharing overtakes the crowd. People reach into their pockets, into their bags, and they find a little bit of this or that and turn to their friends (and maybe to the stranger standing next to them) and offer to share, and the bigger bits of food gets passed along to the next stranger and the next, and soon the five thousand are fed, it's a miracle.

It is so human. And this is the season to remember how human miracles work, because this is the season when we defy scarcity by gift-giving. It's symbolic; we're saying that we don't need to hoard what we have because spring will come again. And this year, when we are saddened by the rise of terrorism, by hatred, by war, by the fragility of Afghan refugees living in tents: This is the year to begin making another miracle.

Winter in Human Hearts

Have you noticed that the weather lately has not felt much like winter? It's almost as if the earth is telling us that what we should fear is not the devastations of nature, but the devastations brought about by human choice. On September 11th the sky was the bluest blue. The sun shone kindly. Yet the events of that day were unspeakable.

And yesterday, December 1st, was warm and beautiful. Is the earth saying to us in this part of the world Fear not the cold of winter; fear the winter in human hearts. The Afghan refugees will feel winter's sharp winds; do our hearts cry out, Somehow help those poor people?

Mine does. And in a special collection on November 18 this congregation raised more than a thousand dollars to help the Afghan refugeesóblankets and tents against the winter winds.

But the winter in human hearts must be met by more than compassion. Do people who despair in scarcity hate us who consume in our abundance? If we are to reach real peace in this world, if we are to carry out a real war against war, if we are truly to rip terrorism out by the rootsówe must have courage and vision. We must imagine what the world would be like if no one despaired in scarcity. Do Unitarian Universalists have the charisma to lead the world to peace? The confidence to imagine a miracle and take the first steps to create it?

First Steps

Others are taking those first steps. A United Nations project called Groundwork operates on the assumption that there can be a world without hunger. It gives poor farmers and fish-sellers tools and equipment so they can grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish. With these tools they can become self-sufficient and begin to imagine a hopeful future for their children. It's not just charity; it's laying the groundwork for a just economy. A just economy is the foundation of peace.

It starts with one water pump that helps one farmer to irrigate one little field. It starts with one bag of seeds to help one farmer plant one small crop of vegetables. It starts with one insulated box to help one fish-seller keep one day's catch of fish fresh so that more can be sold. It starts with a loaf and a fish and people uniting to make a miracle happen.

It starts with one candle that we light against the darkness.

This is the idea behind a new social action project Paint Branch launched yesterday at the holiday warm-up party. It's called the Paint Branch Alternative Gift Market, and it's a project of the Social Action Committee carried out jointly with the youth. It's a more than symbolic way to carry out the season's symbolic holiday gift-giving to family and friends, because it also gives useful giftsóand the gift of hopeóto people who lives are defined by scarcity. There's an Alternative Gifts Shopping List back in the foyer.

This year, instead of giving my brother a shiny doo-dad, I'm sending a flock of chicks in his name to a rural farm family. I'm giving my Dad the satisfaction of saving half an acre of rain forest. I'm going to help my son give his sister three fruit trees that will be sent to a village devastated by a cyclone. My daughter is mailing the Shopping List to her aunts and uncles and suggesting that they give her something really useful, like school supplies for a Beacon House child.

The future depends on what we do in the present. Ghandi said that. He was just one man, physically a tiny man, but he was the first to sit down in the dusty street and say that it is possible to live in peace, and by the way the people of India should rule themselves. Now they do. One man, with a clear vision, took the lead.

Giving alternative gifts is not an solution to the complex problem of terrorism, but it's a way to begin. It's a way to do something useful. It's also a way of non-violence, a step towards peace. We help the 5,000 to feed themselves. If people have hope, if they can imagine a future for themselves and their children, they will see light in the darkness, a promise of harvest in a time of scarcity, the possibility of hope in the midst of despair. And with hope, with relief from despair, there may also be less hatred.

Courage and Vision

If we here and elsewhere act with courage and vision, we can change the world from the winter of despair to the summer of hope. For us, the courage lies is in daring to take the first step even though it seems too small to make a difference. The vision lies in understanding that peace begins only when we attach our hearts to our minds, so that we can imagine a journey toward hope. Defy darkness, defy scarcity, defy despair.

Let us resolve to make this holiday season more than a metaphor. May we find the courage to light one candle, and hold it up, and waitófor the candles that others will also light.

This is the season when humans defy darkness. Let us make it also a season of human miracles, when peace begins with hope. Light one candle. Let it shine.


And now, would you please take up your hymnals and turn to number 221, a song we last sang on September 11th, Light One Candle.

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