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Presented December 13, 2015, by Rev. Krista Taves
Today's sermon is about how you know who your people are. Who do you belong to and what does that ask of you?
In the Jewish tradition, every major holiday is about answering that question and Hannukah is no exception. Our Children's Story, "A Chanukah Noel" is so popular because many Jewish parents have experienced their children coming to them begging to be part of Christmas, asking why they can't have a Christmas tree and presents and Santa Claus like the other kids. Many Jewish parents search their hearts when their children come to them and decide to say no because of what it would mean to say yes. Given the complicated relationship between Judaism and Christianity, with the historical dominance of Christianity and the long history of Jewish oppression, allowing Christmas a place in their children's lives would be betraying who they are.
But I imagine it would be very difficult, especially if your children are in a school where they are a minority and all the other kids are in full Christmas mode. Acceptance by their friends is so important for children and being different is hard. I can imagine that as a parent, knowing that setting this boundary makes things harder for your child would be very difficult to hold. But you do it because you believe it's right. I imagine those of you who are parents know that there are times you have to make decisions that create short-term hardship for your children, but you make those decisions because you trust that in the long term, it will be the right one, right for your children and their future.
One of the reasons that Hanukkah has become a prominent holiday in the last century is to help Jewish parents deal with the Christmas dilemma. After a while, just saying no wasn't enough. There had to be a creative way to respond to their children and remain faithful to Judaism. Over time, this minor holiday has organically evolved into a significant tradition. It's the perfect holiday to respond to the all-encompassing power of Christmas because Hanukkah offers a precious opportunity to teach Jewish children who they are.
According to the story, some 2500 years ago, Israel was occupied by the Assyrian Greeks and the empire did not look favorably upon the Jewish people. They saw them as a threat and shut down their temples, banned the practice of Judaism and the speaking of their language.
A small band of Israelites, the Maccabees, started a war of resistance to throw out the Greeks. One would have thought this small band would have been easily taken down by the mighty Greeks. But the Maccabees were lucky. Their goals served the interest of the empires around them who would have loved for the Greek Empire to take a loss. The Maccabees started racking up wins. In one battle, they regained control of a Jewish temple. When they streamed into the front door to claim their house of worship, they were heartbroken to see that it had been ransacked, and most heartbreaking of all, the temple lamp, that should burn without ceasing, was extinguished. The ransacking of the temple and the extinguished lamp represented what had happened to their people under the Greeks. The lamp itself symbolized what they feared most, the end of their people.
Even though there was only one day's worth of oil, they lit the lamp and began to make new oil, even knowing that the flame would probably die out before that oil was ready. They had to do this for the survival of their people. The miracle is that the flame stayed lit for 8 days until the new oil was ready. This signified that their faith could survive any assault and that their people would persevere through any struggle.
In the 20th century, this minor celebration was given a new importance to help Jewish children celebrate their Jewish identity during the Christmas season. There are special songs and prayers. There are special foods and games. There is the menorah, with its eight candles and a ninth from which to light the rest. And, there is a small present for every child, every night, for the eight nights of Hanukkah!
Jewish parents wanted their children to be able to look in the mirror and see whose bones shaped their faces, and whose blood ran in their veins, and whose people, stretching back in time, beyond memory, they came from.
Hanukkah has become especially important in the United States for another reason. Although there isn't a dangerous empire trying to kill their language and their history, there is the ongoing pressure of assimilation. Fewer and fewer Jewish children actively practice Judaism when they grow up and intermarriage is more and more common. There are real fears that in the west, Judaism is in serious decline. It is a prominent subject that is talked about all the time. The question that is asked over and over is, "How do we keep our children?"
One of the ways that you can learn a lot about any culture or any religion is to find out what people worry about for their children. Many White Americans are learning, for instance, that in the African American community, the question many parents ask themselves everyday, is, "How do I keep my children safe?" In the Hispanic community, many parents ask themselves, "Will my children ever be truly accepted as part of this country?" Today, many Muslims parents ask themselves, "Is it going to be safe for my child at school?" These questions tell us a lot about the truth of their lives and it tells us something about their identity as a people and the everyday worries they live with.
For many Jewish parents, the question is, "Are my children going to practice the Jewish faith when they grow up, and will they raise their children to be observant Jews?" Through the entirety of Jewish history, the primary question has been survival. Whether it be the pogroms in Russia or the Holocaust in Nazi Europe, the survival of the State of Israel or the survival of Judaism in modern day America, survival of the people is one of the primary questions that Jewish parents have about their children.
There is a commonality between the identity of these four peoples - Jewish, Hispanic, Black, Muslim - they are people whose identity is kindled in the shared experience of suffering. But the challenge for many American Jewish children is that suffering is a distant memory, stories that are told to them by their elders. For many Black and Hispanic children the suffering is now, and tells them who they belong to now. The immediacy of that suffering is what keeps them and their allies at the protest lines along the American/Mexican Border and outside police stations throughout the U.S. Knowing who you belong to is often literally about physical survival. But for Jewish children, especially in the reform and conservative traditions, there is little sense of immediate danger.
I wonder about those of us whose identity is not kindled in the experience shared suffering. How do we know who we belong to? Is it harder for us to know who our people are? If we are going to experience a sense of belonging, it is something that has to be cultivated and nurtured a different way. I find myself thinking about Unitarian Universalists, what do we worry about for our children?
I think many of us worry about the kind of economy that we are leaving them with. We worry about climate change. We worry about the education system and health care. We worry about the values our children are learning. Many of our children are the only Unitarian Universalists in their schools. We wonder how we will be sure to impart our values to them. We also worry about how we explain the violence in our world to them. I know of many parents who took time after the Paris attacks to explain to their children why we don't want to respond with fear and hatred to the attacks. The pressure to close the doors to Syrian refugees is endangering the safety of Muslims in this country and runs the risk of throwing many Syrian refugees back into the hands of the Islamic State, which they are trying desperately to escape. If we give into fear, many innocent people will lose their lives. It will be as if the Greeks ransacked that temple all over again and extinguished the flame.
The central question before us is, to whom do we belong? Do we belong onto to and for ourselves? Do we belong only to those who we can easily understand, who we can easily empathize with, people who look like us, dress like us, think like us, live like us?
One of the reasons that Unitarian Universalism is so challenging to live is that the centering truth of our faith is that we belong to all that is. This is not an easy faith to practice. We are called to open our hearts, open our minds, and offer our hands, even when, and especially when we feel uncomfortable or challenged by the diversity of people that we experience. We are one human family. So circling the wagons is not a response in harmony with our values and our tradition. We might as well be ransacking the temple.
Our openness doesn't mean that anything goes, or that you can believe whatever you want, or that abusive, violent and disrespectful behavior should be tolerated, but it does mean that we are called to the service of radical hospitality. This is what fuels the flame in our chalice. This is why many Unitarian Universalists have been writing their legislators, taking to the streets and using social media networks to stand for keeping the immigration doors open to Syrian refugees. This is why many Unitarian Universalist congregations are preparing to sponsor Syrian families into the United States. If we remain silent, if we do nothing, we may as well extinguish our own flaming chalice, the heart of our faith.
This is why our congregation is hosting an Interfaith Service this coming week. A core element of our faith is radical hospitality. We are called to the be the people of open minds, open hearts and open hands. The act of welcoming is who we are. This service is our contribution to holding up the vision we have for how we should be as a community and as a people.
Whose are we? Many Unitarian Universalists have said that they give their allegiance to an all encompassing love and compassion and hope. The mission of our liberal religious faith is that this world can and will be transformed and healed by the values of equality, justice, unity, compassion, and forgiveness, that we together are agents for peacemaking in our world.
Where is the ransacked temple today? Many of us are seeing it in the Syrian refugee camps. Many of us are seeing its extinguished flame in the words of those who would discriminate and judge and say no, our doors are closed to you. We are called to be part of a worldwide response to light the temple flame, even if we have no assurance that there is enough oil to keep the flame lit. We are going to light the flame anyways and keep going.
Think of Collette and her parents, and the beautifully creative way that they responded to her deep need to be part of Christmas while keeping in place the boundaries for who they were as a people. Collette's family actually recreated the Hanukkah story. This time the temple was an impoverished French Christian family. They lit the temple flame by creating Christmas for them. When the French family invited them in, a flame that could have burned only 1 night, now burned for 8. Muy hope is that these two families became friends, the kind of sustained friendship that lasts even when it's more difficult to see through our differences. That's the miracle of Hanukkah.
When you go home today, I'm going to ask you to try something. Find a candle, any candle, it could be a real candle or a virtual candle on your phone and sit with it someplace that is a place of peace for you. Imagine that you are lighting the temple flame and focus on the question, "Whose are you?"
Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not? Who are the ones who make a force field you can almost touch? Whose blood runs in your veins? To whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?
Whose are you?
As you live into these answers, a flame that you may fear will burn only 1 night will miraculously burn 8, and you will be living the Hanukkah story of perseverance and hope.
For those of you who celebrate Hanukkah, may this be a beautiful time for you, with family, friends, held by a rich history and faith. For all of us, may the spirit of life be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.