Sermon: Return Again

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/1/13 celebrating Hanukkah. It reflects on the liberating roots of the holiday.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis made a statement that the media found incredibly shocking. The Pope called “unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’.” In his statement, he went further than previous comments criticising the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”. Possibly, most notably he asked, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

At casual glance, following only the media’s portrayal of the statement, one might think this was a radically new position for the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis also said he was merely continuing the thinking of Pope Benedict who had planned to say as much prior to his sudden retirement. And the ethical teachings of Jesus have long and clearly been understood to support the poor and struggling in the world, over those with means – who remain hard of heart.

Quoting the Catholic Church is an odd choice to begin a celebration of Hanukkah. But the two are very connected. The current Pope was formed in Latin American Christianity – which over the past 40 years or so has strongly been influenced by Liberation Theology. This branch of Christian thinking grounds itself in the biblical moments of Liberation. Think Passover where the Jews are freed from slavery. Or Hanukkah, where a people rise up to overthrow foreign ways. In these stories, and more, we see a religion that teaches that God sides with the poor of the world. That the oppressed will be set free from their oppressors.

This thinking says that our faith can’t be in money, or the stock market, or any of the thousand things our commercials tell us we need – to be whole. Liberation doesn’t mean freedom to do what we will; rather it means freedom to be whole; to be a meaningful participant in community. That there is hope in the world. That worldly powers do not always win out. That another way is possible. That we can be authentic. That we matter.

As our reading said today, “I am a millions-of-year-old wonder…. that I saw a bluebird with my millions-of-year-old eyes and heard it sing with my highly advanced evolutionary ears… Daily newspaper headlines could say, ‘Mary Feagan Exists Again Today!”. That’s the religious message. The Pope’s observation is sad truth – the newspaper headlines all to often read instead “the stock-market dropped two points” rather than cover the great moments of tragedy or success in our personal and communal lives.

Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights because of the miracle of lights. In the story, it is said that although the Jews only had enough oil to keep the sacred fires lit for one night, the oil miraculously kept the fires burning for 8 days and 8 eight nights. It reminds us that somewhere deep within us, is a real strength. When we feel empty, or alone, or defeated – there is still room for a miracle. Human perseverance is the real story in this and every age. Every age believes itself to be exhausted, or worn out. Every age laments what has passed away, and believes its trials are the worst we could ever face. As horrifying as history has been at times, no matter that we may feel like we’re running on empty with no where to go, Hanukkah reminds us that we have all the stores we need for the story ahead of us – so long as we ground ourselves in community.

The revolution of this spiritual people did not happen as individuals. It birthed in families, and houses of worship; it was grounded in the community that it sought to save. That is the crux of Pope Francis’ critique of unfettered Capitalism. It becomes a tyranny of the few over the work of the many. The community is secondary to the success of the individual with a myth that the individual’s success neatly and evenly distributes out to all who are blessed to witness their magnificence.

To go a little deeper into the example I mentioned in passing for last Sunday’s sermon – Walmart. Having employees work on Thanksgiving Day is in itself not a moral failure. Some people are just scraping by and need the work. Having been raised in a working class family, with a mom who worked retail, and a dad who often worked opposite hours so that I was never alone – I appreciate the reality of working holidays. Or as a minister, Holidays are usually the time when my work is the busiest – seeing family who live out of state is almost impossible. It’s the nature of my vocation. The moral failure is a system that makes it so that people must work on holidays in order to survive. To compare to one of its competitors, Costco pays its Cashiers an average of $15.06/hour vs Walmart’s $8.51/hour. That’s about $31,000 per year vs. just under $18,000 per year. Both companies are doing exceedingly well for annual profits. Both are clearly Capitalistic. But Costco functions in a model where the Executives don’t need to make eight hundred times the salary of their cashiers, only a fifty times. According to CNN Money, Walmart CEO, Michael Duke’s, compensation is the same as what 796 of his employers make in a year. Costco CEO, James Sinegal’s, compensation is the same as what 48 of his employees make in a year. I can’t think of a clearer articulation of the differences between unfettered Capitalism and one with regulation or moral regard for its impact on communities and families. We can choose a Capitalism that serves all of us, or we can celebrate a Tyranny this holiday season. And we all have shopping choices to make when we do so.

The Hanukkah story we told this morning was less about money and more about religious authenticity. According to Michael Lerner, a PhD, a founder and editor of Tikkun magazine, there’s another angle to the story that does closely relate to all of this.

“…Jewish Hellenizers saw no point in resisting Greek rule. Their goal was to live in harmony with the powers that ran the world. They could benefit from the connection to the expanding trade of the Hellenistic world (the Greek-inspired cultural world). On the other hand, the vast majority of the Jewish people were small, independent farmers who lived on the land and brought its produce to Jerusalem three times each year to celebrate their hard-won freedom from slavery. It was they who bore the brunt of the taxes imposed first by the Greeks… These Jews resented foreign rule and detested the city-dwelling elites who seemed to be earning favor with the Hellenistic conquerors, imitating their ways, abandoning the religion of the past and becoming worshipers at the shrine of political and cultural “reality.”   From: “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation”, Lerner, Michael; 1994, p. 272-3.

In other words, some were comfortable with the new world and its expanding trade, and some had their work taxed more than others. The Hanukkah story was about foreign power, religious authenticity, and the differing responses from those that have and those that had not.

Our theme this month focuses on Peace. Hanukkah has a complex relationship to this. Although I tend toward pacifism, the reality is that both this story and the story of our own nation, are rooted in Revolutions in the physical sense. It’s easy to critique stories of violence in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. The idea that God condones violence by one people over another is an easy thing to try to stand above and look down upon with derision. It’s particularly common in countries like ours where there have only been a few moments in our history where our own people’s safety was at risk on our own soil. It’s easy to judge when this nation has never been an occupied people by a foreign power. When one’s nation is no longer its own, these stories of liberation are real in a whole new way – a way that some of us can relate to, and most of us might not be able to. When liberation is a metaphor for feelings of dryness, or being trapped in bad patterns, stories of God-sanctioned violence seem overblown. When liberation is a desperate need – whether from a foreign power, or slavery, or genocide – nothing short of power may seem enough. We have to hold these stories in this tension – remembering that whatever privilege we may hold in our lives may make them harder to empathize with – but not any less true. And for some of us, we can easily empathize with the liberating message.

Nonetheless, the miracle of the Hanukkah story is two-fold. First the more magical side where one day’s amount of oil is enough to last till our reserves are filled in other ways. I mentioned that already. The other is the historic reality that a rag-tag group of farmers were able to overturn rule by the world’s most powerful ruler. It didn’t last forever, but its moment came. When we’re struggling in this world to defeat oppression, or counter the ills of a world ruled by the very, very few – we can remember this story and know that other ways are in fact possible. The success of the revolution was historic fact. We can whittle away at so many success stories, or religious texts, but this one had a concrete reality we can learn from.

If the Hanukkah story has many angles – the quest for religious authenticity, the desire for self-rule, hope in the face of adversity, and a turning away from valuing world-spanning commerce over local community – which thread will you pick up in your own life? How does it move beyond the history and speak to the present? …

In the book by Michael Lerner that I quoted from earlier, he goes on to suggest a reflective practice where we ask ourselves questions for each candle we light. I’ll focus on a few of them now, but if your interest is piqued you can grab “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation” to read more. The first night’s question is “Imagine your life freed of the need to accommodate to people with more power than you. How would your life be different?” There are many ways we can answer this as individuals, but I’d like to focus on the nature of our month’s theme – peace. This question feels like one rooted in two of our principles: Where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and where we affirm the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. The spiritual practice of reflecting on how those with more power influences our lives, can inform how we treat others. It informs how we can build peace in our lives. Sometimes we will not be able to change the oppressions that harm our lives. Sometimes we won’t be able to wave away the abuse of power a boss, or a friend, or a teacher holds over us. But we can learn to not replicate those ills with the people around us – or the people we hold some sway over. This is the foundation for peace in our world. Break those chains – in both directions. If we can’t break the ones that bind us to those with more power, we can break the chains we may hold on those with less power. We need to take the time though to reflect on where we hold them, and who we hold them over. Sometimes we’re harmed. And sometimes we’re the ones causing the harm; sometimes we’re holding the chains – and they bind us just as strongly.

The question for tonight, the fifth night will be: “Imagine what your neighborhood would be like if people really connected with one another as caring neighbors. Now imagine what you’d have to do to get others in your neighborhood to talk about what they’d want, and how they’d go about getting it, so that everyone would live in a friendlier and less alienated neighborhood.” To begin this month of reflecting on peace, this is your homework. How could we connect more with one another? What would others have to do to make that so? What would you have to change in your own life to accomplish that? Would our priorities have to change? Would our schedules need to lessen or be redirected? Is a less alienated, and less alienating world, worth your effort? Because it would take nothing short of all of us to accomplish that, right? If you come up with an idea you want to bring to the Fellowship, please reach out to our Hospitality Team made up in part by Cathi Zilliman and Jackie Agdern. I know they’d love the help!

This is the revolution of the spirit that Hanukkah calls for. To assess when power brokers of the world are running our lives in our kitchens or our living rooms. To determine when our farmers have lost real connections with our urban workers. To acknowledge when we’re following the gods, or the goals, of another people, and let go of our own values and ways. And armed with all that self-awareness, to free ourselves from the many yokes that oppress us – or that serve to gather our strength to oppress another. The revolution of the spirit is in living more authentically, and covenanting to affirm and promote the authentic living of our neighbors – both local and foreign – knowing that however far apart we may live, the Spirit of Peace calls us to see the stranger as our neighbor. In returning to our spiritual roots of this holiday, we return again to our authentic selves. We return our souls to the discipline of authenticity. We devote our minds to the practice of peace.

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