The work of Rev. Jude Geiger, a Unitarian Universalist minister

Called by Loss, Called by Peace

The sermon celebrates the first night of Hanukkah by looking at the deeper meaning of the holiday. 12/2/18

Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights because of the miracle of lights. In the story, it is said that although the Jewish people 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 nowhere 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.

December is the season of miracles. We celebrate holiday after holiday that point toward times of utter newness in the face of abject despair. Despite all the consumer habits around this time, and all the places of disagreement over religion we see throughout the world – I believe these holy days stay eternally relevant because they remind us that hope triumphs over despair – over and over. You can say that – hope triumphs over despair – but the words themselves have less power, less hold on our hearts, than the stories from the dawn times of civilization. The old world was a very, very difficult place – and humanity made it through…. The world these days, is a very, very difficult place, and we’ll make it through – together.

Happy Hanukkah everyone! The original holiday came about in ancient times. A marginalized people, oppressed by foreign invasion and rule, were forced to worship gods they did not believe in. A grassroots, religious and political revolution occurred against a superior military. It would last about 7 years and culminated with a compromise where the Seleucid armies (Ancient Syria and beyond) would restore religious freedom to the Jewish people. But the holiday itself celebrates rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil, that should only have sustained the Menorah for 1 day, lasting instead eight days.

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.

Today we reflect on what Hanukkah means as a story of hope. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility. We often focus on the story of the oil lasting 8 days – as themiracle of Hanukkah. (Anyone who has prayed for 10 more minutes of cell phone power, can related emotionally to what this probably felt like.) I think the miracle was something different; I see an oppressed people living under the yoke of a world super power, who are able to secure their religious liberty, despite all odds.

Both motifs in the story of Hanukkah are equally impossible; yet we know at least that the story of liberation was historically true. The revolt happened, and was won, against the world’s greatest military. …Does that crack open a place of possibility in our hearts?

Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. We may feel like we only have enough in us for one more day, but in reality, we have just what we need for the season ahead. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. And it still speaks to us today. I think of the hardship of so many Syrian refugees fleeing a war-torn land – whose normal lives were held hostage by the very same terrorists who threaten our nation. Can they bring themselves and their family to safety? And then we hear stories of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees being given safe harbor in countries throughout Europe. We hear of Prime Ministers as far away as our northern border – Canada – coming in person to welcome the refugees to their new home. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

I wonder what role our country will play in the Hanukkah story as central American refugees flee north for safety for their children; fleeing oppressive regimes that our nation had a hand in putting into power; but now we want to wash ourselves of responsibility for their suffering. Migrant refugees, with limited resources, fleeing north through Mexico; making do with food, clothes, and games given to these families as they go along by local residents. These refugees, kept their oil burning – for more than 8 days.

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 (by a foreign power.) Although these days Im beginning to wonder if our constant dread of another mass shooting by one of our citizens, will change our perspectives of safety at home – it probably already has.

It’s easy to judge the violence in stories in scripture; 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 (that was the historic context for why the Jewish people were made a vassal state – trade and commerce through the fertile region) – which thread will you pick up in your own life? How does it move beyond the history and speak to the present? …

In a book by Michael Lerner, he suggests a reflective practice where we ask ourselves questions for each candle we light. Ive talked about this several years ago, but I think its timely for us again. 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 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.” On Friday of this week, I finally met my neighbor from two doors down. Her kid was coming home from school on an early recess day, I was walking to get something from my car when I was startled by this small white dog sitting on my lawn. The neighbor saw me before I saw her; she was hidden behind a telephone pole from the angle I was walking over. My startled look must have translated as being annoyed she was sitting on my curb. I quickly said no, I just didn’t see her and only saw her dog. We exchanged names (ours and our dogs names), as my dog began barking like mad from the window on cue.) But that introduction, took five years to make; and she’s only two doors down.

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 or to myself or Greta.

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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