The Temple Flame that Always Burns – Rev. Krista Taves
Sermon delivered to Emerson UU Chapel, December 16, 2012
Reading “Sunlight Pales in Comparison” by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg
On most of the holidays we commemorate the miraculous appearance of an intense light that drove away tremendous darkness. When nature didn’t cooperate, when the natural order produced a seemingly un-dispel-able darkness, a supernatural light was called upon to chase nature away.
The heroes of the Chanukah narrative entertained an altogether different view. Nature isn’t darkness. The natural is as G‑dly as the miraculous. After all, One G‑d created – and pervades – both these phenomena. And perhaps it seemed that the ill-equipped and heavily outnumbered Jewish militia had no chance whatsoever to oust the mighty Syrian-Greek armies from the Holy Land. But the Maccabees reasoned that if nature is G‑dly, then nature could, and would, be the vehicle for the implementation of G‑dly values.
They put their lives on the line because of their belief that “darkness,” too, is in fact light in disguise.
The Maccabees’ sacrifice, and their profound awareness of G‑d’s all-pervasiveness, elicited a G‑dly light that mirrored the effort that produced it. Not a light that sits in a holy chamber and shines away all the darkness it encounters – near and far – but a light that reveals what darkness really is.
Welcome to the Chanukah menorah.
It sits by the doorway or in the window, it is kindled at night. It is fully comfortable being in a “dark” environment. Because it realizes that the darkness of night carries the same G‑dly potential as the “holy” belly of an illuminated Jewish home.
The darkness also shines.
And when that happens, who needs the sun?
One of the blessings I have experienced through social media like facebook is the ability to stay in the lives of friends and family, like my cousins and siblings who are spread out from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. I get to watch their kids grow up, and not having children myself and not living close to any extended family, I have found this to be absolutely precious.
One thing I have learned in the course of the last few years is that December is the month of recitals! I have seen so many pictures of my adorable nieces in tights and tutus, pictures of little ones sitting at pianos or playing guitars and violins, pictures of my nieces and nephews dressed up like elves, fairies, trees, angels, kittens, and cookies for the inevitable holiday pageant, and I can predict that any number of Christmas Eve services will result in dozens of photos of wee ones in bathrobes and makeshift turbans!
But I also remember distinctly from my own childhood everything that went on behind the scenes to get us onto that stage! The rushed dinner, packing all the props and books and costumes and instruments into the car, the tears and frustrated screams when an absolutely essential something was forgotten, my dad racing down the dark highway to get there on time, which almost never happened! But somehow, you always get there, and then you, the parent, can only stay by their side so long before it’s time to disappear into the audience as your children parade before you in various states of readiness to make you proud!
Last week this Chapel had its First Annual Emerson’s Got Talent Night, and I can only speak for myself, when I say that I melted at every child’s performance, but what really touched my heart was watching the parents watch their kids. The pride, the joy, and the absolute devotion. Not one of you could tear your eyes from your child doing their best to play the song and dance the dance, doing their best to make you proud.
One of the reasons that the Hanukkah celebrations are so precious is that the Hanukkah story is really about our devotion to our children. What was the tipping point, when the Jewish people said enough is enough? They could handle restrictions on their own actions, their own religious rituals, but when those restrictions landed on their children, when their children were made to suffer, and in some cases died, that was it, that is when a small band of warriors took on the most powerful empire in the world. And that is when hell broke loose.
Well, this week, hell broke loose in Newtown Connecticut and Portland Oregon, with two mass shootings, one in a mall, and the other in an elementary school. Once again, someone with mental health issues, who needed specialized care not a gun, entered a public space and opened fire. This time the innocents included children, little children. And the nation is howling, we are howling with despair, with rage, with grief. There is such a profound sense of a violation that is rippling far beyond that small town.
Less than two weeks from now, we will be celebrating another religious holiday, this time the birth of a child. Once again, we have a story where the Jewish people were under the thumb of an oppressive dictator, this time the Roman Empire, and King Herod had such a fragile sense of his own power that he could not abide the slightest threat. When he was told by the three wisemen that a new king had been born, he had every male child in Judea slaughtered. The point of the story is to show under what evil the Jewish people lived, how completely they had been violated. It was in this context of violation that Jesus was born, a little innocent babe in a manger.
We are experiencing that same context of violation, and I find myself thinking of that small band of warriors who suited up and went out to find justice, who fought for their children. I think about the stark change between that night just last weekend when so many of us gathered here and cried tears of joy as our children made us beam with pride, and the despair that ripped through us on Friday. And I think of all the parents who are trying to explain this to their children. I can understand how we would feel compelled to go to war, something, anything, to channel the outrage and the grief and the sheer sense of injustice and tragedy.
Our reading today talks about the complex relationship between the light and the darkness. Rabbi Silberberg talks about how the thin light of the Menorah is not about banishing the darkness, but about changing our relationship to it, that the light uses the darkness to beam its message of hope, perseverance, love and devotion.
Under what darkness are we living today?
Of course there will be stories about the shooter. Who was he, what could have prompted him to commit these acts? While those conversations are important, they are also distractions. They personalize evil, place it on the head of one person so that we can distance ourselves from it and feel absolved.
But think of this. Did King Herod kill those children with his own hands? Was it only his crime? No. Others did his work for him. A whole culture of subservience, fear, with its addiction to the redemptive power of violence, supported the atrocity. Adam Lanza may have pulled the trigger, but he pulled that trigger within the context of a society addicted to violence.
We too are in the grips of that addiction, addicted to the myth that violence creates freedom. That violence liberates. That violence protects and cleanses and restores. That the right to keep a semi-automatic weapon by the bedside is a litmus test for freedom. How many murders do you see everyday on TV, glorified, framed for our consumption? This is the darkness under which we live today. This is the evil that sustains the gun violence in our country, that creates the circumstances by which someone can walk into Bass Pro or Walmart and buy guns and ammo to mow down people in crowded theaters and places of worship. This is the evil that prevents any politician who supports strong gun control from having influence in the channels of power and this is the evil that kept many progressives silent about gun control during the election, because we feared that championing gun control is a recipe for losing.
But there is more. The current political struggles around our so-called “fiscal cliff” also showcase the evil that rained down in Oregon and Connecticut this week. This country has been fixated on spending and tax cuts for thirty years. Thirty years of tax cuts that transferred wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich, thirty years of spending cuts that have affected primarily the poorest and most vulnerable in our country, and some of the most vulnerable are those with mental health issues. The range of services for this vulnerable population has been cut over and over and over. At this point in time, the resources we have available to identify and support those with mental illness are minimal, and the political will to document those with mental health issues and provide that documentation for background checks is poor and if no agreement is made in Congress by January 1st, and we go over the fiscal cliff, it will result in a further 8% cut in services that are vital to those living with mental health issues.
I am so hopeful that the Bush tax cuts for the top 1% will be done away with on January 1st, but I’m also aware that the middle class has been exempted from some responsibility for taking care of our citizens. Many of us also have much lower tax rates than we would have had in the 1990s. So while we are clamoring for the rich to pay their fair share, I think we should also be looking at ourselves. I would be completely willing to have my taxes go up if it meant that we could pay teachers competitive wages, ensure that Medicaid coverage is expanded, protect Medicare and provide comprehensive universal health care for every person in this country, including those with mental illness and addictions. I don’t need the rich to pay my way. I need us all to pay our fair share. This is what I think it means to take the absolute devotion we feel for our children and make that devotion real in the world.
There is a thin line between the light and the dark, and for Rabbi Silberberg, the reflection of light on the menorah dances between the two. So we have a nation of wonderful, well meaning people, with big hearts and generous spirits, many of whom own and use guns responsibly, but also a nation where it is harder to get a drivers license than it is to get a gun, and a nation that progressively turns its back on the most vulnerable among us, a nation that worships hyper-individualism. These are all acts of violence.
It is this thin line between darkness and light that Rabbi Silberberg is talking about. Our commitment to peace is to understand our inner darkness, our part in the violence, and then to make the commitment to unwind ourselves from the cultures and systems that support it. We do this from our minds and our hearts and spirits, and through our words and our actions.
If you recall from the Hanukkah story, at a pivotal moment in their struggle, the Jewish resistance regained control of their beloved temple, only to find that the Hellenistic Army had ransacked it. It was filthy and filled with garbage, and they wept when they saw it. But even as they wept, they had two priorities – clean up the trash, and light the temple flame. There was enough oil for one day, and even at the risk of seeing that flame go out, they took the oil they had and lit it.
One of the darknesses that we need to work with is our doubt, doubt that we can make a difference, that our little light in the darkness will burn so dim that we might as well not even light it in the first place. Every time someone in this country dies from gun violence, we are walking into a beloved temple filled with trash and a lamp waiting to be lit. We are being asked to stand up against the most powerful empire in the world, the empire of redemptive violence. Do we have the courage to light the temple flame, knowing we have only one day’s worth of oil to unravel this empire?
This is what I hope you will do after today’s service. I hope you will email or call every one of your elected representatives, state and federal, and tell them that you expect them to support comprehensive legislation on gun control. And then next month I want you to do it again, so that when the cameras leave Newtown Connecticut our politicians will have no excuse to leave as well.
I hope that you will also tell them that you cannot support any politician who stands in the way of expanding health care coverage in this country, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable in our midst. We need to mobilize for the expansion of Medicaid and setting up an insurance exchange in this state. Click on every link in your inbox asking you to sign petitions on issues that you believe in. This is how you witness to your values in the 21st century. Make your voice heard, and then share what you’ve done in every way you can so that others can do so as well. And I tell you, if we don’t let up, one days’ worth of oil will burn for 8!
The miracle of Hanukkah is that the temple flame burned for 8 days. The miracle of life is that we will weep for the losses and then cry tears of joy when our children walk across the stages of their lives and make us so proud that we almost burst. Let us be filled with devotion, compassion, and hope. Let us light the flame and watch it burn.
Amen and blessed be.
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. Readers are free to share this sermon, repost, and excerpt parts of the sermon, provided that the author is recognized.