When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Whose are you? (Rev. Victoria Safford)
This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday December 21, 2014.
Today’s sermon is about how you know who your people are. Who do you belong to and what does that ask of you? I want to start with a reading from one of our esteemed ministers, Rev. Victoria Safford:
“Whose are you?
Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?
Whose are you?
Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?
Whose are you?
Who is within your circle of concern?
Whose are you?
To whom are you responsible, accountable? Whose care is yours to provide?
Whose are you?
When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from?
Whose are you?
When you walk out of your room, out of your house, into the sunlight of the day, to whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?
Whose are you?
At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death
and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping?
Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?
Whose are you?”
I imagine that one of the reasons today’s children’s story, “A Chanukah Noel” by Sharon Jennings was published is because so many Jewish parents have experienced their children begging to be part of Christmas. In the Western world, Christmas is huge! There are so many traditions – food, music, Christmas trees, lights, and of course, Santa Claus and presents! Christmas has a strong allure.
Can you imagine a child seeing that and not wanting to be a part of it? Like Colette’s parents, many Jewish parents search their hearts when their children come to them, and they decide to say no to Christmas 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 crossing a line. It would be betraying who they are.
But I imagine it would be very difficult, especially if, like Collette, your children are in a school where they are a minority and all the other kids are in full Christmas mode. For most children, acceptance by their friends is one of the most important things. Being different in any way is hard. I can imagine that as a parent, knowing that setting this boundary makes life harder for your child, at least in the short term, would be hard. But in the long run, it could also help them to understand who they and who their people are.
One of the reasons that the Jewish Celebration of Hanukkah was raised up as a prominent Jewish holiday in the last century was to help parents deal with this dilemma. After a while, just saying no to Christmas wasn’t enough. There had to be a creative way to respond to the very real needs of their children and remain faithful to Judaism and the Jewish people at the same time. Over time, this minor Jewish holiday has organically evolved into a significant tradition. It’s really the perfect holiday to respond to the all-encompassing power of Christmas because the story behind the holiday is about surviving as a people. Hanukkah offers a precious opportunity to teach Jewish children who they are.
According to the story, some 2500 years ago the nation of Israel was occupied by the Assyrian Greek Empire and the empire did not look favorably upon the Jewish religion and culture. They saw it as a threat to their ability to rule the land. They shut down temples, and they banned the practice of Judaism and the speaking of their language.
A small band of Israelites, the Maccabees, finally had enough. They started a war of resistance to throw out the Greeks and with the help of some of the neighboring countries, who also wanted the Greeks out, they really made some progress!
In one battle, they regained control of a Jewish temple that the Greeks had ransacked. When they entered the temple they were heartbroken to see that the temple had been ransacked. Most heartbreaking of all, the temple lamp, which should burn without ceasing, was extinguished. To see that lamp dark and empty was a powerful symbol of what they feared most – the end of their people. Lighting it would mean that Judaism could be saved from extinction. So they lit the temple flame and began to make new oil, even knowing that it would take eight days for the new oil to be ready, even knowing that the flame would probably die out before that oil was ready.
The miracle is that it didn’t. 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 as a way to help Jewish children celebrate their Jewish identity during the Christmas season. There are special songs and special prayers. There are special foods and games. There is the central symbol of Hanukkah, 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! Top that Christmas!
But the truth is, 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 always the allure 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 or any family is to find out what people worry about for their children. Many 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?” These questions tell us about the truth of their lives. They tell us something about their identity as a people.
There is a commonality between the identity of these three peoples – Jewish, Hispanic, Black – and that is of a people who have suffered and their identity is kindled in the shared experience of suffering. But the challenge for many American Jewish children is that the suffering is a memory, stories that are told to them by their elders, whereas for many Black and Hispanic children, the suffering is now. It tells them, often painfully, whom they belong to. For a people under that kind of pressure, knowing whom you belong to is often literally about knowing where it is safe so that you can survive physically and spiritually.
I wonder about those of us whose identity is not kindled in the experience of shared suffering. How do we know who we belong to? Is it harder for us to know who our people are and to feel that truth in our bones?
One of the results of this congregation’s decision to sell its building six months ago is that many of us are wondering whose we are. When you live in the same place for more than two decades, it becomes woven into your bones and it feels like it must be part of the blood in your veins. Where does this church live now? Whose are we? We are finding a new way to be a people.
This church will probably own its own building again someday, but it’s going to take a while. I find myself wondering how we can be a people in this moment, in this time. I’m reminded of the story of the Israelites, after they left the slavery of Egypt and wandered the desert for 40 years. As long as they focused on what they didn’t have, they stumbled. When they embraced their desert life, they found who they were as a people. They became stronger and stronger and stronger. They echoed the Hanukkah story that would become part of their tradition a thousand years later. They lit in themselves the temple flame and found new life.
I know it’s going to take a while to settle into our new reality, but my hope is that we are becoming a new kind of people, unified by the mission of our liberal religious faith tradition, which is that this world can be transformed by the values of equality, justice, unity, compassion, and forgiveness, that we together are agents for peacemaking in our world. If we can see this time as not just an in-between time, meant to be left as quickly as possible, but as the best place we can be, rich with possibility, that is how we light the temple flame.
I find myself thinking of Collette and her parents and the beautifully creative way that they responded to her deep need by offering Christmas to another family 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 family. They lit the temple flame by generously sharing Christmas with them. When the French family invited them in, a flame that could have burned only 1 night, now burned for 8. For that one evening, and who knows, maybe beyond, these two families became friends, the kind of friends that sustain one through good times and bad. 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. Light that candle 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.
This sermon may be shared and reproduced provided credit is given to Rev. Krista Taves. Sermons are a shared experience, part of the ongoing dialogue between minister and congregation. They are meant to be heard rather than read, and that influences the style in which they are written and presented here.