This sermon was preached to the good people of the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on Sunday, December 10, 2017. You are free to quote this sermon in other contexts provided full credit is given to the author.
Story for all Ages
You know how sometimes something can happen around you – maybe at school, maybe during class, maybe during recess, maybe it happens at home – and you don’t really like it. It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair and you wish it wouldn’t happen. You know how there is always one kid that gets teased, right? And everyone knows who that kid is. We know there are rules against that kind of teasing but it happens anyways and you know it’s not right, but you’re scared of what would happen to you if you stood up for that person. Maybe then you would be the one who got teased. So, you stay silent, but then you have to watch that kid keep getting teased, and it hurts.
The story of Hanukkah, is a pretty special story and it has something to tell us about bullies. More than 2000 years ago, the Hellenistic Empire conquered the Jewish people. When the Greeks conquered a land, they forced the people to give up their culture, their religion, and their language. This was very scary to the Jews. They were afraid they would cease to exist and they wanted to resist, but the Greeks were pretty scary. Some Jews tried to give in just enough to look like they were getting along, and then they would try to teach their children in secret about the Jewish language, religion and culture. But the Greeks made it very hard to get away with it. They took over all the temples and ruined them, they closed the schools and punished anyone caught breaking the rules. And if someone got caught, it was very bad. This happened day after day. And after a while, people started getting really angry. A small group of Jews called the Maccabees decided enough was enough. It was time to draw a line in the sand. They were going to fight for their dignity and for their survival.
This little army began to fight the Greeks. Surprisingly, they won a lot of the battles for such a little group. In one big battle, they actually took back one of the temples the Greeks had ruined. They walked into the temple and saw the mess and they cried because it made them so sad and angry. But, they were determined to light the temple flame. In the Jewish tradition, there was a flame in every temple and it was to never go out. It symbolized that God was with them. But there wasn’t enough oil in that ruined temple to keep the lamp lit, only enough for 1 day. It would take 8 days to make more. They wondered whether they should wait to light the lamp for 8 days, but they decided no. They had to take the chance. They lit that flame and started to make the oil. Miraculously, it was still burning on day 2, and then day 3, and then day 4, all the way to day 8, when the new oil was ready.
So today, the holiday of Hanukah is when the Jewish people remember the miracle of the temple flame. There are 9 candles in the menorah, like the one I have here. The center one represents God. The other eight are lit from the first candle, one more candle every night, to remember those 8 miraculous days. The lesson of Hannukah is that you should never hold back from doing what is right. You should never let injustice pass you by, never be a bystander. If something is wrong, it is our job to tell someone, to be there for people who are being harmed, and to believe people when they tell their stories. It will not always be easy. Sometimes you have to do what is right even if it might make your life harder for a while. That is what it means to be a moral person.
Hannukah starts on Tuesday so we aren’t going to light any of the Hannukah candles today because it would be disrespectful to light them as a demonstration. Some people in this church grew up Jewish and will begin lighting the candles in their home on Tuesday. After the Menorah is lit it is placed in the front window so that everyone can see it. So as you drive around town this week, look at the homes you pass. Some of them will have the light of the Menorah, and now you’ll know what that means.
It is our responsibility as people of faith to know when it is time to draw a line in the sand and say no more. Just as the Jewish ancestors did, we have to work for the worth and dignity of all people.
A Ritual of #MeToo (developed by Rev. Karen Johnson and adjusted for the particular culture of this unique congregation)
There are so many ways that we are in changing times. One of those ways is embodied in the growing voices of women telling their stories, and they aren’t easy stories to tell. For many of us they are stories we’ve kept quiet for a long time because we could not trust that we would be believed or that anything would change. These are stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault. If it’s helpful to know what that means, it’s when one person touches another person in a way that isn’t wanted. It can also happen with words when you use sexualized language to make another person feel powerless or ashamed.
There are always women who have dared to tell their stories, but more and more women are drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Enough. We will accommodate no more. We will be silent no more.”
This fall, the hash tag #metoo burst into social media. Metoo was started by Tarana Burke, an African American woman, in 2007 as a way to help women identify themselves to each other to know that they were not alone. She also wanted to help African American women in particular claim their power through truth telling. Because of the nature of race, gender and power in this nation black women are more vulnerable than other women to sexual violation and more likely to see those who violate them go unpunished.
Then this past fall, when allegations of longstanding sexual harassment were leveled against Harvey Weinstein and it became clear that the whole industry had protected him and punished the women who dared to speak, actress Alyssa Milano turned metoo into a hash tag. She challenged women to take the risk of naming their experience on social media to create a critical mass so large that not only would the Weinstein story stay alive, but that women would also create an avalanche of truth telling to take on the backlash. In less than 24 hours, 12 million women used the hash tag #metoo to identify themselves as survivors of sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Since October, millions more have come forward. Many men have been identified as perpetrators. Some are facing the consequences and either losing their jobs or choosing to step down.
The purpose of #metoo is threefold. The first is to help women and those of all genders who have experienced sexual violation to not feel alone. There is healing in claiming our stories in solidarity with others who have been harmed as we have.
The second is to show men the magnitude of the problem so that men can no longer claim ignorance. Sexual assault isn’t a women’s problem, it’s actually a men’s problem. More than 90% of abuse is committed by men. So #metoo is asking men to step up and take responsibility for addressing sexual harassment.
The third is to change the culture so that every person can grow up trusting that their body will be respected. One whole premise of the #metoo campaign is that change happens through visibility.
Across the United States and Canada, Unitarian Universalist congregations have been taking time in our worship services to invited our people, our beloved people, into the #metoo movement. There is guided meditation that was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Karen Johnson, and we will bring this meditation into our worshipping space and declare that we are in solidarity with all in this congregation and outside it who have experienced sexual harassment and assault. You will have the opportunity, if you so choose, to identify yourself as a person who has had this experience, or as someone who has loved someone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault. Participation is voluntary. We are all in different places in terms of comfort and our healing process. But today, may we come together in solidarity with all in this community who yearn for healing and wholeness and a changed world.
Let us begin.
(This ritual is amended from the original by Rev. Karen Johnson. The original is here: http://blog.awakeandwitness.net/wp/2017/11/metoo-prayer-ritual/)
Make sure you are seated comfortably, feet flat on the floor, arms loose loosely resting, and eyes closed or open, aware of your breathing. Aware of your thoughts, aware of any anxiety or concern because of the tenderness of what we’re focusing on, aware of those we sit with, each of us human beings with a need to be loved and respected.
Remember to breathe and to breathe deeply and then once more, to take the breath in and let the breath out, we pause, poised as we are, at a point of risking, at a possibility of courage: #metoo.
Risking being known
Risking being not believed
Risking being believed
Risking so much, including leaving the shadows behind, and stepping into healing light.
Risking being brave.
I invite any in the room who understand yourselves to be included in the #metoo movement, this moment in time when so many are stating publicly that we have been sexually harassed, or sexually assaulted, or sexually harmed, any one of these or all of them. I invite you to come forward and be with me, and stay with me, and if you are so moved, to add your stone to those already resting beneath our chalice. I will stand in silence for at least one minute to give lots of time, and if I stand alone that whole time, that is alright, for I will trust and know that I am actually not alone, that almost every woman in this room and some of you who are not women have experienced some form of violation, whether verbal or physical. Let us enter into a time of silence so that those who wish to come forward can do so.
[allow time & space for those to join]
I invite anyone in the room who knows someone, loves someone, regardless of their gender, who has been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, sexually harmed – any one of these or all of them. I invite you to lay a stone to those already laid beneath our chalice, adding your committed witness to those who have risked coming forward, who have risked being brave.
[allow time & space for those to join]
I add this stone for those in the room who are not yet ready to come forward, but know the truth of their story and are a part of #metoo. We honor your choice to not come forward at this time.
I add this stone for those among us who have been perpetrators of sexual violence. We pray that you know who you are and do not run from this truth. We pray for healing, accountability, and for forgiveness.
We will try to be brave. And if you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine. And if I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours. We will add our brave together, add it all up so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.
Let us bring intention to this act of courage, of witness, of solidarity. Let us notice and see, truly see, the pain in this room,…and the possibility. Let us commit in the quiet of our hearts to do what you can to stop any future harm. And may we build and ever rebuild the world where safety, equality, and justice, wholeness and integrity, are the air we breathe.
May it be so. Amen.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I preach about Hannukah in some form every year. Because Unitarian Universalists honor the truth and wisdom in all religions, and because there are members in our congregations who grew up Jewish and may still observe the Jewish holidays, we always recognize Hanukkah in December.
I am always wondering what my angle will be this year. Will I stay with the mythological remake of Hanukkah, predominantly developed for children, that offers a simple story of the struggle for freedom and dignity? Will I focus on the miracle of finding hope when the odds are stacked against you? Will I focus on the aspect of risk, when failure is a real possibility and you light that flame anyways?
On the other hand, I can go into the actual historical story and see what’s there. Hannukah originates in a story of war. It is a story about violence meeting violence. One Empire, led by men, tries to destroy a smaller nation, led by men. It’s men fighting men. It’s bloody and there are no rules, just that you win at any cost. And the message is that violence is redemptive, violence protects and violence restores. And it is the violence of men that accomplishes this. There are no women in the Hanukkah story. Men are the fighters, the decision makers, the heroes and villains, the winners and losers. They light the chalice. For me as a feminist and as a pacifist, I struggle with any story that holds up violence as the means by which true peace and freedom are established. War doesn’t create peace; it changes the balance of power. At most, military might and intimidation can keep people from killing each other.
In Ancient times, women were on the same level as children. They had no identity of their own, it came from men – their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles. Women were property.
Now to be fair, this is how it was for every culture in the Ancient World – Greek, Roman, Persian, Syrian, Jewish. It was the foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was the constant. You see in their religious texts the foundation for the relations between men and women, a relationship that was not equal and women had no agency. This is the foundation of western civilization and it is the legacy that we continue to live with and struggle with.
In this foundation, the words of women meant nothing. Women were irrelevant except as the bearers of children.
But there have always been women who have tried to light the temple flame, to shine light on their lives and their experiences and their truths. If you read the ancient texts against the grain, if you look in the dark corners of history and culture, sometimes you can find them. But you have to look hard. And if you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the words:
The #metoo movement is accelerating a very old struggle – women’s ongoing struggle to be believed. We’ve been trying to light the temple flame for thousands of years. We have been trying to tell the stories of what it is like for the patriarchal legacy of western civilization to be worked out on our bodies.
When 11 women came forward and told stories of being abused by the man who is currently in the Oval Office, many women and men and gender nonconforming people thought that it would mean he would lose the election. We hoped that the women would be believed.
Now Roy Moore, running for Senator of Alabama, has been accused by four women, with corroboration from multiple sources, that he abused young girls. He still has a serious chance of winning the special election on Tuesday. For some of us this is infuriating and it leaves us feeling very vulnerable. If those men can get away with it, if they can attain political power despite all the women they have violated some of whom have taken the greatest risk to tell the truth, where does that leave us?
Not believing women has been a cornerstone of western culture for thousands of years. Not believing women is anchored in a deeper rooted belief, held not just by men, but by all genders, that women’s words mean less than the words of cisgendered men. By cisgendered men I mean men who were born into the body that matches their gender. They were born with men’s bodies and experience themselves as men. We have internalized that female and gender non-conforming bodies are not as sacred, are meant to be available and that our worth is determined by our value in the eyes of men. You can see this, for instance, in what happens to widows, even today. Widowed women often experience being left behind by some married friends who suddenly find them threatening because they no longer have a man. Yes, this happens in the 21st century. Some of you may have experienced it. The same dynamic that allows abusive men to hold power without accountability abandons women when they are without men. It’s all interconnected.
So when Harvey Weinstein’s behavior became public, Alyssa Milano got really nervous. She remembered Anita Hill. How many of us remember Anita Hill. This brave African American woman dared to speak out about being mistreated by Clarence Thomas, and the Senate chose not to believe her and to confirm Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. This broke so many hearts but few people were surprised because it’s an old story. Then as now, a temple flame had been lit when she spoke the truth. And it didn’t get to 8 days. How many women have lit the flame, hoping that more oil would come, only to have it burn out and take their reputations and sometimes their careers with it?
In the last 1 ½ months, millions of women have joined the #metoo movement. There is a critical mass of energy that is come together. There are some big names in this country that have been held accountable for their choices – Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Trent Franks, John Conyers, Kevin Spacey, and there will be more.
I must admit that there is some satisfaction here, even for those men who have broken my heart. Might the flame actually make it to 8 days? I do think accountability is the only way that the abuses stop. I would like to be able to walk to my car in the evening after meetings, and not wonder whether I should hold our keys through our fingers. Do you men know how often we hold our keys like this when we walk to our cars? I would like to be able to walk my favorite trails without always keeping an eye out and listening for the sound of feet. I never go for a hike without texting my partner where I am and how long I expect to be on the trails. I would like to feel comfortable enough that I don’t insist on meeting in public when a man becomes newly involved in congregational life and wants to talk with the minister.
Part of the #metoo campaign is about creating the space for women to tell their stories and to be believed. And as more women take the risk, others build up the courage to come out of the shadows.
But I think that the #metoo campaign is bigger than that, because the most important audience of the #metoo campaign is men.
Did you know that women Unitarian Universalist women ministers started their own #metoo movement amongst other ministers? Women started using the hash tag #metoo and sharing stories of male colleagues who had misused their power. Over 200 women added their names. And the purpose of that exercise was to show our male colleagues what we had had to endure. So lest we think that this is a dynamic that is predominantly in conservative circles, think again. It is right here.
Now the purpose of #metoo isn’t to tell men that they are bad or evil or hopeless. It’s not to vilify men. Rather it is to show men that abuse of women is not a women’s issue. It is a men’s issue. We can keep lighting the flame, but it won’t make it to 8 days without men’s support and commitment. It won’t make it 8 days if men don’t change.
In response to the #metoo, a new hash tag has been create, #wecommit. When a man posts #wecommit on his Facebook page or twitter feed, what he is saying is that he believes women and he takes responsibility for his part in how sexual violence happens. Many men are talking about how they were raised as boys, the messages they received from parents, teachers, friends, about what it meant to be a man and what a man should expect from a woman. Men are talking about how they were trained to feel entitled to women’s bodies. Sometimes they are even talking about things they did that they knew was wrong, and working on how to make amends. They are apologizing without using the word “but” or making excuses or saying if they knew now what they knew then. Men are making promises that they will never stay silent in the face of locker room talk. They will take the risk of losing friends and status by speaking up and challenging men who talk badly and disrespectfully of women. Men who have authority in the workplace are promising to mandate anti-harassment training for all employees. Men are promising to vote only for candidates who have strongly committed to ending the violence. Many fathers are promising to raise their sons to be a different kind of man. Where emotions are encouraged, not suppressed, where feelings are talked about, and where boys are encouraged to explore all of who they can be separated from gender stereotypes. Basically, men are promising to take on patriarchy.
And I tell you that even, though it’s the #metoo movement that has touched me deeply because it is personal, it’s when I see men who choose to believe, understand, and change, that’s what takes this from a sputtering flame to a strong one that is going to be a lot harder to extinguish. The #metoo movement lit the flame, the #wecommit movement is going to make sure that there’s enough oil to get through the first 8 days, and then 30, and then 365, enough oil so that our daughters and gender non-conforming children and all our boys will always be safe and loved, and that the brokenness that so many of us assume just happens, will become a story that we tell our children of how it used to be.
But we’re not there yet.
This is the thing about those Maccabees, those men who went off to war. They knew there would be losses. If you read the story of the Maccabean war, when they took over that temple, the Greek army was right outside. They had to hold back the enemy even as they tended that sputtering flame. The struggle never stopped.
That’s where we’re at right now.
It is very possible that Roy Moore will win on Tuesday and if he does, a lot of us are going to be in pain. It’s could to be triggering. So plan ahead and get your resources and support network in place so that if you need it, you have somewhere to lean on.
And even if that is what happens, we can’t allow ourselves to think that it means the flame has died. The struggle for bodily autonomy is a long one. We’ve been fighting it a long time. What we need to do is anchor in love. Love of ourselves. Love of women. Love of justice. Love of fairness and kindness and generosity. Love of our children. We have to live in our hearts as if the world we believe should be already exists. We have to stay in love. And when we do that, we won’t lose hope that all is lost. It is one set back. We have millions of women and gender non-conforming people and men in #metoo and more and more men in #wecommit. That can’t be erased in one special election.
So Hannukah starts on Tuesday night. There are people in this town who are going to light their menorahs, one more candle every evening, and they’ll place that Menorah in the front window. As you drive around town, keep an eye out because I bet you’ll see one or more than one. You’ll see the flame that never dies. When you see that flame, think to yourself, “What can I do to make sure that flame burns for 8 days? What can I do to be part of the miracle that will be upon us where every woman and non gender confirming person is believed, where every man understands, and where all genders can live in freedom, peace and dignity?”
May it be so.
STJ We Are Answering the Call of Love (explain why the words have changed)
Our closing words are From The Talmud. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”