Sunday, December 6, 2015

Big Strange Family

Brian Andreas is an artist who creates what he calls "Story People” – oddly shaped colorful humanoids who have something to say about nearly everything.  One of the Story People says:  “'I don’t think of working for world peace'”, he said.  'I think of it as just trying to get along in a really big strange family.'”

One of the reasons people like Andreas’ story people is that they break down what seem to be insurmountable tasks into manageable challenges.  World Peace, especially these days, seems an impossible goal.  My personal experience -- and maybe yours, too -- of maintaining something as simple as spending three days with your family at Thanksgiving is also fraught with landmines. Come to think of it, so is congregational life.

But our Sixth Principle affirms and promotes “The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.”   So as Unitarian Universalists we are called to keep working toward this goal, even though it often feels like being asked to believe in miracles.

Miracles are the reason for this season. Two of our sources – Judaism and Christianity – celebrate miracles during December.  And the earth-centered traditions emphasize the movement from darkness to light, a movement that in ancient times seemed miraculous.  These miracle stories didn’t happen on the global stage.  They happened in small kinship groups:  Family groups that may seem a little strange to other family or kinship groups. 

The Jewish sage, Martin Buber, wrote a parable about the modern world and the place of kinship. He said:

At the beginning of the modern world, at the time of the American and French revolutions, three ideals were said to walk hand in hand; liberty, equality, and what was then called ‘fraternity.’  Today we might call the last, more inclusively, the spirit of kinship.
In the course of revolutionary upheaval, however, the ideals separated.  Liberty went West, to America first of all.  But it changed its character along the way.  It became confused with mere freedom from restraint, freedom to exploit the land the exploit others.  Equality did not extend to Native Americans, African slaves. And women. 
Meanwhile, Equality went East.  Through more revolutions in Russia and China, however, it too changed character, and not for the better.  It because the equality of the gulag, of millions of people all waving the same “little Red Book.” 
The third element went into hiding.  Kinship, the sense that we are all sisters and brothers together, children of one great Mystery, was the linking ideal, the religious principle.  Yet modern intellectuals and revolutionaries scorned religion, so this idea took to hiding among communities of the powerless, where a sense of connectedness and kinship stronger than Western individualism, deeper than Eastern collectivism, survived.
The ideals behind the modern experiment cannot be fulfilled without the reemergence, in nonexclusive forms, of the religious spirit of kinship.  Early in the twentieth century, many people thought that religion would simply wither away.  This religious spirit has reappeared, however, in every powerful attempt to reunite the separated:  in efforts like those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the West, to reunite to our vaunted liberties some equality, at least of opportunity; in Poland’s Solidarity movement, which began the effort to restore to socialist equality some degree of spiritual liberty.

The ideals behind the modern experiment cannot be fulfilled without the reemergence, in nonexclusive forms, of the religious spirit of kinship.  Nowhere is this notion of kinship – of connectedness -- more immediate to me than in the stories we hear in our religious communities, especially in the Jewish community.  And today, at sundown, marks the beginning of the Jewish celebration of Hannukah – a celebration of kinship and miracles.

Hannukah is a great example of that old real estate adage:  “location, location, location”.  As religious holidays go, it’s not very important.  But it’s location in time -- the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev  --  coincides with late November-late December.  That means it’s bumping up against Christmas.  Which brings us to another old adage – this time from the theater:  timing is everything.

So here we have a holiday from one of our Unitarian Universalist sources that has grown in cultural awareness all out of proportion to its place in Jewish history.  But here it is.  And fortunately the theme of Hannukah -- which means ‘dedication’ -- contributes to the general theme of light coming from darkness found in the celebration of Diwali, and Christmas and the winter solstice.  Kwanzaa, as long as we’re naming December holidays, celebrates family, community, and culture. December is all about stories of light and kinship.  Stories about hope and community.  Just remember that stories don’t necessarily need to have happened in order to be true. 

Here’s the story of Hanukkah:  In 168 B.C.E. the Jewish Temple was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers and dedicated to the worship of the god Zeus.  Then a year later the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death. He also ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods.  As you might imagine, this decree added insult to the injury of being overrun by foreign aggressors.  But even in this relatively small family of Jews there was dissent; some of the Jews wanted to yield to or embrace – I don’t know which -- Hellenism.  But you know families.  There’s always a faction who wants to keep the peace at any cost, so some yielded to the emperor’s pressure.

But others didn’t.  Jewish resistance began in the village of Modiin, near Jerusalem. A Greek officer ordered Mattathias, a high priest, to bow down to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig -- both practices forbidden to Jews. But Mattathias refused.  Another villager -- one more amenable to Hellenistic customs --  stepped forward and offered to cooperate on Mattathias' behalf.  This so outraged Mattathias that he drew his sword and killed the villager, then turned on the Greek officer and killed him too. His five sons and the other villagers then attacked the remaining soldiers, killing all of them.  I would ask what part of Thou Shalt Not Kill this high priest didn’t understand, but that’s not part of the story.  I think we’ve all had times -- even in the best of families -- where enough is enough.  And at those times we do things we might not have done had we not been provoked beyond all reason.

Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them.  Under the leadership of Mattathias’ son, Judas, they eventually succeeded in retaking their land from the Greeks. These rebels became known as the Maccabees, which in Hebrew means ‘hammer’.  They went on to establish the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled Judea for 103 years, but that, too is another story.

Once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem.  What they found was their sacred place filled with the leavings of pig sacrifices and Greek idols.  It sounded like what you might find after a really rowdy New Years Eve party.  The first order of business was to clean up the mess in order to restore the temple’s purity.  The purification took eight days.  So eight days worth of oil were needed to complete the ritual.  According to Rabbinic tradition, the victorious Maccabees could only find a small jug of oil that had remained uncontaminated because it was sealed.  This small jug of oil contained only enough oil to sustain the Menorah for one day.   They lit the menorah anyway and miraculously the oil lasted for eight full days.  Remember, stories don’t need to have happened in order to be true.

This miracle -- the miracle of the Hanukkah oil -- is celebrated every year when Jews light a special menorah known as a hanukkiyah, a candelabrum with eight candleholders in a row.  For eight consecutive days, a candle is lit, and the hanukkiiyah is placed in a window, where passersby are reminded of this miracle. Lighting of the hanukkiyah is one of three almost universally practiced traditions of Hanukkah.

The second one is a game of spinning the dreidel, a four-sided top with one Hebrew letter written on each side.   The letters stand for the saying, Nes gadol haya sham, meaning A Great Miracle Occurred There.  (In Israel, instead of the fourth letter shin, there is a peh, which means the saying is Nes gadol haya po--A Great Miracle Occurred Here.)   Any number of people can take part in this game, and it’s way easier than mah jongg!  In it’s simplest form, each player begins with an equal number of game pieces (usually 10–15). The game pieces can be any object, such as gold-wrapped chocolate coins called gelt, pennies, or raisins.

At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center "pot". Every player puts one in the pot after every turn. Each player spins the dreidel once during their turn. Depending on which player side is facing up when it stops spinning, they give or take game pieces from the pot:
a) If the N (nes) is facing up, the player does nothing.
b) If G (gadol) is facing up, the player gets everything in the pot.
c) If H (haya) is facing up, the player gets half of the pieces in the pot. (If there are an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes the half the pot rounded up to the nearest whole number)
d) If S (sham) is facing up, the player adds a game piece to the pot
If the player is out of pieces, they are either "out" or may ask another player for a "loan".

The third Hanukkah tradition is eating fried foods -- remember this holiday is all about oil!  Latkes -- pancakes made from potatoes and onions and served with applesauce -- are a favorite.  This is a great way to re-purpose the left over mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving.  Another traditional food is sufganiyot -- jelly-filled donuts.  I don’t know if there are latkes awaiting in Ministers Hall after the service today, but you’ll find a version of sufganiyot at the Dunkin Donuts nearest you.

Because Hanukkah has become so intertwined with Christmas, there is more awareness of the Jewish traditions.  This recognition reinforces the pride of belonging to the kinship group -- the Big Strange Family -- that is Judaism.  It is a wonderful thing to be proud of your kinship group; I find myself having to reign myself in when talking about the loving, caring community that is Unitarian Universalism.  The challenge is to foster that pride in your particular affinity group -- your own community -- without denigrating someone else’s affinity group.
December is a month in which different holidays are marked and celebrated by our human family and some of the celebrations may look a little strange.  But holidays -- holy days in the Old English -- are nothing if not relational.  And that is why they are so bittersweet.    Our efforts to ‘get along’ in our families -- both our biological and our affinity groups -- are not always successful.  Many of us are distanced -- geographically and emotionally -- from our kin.  This lack of connection results by an overindulgence in STUFF as a substitute for an underindulgence in relationships.

The task of the religious community is to reverse that impulse:  to overindulge in establishing and maintaining relationships.  You are doing that now, as you open yourselves into relationship with the local Islamic Mosque.  The task of the religious community is to balance the concepts of liberty and equality.  We do this by practicing the non-exclusive form of the religious spirit of kinship that is Unitarian Universalism.   If we can learn to accept the diversity, which is sometimes thought of as strangeness, of our own family members, perhaps we can then begin to build bridges to other kinship groups.  And perhaps in time we truly will realize the goal of a world community -- a big, strange family -- at peace.  May it be so.  Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.

Big Strange Family, a sermon delivered by the Rev. Janet Onnie at 1stUUPB, Dec 6, 2015.

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