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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on December 28, 2008

A Hanukkah Sermon

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling the flame. Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places. Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake. Blessed is the match consumed in kindling the flame.

—Hannah Senesh

Many religious communities in the west follow a liturgical calendar, which means for the most part the subject of the sermon is determined by date. And so what is done by the preacher is mostly exegesis or midrash, essentially commentary on that assigned text. We in our UU churches have far fewer such dedicated Sundays than one is going to find in those liturgical communities. Because of this I’m used to a bit more freedom in approaching issues of the day or that have haunted me for a time, or that members of our community have held up as worthy. Suits me just fine. And I think, suits most of us rather nicely.

Of course, in fact, we do have a calendar of sorts. Think of Easter and Flower communion and Martin Luther King’s birthday. And another subject we, as a liberal religious community, return to in most of our congregations with regularity is Hanukkah. In fact I’ve now preached somewhere approaching twenty sermons exploring various aspects of the Hanukkah story.

And, interestingly, at least for me in these recurring themes, has been how only after exhausting the obvious, that is after preaching four or five or more times on a specific subject and then not sure where to go next, do I often find what is most useful. Not that it isn’t important to touch on familiar territory in these recurring sermons, for instance in 2004 I first, I think, noted the levels of irony to be found within the Hanukkah story.

Personally, I really like irony. Sadly, I’ve been told a taste for such isn’t particularly becoming in a minister. Of course, it’s just one of a rather long list of ministerial shortcomings I parade most every day. I’m just grateful I serve among a community long on forgiveness.

But today, more than most, I get to indulge that taste for irony because Hanukkah has so many ironic elements. It is an extremely minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, one that has almost certainly only grown here in North America because of its rough proximity to Christmas. Another is how the story is, among other things, one of traditionalists standing against assimilationists. Not what one would think of as a ready theme for us Unitarian Universalists and our magpie religious tradition, assimilating many themes and traditions into an ever-evolving dynamic faith.

But the ironies go much deeper than that. For instance, most scholars suggest Hanukkah is in fact itself rooted in ancient pagan festivals celebrating light at the darkest time of the year. In that sense its roots are as pagan as are the roots of the Christmas holiday. And then to compound the ironies, its history was first recorded by the Greek-speaking, think assimilationist Jewish community and then preserved as part of their Holy Scripture by the early Christian community.

In fact the early rabbis were wary of the Maccabees for two reasons. First their call to arms was a pyrrhic victory. And their blending of priestly and kingly power during the brief Hasmonean dynasty had more than a shade of resemblance to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. So, the rabbinic commentators choose to focus their attention, as limited as it actually was, remember “minor holiday,” on one particular thing. As Arthur Waskow observes, “To the rabbis, it was crucial both to call for courage and hope, and to do so in a sphere other than military resistance, which they… viewed (through the tragic lens of historic hindsight) as hopeless and dangerous and self-destructive.

“So the story the rabbis told about the Light was the story of the rabbis themselves – absorbing that the Maccabees’ military victory had saved the nation, but that getting stuck there would be self-destructive. They needed to bring the Higher Consciousness of courage for Enlightenment into the people’s arsenal of spiritual ‘weaponry.’” I’m taken by that seeking wisdom in the story, in not being bound too tightly by the text or the history. But rather allowing the telling to be shaped by our deeper calling: to our true freedom, to a way of wisdom. And that all this is very much grounded in lived lives; a point to which I will return.

The story turns on the purification of the newly reclaimed temple. It took eight days to come up with properly prepared oil for the lights, but they only had enough oil for one day. The miracle is the light did not go out. That’s it. Just a little nugget of a story. And, actually, the story is found in the Talmud, the reflections of the rabbis, not in the scriptures themselves.

I’m caught up in all those layers of story, of contradictions. And at the center of it all, I think a lot about that flame, about those candles, and what this might mean for us, for you and for me. After all we kindle a flame of our own every Sunday, that flaming chalice. In 2003 when All Soul’s Unitarian in New York City finally introduced the flaming chalice into their sanctuary - they waited, what, half a century to see if it were a fad - Galen Guengerich preached a sermon on the subject, reflecting on chalices and on flame.

On the subject Galen quoted the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.

O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire…
Help us for thy love’s sake to be free,
True for thy truth’s sake,
For thy strength’s sake strong.

Galen went on to describe the history of the chalice and how it was commissioned in the Second World War by the Unitarian minister Charles Joy as a symbol for the Unitarian Service Committee. Joy wrote of the design created by Hans Deutsch, "A chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice." He added he liked the irony that it vaguely recalled the Christian cross. I would add how it also vaguely recalls the Macaabeean flame that burns beyond all reasonable hope.

Irony, yes. But, also layered symbolism. Not unlike the symbol of flame. Fire, of course, becomes one of the first tools of human communities, a mixed thing, bringing warmth and cooking, but also is a weapon. Layer upon layer of symbol. Here I’d like to probe those many layers, recalling our own connection to this symbol of burning oil, of lamps, of the noble and not so noble, of all that we dream, of all that makes us human, dangerous and powerful, and how all that leads us toward wisdom. And, as I’ve hinted earlier, how wisdom takes both action and reflection.

In this regard, I’ve held in my heart for quite a while a sermon on Hanukkah by Charlie Ortman, minister of our UU Congregation in Montclair, New Jersey. In that sermon he quoted Hannah Senesh, a young woman who during the Second World War left the relative safety of Palestine to help rescue Jews in Hungary where eventually she was captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally executed. Hannah composed a blessing for the match that strikes the flame. And it is reading 450 in our Gray hymnal. We used it to light our chalice, and then again as the text for today’s reading.

Now, once more: “Blessed is the match consumed in kindling the flame. Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places. Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake. Blessed is the match consumed in kindling the flame.”

So, what is that flame? What is the inner meaning? To what is the image pointing as we live our lives?

In that same sermon Charlie retold an account by an English rabbi Aryeh Carmel. I’ve found it a compelling story. Here’s how it goes. “It was past midnight. I was walking through the deserted city to my hotel on the other side of the river. The night was dark and foggy and I couldn’t get a taxi. As I approached the bridge, I noticed a shabby figure leaning over the parapet. A ‘down-and-out,’ I thought. Then he disappeared. I heard a splash. My God, I thought, he’s done it. Suicide!

“I ran back under the bridge, onto the embankment, and waded into the river, grabbing him as he came past, borne by the current. I dragged him up onto the embankment. He was quite a young guy (strong, I think, and he) was still breathing. A couple of people noticed and I shouted to them to get an ambulance. They managed to stop a taxi and between us we half dragged, half carried the man into the (vehicle). I got in and told (the driver to take us) to the nearest hospital emergency room. I waited until the man was admitted, gave my report (to the police and only much later) got a taxi back to my hotel...

“I had ruined a good suit and knew I would have a terrible cold in the morning. I could feel it coming on. But anyway I had saved a life. I had a hot bath and got into bed but it still worried me. Such a young man! Why had he done it? The next morning, as soon as I was free, I bought a large bunch of grapes and set off for the hospital. I was determined to find out what was behind this matter. Maybe I could help.

“Why was I so interested in the guy? In this great city there were at least half a dozen would-be suicides every night. Their plight did not touch me. Then it dawned on me. Of course. First you give, then you care. I had given quite a lot. I had risked my life and gotten a bad cold in the bargain. I had invested something of myself in that man. Now my love and care were aroused. That’s how it goes. First we give, then we come to love.”

I’ve reflected on this story once or twice before. But it continues to haunt me. I can’t quite let it go. It is like that flame which came unbidden to give us life and which we can find again in each action, or like that fiery bush out of which God spoke to Moses.

And that’s why, actually, to my mind, Rabbi Carmel doesn’t precisely have it right. You could just as easily say first we receive the flame of giving and love, ourselves. But its in fact a bit more mysterious than that telling. I would say that giving and love are, in the last analysis one thing. It is the fire; it is the flame that is passed from one candle to the next throughout time. But, that said, he’s also absolutely right. In our lives, we must open our hearts if we hope for the fulfillment of our promise. And we do this through action. We don’t really understand that hidden flame of love until we reach out a hand. Then we catch the fire, and then the fire is passed. There’s an irony we all should try to live with.

So out of that here’s what I get out of Hanukkah. I suggest we need, each of us, to draw upon our own deepest resources, the fire within. We need to recall the many different flames that inform us. That atavistic flame, for a start, the fire that gave humanity warmth and food and, of course, weapons. We need to recall the fires on the altars of the ancient Greeks and Romans. And, of course, we need to recall how that fire, when it seemed not enough, lasted, for eight days.

It is that last flame, the flame which sustains us past all reason, that I feel we’re mainly called to reflect upon today. Swinburne got it right. It is the flame of love. It is the miracle at the heart of our lives, a gift passed on to us, and which we are honor bound to pass on to others.

That’s the miracle that births love into the world. That is the flame which burns and burns throughout time, and across space.