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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 14, 2014

LIGHTING ONE CANDLE
A Meditation on a Path of Hope in A Despairing World


Text:
A candle is a small thing.
But one candle can light another.
And see how it's own light increases,
as a candle gives its flame to the other.
You are such a light.


— Moshe Davis & Victor Ratner



This Thursday evening we hosted the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence's annual Voice for Victims observance, marking the second anniversary of the horrific Newtown shootings. A somber affair, some tears, some outrage, some wise counsel; but, also, not without its lighter moments.

An hour before the program began our religious educator Cathy and I walked over here to the Meeting House to turn on the sound system. We hit the switches, and nothing happened. Most of you know I'm one of those people who if I'm seen climbing up a ladder, people will say, "James, step away from that ladder! You know you know nothing about machinery." The truth be told Cathy is only a couple of clicks better. My single fix for such things as the sound system not working is to turn off the power and start it up again. Didn't work. Tried again. Didn't work. Various other switches were flicked, several times. Still didn't work. Desperate phone calls ensued. As people began filing in for the event, it turned out to be a big crowd, we finally got our building manager Jamie on the phone. He pointed us to a plug hidden up in the pulpit that sometimes comes undone. Me, I modestly let you know, it was me, who knelt down, reached around in the gloom, who knows what nasty things might be there, but I'm braver than people think, finally found the plug, and plugged it in. The sound was instantly restored. And they say I have no mechanical abilities.

Okay. Not a big thing. Barely a small thing. But it sparked a thought about small things. A better example, a much better example as those of us who attend our annual Amnesty International write-a-thon, which once again will be here this afternoon, know deeply, what amazing things that can happen just in writing a polite but insistent letter to a dictator. Of course we never know the power of these small things at the time. Mostly they're just small things. Sometimes, however, these small things can turn out to be the most important of all.

At the time, the particular time, especially in hard times, everything can seem overwhelming. I think of this season that has been marked by so many terrible things, particularly so powerfully, those visceral reminders of how despite some important advances, and even some hopeful assertions of our becoming a post-racial society, prejudice, racism in fact continues a current within our culture, always frustrating for anyone of color, but also strong enough that in an encounter with the police, a black man is vastly more likely to die than a white man.

So many injustices marring this world in which we live, so much sadness. Newton and other mass shootings show how we seem unable to take even the simplest corrective actions. Similarly, people across the globe are thrown into prisons because they speak out against the many faces of injustice. Me, I'm also haunted by the revelations those charged with national security torture prisoners, and then pretend they didn't or it wasn't really torture or we got critical information, when they didn't. And how we seem perfectly capable of poisoning our very planet for short-term profit. Of course, we know the list of wrongs if we started reciting them would become a litany that would last through the day, and into the night. I think of that old phrase "the empire," and how it can so clearly stand for the world in which we live where the powerful crush the weak, where greed is the god worshiped in our statehouses and the congress, where the course of justice is too often determined by your checkbook or the color of your skin.

It can be easy to despair. But, I believe, I believe deep in my heart there is hope. And today let me share a word of that hope.

We are in our Unitarian Universalist magpie spirituality, in a moment between Rohatsu, the celebration of the Buddha's great awakening, and Christmas, the celebration of the birth of a child as a magical moment of possibility. And today we find ourselves called to consider Hanukkah. Me, I particularly love Hanukkah. And, not just because Fred comes up with such wonderful surprises, like our Klezmer band.

David Brooks once described Hanukkah as "the most adult of holidays." I resonate with that. Brooks goes on, "It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today." I understand this. Particularly this year, I understand this. And perhaps you feel similarly?

Hanukkah is among the thorniest of holidays. It, as most of us know, is in fact a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, one that has certainly only grown to the size it is here in North America because of its rough proximity to Christmas. It's become a way for the Jewish community to celebrate a season dominated by a much larger Christian cultural context. But, that's not the end of the matter, certainly not for me. There's also that matter of being the most adult of holidays, filled with ironies.

The story is, among other things, about a war between assimilationists and traditionalists; that is between religious liberals and conservatives, actually its not putting too fine a point on this to say between pluralists and fundamentalists, and where the fundamentalists are the heroes. Not what one would think of as a ready theme for Unitarian Universalists and our magpie religious tradition, assimilating as we have so many themes and traditions into our ever-evolving, dynamic spirituality.

In fact the ironies for us within this holiday are almost endless. For instance, many, most scholars suggest Hanukkah is in fact itself rooted in even more ancient pagan festivals celebrating light at the darkest time of the year. In that sense its roots are as pagan as the roots of the Christmas holiday. And then to compound the ironies its history of a fundamentalist victory over liberalism was first recorded by the Greek-speaking, think assimilationist, liberal Jewish community, and then preserved as part of their Holy Scripture by the early Christian community. Personally I find that all delicious.

The early rabbis were, and I think how obviously they would be, quite wary of the Maccabees and their holiday. For two reasons principally: First the Maccabeean call to arms was a pyrrhic victory. Much ill would follow this revolt and its brief success. But also the Maccabeean blending of priestly and kingly power during the brief Hasmonean dynasty whose founding is the celebration of Hanukkah, had more than a shade of resemblance to more contemporary fundamentalist tyrannies. All of this should be deeply troubling if one thinks about it. And the rabbis did and were.

The rabbinic commentators choose to focus their attention, as limited as it actually was, remember "minor holiday." I've quoted the Reconstructionst rabbi Arthur Waskow before. I really like his thinking, and perhaps you can see why in his comments on this holiday. "To the rabbis," he writes. "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." They pointed to a simple truth, in the midst of the maelstrom, in the storm, look for something to grab onto, something real, something useful, a point, perhaps, in the midst of what surrounds us today, for all of us to recall.

Waskow continues, "...(T)he story the rabbis told about the Light was the story of the rabbis themselves &msah; 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.'"

Higher consciousness. What should higher consciousness mean for us? Personally, I'm more inclined to the simpler word wisdom. And, I'm taken by that seeking of wisdom, which very much is in the story as the rabbis tell it. But to find it takes not being bound too tightly by the text or the history. Rather we need to allow the telling to be shaped by our deeper calling: toward our true freedom, to a way of genuine wisdom.

And we should try to do this because reshaped just a little it is our heart story. It is about how we can find the light, how we can find our depth, our possibility: the way of the wise heart. Here I think about Amnesty International and our annual event. And with that I think of how we approach the matters of injustice in this world. I remain haunted by the brutal reminders of how unjust our country is in very important ways. I am reminded of racism and right with it, the growing divide between the rich and the poor.

Well, here's some ancient wisdom on what to do. First, we need to be informed by our deeper insights, what it is that creates a wise heart. For us, what we as contemporary religious liberals share in common is that twin-insight how each of us in this world are born precious and unique. And how we, precious and unique as we are, are born within a web of relationships, where none of us is unconnected, where we are all of us twined together, all of us belonging to each other in some deep and true ways. We see these two things and we find the wise heart. This wise heart is the light that burns within and among us.

In the world we live within we must juggle contradictory information. But with this small, miraculous light knowing each of us is precious and we are bound together in a reality much bigger than we can ever name in words, a light burns that lasts well past any possible reasonable effort, and we can see what needs seeing. This is our task, as it has been the task of every soul over the many generations. To not turn from what is, to look deeply into the matter at hand, see the connections, and allow ourselves to be transformed and within that transforming to become spiritual adults. With this we become people who can take on the work that needs to be done.

There is little doubt today that our liberal religious tradition is the minority position. The empire calls us to divide ourselves against each other, each person, each little group on their own. We are the weak in this struggle for hearts and minds. Right now ours is the unpopular voice that is nearly lost in the thunder of public opinion that would ignore the poisons of racism, the ills of a society that is willing to sacrifice some part of our community, that is willing to poison our water and change our climate, for short-term profits.

The call for us is a struggle, and it is a struggle not only against every oppression there is out beyond those walls, but also to fiercely resist corruption within, losing out to our own complacency, to thinking I'm okay and that's enough. That is the small light we are called to notice today, the light burning in our hearts, the light that shows the way.

And.

We do this through small things. Plugging in a plug, might have been a small joke. But writing a letter is not. Never underestimate the healing power of the small. While the most important thing we can do about racism is to root it out of our hearts, at the same time there are small practical measures we can take. My clergy colleagues and I here on the East Side are currently gathering together to see what we can do to help bring body cameras to our local police. I'll be talking with you all more about this after Christmas. Small things. Building blocks. Or, lighting candles.

One never knows where these little things can lead..

Lighting candles. Taking a small action. Hanukkah. I suggest this story, this most adult of stories, this messy story, and our working with it calls us, you and me, to resist the dying of the light, but rather to shine forth beyond all reasonable expectations, to become, each and every one of us by our example, by our willingness to not turn away, by our challenging all authority, particularly that voice in the back of our heads that says turn away.

Just remember those words Moshe Davis & Victor Ratner sing into our hearts.

A candle is a small thing.
But one candle can light another.
And see how it's own light increases,
as a candle gives its flame to the other.
You are such a light.

You

And me.

Lighting candles against the night.

Our hope.

Our only hope.

Amen.