as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 2, 2018
It is good to be back with you. I hope you all had good Thanksgivings–not too much food or drink. I was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then here for the holiday. My parents came to visit. We had Thanksgiving with some of their friends who live in Meyerland. Then we visited other friends in Dallas. I managed to keep myself to a single slice of pecan pie, which is probably why I can still fit into my suit this morning. It was hard. Pecan pie is my favorite.
Actually, I like pecan pie so much that I think of it as a kind of ordinary miracle. Ordinary miracles are the wondrous things that fill our human lives. Birth, death, the cycle of life, there is something about it all that transcends human comprehension.
Even as something as simple as pie can transcends human comprehension. There is an enormous amount of stuff that goes into making the most ordinary pastry. There are the pecans–products of earth, wind, soil, sun, water, and difficult human labor. So much must happen for us to even have these sweetmeats. And then there’s the flour, the butter, that strange English treacle called Lyle’s Golden Syrup… And of course, the necessity of having someone who actually knows how to bake a pie.
This is a skill with enough nuance that its mastery is the subject of much debate. I do not know about your family but in mine there are different schools of thought on how to prepare a good pie crust. Everyone agrees on what a good pie crust is–it is light, flaky, slightly salty, and holds together under fork. Few folks agree exactly how to make it. Some claim that a good pie crust requires lard. Many object to the use of lard on the basis that it is not vegetarian friendly. Others advocate for substituting some of the water with vodka. I fall into the camp that freezes the butter before using it in the crust–it creates a tender bite.
The ideal pecan pie somehow transcends these debates. It is a miracle that combines chemistry, human ingenuity, and evolution. Sometimes when I eat pie, I actually manage to remember this and recall that our lives are filled with mystery and wonder. The real question is not, What is the best way to make a pie crust? The real question is, We will open ourselves to the mystery and wonder that surround us? I detect something of this line of questioning in Marge Piercy’s Hanukkah poem, “Season of Skinny Candles:”
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
The holiday season is a time to remember the ordinary miracles that fill our lives. The candles that poke holes into the season’s lessened light are reminders of the spark that rests within each of us. They are reminders that our universe is mysterious and wonderful. It is good to pause every now and again and just take it all in.
It can be hard at this time of year to do so. I do not know about you, but I find the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years to be an exceptionally busy time. In addition to all of the family holiday preparations, there is all of the stuff that happens in congregational life. There are events like last night’s fantastic church auction, after which I am afraid I need to apologize to my neighbors for playing the kazoo a little too enthusiastically with my son. There are seasonal parties. And there are special worship services. This year we are holding a solstice service on the 21st at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of the 23rd, and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve starting at 7:00 p.m.
These services offer us the opportunity to pause. The Christmas Eve services I lead follow a fairly traditional format of lessons and carols. However, they vary in one substantive respect. I do not just draw from the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, I use readings from the non-canonical gospels–ancient texts that tell stories about Jesus which did not make it into the Christian New Testament.
I do this as a reminder that within the context of the broader Christian tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a heretical movement. Our views are closer to those of the people who were kicked out of the ancient Christian church than they are to the Roman emperors and theologians who created the doctrines central to contemporary Christianity.
Take Arius and Origen of Alexandria, two early Christians whose theologies are held to be heretical by much of the Christian orthodoxy. Arius preached that Jesus was a human being who had obtained moral perfection. Once Jesus did so he was adopted as a child of God. Origen taught that at some point in the future there would be “the perfect restoration of the entire creation.” That is a version of universal salvation, the idea that in the end all souls will be united with God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets its name from these two ancient heresies: Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a human being rather than a god; and Universalism, the story that the love of God is all powerful and that God condemns no one to Hell. The past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association William Sinkford summarizes these positions this way: “one God, no one left behind.”
This view is one of the reasons why contemporary Unitarian Universalists often are comfortable drawing wisdom from the world’s religious traditions. We understand religion to a universal human impulse. There are ordinary miracles to be found through engaging different rituals, stories, songs, places, and teachers.
This attitude has been with Unitarianism since its very inception. In sixteenth-century Europe, Unitarianism emerged as what is called a hybrid faith. Almost five hundred years ago, in places like Poland and Transylvania, Unitarianism developed at the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its practitioners recognized that adherents to all three religions were children of the same God. In her study of early European Unitarianism, Susan Ritchie observes, “Convinced that Christians, Muslims, and Jews were a part of the same religious family, Unitarians resisted theologies of God that could not be freely shared across these traditions.” They recognized that the miracle of existence which we humans share cannot be captured by the teachings of a single tradition. As our own Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, our living tradition draws from “from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual lives.”
All of this goes some of the way towards explaining why at this busy time of year we honor the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the turning of the year that is the winter solstice. It also helps explain how someone like me can identify with Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. As I think I have told you before, I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother was raised Moravian. My father was raised Jewish. This meant that growing up we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays: Christmas and Hanukkah; Passover and Easter. And in my house, we still do.
Tonight, is the first night of Hanukkah. Today and next Sunday we are honoring both the Christmas season and Hanukkah as part of the service. We have some Hebrew songs, some Hanukkah poems, and next week we will light a special menorah called a hanukkiah. Carol recounted the basic outline of Hanukkah story earlier for the big idea. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over a Greek king who decided to put an end to local religions. He forbid the practice of Judaism under pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were conducted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was defiled. When the Maccabees were eventually victorious they set out to rededicate it. They searched the Temple for oil with which to light the Temple’s lamps. The Talmud relates, “they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest… And there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit the lamps from it for eight days.”
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a single day’s oil lasting for eight nights. It is a tiny moment of divine agency–the only miracle the extension of the light across eight days. Why eight? Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “Since the whole universe was created in seven days, eight is a symbol of eternity and infinity.” The eight days of light are reminder that our world is filled with the ordinary miracle of existence.
The idea that the world is infused with the miracle of existence or the spirit of the divine is present in all of creation is found in many Jewish teachings. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have explained the story of Hanukkah to his disciples this way, “Listen, and I shall tell you the meaning of the miracle of the light, at Hanukkah. The light which was hidden since the days of creation was then revealed. And every year, when the lights are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh. And it is the light of the Messiah.”
Let us dwell on the second to last sentence of Rabbi Pinchas’s interpretation, “every year, when the light are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh.” This is the message of the season, miracles are ever present in our lives. The hidden light of creation, the miracle of our existence, is waiting for us to rekindle it at all times. We need to only to open ourselves to it–to find the ordinary miracle in the pie or the light of the candlelight.
I learned something of this myself when years ago I studied with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Paul Mendes-Flohr. When he taught he refused to ever fully close the door of his classroom. He said that it was possible that the Messiah, the great teacher who would bring about human redemption might come at any moment. He did not want to miss the announcement by shutting the door. A miracle, the light of creation, might shine forth right now.
This was the central teaching of Rabbi Pinchas. He lived in the Ukraine during the eighteenth-century. He was a companion of the great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov. The words Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew mean the Master of the Good Name. He taught, “the world is full of enormous lights and mysteries” and that we can find them if we are open ourselves to them. It was alleged that he knew the secret name of God. And he was held to be a great miracle worker.
One story has it that once he prayed on Shabbat in a field full of sheep. The sheep we so moved by his prayers that they, “assumed the original position… [they] had held when… [they] had stood at the throne of God.” Other stories relate that he was regularly visited by the Seven Shepherds of Israel: ancient biblical figures whose numbers include Abraham and Moses. Still others tell of how he could travel great distances quickly and appear mysteriously to provide counsel to the perplexed. But most of the stories involve him finding the miraculous in the everyday, of discovering after gathering for an evening service that, “The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky.”
Unlike Rabbi Pinchas, the Baal Shem Tov does not appear to have left any teachings about Hanukkah. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday. It fits a general pattern of resistance to persecution commemorated by many Jewish holidays and summarized by some Rabbis as, “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.” The special food of Hanukkah being latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of light.
The holiday itself does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Its story is recounted in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, texts which were preserved by Christians. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and Passover are all more important. Yet, starting in the nineteenth-century, it became central to Jewish life as the Christmas season became increasingly commercial. Many Jewish families wanted to match the excitement of the Christian holiday with its bright lights, trees, carols, presents, and feasts.
Some Jewish parents even wanted their kids to experience something of the thrill of Santa Claus. They surprised their kids with fairly extravagant gifts. In my father’s family this took a something of absurd twist. When my father and his siblings were little my Grandmother Lorraine decided that the joy of latkes, dreidels, gelt, and gifts was not quite enough. So, she invented the Hanukkah Birdie.
The Hanukkah Birdie was a bird who brought Jewish children gifts throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. My grandmother rarely did things halfway. She actually commissioned an artist to paint a Hanukkah Birdie mural on a cloth that could be hung in my grandparent’s house. It featured a bird carrying presents in its beak. Every year at Hanukkah time my grandmother would take out the mural and her kids would know that the holiday had arrived. My father remembers, “It gave us something tangible, like our Christian friends had.”
It would be easy to make the story of my Grandmother and the Hanukkah Birdie a story about assimilation, especially since only about half of her grandchildren fall under the category of observant Jews. I would like to draw a somewhat different lesson. The human desire for miracles is something that transcends time and culture. We never know where we might find them. One of our central religious tasks is to open our selves to the miracles. It is to kindle the light of creation, as Rabbi Pinchas would have Jews do, or find the miraculous in nature, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.
You might hear in all of this some kind of theistic position, some kind of argument for the existence of God. That is not the message of this sermon or the point of the candles of hope that we kindle during the holiday season. Instead, I am suggesting we approach to the world like the great mystics. Louise Gluck takes such an approach in her poem “Celestial Music.” You will recall it is a dialogue between a theist and an atheist. There is no resolution to the theological positions in the poem. Instead, Gluck writes:
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only cloud, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height
Celestial music, white business in the trees, either one a miracle, either available to us, like the lights of the season, like nature itself, each day of our lives. Pecan pie, the flames of the hanukiah, pearls of light on Christmas trees, the great teachings of mystical Judaism, the wisdom of our own Unitarian Universalism, may all of these things remind us of a simple fact: the world is filled with ordinary miracles. We can encounter them each of the days of our lives.
And now, let the congregation say Amen.