as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, December 4, 2022
In the Jewish tradition there is a midrash, an interpretation, of the Torah, the sacred text, about twilight. It points to a spiritual practice that is essential for many Unitarian Universalists. The midrash has to do with what once happened at the waning of the light, that period of time when it is no longer day and not yet night.
We are at the darkening of the year. I am not sure about you, but for me this time of year prompts me to search for solace in the magic moments that exist at the edge of darkness. There is something special about the liminal times that occur right before we experience, as we sang before the sermon, the “[d]ark of winter” that is filled with “quiet calm.”
“Liminal time is what exists between what has been and what is not yet,” Susan Frederick-Gray, the President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, reminds us. We are living in one now. We Unitarian Universalists know that we are always in one. Of our tradition, our President has said, “We are religious people of imagination and possibility. We are a living tradition. We know that revelation is not sealed.” We look to the past for wisdom–there is richness to found in memories of yesterday. And we have faith that future will bring the unexpected.
Let us now approach the midrash. It concerns a story that is likely familiar. You probably know the myth of the Earth’s creation found in Genesis. There it is imagined that God birthed the world in six days. On the first day, she brought forth from her own sacred depths the heavens and the earth. And then she split the heavens in two so that there might be light, which she named day, and darkness, which she called night.
She divided the heavens again. There was the sky. And there was the water. That was the second day.
Then she pulled the water this way. And she pushed the water that way. She reached down, and there, from the very depths, she brought forth the land. And the third day ended.
She gathered together the light of the heavens into grand orbs. The sun, the moon, the stars, all of the celestial bodies, between them was infinite darkness. Pitch blackness punctured by brilliance, she set the cosmos in motion. There was morning and there was evening. The fourth day was finished. Ordinary time came.
The fifth day saw God bring all manner of swimming and flying things–critters great and small of sea and sky–into being.
The sixth day was when she completed the natural order. The beasts who dwell upon the land were fashioned. The text, in the English translation I use, contains a sparse imagination, and names “cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of every kind.” So, too, came the construction of the first humans. In our ancestors bodies, God blew the blessing of breath and the complexity of consciousness.
Then the sun set. Heaven and earth and everything else had been created. After the sixth night, on the seventh day, it is told that God ceased work and blessed the day as a day of rest. And so, she rested–perhaps with a tall glass of lemonade and a good novel by the seaside.
That much you might well remember–except for the lemonade, I made that up.
Now, here comes the midrash. It concerns the waning of the light, that liminal time between when the sun vanishes under the horizon and the moon and the stars claim the sky for themselves. Then in the twilight of the sixth day, right after God had finished making everything that follows the discoverable laws of the universe, she created the miracles.
The rabbis of old did not agree on precisely what the miracles were. One produced a catalog of ten. Some added three more. Others included an additional fourth. Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazer spoke of eight “stipulations”–impossible stories recounted elsewhere in the biblical texts. It is unclear whether these were meant as a supplement to or a replacement of the earlier list. Nor is it certain that miracles were entirely supernatural. One set of the things created in the diminishing twilight contains “the rainbow.” An interpretation of the interpretation, a midrash on the midrash, if you will, is that the miracles also included those things in the natural universe that humanity has not yet discovered or found a use for but whose existence and utility will be revealed when the time is right.
Miracles are mysterious. They are possibilities that exist beyond possibility. So, perhaps it was inevitable that the rabbis could not agree upon the nature or the number of the miracles. But that is not the important part of the interpretation.
No, I want to direct our attention elsewhere. Where do you think it belongs? I suggest we focus on the very idea of twilight, the liminal time, the waning of the light when we are caught between this day and the next, when the night is not yet but the day is no more.
It is on the cusp, at the transitory juncture, in the liminal time, when unfathomable possibility is found. That is one of the teachings of the midrash. There are times when solid, knowable, things occur. In the myth, the earth comes into being, the heavens are born. The natural order is to be found.
And then, there are times, to invoke Karl Marx, when “[a]ll that is solid melts into air,” and what had been impossible becomes possible. A miracle occurs and what you never thought would happen, happens.
Is this not the pattern for most of our lives? Day follows day. Night comes after night. Each has their predictable rhythm.
Weekdays, I wake up. I get the boys their breakfast. I walk Asa to school and return home to brew a pot of tea–lately it has been Earl Grey mixed with blue cornflower petals and served with a dash of sugar. After my own breakfast and a few minutes with a magazine–I still read print–it is time to get on my bike and ride to the office.
And so, it continues, a predictable pattern that ends when I click off the light. Is it the same for you? Do most of the hours of your life contain a certain sequence, first this and then that?
And then, sometimes, something happens. I catch an unexpected spark of beauty. The moon comes down, to invoke our poem. I have a conversation I did not anticipate. Or something shifts, something I had not imagined occurs, and suddenly my life is different than before. Is that true for you as well?
The midrash, twilight, the waning of the light, these are reminders that even if there is a particular fixity to the world and our lives upon this planet, there are always also those periods in between when possibilities beyond the possible exist. God, the biblical myth insists, wove miracles into the very fabric of the universe.
Recalling this is a core Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. Susan Frederick-Gray encouraged us to remember it when she spoke of the liminal time in which we now find ourselves. “The world we knew is passing. All things grow strange,” she told us at our General Assembly last summer.
When all things grow strange, she urged us to recall, we Unitarian Universalists “trust the dawning future” and welcome it “not with fear.” We do not necessarily believe that what comes next will be better. But we do understand, in her words, that each new day–whether the metaphorical coming era or the literal daylight–contains within it the unforeseen.
It is a Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice to remember that revelation is not sealed. The future can be different from the past. No, let me restate that. The future will be different from the past.
At this time of year, as one twelvemonth terminates and another one commences, as we experience the waning of the light, we invited to open ourselves to this spiritual practice. The rhythms and stories of some of the winter holidays encourage us to sit in the liminal time of possibility.
Some neo-pagans and most Christians observe Advent. We light an Advent wreath to mark the Sundays before the arrival of the Winter Solstice and Christmas. Each is a holiday which, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we conceive of as a day of possibility.
The solstice turns one solar year to the next. In our Winter Solstice ritual we metaphorically burn away the old and welcome the new–let go of the fixity of the past and summon the possibility of the future.
Christmas, for the majority of Unitarian Universalists, is a time to recall the possibility that exists within each human life. In traditional Unitarian Christianity Jesus is not imagined to have been the unique child of the divine. Instead, he was someone who woke up to and uncovered the divine spark that lay within. The purpose of our religious communion, in this understanding, is to help each other uncover that spark and encourage each other to let it burn and shine ever more brightly.
Every year in our Christmas Eve service we hear Sophia Lyon Fahs’s words:
… each night a child is born is a holy night
Parents — sitting besides their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
The waning of the light, the month of December is a time where the very cycles of nature invite us to open ourselves up to the liminal. The old year is passing. The new year has not yet arrived. We are in between.
And in the in between we find miracles. Here too there is something to be found in the story of Hanukkah. It is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that has taken on greater importance in our pluralistic society. For some in the Jewish community, it is a counter to Christmas–not in its theological importance but in its cultural one. For others, it remains a holiday that is but a later interpolation into the holy structure of reality organized around the High Holy Days. None of the rabbis lists of miracles contain within them the miracle of the Hanukkah lights.
But they are a miracle of light, nonetheless. You may know the story. In its most abbreviated form, it recounts a time when there was not enough sanctified oil in the Temple to keep the holy fires lit. The Temple had been defiled and the sacred oil desecrated. Upon the Temple’s rededication one tiny vial of pure oil was found. It was only enough to last one night. It was going to take eight nights for more sanctified oil to be made. The miracle is that the oil lasted for eight whole nights until the new pure oil could be brought into the temple. So, Hanukkah is another holiday of waiting in the liminal time for a new possibility to occur.
It is not always comfortable to be in the liminal time–to live in the waning of the light. I imagine the discomfort of the Temple priests as they prayed for the oil to last not one night but eight and gently, carefully, nursed the flame so that it would linger until more fuel would arrive. I suspect that they had faith that somehow the oil would endure. And I also assume that they were filled with doubts that the possibility that they sought would come into being.
Here again, is our spiritual practice. We are called to embrace the obvious. There will be a new dawn. The future will be different than the past. And we are called to be honest about the unease we feel about the passing away of what has been and the arrival of what will be.
Let me invite you now to consider how this spiritual practice can work for us, as Unitarian Universalists, one three levels: the personal, the congregational, and the societal.
The personal, it is one of my privileges as your minister to officiate memorial services. Such rites of passage touch upon the very depths of what it means to be a religious community. They are rituals in which we recall what binds us together as human beings and as a congregation. They are times when the love that we have for each other is most palpable. And they are times when we share vivid stories about the acts of love that make life holy. The tenderness of parents towards children, the beauty of friendship, the commitment of partnership, the transformative power of justice, and the strength of fellowship are all often invoked as part of the transformative power of love in such rituals.
Memorial services are liminal times. For the living they mark an ending and a beginning. They are an opportunity to sit in the tension between the what was–the life that we had with our loved one who is now gone–and what will be–our life in the future. It is not always an easy thing to do. But we Unitarian Universalists do it with the knowledge that life continues–not a particular life but all life–and that in the continuation of life comes new dawns and the constancy of love.
Perhaps this is an overly grim note for a Sunday morning service. So, let me just say to you this. When you next find yourself in a liminal time, when all that is solid has melted into air, when whatever you expected to occur in your life has not occurred, when you are facing a moment of despair, pause. Breath. And recall the teaching that revelation is not sealed. There is room for miracles–for possibilities beyond possibility–in our earthly lives. Say to yourself, or say out loud, “Another day will dawn.”
Another day will dawn. It will bring with it its own possibilities. It might be that they feel like blessings. And they might feel otherwise. Perhaps the patterns of life will continue as they are. Or perhaps they will change. But either way, another day will dawn, and it bring a future that has been different from the past.
This spirit is found in Eloise Bibb Thompson’s poem “Ode to the Sun.” There we find the poet reflecting under a sunless sky about “many heart felt sighs,” “many piercing cries,” and “many deeds of woe.” But then comes the daystar and she declares, “Shine on, O glorious sun!” Another day has dawned.
The congregational, we reflect the very newness of the dawn, the unfixedness of the future, within our very practices as a congregation. We intentionally open our life together to the liminal. We have been doing this together, you and I, minister and congregation, over the last few years as I have served first as your interim and now as your developmental minister.
It is our collective task at this time to be together in the possibility of twilight and share life together between your last settled ministry and your next. As part of living in this liminal time, this time of possibility, together we have been exploring a series of questions about the future of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.
Perhaps the most central of these has simply been, “What kind of church do we want to become?” There is a sense within that question that the congregation of the future will be different from the one of the past. That sense is further spelled in one of the items that you assigned yourselves in your effort to answer it. And that is to, in your words, “Craft a Mission, Vision, and Covenant that are common knowledge and, along with a Strategic Plan and Annual Vision of Ministry, inform decision-making.”
Embedded within the question you asked yourselves and the charge you gave yourselves is the very idea that revelation is not sealed. Rather than assuming that the purpose of this congregation will be same that it was yesterday or that your purpose will be the same for all time, you are living into the truth that what this community is called to be and to do today is different than it what it was and was called to do a hundred years ago.
This week and next the Board’s Mission, Vision, and Covenant Committee will be sharing with their draft statements. We hope to vote on them next month. But before we do I encourage you to read them in the spirit of twilight. They are not yet finalized. Let the committee know what you think of them. Do they speak to your heart? Do they embody your aspirations for this community? Are they documents that you think can guide congregational life in the next years?
The congregational practice of reimagining our mission, vision, and covenant points to the final aspect of a spiritual practice of opening ourselves to liminal time. On a societal level, when we embrace the truth that the future will be different than the past we again acknowledge that revelation is not sealed. There are still miracles, still possibilities that exist beyond the possible, to come.
It is the greatest of human follies to take culture or society as fixed. It is core to Unitarian Universalist practice to recognize that both are fluid. A cursory glance at history will reveal that have been many ways of being and many ways of doing throughout our species existence on this planet. There is a beautiful diversity of religions. There are thousands of languages. Everything is changing all the time. Words that are used by one generation can have a different meaning for the next.
Unitarian Universalists proclaim this reality in the core of our theology. The sentiment is expressed in a statement made more than a hundred years ago by the Universalist minister L. B. Fisher. Our theological ancestor wrote, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”
We move. Here, again, I invite us to return to the liminal. We are in the liminal season, when one-year fades to the next. At such a time, our tradition challenges us to be open to what comes next. There will be a new dawn. There will be a new year. And in the coming day, and in the arriving year, there will be possibilities beyond what we think as possible. For revelation is not sealed. In the twilight, in the time between time, in the waning of the light, and at the crowning of the year may we remember that there remain miracles.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.