Unexpected Gifts


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, December 5, 2021

Happy Hanukkah! Advent greetings! It has been a little while since we have been together. I am glad to be here, ready to celebrate the winter holidays. They form what in sixty fifth Psalm of the Hebrew Bible is called the “crown of the year,” a peak time when the ordinary is ruptured and our sense of the sacred is heightened.

The crown of the year, at the start of this sermon, and on this first Sunday of the final month of 2021, it is worth turning momentarily to the concluding verses of Psalm 65:

You crown the year with Your bounty;
fatness is distilled with Your paths;
the pasturelands distill it;
the hills are girded with joy.
The meadows are clothed with flocks,
the valleys mantled with grain;
they raise a shout, they break into song.

Historically, the psalm is thought to have been recited upon entering the Temple in Jerusalem. God was believed to reside there. The words are supposed to evoke the joy of being in her presence.

The closing verses of the psalm speak nothing of the Temple. Nor do they imply that the divine is only found within the bounds of the sanctuary. Instead, they suggest that the very Earth itself is a sacred gift. Infused with the divine, terrestrial matter is so sanctified that the meadows and the mounds themselves are song. Do not just look for God, if you want to use that word, or the highest form of consciousness, or wisdom, in the halls of holy. Seek everywhere and you may find the world filled with unexpected gifts. Especially now, at the crown of the year, this time we set aside, secular or religious, for celebrating the Earth’s turning, the passing of one dancing rotation around the daystar and the advent of another.

My sermon this morning is titled “Unexpected Gifts.” It is the first in this month’s series on reimagining possibilities. My message is simple. The world is filled with unexpected gifts. When we become aware of them, we can reimagine what is possible.

I offer this message because I believe, with the Protestant preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, the “church’s central task is an imaginative one.” Our effort together is devoted to the prospect of seeing, experiencing, savoring, the world in such a way that we are ever more open to the reality of beauty and joy that surrounds us.

The Jewish and Christian holidays that come at the crown of the year both contain stories that can expand our sense of the possible. In both Hanukkah and Christmas, we encounter miracles and unexpected gifts. Perhaps that statement is redundant. For what is a miracle but a gift that is so unexpected that its recipient cannot even imagine its arrival?

Most of you, I suspect, know stories of the season’s unexpected gifts. Hanukkah is celebrated because, according to the Talmud, “a miracle occurred.” In truth, it was a fairly minor miracle. Perhaps you know the story? In ancient Palestine, the land of Judah came under the power of Antiochus Ephiphanes. He was a harsh and brutal king. He outlawed Jewish religious practice and defiled the Temple, turning it into a shrine to the Greek gods. Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee and his family, Antiochus and his supporters were driven from the land and the Temple was reclaimed as the seat of the divine. When the high priest re-entered the Temple to rededicate it, he discovered that there was only enough uncontaminated holy oil to burn for one night. Yet, despite this limitation the priest was able to keep the lamp a flame for eight days and nights until more holy oil was found.

Eight days of light instead of one, a small miracle but an unexpected gift, nonetheless.

The Christmas story is, likewise, filled with unexpected gifts. The core Christian claim, of course, is that the holiday itself is about the unanticipated arrival of the Messiah—the anointed one who is supposed to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. But the arrival of the Christ child is not the only unexpected gift found in the holy day’s story. It contains many.

Some of my favorite, are the gifts of the Magi. You might remember them. In the Gospel of Matthew, three wise men go in search of the child they believe will be the Messiah. They read the sky and, following a rising star, discover the place where Mary is nursing her newborn. Imagine the astonishment of all. Three sages, blessed with divine insight, study the celestial sphere, and uncover what no one had expected, that one has been born who God intends to use to bring the reign of peace to Earth. Mary, in a manger, holding a sleeping babe, perhaps drowsy with sleep herself, looks up and finds that three bearers of wisdom of have come. They bow to her child–so humble there’s no place for him in the inn–and present him with treasure chests, the unfathomable riches of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It is a fantastic story. But like all stories of unexpected gifts, of miracles, it invites us to reimagine the possible. Is it possible that a jar of oil can be made to last for eight days? Maybe the miracle was a human one. It could be that the high priest so carefully tended the wick, kept trimming it so short, that it burned at the barest flicker and the lamp, casting but the dimmest light, simply consumed the same amount of oil in eight days that it would normally burn through in one. In the Hanukkah story, he did not anticipate finding any jar of oil that had not been defiled. So, it might be that the discovery of a single one expanded his own sense of the possible and led him to carefully steward the small amount that there was so it could burn for long enough.

Is it possible that three kings found a child in a manger and showered him with great wealth? Likely not, but the story should remind us that, in the words of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition:

Each night a child is born is a holy night–
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping

Every new life that comes into the world brings with it the possibilities of unexpected gifts. Who knows how the course of lives shall run at birth? What blessings we will bring into the world?

In one of her poems, Diane di Prima tells us:

the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.

And it is one of the purposes of our communion, especially now, as we reach the crown of the year, to remind each other that the world is infused with all sorts of possibilities, so many invitations to imaginings. Indeed, to be human, and to be religious, is to imagine. We come together, in part, to help each other remember that to again quote Barbara Brown Taylor, the world “is packed with endless possibilities.”

In the past, I have spoken with you about the resurrection of the living. This is the teaching, found in gnostic Christianity, the words of the Buddha, and in the sages of many traditions that suggest that the purpose of religion is to help us wake up to the world as it is, a realm “packed with endless possibilities.” It is the longed-for answer to the question, attested to in a hymn often sung by Congregation Shma Koleniu, that runs: “Am I awake? Am I prepared?”

Am I awake? In pursuing our theme of reimagining possibilities, I want to invite us to consider that when we wake up to the world, we will find ourselves surrounded by the unexpected gift of beauty. For some, perhaps, this is not as great a miracle as the ones attested to in either the Hanukkah or Christmas stories. But it is a miracle that is available to us regardless and one which, I hope, you will open yourself to as we find ourselves at the crown of the year.

Let me offer you three examples, from ordinary life, that I have found to be unexpected gifts. Perhaps they will help you be more aware of the beauty which infuses our lives.

Have you ever watched a good short order cook? Do you know the kind, the sort of person who works frying eggs, assembling omelets, pouring pancakes, and sizzling sausages? Some years ago, I found myself in an ancient diner, for an early morning breakfast. It was tiny, perhaps three small tables and a small counter overlooking the kitchen. There I sat and there I made my order–something fried with something melted with something sautéed and a glass of orange juice and a dash of watery tea.

The kitchen was just on the other side of the counter. I watched the short order cook make my breakfast. Actually, I watched her dance as she made several people’s breakfasts all at once. She scrambled your eggs. She reached around and made your coffee. She flipped over your pancake. Then, somehow, in the same motion, she turned your omelet. A quick pause, the spatula set down and a rapid bit of knife work. Chop, chop, chop, goes the onion, the bell pepper, a mad splash of oil and it is back to the grill. Here’s your plate. Here’s your plate. Put a little cheese on those potatoes and now here’s mine.

No motion wasted. Everything happening exactly as it is meant to happen, like the improvised dance of a modern master. I have seen jazz pianists, turntablists, and drummers proceed with the same variety of controlled, premeditated, and yet spontaneous action. This movement in response to that. This key stroke after that saxophone rift. This record scratch cascading after that accidental bump or sudden flight of insight.

The short order cook was not supposed to be offering an artistic performance. I was in the diner for hash browns, not high art. And yet, watching her was as mesmerizing as any ballet. Her movements as enthralling as capoeira, mambo, tango, an unexpected gift of beauty.

The philosopher Simone Weil observed in her notebooks, “The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.” And in the beauty of short order cook’s movements–that seemingly perfect chop, sizzle, fry, turn, flip, twist–there was undeniably something of the divine, something of the highest within each of us, that was made manifest.

A second unexpected gift, the found object. Is the phrase familiar? It is something found by an artist and declared to be art. This piece of trash–this rusting hulk of oxidized metal, crumpled bit of paper, broken spoon, fragment of ceramic, a thing of beauty. The found object, argues critic Margaret Iversen, “calls attention to itself by creating a hole in the fabric of normal perception.”

Creating a hole in the fabric of normal perception… The found object, in other phrasing, awakens us from our slumber to the impossible, ever present, beauty of the world. It interrupts routine and causes us to look at the world and ourselves differently. Do you know of what I speak?

If you do not now, I suspect you did when you were a child. What child has not found magic in a wooden stick or what appears to be an ordinary rock? If you have ever had children surely you have had the experience of going through their pants or jacket pockets before doing the wash. A snatch of string, a smooth stone, a piece of bark, mashed bits of wax… precious objects!

I have long enjoyed the found beauty of crumbling of asphalt and concrete. With a splash of water or slight slick of oil they turn prismadic and unleash thin bands of red, yellow, purple, blue, all the colors, across the eye. Examined closely they reveal a multitude of tiny stones, each rock with its own story, its own structure, texture, and shade. An object of beauty, an unexpected gift that can awaken us to the world around us.

Lucille Clifton, meanwhile, writes of the joy to be discovered among uncontrolled vegetation.

here we are
running with the weeds
colors exaggerated

Dandelion, wild violet, henbit, purslane, wood sorrel, not an unwelcome guest but an invitation to discover “the name of the place / is Love.”

Along with the found object, I invoke the found sound. It is the world’s music that reminds us that our own drumbeats, piano chords, sung notes, are accompanied by accidental sounds or choruses from birds, windswept trees, or moving water that contain their own unexpected gifts of beauty.

Contemporary electronic artists, especially ambient ones who emphasize atmosphere over melody or rhythm, invite us to listen to the world in new ways and wake up to the loveliness of quotidian sounds. I encountered one example of this in the work of an experimental musician, Jones Victoria, I knew when I lived in San Francisco. They created an album entitled “Up Train, Down Train.” They took a tape recorder and recorded the sounds they encountered riding the train down the San Francisco Peninsula and back up again. Over this they layered scattering of other favorite sounds, bits recorded in public, portions of Brian Eno and Jeff Grimke albums, snatches of television shows, piano notes, guitar chords, lyrics from the iconic political punk bank, C.R.A.S.S., “Do they owe us a living? Of course, they do!” and French torch ballads.

The result was mesmerizing. Not just to listen to but in the way the music prompted me to look for unexpected gifts of beauty in ordinary sound. The rhythm of the train wheels, a lullaby. Shoes slapping on sidewalks, the beat of a drum.

The found sound, the found object, the short order cook’s dance, the gifts of the Magi, the eight days of light… What unexpected gifts are there for you to discover? What beauty is to be found when we are awake to the world? How does that beauty expand your sense of the world’s possibilities? Remind you of the miracles that surround us?

I suspect that you have heard a similar message from me before. It is said that a preacher most often preaches messages that they need to hear. And I suspect that I need to wake up to the beauty of the world, and the possibilities that beauty contains, a bit more often. What about you? It is so easy to get distracted with the daily rhythm of ordinary life and forget to see the sparkling gravel in the asphalt or mosaic of green that forms a tree or…

Before I close, let me extend to you an invitation. This is the first of my sermons this month on reimagining possibilities. Between now and next Sunday, I invite you to open yourself to the unexpected beauty of the world and when you find something beautifully unanticipated–an exquisite movement, an inspiring sound, a wondrous object–send me an email or, if you are watching us online, post in the comment section about it. I plan to draw on your inspiration when I preach to you again.

Today, though, I close with words attributed to the Navajo tradition:

Beauty is before me
And beauty is behind me
Above and below me hovers the beautiful
I am surrounded by it
I am immersed in it

You may be as well, Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.

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