Sunday, December 13 (Advent 3), 2009
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
I joined Facebook a couple of weeks ago. Several of you have already posted something on my so called wall, asking ominously if I know what I have gotten myself into. The answer so far has been no. For a while I thought Facebook might actually be some sort of pornography site and that everything people wrote had a hidden meaning of which I was completely unaware. Apparently there are games people can play on Facebook one of which involves owning a virtual farm. But I didn’t know this, so when someone would post something like “Oh no, there’s a cow in my alfalfa field!” I would sit there wondering what in the world that could be code for and why none of you had mentioned the pornography element.
For those of you, who have not yet ventured into the world of Facebook, it is what I believe is called a social networking site. You set up a page about yourself and ask people to be your Facebook friends or wait until they ask you. This has the feel of returning to 7th grade, which was not one of my best years. However, Facebook doesn’t want you to feel as badly as most of us did in 7th grade, because, presumably then we would stop using Facebook, so it suggests friends for you — for example, people who listed the same high school and graduating class as you. So I have reconnected with a few long lost high school friends, which is great. I have also come face to face with the poor functioning of my mind, at least where memory is concerned, because I can’t remember half of the people who contact me and claim we went to high school together. This would be understandable if I went to a large high school with a graduating class of hundreds but, in actual fact, there were approximately 80 people in my graduating class. Some of the people contacting me have names like Lavinia, which you would think I would remember. Luckily I am already pretty good at confession so I just confess and ask them to tell me who they are and whether they used another name in high school.
The other thing about Facebook is that I joined for the wrong reason — I thought people were posting creative writing and poetry on their pages and I was missing out on all this great writing. Everyone kept telling me I should join and that I would love it, so of course I figured it was about poetry. Also, a member of the congregation who shall remain nameless sent me examples of the beautiful writing he or she had been posting on their page. Of course I had no idea this was probably the single person out of the 42 trillion on Facebook who uses it this way.
But anyway, just when I was thinking the Facebook venture might have been a big mistake, I got a handed a tiny treasure of a story. The story came from none other than Krista Hill, who said I could share it with you. She recently posted a conversation that she had just had with her youngest daughter Meredith, who is four. Meredith asked Krista, “Mama, if God made the world, who made God?” This is one of those classic theological mind twisters they make you deal with in Divinity school I might add. Krista is an experienced parent so she quickly made use of the parental tactic known as stalling for time and said something like, “Hmmm, what a great question!” She next made use of a second excellent parental tactic known as reflecting the question back to the asker, saying, “Weeelll, who do you think made God, Meredith?” Meredith’s response was immediate, as if the answer was completely obvious and she was just checking to make sure her mother knew it too. Meredith said, “God’s mother made God. Her name is Hope.” If God made the world, who made God? God’s mother made God. Her name is Hope.
I did a little research this week trying to find a branch of Christian or Jewish mysticism that claims that God was created through Hope and since God made the universe, therefore, the whole of creation rests upon hope. The whole of creation began with hope, though hope, because of hope. I couldn’t find any mystic tradition or specific creation stories which reflected this belief, but I might have been looking in the wrong places. Because I believe Meredith is right. I believe, on a deep level of truth, on a level of metaphor and symbolism, that hope is the source of all that gets created, both on a grand cosmic level and on the smallest daily scale of what we each choose to bring into being: the art or poetry we create in the hope of expressing something within us that yearns to be brought into the light; in the gardens we plant in the hope of feeding our families and rekindling a closer relationship with the earth in our own backyards; in the relationships we create, risking our vulnerability, our very hearts, in the hope of being known by others and in the hope of knowing them.
This morning, among the many lights we kindle, are the lights for Hanukkah. Tonight at Sundown the third night of Hanukkah will begin. Hanukkah is a holiday which is all about hope, absurd and unreasonable hope, hope in the most difficult of circumstances.
The historic setting of Hanukah is one of intense political instability. In 167 BCE Antiochus IV, the Greek-Syrian ruler, abolished religious freedom for the Jews of Judea; Jewish worship was banned, as was the reading of the Torah. All Torah scrolls were supposed to be destroyed and it became illegal to observe the Sabbath. Death was the punishment for breaking any of these new laws. Antiochus took control of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship life, and dedicated it to the Greek god Zeus.
All of this was going on against a background of almost a century of internal disagreement and conflict within the Jewish community itself in Judea. The Jews were not in agreement over how to respond to the Greek culture flourishing around them. It was, to a certain extent, a class war, within the Jewish community. One group in the conflict was made up mostly of urban-dwelling Jews, middle class and wealthy, as well as some of the Temple priesthood, who had welcomed the introduction of Greek culture and customs. The other group was mostly made up of farmers, rural and agriculturally-based Jews, who lived far outside of the city and opposed the adoption of any aspects of Greek culture. The point of dispute between these two groups was essentially the age-old question of assimilation: How much could the Jews become like the Greeks without actually abandoning Judaism altogether? This was not a theoretical issue, especially once death became the cost to be paid for refusing to assimilate. Fighting erupted between these two groups of Jews, anti assimilation and pro assimilation, and the threat of civil war loomed against the backdrop of the brutality of the reign of Antiochus, IV.
Meanwhile, Antiochus instructed his soldiers to deal with the civil unrest in Jerusalem by massacring Jews. He commandeered the money in the Temple treasury, which had served as a bank for the Jewish people and in 167 BCE Judaism was officially outlawed. Most Jews, understandably terrified of the deadly consequences of rebellion, complied with the new laws and publicly relinquished their Jewish identity.
However, in the village of Modi’in, outside of Jerusalem, a man named Mattathias decided to rebel against Antiochus and the occupying soldiers. Taking his five sons with him, he fled to hills surrounding Jerusalem and formed a small band of guerilla fighters. When Mattathias died, his son Judah took over leadership. Because of their extraordinary military success, the group came to be called the Maccabees, based on the Hebrew word for hammer. In 164 BCE, Judah and his small army were able to retake Jerusalem and reclaim the temple after only three years of fighting. Considering their small numbers and lack of resources, this outcome was almost unbelievable.
Much of what happened at this time is recounted in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. These books were not included in the Hebrew Bible, but they are part of the Apocrypha, a group of Jewish writing from this period that was preserved by the Christian Church. According to the Second Book of Maccabees, Judah and his band purified the Temple and rid it of all traces of Greek desecration. The date they did this was the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The celebrations of rededication and renewal lasted eight days, perhaps as a kind of delayed celebration of Sukkot, the harvest festival, which also lasts 8 days. It is during this temple rededication celebration that the part of the story most of us are familiar with is set. When the Maccabees rededicated the temple they only found one small jar of oil with which to light the temple lamp, enough for one day. But miraculously the oil lasted for 8 days. Interestingly, the miracle of the oil was not part of the original story and it isn’t recounted in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. It was only added by Rabbis later.
The timing of Hanukkah is not coincidental: there is much evidence that on the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East, the winter solstice was a time for imploring the sunlight to return and celebrating its readiness to do so. In Rome Dec. 25 was a festival day to celebrate the birth day of the Sun God. In Persia people set great bonfires at the winter solstice. So it is possible that the Syrians may have chosen the winter solstice as a time to make the Jerusalem Temple their own by holding a festival there. It is also possible that the when the Maccabees won the Temple back three years later, they chose the anniversary of that day of desecration as the day of rededication because they were rededicating, not only the temple, but the day itself to Jewishness. They were seeking to reclaim the solstice festival, which had won wide support among the assimilated Jews, in order to turn it into a day symbolizing Jewish victory.
As you can probably imagine, there has existed a certain amount of tension within Judaism between the two stories of Hanukkah, the story of the Maccabees and the story of the miracle of the Temple oil. The rabbis wanted to emphasize the story of the temple miracle, understandably wanting to stress the saving power of God, not the saving power of warfare or radical uprisings, which is perhaps why they added the oil story in the first place. But the ordinary people, especially those in positions of relative powerlessness or in times of religious oppression, wanted to emphasize the power of the Maccabees. They wanted to emphasize the power of human agency, the power of fierceness and determination, the power of the Maccabees — a small group of people with a great hope.
But it is complicated to celebrate a holiday based on a military victory — based on warfare, even if the story has a good ending. Because in a sense the story never did end — violence and bloodshed continues and not just in Israel but in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur. And yet there is hope here too. My colleague Mark Belletini writes these words about Hanukkah based on the traditional Hanukkah blessings you heard this morning:
The miracle is not that oil lasts,
but that our hope lasts, despite disappointment.
Barukh atah, tiqvah! Blest are you, hope!
The miracle is not that fire illumines,
but that we grow brighter.
Barukh atah, zohar! Blessed are you, brightness!
The miracle is not that people tell ancient stories,
but that people dare to live their own stories.
Barukh atah, midrashim! Blessed are you, stories!
The miracle is not that tyranny is resisted,
but that resistance recreates us into new beings.
Barukh atah, khadash. Blessed are you, new being.
The miracle is not that courage exists,
but that courage does not, every time,
have to ball itself into a fist…
Barukh atah, khayil Blessed are you, courage.
There is hope in the belief that we can claim as miracle, as blessed, the ability of human beings to change, to transform, to become new beings, to turn ourselves into the people we hope to be. The way of the Maccabees may not be the way we will choose, and we pray that we will always be lucky enough to have such choices. But the story of Hanukkah is a story about people becoming their own hope, creating their hope, and making a way forward even when it seems there is no way. Perhaps the struggle of the Maccabees can also remind us that freedom and self-determination have never come easily. There has always been a cost in human life, in suffering and in pain, and there still is.
Last winter I found a story about someone being hope, while waiting for hope in the New York Times. The story was about a man named Samuel J. Stone who lived in Canton Ohio and gave away $760. He did this in the winter of 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, when a lot of people were out of work and out of hope and he did it without revealing his identity. Samuel Stone was perhaps the original secret Santa, the fact that he was a Jewish immigrant makes the story even more delightful.
Ted Gup, a professor of journalism at Case Western University wrote the Times article, telling how in the weeks before Christmas of 1933, a mysterious offer appeared in The Repository, the daily newspaper in Canton. The ad in the paper promised a small amount of cash to those in dire financial need. To apply, people simply needed to write a letter explaining their circumstances to the donor, who called himself Mr. B. Virdot.
Not surprisingly, hundreds of letters poured in and about a week later the letter writers starting receiving checks, most in the amount of $5, not a great deal but enough in 1933 to buy at least a week’s worth of groceries, or 2 pairs of adult sized winter shoes or boots, or a good snow sled if you found one on sale, or a Christmas tree, baby doll, and toy truck, with a little leftover for candy.
The event made the front page news in the Canton paper but the identity of the benefactor remained a mystery. The story itself was never quite forgotten. The author Ted Gup said he had always known the story, growing up as a child in Canton three decades later. Gup wrote:
My mother, Virginia, had always known the secret: the donor was her father, Samuel J. Stone. The fictitious moniker was a blend of his daughters’ names — Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy. But Mother had never told me, and when she handed me the suitcase she had no idea what was in it — “some old papers,” she said.
Gup wrote in the article how he had taken the suitcase of letters to his tiny cabin in the Maine woods one weekend read them all, letter after letter. The letters had come from out-of-work upholsterers, painters, bricklayers, day laborers, salesmen and even former executives, some of whom, it later turned out, the author’s grandfather had known professionally.
One letter dated Dec. 19, 1933, begins, “I hate to write this letter … it seems too much like begging. Anyway, here goes. I will be honest, my husband doesn’t know I’m writing this. He is working but not making enough to hardly feed his family. We are going to do everything in our power to hold on to our house.” The letter ended with the words “Even if you don’t think we’re worthy of help, I hope you receive a great blessing for your kindness.”
Another man wrote, with great eloquence, “For one like me who for a lifetime has earned a fine living, charity by force of distressed circumstances is an abomination and a headache. However, your offer carries with it a spirit so far removed from those who offer help for their own glorification, you remove so much of the sting and pain of forced charity that I venture to tell you my story.”
Children, too, wrote in. One 12-year-old named Mary wrote a heartbreaking letter saying “There are six in our family and my father is dead … my baby sister is sick. …Any way you could help us would be appreciated in this fatherless and worrisome home.”
In the black suitcase there was also a carefully saved pile of thank you letters from people who had received Mr. Virdot’s checks. A father wrote: “It was put to good use paying for two pairs of shoes for my girls and other little necessities. I hope some day I have the pleasure of knowing to whom we are indebted for this very generous gift.”
Gup writes, “So why had my grandfather done this? Because he had known what it was to be down and out.” In 1902, when Samuel Stone was 15 years old, he and his family had fled religious persecution in Romania and settled into a Jewish ghetto in Pittsburgh. He and his six siblings worked rolling cigars in order to keep their family fed. School was a luxury they could rarely afford because they needed the children to be working. Samuel Stone later worked on a barge and in a coal mine. By the time the Depression hit, he had slowly worked his way out of poverty and owned a small chain of clothing stores, but he never forgot what it meant to struggle. And the Secret Santa checks of 1933 were not Stone’s only act of generosity. The black suitcase contained receipts hinting at other anonymous acts of kindness. The year before the United States entered World War II, for instance, he sent hundreds of wool overcoats to British soldiers. In the pocket of each was an unsigned handwritten note, urging the soldier who would receive the coat not to give in to despair.
Samuel Stone died in 1981 at the age of 93 in a car accident while driving himself to his office, where he still worked full time. His grandson believes that his grandfather saw his acts of generosity as simple things, nothing particularly remarkable, certainly nothing to call attention to himself. Stone believed that generosity is just part of responsibility but also the privilege of being human. He believed that offering one another hope, especially in times of hopelessness, is just what people do.
Last Sunday I said that if we wanted to learn how to be light even as we wait for light in this time of advent, we need to look to our teenagers to teach us how and then follow their lead. We heard about the trip our youth took to serve homeless people in Boston. They talked about having their assumptions and stereotypes cracked wide open, how in the course of a single weekend they began to look beyond the surfaces of things, beyond the shopping carts and garbage bags and to come to know people who are homeless as just that, people, people with ideas and hopes and sorrows and plans and relationships. Teenagers can teach us about being light, about shining light in dark places because they have not yet become cynical about what is possible to do in this world. I am not saying teenagers are never cynical mind you. I do understand they are often cynical about adults, especially their parents. One of the reasons they are cynical about adults is of course because that is their job — they are going to leave home soon and they need to think there is nothing going on here that they would want to stick around for in order to accomplish that leaving. But I think they also might be cynical about adults because they don’t see us making the world better. They see us working and doing laundry and worrying but not necessarily changing things and they still believe the world can be changed. Fortunately their passion and energy and idealism can rub off on us if we let it.
If we want to learn about how to be hope even as we wait for hope, it is probably the little children who have the most to teach us. I think about my daughter who had her long hair cut this week and gave it to Locks of Love, the organization which makes wigs for children who are undergoing chemotherapy. The chance to give her hair away wasn’t the sole reason she cut it — she also wanted to avoid our daily horror sessions with the hairbrush. But she was delighted to donate her hair to children who have illnesses that make them lose theirs. She was full of hope, certainty even, about the power of her hair to help a sick child. “Another kid is going to get red hair,” she crowed. “It will make them feel so much better!”
I pray that my daughter’s red hair does make another child feel better, even as I pray that my own child, all children, never loses their sense of hope, and their belief in their own capacity to bring hope into the world. May we do likewise.