© Jeremy D. Nickel 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 5, 2010
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When I was a child I was always in a hurry. I was one of those kids that moved at a mile a minute, and was always on to the next adventure. This meant that the holiday season was a particularly tortuous time of year for me because I would so often hear the word that drove me crazy: wait. And because I grew up in a family that celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas, I got a double dose. I had to wait through long meals, I had to wait through another candle every night, I had to wait through long songs and longer stories. And Hanukkah was a particularly difficult celebration for me because my Uncle who would come over to celebrate with us each year would have to ritually read the same stories and sing the same songs night after night, year after year. And the worst part was: I knew that the presents weren't coming until Christmas.
It seemed to me during these celebrations that time itself was against me. I learned that if I stared at the clock, it would literally slow down; seconds would become minutes, minutes would become hours, and stories would stretch on for eternity. And of course, one of the great ironies of my response to Hanukkah was that it is in many ways a story about the miracle of stretching time. It is a holiday whose very premise is that as a reward for human impatience, time itself slowed down to allow an amount of sacred lamp oil that should have only burned for one day to stretch for eight miraculous days and nights.
Now, last week we talked about a different way to view patience within the context of our spiritual lives that allowed us to use our time of waiting to create beauty in the world right now. But this week we are going to flip the concept on its head as I speak in praise of holy impatience, of hearing the word: wait, and answering with a firm: no thanks.
The context for our ruminations this week is the Hanukkah story, which takes place in the 2nd century Before the Common Era, at a time when the Seleucid Empire was ruling the Middle East from its seat of power in Syria. But no story from the Jewish canon can be understood without remembering the larger history that informs the Jewish cultural understanding of their place in history. For the most part this larger narrative has the following pattern: The Jewish people are promised a special relationship with God in exchange for their loyalty; the Jewish people fall under the power of another political system; the Jewish people patiently wait, out of their sense of history and loyalty to their God, to be delivered from bondage; eventually some event takes place that forces them to reevaluate their patience and forces them to wait no longer for God to do the work, and spurs them to action; they then miraculously overcome impossible odds and deliver themselves to freedom; until they once again fall under the power of another political or religious system. And the pattern begins anew. And the Hanukkah story is indeed another telling of this same story.
In the Hanukkah story, rather than it being the Egyptians who held them in bondage, it was the aforementioned Seleucid Empire. And this was a time when all of the Middle East was undergoing a process of Hellenization - that is, of becoming more like the Greeks, adopting their style of dress, their food, their culture and customs, and their gods - which was having a particularly divisive effect on the Jewish community, as some members continued to cling to the old ways while other began adopting these new practices.
As a punishment to the Jewish people who were refusing this change, The Emperor of the Seleucid Empire decided to turn the screws on Judea as hard as he could. In 167 BCE the Jewish people were once again forced to move from holy patience to holy impatience when the very center of their culture was attacked. Sacrifice, Circumcision, Sabbath and Feasts were made illegal, and possession of Jewish scriptures made a capital offense. Altars to Greek gods were set up throughout Judea and animals prohibited to Jews were slaughtered upon them. And in a final act of disrespect, a statue of the Greek god Zeus was placed on the altar of their Temple.
In response to this decree, a people who had been patiently waiting for their circumstances to change could finally wait no longer. And so a revolution that had been percolating just below the surface exploded into reality, lead by the charismatic Judah Maccabee. Over the next year the Maccabean Army, as they became known, would continue to defeat the much larger and better trained Seleucid Army in battle after battle using guerilla techniques, until they had finally and completely banished them from Judea. Upon their triumphant return to their city, the first order of business was to reclaim all that had been polluted by the invading forces: the temple at the center of Jewish life was ritually cleansed, Greek statues were destroyed and traditional Jewish worship was restored. A large piece of this was that in their rededication of the temple, they could locate only one small jug of holy oil, which needed to be burned continuously in the temple as part of its reconsecration as their holy space. As the story goes, this one small jug, which was only enough oil to keep the flame burning for one day, miraculously lasted for eight days, until which time resupplies were able to reach them. In Hebrew the word Hanukkah means to dedicate, and this, the miracle of the lights, commemorated by the lighting of the Menorah to this day by Jewish households around the world, is a remembrance of this rededication of their temple
What I think this story of holy impatience rewarded tell us, and what I hear echoed in all human struggles for freedom, is that I was wrong when as a child I believed that time was against me. Time itself is neutral, it neither slows nor speeds and cares not what unfolds. Yet all kinds of people seem to operate with the notion that time itself pushes progress, that things will be better if we can only wait for time to unfold and make it so. This is something that the Jewish people have had to face several times in their history, and again and again they have been reminded that, special relationship with God or not, they must be the hands and feet that do the work; they must stop waiting and take action. Thus it is up to us created beings to shape and direct history.
I am reminded of a story about waiting for God that I have heard told many times and in many different ways. In this story a river that winds through a small village is rising rapidly and beginning to flood the town. Most villagers flee before the water rises too high. But one man, trusting God to save him, refuses to budge. When he is finally forced to his roof by the rising water levels he begins to pray very hard. Finally a boat floats by and its passengers yell to the man, "Jump to our boat. We will pull you in and save you!" But the man just smiles and shouts back, "Thank you, friends, for the generous offer, but I have prayed and I am certain that if I wait right here God will save me." Looking perplexed, the boat moved on. As the waters continued to rise a helicopter came and hovered nearby and a man from within the metal beast threw a rope down onto the roof and yelled through the air, "Climb this rope to our helicopter and we will bring you to safety!" But the man just smiled and repeated the same words he had yelled to the people on the boat, that he had prayed and was certain that if he waited God would save him.
Hours later, as the waters began to get close to the top of the house the man became distraught and started yelling to God, "I have lived a good life. I have always defended you and prayed to you every day. And now when I need you most you have abandoned me!" And from the heavens boomed a response, "My friend, I sent you a boat and I sent you a helicopter. What more do I have to do to save you?"
The moral of this story of course is that God - or time, or progress - has no hands, no feet but ours. Waiting for a divine presence to miraculously make the change this world needs is not a strategy that serves one well. Waiting for the drum beat of time to march us further down the road to progress will get us nowhere. As Gandhi said. "We must be the change we wish to see in this world." Recognizing the power of creation to take action, to become impatient with the way the world is unfolding around us is the call of holy impatience, is the reminder of stories like Hanukkah and all human struggles for freedom.
And lighting the lights every year is more than a mere commemoration of this rededication of the temple. It is a ritual stretching back through neutral time that wordlessly connects us with all those who struggle for freedom, all those who seize the opportunity that their time provides and get busy transforming the world for the better.
One final obstacle that paralyzes many is the overabundance of need in the world - where to start? And so I want to let you know that beginning in the new year we will launch an internal process aimed at discerning what issue we at Mission Peak can no longer wait patiently to see change and will take action upon. It will be in engaging consciously in this work together that we will take our commitment to each other and to this world to the next level.
May it be so. Ashe.
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