Churches often have highly visible symbols that send a spiritual message. Cathedrals have towers and spires, flying buttresses and stained glass windows, compelling statuary and ornate decorations. And when turning off Kingston Pike to come to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church one of the first things you notice about our building is that we have a big orange port-a-potty in our parking lot.
I mention this because this week we have received some emails from concerned congregants suggesting that this might not be the right aesthetic for our faith. There have been some who have gone so far as to venture the opinion that the big orange port-a-potty might not be the visual effect we are looking for to tie together the overall architectural vision of our church.
Point well taken. These emails do raise some very valid concerns. However, there is a way to look at that port-a-potty as a symbol for spiritual reality…for that outward and visible symbol reminds us that we are reinvesting in our faith by reinvesting in our building. We are investing in a new roof for our building. And I want to thank the Building and Grounds committee for all the hard work they have been doing to renovate and update our 23 year old building. In this way that big orange symbol is a symbol of hope. The outward and visible signs of the renovation of our building can serve as harbinger of the inward and invisible renovation of our spirits.
We are entering into the season of Advent and as we do so we are surrounded by outward symbols that come from many different religious and cultural traditions, the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe and evergreen tree. The light of advent candles, Hanukkah candles, Yule log candles, Kwanzaa candles and more. All suggest that in this season of winter darkness we all await the dawning of new light.
We often hear the words of the prophet Isaiah this time of year, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” This time of year, people of all faiths are looking for hope. People of all faiths are looking for light.
Today in our country there are cities, towns and neighborhoods that have been devastated by tornadoes and there are people mourning lost loved ones. There are communities where the power is out and the people literally wait in darkness for the light.
Even under normal circumstances this is not an easy time of year for everyone. There are those who are experiencing seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. There are those who are having a hard time putting up the holiday decorations this year or going through the motions of the traditional celebrations. There are those grieving lost loved ones who will not be at the holiday gatherings this year or mourning losses of another kind.
In those years when we do not feel we can decorate our homes with festive lights we can heed the wisdom of the mystics of every faith who advise us to go inward toward the light and open ourselves to interior decorating and inward renovation. A common theme across the lines of every faith is that outward ritual should speak to our inner lives. We must never allow religion to become about route ritual, empty tradition and force of habit. We must continually insist that the outward is a manifestation of our inward lives.
In other words we can look upwards to the towers and spires, the flying buttresses and the stained glass windows but we need to know that the highest is present within us. Divinity does not come to us but through us.
Last Sunday we had storytime and activities for all ages on the front lawn of our church. And one of those activities was making luminaria. Luminaria is a Mexican tradition where you take a paper bag, cut or punch holes in it and then you place sand at the bottom of the bag. Then place a candle in that sand so that it can stand erect and you can then light the candle. A luminaria can be a stand alone, a single light in darkness, or you can create a walkway, a path lined by them, as we do on many Christmas Eves here at the church. And I mention this children’s arts and crafts project for a reason because this time of year it is important for us to remember that each one of us is like a luminaria. We are illuminated from the inside.
The novelist, poet and playwright Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, grew up in Eatonton, Georgia, not too far from where some of my family live. She’s written an interesting book called We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light In A Time of Darkness. The words “We are the ones we have been waiting for” comes to us from the poet June Jordan and these words have been set to music by the group Sweet Honey in the Rock that has connections to All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC where Ysaye Barnwell helped start the Jubilee Singers Choir.
In her book Alice Walker shares the idea that we are each guided by “an inner light, a compass we can steer by as we set across the lengthening darkness. It comes from the simple belief and understanding that what one is feeling and doing is right. That it is right to protect rather than terrorize others; right to feed people rather than withold food and medecine; right to want the freedom and joyful existence of all humankind. Right to want the freedom and joy for all creatures that exist already, or that might come into existence.”
Walker doesn’t say it but she knows from experience that not everyone sees that light because when she grew up in Eatonton, Georgia, the schools and the movie theater were racially segregated precisely because white supremacy culture does not see or acknowledge or respect the divine spark in every person.
Alice Walker practices Buddhist meditation but she does not claim to be a Buddhist. Indeed, she reminds us that Buddha was not a Buddhist just as Jesus was not a Christian. And yet, enlightened beings offer us light and remind us of our own light. When Buddha was dying he told his followers, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves” just as Jesus said to his disciples, “you are the light of the world.” When we light a candle we do not hide it under a bushel, no. (We all know that song don’t we?) We let it shine. We put it on a stand so that it can give light to everyone in the house. And in this same way we should let our light shine before all humankind and all creation.
The Unitarian Universalist Church has been heavily influenced by the Social Gospel Tradition where we are taught, “Change does not come when we wait for somebody else to do it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We must be the change that we want to see happen in the world.” This is what theologians call realized eschatology.
In advent we wait for the birth of Christ. However, we practice realized eschatology when we remember the old words to the Christmas Carol that tell us, “In the deep midwinter, in this world of pain, when our hearts are open, Christ is born again.” The dawn of new light comes from within. We honor the babe laying in a manger by accepting our adult responsibilities.
This is not to say that outward ritual and traditions are not important, they can be. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when we can experience God directly we should set the scriptures aside. Direct experience is preferable to a transcript of someone else’s experience then he added, “But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, – when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining – we repair to the lamps (the scriptures, the traditions, the rituals) which were kindled by their ray to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is.” That is what the Advent candles can do for us – guide our steps to the East where the dawn is.
Every holiday season we are mindful of those who are no longer with us. Sometimes we may not even know a person who died but still we are affected by it. For instance the media reminds us of celebrities who are no longer with us. This year the comedian Norm MacDonald died who used to be on Saturday Night Live as the anchor for Weekend Update. I don’t remember watching the show during the period he was on it, so his name was unfamiliar to me. However, I caught a clip of him talking on one of the Late Night Talks show hosts where he shared a joke that caught my attention.
He began by thanking the host for sending a limousine driver to pick him up for the show. Then he mentioned that on the way to the studio the limo driver told him a joke. He then proceeded to tell that joke on national television. So this joke is not a professional comedian’s joke. This joke is the People’s Joke. So power to the people. Here is the joke about a moth that goes into a podiatrist’s office.
It begins this way, once a moth went into a podiatrist’s office and said, “Doc, I am feeling very depressed. I am really down in the dumps. I think I might have a drinking problem and an eating disorder and issues with anxiety,” and the moth continues enumerating many other problems. And the podiatrist replies, “It sounds like you need a psychiatrist not a podiatrist so why did you come to a podiatrist’s office,” and the moth replies, “Well, because the light was on.”
I tell that story because I find hope in the fact that someone can make us laugh even after they’ve died, that something of our spirit and sense of humor survives. I also tell this story because I believe that if we do our job right the church will always be the place where the light is on, a place where we can all gather in this season of winter darkness; and console and comfort each other, a place where our lives can be illuminated, a place where we can be luminaria.
So let me end by saying that if the big orange port-a-potty in our parking lot doesn’t work for you as a symbol, try seeing it as a meditation on impermanence. For that port-a potty will not be with us forever but only until our renovation is complete. So look at it as a reminder of the impermanence of all things in the natural order (including life itself.)
And if you need another symbol that works better. Maybe sometime this week you can wake up in the morning to see one of our gorgeous winter sunrises and witness that moment when that big orange symbol rises above the horizon turning darkness into light, serving as a messenger of the dawn of a new day within us and all around us. So may it be.
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 11, 2021)