We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

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)


Ho, Ho, Ho! Happy Hanukkah!

Ho, Ho, Ho, Happy Hanukkah! That is the traditional holiday greeting of Santa’s Jewish cousin, Mordecai, better known as Morty Claus. Now you may be thinking, “Wait, I never knew Santa had a Jewish cousin! I’ve never heard of Morty Claus! ” You may even be thinking, “That sounds highly improbable!” Well, let me suggest to you that it is no more improbable than Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman or other concepts we are asked to believe in at this time of the year. 

So let me see if I can refresh your memory about this age-old tradition this morning. Perhaps you remember this familiar holiday song.

(Sung to tune of Jingle Bells) 

Morty Claus, Morty Claus, Morty he’s our man.

No one celebrates Hanukkah quite like Morty can.

Do any of you remember this song? Am I the only one? Well this is a Unitarian Universalist Church so there may be skeptics with us this morning. But let me say this – you may be doubtful about the existence of Morty  Claus but nobody can deny that we are living in an increasingly pluralistic society and world, where people of all faiths live in the same neighborhood and go to the same schools and even belong to the same families. 

In the Unitarian Universalist church we have households where people might put up a Christmas tree and a menorah. We have families that might walk the Winter Solstice Spiral and spin the dreidel. We have folks who might light seven candles for Kwanzaa and 8 candles for Hanukkah or an infinite number of candles for Diwali. 

The Unitarian Universalist approach to religion reminds me of an English Pub’s approach to vegetables. Many years ago my father and stepmom were in an English Pub and they noticed that there were three vegetable options on the menu – peas, carrots and mixed vegetables. When they asked what the mixed vegetables were, the answer was, “Peas and carrots.”

Many religions like to keep their peas and carrots separate. If you follow this approach then Christmas and Hanukkah and Winter Solstice and Kwanzaa and Diwali are to be kept separate. However, the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion is more like mixed vegetables. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Diwali and more can mix and mingle on our spiritual plate and become our spiritual food. 

Now if we’re honest with ourselves, and take an honest look at religious history we will realize that all religions influence each other. In other words no matter how hard we try to keep our peas and carrots separate they tend to mix and mingle. For instance, if you read the Bible closely you will realize that there is no way Jesus was actually born in December. The shepherds are not in the fields during the winter. Jesus’ parents were in Bethlehem for the Roman census and the census was never held in the winter time. So if Jesus was not born in December then why do we celebrate his birth in December? Because the Christians needed a holiday that could compete with the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice including Saturnalia, a celebration often held on December 25th. That’s how Christmas Day came to be celebrated on that day. 

Similarly, any rabbi will tell you that Hanukkah is a relatively unimportant holiday in the Jewish Calendar. However, just as the Christians needed a celebration to compete with the Pagans, the Jewish tradition needed a holiday that could compete with the Christians. So Hanukkah grew in importance with very child friendly traditions such as lighting candles and giving gifts. And the same dynamic was a work with Kwanzaa that was created in 1966 to celebrate African values, history and heritage. The goal of Kwanzaa was to give African Americans an alternative to the winter celebrations of the dominant society. 

So some people try to keep these holidays separate from each other. And yet if you go into any Unitarian Universalist Church and visit our religious education classrooms you are likely to see Advent Candles, Christmas candles, Hanukkah candles, Yule log candles, Diwali and Kwanzaa candles so that our young people will have a well rounded interfaith and multicultural religious education. For that reason I once took my kindergarten aged son to a Kwanzaa celebration in town where I watched my red haired, light skinned son join enthusiastically in the economic empowerment chant, “Be black! Buy black! Be black! Buy black!” 

Speaking of which, if you want to support black owned businesses there is a gas station called the Stop-N-Go across the street from Lennon Seney Methodist Church in East Knoxville where when you walk in the door you are greeted by a black Santa Claus. The image reminds us that there is something very problematic about building a holiday celebrating the generosity of a single white man. I am a white man and I understand that it is problematic. A careful reading of world history does not support the idea that white men are predictably or consistently or unambiguously paragons of virtue and generosity to people of different races. For this reason it can be good to walk into a business where Santa is a black man. If you go there I highly recommend the lunch specials at the lunch counter. Even those who can’t be black can still buy black. 

Unitarians have a long history of being interested in all the world’s religions. We have a lot of curiosity about different beliefs and commitments. Indeed there is a question and answer joke to that effect. Q: What is the difference between a Unitarian Universalist and a Jehovah’s Witness? A: A Unitarian Universalist will knock on your door to ask you about your religion. We are very curious in that way. 

We have a long history of this sort of curiosity. In 1844 the Unitarian Elizabeth Palmer Peabody wrote the first American translation of a Buddhist text The Lotus Sutra and published this and other excerpts from the scriptures of the world religions in the Transcendentalist journal The Dial under the heading Ethical Scriptures. In 1855 Unitarian abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote one of the first books of comparative religion called The Progress of Religious Ideas in Successive Ages. The Unitarian minister James Freeman Clark followed up in 1871 with his two volume work called Ten Great Religions. These are just some of the ways our faith tradition has encouraged learning more about the variety of religious traditions. Charles Follen, a German Unitarian is credited with introducing the Christmas Tree to Puritan New England in 1832, mixing pagan and Christian traditions, an idea that spread across the relatively new nation. So we are known for our willingness to learn from other traditions and mix traditions together. 

In our Children’s Diversity and Justice Library there is a book called Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko written from the perspective of a child talking about her interfaith family. The child says, “I am a mix of two traditions.” She tells the story of her dad putting up the Christmas tree and her mom lighting the candles for Hanukkah. Mom puts golden gelt under the Christmas tree and Dad puts candy canes on the menorah. The family sings both the Dreidel song and Christmas carols. The family makes latkes, potato pancakes, to leave out for Santa. When all the relatives gather they hear the story of the Macabee children and the child in a manger. It is a wonderful story with great illustrations. I highly recommend it. But I mention it today because it is an example of what might be happening in your home and in homes all across the world, people of all faiths celebrating the winter holidays in peace. 

This week one of my colleagues in the ministry, Carole Martignacco posted the message, “Why do I wish people Happy Holidays? Because between November 1rst and January 15th there are approximately 29 holidays observed by 7 of the world’s major religions. And I don’t think mine are the only ones that count.” The post reminds us that those around us may be celebrating different holidays than we are. And it is also important to remember that even our efforts to be inclusive will never be all inclusive. Indeed the holidays we celebrate come from the lives of our congregation, members and friends who want to bring their culture, history and heritage. We want everyone in our congregation to have a wonderful holiday season. 

I like the idea that we live in a world where if a Jewish family runs out matches for the menorah they can go and borrow some light from their neighbors who have advent candles or a Christian family can borrow light from their neighbor’s yule log or a pagan family can borrow light from a neighbor’s Kwanzaa candles I like this image that we are all connected. We can all learn from each other. We can all benefit from borrowing each other’s light. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks “For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world.” 

Indeed, this season isn’t just about religion, it’s about science. Anyone who has seen pictures of StoneHenge, Avesbury, Carnac or any of the Mayan pyramids knows that picking the date for the winter holidays requires science and math. It requires not only contemplating earth below but the heavens above, the rotations of the earth and the revolving of the planets and the light of our sun and the stars. This time of year culture and religion and science and math come together so that heaven and nature sing, heaven and nature sing. 

So believe it or not this leads me back to Santa’s cousin, Morty Claus. That’s because during this worship service I got a text on my cell phone from one of the younger members of our congregation and the text reads. 

REVEREND CHRIS: I am 8 years old. Some of my friends say there is no Morty Claus, that Santa doesn’t have a Jewish cousin. Mama says, ‘If our minister says it’s true it must be so.’Please tell me the truth; is there a Morty Claus? VIRGINIA O’HANLON.

Virginia, if you are watching online right now let me answer your question. 

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Morty Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary it would be if there were no Mortys. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith, no poetry, no romance to make our existence tolerable. It’s true nobody can see Morty, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. The most real things in the world are those that we cannot see. None of us can even begin to conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

So, Virginia, I hope that answers your question for you. And I hope it answers all the questions of all the other skeptical people in the congregation today or those viewing online. Because the winter holidays are not the best time for skepticism. The winter holidays are a time of wonder and joy and excitement and love. 

And Virginia, if you are still listening, next year I promise to tell the story the story of Morty’s feminist sister Esther Claus. Some of you may be familiar with the holiday song about her. 

Esther Claus, Esther Claus, a feminist is she.

Dismantling the patriarchy is what she’d like to see. 

But that story is for next year. Until then, let me end this sermon by saying this sermon, “Ho, Ho, Ho! Happy Hanukkah!” 

(The Reverend Chris Buice shared this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 5, 2021)