Note: Our worship service on November 24, 2002 centered on the Jewish festival of Chanukah and the dedication of a menorah commissioned especially for our congregation. This menorah, based on the story "Nine Spoons," was formally dedicated in memory of Faith Altbush, a young member of our church who died in December 2001, at age 8.
Wax, Wick, and Kerosene: Keeping Faith
A Homily of Dedication
Rev. Robin L. Zucker
UU Church of Reading
November 24, 2002
"In the beginning, darkness covered the face of the deep. Then God said, "Let there be light;" and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." And so on, and so forth…
From that first day onward, for millennia, and through all the begets and betrayals, and all the rebellion and righteousness, humankind has sought to kindle light against the darkness. Yet, rarely do the light-bearers act alone. We find few genuinely compelling stories in history, religious or otherwise, of lone rangers facing down darkness with a lone torch.
More typically, the kindling of light against darkness is a communal enterprise. Tribes, modern and ancient, as foreign as Maccabees and as familiar as this congregation, almost instinctively band together to counter darkness with the radiance of their combined light, faith, resourcefulness, decency, and courage.
The theme of our worship this morning provides a multitude of inspiring examples. First, we look to the famed Maccabees from the ancient Hanukah story: a rag-tag force, who banded together to reclaim their temple. Sorely outnumbered by their Syrian oppressors, they stormed down from the hills together; in victory, they toiled together to obtain the oil necessary to defy the darkness of religious persecution and kindle an eternal flame of faith in the Temple.
To that saga, add the more recent, but equally heroic, story we heard earlier called "Nine Spoons." Remember? It took an entire bunkhouse of women and children to make their crude, handcrafted, but magnificent Children’s menorah a reality. Through self-sacrifice and courage, this tribe, bound by circumstance and heritage, defied the darkness of evil together in order to celebrate Chanukah, a festival of justice.
In our own midst, we find the inspiring story of young Faith Altbush, who died last year during Hanukah, and whose glorious memory we honor today by kindling the candles in this special menorah. Her parents, Jeff and Marilyn, will tell you that it took a whole tribe of Altbushes and McLeod’s and Rosenzweigs and caregivers, doctors, teachers, church members, and friends, to keep a light on the path for Faith and her family as they traversed the darkest valley together. Through the simplest, but deepest practice of compassion and love, they kindled wicks of faith and hope and grief and acceptance... together.
Lastly, I offer one more story, a true story that miraculously ties together all the others. If nothing else, it proves that "don’t have to be Jewish to find yourself cast in a gripping modern-day Hanukah story!"
Giltha the goat lady was not Jewish, not a Maccabee, not a resident of the labor camp bunkhouse, not an Altbush, likely not a Unitarian Universalist (but who knows?) She was an eccentric mountain woman in tattered clothes, living in the Pacific Northwest . A keeper of goats, of course, each of which wore a small bell on its collar.
Giltha had a neighbor named Bill, a transplant from Iowa, who loved the Northwest wilderness, except for the long winters. Bill hadn’t realized until he relocated that he suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which meant that the long periods of winter darkness brought on serious, paralyzing depression.
His wife, Debbie, bought additional kerosene lamps and did what she could to shower Bill with all the available sunlight or Northern exposure available to them. One afternoon, a big storm came on somewhat unexpectedly, and it looked to Debbie like it might snow them in for some time. Worse still, Debbie realized, a bit to late, that they were nearly out of kerosene. They had barely enough for one night. How would Bill endure in the darkness for days on end?
Debbie grew desperate. She picked up her phone, a party line that she and Bill shared with 16 other residents in their remote "neighborhood." She called the nearest neighbor, more than a mile away, and explained her dilemma. But it was too cold, there was already too much snowfall, and nothing could be done. Bill lay down for a nap and Debbie gazed out the window at the snow and the enclosing darkness. Perhaps the fire in the woodstove would be ample? Maybe the snow will stop and we can get some kerosene.
Night came on and the lamp flickered lower and lower. Debbie looked out on the frozen landscape and prayed. Time passed and Debbie picked up a faint jingling sound outside the window. At first she ignored it (probably just the wind howling in the trees), but it grew louder and more distinct.
She gazed out to see sixteen twinkling lanterns moving down a snowbound lane towards their cabin. Unbeknownst to Debbie and Bill, every resident on the party line had been listening in,(what a surprise!) and together, they devised a plan. Led by Giltha and her goat through the darkness, they each carried what kerosene they could spare…together it was enough to keep their cabin illuminated for ..you guessed it… 8 days! Bill did not descend further into darkness, Debbie felt less isolated. Giltha didn’t seem like such an intimidating oddball after that.
Wax, wick, and kerosene. An eternal flame in the temple, a menorah in a labor camp or in this Sanctuary, lanterns in the wilderness. They each decree, "Let there be light in the void. Let the light of memory and hope shine forth, and may the sparks that spring eternal from the heart illumine us with courage and kindness, joy and faith."
How apt that the text of the piece our choir offers us today is entitled "With Perfect Faith." The words were found inscribed on a cave wall in Cologne where Jews had been hiding during WWII. Caves are dark places that ache for illumination. The composer, Allen Friedman, tells us that his cantata, "speaks of the beauty and strength of the Jewish faith, reminding us that even in the depths of the Holocaust, Jews found time to celebrate life and now, after the tragedy, that life and beauty still exist." What makes Friedman label this faith "perfect?" I’d surmise that its perfection emanates not so much from its brilliance, but rather from its steadfastness…a faith that may flicker, but can never be extinguished, even by the most harrowing darkness.
Consider this question. If innocent human beings freezing in labor camps or sequestered in caves or experiencing the death of a beloved child, can continue to celebrate life and embrace joy and beauty; and if a tribe of near strangers can trudge through the frozen darkness to deliver kerosene, can we, too, kindle within ourselves the courage to keep on keeping faith, and help others do likewise? This is my wish and my prayer for each of us gathered here today.
Faith Altbush’s bravery and unquenchable spirit set the standard. Each year when we kindle the flames of this Menorah, may each candle, and the memory it holds, be valued so highly that we allow its light to lead us away from darkness and towards joy…together.
To paraphrase the words of our weekly chalice lighting response – May the flames we kindle, at Chanukah or any other time of year, be to us a symbol of the holiness we seek.
May they shed a sweet light, shining with glory, retelling a timeless story, as we kindle again a festival of lights and offer anew our testaments of Faith.
So may it be.
Benediction: Caught between Candles (author unknown)
…I am watching youlooking at the candles
or the darkness in between them.
This is the blessing that we
have kindled - this particular dark.
If you stand facing me
this is what you will find
The gap between us where
our common lives take shape
The space between us that
we reach into for love.
And you and I
are caught between the candles
where we cannot help but live,
in the close and infinite abundance,
held between the dying
and the kindling of the light.
© 2002 Rev. Robin Landerman Zucker. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with proper attribution.