The Stories We Keep

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/02/2012

Three Stories:

The Hanukkah Story (Adapted from
 In 168 B.C.E. the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers and dedicated to the worship of the god Zeus. This upset the Jewish people, but many were afraid to fight back for fear of reprisals. Then a year later the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death. He also ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods.
A high priest, Mattathias, refused to acquiesce to the demands of the Greeks who had taken over his city.  Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them. Eventually they succeeded in retaking their land from the Greeks. These rebels became known as the Maccabees, or Hasmoneans.
Once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and also by practices such as sacrificing swine. Jewish troops were determined to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day's worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days.
This is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil that is celebrated every year when Jews light a special menorah for eight days. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second, and so on, until eight candles are lit.


Hanukkah Story, Another Way: Rev. Lynn Ungar’s version from CLF Quest, December 2011
You probably remember the story of the Maccabees, and how they gathered a band of fellow Jews to fight back against the ruling government that was oppressing them.  You have likely heard the story of their heroic and improbable victory, and how, after long years of battle, they were able to return to their Temple, clear away all of the desecration and damage, and return to the free practice of their religion.
What you might not have heard is the story that comes after the story.  We tend not to mention…that the Hebrew victory didn’t last very long.  We never get around to talking about the second act, where it turns out that not only was it not very long before the Jewish lands were occupied territory again,, but also that later rebellions, modeled on the Maccabean revolt, turned out to be dismal failures which left the Jewish people worse off than they were before.
…[T]he story of the oil that burned in the sacred temple lamp for eight days where there was only enough oil to last for one day [actually] comes from this ‘second act’ time in history.  The legend of the miraculous oil came along not during the time of the victory, but rather during a later time of defeat. 


Sugarloaf Story

Once upon a time there was a UU congregation – us – who rented space in a Mason’s hall.  This hall was very strict about the use of their space.  Every Sunday everyone in SCUU had to come early to organize all the chairs the way we needed them, and then afterwards, all the chairs had to be put back in just the right place, which we remembered by looking at a big photo album with pictures of the seats so you could see exactly what the room was supposed to look like when you were done.  There were other things that had to be changed each week, too, and then put back just the way it was.  For example, there was a picture on the wall of a mushroom cloud, like the nuclear bomb explosion that destroyed Hiroshima.  SCUU people didn’t like looking at that picture during church, but they couldn’t take the picture down because it wasn’t their place to do so.  So, each week, they covered the picture with a cloth.
There were lots of other very strict rules, and there seemed to be more and more of them all time.  Once, the Masons found a few drops of wax left on a table, and suddenly the rule was, “No Lighting of Candles!”  For a church!  So you can see here the pebbles that we drop in the water for Joys and Sorrows now – that’s something that was left over from the Mason Hall rules, that we decided to keep.  The worst was when the coffee pot exploded, and left the whole room dripping in coffee.  What were the Masons going to say about that?
So, the Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists decided that it would be wonderful to find our own place, where we could light our own candles and leave our chairs out and pick out our own artwork that made sense to us. The first time we lit a chalice in this space was a magical time.  We had a place where we could light a candle whenever it suited us!  And here we still are today.



Today we’re talking, all day, even after the service, about stories.  Stories about Sugarloaf will be many of them.  But we heard stories already this morning about some kids in a neighboring UU congregation, right?  And we heard two versions of the Hanukkah story, because this holiday time of year, from Thanksgiving all the way through New Year’s, is a huge season for telling stories, and also for thinking about and wondering why we tell the stories that we do in the ways that we do.

Do any of you have a family story, a story from something that happened to you or your family in the past, that you have to tell in a certain way or else it’s not the right story, it doesn’t get the right meaning across?  For example, let’s say you just met my husband  and me, and you ask how we met.  When that happens, you may as well know now, I like to tell the story, and not let my husband do it, because I like to make sure that all the critical plot points are included.  When my husband tells the story, he leaves out stuff that I think is really important, and it doesn’t seem like the same story at all.

There are other stories like that, with some parts of what really happened being more important than others, right?  It’s more important to my family that the four poster rope bed I slept in as a child was brought from Maryland to Indiana in a covered wagon, then it is for us to remember which family member this was who did this traveling in the covered wagon, or what they were doing in Maryland in the first place.  It’s more important in my parents' story to hear about the graduate school apartment that my mom shared with all these girlfriends, and the room my dad rented in an apartment from a guy who was essentially just squatting there, then it is to hear about their first apartment after they got married, about which I know nothing.  And this is true for all of our “historical” stories, the stories of our pasts.  Everyone’s history has parts of the story that are important and other parts that get overlooked. 

In the story about how my husband and I met, I have pretty much stolen that story, and if new people want to hear it, I’m the one that tells it and I get to decide what’s in it.  That’s not really fair, because if my husband were to tell the story, he might choose to tell all sorts of different parts of the story that make it real and important to him.  To be fair and, if you think about it, in order to be more accurate, a new person would need to hear all the parts of the story that each person knows, so they could get a more well-rounded picture of what really happened.

This is even more important if a bunch of people are all telling stories about the same event, the same important thing, like we do with Hanukkah, like we do with the story of our congregation.  The message and meaning of a story that one person wants to impart, even if that person’s version is as true and as interesting and as meaningful as that person can make it, it’s bound to be different from the message of the story of the next person, and the next person after that.  Each different way of telling a story gives the story a different meaning, a different message.  And the meanings and messages that different people think are most important, even from the same event, can vary very widely.

Because meanings and messages from person to person can vary so widely, sometimes a community comes together and somehow agrees on a way to tell a story, one way that imparts the particular meaning that that community wants to share.  Having one story with one message doesn’t necessarily mean that that chosen story is the “right” one, the most true one.  But it is the story that may be most true with regard to the message that the community wants to share.  The community kind of agrees on the message, the values, that they want to promote with the story.  And so they tell the story one particular way.

Think of the two Hanukkah stories that we heard.  The first story is the story that mainstream Judaism has chosen to tell themselves and the world, the story where the miracle happened to the brave people to enable their victory over the oppressors.  Rev. Ungar says that this version of the story carries a good message for some of the time.  She writes, “The first act story” (that’s the first, standard Hanukkah story we heard) – “the first act story of the [Maccabee] victory over the Syrians says that if you are brave enough and determined enough then you can make things turn out all right.  If you can be daring and strong and hold fast to your faith then you will win in the end. It’s a good message,” she writes, “one that parents like to teach their children.”

Rev. Ungar goes on:  “Unfortunately,” she writes, “the painful lessons of life teach us that that lovely message isn’t always true.  Sometimes the bad guys win.  Sometimes your best efforts aren’t enough to make things turn out the way you’d hoped…Doing your best is simply no guarantee that everything will be fine.  Which is why the second act of the Hanukkah story” – (the one she told us, that the miraculous oil was actually followed by a Jewish defeat, not the earlier victory of the Maccabees) – “the second act of the Hanukkah story needs a different message, the message of the oil that kept burning long after it should have been gone….the story of the lamp that wouldn’t go out says something much more like ‘hold on to your light, and let it shine, even when it doesn’t seem like you can go on any further.  There is enough light to get us through.  The holy will always shine through us, however long the night may be.’”

“The story of the victory of the Maccabees,” Ungar goes on to say, “is a story of strength and daring.  But the story of the oil which kept burning until more oil could be made is a story of hope.  It admits that we are not always in control, and that sometimes things are not okay.  And it declares that in the midst of not okay we can still go on, can still offer our little light to the world.”

So, in one version of the Hanukkah story, the message that is told is that if you are brave enough and determined enough then you can make things turn out all right, and God will throw in a miracle to make sure it is so.  And in this other version of the story, we learn that even in the midst of not okay we can still go on, can still offer our little light to the world, and God will throw in a miracle to make it so. 

Two very different messages from the same story, the same set of historical events. 

You can see how the different stories might appeal to much different sets of people from much different situations.  You can see how both are the truth in their own way, and both are only part of the truth in other ways.  You can see how the people telling the stories made careful choices so that the story matched their message.  All stories are this way, and the older and more meaningful, the more powerful the story, the more that this is true.

There are so many stories about Sugarloaf, and the way that we tell the stories tell us and new people who we are and what matters to us.  R.'s stories about Sugarloaf tell of a people who didn’t want to be constrained by anyone else’s value system or viewpoint anymore.  They struggled and fought – not like the Maccabees, but in their own way - to free themselves to be and do what they wanted to be and do.  It’s a good story of a brave people, and it is true.  It’s also a chosen story, because we want to see ourselves as freedom seekers and bold go-getters.  We don’t tell a story, not yet anyway, about how we got our own place and our own renters messed up our floor with tape, and we told them that they had to come and restain the whole thing.  Even though that story is true too.  But we aren’t the adventurous freedom-seekers in that one, we’re just building owners who got their building damaged.  Kind of like the Masons, right?

Judaism picked a Hanukkah story that they wanted to tell so that they could define themselves to themselves and to the outside world, as being brave and in God’s favor.  There is not this kind of consensus, however, about our Sugarloaf stories, especially the ones about the property.  We don’t have a common story that tells others about our values, and in part that is because we haven’t even been very good at sharing the history that we do know with new people.  We want to change that today, after the service, when we’ll do a little bit of talking about our Sugarloaf stories, in the varied ways that many of us see them, so we can know more about what happened, when it happened, and what the thinking was at the time.

We do this in part because history matters, and getting the story straight, so to speak, helps us understand why certain decisions were made and helps us to make good new decisions.  And we also do this because at some point, we’re might want to have a main Sugarloaf story to tell.  Not that one story will take over all the rest, like I took over the how-my-husband-and-I-met story.  But we will develop one overarching Sugarloaf story to tell because we will develop more of a sense of how our past connects with our future, how the same values have been present even when the people were different, and how we’re forging a path forward now that makes sense because it is in line with who we once were.

When I was emailing with R. about the SCUU stories he wanted to tell, he wrote this to me, and with his permission and right in front of him, I’ll read it to you.  He wrote “Who were these people who wanted a place of their own to worship?  What did they want for themselves, and what did they want to offer to the world?  How were they trying to get there?  At one level it doesn’t matter.  We’re not them, we’re us.  We’re not obliged to embrace their values or their vision, whereas we’re certainly obliged to embrace and pursue our own.  But we’re moving on a trajectory they set in motion, and some of them ARE us.  If spirituality is about greater connection, then there’s a spiritual reason to hear the stories of SCUUers past.  We become connected across time with a greater self.  The strategic reason is to throw into relief what our aspirations have become and what we’ve learned as a community since (at least) the Mason Hall days.  [Whether we s]tay the course or change the course, we have to know the map.”

Yes.  Whether we stay the course or change the course, we need to know the map.  Please join us after this service for the map reading we need to do as a congregation.  May we do so with care and with curiosity and with joy in who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming.  Amen.