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Better Than To Curse The Darkness – 1/8/2017

There is an old fairy tale which begins with a poor man, walking down the road, searching for a potential godfather for his newborn son. The fellow has to go scouring the countryside like this because he already has twelve older children, and has used up all his friends and acquaintances on them. The travelling father first encounters God, whom he dismisses as a potential godfather, reasoning that God is not of sound moral character, for permitting poverty and famine and such. Next he meets the devil, whom he similarly eliminates from contention for being such an infamous liar. Finally, he meets a third prospect: Death. This fellow seems like an especially honest and fair-minded sort to the father, for Death comes eventually to all people, the rich and the poor alike. Death is honored to be asked to serve as godfather to the man’s child, and agrees.

When Death’s godson comes of age, he benefits quite handsomely from having a godfather who is the embodiment of a fundamental truth of existence, for Death gives him the means to make a great living as a physician. Death explains to him that whenever he is treating a seriously-ill, bed-ridden patient, Death will make himself visible only to him. If he appears at the head of the patient’s bed if they will recover, and at the foot if they are destined to die. In this way, his godson will always be able to predict accurately whether he can cure a person’s ailment or not. With this unique resource, the physician makes a name for himself, and a good deal of money.

After many years, his reputation has spread far enough that Death’s godson is summoned to the bedside of the king himself, to heal him. But when he gets there, he sees his godfather standing at the foot of the king’s bed – the man is destined to die. Thinking quickly – and also thinking of the great riches the king will bestow on him if he saves his life, the physician turn’s the king’s bed fully around, so that now Death is standing beside his head, instead. The trick works, and the king recovers, but Death is not pleased to have been cheated in this way. He warns his godson never to do so again.

Yet there eventually comes a time when the physician cannot resist attempting the same thing. The king’s daughter falls deathly ill, and the now very rich and famous physician wished to heal her; not just for the prestige, but because he has begun to hope that he will marry her. Again he looks for Death beside the bed, and again sees him at the foot of the bed. The physician turns the bed around once more, and the princess makes a full recovery, but Death is sorely displeased. He comes to his godson and leads him down into a cavern in the earth. There, an uncountable number of candles burn.

Death explains to his godson that each of the candles represents the span of time allotted to someone currently living on earth. He shows the physician his own candle, and the man can see that it is burnt to the base, its flame guttering, just on the brink of going out. He pleads with Death for more time, that he might light another candle for him, or exchange his with another. But Death was chosen for his godfather because he is resolutely honest, and fair. No person, rich or poor, famous or anonymous, can escape Death’s reach forever. And here, in the earliest versions, is where the story ends.

This sermon is the fifth in an on-going series about the purpose and meaning of the elements of the services we share in as a religious community. Today, the topic for consideration is the practice we share – not quite every Sunday, but most – of lighting candles of joy and sorrow. Because of this, I wanted to begin with that image of a limitless cave, filled with the flickering light of innumerable candles. The number we light each Sunday is much fewer than that, of course. Sometimes only a few, with an uppermost limit of twenty-five or so; whatever fits in the basin of sand we use to hold them. But each of the candles in the story represents the profundity of an entire human life, and while our own candles lack this magic, each one of them does act as a symbol of something precious and real. As I said earlier, in introducing the ritual: whatever is foremost in your heart.

So why do we do this together? You may, or may not know, that this practice is common throughout Unitarian Universalism. It is not universally done – not all congregations do it, and those who do don’t always do it every time they meet, and no two congregations do it in exactly the same way. But I would call it universally considered: even among the congregations who do not share this practice, all or almost all of them have conducted or entertained it at some point. It’s one of the most common elements in our worship as a movement, but it’s far and away the most controversial. Arguments within congregations, and between ministers, about whether or not a community ought to ‘do candles,’ so to speak, can get quite heated, and sometimes very personal. And this makes sense, at least a bit, because the practice has such a deeply personal element to it: when it is undertaken meaningfully, people share from their deepest selves, and expose some of what might otherwise be hidden to the friends and strangers that make up their spiritual community. You can’t get much more personal than that.

I’ll try to outline the argument here, if you’re not already familiar with it, with a little story from seminary. One of my professors gave a lecture in one of my classes – clearly it made an impression on me, because many of you have heard me repeat it before – about the method of worship in the very early Anglo-Protestant congregations of New England. The pilgrim and puritan settler congregations from whom many of our earliest congregations descend, including this one. A Sunday service focused on the reading of the Christian bible, and attempts to explain, interpret, and apply the content of the readings to the situation of the community and the people in it. And while there was always a worship leader who provided that reading and got the first word on interpretation, the whole of the congregation was also invited to join in.

In those days, the congregation was the town; everyone had to come to church, and there was only that one church to go to. Even prisoners in the local jail would be brought in, sometimes under guard and in irons, because attendance at worship was not optional for anyone. And once the preacher had had their say, everyone else got a chance, too. People who were marginal or outside the cliquish circle of the town’s social hierarchy still had a right to speak. So did women, at a time and in a place where they otherwise had very little social standing and almost no rights. The prisoners, too, were allowed to give their own account of the Gospel, as they understood it. And all of these people could and did use that unique opportunity for an unrestrained platform before the entire community to make a case for change. Those who felt ill-used by the wealthy and the powerful could challenge them far more freely than they could in court. Women could, and did, plead their cases against abusive partners and seek redress against family members who took advantage of their lack of full property rights. Even those in prison would rise to make the case for their early release, all of these arguments tied in some way or another to the biblical readings for the morning.

This was the practice in the beginning. It did not last. Because the wealthy and the powerful, the men in general, and all those who were not in prison, decided that they did not want to give so free a voice to the folks on the margins. Eventually, the responsibility of the congregation to discuss meaning and explore truth together was discarded in favor of a service where the preacher did all the talking, and the congregation only listened, and sometimes sang or recited rote prayers.

After my professor outlined this history for us, a discussion followed about open-participation practices in our own congregations – of which candles of joy and sorrow is by far the most common modern example. Many concerns and complaints, based on very real, negative experiences, were raised. Too many folks abuse the privilege of an open microphone: they mumble, they take too long, sometimes they break down in front of the congregation and it’s all very awkward. Some folks don’t know the difference between a joy or sorrow and an announcement, or they get up to make some strident political statement with no place in a worship service. One of my classmates exclaimed, “We’ve gotten rid of the whole thing entirely, at my church. Too many people harassing the congregation to sign this petition or that one, crowing about dead pets, or trying to sell their cars. The whole service runs much smoother now that we don’t let just anyone up to the microphone.”

And my professor gave the gentle, knowing smile of the exceptionally wise woman that she was – and still is – and said, “Yes, I imagine it does. Everything goes a lot easier for the folks in charge, when the poor, and the women, and prisoners don’t get to talk in church anymore.” The practice of offering an open platform to anyone and everyone to share with us whatever they need to share – for solace or celebration, to ask for the support of our thoughts, our prayers, or our actions – is neither simple, nor easy. In can often get quite messy; it makes it impossible to know how long the service will run, exactly. Sometimes the line backs up at the altar badly and Robert has to cover for it all on the organ. Sometimes people really do share things from the microphone that make me think that they and I have very different ideas about what this ritual is meant for, or even what sort of words are and are not ‘church-appropriate’. But it is a discipline we hold to because we seek to live out the belief that we matter to each other – we all matter, even the strangers among us, even folks on the outermost margins of the world we share. Here, in this place, if you need to speak it, we need to listen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Lutheran theologian and martyr of the Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, spoke eloquently about the listening role of a congregation. I want to share his words with you here at some length. His counsel was from a Christian to other Christians, and it is composed in the language of his tradition. I believe, however, that it applies with equal potency to our own mixed multitude as Unitarian Universalists. I ask that you join me in bringing to his words an open and curious heart.

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”[i]

In paraphrase of Bonhoeffer, it is the very work of God to listen to each other. That doesn’t mean to listen without disagreement. It doesn’t mean to a pure free-for-all in which the loudest voice always wins, and no space is made for the meek or the voiceless. But, in an idea from a confessing Lutheran that resonates profoundly with our own tradition as Unitarian Universalists, when we are open to each other, we are open to the source of all truth and all being which some people call God. And when we close ourselves off from each other and fail to listen to one another, we cut ourselves off from that same source.

So there, is my explanation, and perhaps, my defense, of why despite all problems and imperfections and a general trend in our movement away from the practice, we are still lighting candles of joy and sorrow and speaking the meaning behind them allowed almost every Sunday. To summarize, I’m going to turn to the words of the poet, Sally Atkins.

Tell me, she said:

What is the story you are telling?

What wild song is singing itself through you?



In the silence between there is music;

In the spaces between there is story.


It is the song you are living now,

It is the story of the place where you are.

It contains the shapes of these old mountains,

The green of the rhododendron leaves.


It is happening right now in your breath,

In your heart beat still

Drumming the deeper rhythm

Beneath your cracking words.


It matters what you did this morning

And last Saturday night

And last year,

Not because you are important

But because you are in it

And it is still moving.

We are all in this story together.



In the silence between there is music;

In the spaces between there is story.


Pay attention:

We are listening each other into being.

[i] Taken from Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together


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