You hear a lot when you study to be a minister. How to think critically. How to think of others and their needs. How to remember your own needs, too. You learn practical things. You learn thoroughly impractical things, too. Of course learning to be a minister isn’t entirely different from learning the ropes in other professions. We learn on the job what we’re supposed to do. We seek out the tools we need to get the job done. We get to know what to expect on any given day. But there are always surprises, right?
I remember the very first tour I was given on my first day here at the church. My guide took me through the meandering passages and past all the nooks and crannies weaving through this place. And many of those nooks and crannies are used, rightly, for storage. I remember that we passed from the church office through the space that connects the office to this sanctuary, and that’s when I had one of my first surprises. Very near to the sanctuary entrance right here, in a nook that seemed very much like a place where ministers might prepare to enter the sanctuary for worship, there was a rack of garments. Now, we were walking sort of quickly, but as I passed, I was almost sure that these were ministers’ robes…but one I could see was shimmering with silver lame. Others had different kinds of stylized detailing, including what I could swear were feather and fur accents, and I thought for more than a moment, “What the heck is going on in this place? I am NOT wearing those robes? What have I gotten myself into?”
You can imagine my relief when I learned that these were not the robes we were supposed to wear as ministers. They were, in fact, the costumes for the annual Christmas pageant. Though I do now have my eye on that silver lamé Light of Love outfit….
See the thing about surprises is that not everyone likes them. Sure, when we realize there’s nothing to be concerned about, or better yet, something to celebrate, then that’s a little different. But for the most part, as much as we might hate to admit it, even events that happen on a regular schedule…can still surprise us.
I don’t know if you heard, but there is a solar eclipse happening tomorrow. This eclipse is big news. Everyone’s talking about it. So it’s not a surprise, right? At least, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with access to the means to predict an eclipse. As it turns out, cultures across space and time have been predicting these surprising events for more than a millennium that we know about, and possibly even longer than that. NASA tells us that some of the earliest recorded predictions of eclipse events occurred more than five thousand years ago. And some of these predictions are still mystifying the scientific community.
It was about twenty years ago when an Irish astronomer discovered a rock structure in Ireland that charted the course and position of the celestial bodies involved in an eclipse event on what we would call today, November 30, 3340 BCE. Now, it’s entirely possible that the rock arrangement was done after the eclipse, to describe it or memorialize the event. But whatever the structure meant to its constructors, it’s clear that our human family has been tuned into eclipses for quite some time.
Chinese astronomers, a millennium later, in the mid-2000s BCE started having success predicting some dates of solar eclipses. These celestial events were thought at the time to occur when a dragon residing in the skies overhead starts to devour the sun. And whenever this began to occur, the folks on the ground would loudly beat their drums to scare away the dragon from coming to devour them after it polished off the sun. Then one fateful day, the Emperor Chung K’Ang was surprised when he heard the banging of drums outside. He thought, “What the heck is going on out there?” He went out to look, and then he saw it: the celestial dragon was hard at work devouring the sun once more, but luckily his subjects were right on top of it. However, his court astronomers were not. They failed to predict that eclipse. It was as great a surprise to them as it was to the Emperor. So, the pair of court astronomers were summarily beheaded for their oversight. As I said, not everyone likes surprises.
But some believe that solar eclipses have even played a role in the development of some of the world’s religions. Tom Hobson, an author and professor of biblical studies, points to one particular solar eclipse as playing a major role in the life of the prophet Jonah, whose ministry is part of the sacred texts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The scholarly community considers Jonah to be, well, a bit of an exaggerator about his ministry. You might recall that he is the Hebrew Prophet who suggested that he lived for three days and three nights in the belly of a fish…that was this big! Well, the other rather remarkable tale he tells is that he went into the heart of the Assyrian nation to the city of Nineveh, a city whose ruins we know span roughly three miles at their longest stretch, yet Nineveh is described by Jonah as requiring three days to walk across. Jonah testifies that his preaching was so effective that not only did the people fall all over themselves to repent their pagan ways—even the animals were so moved by his preaching that they dressed in sackcloth, repented, and fasted.
Now, astronomers know that there was a total solar eclipse right in the Assyrian town of Nineveh on June 15, 763 BCE. This event is entered into Assyrian records as a time when the sun was “bent” or “obscured”. But Professor Hobson’s theory goes that our hapless, exaggerating, story-telling prophet Jonah, might just have stumbled into Nineveh on the day of the solar eclipse. So imagine a stranger coming in, promising divine retribution if you don’t repent your ways, and then the sun disappears. And you think, “What the heck is going on here? I better repent!” Needless to say, if this did occur, his preaching was probably taken very, very seriously…even by the animals. And in turn the fame of this preaching and this miraculous event might well have followed Jonah, leading to the book of his exploits being included in these ancient Scriptures.
However we look at it, it’s clear that solar eclipses struck dread and terror in the hearts of their observers. The surprise of the sun disappearing, devoured from the sky was terrifying. Only after it was no longer a surprise, only after we began regularly and successfully to work out the cycle of solar eclipses, did we begin to predict and prepare for these eclipses with special glasses, trips to Central Oregon, and miles, and miles, and miles of traffic. The learning we have done about eclipses is what helps us not to be too surprised anymore about eclipses.
Now, even though this eclipse is not too much of a surprise for us, this past year we shared together, since I arrived here last August, was filled with surprises. And many were surprises we didn’t like. And after this week we have all witnessed together, I don’t know if I speak for anyone else here when I say, “What the heck is going on?” It feels like that, right?
Some of the things we are witnessing today are surprising us. They’re shocking us. Nazi flags unfurled on the streets of an American town, chants once used in Nazi Germany against the Jewish members of our human family, and the person with the job of uniting our nation, sowing only division and enmity in the soil we share.
But this year, filled with so many shocking surprises, was not a year for ignoring the signs. This was a year when we, as a church, as a community of loving, caring souls, saw fit to teach one another about what a united community can do together when we witness injustice.
When the dignity of our human family was threatened, we learned alongside our fellow Unitarian Universalist family members across the state and beyond that we can gather more than two hundred UUs in the driving rain to march through our city streets in solidarity for dignity, for justice, and for safety for all in the Women’s March.
When the call went out from the wider Unitarian Universalist movement to deepen our personal understanding of what race and supremacy mean in this country and each of our own lives, through tears and through pain, we learned together so many of the very, very hard truths about these subjects.
And just this week, when the voices of people protecting for the sanctity of ancestral lands of the Sioux Nation in Standing Rock asked for space to share their progress and their goals with the public here in Portland, your Community for Earth opened wide the Eliot Chapel doors and welcomed more than two hundred members of our neighboring community, including many, many members of First Nations, to learn together, to talk together, about all that has to be done, that must be done, to protect these ancestral lands at Standing Rock from the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Out in the streets, deep in your hearts, and right in in this place, you teach me, you teach each other, how to show up, and how to keep showing up, and I know you will continue to do it together again and again and again.
But we all know, there is so, so much more to do. Though my time here with you is coming to an end, the hard work we all have ahead of us to do, is work that we will still be doing together. Even though I have to depart from you soon, what I want each one of you to know is that for my entire ministry to come, this place, all of you, whom I love so dearly, will always be my first guiding star, pointing the way toward justice, guiding the way toward peace, and shining the great light of love on our shared pathways to come. And I will never, never forget all that you have taught me here.
I can’t forget it, because one of the most important things I learned, one of the things I learned here with you, was to listen even more closely to the voices the prophetic members of our human family.
In what is now the most “liked” tweet ever in the history of Twitter,
Barak Obama shared the words of Nelson Mandela,
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or religion…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
My friends, the time for surprise is over. The learning we have done, learning to love in so many ways, has prepared us to face with we must face now. Many people in this nation—people who have witnessed angry, torch wielding mobs before, here and afar—are not surprised by the images we are seeing this week. I have heard it said, if this surprises you, you have not been paying attention. They know, they have lived, they have seen already, what many of us are only now learning.
Symbols of hate that might have been hidden for a time are coming into the light once more. Rhetoric exhumed from some dim, dank, and benighted ignorance stumbles, groping once again into the world from its hiding place. And hate cloaked and hooded, masquerading in the sly guise of history rumbles into the spotlight, all for television cameras to see. And we must not be surprised anymore. We know what the heck is going on.
Our ancestors, more than five thousand years ago, are still teaching us, that when you fix stone into the land as a monument, you are telling the world something. You are telling generations to come, who witness that site, that you approve of what the monument represents. We know what’s going on.
When the crack of drums and the din of screaming shatter the peace of nightfall, shocking the conscience of so much of a nation, of a world who is watching, you are not remembering, or honoring history. You are intimidating us, and you are intimidating other members of our shared human family. We know what’s going on.
And if you think for a moment, that we will fall all over ourselves and cower in the sight of these displays, you have got another thing coming. We know what’s going on.
The psalmist tells us that weeping endureth for the night, but joy commeth in the morning. As our Unitarian and our Universalist ancestors wind together in our shared faith, we will look tomorrow at the two, shared dawns stretching across the Earth. And in the double glint of our twin mornings, may we remember all that we have learned together this year, so that in the years to come, we will hold fast to the painful and challenging call to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person, every soul interconnected with our own, as we search together for the truth and the meaning in our own lives, whether that is in the streets in protest, in outpourings of care and compassion, or in this space we have shared together through so much change, so much pain, and so much love.
Thank you all for being my bright, shining, guiding star. The course you have set for me is true. And as a second star dawns now in my sky, its light now shimmering against the Light of Love that enfolds me, the Light of Love you have given to me, may we face the dawning days to come, bound together on this voyage, for that “second start to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.”
 Tom Hobson, “Jonah and the Eclipse in Ancient Nineveh,” Patheos.com, published August 7, 2017.
 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyrian_eclipse, last viewed August 19, 2018, citing H.C. Rawlinson, “The Assyrian Cannon Verified by the Record of a Solar Eclipse, BC 763,” THE ATHANÆUM, May 18, 1867.
 These are the directions Peter Pan gives to the Darling children to find Never Never Land in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.