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The Seven Days of Kwanzaa

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
December 26, 2010

Kwanzaa, a uniquely African American holiday designed to celebrate the gifts of African cultures with all the peoples of the world was developed in 1966 during the height of the black Freedom Movement.  Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili, is a cultural, rather than a religious holiday that runs for seven days from December 26 to January 1. Kwanzaa focuses on Seven Principles that are essential to healthy communities in every place and time.

The first principle of Kwanzaa is Unity – “to strive for and maintain unity in our families, our communities, and our world.” Psalm 133 tells us, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

Yet the unity we strive for is already in many ways a reality. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I  believe in the essential unity of all people and for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one person gains spiritually, the whole world gains, and if one person falls, the whole world falls to that extent.”

Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’I faith said, “O contending peoples and kindreds of the earth! Set your faces toward unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you. Gather ye together, and for the sake of God resolve to root out whatever is the source of contention among you.”

William Sloane Coffin, a wise Protestant teacher and preacher, said, “The religious community has the saving vision. It is the ancient prophetic vision of human unity, now become an urgent pragmatic necessity.”

We are called to unity in our families, our communities, and our world. It is easy to see our differences, but it is what unifies us in a common humanity, a common need for compassion and justice, that is most essential to our lives. Today we remember Unity and practice building our lives on this ancient principle.

On the Second Day of Kwanzaa, we celebrate the principle of Self-Determination – “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.” This is freedom.

We may take it for granted, but we must remember that we are a part of all we see. And Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere….We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny.” As Clarence Darrow declared, “You can only be free if I am free.”

We are free to determine our own destinies but we do so inextricably linked to the whole web of life. We decide individually what is right for us, and we grow stronger with each courageous choice we make to honor our own best selves, our own highest calling as individuals in the network of life.

On the second day of Kwanzaa, in the darkest time of the year, I invite you to take some time to remember the freedom of nature and its call to a simpler life. Take a walk in the rain, notice the beauty of the earth. Let freedom fill you and inspire your path.

On the Third Day of Kwanzaa, we are invited to ponder the third principle of Kwanzaa: Collective Work and Responsibility. We are challenged to build and maintain our community together and to make our brother’s and sister’s challenges our challenges so that we can work together to overcome them.

Jesus invites us to care for one another as extended family. This is easier to believe than to do. When we examine our professional and social lives, do we live up to our high calling as children of God? Do we see our brothers and sisters in the human family as truly our family? Does our work bring us together or divide us by status, place, intellect, ethnicity or social standing?

Once again the principles of Kwanzaa speak to us of justice. As Father Daniel Berrigan put it, “If faith does anything, as shown by the prophets and Jesus, it leads us into the injustice and suffering of the world.”  We are called to serve our neighbor, not as an outsider and a stranger, but as a part of our own extended family. We are all brothers and sisters.

Cain asked his father, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is ultimately, Yes! We are challenged to work together to make this world work for all of us. Not an easy calling, but then, we did not sign up for easy lives. We are here to become servants of the Most High, “to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”

On the fourth day of Kwanzaa, we are invited to celebrate the fourth principle of Kwanzaa: “Cooperative Economics, when we work to build and maintain our businesses so that we profit from them together.”

Here we are faced with an abiding truth from African culture that flies in the face of the rugged individualism of American free trade capitalism. Success is not about competition and one-up-man-ship. Indeed, in ancient societies, such greed was seen as dangerous to the survival of the community. People who refused to work with others for the common good were banished. In a very practical sense, then, we are challenged to work together to build communities of equity here and now.

We practice this in our faith communities when we contribute as we are able from our abundance and offer our skills to the work of the church. But if someone we know is hungry, what can we do to help? If someone is homeless or out of work, what can we do?

There are no easy answers here, but again, because we are one family, the suffering of others diminishes me. When we find ways to support one another and build equitable caring communities with safety nets for those who need them, we are honoring this fourth principle of Kwanzaa – a principle of fairness and of working together.

Together we can do more than any one of us can do alone. This is the mystery of love at work in the world.

The fifth principle of Kwanzaa is Purpose. Why are you here? What vision has enough power to give meaning to all that you do?

Peter Marshall, a Protestant minister who was once chaplain to the United States Congress, said it this way: “Give us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for, because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything!”

We define ourselves as a Micah 6 church. (“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”) How do we live that vision and purpose in our daily lives? Do we make our decisions moment by moment based on Jesus’ commandment, his only commandment: “To love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself?”

Are there specific aspects of our lives we need to change so that we come more fully into alignment with our sense of purpose?

The wonderful words of Maryanne Williamson, spoken by Nelson Mandela at his 1994 inaugural speech are a reminder here of who we have been created to be:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This is your purpose! May you find in it your vision and claim your birthright and move forward.

On the sixth day of Kwanzaa we are called to remember our creativity, “to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave your community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”

As co-creators with Our Creator we are invited to think outside the box, express our wonder, joy and playfulness through music, dance, the visual arts and in every aspect of our lives. Cook with creativity. Garden with creativity. Enjoy companionship creatively. Explore the world creatively!

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, in the wonderful book, “Spiritual Literacy – Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life,” remind us that the “Giver of Life created the world in play and the world remains an unfinished masterpiece.…Imaginative play is the source of creativity. Whenever we express our deepest self, we become co-creators in the ongoing refinement of the universe…Playing around is a good and holy thing. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. It enables us to express ourselves creatively, to use our intuition and imagination, to savor pleasure and the lightness of being, and to make our humble contribution to the unfinished masterpiece of the world.”

As the year 2010 draws to a close, be creative in how you honor this ending of the year and the beginning of a new one. Let yourself expand your understanding of who you are and what you are capable of doing creatively. Everyone really should dance some, sing some, play some, laugh some, every day. Be creative!

You are a child of the creativity that brought the universe into being. Add something fun to the mix. There may be “nothing new under the sun” according to the author of Ecclesiastes, but you are a unique expression of God’s creation. No two snowflakes are alike. Your creation will be uniquely yours – a gift to the universe, and to us!

And finally, on the Seventh Day of Kwanzaa we celebrate the last principle of Kwanzaa:  Faith! “To believe with all our hearts in our people, our families, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle for justice and compassion ultimately to win out over injustice, cruelty and pain,” this is the call of an ancient people. It is the call of the people who called on God in Isaiah’s time and who realized that God’s response came through God’s presence in their lives. “It was no messenger or angel but God’s presence that saved them; God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” And God continues to carry us, to guide us, to inspire us.

God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and leads us beside still waters. God gives us the strength we need to live full and meaningful lives even as we face the daily challenges of heartache, suffering , illness and loss.

“Faith is the substance of things unseen.”  It sustains us and gives us inspiration and courage no matter what our circumstances. I invite you to call on your faith this day and know that God is calling on you to stand in the calm assurance that there is nowhere you can go that God will not carry you when you cannot walk. Take the first step and God will lead you through the dark and into the light. Breathe into this moment a realization that God is here, right now, and let that realization open you to the consciousness and power that is love around you, above you, below you and within you. You are not alone. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me….With God all things are possible….Trust…Grow strong in the practice of the presence of God, and you will be amazed at the miracles that unfold in your life. They may not all feel wonderful…and the mystery will continue to confound you. But God is God and we are not…though God is within us and working through us every step of the way…Let yourself  be guided…This is my prayers, for me, and for all of us. May it be so.