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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
April 14, 2019

Sermon: Living At the Edge of Our Imaginations

I was going to ask you all to get up and move seats this morning. Because I want to talk about discomfort and how sometimes it is a difficult but important blessing to choose to be uncomfortable. So I thought it might be a good little exercise to ask the ushers to direct you sit somewhere new and experience just that little bit of being unsettled. I do realize that for some of you moving to a new pew would more than a little bit unsettling. I know some of you get here early so you can get YOUR pew. I am not judging you for this. I am one of you and I am glad I get to sit in the same chair every week. In fact, I didn’t ask you to change pews, especially not without advance warning, because this is exactly the sort of thing I hate.

The one time I really considered quitting the ministry was early on when I attended a regional minister’s gathering that was supposed to be a healing and reconciliation meeting after a painful conflict about which I knew almost nothing since I was so new. Also, I had somehow failed to receive the informative memo sent out before the meeting that we were all supposed to wear green to symbolize renewal, as well loose clothing that we could dance in, and we were to enter the meeting space barefoot. If I had gotten the memo I wouldn’t have gone to the meeting, because this is the kind of thing that is so not good for me. But I didn’t get it, so I went in professional minister meeting attire.

I got there a little bit late per usual and was met at the door by someone I did not know who directed me to take off my shoes and then ushered me into the circle of ministers in mostly green clothing dancing barefoot to fluty music. To be specific we were doing what the leader who was directing us called a Hoe Dance, complete with hoeing and seed planting motions. This went on for what seemed like several days. After the hoe dance there was an exercise where we had to pair up with someone and look deeply into their eyes for another three days and then wash each other’s hands in warm water in which scented potpourri was floating. I have a terrible poker face and my poor partner could see I was distressed; he just didn’t know why. He said kindly, ministerially, “I can see this exercise is bringing up some powerful negative emotions for you. Would you like to talk about it?” I confess I excused myself to the bathroom at that point, where I ran into a colleague who was hiding in there. She hadn’t gotten the memo either. I further confess we snuck out the back door.

I know activities like these can be powerful and healing and for some of the people there that day, I am sure they were, but I left thinking that if I was in for a lifetime of hoe dancing and potpourri hand washing, I was definitely in the wrong line of work. But I never forgot the experience either because it taught me that it is no small thing to ask people to move into a place of discomfort. It is no small thing because discomfort almost always brings up vulnerability and vulnerability is an open and tender place, a place where both hurt and healing and transformation can happen.

Many of us fear discomfort more than we want to admit. We don’t like that feeling of not knowing, of being off balance, wondering if we are saying or doing things right. We don’t like being uncertain, or the risk of embarrassing ourselves. So we don’t put ourselves in situations where that could happen. But when we avoid discomfort, we miss a lot too, including the chance to change and grow. Because there is no transformation without discomfort, without risk, without vulnerability.

Today, Palm Sunday, is an interesting day to talk about discomfort because Jesus was one of the greatest teachers of it. He made people, especially those in authority so uncomfortable, he was killed for that. Palm Sunday commemorates the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life. It recalls the story told in the Gospels about Jesus riding a donkey into the city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover holiday there. As the story is told, crowds of people lined up along the road to watch Jesus enter the city. They spread their clothing down in the road and cut palm fronds from the trees and laid those down for Jesus to ride over them as they would for a king. And they shouted “Hosanna,” which means “Save us.”

Jesus may have come into the city this way this in order to fulfill what was written by the Hebrew prophet Zachariah that the king of the Jewish people would come to them on the most humble of animals. But he may have also done it as a way to mock the Roman authorities who ruled over the Jews in Judea. They apparently liked to come into the city with great pomp and circumstance and they forced the people come out and cheer for them. So for Jesus coming in on the donkey was possibly a kind of political theatre, one of the many ways he made those in power feel threatened.

This was one of the most powerful aspects of Jesus’ public ministry, how he shook up the power structures, how he radically questioned all authorities, and invited his follower to do the same. This is also the part that has gotten most lost, not surprisingly, as the church created in his name grew more and more powerful. Jesus said, the last are going to be first, and the laws and structures we have created to keep the few in power and to marginalize the rest are going to fall away. And he didn’t just tell stories about this, he showed people what he meant, he lived what he was trying to teach.

He ate with people who were considered unclean under Jewish law — non-Jews, tax collectors, whom everyone hated as the agents of the occupying government, women who were prostitutes. He healed people who society said were not worth healing, people with leprosy, the desperately poor, those with disabilities and mental illnesses. He did forbidden things on the sabbath. He did not fear the Roman authorities, despite their power and taught people how to subvert them without getting themselves killed.

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of heaven. He told stories about what the kingdom of heaven would be like. He said things like blessed are the meek and the poor and those who are persecuted now for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples asked him, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he pointed out a small child and said be like children. When Jesus referred to the kingdom of heaven, he meant the world as it could be, not some otherworldly, after-worldly realm, not heaven as a reward for obedience or believing the right things, another area which has been wildly and willfully misinterpreted by the institution of the church. But Jesus was talking about heaven on earth, heaven as what can be right here, what will be, when we commit ourselves to bringing it about, when we commit ourselves to healing of the vulnerable, the poor, the marginalized. The kingdom of heaven is about creating justice and compassion and liberation right here.

It is no great surprise that Jesus got into a lot of trouble, both with the Jewish religious authorities and with the Roman government. He was a threat to all of them. The authorities feared he was inciting people to insurrection, both religious and civil, which he may have been doing. With the support of the Roman authorities, the chief priests had him arrested for religious heresy, they said he was claiming illegally to be the king of the Jews. He was sentenced to death by crucifixion which is significant because that was the form of death used for political dissidents. The story of the end of Jesus life is a painful one. Judas betrays him, bringing the chief priests and guards to the house where Jesus was staying. Peter, his beloved, his best friend, denies knowing him because he is afraid and he doesn’t want to be associated and then there is a mob calling for his death.

It was the tradition every Passover for one convicted criminal to be pardoned by the Roman government so Pontius Pilate the Roman governor asked the crowd who had gathered to witness Jesus’ execution, if they wanted to pardon him and they refused — probably some of the very same people who had gathered in the streets laying down the palms and calling this man their savior just a few days before were now calling for him to be killed. They thought Jesus was going to magically deliver them from the Roman occupation and when they saw he had been arrested, that he couldn’t even save himself, they were enraged at his powerlessness.

I suspect most of us would prefer to skip this part of the story with its suffering and pain and cruelty and get right on to Easter morning, the part about hope and rebirth and the celebration of new life. And who wouldn’t. But we need to hear this part of the story too. We need to stay with the discomfort of it, because in so many ways we are still living it, still living in it. In our country this Palm Sunday we are living with the painful reality of how much people want easy and simple answers to complicated problems.

We see how people still look for leaders who we believe will save us, preferably without any work on our part. We see how desperately people with power and privilege hold onto it, how the very idea that everyone has the same inherent worth and dignity makes people murderously angry. We see how easily disappointment and disillusionment can turn into rage and violence. And we know how difficult it is to confront injustice, and not even in the huge ways but in the small, daily ways, with our own families and co-workers. We are all like Peter sometimes, denying who and what we love in the face of danger, real or imagined.

But what is also true is that we are still telling the story of this man who lived over two thousand years ago and the vision he had about the kingdom of heaven, the kin-dom of heaven on earth, where all are kin, all are beloved and where all belong. I believe we yearn for that heaven, that radical kinship even as we can barely imagine it. Actor and activist America Ferrera writes, “We’re trying to push something new into the world. We’re trying to bring something through that’s never been brought through, and it’s hard. And we have to continually remind ourselves that our discomfort and our grappling is not a sign of failure. It’s a sign that we’re living at the edge of our imaginations.” Despite my dread of discomfort, I want to live at the edge of my imagination. And I want us to be living here that way too.

One of you recently told me the story of how you drove by our church sign out on the common by Main Street, on the way to and from work five days a week for four years before taking the risk of coming in the door on a Sunday morning. And what this person was seeing on the sign was the tiny rainbow across the bottom. This was years before we hung the rainbow banner in our front window. The rainbow along the bottom of the sign is so small, some of you probably haven’t even noticed it, but we had to get our church sign approved by the town sign committee and there are limits to how much color you can have on signs in the historic district so that is the biggest our rainbow could be. This person did not miss it — because they knew what it meant, welcome. But because that message of welcome was so radically different from what they had experienced as a gay person growing up in their own religious tradition, being told they were not made in the image of God, being told their love was wrong or sinful, it took four years of driving by the sign, roughly 4000 drive-bys, before this person took the huge, beautiful risk of entering the building to see if we meant it. They came inside to see if we were really living out that welcome, to see if they and their family would be truly Beloved here if they would fully belong. Because of course the sign is just a sign, it just points to what is inside, which is what matters.

You have probably noticed that the Racial Justice Ministry has put small Black Lives Matter signs out in front of the church and parish house. They have been there 6 months now and the Racial Justice Ministry has asked us to tell them how we feel about proclaiming those words, in the same way we proclaim the rainbow. The signs may make some of us a little bit uncomfortable. They make us a little bit vulnerable and they have risks. People may not understand what we mean by them, which is that we oppose the systemic racism and unfair treatment of people of color that still pervades every institution in our country, that it is not acceptable to us that people of color have to live with oppression and marginalization every day in America. To say black lives matter does not mean that other lives don’t matter, in the same way that offering a specific welcome to GLBTQ people does not mean others are not welcome. It means that we recognize the harm and hurt that has been done and we are trying to create the kin-dom of God in here and we want people to know it.

Every week day if I get to my office early enough I can see the elementary school kids who live on the Lawrence Academy campus walk down the road to get to their bus stop; they wait right in front of the church for the bus to come by on Route 40. They walk by our two Black Lives Matter signs every day, twice a day, 5 days a week. And several of those little ones who walk by are kids of color, as are some of their parents who walk with them, as are some of the much bigger kids who are the LA students who come and go down the same road on their way to and from Dunkin Donuts at their 10:00 am break time.

I think about them seeing those words, especially the little ones, ten times a week. You matter. You have worth. We know the world can be a harder place for you and we care about that. We can’t undo that injustice or even change very much of it, but here in these two buildings, marked by flimsy little lawn signs, we are trying to unlearn the racism that all of us who grew up in this country learned, which was not our fault but is nonetheless our responsibility. I believe that matters. Maybe in ways we will never know. And to help one child be reminded of their beauty and belonging in this world, discomfort is a small thing compared to that.

On your way out of the sanctuary today, you are welcome to take a Palm with you. It is green, the color of life, a sign of hope. Maybe it can be a reminder to you of the kin-dom of heaven we are trying to create here in this house, here on earth, where all people feel their worth, where all people know they are beloved and where we all belong to one another.

grad-rainbow

1 Powder House Road … P.O. Box 457 … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2019-04-17