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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
November 4, 2018

Reading

UU minister and poet Mark Belletini wrote this piece called Election Promises — he didn’t write it this past fall or two years ago but over a decade ago. I find knowing this helpful — it reminds me we have been through hard times as a country before now. Belletini writes:

I hear the polls are going to be open on Tuesday. All day. Good. I certainly intend to go to them. I certainly invite you to go to them and vote too. But today I say the polls are not just open on Tuesday. I say they are open every day. Every hour. Even here. Even now. Right now I am going to vote for the robin’s egg sky, the vanilla clouds, the purple shadow spreading under the ginkgo tree, I am going to vote for tulips and redbuds.

I am going to vote for love that does not have to run in someone else’s circles in order to be love. I’m going to vote the homeless into homes. I’m going to vote the uneducated into classrooms that teach them in the way they learn best, not the way that would be most convenient. I’m going to vote the sick into healing. I’m going to vote the lost into belonging. I’m going to vote, right now, for the right to dream of a world where the word politics doesn’t stop me in my tracks, and where the word honor still has a few good meanings left.

I’m going to vote for the power of free people to actually be free, no matter who they are, no matter who has abandoned them, no matter who hates them. I actually am going to vote for love, I am going to vote for truthfulness as the norm, not the exception. I’m going to vote for a world that doesn’t vote for killing, control and swagger.

I’m going to vote for you. I’m going to vote for me. Right now. Right here. Silently. But for real.

Prayer

May the spirit of love and grace be upon this house. Jan Richardson writes these words:

That each ill be released from you
and each sorrow be shed from you
and each pain be made comfort for you
and each wound be made whole in you

that joy will arise in you
and strength will take hold of you
and hope will take wing for you
and all be made well.

That each ill be released from all
and each sorrow be shed from all
and each pain be made comfort for all
and each wound
be made whole in all

that joy will arise in all
and strength will take hold of us
and hope will take wing for us
and all be made well.

Let us give thanks for the beauty of this fall morning even as we pray for all that is broken to be made whole and for all who are sick on suffering or in pain to be well.

Let us hold in heart, in mind, and in prayer the many joys and sorrows, the worries and gratitudes we carry with us today.

The civil rights activist and faith leader in the Sikh tradition, Valarie Kaur writes, “When you are afraid, close your eyes and breathe and remember the ones you love you. Love will make you brave.”

Let’s sit in quiet in the strength and peace of this beloved community and in this strong old house and breathe and remember the ones who love us and whom we love that we might be brave together.

Sermon: Love Makes Us Brave

I have been saying, mostly as a joke, that I was going to preach about hate this morning but I first needed to figure out where I stood on this issue — whether I am for hate or against it. This is not true of course but the truth is I have been wrestling with the issue of hate, struggling with it theologically, ethically, spiritually. Is it ever acceptable to hate? What about hating people who do horrible, hateful things? Is it okay to hate the beliefs, words and actions of people but still try to accept them or is that akin to the way some conservative Christians will say they love the sinner but hate the sin, usually when referring to GLBTQ people, a position which has never felt like a lessening of the judgement.

I still am struggling with hate, which is probably not the best time to present myself as a moral authority. But I know some of you are struggling too and maybe it will help if we struggle it together and out loud. We aren’t alone. The hilarious Christian writer Anne Lamott recently wrote in a Facebook column:

Every so often, I mention a book I’ve always thought about writing, called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. Half the people responding roar with laughter and say, “I’d read that,” and half are sort of horrified, by either the word “hate” or [the word] “Christian.” You’re not supposed to hate, because hate is ugly and diminishes the soul of the hater. But if I were to be honest, I’d admit that I could still write the book.

Hate is everywhere in America right now and on the one hand, it isn’t new. Ask people of color, immigrants, gay people, trans people, disabled people. Ask Muslims and Jews and those who are homeless or poor. Depending upon their experiences, I am fairly certain most would say they have absolutely experienced hate directed at them and that they knew this hate was here. But, on the other hand, something has changed since the 2016 election. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s statistics about the rise of hate crimes in the past year and half bear this out. The veneer of civility, and even the sense of shame about expressing racial or religious or ethnic hatred openly or proudly has been removed. People who are labeled as other are dehumanized and degraded — women who speak out against violence, people will disabilities, immigrants and refugees; The current administration did not create this hatred of course, but they do endorse it. They use language which fosters division and makes people into enemies, referring to immigrants and asylum seekers as rapists and criminals and animals; They purposefully create a false sense of threat and fear, knowing that when people feel threatened, when peple are afraid something important is going to be taken away from them, they are far more likely to act out their hatred against those they see as a threat.

Hate can have terrible, destructive consequences and it can be used to justify doing terrible, lethal things. Just the last two weeks of news is more than enough evidence of this. But here is the complicated part, the difficult part: sometimes I feel hate too. I feel hate even though I am against it. And maybe you feel it as well. It is so much more comfortable to believe that theyare the haters, not us. They are the people who believe and say and do hateful things. We are fundamentally good people who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all, including, at least theoretically, those who disagree with us. Though this presents its own theological problems. Do people who hurt and terrorize others have inherent worth and dignity? Is it possible to loseinherent worth and dignity, to give it away through hateful beliefs and actions? And if we are wondering whether there are limits to the inherent worth and dignity of others, which I have absolutely been wondering lately, what does that mean? Am I not looking hard enough? Is my capacity for compassion too small?

We know that hate hurts the hater as well as the hated. We know what Dr. King said about it — that he had decided to stick with love because hate was too great a burden to bear.

But we may be feeling it anyway, and then we feel guilty or ashamed because good people aren’t supposed to hate. But we do.

This is what I believe. We feel hate because we are human. We feel hate because we, too, get deeply hurt and afraid. We feel hate because we are enraged and profoundly worried the things we most value and cherish are disappearing from our country. That we too are losing things of great value to us. And here is an idea to contemplate, to consider: maybe hate is just a feeling, a powerful feeling, but just a feeling nonetheless. And we are going to feel it, at least most of us are. And because hate is so powerful, it is easy to act on it in destructive ways. But the feeling of hate is not immoral or unethical. Speaking from it and acting on hate is, and that is what makes us different from those who choose to act and speak with hate. And we always, always have a choice.

I have been having theological discussions about hate with two of my closest colleagues and friends this week, theological discussions which have taken the form of me emailing them saying, Help me. And they have. My colleague and friend Ellen Spero wrote back saying she believes that hate makes us feel understood without any need for accountability or sacrifice. In other words, part of the deep appeal of hate is that it is a shortcut to community, though a false one. Hating the same people makes us feel part of a group, part of a movement, part of a community of like-minded others but without any of the work, without any of the connection involved in real community. Ellen reminded me that we can learn to breathe through hate, to sit with hate, to simply feel it, as painful as that is, and then let it go, to let it pass, just as we have learned to do with fear or sadness or anger. And then we can choose to act and speak in love, which takes both discipline and courage. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said pray for those who persecute you — choose a loving action, no matter how you feel. Sometimes the loving feelings will follow the loving action, I think they often do, but the important and brave and difficult thing is to act in love, regardless.

As you know, last Saturday eleven members of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered in their sanctuary, their holy place, in an act of antisemitic violence. The shooter has also expressed his hatred of immigrants and the Tree of Life synagogue is active with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization originally founded in the late 1800s to resettle Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and which now rescues Jews and non-Jews facing persecution all over the world. Welcoming the stranger is exactly what the worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue and every other synagogue around the globe were reading about last Saturday morning. The Torah portion for last week was about Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Judaism, and what happened when three strangers showed up at their tent. As the story is told in the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah welcome the strangers with great hospitality. They wash their feet, give them shade, feed them well. It turns out the strangers are really angels who have come with a message: Abraham and Sarah will have their longed-for and long-awaited child, a son named Isaac, even though Sarah is already 90 years old. The lesson told over and over in the Hebrew Bible is this: welcome the stranger. Strangers might be angels in disguise sent by God, so act accordingly.

That this particular stranger showed up at the Tree of Life synagogue bringing terror and destruction is utterly heart-breaking. But if we need to know what choosing to speak and act in love looks like, it is in the aftermath of the tragedy; it’s in the outpouring of support in the face of hate. The Muslim community of Pittsburg quickly collected thousands of dollars for burial costs and to help the families of the injured and bereaved. In Toronto several hundred of people showed up at the Holy Blossom synagogue there and formed a human circle around the temple offering their bodies as protection during services. The American Jewish Committee declared this weekend Show Up for Shabbat. Just at the moment when closing and locking and barricading the doors would be completely understandable, synagogues have thrown them open, asking, inviting strangers to come in. And people have shown up in the hundreds of thousands, Christians, Muslims, people of all religious traditions and none.

As some of you know the man who murdered the people at Tree of Life, named John Bowers, was injured in a shoot-out with the police before he was arrested. He was taken to the emergency room at Allegheny General Hospital where his injuries were treated by an attending physician and ER nurse, both of whom happened to be Jewish. The president of the hospital Dr. Jeffrey Cohen is a member of Tree of Life Synagogue and knew nine of the victims who were killed but he personally went to check on John Bower’s condition and ask if he was in pain. Dr. Cohen has told the press simply, “We take care of sick people here.” And yesterday a letter appeared in the media from that emergency room nurse, a man named Ari Mahler. I want to read you part of the letter this morning — this is finding the courage to choose to act in love sounds like and looks like.

I am The Jewish Nurse. Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one that people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, “Death to all Jews,” as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life.

To be honest, I’m nervous about sharing this. I just know I feel alone right now, and the irony of the world talking about me doesn’t seem fair without the chance to speak for myself…

When I was a kid, being labeled “The Jewish (anything)”, undoubtedly had derogatory connotations attached to it. That’s why it feels so awkward to me that people suddenly look at it as an endearing term. As an adult, deflecting my religion by saying “I’m not that religious,” makes it easier for people to accept I’m Jewish — especially when I tell them my father is a rabbi. “I’m not that religious,” is like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you,” and like clockwork, people don’t look at me as awkwardly as they did a few seconds beforehand.

I experienced anti-Semitism a lot as a kid. It’s hard for me to say if it was always a product of genuine hatred, or if kids with their own problems found a reason to single me out from others. Sure, there were a few Jewish kids at my school, but no one else had a father who was a Rabbi. I found drawings on desks of my family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on my locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, “Die Jew. Love, Hitler.” It was a different time back then, where bullying was not monitored like it is now. I was weak, too. Rather than tell anyone, I hid behind fear. Telling on the people who did this would only lead to consequences far worse.

Regardless, the fact that this shooting took place doesn’t shock me… I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.

So now, here I am, The Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers…To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes. All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion….the kind of person that I s easily manipulated by people with a microphone, a platform, and use fear for motivation. I can’t go into details of our interactions because of HIPPA, but Robert Bowers thanked me for saving him, for showing him kindness, and for treating him the same way I treat every other patient. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.

I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish… I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?

Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish to instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.

Respectfully, Ari Mahler, RN.

It takes courage to choose love no matter how we feel and especially when we feel hate. One thing I know for sure is that being brave is much easier when we have people around us to help us. Sometimes that is the only way it is possible. As the young activist and leader of the Sikh tradition Valarie Kaur puts it. When you find yourself afraid Close your eyes and breathe and remember the ones who love you. Love will make you brave.

The polls are open every day. Every hour. Even here. Even now. Let’s vote, again and again, for love.

grad-rainbow

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

Created 2018-11-07