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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, April 29, 2012
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Thoughts Before the Service Begins

“Ever since there have been human beings, they have given themselves over to too little joy. That alone my friends, is our original sin. I should only believe in a God who knows how to dance.” – Henri Matisse
Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does
Anything weird,
But the God who knows only four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come Dance with Me.
Come dance.” – Hafez

Reading: I Got Kin, by Hafez

Plant
So that your own heart
Will grow.

Love
So God will think,

"Ahhhhh,
I got kin in that body!
I should start inviting that soul over
For coffee and
Rolls."

Sing
Because this is a food
Our starving world
Needs.

Laugh
Because that is the purest
Sound.

The God Who Knows Only Four Words: Come Dance with Me

I feel the need to begin with confession. I am not an expert in today’s sermon topic. When it comes to celebration, I am a total beginner. Lightness of being is not my strength; some of you know this already. I am more of an expert in complexity, in the bittersweet-ness of things, in how the human experience is both very beautiful and very challenging. I am also an expert in what my ancestors call kvetching, kind of combination of whining and complaining, though I do at least try to make my kvetching humorous. One of the things I have been known to kvetch about is the celebration of major holidays because these celebrations seem to come around faster and faster and there are so many of them. And while I deeply love this calling to ministry and I hope that is evident to you, religious holidays unavoidably involve a fair amount of work on the part of ministers. So by the time Easter dinner or Christmas Day lunch rolls around, I am not always good for much celebration.

However, I should not complain because I know some people who are clergy couples and both parents are working flat out on holidays. Compared to them, we have it easy. One clergy couple I know are both Lutheran ministers and they have young children. They both arrived home at about 2 am this past Christmas Eve after their respective midnight services and let’s just put it this way: they forgot to get ready for Santa. They don’t have a fireplace so they always leave their door unlocked so Santa can get in that way. But because they were both so incredibly exhausted, each one thought the other one had unlocked the front door and put out the milk and cookies. Santa was very understanding. Apparently, he had left the presents out in the backyard shed with a note explaining that he didn’t want to break into the house and that is why he hadn’t left the presents under the tree or eaten the milk and cookies.

I am more and more convinced that celebrations don’t have to be large or complicated or full of effort. In fact, I might even suggest that the larger and more complicated and full of effort something is, the more difficult it can be to actually celebrate, because our expectations interfere with joy. And celebration is not just about holidays or events. Celebration is for every day. Celebration can simply mean noticing, seeing, marking, honoring small moments: the spring peas coming up in the garden, the passing of an illness or sorrow or pain. I was listening to a cooking show on the radio the other day and a young woman called in to say that she and her husband had a bonsai lemon tree. Every year or so the tree produced a lemon – one lemon about a third of the size of a regular lemon. This year’s lemon was ready and she wanted ideas for a recipe, a dish she and her husband could make with this one tiny lemon to celebrate it, to savor it.

Celebration is about noticing moments and savoring them, declaring moments as precious and experiencing them as precious. Celebration can happen in a second, in the time it takes to notice the explosion of purple lilacs against the neighbor’s yellow house or a first sip of hot coffee on a chilly, quiet morning. It is a deeply spiritual act, to celebrate moments, to experience moments with gratitude and appreciation. Again, I am far from an expert but I believe we can learn how to celebrate by practicing. We can practice and we can get better.

Wallace Robbins suggests that sermons on celebration should not be given by human preachers anyway. They should be given by foxes. He writes:

One summer morning early we saw two foxes in our backyard. They were in their long black stockings and had their ears done up perkily, and wore flowing plumes for tails. They were hunting mice with the grace of fencers, dancing forward and back, lunging and pouncing. Poor creatures I thought, always hungry, always hunting. The [female] seemed nervous … as she observed her male partner go bravely into strange nooks and corners of my garden and field. He stood by the mulched blueberry bushes and sniffed, listened, tightened up ready for the mouse catch. She came up quietly behind him, timidly it appeared, warily, until she had reached his flank. Then she nipped him.

He exploded with all the force of his coiled body – straight up. When he came down he took out after her. They ran in circles, jumped over each other to avoid collisions [as they swirled through the garden]. Poor creatures indeed! They were full of wit and practical jokes. Playing like children …

Time does not go slowly for foxes, I think. Their happiness lies close to their hunger, their serious intent is blessed with companionship and uproarious joy. At summer’s end I went to church and heard a preacher talk about duty and hard work. I preferred the sermon of the foxes. (I found this story in the Quest for Meaning magazine of the Church of the Larger Fellowship many years ago, but I no longer have the issue number.)

Many of us here, probably most of us, are quite concerned with duty and hard work. These are not bad things of course. In fact, they are quite important but so is the sermon of the foxes. I was half listening to a public radio book review a while ago and I don’t even remember the title of the book they were discussing – maybe one of you will know — the part I remember was the host quoting a passage in which the voice of the narrator of the story, an eleven-year-old boy, is observing adult life. He says, “Grownups either go off secretly and have fun when kids can’t see them or else their lives are just horrible pretty much all the time.” Now it is true that sometimes grownups do go off and have fun when kids can’t see us. And it is also true that some of the things that grownups consider fun, like sitting around talking or getting dressed up to go somewhere and eat weird food, probably seem pretty horrible to an eleven year old. But it is also true that what most of us do most of the time is work in one form or another. We do paid work, volunteer work, house work, yard work, and we are pretty serious about it. I suspect that too many of us only feel worthwhile when we are working. I suspect that too many of us believe that if we are not working at something, we are wasting our time. I worry my own kids too will believe that grownups only read and answer emails and load the dishwasher. For a little fun we might take a shower or vacuum. I want my children to know how much I like mucking around in the garden even if things don’t always grow. I want them to know that I like cooking and drinking wine and that reading poetry is play for me.

The moments of our day we may find the most pleasurable and satisfying, the moments we are the most likely to savor, and thus celebrate, the moments of sleeping, eating, taking a walk, reading, daydreaming, are the very same moments which also make us feel anxious and guilty. We really should be folding the laundry, washing the bathroom floor, writing another memo, or catching up on something on our to-do list, which of course is never finished because we are always adding more to it. But remember the sermon of the foxes. Time does not go slowly for them. Their happiness lies close to their hunger, their serious intent is blessed with companionship and uproarious joy.

The foxes find pleasure and play in their hunting and stalking and pouncing, in what they must do to stay alive. Their work is intertwined with play, with chasing each other around the fields for the sheer joy of it. I believe that most of us humans also need to learn to intertwine our happiness and our hunger in the way of the foxes. Probably most of us could benefit from playing more and working less than we do now, but maybe even more important, I am talking about bringing a spirit of playfulness, the possibility of celebration, to all the parts of our lives.

In her poem, Welcome Morning, Anne Sexton writes beautifully of celebrating the small, the mundane, the daily, saying:

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.

Babies and toddlers are good teachers of celebrating daily-ness. I remember going to visit a friend several years ago when his daughter was an eight-month-old baby. This was years ago before my own babies were born. This friend is a rather serious person. At the time he was a doctoral student in a serious subject and, while he certainly has a sense of humor, he is also extremely focused and intent. So we went in to change the baby’s diaper and I got to watch my friend go through this hilarious and completely unexpected routine he had developed to keep the baby entertained so she wouldn’t scream and flail around while her diaper was getting changed. The routine consisted of nothing particularly surprising when it comes to entertaining babies – it was just that it was my serious, doctoral candidate, research scientist friend putting a diaper on his head while making faces and raspberry noises. At the time I was completely surprised. I had no idea babies did that to people. And certainly when our children were babies we did the same thing. We made faces and weird noises; we danced the babies around the house; we played endless rounds of Peekaboo and Trot Trot to Boston and especially Hokey Pokey because, for some reason, Caleb found the Hokey Pokey uproariously funny.

Babies also remind us of all the moments there are to celebrate. First words and first steps, first taste of pureed squash. But isn’t the first taste of asparagus from the garden always something to celebrate? And the first strawberries after a long New England winter? The first snowfall, the first frost, the first swim in the pond – aren’t they always something to celebrate?

I believe that, while some people are born with more of it than others, the spirit of playfulness is an attitude, a way of moving through the world. I have a friend who refers to this as Life Gladness. For her, I think Life Gladness is about being able to be moved, being able to have moments of joy and pleasure, being able to laugh a lot even when life is hard, which it so often is. We can practice Life Gladness – we can learn to have more of it.

Linda Weltner, one of my favorite Boston Globe columnists, suggests that our practice might take the form of doing something we love every day, no matter how bad we might be at it.

She wrote a column years ago that I love entitled “Some Things are Worth Doing Badly,” about her husband’s tuba playing. She talked about how her husband can only play a few extremely simple songs like Oh, Susannah, Don’t You Cry For Me and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes. But despite his extremely limited repertoire he was actually getting gigs. People were actually asking him to come and play tuba solos at their weddings and holiday parties.

Weltner said that she suspected that people asked her husband to play his tuba for them precisely because he played so badly and the sound of the solo tuba played badly is so awful that they would fall over laughing and this is great entertainment. She said she suspected her husband knew this as well, but guess what, he didn’t even care. He loved playing the tuba. She said when someone invited him to play, one might think he would go off and practice to get ready for the big event but he didn’t. He just strutted around the house, proud and pleased with himself that he had been asked, and when the time came, he huffed and squawked out his songs while the audience laughed and everyone had a great time.

Linda Weltner reflected on how different this is from her way of approaching life. Like many of us, she learned that the pleasure in doing things is in doing them well. You learn to swim or play tennis by taking lessons and learning how to do it correctly and you work at it until you can do it passably well and if you cannot do it passably well, you don’t do it at all or at least you don’t do it where other people can see you. Like many of us, Weltner grew up believing it is embarrassing to do things badly even if you actually love doing those things. And in her column, she reflects on the fact that this is probably not the best approach to life, that some things in life are worth doing badly.

I agree. So many things in life are worth doing just for the sheer pleasure and joy and humor that we can experience by doing them, In fact, if we are serious about our spiritual development, we might try to leave our seriousness aside on a regular basis. Maybe, just maybe, the spirit, the holy, the sacred is more available to us when we laugh or dance. Maybe the spirit is closer to us when we are not trying to be in control of everything all the time, when we have become a little bit more like children who are well loved — open, trustful, relaxed, and more able to participate in the uproarious joy and celebration of the foxes.

To cherish the world and celebrate it is a deeply sacred act, a reflection of the nature of God or sacredness itself. The 14th century Sufi Hafez puts it simply when he says: “Every child has known God, not the God of names, not the God of don’ts … but the God who knows only four words and keeps repeating them, saying: ‘Come Dance with Me!’”

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Created 2012-07-08