First Parish Church of Groton : Sermons
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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
January 28, 2018

Prayer

May peace be upon our holy house, this hungry people this hurting world. Words of the prayer this morning are by Victoria Safford.

Whose are you?
Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?
Whose are you?
Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?
Whose are you?
Who is within your circle of concern?
Whose are you?
To whom are you responsible, accountable? Whose care is yours to provide?
Whose are you?
When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from?
Whose are you?
When you walk out of your room, out of your house, into the sunlight of the day, to whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?
Whose are you?
At the end of the day, through the longest night in the valley of the shadow of death and despair, who holds you in your going out and your coming in, your waking and your sleeping? Who, what holds you in the hollow of its hand?
Whose are you?

Spirit of life, we gather in this place of peace, this place of sanctuary Let us pray for our world, for all war torn places and for all who live with illness, hunger, and violence, for all who are homeless and for all among us here this morning who are hurt in mind or body or spirit.

Let us give thanks also for the moments of joy and peace and tenderness of our week, for the faces of our loved ones and for friendship and that we are here to experience another beautiful winter morning.

Pray for this gathered people — joys and sorrows we are shared with one another and these we have been entrusted with.

Here, may we find hope and strength for the week ahead. May the peace of this place fill us with peace and we sit in quiet and pray our own prayers.

(Audio of this sermon)

Sermon: The Ground of our Hope

Rebecca Parker writes:

Let us covenant with one another
to seek for an ever deeper awareness
of that which springs up inwardly in us.
Even when our hearts are broken...
Even when we have done all we can and life is still broken
there is a Universal Love
that has never broken faith with us and never will.
This is the ground of our hope.

Covenant is a weighty religious word and an old one, evoking the stories of the Hebrew bible in which God makes a Covenant with the Jewish people. Entire dissertations and tomes have been written about the meaning of covenant but instead this morning we will begin with a favorite story by Robert Fulghum about a ripped brown paper lunch bag sealed with duct tape and staples and several paper clips. He writes:

This particular lunch bag has been in my care for maybe fourteen years. But it really belongs to my daughter, Molly. Soon after she came of school age, she became an enthusiastic participant in packing the morning lunches for herself, her brothers, and me…One morning Molly handed me two bags as I was about to leave. One regular lunch (bag). And the other one with the duct tape, and staples and paper clips. Why two? I asked. The other one is something else. What’s in it. Just some stuff — take it with you…. I stuffed both sacks into my briefcase, kissed the child, and rushed off.

At midday, while hurriedly scarfing down my real lunch, I tore open Molly’s bag and shook out the contents. Two hair ribbons, three small stones, a plastic dinosaur, a pencil stub, a tiny seashell, a marble, a used lipstick, a small doll, and thirteen pennies. I smiled. How charming. Rising to hustle off to all the important business of the afternoon, I swept the desk clean — into the wastebasket — leftover lunch, Molly’s junk and all. There wasn’t anything in there I needed

That evening Molly came to stand beside me while I was reading the newspaper. Where’s my bag. What bag? The one I gave you this morning? Oh, I left it at the office, (I lied) why? I forgot to put this note in it. She hands over the note. Besides, I want it back…Those are my things in the sack, Daddy, the ones I really like — I thought you might like to play with them — but now I want them back. You didn’t lose the bag, did you Daddy? Tears puddle in her eyes. Oh no, I just forgot to bring it home, I lied. Bring it tomorrow, Okay? Sure thing, don’t worry. As she hugged my neck with relief, I opened the note that had not got into the bag. I love you Daddy, it said.

Uh oh…. Molly had given me her treasures. All that a seven year old held dear. Love in a brown paper bag. And I had missed it. Not only missed it, but had thrown it away in the wastebasket because there wasn’t anything in there I needed.

…It was a long trip back to the office. But there was nothing else to be done. So I went…just ahead of the janitor. I picked up the wastebasket and poured the contents on my desk. I was sorting it all out when the janitor came in to do his chores. Lose something?…What’s it look like and I’ll help you look. I started not to tell him. But I couldn’t feel like any more of a fool than I was already in fact, so I told him. He didn’t laugh.

I got kids too (he said). So the brotherhood of fools searched the trash and found the jewels and he smiled at me and I smiled at him. You are never alone in these things. Never.

After washing the mustard off the dinosaur and spraying the whole thing with breath freshener to kill the smell of onions, I carefully smoothed out the wadded ball of brown paper…put the treasures inside and carried the whole thing home gingerly, like an injured kitten. The next evening, I returned it to Molly, no questions asked, no explanations offered. …. After dinner I asked her to tell me about the stuff in the sack, and so she took it all out a piece at a time and placed the objects in a row on the dining room table.

It took a long time to tell. Everything had a story, a memory, or was attached to dreams and imaginary friends…I managed to say, I see … several times in the telling. And as a matter of fact, I did see. To my surprise, Molly gave the bag to me once again several days later. Same ratty bag. Same stuff inside. I felt forgiven. And trusted. And loved… Over several months, the bag went with me from time to time. It was never clear to me why I did nor did not get it on a given day. I began to think of it as the Daddy Prize and tried to be good the night before so I might be given it the next morning.

In time Molly turned her attention to other things, found other treasures... Me? I was left holding the bag. She gave it to me one morning and never asked for its return. And so I have it still.
(Robert Fulghum from It Was on Fire When I Lay Down On It)

This is a story all about covenant — the covenant is the promise, the trust symbolized by a ripped lunch bag full of treasures. I give you my heart, my most precious stuff and you do your best to see it, to understand it and to keep it safe. And you give me your ripped lunch bag. And when we misunderstand or mess it up or throw the whole thing into the trash because we didn’t realize what we were given, we will try to recover it and keep going. That is covenant.

A covenant is a promise. It is based on something deeper than contracts or rules or laws. It is based on our need to be faithful, our need to be in relationship with one another, and our need to make promises, even though we will absolutely break them, because we are human.

Unitarian Universalist congregations have long used the term covenant to describe the relationships between members to one another. We say Unitarian Universalism is a faith of covenants, not creeds. What this means is hat we are held together, not by the beliefs we hold in common or believing in certain things at all, but by the commitments or promises we make. The nature of our faith is determined not by our beliefs but by how we have given our hearts and to what or to whom have we given them. This is the fundamental question of covenant — to whom, to what, have you given your heart. The question of whose are you? Who do you belong to? What do you belong to? Who needs you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is changed by the choices you make? Whose life is all bound up with your own? Asking these questions brings us to covenant, because it reminds us that we are not alone. Our lives are inextricably tied up with the lives of others. Being part of a faith acknowledges that and then it asks the question: “Given that we are connected, given that we belong to each other, how are we going to live?”

That last part, how then shall we live, is essential because a covenant about far more than words, though often covenants are written down or spoken. But covenants, if they are real, aren’t just words, they move us, they guide us, sometimes they restrain us too.

But covenants get broken, we break them; others break them as well and how we respond, how we recover from broken covenants is perhaps one of the most important things we can learn as human beings. People often come to see me at those moments of promise breaking — when they have been unfaithful to a vow they have made, when they have been untrue to their best selves, to the person they want to be and maybe they were. These are painful times, these moments of broken covenant. But one of the questions I have learned to ask over the years is: IS this the right covenant? Is this the right promise for you now? Because sometimes the most heartfelt promises we make are impossible to keep;

I remember a couple of weeks after my kids were born, I ventured to Costco by myself to buy diapers. I was still a little shaky and I should have known better than to go to Costco, where I don’t do well even in the best of times — I never seem to learn these lessons. Anyway, there I was buying a giant box of the tiniest little newborn diapers and I ran into a mother and her toddler also in the diaper aisle. The toddler was having a pretty typical toddler tantrum and the mother was frustrated and yelling at him. In my highly emotional post-partum state this was completely unbearable to me. I burst out crying and vowed to myself and my tiny babies a sacred, sacred oath that I would never yell at them, never even speak to them meanly and certainly not when they were hungry or tired or losing it in the Costco. They were two weeks old. They had not done anything to try even my first nerve yet much less my last one. Ask them how that promise has gone.

But I have learned over the years, as I have broken that covenant time and time again, that it was not the right promise; it was not useful or helpful to even try to keep it. Our covenants have to be the right ones. And even the right ones don’t always last a lifetime. And even when they are the right ones, we cannot keep them perfectly. This is painful but it is just true so the repair part matters almost more than anything. The part about being able to say I am sorry, to gather up what has been broken, to glue it back together if we are able, to vow to try to be more careful and to keep going.

What I didn’t know back then and am just starting to learn almost 15 years later is how often my promises to my children would need to change as they changed. And what I have also come to believe is that my ultimate covenant to them is to help them make their own ultimate promises, to help them decide who and what they will belong to and to point them in the direction of life giving things.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber who wrote so much about finding God in relationships, in trust between people, said that “The human being is the promise making, promise breaking, promise renewing creature. ” Breaking our covenants is part of the human condition, but so is trying again, so is believing again, so is committing again. Maybe that is the most important part -- being willing to hold onto hope, to hold to our belief in covenant, to point each other and ourselves back to that force of Love that does not break faith with us.

In the tiny congregation I served now almost 20 years ago in a small town west of here, there was no paid staff except for me and a young teenage girl whom we will call Stephanie who came to work for me a few hours a week. Stephanie had been referred to me by a local therapist who was a friend and who told me that Stephanie could use an adult mentor and that she had a hard home life. I could use someone to file and make copies so I hired her and we slowly grew to know each other. Stephanie was incredibly intelligent though her performance at school was pretty terrible. She was a poet though she did not show me any of her poems for over a year but when I did get to see them they were beautiful, powerful, full of pain and strength and hope. Both of her parents were drug involved, her father in and out of prison in the time I knew her. Her younger brother for whom she was largely responsible also incredibly intelligent but showing signs of mental illness. I knew Stephanie could go to college, if she had some support. I knew she could be a writer, or whatever she wanted to be. But her life had been so full of broken promises and it had shaped her and what she believed was possible. I learned a lot from her, including that sometimes the hopes we have for the people love are not the same as their hopes for themselves, and that every person has to decide for themselves who and what they belong to, who and what they will be in covenant with. We cannot do that for anyone but ourselves.

Over the years I knew Stephanie she dropped out of high school, she struggled with addiction, she became pregnant and I lost track of her. Then a few years after I came this church she found me online and asked me to perform a wedding ceremony for her and her partner. They were newly sober. Their son was a toddler and they had another baby on the way. I married them right in this room in fact. And prayed hard that things would go well for them and I worried hard that things would not go well.

I tried to contact her a few times but her email had changed and years went by. I ran into her several years ago, driving home from a wedding in Western Massachusetts and I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts. This was in a tiny town not far from where she had grown up. She was working behind the Dunkin Donuts; she looked tired and older than she was. It was late and there was no one else in line so we got to talk. She told me her first marriage had ended badly, but she was remarried now and happily. Her two boys were well. She said, I’m still sober. I still write poetry she said. Then she looked into my face and said, I am fine. I have what I wanted. It took me a little while but I realized embarrassment and humility and gratitude that her covenants, her ultimate promises were her own.

I don’t think I was wrong to hope for her, to believe in her, to tell her she was bright and beautiful and talented. But in the end none of that belonged to me and I needed to let it go. What matters is her own commitment to her life, the promises she is making and breaking and remaking and living out. Even love does not give us the right to choose these for another person and I think Stephanie was hoping I could understand this, that I keep my faith in her.

Let us covenant with one another
to seek for an ever deeper awareness
of that which springs up inwardly in us.
Even when our hearts are broken...
Even when we have done all we can and life is still broken
there is a Universal Love
that has never broken faith with us and never will.
This is the ground of our hope.

grad-rainbow

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

Created 2018-01-30