Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though
all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
On the rare occasion that I go to a party or social gathering and am among people I don’t know, if word slips out that I am a member of the clergy, often what will happen is that someone finds me by the food table or waiting for the bathroom and tells me something like, “I hope you won’t be offended by this but I have no use for organized religion. In fact I don’t believe in organized religion – it is the cause of so much hatred and violence in the world.” It is a little bit odd to be told by strangers that they don’t believe in what I do for a living, what I have in fact dedicated my life to, but I am sure this happens to people in other lines of work as well. People who work for the IRS probably have a hard time at parties too. And in truth, I am not offended when someone tells me they have no use for organized religion because it is undeniably true – so much hatred and violence in the world is done in the name of religion. Though I would also say that hatred and violence done in the name of religion is religion poorly misunderstood and religion used as a justification for the worst of human behavior. For these reasons, and perhaps others, I suspect that many of us here are quite wary of organized religion. The very attempt to organize something as vast and deep and mysterious as the human yearning for the sacred, the human yearning for meaning and truth in our lives is rather suspicious. There is an old joke about this:
God and the devil are walking along the road together. God sees something very beautiful and very shiny lying in the road and picks it up. The devil says, “What’s that?” God says, “It’s Truth.” The devil says, “Why don’t you give it to me. I’ll organize it for you.”
I also have a cartoon someone gave me a while ago which shows a minister standing at a pulpit and saying to the congregation, “Ah, look, I seem to have misplaced my sermon, so I’m just going to read from the prayer book, that is if I can find it. While I look, maybe the choir can lead us in a hymn?” To which the Music Director replies, “Well, we thought the service started at noon today, not 11:30, so only Mrs. Gruden is here right now”. And a member of the congregation is saying to the person sitting next to her, “I really love this church. I’ve never been into organized religion.”
Likewise it may come as a relief to some of you to know that we don’t try to organize Truth here. We don’t even try to organize religion here, which can be a little surprising at first. We try to let religion remain disorganized, and mysterious, something that each person must wrestle with on their own without being told exactly how to do that or what to believe or how to express their beliefs. We don’t try to organize religion in large part because we don’t think it needs organizing and we are trying to do other things instead, things like deepen and mature spiritually as individuals and as a congregation, take care of one another and be a blessing to the world. We try to keep each other company and practice how to be good people and it is plenty to do, and painful sometimes but also joyful. A big part of what we do here is wrestle with powerful human questions. We try to ask powerful questions of ourselves and each other and listen hard for answers as they come, if they come at all. Questions like:
How are you?
How did you come to be here?
For what are you yearning?
What do you feel you need to learn, to share, to give back?
What is your deep sorrow, your loss, your joy?
What is sacred to you, what names or words do you use to speak what is holy? Where do you find your strength, what carries you through your dark nights?
What do you hope for?
What or who is the God of your understanding; what is the shape of sacredness, holiness in your life?
Right now we are making our way through the season of Lent, that time of internal preparation before the coming of Easter. It is a time for asking ourselves questions about rebirth, about renewal, and what rebirth and renewal mean for us, mean to us. As I said last week, Lent most simply means the lengthening of the days and it comes at the time in New England when most of us are starting to get fairly desperate for spring. Even those of us who may not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus or who do not place the story of Jesus’ life and death at the center of our religious lives can understand, at this time of year in particular, what it means to wait and yearn for the season of renewal. There is something important in this yearly time of end-of-winter waiting. The questions of Lent are spiritually important questions: The questions of Lent are questions about how we make ourselves ready, how we prepare ourselves to emerge both physically and spiritually from winter and into the coming season of new life. They are the questions of how we begin again and how and where we find a sense of newness in our lives?
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when many Christians go to churches and have ashes painted on their foreheads. The ashes are made from burning the last year’s palms, left from Palm Sunday. As they are smeared on each person’s forehead, the worship leader says, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” In other words, we are temporary – we do not last forever. So Lent begins with the difficult reminder that death is inevitable; we are not immortal; the ashes are a symbol of our vulnerability, our impermanence, and our need for humility in the face of this knowledge. Yet Lent does not end with death. It ends with life. Lent ends with the celebration of Easter, the celebration of the empty tomb, of Jesus’ resurrection. So the Lenten journey, if we choose to follow it, is a journey from death to rebirth. It is a journey of renewal, a journey toward revival.
For many of us this is not a literal journey at all; it is not about believing or not believing in the literal resurrection or coming back to life of Jesus after he was killed. For many of us, the events of Jesus’ life and death, remembered through Lent and then Easter week, are symbols; they are metaphors, not facts, but they tell a deeply important story, a story of what it means to believe that the forces of life are stronger than the forces of death or destruction.
So the Lenten journey is a journey from the living green palms of last year’s palm Sunday now burned down to ash to remind us of the great cycle of life and death and life again. The journey is one from dust and ash to new life. Where do we find ourselves in that cycle this year? What in our lives feels like it is burned down to ash or turned to dust and needs to be moved toward renewal? Can we allow ourselves to take a closer look, to find out if there is something still living, still burning with life and heat in the midst of those ashes? This is an important and difficult spiritual journey, and potentially a life-giving one, if we can allow ourselves to take it.
In traditional Christian theology, it is Jesus’ resurrection, his overcoming of death that makes everything else possible. In Christian theology it is Jesus’ defiance of death which allows us to be saved, to be made whole and to come close to God again. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors had different ideas about this. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith, meaning we have no standard or required doctrines of belief. We are also a heretical faith, coming from the Greek word heresy, meaning to choose. Both branches of our history, Unitarianism and Universalism, were created by dissenters, by people who rejected the standard or orthodox Christianity of their day in important ways. Ours is faith that has evolved over centuries through struggle against accepted or approved religious beliefs. For example, the early Unitarians rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and chose to believe that God was one, unified. They also believed that Jesus was more human than divine and that our efforts to live like Jesus ultimately mattered when it came to our salvation, that doing good meant something in terms of our eternal fate. The Universalists rejected the doctrine of predestination, the idea of a God who saved only some people and chose to condemn the rest to hell. Instead, they chose to believe in a God who offered universal salvation, salvation to all people; They chose to believe in a God of unending mercy and compassion.
As my colleague Kathleen McTigue puts it,
I am totally with my colleague here – I don’t believe we need saving from our wickedness but from our not seeing. We need saving from our tendency to fall sleep. As the poet Mary Oliver puts it, “Every morning I walk like this around the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead. Every morning, so far, I’m alive.”
Another poet, Lynn Ungar, asks:
We are saved, I believe, by compassion, both its giving and its receiving, by bearing witness, by standing beside each other in the places of sorrow and loss and shame, by daring to voice those losses and shames and daring to be gentle with ourselves and each other about all the ways it is very hard sometimes to be a human being. We are saved by keeping the doors of our hearts open, which means being willing to take in both beauty and suffering, which means turning toward each other, rather than away. This is how we are made new. This is how we find our way to new life. It is not an easy road and it never has been, but it is a good road, a trustworthy road and it is the road we walk here together.
Sarah Vowell is a writer and observer of American life and often a comedian who is a frequent contributor to two of my best sources of inspiration, Salon magazine and the Chicago Public Radio show, This American Life. Her recent book of essays The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Simon & Schuster) is tied together by the theme of American history, as well as her own quirky but abiding love of this country. One of the essays talks about an experience she had on the New York City subway. She writes, “While heading uptown on the #9 train, I noticed a sign posted by the Manhattan Transit Authority advising subway riders who might become ill on the train. The sign asked that the suddenly infirm inform another passenger or get out at the next stop and approach the stationmaster. Do not … pull the emergency brake, the sign said, as this will only delay aid. This was all very logical, but for the following proclamation at the bottom of the sign: If you are sick, you will not be left alone.”
Vowell goes on to say, “This strikes me as not only kind, not only comforting, but the very epitome of civilization … the crux of the social impulse. Banding together, pooling our taxes, not just making trains, not just making trains that move underground, not just making trains that move underground with surprising efficiency at a fair price – but posting on said trains a notification of such surprising compassion and thoughtfulness. I found myself scanning the faces of my fellow passengers, hoping for fainting, obvious fevers, at the very least a sneeze so that I might offer a tissue.”
If you are sick, you will not be left alone. Our church’s formal mission statement has slightly more words, but this is its essence: if you are sick, whoever you are and whatever is your illness, be it of body or mind or spirit, we will do our very best to stay beside you. It is a huge statement of faith and commitment and one we believe it is worth hoping for and working toward, though we may sometimes falter and fail and make all sorts of mistakes. We try to keep each other company. We bring soup, sometimes actual, literal soup, sometimes emotional and spiritual soup and not just to the people we know and like and feel comfortable with, but to everyone who comes to us in need of it. As we do this, as we refuse to leave each other alone, we learn to keep the doors of our heart open wide, to take in more than we thought was possible of human sorrow and human joy.