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Sermons at First Parish Church

What Thrives in Rubble and Ash

Sunday, April 21, 2013
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Rev. Sue Phillips, who was the sabbatical minister when I was away 5 years ago and who is a friend of this community, wrote this beautiful, difficult prayer.

Holy One,
We are on our knees
In awe and supplication
For we have remembered the incomprehensible value
Of every human life.
We have heard the thrum of helicopter blades
And wailing sirens.
We have smelled the ash and smoke.
We have seen the blood-spattered sidewalks
And the ravaged bodies of your children.
We cannot un-see.

Help us, dear God.
Bathe our ears
Soothe our senses
Flush our eyes
Wrap your mother’s arms around us,
For we need to be reminded of you,
to remember what is holy
and good.

So we ask for the strength to remember that
We are the helpers.
We are the hope.
We are the face behind the bomb suit
We are the children rushing to answer their fathers’ feverish texts
We are running the extra mile to donate blood
We are kindness to strangers
We are the searching dog
We are hearts glued to the television
We are compassion for whoever did this, and
for the suffering life out of which this violence came
We are on our knees cleaning blood off hospital floors
We are the impulse to run toward chaos.

We are the helpers, and the hope.
Inside our breaking hearts is all the evidence we need
That an unshakable conspiracy of goodness thrives in rubble and ash.

We have had a week of rubble and ash. A week of sadness and worry and fear and waiting and anger and confusion and broken hearts. Many of us spent long hours taking in the news this week; we sat before our screens with surreal images flashing before our eyes, the terrible news repeating in our ears. Some of us were there in the Back Bay on Monday, right in the middle of the trouble and fear and pain; some of us know one of the people who was killed or hurt or we know someone who knows someone who does. We have seen the images of fire and smoke and people running away. We have seen people falling and crying. We have seen the faces of grief and shock and fear, the house to house searches, the dogs, the guns, the eerily empty streets. We have worried for our family and friends and co-workers.

But we have also seen moving and beautiful and courageous things this week — we have seen the goodness which thrives in the rubble and ashes. We have seen kindness, bravery and compassion come to life. We have seen a police officer racing down a street with a yellow-haired little boy held in his arms, running toward medical help. We have seen exhausted marathoners running one more mile to the hospital to donate blood. We have seen people kneeling by the injured to help and comfort, taking off their belts to make tourniquets and giving their shirts to provide warmth. We have seen people opening their houses and their arms to strangers. We have seen a heavily armed officer bringing gallons of milk to a family with young children in Watertown who had run out and could not go to get more. And in addition to the intense human drama unfolding so close to home this week, there have been the images of destruction and devastation from West, Texas.

How can we take it all in? How can our eyes and our hearts and our spirits hold all of this? This week we have been reminded that there are parts of the world in which bombings and explosions and sirens are weekly if not daily occurrences. We have realized we are lucky this is not our reality. We are lucky if we don’t live in the midst of violence and trauma — lucky if we do not have to feel afraid all of the time. Most of us have most of us felt moments of deep gratitude as well as perhaps a new sense of kinship, a new awareness of what it must be like to live with the daily reality of terror and violence.

But we have seen so much. We need to rest our eyes. We need to rest our spirits. We are tired from what the week has brought to us and I invite you, I ask you to rest now in this strong and tender community, to rest in this place of sanctuary where generations before us have gathered in times of trouble and sorrow. You might even want to close your eyes and rest in my voice, in the sounds of the morning unfolding around us, rest in stillness and in peace, just for this moment.

The artist Paul Gauguin said, “I shut my eyes in order to see.” I think he meant that sometimes he had to just stop and close his eyes to the outside world, in order to renew his sight. He had to see from the inside, to go into a place deep within; he had to stop looking outside of himself in order to be able to see clearly again. And so it is with us too. This week as I was struggling to understand the unfolding events, and struggling to understand what small seed of comfort or hope or meaning I might offer you, I realized that what I wanted and needed most was to be outside I needed to see trees and gardens and animals, instead of city streets. I needed to hear nature instead of sirens. I kept dragging my children to farms this week. We went to Overlook Farm in Rutland and Drumlin Farm and Great Brooks Farm. Luckily they were mostly willing despite feeling that they were too old and sophisticated to visit farms anymore. We saw goats and cows and all kinds of chickens. We patted lambs and counted beautiful black piglets and fed a sheep who tried to eat our shoelaces.

Yesterday, I kept finding myself staring out the window at our neighbor’s bright yellow forsythia bush which has just burst into bloom. I kept going outside to look at the small pots of pansies I had planted and put on our front walk. I finally realized I needed to see simple things, living things. I needed to hear dogs barking and the sound of wind. I realized, too, that I yearned to be here in this room, to see your faces and to hear your voices singing. I suspect I am not alone in this need and perhaps this is how we find comfort and hope: by resting our eyes and our spirits, by closing our eyes, not to shut out or deny the world and its reality, but to rest, to gather ourselves, to prepare ourselves for whatever is ahead, which I believe may be a time when all of our compassion and all of our vision will be needed.

So I encourage you, I invite you to look at simple things today; look at green things, at growing things. Look at beautiful things. Look at the face of your neighbor in the pew. Look into the faces of your children. Take a slow walk by the river or in your own backyard. Look carefully at daffodils. Watch your dog cat bask in a pool of sunshine. I encourage you, I invite you to listen to simple things today. Listen to birdsong and wind. Go to the playground and listen for the sound of children laughing. Come back this afternoon at 3 pm and listen to the choir sing in praise of our beautiful earth, the sound of voices and instruments joined together joy and gladness.

The poet David Whyte writes:

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

(from the poem Sweet Darkness)

To restore ourselves, to renew our strength and our hope and our vision, and to remember that the world was made to be free in — these things are not luxuries. They are necessary. They are necessary because there will be challenges in the days ahead. As more is learned about the two young men who inflicted this destruction and people look for who to blame, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments will probably rise. There will be backlash and stereotypes. There will be fear and hate speech. Already a young Muslim woman was attacked in the city of Malden by someone yelling that her people were all terrorists. It sounds like the community has responded with compassion and appropriate outrage but I fear there will be more to come. Our faith traditions claims that the answer to violence cannot be more violence. Our tradition claims that hatred must be met with love and compassion and our voices and our strength will be needed.

The Presbyterian minister and theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” This line is often quoted by the writer Anne Lamott who says she wishes she weren’t afraid and maybe in her next life she will come back as a cloistered Buddhist monk but in this life she is just a regular, screwed up, sad, worried faithful human being. As are most of us. Lamott writes, “But it is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer… and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.”

And yet, Lamott reminds us that in the midst of all the fear, there has been such “amazing love and grace in people’s response” to the terrible events of this week. She writes,

“It’s like white blood cells pouring in to surround and heal the infection. It just breaks your heart every time, in the good way, where Hope tiptoes in to peer around. For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe; telling my stories, and reading yours. I keep thinking about Barry Lopez’s wonderful line, “Everyone is held together with stories. That is (what) is holding us together; stories and compassion. That rings one of the few bells I am hearing right now, and it is a beautiful crystalline sound… People are hungry to know how we are to live in the face of chaos. Part of the answer for me is that we stick together. We share.”

(from Anne Lamott’s Facebook post, April 19, 2013)

We listen to one another’s stories and we tell our own. We stick together and share.

And we keep our eyes on the helpers, remembering that acts of love and courage and compassion are always there and always possible, even for us and even when we are afraid. Compassion and love and courage don’t bring back the dead and they don’t heal the physical injuries of the wounded but they allow us to go on living; they restore our souls.

The other thing that helped me this week was jogging. Some of you know this from following my facebook posts but on Tuesday morning I went for a little walk/jog and then I did it again on Wed. and Thursday and Saturday. I have decided to call it slogging. Slogging seems like the right word for the combination of mostly walking I do, interspersed with short bouts of trudge-running at a snail’s pace while panting heavily. I am sure I look and sound somewhat alarming when I slog but that is completely beside the point. I decided to go slogging in honor of the Boston Marathoners and the three precious lives who were killed that day and for everyone who was hurt. And then I went for the young MIT police officer who was killed on Friday morning and for all the people stuck in their houses in fear and for the two young men who caused all this terror and pain, who once were babies and then little boys and whose lives somehow went terribly, tragically wrong. But mostly I have been slogging in honor of all of the courageous, compassionate, ordinary people who run towards the trouble and danger, instead of away from it. And as I slog, I hope I can be like them, someone who runs toward trouble and danger, which requires being able to run. I slog in honor of the people who help me hold onto my deep and utter certainty in the power and strength of human kindness, which is, I believe, what saves us all. I already have my first injury after four times out, which is what happens when you take up slogging as an almost 49 year old clergy lady. But I am so grateful I can do it and I think I will probably keep going.

Listen to the words of the 121st psalm, in a version adapted by Robert Zoerheide:

I will lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength. My help cometh from the heavens and the earth, from good neighbors and the spirit of the hills and the valleys…

My help cometh from outside and from inside. It waits when I am impatient; it (prods) me when I hesitate from fear. When I am strong with courage and with faith, the sun and rain shall not (afflict) me by day, and sorrow will not haunt me by night; goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. I will life up mine eyes unto the hills. They will keep my coming in and my going out.

So friends, lift up your eyes unto the green hills today. Rest your eyes upon this newly green earth. Rest yourself upon the green earth too if you can and rest in the compassion and strength of this community. Rest, that we might be restored and renewed for the days ahead.

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

Created 2013-04-21