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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
December 24, 2019

A Pinhole of Light

Probably most of you know about Moth Radio Hour where people tell true stories about their lives to live audiences. We do our own version of it here called Story Telling for Grown Ups and the stories are always moving and powerful. It is such a good reminder that everyone has a story and you never know what people are walking around carrying. You just don’t know.

I have a story for you tonight. At first, it might not sound like a Christmas story, even though it took place on a still, dark night but it is definitely a Christmas story. Auburn Sandstrom, whose story this is, tells it this way:

The year was 1992, Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m curled up on a dirty carpet in a cluttered apartment in horrible withdrawal from a drug I have been addicted to for several years. In my hand I have a ragged little piece of paper, and I am folding and unfolding it. There is a phone number on it.

Auburn describes how she feels like she has been having one continuous anxiety attack for the last five years and she has never been in a more desperate place. Her husband was out in the streets that night, trying to find more of the drug they needed but she knows that even if he finds it, he won’t share it. She wanted to just run away and keep running but she couldn’t because behind her, asleep, was her baby boy. She was 29 years old and was not, as she put it, going to be receiving the mother of the year award and was failing at just about everything, despite being raised in relative privilege and comfort and having had an excellent education. But she had come to the faulty conclusion that the only way to deal with the privilege and comfort she had received was to destroy it, to rip it in half, spit on it, and set it on fire, instead of using it to help change the world or become someone she felt proud of.

She was on probation; her husband was on parole; they were addicted; she was emaciated and covered in bruises and on that night, underneath the withdrawal and terrible anxiety, was a sure knowledge that she was living the kind of life that was going to lead to her losing the most precious thing she had ever had in her life, which was her son.

She felt so desperate that she became willing to punch the numbers into the phone. Her mother had sent her the number in the mail, despite the fact that Auburn had not really spoken to anyone in her family for years, saying it was a Christian counselor hotline and maybe Auburn would talk to a hotline counselor since she wouldn’t talk to anyone else. Auburn wasn’t interested in religion but she punched in the numbers.

She heard someone pick up the phone and a man on the other end said hello and she said “Hi, I got this number from my mother; do you think you could maybe talk to me?” She tells how you could hear the man shuffling around; it sounded like he was getting out of bed and snapping off the radio which had been playing in the background. Auburn says, she just felt him become very present on the other end of the phone. He said “Yes, yes, what’s going on?”

Auburn says, I hadn’t told anybody, including myself, the truth for a long, long time.

But I told him I wasn’t feeling so good and that I was scared and that things had gotten bad in my marriage and before long I started telling him other truths too, like, I might have a drug problem and I really, really love my husband but he has hit me a few times and there was time he pushed my baby and me out in the cold and locked the door. And there was the time we were going down the highway at 60 miles an hour and he tried to push us out of the moving car. But I love him, so don’t say anything bad about him. I started telling those truths.

This man didn’t judge me. He just sat with me and was present and listened and he had such a kindness and such a gentleness. He said, Tell me More, and Oh, that must have hurt and That sounds hard.

You know, I made that call about 2 in the morning and he stayed with me the whole night until the sun rose. And by the dawn, I was feeling calm; I was feeling okay and I was feeling like, you know, I can probably do this day. I wouldn’t have cared if the guy was a Hare Krishna or a Buddhist or whatever. It didn’t matter to me what his faith was. I was just very grateful to him. So I said, “Hey, I really appreciate you and what you have done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something, because that would be cool, I’ll do it.” And he laughed and just said, “I am glad talking to me helped you.”

And I asked, “Well how long have you been a Christian counselor, because you are very, very good at this.” And he said, “Well, to be honest, I was trying to avoid this subject and I need you to not hang up the phone.

“But that number you called? Wrong number.”

I didn’t hang up, I never learned his name; I never talked to him again and I don’t think I took any of his advice but I need to tell you that the next day I experienced something that I have heard called the peace that passes understanding.

Because I had experienced that there was love in the universe and that some of it was unconditional and that some of it was for me.

I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day but it became possible. it also became possible for me to take that baby boy and raise him up into a young, honors scholar athlete, who graduated from Princeton University in 2013.

Auburn Sandstrom went onto become a writer and a college writing instructor and she ends her story with these words:

This is what I know: in the deepest, darkest night of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light and all of grace can come in.

It only takes a pinhole of light and all of grace can come in.

Tonight, we gather to celebrate the ancient and improbable story of a baby who grew up to bring such light and hope into this world that we remember him still. Tonight, we gather to light our small candles and pass the candlelight to the person next to us, to hold up our hundred tiny lights against the darkness and see how they shine.

They are fragile things that we share here tonight: words and songs, stories and prayer, and flickers of light in the darkness. We can’t hold onto any of them. But they matter because love always matters and a pinhole of light is all it takes for grace to find its way.

The story of a baby born a long time ago in Bethlehem is a story about that — it is a story about love, a story about grace finding its way, even in the most surprising circumstances. The story tells us that light comes into the world in the places we least expect it — a stable, a baby born to a young mother and a carpenter who had to flee into Egypt with their baby and become refugees, exiles, in order to save the child from King Herod’s murderous rage to kill his potential rival.

And the story also tells us that the baby grew up to become a healer, a teacher, a reformer who preached a message about compassionate, inclusive, and unlimited love, especially for the people who his society and culture, much like our own, did not value: the vulnerable and the outcast, the ones who live on street corners and wait at closed borders. The message Jesus taught was so radical that it got him killed but also so radically beautiful that we are still trying to practice it.

And at the heart of his message is this: there is love in the universe and some of it is unconditional and some of it is for us, for every one of us, no matter who we are or whether we are hurting or joyful, or what we have done or left undone.

Grace is another word for this kind of the love, for the compassion and generosity and wild kindness that comes to us as a gift and often seems to arrive when we are at our most vulnerable. Or maybe that is just when we can notice it, when we can see it, when we can accept it — when we are broken open somehow. That is often when we let grace in.

Grace comes to us as a gift, but grace also comes through us. That is what the poet Rilke is talking about in the beautiful poem that Paul and Anya read to you earlier, from Rilke’s series of poems called Love Poems to God. Rilke is saying to God, let me be the instrument of your grace. Let me be your will, let me be your hands, your heart, your love in the world. Rilke writes of yearning to curve himself like a canopy of stars over the city, sheltering it, protecting it maybe. He wants God to shine through him, he wants to be that stranger on the other end of the phone whose gentle, listening, holy presence holds a desperate woman through the night until dawn breaks through. We are all the bearers of grace. Sometimes just knowing that helps us make a little more room for grace to shine through us into the world.

Love can change everything. It so often does if we let it. It only takes a pinhole of light.

grad-rainbow

1 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2020-01-07