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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
September 22, 2019

Reading: The Way It Is by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do
can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Prayer for September 22

Gretchen Haley writes:

There is a light that is holy
That calls us, and holds us
Changes us, and connects us
There is a thread that runs between us
Across time and space.

There is a pulse that beats
Through it all, when we tend to it
The sound of our hearts, steady and stubborn
our eyes, that keep noticing
The sky, and this long march of history
This path that we make together
This day, which begins and beckons
With hope. (Gretchen Haley, adapted by Elea Kemler)

Let us pray. Let us be still and quiet together for a little while now. We gather as spiritual pilgrims who travel through both light and darkness, joy and sorrow, beginnings and endings searching for that thread, trying to keep hold of it, to find it again when we are lost. We are reminded here that it is the daily acts of love and gratitude and kindness that carry us, that make this life possible.

We pray for all who are in need of food and peace and healing, and for the world’s refugees. Here may we find the strength to open our minds and hearts to the suffering of others and to reach for compassion over and over again.

We hold in love the joys and sorrows of this community, those shared, those which remain unspoken, and these we are entrusted with:

Love be our strength and our stay
Love be our guide and our compass, the thread we hold onto
Love move through us and into the world.

Let’s sit in quiet now and pray the prayers of our own hearts and listen to the sounds of morning.

The Thread That Runs Between Us

I want to talk to you today about thread and piles of rocks, both deeply spiritual objects, it turns out. Thread first:

In China, Korea and Japan there are ancient stories or folktales about an invisible red thread which ties together people who are destined to be in each other’s lives. The belief is that this thread connects each soul to the souls of those who matter most to them. So people connected by threads will have a story together regardless of the time, place or circumstances. The red thread might get tangled knotted up or stretched, but it never breaks.

In the mystical branch of Judaism called Kabbalah, there is a tradition of tying a red thread around the wrist of newborn babies for protection. In Buddhism there is also a tradition of wearing a red thread as a bracelet, but with a knot in the thread and it is symbolizes eternity and the oneness of all beings.

Another story about threads: Many years ago, a colleague told a group of us ministers who had gathered for a retreat about one of the most spiritual experiences of his life. I don’t remember the minister who told this story but I remember the details clearly. He went to his back door very early one morning in winter and stood on his doorstep with his coffee cup and looked out at his backyard. Snow had fallen overnight and everything was snow covered and very still. And he was able to actually see the way all things are connected; he was able to see that there were these shining threads connecting everything – threads running from each tree to the sky, from each tree to all the other trees, threads from the ground to the sky, and threads from him and to him also, connecting him to ground and trees and sky.

I never forgot that image. At the time, I was envious. I had never seen anything remotely like that and I figured this colleague must be way more spiritual or enlightened than me. But then on my first sabbatical almost 12 years ago, I spent a lot of time walking. I didn’t walk anywhere in particular, on the rail trail, in Groton Place with the dog, around town. I just walked and tried to pay attention. I tried to notice the world around me more than I usually do, to notice how winter was turning into spring. And the oddest thing happened. The more I paid attention, the more I could see and I saw that there was so much happening out there: snow melting and mud and leaf mold, and birds moving and singing and squirrels emerging and that light green haze of early spring on the trees, and wind and branches moving. I had never seen so much, somehow and then one day I started to see how everything has light in it, how everything just shines. And then one another day, I could see that there are actually threads of light connecting everything to everything else. The first time it happened, I thought it was the angle of the sun or maybe something was wrong with my eyes. But then I saw it again another day and I realized it was more like something was very right with my eyes and that I was experienced the world as it really is. It was startling and stunning. I wanted to never stop seeing like that but of course I did stop. Because it takes time, and attention and practice and stillness to experience the world like that.

William Stafford says,

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.

Have you seen these threads? I wonder if it is different for different people, and some of us hear it as music – as a hum which connects us all, or a heartbeat or in a million other ways I cannot even imagine. If you have, I hope you will share that story with us, to try to find some words to describe this thing which is beyond words. Because it is important; it is important that we know about these threads, this shining, this heartbeat or drum beat or hum, which connects us to each other, and to every other living thing. It means that we belong. We belong here and we belong to one another. Humans, trees, robins, earthworms, sky, we are all connected, all holding each other somehow and held by each other, belonging to each other, in ways deeper than we usually know as we rush through our days. But we can know it, we can pay attention to that light, we can hold onto those threads that ties us to one another - they are real and sturdy and strong.

A small team of church people have recently joined up with five other UU congregations to learn about covenant so that we can bring our learning back to you. And we are learning that the ancient practice of covenant making, which began with the story of Sarah and Abraham the matriarch and patriarch of the Jewish people making an agreement with God that they, Sarah and Abraham, would belong to God, that they would become God’s people, is at the very heart of our faith. The practice of covenant is essentially the practice of claiming that we will belong to each other, and we will try to do our best to live out that belonging. This is how Rev. Sue Phillips describes covenant. She writes,

Covenant is the tapestry of sacred promises we make to ourselves, to the Holy, and to each other on the journey of a faithful life. It’s the impulse to walk out of our homes and arrive here, it’s the call to sing the songs and learn the names, to grab hold of the thread and to (try to) explain it. Our ancestors knew that covenant is more than a thing, more than a noun. They knew that covenant is also a verb – it is the process of making, practicing, failing at, and re-making promises. Together. (From Rev. Sue Phillips’s sermon, Claiming and Being Claimed, preached at All Souls Church, New London, CT, May 24, 2015)

This is a place where we can practice covenant. This is a place where we are invited to know just how much we yearn to and need to be connected to others and where we can do that work of connection, messy, imperfect and beautiful as it is. Sue Phillips writes,

If we each walk alone, charting our own course, it is not possible to be religious people. We may be able to practice spirituality by ourselves, but it is by making the way with others that personal spirituality trans(forms) into religious community. Religion – our religion – requires that we make a way with others.

Our church’s treasurer, Paul Funch, said the exact same thing to me last spring. We may have been talking about the almost countless hours of volunteer time he puts into our financial well-being and I may have been asking him why he did it, I don’t remember exactly but I do remember what he said.

He said, “I don’t believe I can be Unitarian Universalist without being part of a community. It is part of our faith. I inherited this community so I want to keep it going for others.” It was so simple and so breathtaking. Others who came before us have made our lives here possible. And so we in turn make a way for others. Because our belonging is not just in the present time. The threads stretch both backwards to the past and forward to the future.

Which brings us to piles of rocks or cairns. Yesterday, in preparation for the conference we attended, our team was asked to come up with a symbol or image for our work on covenant and we chose piles of rocks known as cairns. Cairns in all shapes and sizes are found all around the world and some are thousands of years old. The are used to mark burial spots and sacred places. They are used on hiking trails as markers to point the way to fellow travelers, to help keep others on the path. Cairns represent continuity, patience, balance. We chose them as the symbol of our work on covenant for all of these reasons and also because, when they are built well, they are amazingly strong and surprisingly resilient. The stones can stand through terrible storms.

When Alan and I were in Ireland last summer, I realized there are cairns everywhere there, huge ones, tiny ones, stone tables and mounds of stacked rocks which have lasted for centuries. Some are incredibly complex, aligning with the sun or the moon with amazing astrological complexity and precision. We visited one of the best known, which is in the village of Newgrange, north of Dublin. It was built in 3200 BCE. It is a passage mound which means it is a mound of stones built into a hillside with a passage way deep into the center. Archaeologists believe that the mound at Newgrange was not exactly a burial place; it was more like a temple or a sacred cave where the bones of those who had died would rest for a while before being buried. Some of the standing stones circling the mound and some of walls inside are decorated with these beautiful triple spiral designs called triskelion. Their precise meaning is unknown but they may represent land sea and sky or birth, death and rebirth or past present and future. Some of the stones used in the mound are not native to that area but are only found in the Wikslow mountains which are 50 miles away. So Archaeologists believe that people who built Newgrange must have somehow dragged these massive stones 50 miles over rocky, hilly land. The wheel hadn’t even been invented

People are allowed to enter the mound in small groups led by a guide, which we did, squeezing through this narrow, low passage way which then opens into a tiny stone room deep inside the mound. It is pitch dark in there but what is completely astounding is that the passageway is built so that at sunrise on winter solstice every year, the sun shines all the way into this tunnel and lights up the room inside. I don’t think I have been in a place which felt more sacred. It was a place where those who built it honored the lives of the ones who came before them but also clearly it was meant to last; it was built for those who would come after, which now almost unimaginably includes the thousands of visitors from around the world who squeeze themselves through the passageway. Our group was noisy going in, laughing about all the tight spots and low rock ceiling and jostling cameras and bags, careful not to bang the walls as we were instructed. But when we got to the center, to the place where the bones would have rested, we were silent. Our guide turned off his flash light so we could experience the complete darkness and then turned it on again, shining it exactly where the shaft of sunlight would appear on winter solstice morning. We were hushed, reverent, as we stood in that light.

There is a light that is holy
That calls us, and holds us
Changes us, and connects us
There is a thread that runs between us
Across time and space.

There is a pulse that beats
Through it all, when we tend to it
The sound of our hearts, steady and stubborn
our eyes, that keep noticing
The sky, and this long march of history
This path that we make together
This day, which begins and beckons
With hope.

grad-rainbow

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

Created 2019-09-26