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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Prayer for Feb. 21

Joyce Rupp writes:

It’s time for the pilgrim in me
To travel in the dark,
To learn to read the stars
that shine in my soul.
I will walk deeper
into the dark of the night
I will wait for the stars,
trust their guidance,
and let their light be enough for me.

We gather as spiritual pilgrims who travel through both light and darkness, joy and sorrow, beginnings and ends. Let us rest here together in the kindness, and strength of this community Let us gather hope for the days ahead of us

We pray for all in need of prayer, for all who are hungry and cold, for all who live with violence and war for all who are grieving or sick and for all who suffer from loneliness. We pray for the joys and sorrows of this community:

Let us hold in our hearts all the prayers which are unspoken, too tender and new even for words.

Love be our strength and our stay

Love be our guide and our compass

Love move through us and into the world.

Dancing With Light and Shadows (Lent 1)

( Audio of this sermon Note: truncated )

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

I received this little story about a wake-up call in the newsletter of a wonderful organization on contemplative spirituality called the Shalem Institute. It was written by Rose Mary Dougherty, one of the staff members there. She writes: Several weeks ago, I was staying in one of my favorite (retreat centers, while leading a program there). It had been a long day, and I was sleeping soundly. At 3:40am, I awoke with a start to the sound of someone hammering at my door. I could hear a man’s voice, syllables indistinguishable. I threw on my robe and hurried down the corridor where I found the night guard standing by the front door.

“Do you want me,” I asked?

“Your wake up call,” he responded. “Don’t you want to wake up?”

“Yes, but not now,” I replied.

A startled look came over his face. He had misread the room number on the sheet that had been given to him. He had (woken up) the wrong person.

Dougherty writes, “That encounter with the night guard is a metaphor for my life. Do I want to wake up? Yes, but maybe not now, not in this way. I’d prefer to choose the times I’ll be awake and what my wake-up calls will be. But the poet Rumi reminds me, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” (Rose Mary Dougherty. “Wake Up Call” in Shalem News, Summer 2002)

At its essence, Lent, which began this past Wednesday is about waking up and trying not to go back to sleep. Those of us who didn’t grow up Christian may be mostly unaware of this liturgical time which is traditionally for prayer and penitence in the forty days before Easter. If we did grow up Christian, particularly in the Catholic Church, we may remember eating fish on Fridays because no meat was allowed and trying to give up various precious things for Lent, chocolate or comic books or being mean to our siblings with varying levels of success. We may have gladly left these traditions behind. Where does Lent come from? There is actually nothing about Lent in the New Testament. It only developed in the first century once Christianity had been legalized throughout the Roman Empire. At first, the period of fasting and penitence which eventually became Lent was only for new converts to Christianity. It was part of the preparation for baptism, which always took place on Easter. But once Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, the need for secrecy, the sense of danger and intensity of being a Christian disappeared and early church leaders worried that people were becoming lax, that they weren’t taking their identity as Christians seriously enough. The early Church leaders became concerned that the people had fallen asleep spirituality because being a Christian no longer required this huge and serious commitment; it no longer required the risking of one’s life to follow the faith. So church leaders imposed Lenten fasting and self renunciation on all Christians every year before Easter as a way to help keep people awake.

Interestingly, Lent kept getting longer over time — almost as if the further away from the events of Jesus’ life and death, the more arduous Lent needed to be to serve its intended purpose. Lent began as an observance of just the 40 hours before Easter, because that was the amount of time that Jesus supposedly spent in the tomb between his death and resurrection. This grew into a period of six days known as Holy Week and, by the fourth century, Holy week was observed in Jerusalem by going to the various sites associated with Jesus’ death. The six day observance later became a 36 day observance, a tithe or tenth of the number of days in the year. Sometime during Charlemagne’s rule, around 730 Common Era, four days were added to make the total forty. Sundays are not counted as part of Lent because they are seen as small Easters or small resurrection days.

The forty days of Lent echo the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness right after his baptism and before he began his public ministry. All four gospels mention this period as a time in which Jesus was tested and tempted by the Devil who mocked him and promised him all sorts of power and authority and finally left him alone. And this period of forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness is an echo of other important spans of 40 found in the stories of the Hebrew Bible: the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments; the 40 days and nights of rain in the days of Noah and the great flood; the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness after they crossed the Red Sea but before they entered into the land of Israel.

The spiritual purpose of Lent, at least as I understand it, is to sacrifice something willingly in order to experience, in a small way, the sacrifice that Jesus made of his life. But my own perspective causes me to approach this institutional understanding with caution. While I am fully aware that Jesus death and subsequent resurrection is utterly central to Christian theology, I think we also need to remember that it was fear and brutality that led to Jesus’ death, as it has led to the deaths of so many great teachers and leaders whose beliefs and teachings shake up and threaten to undermine the established order of things. For me, the ultimate meaning of Jesus life is not to be found in his death or in what happened after that, the empty tomb, however we understand it. For me and for many of you, I suspect, the meaning is to be found in Jesus’ life and in his insistence on mercy, compassion, inclusion and justice. According to the stories we have in the Gospels, Jesus was willing to die for his beliefs and in order to bring his message to the world and in fact he was quite aware that he would die because of his teachings. The creation of the Christian religion is based on the necessity of Jesus dying, but I am sorry that he had to die in that way and at that time. It is hard for me not to wonder what might have happened, how much more we might have learned and known, if Jesus’ ministry had lasted more than just three years.

So what might Lent be for us? How might we understand it and more importantly, how might we connect to it, especially if Jesus’ death and whatever happened next is not at the heart or center of our personal faith or spirituality. I believe Lent is important — that it speaks to the universal human condition that most of us are spiritually asleep a lot of the time and we need to wake up. Lent is an annual invitation to wake up. It is a time to prepare ourselves for the new life that is coming, both the literal new life of spring, and the emotional, metaphorical new life that we are trying to create within ourselves, within our families and communities, within our world. Lent is a time for the journey toward new life. To me, this journey is not ultimately about doing penance or even about believing or not believing in the literal truth of the Easter story. More, it is about being willing to let power of this season enter into us. More, it is about waking up.

Every year for the past few years I have done a sermon series during the time of Lent. This year I will be talking about Lent as a spiritual journey into the wilderness and what we need to take that journey. What is essential for us to bring with us on that journey? What do we need to learn or find along the way? The idea of the spiritual journey of Lent was sparked by Janet Rupp’s poem:

It’s time for the pilgrim in me
To travel in the dark,
To learn to read the stars
that shine in my soul.
I will walk deeper
into the dark of the night
I will wait for the stars,
trust their guidance,
and let their light be enough for me.

As pilgrims traveling in the dark, what will give us strength and stamina and courage for the journey? What helps us stay spiritually awake?

We begin this morning with perhaps the most essential and important element of all, which is awareness of our own mortality, awareness that our time here is limited, that life is fragile and precious and not for wasting. As Mary Oliver writes so poignantly:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
   (from When Death Comes in New and Selected Poems, Volume I, Mary Oliver)

Awareness of our mortality, of the mortality of the ones we love, is the most powerful wake up call I know. In my work I have seen this time and time again, the way the awareness of death, the closeness of death, often brought on by a serious illness or accident, either our own or that of someone we love, wakes us up. Such experiences often give us a more keen awareness of the preciousness of life. They can bring us closer to our desire to “make something particular and real of our lives,” to think about what matters to us and to shape our lives around that mattering.

I have seen how the closeness of death brings out amazing tenderness and strength and grace in people, how it heals old sorrows and pushes people to resolve old estrangements and bitterness. Something about knowing, really knowing, that we don’t actually have forever to figure things out, to reconcile, to make amends, to write the letter or speak the apology or offer forgiveness seems to move us in the direction we meant to go all along. But it also brings out everything — when we are awake we are also awake to fear and sorrow and anger and longing and regret as all of these are part of the human condition as well.

All the faith traditions recognize that coming to terms with suffering and death is key to human freedom. The prophet Muhammad said, “Die before you die.” The Sufi mystic Rumi said, “Lose your life, if you seek eternity.” Jesus said “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will save it.” All these texts recognize a paradox: that which is most precious to us cannot be preserved, life cannot be saved, we don’t get to live forever, so we try to receive the time we have with gratitude, with a fuller awareness.

Buddha was in many ways the most direct, he said

Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us must strive to awaken!
Awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life!
   (Buddhist Evening Gatha)

I think, at best, we dance with the awareness that life and death are of supreme importance; we move between knowing and unknowing, because most of us simply cannot stay awake. We cannot live with our mortality in sight all the time; it is too intense. So the crisis passes, the moment of insight fades and we are back to every day, back to grumbling about the weather, wining about broken appliances, irritated with the people we live with and work with, and distracted by a thousand things. Inevitably, we fall asleep. Inevitably, we start squandering our lives again because this too is part of the human condition. So we use the opportunities we are given, such as the invitation and challenge of the season of Lent before us, to wake up again.

This path is not for the faint of heart — I know I have said that before. One of my favorite writers, the hilarious and reverently irreverent Anne Lamott, wrote in one of her columns for Salon Magazine about her son Sam at age 9 facing the fact of his mortality and the fear and sorrow and courage that brought up for both of them. Anne Lamott is a Christian and she does believe in an afterlife, a heaven of sorts but it doesn’t necessarily make things any easier. She tells the story this way:

Late one night 36 years ago, my friend Vicki whispered to me in the dark that when you die, you float through outer space forever. Then she promptly fell asleep. I stayed up all night, staring into the darkness like a cat on acid. I did not tell my parents what she had said or how profoundly afraid it made me feel. I remembered this the other day when Sam got home from a weekend of snow camping with the Boy Scouts… He was wired and ragged when he arrived home Sunday night and, within minutes, started being mean to me and the pets. He was actually mean to our dog, Sadie, which I’d thought was about as low as the limbo pole goes around here. But it wasn’t until he was hostile to Goldie the Goldfish, flicking his fingernails against the side of her bowl, that I figured out he was in some kind of emotional trouble; that he was probably scared.

It came out that the boys had stayed up most of the night two nights in a row, discussing (in the pitch dark) what happens to you after death. All the bad bases were covered: The worms going in and out… the candle flame of your awareness being snuffed out, rotting in hell — flames, sulfur… Sam and I were sitting on the bathroom floor when he told me this. I told him what Vicki had told me years ago, and also how I had slowly over the years come to believe in heaven. He looked at me with a mix of pity and embarrassment. Then he asked if he could be cryogenically frozen.

What was I going to say? “No, honey, we don’t have the money.” But before I could answer, he said, “Do you have to die before they freeze you?” I said that was the general order of things, and he said, in great pain, “But that’s the problem. I don’t want to die.” I said that he would probably not die for 80 years. He said, “I don’t even want to die in 80 years. I don’t ever want to die.”

It was just awful, and no amount of peppy Jesus talk could touch it. So I moved East, into Buddhism and Hinduism, and I said that his body was like an old car that he’d leave by the road someday, and he said (and I quote), “Your body is like an old car… It’s like an old Rambler, with broken windows.” I said that this was nice of him to say. And thanked him for sharing. “You know what I mean,” he said. “But my body is new. It’s like a 1998 Dodge Viper.” But this wasn’t fun for him. He was in dread.

What can you tell your child in the face of this existential bad news? That he will live to be 90? And that then, surrounded by all of his loved ones, including you, who will only be 125, he will slowly, free of pain, drift off into a deep peaceful sleep, en route to a Hallmark heaven where there will he no more fear, tooth decay, homework or girls? I almost did say this, in fact. Instead, I said the world’s greatest prayer: Help! Quietly, but loud enough so Sam could hear… (Sam) didn’t say anything. He was crying but he did not want to be held, like a baby. So he sat on the bathroom floor several feet away from me, and I handed him the box of Kleenex, and he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt and then shredded a tissue. It took every ounce of my being not to nag him to pick it all up. He shredded another. A snowdrift of Kleenex grew while I thought what to do, and the best I could come up with was to remember the one God thing I’m sure of, which is that God does not offer to take away our suffering or fear but instead to fill it with His or Her presence. So I decided to fill Sam’s terror with me.

“What do you believe in?” I asked. “I thought you believed in Jesus.”

“I do; I just believe in all the other gods, too.”

“Oh,” I said nicely. “What other gods?”

“The Greek and Roman gods.”

OK, I almost sneered, would you mind naming names — would you mind telling me some of the names of these other gods you believe in? But I didn’t. The snowdrift of Kleenex grew higher.

A woman told me recently that when she could not begin to fathom an afterlife, a pastor told her that the bulb cannot conceive of the flower it will become. It thinks that bulb-hood is all there is… So I passed this along to Sam. “Let me think about this,” he said. His eyes were very red from crying but he scooched over on the floor until he was beside me and then butted his nose against the shoulder of my T-shirt, like a horse that is trying to get you to give it the lump of sugar. I found this very touching, until I realized he was wiping his nose on me.

“Eewwhh,” I said, and finally he smiled. This was the first sign of movement in Sam’s stuckness, and it gave me the beginnings of hope. “Will you rub my back?” he asked. And I said of course I would, so he stretched out on the bathroom rug, and I began to give him a massage. He was very tight and stiff at first. I hummed a little song and waited for God’s help. Then I suddenly remembered the best story I heard last year, and I laughed very quietly. I did not tell it to Sam that night but I will tell it to you:

A friend of mine’s best friends have a child with cerebral palsy. He is a very intelligent and cool teenager now; this story is from a few years ago. He had always had major problems with coordination and stamina; one leg tended to drag, and he had the appearance of disjointed gangliness. But when he was 10 years old, he asked his parents for a bicycle.

“Great,” they said, and set about planning for a specially equipped bike such as a 10-year-old kid with cerebral palsy might be able to ride without hurting himself. “No,” he said, “I want a bike like all the other 10-year-olds in the neighborhood. I want a regular two-wheeler.”

They did their best to talk him out of it, explaining how the kids on regular bikes had started out on trikes, and then moved on to bikes with training wheels and, after a great deal of practice, moved on to a big kid bike with hand brakes, and then gears. He said he knew that, but he was too big for a trike or even training wheels, and he just wanted a chance to ride a regular two-wheeler.

So after stalling for as long as possible… they got him a bike… and the boy got on, and then he fell over. He tried to get on his bike and ride it, as he must have seen himself doing in his mind for a long time, and it did not go well at all. It was very painful for his parents and continued to be as day after day he got on his bike and fell over. But he kept trying.

After a very long time, after months and months and months, he could wobble down the block, but he still often fell over and could not steer…, and he ended up in the hospital several times. He broke his arm and several other bones and had two concussions, and it was killing his parents with disappointment on his behalf and fear on theirs… But they let him keep trying. This is more inspiring to me than I can say.

“After three years,” my friend told me, “he was able to ride pretty steadily around the block. Three years it took him to master what took the other kids two or three weeks. And then,” she said, “it took him six more months to learn to let go of one handlebar, so he could wave to you as he peddled past.”

So I sat on the bathroom floor, rubbing Sam’s shoulders and back, letting him try to find his bearings. And trying to find my own. I just want to change the nature of life so that my son will never have to be too afraid or disappointed, but will still somehow get to learn life’s sweet and terrible lessons anyway. Is that so much to ask? I sighed.

“This (having to die someday) it is never going to be great,” (Sam) said.

“No. But you’ll have company while you’re trying to live with it.”

“Is this the best thing you can think of to tell me?”

After a minute I nodded. … Then I said, “OK, honey. Now, how about a bubble bath?” … He sniffled, then sat up and wiped his nose on my sleeve again.

“Would you STOP that?” I said, and he laughed. Then he did it again, and I started laughing too. ”

We did this for a while and I thought, This is the little miracle… That my child was stiff and stricken, in dread, and now he is laughing and being disgusting. He can play again, for now. Then he agreed to a bubble bath even though he mostly showers now. It’s much more manly. But he let me draw him a bath, and he took off his clothes and climbed in, and as I was headed out the door, he asked me to stay. So I put the lid down on the toilet and flipped through an old magazine while Sam splashed around. He tried unsuccessfully to juggle handfuls of bubbles. He disappeared under the water to practice holding his breath and every so often sneaked a look at me with his long sideways glances, just checking in. And after a while I put the magazine down on my lap, so I could wave.
   (printed online in Mothers Who Think, Salon Magazine, March 18, 1999)

My colleague Kendyl Gibbons writes:

There is, finally, only one thing required of us: that is, to take life whole, the sunlight and shadows together; to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth.

We have such a little moment out of the vastness of time for all our wondering and loving. Therefore let there be no half-heartedness; rather, let the soul be ardent in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.


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Created 2010-03-12