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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
December 3, 2017

Advent Wreath Lighting -- Meredith Hill

Today is the first Sunday in Advent so we light the first candle Advent wreath to remind us that we are in the time of waiting. The wreath is round like the circle of the seasons and it is made of evergreen, which reminds us that the green of spring will always return.

The first candle is for Hope. When I was little, about 4 or 5 years old, I asked my mom, “If God made the world, who made God? Does God have a mother?” My mother did not know how to answer me so she stalled for time and asked me, “Well what do you think, Meredith? Do you think God has a mother?” I answered, “Yes, and God’s mother is named Hope.”

Elea wanted me to tell you this story today because she thinks it is really important that, even as a little kid, I knew that the making of the world world requires hope. I have grown up a lot since then and my beliefs have changed a lot but the world still needs hope as much as ever. So I light the first candle on the Advent wreath for hope.

Reading: How the Stars Get in Your Bones (Jan Richardson)

Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible, bearing it still.
And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
(That which)
you carried as a burden now become —
who can say what day it happened? —
a beginning.
See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire…
I tell you, this blazing in you —
it does not come by choosing the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.
I tell you, this is how the stars get in your bones.

This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.


May peace be with us, within us, upon our house now as we rest together in the strong and sacred place.

Jan Richardson also writes these words about hope:

May we know the hope
that is not just for someday
but for this day —
here, now, in this moment that opens to us:

hope not made of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle and bone,

hope that has breath and a beating heart,
hope that will not keep quiet and be polite,
hope that knows how to (yell)
when that is called for,
hope that knows how to sing
when there seems little cause,

hope that raises us from the dead —
not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and again and

May hope fill us this day, not the hope of wishing for things but the hope of strength and substance of muscle and bone, the hope that knows how to sing and pray and act and love

As we wait for the light to return, to these short early winter days, as we wait for light to return to our country, to our leaders, to our world may we be hope, bring hope, act hope, choose hope, sing hope, pray hope again and again.

Some of us wait for light to return to our own lives, and we pray for all who are grieving, for all who are sick or struggling or in need: may their hope be answered with compassion.

May we know hope now in this moment, as we rest together in quiet and pray the prayers of our own hearts and listen to the sounds of the morning.

Sermon: Keep Turning Your Face Toward This Earth

It was interesting to try writing a sermon from a hospital room, especially a sermon about hope. For those who don’t know my fiance Alan had hip replacement surgery on Thursday morning. He is doing really well, coming home this afternoon and it was somewhat of a bigger deal than either of us could imagine, not having had surgery before. He kept using words like “bounce right back,” which is not an entirely accurate description. And it is also amazing and miraculous that he was able to have an entire hip joint replaced with something made of ceramic and titanium and that he standing up, albeit shakily, 6 hours later. He is getting better by the day and the hope and expectation is that he will be able to walk without pain and even dance at a certain upcoming wedding. Being in the hospital is good for perspective and it was clear to us that we are incredibly lucky and privileged with a thousand reasons to be grateful. Alan had an excellent surgeon, kind and competent nurses and physical therapists, and could afford to pay for the anti-clotting medicine his doctor wanted him to take, even though it is not covered by his insurance plan. He was surrounded by skill, compassion, technology and kindness. And we saw how much influence and control the insurance company had over the level of care Alan received. Trying to get him an extra night in the hospital when he was clearly not ready to come home was incredibly stressful. It was not about whether the staff thought it would good for him to stay, but whether the insurance company would pay for it. But this too is not unrelated to the issue of hope and what it means to live with hope especially in our country at this moment in time.

While we were in the hospital, of course, the Senate passed the president’s tax plan which offers significant tax cuts to large corporations and the very wealthiest Americans. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center concludes that this plan will raise taxes for middle class and low income Americans and will contribute massively to the federal deficit. Why talk about the tax plan in church, you may be wondering. Because the tax plan is a moral document; it is an ethical document. It speaks to what we value as a society; it speaks to who we value, who is important and who is not. There is nothing new here. These words are from the Hebrew Bible prophet Isaiah and were written in the 8th century BCE as a warning to the rulers of Judah:

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the homeless children.

I find the words of Isaiah oddly comforting; the human struggle to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly, to quote another Hebrew prophet named Micah, is still and always with us. And so too is the need for hope and the need for people who insist and who believe that hope is for all people, not just the powerful or the wealthy.

Today is first Sunday of Advent, when we enter into the time of waiting. In the Christian religious year, Advent is the span of four weeks leading up to Christmas Day. Each week another candle is lit on the advent wreath and each of the candles symbolizes something important to the Christian faith; something that Christians believe the birth of Jesus brings into the world — hope, peace, joy and love. In our tradition we also mark the time of waiting for Jesus to be born. We honor what Jesus taught, we honor who he was and what we believe he was trying to do, which was to teach people they needed to create a world where hope, peace, joy and love were possible for as many people as possible. We still need the things the advent candles represent; we need them so badly this year. So we light the advent candles to help us remember: This week is for hope. And we ask ourselves: Where does hope come from? In what do we place our hope?

I wanted Meredith to tell you her story about how she knew at age four or five that God had a mother and God’s mother is named Hope because it is one of the best theological statements I have ever heard. God’s mother, presumably the source of all things, including God itself, is Hope. Before there was anything at all, including God, there was hope. So according to 4 year old Meredith’s theology, at least if I am interpreting it correctly, this means hope is the creative force of the universe; hope is the foundation of everything, both on the grand cosmic level and maybe even in the smallest things we choose to create, to make, to bring into being every single day.

I love this. It still amazes me and I still believe it — not in a literal, factual sense of God as a being who could have a mother, but I believe it as a metaphor, as a creation story, as a way to understand something very important about who we and what we are here for — which is to hope, to believe in hope, to choose hope and to act on behalf of that choice. Maybe more than anything else, I believe our role, our responsibility as a people of this liberal faith tradition is to be a people of hope, to hold onto hope, to carry hope for our country, for the world, for all beings and to live into that hope.

I know I have told you this before, but when I speak of hope, I don’t mean the wish for something and I don’t mean the feeling of being hopeful. I believe hope is something much sturdier and more robust than a feeling. I believe hope is a decision we make, not just once but over and over. Hope is a practice, something we do over and over again. The journalist and author and peace activist Chris Hedges wrote about this understanding of hope ten years ago when he was actively protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wrote a column called “Hope Means Doing Something” and he said in part:

Hope has a cost. Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk. Hope does not come with the right attitude. Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is an action. Hope is doing something… Hope knows that an injustice visited on our neighbor is an injustice visited on us all. Hope posits that people are drawn to the good by the good. This is the secret of hope’s power and it is why it can never finally be defeated.

And later in the column when trying to answer the question of what to do, how to act on behalf of hope, Hedges talks about how the what doesn’t really matter. We can march for hope, or we can cook for it. We can knit for hope or sing for it, as long as others can hear it or see it in some way. As long as it is not invisible then it does not matter what we do. He says,

Anything can be an act of hope as long as it seeks to draw the good to the good, nourishes our souls and holds out the possibility that we can touch and transform the souls of others… And every act that imparts hope is a victory in itself.

In 2004 author and activist Rebecca Solnit wrote an amazing book called Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She published a new edition of the book last summer and in it she makes the case for hope in the human endeavor. She actually traces in great detail some of the political revolutions and social justice movements in just the last five decades of human history and talks about the profound social transformations which have taken place, the gains in human rights and how people come to believe in things they once thought impossible and outrageous, marriage equality in America being one good example, and then they forget they ever felt differently.

Solnit wrote a wonderful essay about the new edition of the book in the Guardian Magazine and in that essay she defines hope as a place of uncertainty, where we have the space to act and to try to influence the outcome. She writes:

Hope is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same.

Solnit says that her own belief in hope has come from knowing history, from studying the emergence of liberation movements like Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. Despite the horrors and setbacks of the last decade, the environmental crisis which may be even more devastating than scientists believed, and the rise of grotesque economic inequality, her own belief in the grounds for hope is based on two things. The first is the recognition of how powerful are the altruistic, idealistic forces already at work in the world. She believes that most of what human beings do is not for profit, but for love. She writes:

…[V]ast amounts of how we live our everyday lives — our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual and political organisations — are… made up of things we do for free, out of love and on principle.

And the second thing that has reinforced her case for hope in recent years is seeing how people respond in the face of major disaster. Solnit has concluded is that in the face of the disaster, most people, no matter who they are or where they live, are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative. And what surprised even her is that in the wake of disasters, she observes in people not just generosity and creativity but passionate joy which shines out in the accounts written by people who have barely survived. Solnit writes “These people who had lost everything, who were living in rubble or ruins, had found agency, meaning, community, immediacy in their work together with other survivors.” Solnit believes that people yearn for lives of meaningful engagement, and that we find or return to our best selves, our fullest, most powerful selves, as if by instinct when the situation demands it.

This is what the poet Jan Richardson also believes — that there is something in us that cannot help but hope, that some part of us keeps turning toward the world if we will let ourselves. We do not have to will ourselves to hope or force ourselves to hope, but keep turning our faces toward the sky, keep turning our hearts toward one another. She writes:

This is how the stars get in your bones.
This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.

Advent has come. The first candle is lit. It is time for hope.


3 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-4700 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2017-12-07