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Sermons at First Parish Church

Living In Shaky Houses

Sunday, September 17, 2006
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton


The reading is from essay called “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” by John Lewis, the African American son of an Alabama sharecroppers who was extremely active in the civil rights struggle and now represents Georgia’s fifth district in Congress. This version of Lewis’ essay is found in the book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, edited by Paul Loeb. I have shortened it a little bit and encourage you to seek out the original.

This little story has nothing to do with a national stage, or historic figures or monumental events. It’s a simple story, a true story, about a group of young children, a wood-frame house, and a windstorm.

The children were my cousins — about a dozen of them, all told — along with three siblings. And me. I was four years old at the time …The only world I knew was the one I stepped out into each morning, a place of thick pine forests and white cotton fields and red clay roads winding around my family’s house in our little corner of Pike County, Alabama…

Almost every neighbor we had in those woods was a sharecropper, and most of them were our relatives. Nearly every adult I knew was an aunt or an uncle, every child my first or second cousin. That included my Uncle Rabbit and Aunt Seneva and their children, who lived about a half mile or so up the road from us.

On this particular afternoon — it was a Saturday, I’m almost certain — about fifteen of us children were outside my Aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lighting flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore…Lightning terrified me, and so did thunder. My mother used to gather us around her whenever we heard thunder and she’d tell us to hush, be still now, because God was doing his work. That was what the thunder was, my mother said. It was the sound of God doing his work.

But my mother wasn’t with us on this particular afternoon. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky grew blacker and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Smaller and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.

And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it. That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. “Line up and hold hands,” she said and we did as we were told.

Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm and another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

It seemed that way in the 1960’s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams - so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

And then another corner would lift, and we would go there. And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.

But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again. And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me — not just the movement for civil rights but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity, and a sense of brotherhood (and sisterhood) to all the challenges that face us…

That is the story, in essence, of my life, of the path to which I’ve been committed since I turned from a boy to a man, and to which I remain committed today. It is a path that extends beyond the issue of race alone, and beyond class as well. And gender. And age. And every other distinction which tends to separate us as human beings rather than bring us together.

That path involves nothing less than the pursuit of the most precious and pure concept I have that has guided me like a beacon… a concept called the Beloved Community.

About a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian philosopher, wrote these words:

Comrade of the open road, here are my traveler’s greetings to you.

Friend of my broken heart, of leave-taking and loss, of the grey silence of day-fall, my greetings of the broken house to you.

Light of the newborn morning, sun of the ever-lasting day, my greetings of undying hope to you.

My friend, I am: a wayfarer on an endless road.

My greetings of a wanderer to you.

I love that line: my greetings of the broken house to you. I have been thinking about broken and shaky houses. To some extent, I am always thinking about broken and shaky houses, because I live in such a house, at least to some degree. It is a fine old house, built in 1884, which I know some of you consider modern. But, our house has some give, some flex, so to speak, perhaps a little more give and flex than is desirable, especially when there are two three-year-olds running back and forth. We need some lally columns or structural supports or something in the basement. Fran tells me what we are supposed to do to fix it, but since I am so much more interested in metaphors than facts, I always forget. But the simple truth is that our house is shaky.

All houses have their vulnerabilities — their shaky spots. Our church was struck by lighting again this summer. Apparently this is not unusual - It happened last summer too. We have been lucky — no fire, just electrical systems chaos and more insurance deductibles to pay to get things set right. But in 1795 we weren’t quite so lucky and the lightening strike of that summer caused a fire. The lovely story is that the townspeople came and extinguished the fire with milk from a nearby farm. as it was believed at that time what water couldn’t put out fires caused by fire.

To some extent we all live in shaky houses, vulnerable to lighting and flood, fire and wind. We live in shaky bodies, bodies which are aging perhaps more rapidly than we are prepared for, bodies which get illnesses and are more fragile than we like to think about most of the time. And of course we live in shaky times. The war in Iraq continues and continues. A year after Hurrican Katrina, so many people are still living with the devastation of the aftermath and those flood waters, when they finally receded, revealed things about poverty and injustice in our very own country that have not gone away.

When Tagore writes, “my greetings of the broken house to you,” he is referring to himself as a broken house. I believe we are, if we made it as far as adulthood, all broken houses. Who am I to call you a broken house, you wonder? But to be a broken house is a fine thing. I believe it is a beautiful thing, a deeply spiritual thing. This is because living in this world with passion and intensity and depth means knowing leave-taking and loss; to live in this world is to know broken-heartedness, if not for ourselves, than for the sake of others. To be a broken house means that we have experienced what Tagore calls “the grey silence of day fall.” It means that we have been weathered and we are still standing to see the light of the new born morning. It means that we have found strength.

It is the time of year when the leadership of the church and I tend to ponder what we are doing here, in both the broadest and narrowest terms. We think about what we are doing to get the coffee made and to make sure that one of you is there to say good morning when people come in the door. We think about what we are doing to teach our children and youth to be compassionate, justice seeking adults. We think about what we are doing to raise enough money to pay our bills and to give away money to people and causes in need and to do the community service and social action that is so much at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith. It is the time of year to think about what are we doing here, theologically and ethically, poetically and practically. The church year is new and there are hundreds, if not thousands, if not an infinite number of jobs to be done, things to sign up for, committees needing new members, projects to be organized, funds to be raised, empty slots on sign up sheets to be filled. And it is all good. It is all important and needs doing and, if not us, than who will do it? And it is also important, to pause for just a moment, before all this doing gets too far underway to remember what we are really here for. What is all the work in purpose of, in service of?

The first words you hear this morning from the pulpit were by Rebecca Parker, a UU minister and president of the Starr King School for the Ministry. She writes:

When people come knocking at the door of this church

(We) are not looking for a committee to serve on,

Or a potluck to go to, or a rummage sale that needs organizing

Or an intellectual discussion that already happened twenty times before.

(We) come looking for a wellspring,

For healing refreshing water

(we) come looking for quietness lit with fire,

For a sanctuary of peace.

And a welcome table spread for all.

(We) come looking for the path of compassion and service,

For a song of overflowing joy

And a prayer too deep for words.

I believe that come because we know, or at least we have a glimmer of knowing that to be fully human is to acknowledge, our fragility. I believe we come because we know we must learn to live with the truth of our vulnerability, which, paradoxically, helps us to be strong. I believe that we come because we know that we live in broken houses, that we are broken houses, but that in community, however imperfect, we are more whole. In community, in congregation, in coming together, we both find and create that sanctuary of peace. We both find and create that welcome table set for all. We both sing and listen to those songs of overflowing joy.

In the Jewish calendar, several weeks after Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in the early fall, there comes a harvest festival called Sukkot, which involves the building of a little temporary house, a sukkah outside. People build these shelters in their backyards or at the edges of their driveways. In cities where people don’t have a lot of outside space, families might join their efforts and build a sukkah in a neighborhood park or parking lot or outside the synagogue. The point is to build a little hut, a little house out of poles or boards with a roof made out of leafy branches. You can decorate it with little white lights or whatever you want. And you put a table and chairs in it and during the week of the holiday you eat as many meals out there and drink your morning coffee there and even sleep out there. Usually these shelters, these sukkot, are pretty flimsy, pretty rickety raggedy looking and that is the whole point, to be outside, sheltered and yet open to the weather and the elements and the neighbors walking by.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who is a very progressive and activist Rabbi wrote a powerful essay after September 11, titled The Sukkah of Shalom or the Sukkah of Peace. In the essay he says:

In 2001, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Jewish community celebrated the harvest festival of Sukkot. Many did so by building a sukkah-a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, since it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, since its roof must be not only leafy but leaky enough to let in the starlight and gusts of wind and rain.

Rabbi Waskow writes about how one of the daily prayers, the prayer that many observant Jews say just before bed every night is a prayer that includes the words, “God, Spread over us Your sukkah of shalom-Your sukkah, your fragile shelter, of peace and safety.” Waskow reflects,

Why does the prayer plead for a sukkah of shalom rather than a temple or fortress or palace of shalom, which would surely be more safe and more secure?

He answers how on question this way:

Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable. For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness: Pyramids. Air raid shelters. Pentagons, World Trade Centers. But the sukkah reminds us: We are in truth all vulnerable… And on 9/11/01 the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah. Even the widest oceans, the mightiest buildings, the wealthiest balance sheets, the most powerful weapons did not shield us. There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life… The sukkah not only invites our bodies to become physically vulnerable, but also invites our minds to become vulnerable to new ideas. To live in the sukkah for a week, as Jewish tradition teaches, would be to leave behind not only the rigid walls and towers of our cities, but also our rigidified ideas, our assumptions, our habits, our accustomed lives.

And, I would add, our pretense that we are unassailable.

Waskow ends his essay with these words:

Whatever we build where the tall Twin Towers once stood, America and the world will be living in a leafy, leaky, shaky sukkah. Hope comes from raising that simple truth to visibility. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.

(Arthur Waskow, "The Sukkah of Shalom," in The Impossible Will Take a Little While.)

Our houses are shaky but we are here together, seeking to create Shalom; we are here together seeking to create peace and compassion and justice and simple kindness, seeking to keep our hearts and minds open to one another and to the possibilities of a new way of being in the world, seeking to create the Beloved Community in this time and in place.

As John Lewis reminds us, the people of conscience never leave the house. They never run away. They stay, they come together and they do the best they can, joining hands and moving toward the corner of the house that is the weakest. And then another corner lifts and we will go there. And eventually, inevitably, the storm will settle. But we know another storm will come, and we will do it all over again. And we will, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands, walking with the wind.


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Most recently updated 2009-06-06