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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
March 3, 2019

Reading: Gate 4-A by Naomi Shihab Nye

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well — one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the Flight Service Person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.” I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “You’re fine, you’ll get there, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering ques­tions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sac­rament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — seemed appre­hen­sive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Sermon: Loved Into Being

I saw the documentary on Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, last Sunday at the wonderful event put on by Groton Neighbors and the Groton Public Library. They needed Kleenex in all the chairs as most of us cried through the whole thing, even those who had seen it before, which I had not. Mr. Rogers was really important to me as a child. As many of you know, my father died by suicide when I was 18 months old and he was just 28. This was intensely sad, to say the least, and not an easy beginning to a childhood. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood went on the air when I was three and I watched it every day for a long time, until I was older than most kids who were watching Mr. Rogers. That daily visit to Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood was a touchstone for me, a place of comfort and calm and utter predictability, which my older brother and much later my own children found completely boring. The fact that my kids thought Mr. Rogers was insipid was slightly tragic to me but they didn’t need it the way I did.

I loved it all — the music, the ritualized putting on of the cardigan and Keds sneakers, the kind visitors who showed up at the door, the much anticipated visit to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, the field trips to local factories, all of which seemed to be in easy walking distance, where we got to see how things like crayons and rubber balls were made, and the one and only special effect of the entire show, which was the way they kind of faded the trolley in and out when it was on its way to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, as if you were looking through a telescope. I think I knew that lots of other kids were watching Mr. Rogers, but it always seemed like he was talking right to me. In a lot of ways, Mr. Rogers was like my father.

But it wasn’t until last Sunday that I realized how much Mr. Rogers influenced my work. I realized that he mentored me in ministry, he gave me this very early, very deep example of what ministry was. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister of course, not that I knew that until much, much later, and his congregation was this vast community of young children. He ministered to us with deep kindness, and with an unshakable belief in the beauty and goodness and specialness of each person. He believed that everyone had a voice, everyone had a gift to bring to this world. In our tradition we call this the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and it is the bedrock of our faith.

One of my favorite parts of the documentary is right at the beginning when they are talking about how the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood succeeded so wildly and beyond all expectations, despite the fact that they were doing everything wrong in terms of production values — which were basically non-existent. The set was the living room and kitchen of modest, sixties ranch house; the props were some hand puppets and a metal trolley; and the plot was a man in a cardigan singing simple songs, and doing everyday things so, so slowly: Getting the fish food container down from the shelf….shaking some fish food into the fish tank… watching the fish swim up toward to the surface to eat the food…. putting the fish food back on the shelf. Taking an apple from the bowl on the table and getting a peeler out of the drawer….peeling an apple in one long string of apple peel or two if it broke, which was not a problem… washing the peeler and then putting the peeler back in the drawer.

And while he was doing these simple things, very slowly, Mr. Rogers would be talking to his congregation, preaching to us really, the most gentle of sermons, with the same messages every time. Because like all ministers, he really only had one sermon, which was this: you are acceptable and beautiful and you belong. Everyone belongs. He didn’t shy away from the hard things, Vietnam, the assassination of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. He talked about these things, which was pretty radical on a children’s show and probably still would be. But his message was reassuring and simple. Whenever something bad is happening, there will always be people who are helping. Look for the helpers.

The documentary talked about how Mr. Rogers Neighborhood should not have worked because even by 1960’s measures, it had no glitz, no flash. And yet it did work because, to everyone’s surprise, things like love and human dignity and relationship mattered more than glitz. Mr. Rogers believed that slowing down helped people and so did music and singing. He created a sanctuary, he created a small time and place where life was gentle and where gentleness was valued and where everyone was included, which was quietly but definitely radical.

And as I was watching this part of the documentary, I had an epiphany. I thought to myself, ohmygod, that is so much like our church. We are Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. We too are a place that is built on simple human kindness, on deep respect, on the belief that each person is beautiful, acceptable, enough, and that what is on the inside matters so much more than what is on the inside. And like Mr. Rogers, we talk about the painful things and we try to help each other through them. We try to be those people. And we have really low production values.

Most of what we do here is counter to everything our culture tell us is successful and valuable. We are slow in a world moving at lighting speed. We still use paper here; our hymns are in actual books and we collect money in old wooden boxes. We sing songs together and we sit in silence. We wait while people light candles and speak out loud their joys and sorrows in words which are not sound bites. Sometimes all of this takes a really long time and people say things which make us uncomfortable. They show us their sorrow, their pain laid bare. We gather face to face, rather than on zoom or skype. We don’t have uplighting (I don’t actually know what that is but I am told that churches are supposed to have it now.) There are no sets, and sometimes we don’t even have flowers. There is no bling here, except Buddy the rooster on top of the steeple, who is indeed covered in gold.

The things we value here are just kind of wild too. In a world that tells us to meet our needs for meaning through getting stuff and distracting, we invite people into self-reflection and gratitude. In a world which celebrates hyper-individuality, we ask people to use the word we. We believe our children and our elders have wisdom, that people with differences and challenges have precious gifts to share, that our worth is measured by our generosity. By the standards of our culture, all of this is wrong. And yet we know it is right.

One of Fred Rogers favorite quotes and one he apparently kept pinned up on the wall in his office, right next to his desk chair, was a line from book The Little Prince which reads, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” About that lovely quote, Mr. Rogers said “I feel that the closer we get to knowing and living the truth of that sentence, that what is essential is invisible to the eye, the closer we get to wisdom.” In so many ways the world has changed since Mr. Rogers was creating his neighborhood of make believe, but the truth is that our insides haven’t changed at all. Human beings have the same needs we have always had — to be affirmed and accepted for who we are, to love and be loved, to be in relationships which are authentic and respectful and to create communities where we are known, and where we can learn how to live with courage and hope and resilience.

The British Unitarian Minister Bob Janis Dillon wrote a wonderful poem called Let the Artists Win. It reminds me of the world we are trying to create here based on this radical idea that all people are precious and there are essential things, invisible to the eye which are worth dedicating our lives to. Here is part of that poem:

I vote we let the artists win
the ones covered in paint from their last attempt
to smuggle across the beauty of a bowl of fruit…

I say we let the food bank volunteers win
the ones always carrying around their agenda
for the meeting, waging campaigns to stock shelves with bread

I would like to see the nurses extend their string of victories
from the hospital bed to the nation’s boardrooms
until we care for each other as if death
were inevitable and mercy was the only thing
that made the rounds bearable

I say we let the kindergarten teachers win
as they raise up small edifices
for the beauty words will never capture or reveal…

I will let the grandmothers win
who tell the old stories that hold (us) in their keeping

And the children yelling
play! play! …I want them to win too..

I have lost and lost again a thousand wars of the heart
and those to whom I have waved the white flag
those to whom I have surrendered
the whole and holy of my life
will never, never let me go

Those to whom I have surrendered the whole and holy of my life will never never let me go. Another minister, Rebecca Parker, says something very similar at the end of her poem called Covenant. She writes:

Even when we have done all we can
and life is still broken,
there is a Universal Love
that has never broken faith with us
and never will.
This is the ground of our hope.

This is the ground of our hope. This is the ground we choose to stand on here in this sacred, old house, that there exists a universal love that does not break faith with us, a love that will never let us go. There is a love which insists we are all connected, all kin; a love which insists that all is not lost and that there is still so much worth surrendering the whole and the holy of our lives to.

Here we insist that the artists and kindergarten teachers and nurses and food bank volunteers and children who want to play and play are the big winners. We proclaim that love will win, and even in times like these, when it often seems that the artists and children and teachers are not winning at all, love is still the side we choose to be on. Today we ask you to make a financial commitment to what we are trying to do here, what we are trying to be here, the shared world we are trying to create here, wild, improbable, difficult and beautiful as it is.

Krista Ingram just finished teaching the Our Whole Lives program with our 5th graders. They met over in the Parish house because it was about sexuality and values, it was pretty intense. I would always ask the kids how it went when they came over to coffee hour and they were hilarious about it. It is terrifying, they told me. We are scarred for life!! Krista has us close our eyes and hold onto our chairs while we listen sometimes so we won’t laugh. Anyway, all the kids were dying to get out of there so they were leaving class the second it was over and running over here as fast as possible to get their snack. Except for one child in the class, Zoe, who doesn’t go as fast as the others because she uses a walker, so she was getting left behind. And after a few weeks Krista noticed this and told the kids, “You can only go as fast as Zoe; Zoe gets to set the pace for going over to coffee hour.” Krista watched them come over after that. She said wasn’t sure what to expect but she thought they would line up behind Zoe and follow her over here. But they didn’t; they surrounded her and they came over in one big, beautiful, 5thgrader clump with Zoe right in the middle. No one going ahead, and no one getting left behind. So simple and so right.

Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world… And this can still happen anywhere.” And so we keep creating that world week by week together, sharing what we have, and sharing also heartbreak and joy, sorrow and sweetness. Not everything is lost, really. Look around, so much is found.


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

Created 2019-03-05