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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
October 13, 2019

Prayer for Oct. 13, 2019

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes:

Let the walls of my heart be easily moved
as the walls of the Sukkah that sway in the wind
let the roof of my heart
be porous to tears as the roof of the Sukkah
that lets in the rain
let the space in my heart be open to guests…
let the beat of my heart
be a .. reminder that life here is transient —
a temporary dwelling
let the walls, left unsealed,
and the roof, with its lattice,
frame the cracks
that will let in the light.

And this is a prayer from the Pueblo people:

I add my breath to your breath,
That our days may be long on the earth,
That the days of our people and of all the plants and animals may be long,
That we shall be as one.

We hold in heart and mind all who are hungry, all who live with violence and war, all who are grieving or sick and all who are homeless, all refugees, all who are in need of shelter and sanctuary all around the world. Today let us pray also and especially today for our planet which so desperately needs our care

We pray for the joys and sorrows of this community, the ones shared out loud and these we have been trusted with.

As we sit in quiet and in this strong and loving community, may we find hope and strength so that we can kind and brave in the week ahead.

On Behalf of Life

The kids are outside decorating our Sukkah today. One of the kids, who has been coming to church for years, since he was a little one, asked me last week, “Is it time for that fort with the chocolate in it?” I love how he has learned the rhythm of our religious year and yes, it is time for the fort with the chocolate in it.

The Jewish holiday Sukkot begins tonight at sundown and lasts for the next week. As many of you know, because you too have learned the rhythm of our religious year, Sukkot involves building a little temporary house or shelter or fort outside called a sukkah and then dwelling in the sukkah during the week of the holiday. People don’t actually live in their sukkah, but they try to spend time in it, to make time in it eating - reading, drinking coffee, sitting, inviting friends over for dinner, just being, sheltered but also outside, connected to the weather, which is the point. If it is raining or cold or, in our part of the world snowing, god forbid, you don’t have to dwell in the sukkah, because it is supposed to be a pleasure not an exercise in misery. There aren’t a lot of rules about how to build sukkah, but one of the few is that the roof has to have gaps or spaces in it that are wide enough to see the sky during the day and the stars at night.

The holiday of Sukkot is first and foremost a harvest holiday and the sukkah may in fact be a reminder of the harvest huts people used to construct quickly on the land during harvest time so they could stay out in the fields for as long as possible. Sukkot is for eating and drinking, celebrating the fruits of the earth and taking pleasure in simple, good things — food, and wine, being outside, being with friends.

Like Passover which comes in the spring, Sukkot is a celebration of the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. But Sukkot is in remembrance of what came after the big dramatic chapter with Moses confronting the pharaoh, and the plagues and the parting of the red sea. Sukkot is about the 40 years that came after that; it is about the 40 years spent walking. Sukkot is about the first time the Jewish people were refugees, before they were even called the Jewish people, when they were desert wanderers, searching for safety, for a place to settle and call home. So people sit in the sukkah to remember the story about how their ancestors survived during those years of wandering, those years when nothing was permanent and nowhere was home, except the earth itself.

That story, of the wandering time, the refugee years, the time of walking, has of course been repeated time and time and time again, by Jews through centuries of antisemitism and diaspora, but also by refugees the world over and on every continent; it is a story that is both ancient and current, a story which is being lived at this very moment by refugees in Syria and Afghanistan and South Sudan, a story being lived by the thousands who wait at our southern border, the story of people leaving desperate places in search of safety and welcome and somewhere new to call home. As Ed McNierney likes to remind me, all stories are true and some of them actually happened. The story behind Sukkot is one of those kinds of stories.

During the week of Sukkot, an extra blessing is added to the regular evening prayers. It is a blessing which asks God to shelter us through the coming night and the words are in hymn we sang earlier, ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, which meansspread over us oh God the sukkah of Your shalom, the sukkah of your peace.” About this blessing, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes, the word (shalom), the word for peace, comes from a root which means wholeness, completeness. So the prayer is, to be made whole and to experience our whole selves as sheltered by the holy. But this shelter is the shelter of the sukkah, a shelter which is by definition, temporary, fragile, and open to the stars and sky and the weather.” (from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, blog, The Velveteen Rabbi)

It is such a paradox, the shelter of the holy, the shelter that people are supposed to pray for at night before sleep, is not the shelter of a fortress or a bunker, or a tower of strength, it is the shelter of the sukkah, which doesn’t have sturdy walls or a roof. It is flimsy and ramshackle and only has to stand up right for a week by design. What does that mean?

I think it means that our shalom, our peace, our wholeness is truly possible only when we recognize our fragility and we understand that so much of what we build and create and surround ourselves with is impermanent and can be so easily lost and broken. Maybe wholeness comes from knowing that no matter how strong the walls we build, they cannot protect us from the losses that come with being alive and maybe walls aren’t what we need.

Barenblat writes of Sukkot:

these seven days
remind us that permanence
is overrated, that our true home
is under the stars.

So the sukkah is for being reminded that the earth itself is our home, beyond house or town or country or borders of any kind, despite all the ways we create borders and defend them. It is a really hard lesson and maybe it is easier to learn it, at least a little bit, outside. To go out of our houses, if we are lucky enough to have them, and remember that the earth is where we really live, all of us on this one small planet.

This weekend we also honor Indigenous People’s Day, a holiday still known to most of the country as Columbus Day — which is a day for celebrating the supposed discovery of the Americas by the Italian explorer, except for the extremely important reality that there were already people living in these lands. People had been living here for centuries with their own rich and complex cultures and religions and languages and practices, when Columbus arrived. As you already know, these cultures and religions, were completely devalued by the Europeans who began arriving on this continent with what they believed was the divine right to colonize it, to own it.

Their sense of entitlement came directly from the Roman Catholic church, based on a decree issued 1452 which came to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery specifically sanctioned, promoted and also financed the conquest, colonization and conversion of all non-Christian lands and peoples around the world.

Almost two centuries later, our own Puritan forbears who settled these communities we live in and gathered this congregation in 1655 were inheritors of the doctrine of discovery. They believed they had a right to this land, which they fought for repeatedly and they believed they had not only a right but a responsibility to bring their Christian beliefs and their European culture to this supposed wilderness. The recognition of the tragic arrogance of what our spiritual ancestors did and the deadly price Native American peoples have paid for it and are still paying for it, is why our faith tradition decided in 2012 to honor indigenous people’s day instead of Columbus Day. We cannot undo that tragic history. But we can bring humility to the present moment. The Native Americans who inhabited this land before the Europeans arrived have not disappeared, they are still here.

We come to Sukkot and Indigenous People’s Day in the face of a climate emergency that leaves most us either in denial or in terror of what is already happening to our planet and what is to come for our children and their children. And maybe that is where Indigenous People’s Day and Sukkot intersect somehow — if we are going to survive this climate crisis, the values and ways of living that have brought us to this point, are not the ones that will save us. We need to learn new ways of living, which are of course not new at all. We need to be led by different leaders — by the voices and vision of the young and by indigenous people whose traditions have wisdom that was never lost despite all the attempts to destroy it.

This week by happy accident, also known as going down an internet rabbit hole, I found a group called Extinction Rebellion. They are an international, multi racial group, based in the UK, dedicated to non violent, totally public and above ground civil disobedience on behalf of the planet. Part of their mission is to help people be brave to do what is necessary to save the planet and create a world that is fit for generations to come. Their mission statements are poetry and also full of hope. They write:

Our world is in crisis. Life itself is under threat. Yet every crisis contains the possibility of transformation. Across the world, heralded by the young, people are waking up and coming together.

We hear history calling to us from the future. We catch glimpses of a new world of love, respect and regeneration, where we have restored the intricate web of all life. It’s a future that’s inside us all — located in the fierce love we carry for our children, in our urge to help a stranger in distress, in our wish to forgive, even when that seems too much to ask.

And so we rebel for this, calling in joy, creativity and beauty… We rise up for a world where power is shared for regeneration, repair, respect and reconciliation. We rise for love in its ultimate wisdom. Our vision stretches beyond our own lifespan, to a horizon dedicated to future generations and the restoration of our planet’s integrity.

We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts. We act on behalf of life.

We act on behalf of life. How do we do that now? I encourage you to come into the sukkah to reflect on it, to dream about it. Bring your coffee out there during coffee hour today or next Sunday. Come by during the week and sit for a while - bring your lunch and your journal. There are some donuts and in there to entice you over and I will keep chocolate in there during the week — chocolate and donuts are not part of the commandment but it seems like a good idea.

But come sit in the sukkah so you can remember what I know you already know: that holiness is everywhere and the earth itself is sacred. Enter the sukkah which is open to the sun and rain and stars, watch the squirrels come close in pursuit of Hershey’s kisses, how the wind blows leaves down over you and feel your love of this earth, which is our only home.


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

Created 2019-10-17