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Sermons at First Parish Church

The Answer to Every Question

Sunday, May 22, 2011
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

So I can’t help noticing that we are still here. The day of rapture was supposed to have happened yesterday according to Harold Camping, the president of the Oakland, California based Christian radio network Family Radio. The rapture refers to the end of the world or the end times, a belief espoused by many fundamentalist Christian groups, during which Jesus will return to the earth and true believers will be taken up to heaven while the rest of us endure great tribulations until the world ends. The details with regard to things like timing, ascension of bodies and nature and length of the tribulation differ according to different groups, but that is the general gist.

It did occur to me this week that if I was wrong and the world really did end yesterday, there would be no need to actually write this sermon, but I thought the chances were good that we would still be around whatever happened. Though Garrison Keillor has a wonderful skit from 2004, the last time the rapture was supposed to have happened. In his skit the rapture has indeed taken place and Garrison Keillor is calling up various people like President George Bush and Billy Graham and even the Pope and they are all still around and answering their telephones. But when he calls the UUA, he just gets a recorded message:

“Thank you for calling the Unitarian Universalist Church in America. Nobody is here to take your call so please leave a message and we will return your call as soon as possible. If you’re signing up for the committee on housing and urban ministry, press” — then there is the sound of a distant trumpet over the phone and the same woman’s voice saying, “Oh my gosh. All my clothes just fell off and I’m going up into the air” — followed by the sound of a dial tone.

Garrison Keillor says: The Unitarians. Gone? Let me turn on the radio —- and this news report comes over the air: “Meanwhile, in Boston, hundreds of men and women who were protesting the war in Iraq suddenly disappeared, according to eyewitnesses, leaving their clothing lying in the street, all of which was made from natural materials by native people and had political slogans written on it.” … [from the radio show “Prairie Home Companion,” Saturday, May 1, 2004]

But in reality the Unitarian Universalists are still here, and so is the rest of the world in so far as I know, presumably along with a fairly disappointed Harold Camping, who was expecting to have found himself among the worthy in heaven this morning. The news reports of the supposedly impending rapture and what believers were doing to get ready for it, including paying significant sums of money to non-believers for post rapture pet care, contrasted rather sharply to my ears with another story I heard on NPR this week about Father Gregory Boyle and his work with former gang members in Los Angeles through Homeboy Industries.

Father Boyle said that he had been trying to write his book, Tattoos on the Heart, for a decade, that he wanted to write down and share the stories he carries tattooed on his heart, stories of the young women and men he has worked with and loved and whose lives he has seen healed and transformed over the past quarter century. But it wasn’t until his own diagnosis of leukemia, which is now in remission, that he took the time out from his work to write the book, and he says he did so in an effort to “broaden the parameters of our kinship.” He tells the stories of lives transformed and sometimes lives ended much too soon in order to put a human face on gang members for the rest of us, but also so that we might recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women whose stories he tells, As Father Greg puts it, “our common human hospitality longs to find room for those who are left out.” Our common human longing is for compassion, both to offer it and to receive it and thus to know ourselves as worthy, as beloved, as acceptable. This is as true for us sitting here this morning as for the former gang members or homies whose stories Father Greg tells. [introduction, Tattoos of the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle, Free Press, 2010]

The slogan of Homeboy Industries is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” but as Father Greg puts it, perhaps the slogan should be “You just can’t disappoint us enough!” In other words, you can keep coming back. We will not give up on you. We will never stop seeing you as worthy of love. Boyle writes, “There was a homegirl straight out of prison with award-winning and alarming tattoos all over her face. She began work at the silkscreen. First day, a fight. Second day, she came utterly illuminated on marijuana. Third day, she arrived at work in a car filled with her homies (this is against our rules.) Oh, and the car was stolen (this is against, well everybody’s rules.) I suppose we could have fired her. And yet we decided with all the no matter whatness we could muster, that she would give up on us long before we would ever give up on her. And give up she did. She just stopped showing up. We’ll be ready for her when she comes back. You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”

In trying to describe the work of his ministry and that of Homeboy Industries, to offer boundless compassion to young men and women who have such great need of it, Father Greg quotes the Irish poet Galway Kinnell, who writes about it sometimes being necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness. Kinnell writes:

The bud stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing

Homeboy Industries began as an outreach program of Delores Mission Church, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, between two large public housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Delores Mission Church is the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese and when Father Greg arrived there as a priest, the area had the highest concentration of gang activity in the world. One of the first outreach projects Father Greg got organized was an alternative school to educate the many middle school aged students who had been expelled due to drug dealing and violence and were simply hanging around the housing projects all day. Soon the church became a haven for gang members and things just grew from there, starting with the purchase of an old bakery which was for sale across the street from the church in 1992 and which became Homeboy Bakery, the first business of Homeboy Industries.

Father Greg writes,

Our first office was on the church property, but our second was a storefront from 1994-2000. It was here that gang members from all the forty plus gangs began to arrive, looking for a way out of the gang life. Perhaps gang members had always longed for this but for the absence of a place to go, the desire had festered. Soon we added staff and job developers to locate employment in the private sector. We began tattoo removal because of a guy named Ramiro. A gang member fresh out of prison with a long record, had F*** THE WORLD tattooed on his forehead, completely filling the space there. He told me his job search was not going too great. I’m only imagining him at McDonald’s, Do you want fries with that? And seeing mothers grab their kids, fleeing the store. So I hired him at the bakery and little by little we erased his forehead. We have since added many laser machines and doctors who perform more than four thousand treatments a year and we owe it all to Ramiro who moved on to a job as a security guard at a movie studio… By 2007 we had so burst our seams that we built our current headquarters… near Chinatown in downtown LA. Our most successful business is Homeboy Silkscreen and we operate four others: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandising, Homeboy Maintenance and Homegirl Cafe, where women with records, young ladies from rival gangs, waitresses with attitude will gladly take your order.

The stories Father Greg tells are heartbreaking, hilarious, and beautiful; they are stories about young men and women who have been neglected and abused discovering that they are in fact worthy, and stories about how knowing that they are worthy brings these young women and men to life, often for the first time. Here is just one story from the many Father Greg shares in the book:

One day I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It’s from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me. “Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?”

I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.

He’s calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar’s troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn’t anyone around to “chase his ass” and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order—“It’s good to be out—I’d love to see ya”—then Cesar says, “Let me just cut to the cheese.” This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.

“You know, I just got outta the pinta and don’t really have a place to stay. Right now, I’m staying with a friend in his apartment—here in El Monte — away from the projects and the hood and the homies. Y sabes que, I don’t got no clothes. My lady she left me, and she burned all my clothes, you know, in some anger toward me, I guess.”

I’m waiting for him to cut to the cheese.

“So I don’t got no clothes,” he says. “Can you help me?”

“Sure, son,” I say, “Look, it’s three now. I’ll pick you up after work, at six o’clock.”

I drive to the apartment at the appointed hour, and I’m surprised to see Cesar standing on the sidewalk waiting for me — I’m used to searching for homies when asked to retrieve them. I guess you might say that Cesar is a scary-looking guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s large and especially, fresh out of prison, newly “swole” from lifting weights. He exudes menace. So there he is, standing and waiting for me. When he sees it’s me, this huge ex-con does this bouncing up and down, yippy-skippy, happy-to-see-ya, hand-clapping gleeful jig.

He flies into my car and throws his arms around me. “When I saw you right now, G, I got aaaallllll happy!”

There was some essence to him that hadn’t changed from that child wanting to know that the world was safe from earthquakes.

We go to JCPenney, and I tell him he can buy two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes. In no time, his arms are filled with the essentials, and we both are standing in a considerable line to pay for it all. All the other customers are staring at Cesar. Not only is he menacing, but he seems to have lost his volume knob. People can’t help but turn and look, though they all take great pains to pretend they’re not listening.

“Hey,” he says, in what you might call a loud-ass voice, “see dat couple over there?” I am not the only one turning and looking. The entire checkout line shifts. Cesar points to a young couple with a tiny son.

“Well, I walk up to that guy and I look at him and I say, ‘Hey, don’t I know you?’ And his ruca grabs the morrito and holds him and shakes her head and says, ‘NO, WE DON’T KNOW YOU!’ all panickeada asI. Then the vato looks at me like he’s gonna have a damn paro cardiaco, and he shakes his head, ‘NO, I DON’T KNOW YOU.’ Then I look at him more closer, and I say, ‘Oh, my bad, I thought you were somebody else.’ And they get aaaaallllll relaxed when I say that.” He takes a breath. “I mean, damn, G … do I look that scary?”

I shake my head no and say, “Yeah, pretty much, dog.”

The customers can’t help themselves, and we all laugh.

I drop Cesar off at his friend’s apartment. He becomes quiet and vulnerable, as frightened as a child displaced by shifting ground.

“I just don’t want to go back. La neta, I’m scared.”

“Look, son,” I say to him, “Who’s got a better heart than you? And God is at the center of that great, big ol’ heart. Hang on to that, dog—cuz you have what the world wants. So, what can go wrong?”

We say our good-byes, and as I watch him walk away alone, I find his gentleness and disarming sweet soul a kind of elixir, soothing my own doubts and calling me to fearlessness. At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rings. It’s Cesar. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”

I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping that you’d call.

Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.

“I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.”

Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I … been … your son?”

“Oh, hell, yeah,” I say.

“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”

Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then … I will be … your son. And you … will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”

“That’s right.”

In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved.

Father Greg believes that compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing those others toward yourself. He writes, “If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased.” Pema Chodron, an ordained Buddhist nun, writes of compassion and suggests that its truest measure lies not in our service to those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship, in relationship, with them.

As is so often the case, we begin simply, with where we are. What would it mean to respond with compassion to ourselves, to our feelings of being overwhelmed or overworked or distracted by the compelling problems of our own lives? Compassion, I believe, is not something we add on to our lives; it is not a project we undertake. Compassion is an orientation. Compassion is a way of moving through the world; it is a practice, because compassion does indeed take practice. And the practice of compassion can lead to some extraordinary things, if we take it seriously. Yet, we can begin very small, with ourselves, with the ones at our breakfast table, with one moment and one action at a time. What would it mean to respond with compassion in this moment? And in the moment after that? What would it mean to respond with compassion to those we love the most, expanding outward in an ever widening circle, until we saw ourselves, knew ourselves, all of us, as whole, worthy, loveable.

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to re-teach a thing its loveliness.

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

Created 2011-09-04