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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
September 15, 2019

Reading: Say Yes by Andrea Gibson (slightly adopted)

When two violins are placed in a room
if a chord on one violin is struck,
the other violin will sound the note
If this is your definition of hope
This is for you —
The ones who know how powerful we are
Who know we can sound the music in the people around us
simply by playing our own strings

For the ones who sing life into broken wings
open their chests and offer their breath
as wind on a still day
when nothing seems to be moving,
spare those intent on proving god is dead

For you when your fingers are red
from clutching your heart so it will beat faster
For the time you mastered the art of giving yourself
for the sake of someone else
For the ones who have felt what it is to crush the lies
and lift truth so high the steeples bow to the sky.
This is for you.

This is also for the people who wake early to watch flowers bloom
Who notice the moon at noon on a day when the world
has slapped them in the face with its lack of light
For the mothers who feed their children first…

This is for women
And for the men who taught me
that only women bleed with the moon
but there are men who cry when women bleed,
men who bleed from women’s wounds
and this is for that moon on the nights she seems hung by a noose
For the people who cut her loose
and for the people still waiting for the rope to burn
about to learn they have scissors in their hands…

This is for the people who rattle the cage that slave wage built
and for the ones who didn’t know the filth until tonight
But right now are beginning songs that sound something like
people turning their porch lights on
and calling the homeless back home

This is for all the (stuff) we own
and for the day we’ll learn how much we have
when we learn to give that (stuff) away
This is for doubt becoming faith
For falling from grace and climbing back up
For trading our silver platters for something that matters
like the gold that shines from our hands when we hold each other

This is for the grandmother
who walked a thousand miles on broken glass
to find that single patch of grass to plant a family tree
where the fruit would grow to laugh
For the ones who know the math of war
has always been subtraction so they live like an action of addition
For you, when you give like every star is wishing on you
and for the people still wishing on stars
this is for you too

This is for the times you went through hell
so someone else wouldn’t have to
For the time you taught a 14 year old girl she was powerful
This is for the time you taught a 14 year old boy he was beautiful
For the radical anarchist asking a republican to dance…
This is for the no becoming yes
For scars becoming breath

(This is for) saying I love you
to people who will never say it to us
For scraping away the rust and remembering how to shine
For the dime you gave away when you didn’t have a penny
For the many beautiful things we do
For every song we’ve ever sung
For refusing to believe in miracles
because miracles are the impossible coming true
and everything is possible

This is for the possibility that guides us
and for the possibilities still waiting to sing
and spread their wings inside us
‘Cause tonight saturn is on his knees
proposing with all of his ten thousand rings
that whatever song we’ve been singing, we sing even more
The world needs us right now more than it ever has before

Pull all your strings
Play every chord
If you’re writing letters to the prisoners, start tearing down the bars
If you’re handing our flashlights in the dark, start handing out stars
Never go a second hushing the percussion of your heart
Play loud
Play like you know the clouds have left too many people cold and broken
and you’re their last chance for sun.

Play like there’s no time for hoping brighter days will come
Play like the apocalypse is only 4…3…2..
but you have a drum in your chest that could save us
You have a song - like a breath that could raise us
like the sunrise into a dark sky that cries to be blue
Play like you know we won’t survive if you don’t
but we will if you do
Play like saturn is on his knees
proposing with all of his ten thousand rings
that we give every single breath

This is for saying yes
This is for saying yes

The No Becoming Yes

Many of you know about our new year’s tradition here of choosing a word for the year. Every January, each member of the congregation is encouraged to choose a word for themselves for the year ahead – a word that we want to bring more of into our lives, a word that we want to pay attention to and watch for and invite in. Then we try to notice that word all year or practice it or learn about it or encourage it and see what happens. One year, Ed McNierney chose the word YES. He decided to say yes to pretty much everything that year. I asked him about it, especially because I knew that the very next year he chose the word NO. So I figured his year of Yes didn’t go that well. But it wasn’t that simple. Here is what Ed told me about his year of Yes. He wrote:

The year of Yes was about both acceptance and assent. Yes in recognizing that some things in myself and my life were not going to change, or were not actually worth changing, and I should try to put aside the effort and accept things as they are. And Yes in deciding — despite having a reputation for saying Yes to too many things (already) — to take the opportunity to say Yes even to those things that I could normally have said No to without offending anyone. That was the year …that you asked me if I were willing to try being a Worship Leader. You said, “I don’t know if this is your cup of tea or not, but would you…” and I replied, “It is most certainly not my cup of tea but I will do it”. It was saying Yes to something a little outside my comfort zone (and being Worship Leader still lives outside that zone).

Though I would add that Ed is a wonderful worship leader so comfort and skill aren’t necessarily related. Ed continues:

There’s a bit of both kinds of Yes in the last chapter of (James Joyce’s) Ulysses, which both begins and ends with Yes, with the words “yes she said yes I will yes.” The speaker Molly Bloom is both recognizing that her life is what it is, with all its defects, and that she is indeed willing to accept Leopold as her husband and agree to his request and to everything else without judgment or criticism. The fact that his (actual) request was for breakfast in bed 70 pages earlier doesn’t really matter.

Ed confirmed that the next year his word was indeed No because, as he put it, in his year of yes he had experienced how easy it is to spread ourselves too thin and fail to focus on or give things the attention they deserve because we’ve just got too much on our minds. So he wanted to try something different, the other side, to practice the zen teaching “when doing the dishes, just do the dishes.” But Ed also realized that his year of yes and the year of no were interconnected. He says: Saying No was a way to focus on when I really did want to say Yes. As a friend of mine once said to a high-pressure car salesman, “you’re not making me free to say No, so I’m not free to say Yes (either). Ed concluded: The year after that I decided that all these distinctions and dichotomies were a bad idea, and I chose Mu as my word (I had to look it up – Mu is the 12thletter of the Greek alphabet and the symbol for water. I suspect that is a story for another sermon or you can ask Ed about that himself. ) He added he was sorry not to be here this morning but his daughter Meghan is starting a new job at Spaulding Rehab Hospital on the Cape and she needed help moving out of her apartment in VT. She asked Ed to come up with the truck today. He said yes.

Ed isn’t the only one who tried saying yes for a year. He was in good company; his year of yes may have been the same year that Shonda Rhimes decided to do the exact same thing. Shonda Rhimes is the incredibly successful and prolific television producer and author best known for creating Gray’s Anatomy, among many other hugely popular shows. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 People Who Help Shape the World; she was on the cover of Ms. Magazine and has had almost countless nominations and prizes for her work. And she accomplished of all this as a single African American mother of three young daughters, which, as we know, does not make things easier in this country.

In 2015, Shonda Rhimes published her first book, which is a memoir and also a reflection on what she learned during her year of saying yes. She has a Ted Talk about her year of yes too, which is really lovely to watch. She is an excellent speaker though apparently public speaking was one of the things she feared and had to learn to say yes to.

Her year of yes was surprising and extremely important, she calls it both career saving and life saving. In her Ted Talk she says, “The very act of doing things I feared, like public speaking, and being on television instead of making television, made them not scary, and that changed my life.” But that wasn’t the big change. She describes how before her year of yes, despite her life long passion for her work and her incredible rise to success, she had lost her joy. The more television she produced, the more television there was to produce and she soon had hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars on the line all the time, and the more barriers she broke, the higher the expectations and demands. And somewhere along the way, she lost her spark, her creativity, her capacity to write and her deep sense of joy in her work, which she described as a kind of inner hum, an inner music. And that inner music disappeared and left her in silence, asking herself, “Who am I, what am I when the song of my heart has ceased to play and can I survive without that song?”

She decided to just say yes for a year, which felt utterly paradoxical given how stretched she already was, and just see what happened. Her toddler was 3 years old at the time and in a phase where she called every single person honey, like a southern waitress, as Shonda Rhimes put it. Shonda Rhimes was rushing out the door one day when her daughter said “Mama do you want to play? She stopped because she remembered she had promised to say yes but also because she realized her daughter had not called her honey and she couldn’t remember when the southern waitress had disappeared from her toddler’s life and she had missed it. So she played. For a year, whenever her daughters asked, whatever they wanted to play, she said yes.

She had to learn how to play all over again, itching all the time to take her cell phone out of her pocket but she didn’t. Instead she colored and ran around the yard and blew bubbles and got sticky and dirty and slowly something loosened in her. That loosening somehow made a little room for creativity to slip back in and slowly, her inner song returned. She realized that saying yes to playing had been another way of saying yes to joy. And joy is what had made the difference.

I think about the yesses I have said in my own life – the big yesses, the ones that have shaped my life, the ones that have made me myself.

I said Yes to leaving the small town I grew up in and going to school in New York City which felt somewhat terrifying and was terrifying for the first six months and then amazing.

I said Yes to a committed relationship when I was probably too young but that yes lasted 24 years of companionship and growing up together and becoming parents.

I said Yes to having a baby who turned out to be two babies

I said Yes to leaving the marriage of my young adulthood which was painful and deeply sad and then I said Yes to choosing to trust and take those vows a second time.

One of the most important yesses I have said was to what I recognized even at age 17 was a call to be a minister.

Like you, I have tried to say yes over and over to compassion and to acting with kindness even when I didn’t feel it. Yes to forgiveness when I didn’t want to forgive but knew I was capable of it, yes to the sometimes daily challenge of choosing to be on the side of love, to plant ourselves at the gates of hope, even though we don’t always have faith that things are going to turn out well And like Shonda Rhimes I have learned that these big yesses, if they are the right ones for me, bring me joy – not easy joy and not all the time or right away – but joy.

What are the important yesses of your life? What are you saying yes to now? Are you saying yes to Joy? How have you learned to do that? And if you aren’t maybe it is time. It seems paradoxical when there is so much suffering in the world, in our country, for some of us, in our own lives, to talk about saying yes to joy. But it isn’t. Because if we can’t live with joy, we cannot call it forth in others or help create it in the world. Krista Tippett who is host of the national public radio program “On Being,”thinks and writes a lot about this paradox — how we need to pay attention to all that is in need of healing and the painful realities of the world as it is right now, while we also keep our hearts and our imaginations and our energy focused on what we want to build, what we’re moving towards, which is among other things, greater joy for all.

Tippett writes,

However justifiable our despair and confusion might be on any given day, it is so, so critical that we keep orienting ourselves towards the long view… we have to, at the same time that we act and speak and think critically about what’s happening in the moment, we have to embody and walk with and towards how we want to live in contrast to that, how we want to live beyond this (moment). We cannot call forth in the world something that we don’t embody. …I’ve been in rooms full of very well-meaning, good people, who are doing good work in the world for whom, I think, the idea that you should have joy, any joy, in a moment like this, would be a betrayal of what is right and just and good; would perhaps be a denial or even a diminishment of people who are in pain right now.

There’s a sensibility behind that stance that says that joy is a privilege. And I don’t think joy is a privilege. …(I think) joy is a piece of basic human resilience. It’s a human birthright. And in fact, one of the paradoxical and amazing things about our species is how people are able to get through the worst, with their joy intact. So I think, if we want to call the world not just to justice but to joy and to flourishing, we have to find those ways and those places where (joy) is stirring and keep joy alive.

Rayla Matson is a Director of Religious Education in a UU congregation in CT and the single mom of three children. In an essay called I Ride Bus she tells this little story about how she is learning to say yes to the joy that she has, even though it is not the joy she wanted. She writes:

My three-year-old is almost completely nonverbal. Every day when she gets off the bus, I ask her the same question: I ask her how her day was, and every day I get the same answer: ”Momma, I ride bus.”

I ask her what she had for lunch and who she played with. I ask her if she went outside or made a new friend. No matter what I ask her, her answer is always the same: ”Momma, I ride bus.”

I’ll admit when she was first diagnosed with Autism, I cried a lot. And when she worked for months with Birth to Three — a program for infants and toddlers with disabilities — with not much improvement, I cried some more. When school started and I realized just how far behind the other kids she really was, there were more tears. I don’t know whether I cried for her or if I cried for myself.

I get angry when people mistreat my daughter, or ask me what’s wrong with her. …I struggle when I don’t know how her day was or if she has made new friends or if anyone plays with her at all.

But all I really want is for my kids to be happy and healthy. Her health is great. And each day when she gets off the bus, she says with as much joy as she did the very first day and with as much enthusiasm as she can muster: “Momma, I ride bus!” And for me, shouldn’t her joy be enough?

This is for the no becoming yes…
For scraping away the rust and remembering how to shine
For the dime you gave away when you didn’t have a penny
For the many beautiful things we do
For every song we’ve ever sung
This is for the possibility that guides us
and for the possibilities still waiting to sing
and spread their wings inside us
The world needs us right now more than it ever has before.

So let’s say yes, yes to joy, say yes.


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

Created 2019-09-17