A Life Gentled by Daily Acts

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, December 9, 2018

The words we just sang are from a poem by John Holmes called “The People’s Peace”:

The peace not past our understanding falls
like light upon the soft white tablecloth
at winter supper warm between four walls,
a thing too simple to be tried as truth.

Not scholar’s calm, nor gift of church or state,
nor everlasting date of death’s release;
but careless noon, the houses lighted late,
harvest and holiday: the people’s peace.

Days into years, the doorways worn at sill,
years into lives, the plans for long increase
come true at last for those of God’s good will:
these are the things we mean by saying, Peace.

How often have you heard someone say, “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday”? It seems so simple and uncomplicated. These days I find myself longing for the kind of peace we just sang about: time to sit around a table with those I love, with nowhere to go; some quiet moments to reflect on how the days flow into years, some peaceful moments all by myself. I need these things, and I wonder if you do too.

And still, I love Christmas, and Advent, these celebrations of waiting and watching, of light shining in the darkness and God with us, and I am not willing to get cynical or resigned about this season; I want to be open to it and be filled with the peace it promises. And don’t you too?

So today I’m thinking about the simple kind of peace that we find when we come down to earth, the kind of peace we can find close to home, in quiet moments and in well-worn patterns that are so familiar we might miss them if we don’t stop and notice.

Several of us were gathered in my office the Wednesday after Thanksgiving for what I called “Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice.” Lynn LaFerla was there, and I am so grateful that she was, that we had that time together. I talked a bit about my practice of sitting in silence each morning when I wake, and one of you talked about your practice of making coffee and siting alone with that first cup, and how this simple act helps shape your day for the better. 

Think about your daily routine. Are there things you do, that are so simple and commonplace, that could be easy to miss in the hustle and bustle of daily life? But these daily acts, if done with care and attention, are so beautiful and important that a poet could write in praise of them: things like making breakfast for your children, or carefully smoothing the bedspread; sweeping the steps or folding laundry, baking bread or raking leaves or shoveling snow. Even your drive to work, if done with care and intention, can be like a prayer. Not always, I know, but it’s possible. The way peace is possible. Though it often eludes us, the invitation is to try to bring more peace into our lives and into our world.

Now think about people who live with less potential for peace than many of us; people who struggle to have enough food or heat or to pay the rent; people who live with the threat of violence. On this day which brings the last night of Hanukkah, think about those Maccabee fighters in the Hanukkah story, who, agains all odds, fought for and reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem which had been captured and desecrated by Syrian invaders. It is this moment that Lynn Ungar writes about, as she imagines the courage it takes to create peace when so much has been destroyed.

Come down from the hills (she writes)
Declare the fighting done…

Try to remember
a life gentled by daily acts
of domestic faith -- the pot
set to boil, the bed made up,
the table set in calm expectation
that when the sun sets
we will still be here.

This is what I want to commend to you today, this idea and image of a life gentled by daily acts of domestic faith. Who among us couldn’t use more of that?

Over the past week, our nation said farewell to President George H.W. Bush, and those rituals of gathering and mourning have been good for us. President Bush was the one who great as ever. President Bush called for a greater commitment to public service, what he called “a thousand points of light—all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation doing good.” 

You don’t often see news reports about churches feeing the hungry, or 12-step programs helping people get their lives back together, or organizations like Emmaus housing the homeless. Nor do the TV cameras show up when you give blood, or help a neighbor, or visit someone in a hospital or nursing home. But when you do these things, you are helping make ours a kinder and gentler land. I hope you have this faith, that your small acts of kindness and care are making a difference. And I hope they are bringing you a sense of peace too. So let us praise the life that is gentled by daily acts of domestic faith; the life that is centered around care and service.

Jan Richardson is an artist and a Methodist minister. She says, “It matters that we hold the light for one another. It matters that we bear witness to the Light that holds us all, that we testify to this Light that shines its infinite love and mercy on us across oceans, across borders, across time.” And she asks, “Who holds the light for you? In this season, who might need you to hold the light for them in acts of love and grace?”

Hear again Jan Richardson’s prayer, and please hear it as written to you, in these darkening days, when dusk comes early, in these days when some of us are mourning losses and trying to hold on to hope, when people are, as always, living with brokenness and disappointment. And still, the call is to keep your heart open and expectant for what is unfolding in our midst.

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

At this moment, our children and their adult helpers are downstairs, sewing colorful fleece hats that will be given away to help people stay warm this winter. Could it be that these small acts really are what will finally save us, and our world? That when enough of us realize that, and act on it, then the age-old call of peace on earth will at last come to pass? Isn’t that the hope of this season, and why we need it? To be reminded that peace is possible, and that we are here to do our part.

If you don’t have enough peace in your life, then I urge you to look for ways to practice daily acts of domestic faith, simple, tangible ways to express your care and devotion. Because what we practice, day in and day out, is what we become. If you want to be more grateful, make a habit of giving thanks. Before a meal, join hands with others and say some words of thanks. Light a candle and sit in silence, or take up a prayer practice. Think of the ways you help others as you taking your light out into the world. The notes you write, the food you prepare, can you see these are ways you bless others, and yourself? 

Maybe all you need is to bring more mindfulness to your day. A little more space, so you can see that that what you do, with care and intention, can be an act of faith, a prayer even. In this week when a beloved member of our congregation died, I found myself feeling so grateful for these connections we share. For all the ways you show up, and help out, and for the Spirit in our midst. 

On the morning after we learned of Lynn’s death, Clare had scheduled a gathering which she’d offered in our church auction—a morning of bread baking. That gathering became a time for those folks to remember Lynn. Clare began it with a prayer, and then they made bread, and shared their memories of Lynn, and then ate that bread, together. All of this a lovely tribute to a lovely person, now departed, and a blessing to those who gathered, a gentle act of domestic faith.

Being present to one another, feeling the joys and sorrows of human living, moving mindfully on this good earth. Being awake to the gifts of this moment, and this day: these are the things we mean by saying, Peace.