Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, May 13, 2018
Can you remember a time when something happened that changed your perception of things? When your eyes were opened, and you saw with a deeper understanding or more nuance or greater clarity? Maybe it was one Sunday here, when you realized, “Hey, church can be uplifting and even fun!” Maybe it was in a relationship, with someone who’s always bugged you, but something shifted that helped you to see them as worthy of your care and respect. Maybe it was something that caused you to see the world in a whole different way, that caused you to start redrawing your map.
One night a couple of weeks ago, I was driving home from church. It takes thirty minutes, and my car knows the way. I often drive in silence, grateful for the quiet. But halfway home I decided to turn on the radio. And I caught the last few minutes of a conversation with Rev. angel Kyodo williams that included these words, which you just just heard in the reading:
“I think that if we can move our work, whatever work we’re up to, whatever kind of desire that we have for our own development in life, to be willing to face discomfort and receive it as opportunity for growth and expansion and a commentary about what is now more available to us, rather than what it is that is limiting us and taking something away from us, that we will — in no time at all, we will be a society that enhances the lives of all our species.”
I was already down with doing our own work, and facing discomfort as a path to growth—this is what it means to be a person of faith, right? But what grabbed me was what Rev. angel Kyodo williams said so clearly, that if we do this work, “in no time at all, we will be a society that enhances the lives of all our species.” I have long understood that this is our work. And I know you have too, because of the varied ways you are being such loving and prophetic witnesses, inside these walls, and especially, outside, them, for love and justice. But I have never thought that our work was going to come to fruition in our lifetime!
You see, I have long held to the idea that this work, what in traditional Christian language is called the coming of the kingdom of God, the time prophets call for, “when justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like a might stream,” I’ve long held that this work is so big that it’s not going to get done any time soon. The arc of the moral universe is long! Our hymnal has a section called “In Time to Come,” with songs about this promise. I’ve just always thought that time was somewhere way down the road! And I was okay with that.
And here comes this voice saying, “In no time at all,” saying that we are getting close to a tipping point in our world, when there’s a growing number of people who are different than what humans have mostly been, which is rooted in one place, in one way of living and understanding, what we call tribal. That there’s a growing number of us who are looking at things in a more fluid, more expansive way; we see diversity as a blessing, not a curse, we are ok with things changing and evolving. We understand that something has to die, in order for there to be resurrection and renewal. But in no time at all? For me, this changes everything!
Last Sunday I was at All Souls in New London, CT, the congregation that we were matched up with back in 2013, in a program called Leap of Faith; they were our mentors and guides. I thanked them, and said, “I wonder if you all here have any idea of how you have blessed us, your sister church in Haverhill, the folks two hours north of here that most of you will never meet. Your leap of faith team—Lynn, Clare, Bob, Rev.’s Caitlin and Carolyn—they loved us into a new way of being. They showed up for us wholeheartedly, and I was so moved by this. People we’d never met who said, “We are here for you. To listen, to encourage, to companion you on the way.”
I told them, “If I know one thing about ministry, it is this—the importance of presence, of showing up. The poet Julia Kasdorf writes: ‘… whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came.’ You folks showed up for us, you welcomed us with open arms, and the connections we made endure.”
What is striking about that New London congregation is how adventurous they have been. They moved out of a beautiful and historic, but small and restrictive, church building, and into what had been a car dealership, because they felt this call to a new way of being church. They understand that vitality comes from trying new things, from experimenting and taking risks. They helped us to put to rest some things from our past, so we might boldly embrace our future too. Last Sunday, when I saw one of the members of their team, the first thing she asked me was, “Have you done anything about renovating that Religious Education space yet?,” and I said, “We’re talking about it!”
We’ve done some good work here, are doing some new things, and there is a sense of vitality and energy here, and I hope we will seize the day and set some bold and even audacious goals for ourselves. That we will embrace the way of change and growth. And isn’t this what our nation, and our world, need right now? People who know something about how to do this soul work, who aren’t afraid to change, to try new things and to even let some things die away? These days, don’t we need this hope—that change is coming, that peace is possible?
We’re living in troubled and fractious times. But lately I’ve started feeling differently about the problems facing us, from racism to sexism to violence to poverty to the drug epidemic to climate change to mistrust around all kinds difference. Did I miss anything? Everywhere you turn, things seem broken. But I’ve come to believe that the troubles of this present day are but the birth pangs of a new era of liberation. Right now it feels like a bandage or a scab has been torn off, and we can’t pretend any longer that things are just fine. We’re being forced to look at how broken we are—we aren’t post racial, we still live in a culture rooted in white supremacy; capitalism isn’t gong to save us, there will never come a rising tide that will lift all boats—so we have to look squarely at what is, at what we might tend to look away from, and this can be hard and painful, but it is the start of growth and transformation and liberation.
Our theme for this month is “transcendence,” and sometimes people see transcendences as blissfully floating above this troubled world, as a kind of escape. But real and deep transcendence comes, not from turning away, but from facing what you fear. Not trying to run away from trouble, but leaning into it, and passing courageously through it, as Durkheim said, making of your struggle “a raft that leads to the far shore.” The Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzburg tells us to
“Sit like a mountain… No matter how many winds are blowing, no matter how many clouds are swirling, no matter how many lions are prowling, be intimate with everything and sit like a mountain.”
Isn’t this the invitation and the need of these days? To find an inner peace, in the midst of struggle, so you can live with a more open heart, so you can help to heal and bless our world? I know if I touch that place of depth in my morning prayer and meditation, I may be more forgiving of the person who cuts me off in traffic, and more available to someone who needs me. And I have to trust that these tiny acts, joined with your acts of faith and hope and love, all these little ripples of hope, are making a difference in our world.
I commend to you that conversation with Rev. angel Kyodo williams, that I heard on the radio. It’s from the show called “On Being,” you can find it online (here). Rev. williams says we are not going to have a better world until we “reclaim and repair the human spirit.” Like you are doing here. She says this involves undoing some of the things that no longer serve us; the old ways that are keeping us from being free. We have to go though the struggle, the denial, the letting go. And that can feel like death. But we know how to do this, right?
She says, “There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. The willingness to be in denial is dying in a meaningful number of us… and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift.”
Do you know the poem, “Keeping Quiet,” by Pablo Neruda?
If we we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness,
of never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
My friends in faith, let us be mindful of what a gift it is, that we have one another, and we have this invitation to be open to the Spirit that is moving in our midst. We have this good and hard work that lies before us, and we have this hope and this promise: that if we join hands and face what is broken and do our own part, then our world, our beautiful and broken world, will be redeemed, in no time at all.