Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, June 24, 2018
We began our service this morning singing about “The Sweet June Days,” and these days I’m finding myself particularly struck by beauty of this season—stopped in my tracks by the sight of a flower or the song of a bird or the warm light of summer. Perhaps it’s because I’m also struck, these days, by a heightened awareness of all the pain and suffering in our world. The other night, my heart was heavy with the stories of those children and parents arrested and separated at our southern border. I sat alone for a while and tried to just hold that pain and that sadness, and not turn away from that suffering.
Mindful of those families who fled violence and poverty in their homelands, I thought of the people suffering in those countries. Which caused me to remember there are people who are poor, marginalized, at risk, all around our world. Sometimes because of natural disasters, but too often, because of human-made disasters: war, injustice, poverty, discrimination.
Trying to sit with this suffering, from the place of my comfortable life, I remembered the words from Paul that are at the top of today’s order of service: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). There are times, times of beauty and times of pain, when we don’t know what to say, when words fail us, when words are simply inadequate to the situation at hand.
Are there words to describe the photograph of that little girl crying as her mother is arrested at the border? Are there words to describe the audio recording of those children in detention crying out for their parents? Are there words to describe what we the people of this country, we the fractured and divided states of America, are experiencing in these days?
When I don’t know what to say, or how to pray, I have felt that Presence, the Spirit that intercedes with sighs too deep for words. When I am struck dumb by pain or by beauty; if I am present to that moment, and don’t run away from it, then I do sense a something moving in my midst. Something deeper than words or thoughts or feelings. Sighs too deep for words.
Hasn’t this been the experience of people down through the ages? The mystic sense that we are not alone, that we are companioned, especially in times of trouble. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow, I’ll will not fear, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Sometimes I despair for our country; we seem to have forgotten the ideals and values that formed us: that we are here care for one another, and welcome the stranger and newcomer, and work for the common good. We have often fallen short of those ideals, but at least we said were trying to reach them. Trying to make, as one of our former presidents said, “a kinder, gentler America.” You heard this ethos of caring for others in our reading from Matthew; the idea that we will be judged, and our communities and our nation will be judged, not by how we treat those at the top, those with wealth or power, but rather, how we act toward those at the bottom
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-36,40).
Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We are meant to be one human family, but we forget this. Our difference and diversity should be a gift and a blessing, but too often we fear what is unfamiliar and mistrust those who are different. But when we get underneath the surface, when we open ourselves to that Spirit which intercedes with sighs too deep for words, then we remember who we are, and that we do belong to one another; that we are siblings and kin, that we are beloved on this earth. Not just some of us; all of us.
A couple of days ago, one of my colleagues in ministry wrote, “It's a good time to get louder, not quieter.” And she’s right. If there was a time to lift our voices, and write letters, and send our money, and show up with our bodies, this is it.
And at the same time, it’s important to be grounded in the depths that will nourish and sustain us. So we’re focused and centered, not anxiously running all over the place; so our actions will make things better, not worse.
I saw several of you doing this this week. Organizing our support for that person who’s just gone into Sanctuary in Lowell. And others, posting on social media, about the trouble these days, you spoke from your own perspective, and when challenged, you didn’t lose your cool, but kept on asserting the values that undergird your faith and your commitments. That’s what true strength is—and it doesn’t require yelling, or meanness, or untruth. It requires a deep spiritual grounding that comes from doing your own work—spending time meditating or praying or whatever it is you do to center and ground yourself, and being intentional about begin in community together. Finding a balance between listening and speaking, between action and contemplation, discerning what is your work to do, and what your limits and vulnerabilities are.
When I was in seminary we spent a lot of time on anti-racism and anti-oppression work. But for years, and I don’t like to admit this because it’s a sign of my own privilege, this work seemed like a side project, an extra part of my ministry, rather than central, everyday work.
But isn’t it obvious these days that unresolved issues of race and other kinds of difference are central to the troubles our nation is facing? A significant portion of Americans are freaking out because our country is becoming more racially and culturally diverse, and they are threatened by that. The rhetoric has reached dangerous levels, when our President says immigrants and asylum seekers should be feared, that they are “murderers and thieves,” who are “infesting” our nation. Among people who are already inclined to fear folks who are different from them, these false accusations are dangerous.
Anti-racism work taught me the value of sitting with discomfort, of learning about my own biases and blind spots, that my liberation is tied up with your liberation, that our diversity can and should be a blessing and not than a curse, that we are meant to be one human family, that we all have work to do.
The dean of that seminary, when I was there, was Steven Charleston, a Native American elder, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, and a bishop in the Episcopal Church. I took a class he taught called “Spiritual Leadership,” and he is one of the most grounded spiritual leaders I know. These days Steven writes books and shares a daily spiritual reflection on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston), that thousands of people follow. Hear again what he wrote just the other day:
It is going to be alright.
Even if it seems hard right now.
Even if it seems impossible.
It is going to be alright.
The whole story has not yet been told.
The healing is still happening
in ways we may not see.
The slow progress of justice is moving
even if beneath the surface of oppression.
It is going to be alright.
In your life. In the life of millions more.
In your well-being and in the being of the whole world.
The deep current of mercy will never stop flowing.
The wide arms of compassion will never cease reaching out.
Do not fear or worry. Stand strong.
Trust the power of love.
It is going to be alright.
This is not a head-in-the-clouds kind of sunny optimism. No, it is the deep faith of one who has listened long and hard before speaking, who knows how to put himself in the presence of the Holy, who has walked the walk of peace and justice.
My spiritual companions, this is what is needed these days, this is what it means to be a person of faith: to trust that there is a a deep current of mercy moving in our midst that will never stop flowing. That we are companions and kin, making our way by the lights of the heavens, making our way home, trusting that we will get there—together.