A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning
“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he said. “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
by Mary Harrington
In the full beauty of this day
We come to this place to savor life’s riches.
In the full light of day
Keenly aware of all the hard edges we face
and struggle to cope with,
May we give ourselves to this hour of consolation and peace.
In the fullness of this company
Let us join together to better endure
the rough strife of our days,
Surrounded by stories of brokenness and courage,
kindness and healing.
Come into this time and place where all of what you bring is welcome.
Where you may lay down your burdens and celebrate all the good gifts of life.
from The Tricky Part by Martin Moran
When I first stepped before an audience, a bundle of nerves wrapped in a toga, I could scarcely believe it was my own body. Right on cue a voice resounded (whose throat is that?) and the limbs attached to the trunk I called Martin instantly inhabited a character named Hero and his bumbling love for the girl next door. I felt myself rise up and lean into the presence, the touch of all those human eyes and ears. It was a lightness of being, a momentary pardon for all the secrets and sins. They were smiling out there. They weren’t seeing bad or damaged, so it seemed. They saw, I think, a kid with rouge all over his cheeks, red dots in the corners of his eyes, and a mouth open wide, belting high notes as if his life depended on it. And what I saw written across the field of faces was rapture. A collective delight. How astonishing it was to stumble upon such genuine life while at the business of pretending.
And there was something familiar about it all. Something church. The huge auditorium, though it didn’t have the flying buttresses and jutting steeples of a basilica, had the grandeur of a space built for mortal communion and prayer. Though I was dressed for a silly musical, I couldn’t help feeling a bit the altar boy in front of the congregation. Different costume, different stage, but a ritual nonetheless. In the coming years, I would come to think of theater (when it’s good) as a place of epiphany. Not the transformation of the Body of Christ, but of every body present. Humans fused by a jolt of laughter, by the thread of a story. And from this very first experience of Forum I felt, even in all the irreverence, in all the courtesans chasing Pseudolus, in all the raunchy jokes, that there was something sacred. A celebration of what’s human and what’s here. I stood there, an essentially ex-Catholic, uncovering a new faith. And when the curtain call arrived I bent my head, my body, into the praise, and felt no quarrel with living, and the voice in my head said: This is joy. Remember this. This exists.
This sermon did not turn out as I expected. Oh well. I was going to begin by noting that last week, with our Transylvanian partner minister, I spoke of our remarkable partnership with that far land and its people. But my intention was then to focus today on things close to home, this “space built for mortal communion and prayer.”
I’d even picked out this poem by Billy Collins which speaks to the virtues of things that are close to home. It’s one of my favorites and titled “Consolation”:
How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.
There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.
How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?
Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.
And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car
as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.
Indeed I did not go to Transylvania this summer and in many ways how agreeable it was to stay home!
This is a sermon about staying home but I find that it’s a continuation and not really a contrast to what was said last week.
You know, my sermon last week was not really about foreign or faraway things. It was about transformation and, you remember, I quoted Anais Nin:
“You live like this (she said), sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating….And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.”
That description of some shock treatment transformation reminds of one more description of transformation that I want to plant in your brains. In June, at General Assembly, I visited a monument in downtown Louisville. The monument commemorates the 1949 religious epiphany of the Catholic Buddhist monk Thomas Merton at – not some basilica in Italy or Transylvania or any other exotic locale – but rather at an ordinary busy intersection in Louisville, the corner of 4th and Walnut (which, just by the way, is now the corner of 4th and Muhammad Ali Blvd.).
In his book, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander, Merton says this about his experience,
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”
This sermon is about epiphanies and, indeed, Abasfalva and its people knocked me out 20 years ago and, indeed, I realized then and there that I loved those people, that they were mine and I theirs.
But don’t think that you have to travel far for such an epiphany. “I have traveled far in my own backyard,” said the sage Henry.
With many in our community, I lately have had a downtown epiphany at the corner of the Great Road and Shawsheen Avenue…where the Bedford Plaza Hotel stands. At that busy intersection now live 90 families, 200 people – all homeless and in transition.
Except that they are not homeless. Unlike some states, Massachusetts says that everyone has a right to a home; we don’t force people to live in their cars or under bridges. Like it or not, and most of those people don’t particularly like being here, Bedford is nonetheless their home now.
It’s a strange situation, far from ideal, and it exposes failures both of policy and legislation, revealing the inadequacy of housing, education and training and homelessness prevention. Unwilling to sow the necessary resources by way of taxes, we reap the inevitable consequences.
Bedford schools, for example, now educate the 3rd largest number of homeless children in our state, behind only Chicopee and Brockton. Chicopee, Brockton, and Bedford – how weird is that? It’s not so weird; it is what it is.
[42 students K-12 are enrolled in Bedford schools; Bedford shares in the transportation costs of 54 students who choose to return to their former schools.]
Over the last couple of years, many churches, including ours, and others have helped the Plaza residents in a great variety of ways: with food and clothing and backpacks and holiday parties…our bus stops there every Sunday morning and some moms, dads, and their kids come to church here and elsewhere regularly.
More recently, some other residents of this town have become distressed for a variety of reasons. There are legitimate concerns about stresses to school and town budgets. There have been rumors of criminal activity, most of which are false. And mixed in there has been a kind of xenophobia and racism…a fear of strangers of different races and classes and appearances and languages.
And some have focused on the Plaza residents when the truth is that racial, ethnic and language diversities in all of Bedford – and in a lot of other communities – are changing dramatically and quite independently from the situation at the Plaza.
It’s all quite complicated.
Most recently, just in the last couple of days, in response to citizen complaints, the town has found the Plaza to be in violation of the state building code. Hotels that accommodate guests for more than 30 days are required to have fire-suppressing sprinklers in the rooms, and the Plaza does not.
It’s not clear how all this will play out but you may be assured that the email inboxes of our Selectmen and human services folks and legislators and clergy and many concerned citizens overfloweth.
And so the Plaza “situation” if not its people has become the focus of many conversations in the last week and it’s not a simple subject, it has its tricky parts… nor is it really the subject of my sermon this morning.
Returning to Merton’s epiphany, neither will I claim to love all those people…whoever we may mean by “those people” – the Plaza residents, the complainants… (I’m not certain that I love all others of our neighbors, either, or all of you, for that matter) but I have realized that, at the busy intersection of the Great Road and Shawsheen Avenue, they are mine and I theirs; they are ours and we are theirs, and that we could not be alien to one another even though we may sometimes be total strangers.
This is a sermon about how agreeable it is to be not touring Italy this summer but rather to be here now. I realize that you are mine and I am yours and we are one.
This is a sermon about the experience Martin Moran had in the theatre: “a cross between sports and choir, church and an unending party.” You know, that’s my kind of religion.
This is a sermon about the importance of having someplace in our lives where we can be ourselves, where we need not check any part of ourselves at the door, not our brains nor our feelings, not our fears or shames or regrets or confusions…not our hopes and dreams and aspirations and joys.
When Martin stood on the theatre stage, he says, “What I saw written across the field of faces was rapture…delight.” There was a child educator who once said that the single most crucial factor that will favor a child’s development is that “somebody has to be crazy about that kid.”
This is a sermon saying that here we can affirm one another, be enraptured and delighted, and be crazy not only for our kids, but for one another, all of us.
This is a sermon about tricky parts, how nothing is simple.
This is a sermon about this being ‘a place for mortal communion and prayer.’ Communion and prayer, you wonder? Well, it’s probably another sermon altogether but columnist David Brooks recently distinguished the kind of profound life-transforming prayer that takes us deeper into our own mortal lives and the lives of other mortals and deeper into life itself, not the kind of spurious prayer that takes us to nether worlds away from genuine life.
This is a sermon in praise of Pope Francis’s assertion a few days ago (I put it at the top of the order of service) that, “This church…is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” That Francis may not be a Unitarian but, by golly, he is a universalist!
This is a sermon about sustainability – which is one of the buzz words – a very good buzz word – that you’ll hear all this year – and we’ll blather about how to sustain not just this church and our commitment to spirit and justice and community, but how to sustain a good life, and one of the answers is “to stay put.” Put down roots and let your life ripen. Which is not to say “stay stuck,” which is still another sermon, but rather to nurture some place in your life where you can stay put, be yourself, tricky parts and all.
This is a sermon about the importance of having a place to put down roots, perhaps a physical place but perhaps a spiritual place, a spirited place.
This is a sermon about epiphanies I’ve had on dirt roads in Transylvania and at the corner of the Great Road and Shawsheen Avenue.
This is a sermon about something the theologian James Luther Adams said. “Church,” he said, “is a place where we get to practice what it means to be human.”
This is a sermon about what the theologian Paul Tillich, said in his greatest sermon. He said, “You are accepted.”
This is a sermon about how agreeable it is not to be touring Italy today.
This is a sermon about this place of mortal communion and prayer. And, as did Martin Moran, may we bend our bodies into praise and feel no quarrel with living, and may the voice in our heads say, This is joy. Remember this. This exists.
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. –Thomas Merton