“Awkward Thoughts”

Written by Rev. John Gibbons & Lisa Perry-Wood

“Awkward Thoughts”
Sermons by Rev. John Gibbons & Lisa Perry-Wood
Delivered on New Member Sunday, April 15, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
On the edge of the pew
at First Parish:
A One-Buttock
place to be

Opening Words

“Thank You for Waiting”
by Simon Armitage
At this moment in time we’d like to invite
First Class passengers only to board the aircraft.
Thank you for waiting. We now extend our invitation
to Exclusive, Superior, Privilege and Excelsior members,
followed by triple, double and single Platinum members,
followed by Gold and Silver Card members,
followed by Pearl and Coral Club members.
Military personnel in uniform may also board at this time.
Thank you for waiting. We now invite
Bronze Alliance Members and passengers enrolled
in our Rare Earth Metals Points and Reward Scheme
to come forward, and thank you for waiting.
Thank you for waiting. Accredited Beautiful People
may now board, plus any gentleman carrying a copy
of this month’s Cigar Aficionado magazine, plus subscribers
to our Red Diamond, Black Opal or Blue Garnet promotion.
We also welcome Sapphire, Ruby and Emerald members
at this time, followed by Amethyst, Onyx, Obsidian, Jet,
Topaz and Quartz members. Priority Lane customers,
Fast Track customers, Chosen Elite customers,
Preferred Access customers and First Among Equals customers
may also now board.
On production of a valid receipt travellers of elegance and style
wearing designer and/or hand-tailored clothing
to a minimum value of ten thousand US dollars may now board;
passengers in possession of items of jewellery
(including wristwatches) with a retail purchase price
greater than the average annual salary
of a mid-career high school teacher are also welcome to board.
Also welcome at this time are passengers talking loudly
into cellphone headsets about recently completed share deals
property acquisitions and aggressive takeovers,
plus hedge fund managers with proven track records
in the undermining of small-to-medium-sized ambitions.
Passengers in classes Loam, Chalk, Marl and Clay
may also board. Customers who have purchased
our Dignity or Morning Orchid packages
may now collect their sanitised shell suits prior to boarding.
Thank you for waiting.
Mediocre passengers are now invited to board,
followed by passengers lacking business acumen
or genuine leadership potential, followed by people
of little or no consequence, followed by people
operating at a net fiscal loss as people.
Those holding tickets for zones Rust, Mulch, Cardboard,
Puddle and Sand might now want to begin gathering
their tissues and crumbs prior to embarkation.
Passengers either partially or wholly dependent on welfare
or kindness, please have your travel coupons validated
at the Quarantine Desk.
Sweat, Dust, Shoddy, Scurf, Faeces, Chaff, Remnant,
Ash, Pus, Sludge, Clinker, Splinter and Soot;
all you people are now free to board.


Rev. John Gibbons:
I think what I have to say this morning is best considered an awkward potpourri of this-and-that, vaguely attentive to the welcoming of new members and an awkward celebration of the church itself.
For starters, this week Dean Groves brought me a fat file of orders of service and old newsletters that his mother – whose memorial service we celebrated yesterday – had collected.  One of them was from 1985 and included a “sampler” of First Parish trivia, including:
“Highest and lowest notes possible on First Parish Hook-Hastings organ: 4 octaves above concert A – 7050 pulses per second (let’s hear it Robert) to 4 octaves below middle C – 16 pulses per second (Robert?)”
First Parish’s finest hour: “The reading of the Declaration of Independence by the Rev. Penniman, 1776.”
“Smallest attendance at regular church service: 1 (Lou Smith – that’s Art Smith’s father – in spring of 1937 when he was sexton)”
“Briefest formal association with First Parish: Steve Levy was photographed (on the day he joined) and never seen again.”  We hope some of our new members will be seen again!
“Largest bequest to church: $300,000 from Abigail Bacon” (That plaque on the wall, this chandelier.  You wonder why that room upstairs is called the Bacon Room?  Hey, we could name something after you!  This pulpit, maybe?  Hint, hint.)
“Parishioner who delivered the longest announcement:  Lois Pulliam, 1973 (When it was finished, minister announced number of closing hymn).”  That was in the days when we allowed free-for-all announcements!
They didn’t note who preached the longest sermon because, well, in 1985 I wasn’t yet the minister!  Don’t worry, Lisa.  Ten minutes is what I’ve got today.
I titled our sermon “Awkward Thoughts” because I’ve been reading a book titled “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.”  He’s a comic.  Somebody recommended his book; I had never heard of him.  Any of you know his name? (Two people raised their hands!) Oh well.  It’s subtitled, “Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd (you know what that is?  Blerd…Black nerd!), Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-up Comedian.”
The book is kinda funny but, I’ll save you some time, ‘cause the jacket is the best.  It says it’s “a humorous, well-informed take on the world today, tackling a wide range of issues, such as race relations; fatherhood; the state of law enforcement today; comedians and superheroes; right-wing politics; left-wing politics; failure; his interracial marriage; white men; his upbringing by ideologically opposite parents; his early days struggling to find his comedic voice, then his later days struggling to find his comedic voice, why he never seemed to fit in with the Black comedy scene…or the white comedy scene; how he was a Black nerd way before that became a thing; how it took his wife and an East Bay lesbian to teach him that racism and sexism often walk hand in hand; and much, much more.”
And here are some of his chapters: “My Awkward Youth,” “My Awkward Blackness,” “My Awkward Start in Stand-Up Comedy,” “My Awkward Middle in Stand-Up Comedy,” “My Awkward Sexism,” “My Awkward Love of a White Woman,” “Awkward Thoughts about White Guys,” “My Awkwardly Awesome Parenting Skills,”….you get the idea.  Like I say, I’m saving you some time because I’m working my way to the back cover, which is the best.  This is our scripture reading for the morning:
Awkward is a feeling that we are taught to run from.  Currently, awkward is something to be avoided.  If someone says to you, ‘Would you like to have an awkward conversation with me?’ the answer is always, ‘No.  I would not.’  Meanwhile, all real and lasting changes in the world began with awkward conversations.  As a Black person, I really feel that every change we have had for the better in America was just the result of an awkward conversation.  ‘Hey, Abraham! What do you think about maybe freeing those slaves and letting the South pay people to pick their cotton?’  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s was just different types of Black people (from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr.) having conversations with America about the best way to go about getting some freedom.  #BlackLivesMatter is another way to have that same conversation when you realize that the people you were talking to weren’t paying attention the first 1,000,000 times.  America recently had an extremely productive awkward conversation about marriage equality.  And now we are beginning to think about having an awkward conversation about transgender peopled.  (And we are starting that conversation in the most awkward place to have a conversation: the bathroom.)  EVERYTHING GETS BETTER WHEN IT GETS AWKWARD.”
Now you can tell people you’ve read this book, cover-to-cover…audio-book style.
So the last line of that scriptural passage is the topical sentence of my part of this shared sermon:  EVERYTHING GETS BETTER WHEN IT GETS AWKWARD.
Another way of saying this might be, “If it’s going to get better, it’s got to get awkward first.” Or, “It’s not going to get better unless it gets awkward.”
A friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with changing your life is that you’ve got to change your life to do it.”  And changing your life is, you know, awkward.
We live in a society where people will go to great lengths not to feel awkward, to fit in, to feel comfortable.  Suburbia, you know, is sometimes described as “a hotbed of rest!”
In my Pole Capping Prayer last Saturday, I prayed that we be anxious for our democracy – anxious as in worried, and anxious as in eager.  I said,
“We pray for the comfortable who do not care about anything so long as they are left at ease.
We pray for ministers, if there are any in this region – I do not believe there are – who say what is pleasant to hear rather than what is true.”
I prayed for anxiety but I could as well have prayed for awkwardness.  When W. Kemau Bell looked at his life he discovered a hot jumbled awkward mess of asthmatic, Black, cisgender, Mama’s boy, Dad, stand-up comedian and interracial blerdness.  And he named those parts of his life: he didn’t harmonize them or tie them up in a bow.  He just named them.
My life is no less awkward.  And I’m pretty sure your life is also a hot jumbled awkward – and sometimes beautiful, sometimes pretty funny, and sometimes not funny at all – mess.
The folks at Facebook and everybody who is trying to sell us something has our data and has segmented our market share so that we stay distracted, amused, and comfortable, content to circulate with peopled like us, with tastes like ours, such that we never need feel awkward.  And, well, should you start to feel awkward, there’s a pill for that.  But be sure to read the warning label because to numb our awkwardness is to numb our soul.  Emily Dickinson said,
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll – 
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul.
Your awkward humanity is the tooth that nibbles at the soul.
Every conversation worth having is an awkward conversation.
And, finally, that’s why we gather in church.  It’s awkward here.  I honor all among you who had the guts to walk in this door for the first time.  And those who become members.  And those who might someday think about being members, whether you do or don’t.  This is a place of awkward conversations, of awkward challenges, of awkward realizations, of awkward truth about ourselves and or world.
Church, at its best, will make us lean forward, on one buttock, and squirm!  Not always, I hope, but sometimes.  May it be so!
Lisa Perry-Wood:
My turn… I’m calling this, “Awkward for What?” With some help from my daughter, who likes to help me brainstorm sermon titles, it’s borrowed from the musician Drake’s hit song, “Nice for What.” But, fair warning, if you google Drake’s lyrics you’ll find words that shouldn’t even be spoken, much less sung, and even less edging up to #1 on the Billboard charts. So, we’re starting with a little awkward reference from the pulpit. But my thought, on this Sunday of welcoming new church members, is: What might be good for us about being a little awkward? What usefulness, what purpose, could awkwardness have? Could embracing awkwardness actually help us do church better?
I got to thinking about awkward moments in church, and that got me looking up awkward church signs – you know, other churches’ versions of our wayside pulpit sign. Here in New England we lean toward inspirational quotes lifted from famous writers and thinkers; a “thought for the week” that we can ponder in passing. But in other parts of the country, they just go for it, taking chances, putting it all out there. And some of the results, especially the awkward ones, are priceless. Here are some of my favorites:
From the St. Paul United Church of Christ: “Best Sausage Supper in St Louis, Come and Eat…Pastor Thomas Ressler”
The New Olivet Baptist Church: “Sunday’s Message: Jesus said, Bring Me that Ass”
First Pentocostal Church: “Tired of Being a Loser? Turn to God”
Calvary Temple Church: “We Love Hurting People”
Church of the Cross has a different version: “Don’t Let Worries Hurt You, Let the Church Help”
Hilltop Presbyterian just lays it all out there: “Welcome Back for the first of your two visits this year!”
Rosalie Baptist Church’s sign lost a letter: “Behold, I am Making All Things ‘ew’ – God.”
And, my personal favorite:
Mt Pleasant Bible Church: “Do You Know What Hell is? Come Hear Our Preacher”
Now, I’m sure many drivers and passersby got good laughs out of those awkward signs but, who knows, maybe those laughs got them to check out the kind of church that wasn’t as concerned with perfect phrasing as with reaching out and trying to grab their attention and get them in the door, with an eye-catching message. And I know I like my spirituality tinged with humor…
So, this is new member Sunday and since I’ve only been here a little over three months, I guess I still qualify as “new.” Here are a few observations, a few awkward moments from my time here…
First of all, I know I’ve probably introduced myself to some of you several times over…okay, maybe more than several. I often start by saying “We’ve very likely already met, but I’m Lisa…” And you all have been so kind, even those of you who say, “Yes, I’m so-and-so, we’ve met several times,” say it with a twinkle in your eye. Thank you for that! On Sunday mornings, I know that I should greet people in the pews before the service, but not remembering their names often makes me hesitate. Even so, I take a deep breath and try not to just talk to those folks whose names I can actually remember. It’s embarrassing all right, but I think that awkwardness is part of my job; I think maybe it puts people at ease. Being new is awkward for all of us.
Having a guest here in sanctuary who is not English speaking has caused awkward moments for many of us. Trying to speak a second language means making mistakes and who among us loves to make mistakes, right? Especially adults. I appreciate that Maria will correct me with a laugh when I blunder, which is often, but at least I’m trying. The junior youth group is sometimes less forgiving; one mom shared with me that her daughter told her “Lisa’s trying to speak Spanish, but her accent is terrible!” Brutal, but likely true. We adults like looking like we “have it all together,” when the truth is that many of us often feel awkward – at coffee hour, potlucks or other events, even just walking into church.
Did you ever walk into a church for the first time and worry that you were sitting in someone’s regular seat? Or forget to bring anything for the offering? Awkward! Young people mostly don’t worry about these kinds of things. I remember one of my first Sundays here when kids were singing and one little girl ran up to join the choir, only to be gently told that it wasn’t her group. She just skipped back to her seat, with a smile, when any adult would have been mortified!
One of things I’ve learned from our senior minister and my mentor, John, is “dare to be awkward,” in the pulpit, in church, really everywhere in your life. It’s also called being authentic or true to your beliefs and it often means jumping right in, even when sometimes it might be better NOT to jump in. Taking risks, just being yourself.
I remember John saying to me, early on, about some idea I had: “Go ahead and try it, maybe it will work out or maybe you’ll make a mess, I’ve certainly done both! But either way, it’s fine.” Well, that was refreshing after years of trying to perfect my game in graduate school, internships and training!
I have just one other thought about awkwardness. I think it’s a way to enter in. If we model the awkwardness of always greeting people we don’t know (or aren’t sure we’ve met,) attempting things outside our comfort zone, relaxing about our mistakes and meeting them with humor, I think there’s a kind of grace that happens. We make ourselves vulnerable and more available to the other. Our guest is a great model of that. Here she is, in a situation that is, by its nature, scary and isolating, filled with helplessness and incredible vulnerability. And yet she greets each one of us with hugs and kisses, with gratitude and warmth. She has opened herself up to learning a new language, new skills, and meeting many, many new people. She’s showed us that our awkward encounters with each other are blessings. That’s grace, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s the kind of awkwardness that church and the world could use more of.
Amen and blessed be.

Closing Words

There’s an old Sufi story about accepting imperfection:
Mulla Nasrudin decided to start a flower garden. He prepared the soil and planted the seeds of many beautiful flowers. But when they came up, his garden was filled not just with his chosen flowers but also overrun by dandelions.
He sought out advice from gardeners all over and tried every method known to get rid of them but to no avail. Finally he walked all the way to the capital to speak to the royal gardener at the sheik’s palace.
The wise old man had counseled many gardeners before and suggested a variety of remedies to expel the dandelions but Mulla had tried them all. They sat together in silence for some time and finally the gardener looked at Nasrudin and said, “Well, then I suggest you learn to love them.”