A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, December 3, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light,
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
by Brad Aaron Modlin
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen to the wind,
how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer.
She took questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s voice.
Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home.
This prompted Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell,
she made the math equation look easy.
The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If 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 of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
The Nicest Gifts I Ever Got
By Clarke Dewey Wells
During this season of gift giving, a good exercise is to make a list of the best gifts we ever got. That will tell us what is important, for ourselves and for people we want to give gifts to.
While I remember a Daniel Boone hat and a magician set with special affection, the nicest gifts I ever got are in quite another category: the carillonneur at Rockefeller Chapel who let me strike one of the largest tuned bells in the world during his playing of Ein Feste Burg; my mother giving me a complete Shakespeare for my 14th birthday; coach Al Terry saying “Little Wells, grab your bonnet,” and permitting me to enter as a freshman into my first varsity football game; a beautiful lady on a ship when I was still an acned teenager who kissed my face all over and told me she thought I was handsome; Dr. Henry Nelson Wieman telling me he had thought for several hours about a question I had raised and responding with a written answer the next day in front of the whole class; night after night my father playing catch with me in the back yard until it got so dark we couldn’t see the ball; a Unitarian minister in Kalamazoo who put his arm around me after my father died and kept it there for a long time; a friend who flew several hundred miles to visit me when I was sick; a buddy who went to see three movies with me on the same day.
The nicest gifts people have given me have been enabling, confirming gifts, bestowing understanding and self-esteem, help in time of trouble and delight for ordinary days.
May I suggest that you, too, draw up your list of the nicest gifts you ever received. I think it will give some perspective to the kind of gifts we really want to give to others, this Christmas or anytime.
Excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
“When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years.
Then one day I was walking along Tinker creek and thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.
It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.
Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells un-flamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”
What makes a good goodbye?
During my first year here I got a call from a parent who asked if I’d be willing to come over to help bury a young cat, the beloved pet of one of her children. The two kids in the family had each raised one of a pair of sibling cats, until one cat began to rapidly lose weight and soon died.
When I arrived, there was such a terrible silence as the family greeted me at the door. It simply wasn’t right, that a cat so loved and so cared for, especially by a child, would die. It wasn’t right that the younger child’s pet would die, while the older sibling won the lottery on life and happiness. It wouldn’t have been right the other way around either. I knew that I had brought no magic to fix the feelings, except to let them be felt and grieved and spilled out like spit and tears into the forest floor. We dug a deep hole for the tiny cat. The box for its body was decorated. The adults said things that we hoped might comfort the children. One kid stood motionless as we covered the hole with dirt. The other raced in the woods around us, hitting trees with big sticks, shredding leaves and ferociously kicking rocks. At last, after injuring a foot with a hard kick there was room for that broken-hearted angry child to fall apart and wail. There really is no one way to say goodbye, just as there is no one way to grieve. We each go about it differently, and loss is the price we pay for having loved.
If you are like me, you have accumulated a life time of goodbyes. I too remember the loss of my first pet, a guinea pig named Mrs. Twittlemouse, whom I couldn’t bring along when we moved to England. That little fur ball created in me an unquenchable love of small furry animals, and she is probably the reason behind all the gerbils I’ve had in my office here at church. Out of my own longing, I imagined that young people without a pet at home might have the chance to love something warm and soft and vulnerable, as I had done.
Goodbyes can be so hard. I had a friend in elementary school who moved away suddenly without saying goodbye to our class, which simply left an untold story and confusion for the rest of us. Had we caused her disappearance by making her feel unwanted among us? Did her parents whisk her away suddenly? Did she not know we would miss her terribly?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my decision to leave my position here at First Parish, it’s that telling you the truth about why I’m going has helped us all. I am not leaving suddenly or because I’m upset. You did nothing to make me go, John and I adore one another – and he’s always been the best friend I could have as a co-conspirator in ministry. The truth is as I’ve said before, that I have always wanted to be a mother. I’ve been trying hard at this for four years. It’s been a quiet journey for the most part, and not without its own landscape of loss. I sense more than know, that changing my life up a bit may allow me the chance to carry a child. If I am not given this opportunity, my plan is to adopt. Either way, if my dream becomes reality, I promise to bring this child back to sit on your laps. You are the ones who have taught me to try hard at what seems impossible. You have shown me that one can be a female with a career who also wants a family – and you’ve backed me as a woman for nearly a quarter of my life to go for it – whatever that it is. You are the ones who let me love your children, even the rascal who stuffed a humus bagel into a hidden crevice of my desk for me to sniff for a couple weeks.
Parting can be difficult, but many of us have known good goodbyes too. Times when for whatever reason of intention and timing, we got it right. I recall a fabulous late night campfire at the end of summer camp when all of us, campers and counselors alike, stood with our arms around one another sobbing through “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” How good it felt to know that nothing would ever be the same, that we were each changed for the better, and that we would miss and be missed until we met again. Some of us never did meet again, because in truth, all relationships must end sometime. Yet the warmth of my friends’ arms around my shoulders has always stayed with me. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare writes, and I have found that to be true – when the caring has been mutual, the experience has had depth, and there is time to express what is felt.
Gratitude helps with the leave taking. And so, this sermon is about doing all of that, with all of you. I am grateful for you individually, and I am grateful for our shared ministry together. If you are not a sappy person, I apologize in advance. I will try to get through this without torturing you, but love is soft, and you have worn me down like an old pair of corduroys you can never quite toss out.
I’m fond of how I can enter our church kitchen on a Sunday morning and it feels like family in there; someone is delivering the milk, someone is trying to find the right sized plastic dispenser for each completely different set of coffee pots, someone is chatting and blocking the doorway, and all the while the dishwasher is steaming up the place. Home.
When I showed up for work on my first day all those years ago a kid, I think it was Jared, had prepared a sign for me: “Welcome Vice Minister Megan!” To this day, that warm and earnest note reminds me that this community is a place where the stranger is welcomed, where everyone matters, and where we are each called to stand tall and to use our collective power in service of our vision. When I conclude my nine years of ministry here, after the last gathering of “pancakes and poetry” at 10 AM on Sunday December 31st, I know I will not know what to do with myself for a while.
Already my mind sifts through a thousand snapshots. I remember a year of “Steampunk Ecclesiology,” with crazy homemade machines made of gears and old watch parts, an iPhone typewriter, costumes from the era of the steam train, and a set of sermons about the ancient and modern blending into one giant metaphor of our current faith. That theme of going “back to the future we never had” reappeared this year in our amazing haunted house.
I remember year after year of Tenebrae services, in which your quiet faces in the dark seemed like little moons lit by candles. Candles which were then snuffed out one by one, reenacting the last chapter of Jesus’ life. Together we faced the despair of the world, which requires an honest look at ourselves, and which must be done before the uplift and joy of Easter, a holiday that would make no sense without its liturgical counterpoint.
I remember being in a performance of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” after having had a tooth extraction and slurring my lines so badly some thought I was drunk. And John in his dorky little costume took a snooze on my shoulder up here on the chancel. We had a good laugh at how hard it was to memorize lines, and eventually read them all off a script. Then later Janet needed an extra “Mersister” in the youth production of The Little Mermaid – and I have never been so embarrassed up here, wearing a little outfit of shells, and trying to keep up with the complicated hip swaying dance moves the nine year old girls knew by heart. Just let me do a cartwheel and get off the chancel, please!
I remember all the services at the Bedford Veterans Hospital, for the men and women who’ve served our country, who are wheeled in to enjoy a little program put on by our choirs and kids and staff. Thank you Brad, for organizing us in so many ways large and small to bring music and joy to the world. One year we brought candy canes, and the Vets’ eyes lit up, and then the staff took them away saying the vets might choke. The next year I let it really sink in that we were bringing ourselves and nothing more. When we held hands at the end for John’s “Touch Hands” benediction, that really was enough. In the spring, the vets led us in singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and of course in that instant I knew they really were the gift to us and not the other way around. From that hot and stuffy room, we were all suddenly transported to Fenway Park, where we stood side by side proudly gazing at the Green Monster flipping to our new high score.
There are so many individual services that stand out to me. Not only the liturgically beautiful ones like Christmas Eve, or Music Sunday, but also that Access For All service when Alex Linden talked about what it’s like for him live with autism. The day when people shared how AIDS had affects their lives, RE Sunday sharing “Mammals who Morph,” Mark Bailey’s rock balancing on the chancel, and the day artists painted on easels during the sermon, all the amazing dancers we’ve had, and our first ever blessing of the animals services. And no one peed on the rug! The annual Coming of Age services astound us all year after year. And then recently the Racial Justice Round Table service left me in awe as we heard from people of color about their lives and then blessed a third Black Lives Matter banner.
There are so many important conversations I’ve had with each of you, whether you dropped in, or I came over to your place, or you’re a teen who stopped by before catching your bus, or I saw you at the hospital, or we walked in the woods. Thank you for letting me know you and be with you. Your private matters will remain private, but your stories stay in my heart.
I remember too, some of the unique experiences that John and I had while companioning families to care for their loved one after death. This congregation has pioneered alternative options for what happens to a body after someone has died. Sometimes caring for a loved one at home and skipping the funeral home altogether, meant that John and I found ourselves transporting a body in a cardboard casket in the back of John’s Passat to Mt. Auburn Cemetery for cremation. Once, at a stop light, having held ourselves together with all the dignity and respect the situation clearly deserved, we found ourselves cracking up uncontrollably. We felt like characters in a movie. Harold and Maude1, we mused?
In my time here, I’ve loved supporting small group ministry. Some groups have formed and ended, and some continue. Leading a group for nine years at Carleton Willard Village, gave me the chance to know some of you more deeply. How ironic and wonderful that my childhood choir director Mrs. Curtis from the Follen Church in Lexington, has been one of the most constant attendees. Many small groups do some form of a service project, like the prayer shawl ministry. How many of you have ever received a prayer shawl, during a difficult time in your life? We’ve given out around a hundred by now. I was touched one year to see the Monday night men’s small group out together happily picking up trash along South Road. Another year, many small groups teamed up and we all went to the Prison Book Program in Quincy to package books for prisoners.
I’ll never forget going with Partner Church folks to Transylvania to meet our friends in the partner church village of Abásfalva, or going with Ali Hon-Anderson on a UU service trip to Haiti to help rebuild after the earthquake. A year ago today I was in Standing Rock, South Dakota protesting the completion of the Keystone pipeline, which as predicted, has now burst and leaked 210,000 gallons of oil into the soil there.
I will remember the vigils, for the victims of the shooting in Orlando, Charlottesville, and of course each year when we gather on the Common at Kristallnacht when we pledge to stand together against hatred and bigotry. There were some Welcoming Congregation potlucks geared for gay folks, which one year got confused with the “Soups On” event for newcomers and we didn’t have the heart to tell a lovely elder married couple, a man and woman, that they had shown up at a gay party. They told us they’d been together for nearly 60 years, and they seemed truly happy with our rainbows and coming out stories.
I treasured supervising our three interns, Joe, Laura and Josh. Joe with his guitar singing Holy Now at Easter, Laura with her live ducks on the pulpit, and Josh for kicking off our Sanctuary program.
For 7 years I’ve helped Lisa lead Junior Youth Group. I love her creative mind and her dedication. Together we all tie dyed, grew veggies out back, played team building games, and organized the Wish Tree, which is now up in the Common Room, and you are all more than welcome to be a part of that project by taking home a star and bringing back something warm for a person in need. I’ll never forget the day that Nathan Linden ate an entire mouthful of peppercorns from the Khasi Hills on a dare, and he has been completely and utterly cool ever since. Why didn’t we think of that in middle school?!
After I leave, there’s a small list of things that I hope can keep happening, which I won’t read here, but I’d love for someone or a few someones to pick up leading the Easter Egg and Can Hunt. I took it on because RE was swamped and frankly I enjoyed organizing it. Talk to me if you think this is your cup of tea. I will miss more than I can say, the expectant faces of those kids on the steps, baskets in hand, ready to find whatever joy there is to be found. There are really only three rules I tell them. Leave the yellow eggs for the little kids. If you get a lot and someone else gets a little, share. And hunt for the cans too – they are harder carry, but you will feel good when you are helping to feed others who really need real food.
There are a few other tasks I’d like to pass on when I go. This is so small it’s almost not worth mentioning, but pretty much every Sunday I pour a cup of water down the drain in the floor of the women’s bathroom. It fills the pipe with water and stops the bathroom from smelling like a sewer. If you go in there some morning and it’s stinky, now you are fully empowered to solve the problem! Sorry men, I have no idea what’s up with your side of things. And since this one is a pay it forward for John, who didn’t ask me to say this but will have to tidy pews without me now; if you want to save him time, you could put your hymnal back after the last hymn with the spine on the left, and as you leave, just double check if your pew is as you found it.
Which leads me to John. We have often joked that he is the brother I never had, and I am the sister he never had. He is an only child, so he’s really had to get used to me razzing him. When John and I stand here in the dark on Christmas Eve, after everyone’s gone home, and the disco ball is still reflecting the tree lights dancing across the ceiling, I know I will feel broken-hearted beside my dear friend. We are fond of one another. And together we are fond of you. In the quiet of the sanctuary we picture you all sitting nestled in your pews, your faces just as open and expectant as the kids before their Easter hunt. There are other ways your and our faces look sometimes, but in our mind’s eye all of us are leaning forward, hopeful, seeking connection. On Christmas eve I will tell him for the hundredth time that I’m not really leaving him, because love is for keeps, and I’m telling that to you, too.
I will forever be a better person for having shared a ministry here with John and with all of you. From the first time I heard him say, “I’m one of the ministers here at First Parish,” and because never in history has First Parish had two called ministers at the same time, I have felt proud and humbled to have served this congregation.
You are in fact, the religious community in which I’ve come to experience the truth of our theology as Unitarian Universalists. We do not believe, unlike the Calvinists of our ancient past, that there are an elect few, some portion of society, that is favored by God for salvation, or in modern terms – good things. Being blessed isn’t bestowed upon a few frozen chosen. We believe that luck is luck, and life is life, and goodness – what we make it be, or how we choose to see it or shape it, is created by us. As UU’s we believe that each life is important, and that as fellow humans on this earth, we are in charge of shaping the world. What happens after we die may be a mystery, but what is certainly true is that we create heaven and hell amongst ourselves. We fight and we’re greedy and cruel, but the truth is that there is enough love to share. The sharing of it is what I call God. The act of loving, the verb, the sharing, the choosing to make a difference…love in action – that’s God, though the word is still in the way sometimes.
Perhaps you know, the word good-bye itself, has been spoken since the sixteenth century. It comes from the old English godbwye, which is a contraction of “God be with ye.” The phrase was influenced by “good day” and “good evening.” As I tell you goodbye this season, the root of it then as I see it, is “love in action” – that’s my wish for you.
What I’ve come to understand by living our theology – not by reading about it, but by living it, is that I don’t get to have a child someday because I’m predestined for that, I may just get lucky. Or not. I don’t get to have a child because I’ve worked hard at the goal – it’s more chance than I can explain, though I promise I’ve given it all I have. And I haven’t been rewarded with a blessing the harder I’ve prayed. A blessing is simply our own awareness of something we appreciate very much.
Though the American dream narrative teaches that if we work hard enough anyone can make it, we know that sometimes that just isn’t true. When the information about the new Tax Bill unfolded this weekend, my heart sank. The American dream just became so much farther away for so many people. Society isn’t equitable. It is the raving opposite. And yet from you, from you, I’ve learned that organizing is the antidote to despair. You put love in action. You bring me hope.
Perhaps you too have a dream you’ve wanted since forever, and maybe you’ve worked at it, prayed for it, gotten all your friends on board, spent every penny. I want your dream for you, just as I feel you backing me to chase mine. Thank you for the grace you’ve shown me in letting me go. I bid you goodbye with my heart in my throat.
Take care of one another. Share if you get extra, or even when you don’t. Be kind. A blessing isn’t something that only some of us get, it is our own awareness of something we appreciate very much. You, First Parish friends, are a blessing to me.
Thank you. I love you, always.
In my ending is my meaning
Says the season.
Only the heart’s blood
Only the word.
In the knowing night!
O tongue of flame
Under the heart
For love is black
Says the season.
Kissed with flame!
My love is darkness!
Only in the Void
Are all ways one:
Only in the night
Are all the lost
In my ending is my meaning.
From A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton
1 Postscript: Since preaching this sermon, someone sent me this funny animated short film about undertakers, which I recommend!