A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, March 10, 2013
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

Prayer doesn’t change things.
Prayer changes people and people change things.”

—Lon Ray Call


Opening Words

We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted… when we are in trouble and afraid… when we despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.

We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone… in the hour of our successes, when we look for someone to share our triumphs [and] in the hour of our defeat when with encouragement we might endure and stand again.

We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.  All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.  – George Odell


This morning I’m supposed to say something to you about my recent time in India, then something about the first word in the title of Anne Lamott’s book, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers and then something about stewardship and church finances, and then if anyone is still here we’ll welcome new members.

This is one of those sermons that feels like attempting some sort of trick shot in billiards: the cue ball to the 7, banked off the 3, jumping the 5 ball, backspun off the waitress’s knee and finally into the pocket.  Maybe.  I guarantee you inadequate attention to each of these topics.

About two weeks ago, I returned from a two-week trip to India.  I traveled with our son Eric – who is still there, studying with a spiritual teacher – and I traveled as well as with our parishioner, friend and colleague Gary Smith and with my Transylvanian friend and colleague David Gyero.  We were guests of Unitarian friends in remote northeast India, between Bhutan and Bangladesh, where with them we celebrated the Quasqui Centenary – 125th anniversary – of the founding of their church in 1887.  As in previous visits, they festooned us with flamboyant ribbons such that another colleague said he felt like a championship horse at the Kentucky Derby.

Prior to going to the Khasi Hills we visited Kolkata and the state of Sikkim.  India is vast and, like this sermon, every description is partial and inadequate; but one learns a lot about religion in India, and it is – in nearly equal measure – attractive and repulsive.

I am a curious and, I hope, respectful appreciator of the diverse varieties of religious experience but, of course, the diversity within this room is as nothing compared to any half acre in India where coexisting there may be Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks, Hindu devotees and nearly naked sadhus, turbaned Sikhs, and broom-wielding Jains who sweep before they walk so that insects may not be crushed by their feet.

In Kolkata we visited the temple of the Hindu goddess Kali.  In his travel notes, Gary recalls:

This was the least favorite moment of my trip (claustrophobia).  Kali is the patron saint of Kolkata and this ancient Hindu temple is said to have more than 20,000 visitors a day.  We couldn’t go in (thanks be to God), but we walked around it or rather we lifted our feet and were carried around it by the crowd.  We disembarked into a huge crowd heading for this frenetic Hindu temple where our guide insisted we see the place of the goat sacrifice.  Imagine my surprise later when we were waiting for the van and a family walked by, bearing a very sedated and sad goat.

Kolkata was also the capital of British India and it must be remembered that, without the British, there would be a great many separate kingdoms, each with their king or maharaja, but there would be no India.  The mixed legacy of the raj is everywhere evident in Victorian ruins, the incredibly bureaucratic Indian civil service, in the abundant schools and churches built by missionaries, and in the dependency of the people on customs and structures and officials and gods larger than oneself.    

After Kolkata, we visited Sikkim, a former Buddhist kingdom and a restricted area due to sometimes-violent clashes between rival Buddhist sects – the Yellow Hats versus the Red Hats (or actually it’s one sect of Red Hats vs. another sect of Red Hats).  At some monasteries, the Indian Army – with typically Hindu soldiers – is present to keep the peace between these groups of antagonistic Buddhists.  This reminded me of holy places in Jerusalem where rival and sometimes-violent Christian monks don’t trust any of their Christian rivals and thus entrust the church keys to neutral Muslims!

At a monastery in Kalimpong, Gary’s travelogue recounts: “We arrived in time for morning ceremony: chanting, then cymbals, horns, noise makers.  I ask the guide, why the clamor in the midst of the peaceful chants: to chase the evil spirits away or to bring the monks to focus again?  Yes, he said, in a Buddhist kind of way.”

At every monastery there were prayer wheels, some small enough to be held in one’s hand; others nearly as large as a house.  This is one from my office and here is another made by one of our parishioners from an Altoid tin and a garage door bearing.  The creativity of our parishioners is unsurpassed.  Contained in each is the jewel-of-the-lotus prayer, Om Mani Padmi Hum, said to contain all the teachings of Buddha, and thus released when spun.  Here is my new solar-powered dashboard prayerwheel, common in cars and trucks throughout Sikkim, which now blesses the universe even as I am cursing in traffic.

Colorful and fascinating as were our encounters with diverse religions, India is a constant reminder that religion can be one of the most regressive, backward, mind-numbing forces known to humanity. Little wonder that Marx called religion the opiate of the people.  On Friday, as I wrote this sermon, the CNN headline was that “global warming is now epic” and the earth’s temperature has increased in the last decade at a rate not seen for the last 11,300 years.  If thinking people for the last 11,300 years have been devoting human energies to animal sacrifice and missionary work and the relentless chanting and prayer-wheeling of incantations to the deities, not to mention worshipping at the altars of greed, commerce and carbon, it is abundantly clear that we have not been paying attention to things that matter!

Of course, one need not go all the way to India to make this discovery and I’m no more confident of the Red Hats in Rome than I am of those in Kalimpong.

Because so much of religion is still enthralled to superstition, irrelevance, patriarchy, misogyny, demagoguery and distraction from things that matter, there is great temptation to be rid of it all: God, prayer, priests and poppycock – baby and bathwater!

Unitarianism hasn’t demolished all things religious, but we’ve made a good start!

Prayer is my case in point this morning.  A whole lot of prayer – in every religion – is fatuous, special-pleading, saccharine and pointless.  If, however, baby goes with bathwater, it is tempting for us to construct a worldview where there is no authority beyond ourselves and where instead we face life like the author of Invictus.  Remember?

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Those sentiments are inspirational and have inspired many people, among them Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi. The trouble is that a whole lot of the time I don’t much feel like the reincarnation of FDR, Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi.  Plenty of the time I feel quite conquerable, I feel bowed, afraid, not master, not captain, cabin boy maybe but more likely a deserter if I had the courage and oft-times on the battlefield of life I feel just scared and lost.

And that is why the first of the essential prayers is Help!  Truly, we ought not throw prayer out with the bathwater of religious bathos.  We pray whenever we bring to consciousness or voice or visibility any truth that is otherwise hidden within us, even if that truth is “God, I don’t believe in you and secondly, I hate you.”  Those are perfectly acceptable prayers.  In coming weeks, we’ll get to thanks and to wow but so often our first prayer is Help!  And, too often in our need to seem strong and confident and capable, this prayer is not brought to consciousness, not given voice or visibility.  Help, I recommend we pray.

There are in our midst so many people who are ill, some dying, some who have died, so many who are lonely or scared or addicted or anxious.  There are homes sadly noisy and homes sadly quiet.  Help, we pray.

Someone last week told me that, when she was a teenager, her parents came out.  They didn’t come out as gay; they came out as people who couldn’t live under the same roof together.  Prayer is a kind of coming out.  Help, we pray.

Every week or so I look over the phone and address list of all our members and friends; and, as I read each name, I picture that person in my mind and recall whatever I know or don’t know about our lives.  And I pray for each and every one of you.  And once in a while, I hope you’ll pray for me, too.  Help, we pray.

Anne Lamott will be our guest here on April 8.  In the weeks before she comes, Megan, Joe and I are successively preaching on Help, Thanks, and of course Easter will be Wow.

I’ll read just a bit to you:

(Anne writes about her childhood) “I was raised to believe that people who prayed were ignorant. It was voodoo, asking an invisible old man to intervene, God as Santa Claus. God was the reason for most of the large-scale suffering in history, like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Therefore to pray was to throw your lot in with Genghis Khan and Torquemada (which was the name of our huge orange cat) and with snake handlers, instead of beautiful John Coltrane, William Blake, Billie Holiday. My parents worshipped at the church of The New York Times, and we bowed down before our antique hi-fi cabinet, which held the Ark of the Covenant—Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk albums.

So, to recap, my parents, who were too hip and intellectual to pray, worshipped mostly mentally ill junkies. Our best family friends drank and one-upped one another trashing common enemies, like Richard Nixon and Christians.”

“If I were to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little. Of course it wasn’t our fault that we ended up so ruined or felt so undeserving of love, and that if people knew our true selves better or if our minds had PA systems, they would run for their cute little lives. Can you imagine that you have a true self, way down deep inside, a self that will still be there even if your mind goes?

If you can imagine that, it’s not such a huge step to imagine yourself believing in any sort of higher power, to whom you could say, “Hey.””

Prayer is a kind of saying Hey! – if only to yourself.

Anne Lamott says that for the last 25 years one of her modest prayer tools is something she calls a God box – sometimes a pillbox, or her car’s glove compartment, maybe a fancy box.

“On a note, I write down the name of the person about whom I am so distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am so toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. You might have a brief moment of prayer, and it might come out sounding like this: “Here. You think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how best to proceed.” Then I agree to keep my sticky mitts off the spaceship until I hear back.

The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn through pain that some of the tings we thought were castles turn out to be prisons, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take.

The response probably won’t be from God, in the sense of hearing a deep grandfatherly voice, or via skywriting, or in the form of an LED-lit airplane aisle at your feet. But the mail will come, or an e-mail, or the phone will ring; unfortunately, it might not be later today, ideally right after lunch, but you will hear back. You will come to know.”

At a flea market a long time ago, I bought that thing over there (John points to a box placed on the chancel) and it’s been in our basement ever since.  Probably it was used in some church to receive money or offerings or something; but I couldn’t quite figure out what we might use it for.  Until now.  I’ve decided that that thing is a God Box…or a prayer box or a mail box or a wooden box or just a box box and that’s fine.

It’s not necessarily a permanent addition to our sanctuary, but for a limited time your anonymous prayer – a name, a situation, a help, thanks or wow…whatever invisible truth you want to make visible if only to yourself – that box awaits your prayers.

There are cards by it and you are welcome to make use of it anytime.  Megan and I have the keys, nobody else.  It’s sort of a stationary prayer wheel but I assure you it works every bit as well, and even better because its prayers are customized, yours.

Now, at about this time in the service Bill Ingraham and the members of our stewardship committee are wondering when the hell is Gibbons going to get around to talking about stewardship?

Help!  That’s my stewardship sermon, my stewardship prayer.  Help.  In the next week or so you will be asked to write something else on a card, and that will be your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year that begins June 1.  That’s the only way we have of coming up with a budget around here: asking you to estimate the amount of money you want and hope and expect to give to First Parish.

I ask only that what you put on that pledge card be as honest and as deep and as genuine and as generously heartfelt as any prayer you drop in that box or whisper only to yourself.

Help, I pray.

We began this service with Joe leading us in the responsive reading titled We Need One Another.  Turn one more time, please, to number 468.  I was a bit concerned because its words are a bit of a downer and say we need one another when we mourn and would be comforted, when we’re in trouble and afraid, in despair, in temptation, yes, in the hours of success, too, when we look for someone with whom to share our triumphs…but then again, in the hour of defeat and when we come to die.

There are a lot of laughs around this place, thank God, and a whole lot of shared successes; but the truth I think is that we come here most especially when we are in need of help, when we’re not feeling like masters of our fate and captains of our soul.

Each and every one of us needs all the help we can get, and that’s the reason we want this church to be as strong, as secure, as sustainable as it can possibly be.  That’s the stewardship sermon this year folks.  I’m just telling you the truth:  it takes each and every one of us, within the bounds of ability, to be as sacrificially generous as we possibly can be.

Let us conclude by reading together the last italicized line in that responsive reading, the line beginning “All our lives” for this is the sum and summation of why anyone should want to be a member of this church or support it as we are able.

Together let us read:  All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.

Help!  Thanks and wow are soon to come but for now we say,

Help! Amen.