A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on March 17, 2013
At the First Parish in Bedford

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
If our religion doesn’t inspire in us a humble affection for one another and a profound sense of awe at the wonder of being, one of two things has happened. It has failed us, or we it. Should either be the case, we must go back to the beginning and start all over again. We must reboot our lives until the wonder we experience proves itself authentic by the quality of our
response to it.
—Forrest Church

Opening Words
O Spirit of Life and Renewal
by Jane Rzepka
We have wintered enough, mourned enough, oppressed ourselves enough.Our souls are too long cold and buried, our dreams all but forgotten, our hopes unheard.We are waiting to rise from the dead.In this, the season of steady rebirth, we awaken to the power so abundant, so holy, that returns each year through earth and sky.We will find our hearts again, and our good spirits. We will love, and believe, and give and wonder, and feel again the eternal powers.
The flow of life moves ever onward through one faithful spring, and another, and now another.May we be forever grateful.Alleluia.Amen.

“A Prayer”
by Max Ehrmann
Let me do my work each day; and if the darkened hours of despair
overcome me, may I not forget the strength that comforted me
in the desolation of other times.

May I still remember the bright hours that found me walking over
the silent hills of my childhood, or dreaming on the margin of a quiet
river, when a light glowed within me, and I promised my early God
to have courage amid the tempests of the changing years.

Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions of unguarded
moments. May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit.
Though the world knows me not, may my thoughts and actions be
such as shall keep me friendly with myself.

Lift up my eyes from the earth, and let me not forget the uses of the
stars. Forbid that I should judge others lest I condemn myself.

Let me not follow the clamor of the world, but walk calmly in my path.
Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am; and keep ever
burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope.

And though age and infirmity overtake me, and I come not within
sight of the castle of my dreams, teach me still to be thankful for
life, and for time’s olden memories that are good and sweet; and
may the evening’s twilight find me gentle still.

Childhood and Poetry
by Pablo Neruda
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973) once linked his creation of verse to a simple exchange of gifts in his childhood. The curious story suggests that every time we offer friendship to someone we do not know, we strengthen the bonds of humanity. Neruda speaks of gratitude for the intimacy of caring for another, perhaps someone we will never even meet.

“One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared, a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.
I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost fifty years old, whenever I pass a toy shop, I look furtively into the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses, that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.
It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.”

The Sermon
Since the theme of this service is Thanks, I want to begin with thanking you all. Being a minister here is the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my lifetime. I really mean that. I’ve tried to think of another situation or time in my life which could compare to these last four years I’ve had with you, and there simply isn’t one. Here I can be playful with you in the hallway, serious with you on an afternoon walk, collaborative at a Board meeting. The creativity of events like the Annual Dinner last night astounds me, and the choirs take my breath away. Standing among you in coffee hour, I am so often in awe of who you are, each individually, what you do for work, what your committees have accomplished, or how you treat your children.

When I come up the walk by the Elm street entrance and see a melting snow bank yielding some winter trash – I feel the same way that I do where I live, that it is my duty, my desired duty, to clean the junk up, and make this place welcoming for others. Most of all, this congregation makes me want to be a good person, a better person than I am. I want to live the ideals we talk about here each week: justice, peace, compassion and integrity. Each morning as I put my key in the door of my office, I am aware of the privilege it is to serve here.

I stick my head in Lisa’s door and she says “hey,” and passing by John’s office, he says, “yo,” and all three of us play the game of trying to “name that parishioner” when we hear one of you talking in the hall just out of eye site. Like Neruda says, all of humanity is somehow together; and blind as we may be, to feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. Among you I am home. I am grateful every day for knowing you all and being a part of this community. My deep hope is that each of you gets to feel that way about our church too.

My favorite essay written by Anne Lamott, our guest speaker on April 8th, is called “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” It’s from her book Traveling Mercies, and I’d like to read you a small portion of it, though the entire essay is not to be missed.

Sam is the only kid he knows of who goes to church, who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to.This is not exactly true. The truth is he never wants to go. What 7-year-old would rather be in church than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he’s there he enjoys himself, that he gets to spend the time drawing in the little room outside the sanctuary, that he only actually has to sit still and listen during the short children’s sermon.

It does not help that I always pack some snacks, some Legos, his art supplies, and any friend of his whom we can lure into our churchy web. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there. All that matters to him is that he alone of all of his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.

You would think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. You might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say.

I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly l00 pounds.

But that is only part of it. The main reason is that most of the people I know who are doing well psychologically, who seem conscious, who do not drive me crazy with their endlessly unhappy dramas, the only people I know who feel safe, who have what I want—connection, gratitude, joy—are people in community. And this funky little church. It is where I was taken in when I had nothing to give, and it has become in the truest, deepest sense, my home. My home-base.

My relatives all live in the Bay Area and I adore them, but they are all as mentally ill and as skittishly self-obsessed as I am. Which I certainly mean in the nicest possible way. But I do not leave family gatherings with the feeling that I have just received some kind of spiritual chemotherapy. I do when I leave church, though, it’s like something horrible inside of me is healing.”

I feel this way when I leave First Parish too. No one asked me to lead a Stewardship Moment this morning, but this year when I consider my pledge to First Parish, I will take all this into consideration, and do my best to support our community as much as I possibly can. I know you do this too. So I thank you. For being who you are. For all you contribute in so many ways, and for your financial gifts as well. Thank you.

There are a lot of ways that one could go about writing a sermon on Thanks. We could certainly talk about things we appreciate that come from the natural world, the lone wild bird, or wooded trails, or fireflies. I could tell you about the sweet gentle cat in my life who absorbed the kindness I needed to share, when someone I loved could not accept what I wanted to give. So many of our animals are our friends, real friends. We could talk about good books that completely adjusted our worldview. For me it was The Diary of Anne Frank, Black Like Me, To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Slaughterhouse Five. How about you? I might tell you about a particular painting by DeKooning that I sat in front of for two hours at the MET, finding more and more meaning the harder I stared. Have you ever had another world open up because of another’s creativity? And I will never be grateful enough for family that was not mine by blood, welcoming me in as their own. I saw them more than my own family all through my twenties. We could ask, which relationships are you most thankful for? Some of us might reflect on having plenty of healthy food to eat, or another day of sobriety, or the blessing of a body that works, or enough money to provide for our families, and all these things are important. Some of us don’t have these things, or we’ve had times when we didn’t, and certainly times are coming when luck will not be in our favor, and so along with being grateful for what we do have, we have an appreciation for the fact that good fortune is not a given.

Garrison Keillor wrote a short piece in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago called, “Pause to Give Thanks for the Simple Things.” I’ll read an excerpt. “These days I am grateful beyond words for a swimming teacher, Danielle, who is a functional person of a very high order. Twice a week, she takes my sandy-haired, gap-tooth daughter in tow and puts her through her paces. Danielle is young, blonde, brimming with confidence, with broad shoulders and a car horn voice. She hollers, “Kickickickickickkick” and “GOGOGOGOGOGOGOGO” and the little girl puts her head down and swims for all she’s worth. A few months ago, she was timid in the water, like me, and now she is a fish, all thanks to her wonderful teacher, a taskmaster with a sense of humor, who is in the pool with her pupils, unlike the Schwimmfuehrer of my youth who strode alongside the pool and showered us with contempt and ridicule. Danielle’s gift is enormous to us. My daughter gets a taste of discipline and success and this makes me very happy. So much is dismal and destructive in the world, but for me, the joy of a 7-year-old girl putting on her swim goggles almost makes up for it. Thanks be to God for the teachers of the world.”

Would you raise your hand if you have ever in your time here at First Parish taught a Sunday School class? For anyone who’s ever been a teacher in one of our RE classes, we pause to thank you for this simple thing. It is of course, not a simple thing. The folks who are teaching right now are too busy teaching to even hear our thanks, but we can tell them later. A couple weeks ago I went downstairs during the 11 o’clock service to see how a painting project was going. Rounding the corner, I spotted a teacher with a kid tucked under each arm headed down the hall towards the bathroom to wash purple paint off the bottoms of their shoes. Somehow the hallway rugs were still clean, and miraculously everyone was laughing. Teaching is a real labor of love, and not without its challenges. I think the best thing we can do for our fellow teachers is ask them how it’s going for them and then really listen. Are they missing out on the service content? They can borrow the DVD of the second service if they’d like. Are they missing joys and sorrows? You can sum it up for them. Is their curriculum working well? Find out what’s fun, or what’s hard. They may even be surprised that you want to know what’s happening in the other rooms of the church. I assume that Anne Lamott’s son Sam sat in church and drew pictures because there was no RE program for him. I am grateful we have such a good program here, and along with you, I vow to be one of the ones yelling “Gogogogo!” to the teachers spending time with our kids.

One of the things that makes Anne Lamott’s writing so poignant is that she expresses gratitude for things that are not simple, or even good. Her writing exposes her own weaknesses and messes very openly and this makes her life and ideas easy to relate to. Sam was an accidental pregnancy during a very hard time in her life. She struggled with addictions of all sorts and poverty was constantly pulling her down. Her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer leaving a two-year-old daughter behind. And yet the people of Anne’s church stuck by her when she was too drunk to do more than fall into a back pew. I think she would agree with me, that the kind of gratitude that is most profound is what comes to us when we don’t believe we deserve kindness, but it arrives, or when somehow we learn something out of our own humiliated state, or when we suffer and yet ten years later there is something good that shines through the rubble of despair or grief or anger.

When we are in the midst of horrible times in our lives it doesn’t do any good for some well meaning person to tell us that time will heal all wounds, or that we’ll be wiser for it some day. It is only true that we ourselves can discover how the life we are living now will shape our future selves. And it is our own choice to explore, or not, through personal introspection and interpersonal exchange over time, whether we are thankful for any part of our own hardships in the past.

There are some life experiences that no one should ever have to endure, and none of us would wish on anyone, like losing a child, being bullied, witnessing or experiencing violence, or being involved in a scandal that costs someone their marriage or their job or their reputation. It can take a lifetime to heal from tragedy, and it would be outrageous to suggest that one should find good in the bitter things in life.

I once saw a greeting card that simply said, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” And sometimes shouldering on is pretty much the one thing that you can do. Sometimes the only way through is through. One day you can fake it, and pretend everything’s fine, another day faking it has no meaning, and your face shows the disillusionment. I’ve often wished for a single day of no masks. We’d all walk around and see how others really feel, and maybe we’d fall into each other’s arms for want of a hug, or because we simply couldn’t help but be tender towards all the other people in pain. The barriers would fall away, and we’d laugh and cry with one another.

I remember one particular day in high school that I was really really low. I’d been sad for so long, months, years maybe, that I had actually forgotten what happiness felt like other than in short bursts. I couldn’t concentrate in class and left to wander around the back side of the school. Because I didn’t want to have to pretend anymore, I went to stand inside a big branchy bush. I could see out, but no one could see in. I remember I touched my own face, feeling such a sense of relief that I could, even for a moment, be the real me. Tears poured down, for a long long time. Where was the bottom of all that pain? Some time later I emerged from the bush, and an elderly teacher was walking by. I didn’t know him well, except for one personal fact about him that everyone at school knew. He had lost his wife that same year and often had his head in his hands when I passed by his office at the start of the day. I will always be grateful that he saw my face, which I hadn’t hidden yet, and without saying anything he extended his hand to me, and we walked across campus hand in hand just the two of us, quiet but together.
What had so confused me in my sadness, was the loss of meaning in my life. I couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what I felt, and things that had been enjoyable felt dull. I was ashamed of having so many sad feelings in the first place. And so without a person to listen, my mind raced like a dog tethered to a pole. What helped me find a new groove and get some help, was just one person seeing the real me, and taking my hand.

The poet Rumi wrote “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
I hope that here in this community, we can each at varying times, be lifeboats for one another. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself, someone reaching for you where you are hurting or lost. Or maybe you’ve done that for someone else. There are many places and ways that happens here, but I want to mention just one that I haven’t heard getting much press since I’ve been here. You may know that every Monday night First Parish hosts a meeting of the Smart Recovery Program which gives people a place to hold onto their dignity while facing and working through addictions and other struggles in their lives. Our Parishioner Tom Larkin is an excellent and very skilled leader, and people come from many surrounding towns to be a part of it. Members of our Lay Pastoral Care Team attend as well. In general, it’s an underutilized resource, and if you want to tell people about it or go yourself, it’s another lifeboat opportunity. Like Anne Lamott’s work, the group is a place that’s honest and raw and yet filled with gratitude.

Everyone deals with their pain differently. One friend goes to the ocean when she is missing her stillborn daughter. A young man who tells me about the violence in his home has learned that he can put on head phones and write music just to get through the fights. A good therapist, if there’s money for one, can be a life saver. Good long walks, steaming cups of tea, listening to heart warming songs, coming to church, being with friends, keeping a gratitude journal… healing looks different on different people.

However, what comes out of an experience of pain never justifies the suffering. What can “justify” the loss of a child, a home, a dear friend, a job which gave us meaning? Nothing. But if we so choose, we can over time become thankful for what came out of the experience, including us. We may ask, am I a better person, not because of the suffering, but because of what I learned or how I changed? There are experiences that try us and mold us into more aware and compassionate human beings.

My prayer for us through all the generations to come, is that we will always be a harbor in the storm for all in need. We will always be a place where joy and meaning multiplies so that it can be shared with all, and we will go on having reason to give thanks. And that when we are facing hard times, we can let our faces be unmasked.

Pablo Neruda says: “To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses, that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

I am grateful for you, people I know well, and people who are less well known or not known at all among us. Together we make this community whole. Your presence is a gift. Thank you for being lifeboats for one another and all who enter here.
Thank you, thank you.