Opening Words by Emily Dickinson, sent to me this week by Julie Fatherly. This poem is written in the voice of a bird. It refers to the surplice, which is clerical garb — the loose-fitting white gown with wide sleeves worn over a cassock.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least —
I’m going, all along.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.
“Be Bold” Canvass sermon
The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, who I had the opportunity to meet at Chautauqua a few years ago wrote the following anecdote:
“After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: ‘If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.’
“Well — one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.”
“I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly. Shu dow-a, shu-biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, sho bit se-wee? The minute she heard any words she knew — however poorly used – she stopped crying. She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him. We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
“I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her — Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. “Then I thought, just for the heck of it, why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours. She was laughing a lot by then, telling me about her life. Answering questions.
“She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
“And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers — non-alcoholic — and the two little girls waiting for our flight, one African-American, one Mexican-American — ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar, too.
“And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands – had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves; such an old- country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
“And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
“This can still happen, anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
David Vita, our Social Justice Director, sent this to me just as I was beginning to search for words to form into my annual canvass sermon.
The theme of this year’s canvass is “be bold!”
So: Julie Fatherly sent me the Emily Dickinson poem; Sarah Bell gave me the Naomi Shihab Nye ‘Valentine’ poem; and David Vita sent me the Naomi Shihab Nye airport story.
All three gifts came as I thought about what I might say in this important canvass-Sunday sermon. Gifts. Generosity. Sharing.
That’s what it’s about. ‘We need one another,’ the reading says.
A powerful illustration was an incident that happened to me thirty-six years ago. I drove with my family to Marblehead Neck, so named because it sticks its neck out into the cold Massachusetts Bay on the North Shore of Boston. The town is comprised of a rocky peninsula that extends into the cold Atlantic.
On that September afternoon we went to watch huge waves we heard were crashing onto the rocks following a big storm. It was a warm, clear day, and I’ve never seen such huge waves crashing onto sea rocks where I’d spent many pleasant hours sitting by a calmer sea, reading or just relaxing – I went to college in nearby Salem.
I had my son Jonathan, who was four years old, on my shoulders and Anita was holding Susan’s hand – Sue was eight.
We were in a high, safe spot, but two twelve or fourteen-year old boys were in a precarious position on lower rocks close to the shore where the waves were crashing highest. They were being bold. They dressed in bright yellow slickers and they were laughing and challenging one another to get closer.
Then it happened: a massive wave came crashing onto their rocks. One of the boys managed to cling to the rock and as soon as the wave subsided he scampered down and onto the shore; his companion wasn’t so fortunate. He was washed into that roiling sea, pulled out by the receding wave.
I took Jonathan from my shoulders and went running down from our safe-rock perch. I kicked off my shoes and was ready to dive in to save the boy when another huge wave rose twenty feet and came rolling after me, and I retreated.
Bold is one thing, irresponsibly brazen is another.
I scampered bare foot up the rocks where the two boys had been and just when I arrived a wave hit and I held on for dear life. Then a strange thing happened – someone standing on shore, in the backyard of a house that was being hit by the biggest waves yelled over to me—there was a chasm between us—I couldn’t hear his words but I caught the green garden hose he threw to me.
I stood alone holding the hose for a second or two wondering why in the world he would throw a garden hose to me when it was clear that I had scampered onto those rocks to try to save the boy from certain drowning. We caught glimpses of the bright yellow slicker bobbing under and surfacing as the waves swelled up and down.
Before I realized why someone had thrown a green garden hose another guy climbed up to where I was standing, took the hose out of my bewildered anxious hands and wrapped one end of it around his waist, tying it as tight as you can tie a garden hose. Then he handed the other end to me, and, of course, by then I realized why someone had thrown a garden hose to me.
My partner yelled instructions, he was clearly in charge: “We’ll get as close as we can…” I knew what we were about to do, or attempt to do, though I wasn’t as confident as my partner seemed to be.
A wave came as we stood on the exposed end of those rocks, but luckily it wasn’t one of those big killer waves. We clung to one another as well as whatever hold we could get on raged rocks. Our faces were inches away from one another and he looked into my eyes – it was a once-in-a-lifetime look, clearly conveying all he wanted to say. Then he yelled, “Hang on,” and he dove in.
Within seconds he grabbed the boy’s yellow slicker that was serving as a kind of life raft with trapped air. I pulled them in and together we dragged the limp, seemingly lifeless body higher onto the rocks; we rolled him over (he still had his eyeglasses, askew on his face) and we pushed or maybe whacked him from behind…nothing…and again, and I pulled some seaweed from his mouth and he choked a breath and threw up a bellyful of ocean, and gasped air back and began to breathe.
Almost as soon as he began to breathe a fire truck arrived—where did that come from, I wondered—and firemen used a short ladder to form a bridge and they came and took over.
In a minute the boy was gone, and my partner shook my hand hard and said, simply, “Nice going!” I said, “Thanks…” and meant to say more. I wanted to say, “Thanks for putting your trust in me; thanks for having the courage to jump into that roiling sea.”
But before I had a chance to say anything he was gone—we never had any conversation. The people invited me into their house to wash my bloodied feet – I hadn’t noticed the cuts.
Someone had retrieved my shoes and given them to my family, who were even more shaken up than I was.
This is a story about being bold by doing what needed to be done. It is a story about needing one another: we needed the hose and someone threw it; we needed one of us on each end of that lifeline. We needed one another. Certainly the unconscious boy floating on the raging ocean needed us.
There’s a brief powerful footnote to this incident. A similar incident took place on Marblehead Neck that same afternoon, a few hundred yards away. A boy was pulled into the raging sea and a young man, a champion swimmer, dove in to save him. The would-be rescuer never surfaced – his body wasn’t found for two or three days, some distance away. The boy who had been pulled in was tossed onto the rocks and rescued.
“We need one another when we would accomplish some great task and cannot do it alone.”
Before I ask you to make a generous pledge to the work of this church – before I ask you to throw a green hose to those of us who are out there on the rocks – I want to acknowledge a concern; it’s not a new concern. Indeed it’s an old concern.
It’s about the need to create a child-friendly space in our foyer during our Sunday services. We need to be generous in our understanding of parents and their young children with whom they sit in the foyer.
There is seldom a Sunday when there’s not enough chairs in the sanctuary to hold everyone who wants to be here – last Sunday, Easter, was an exception. But usually those who don’t have young children have the option of coming into the sanctuary, allowing the foyer to be child-friendly and family-friendly.
We need parents who respect the needs of those who want to be in a quiet, meditative space; those for whom music may be the most precious part of the Sunday service; those for whom the shared silence often takes on a deeply spiritual and healing significance.
It’s a two-way street. It’s easy to transgress the boundaries of polite understanding when you feel defensive about your personal situation, on either side of that equation.
Generosity isn’t only about money.
There’s no easy answers to any of the important questions we’re dealing with in this special place. There’s no final answer. People keep having babies, which we celebrate. When they want to be part of this community, we need to create the kind of space where they can feel welcome; we encourage parents to bring small children to the nursery, but there are reasons some parents choose to have them with them in the foyer; and if a child gets fidgety or fussy, they are asked to bring them into the west wing which has its own speaker system to at least feel connected to what’s happening in the sanctuary.
We need one another; we need to be responsible caretakers of this congregation, we need to be bold in our stewardship.
We need an adventuresome spirit, a strong, even daring sense of determination to move this ship full steam ahead, to be all that we can be. This requires us to be bold enough to talk clearly about our financial needs.
A few years ago Jan Park told us to be bold; she made a big, bold financial contribution with a special purpose: to help us to become a beacon of social justice; to live out that part of our affirmation that says, ‘service is it’s law.’ As a result, we brought David Vita on board, and we’re in the process of beginning to absorb his salary into our annual budget.
When you stop to think of it, there have been a lot of big, bold moves to get our congregation to the place we’re at today. More big, bold moves are needed, and each of us needs to be a part of it by committing ourselves financially.
With over 300 children registered in our religious education program, we need more staff to carry the responsibility.
We’ve been very fortunate to have Jamie Forbes for eight years, and she’s going to stay on, but in a new, creative capacity, helping our young people to learn to be generous, helping them to be socially responsible, sensitive to the needs of others.
So I’m asking you to be generous in your giving, pledging an amount you can afford, of course, but also an amount that makes you feel good.
There are reasons why some folks lack a generous spirit – some are deep, psychological or spiritual reasons, some are simply crass reasons that could be changed with the stroke of a pen on a pledge card, and checks put into the plate each week or mailed each month.
Charles Dickens created the character known for his stinginess, but old Scrooge had a powerful encounter with the forces in him that were way down deep ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’ And he changed, simply by becoming a generous man.
Generosity is generative…it generates a spiritual energy.
We usually think of generosity in terms of money, of giving money. But there are other kinds of generosity, as mentioned earlier.
We need generous members and friends…
The pledge you make to this year’s budget is a message in a bottle that will be found floating in future generations.
Send a clear message to those who will sit in this sanctuary long after we’re gone.
Let them know that back in 2007 the folks who sat here were bold, stepping up to the staffing needs of our congregation.
Send a message in memory of those folks in our memorial garden, folks who inhabit our memory as fresh and real as the faces around us today.
Let this continue to be a place from which a beacon of light shines across the rough seas of racism, the hatred by the name of homophobia, the sexism that has lingered far too long and elitism that …
So I’m joining with Allen, our Board and canvass committee in asking you to ‘be bold!’