I’ve been thinking about the first sermon I delivered from this pulpit. It was our introduction to one another, at the beginning of candidating week, March 25, 1984.
Candidating week involves two sermons; one at the start of the week, and one at the other end, after meeting with committees and as many people as possible during an intense week between those two sermons.
Then people vote with secret ballot.
After I was here for about a year I said, “There were four people who voted against me, and I’ve discovered sixteen of them so far.”
During that first candidating sermon I was nervous, of course. So, to break the ice with a joke. It was one of those jokes that tries to to make a point. I told one of my favorite Charlie Brown stories.
You may remember:
Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus were lying in the grass on a beautiful summer day, watching the clouds, hands behind their heads. The clouds were wonderful that day, forming themselves into all kinds of shapes, the way a talented artist might make beautiful pictures of white on blue.
Lucy broke the silence: “Isn’t it beautiful! It’s so wonderful, so amazing. What a day to be alive and to be here together. Do you guys see things in the clouds?”
Linus responds: “I’m so glad you’ve mentioned it, Lucy. I was thinking the same thing. And I’ve allowed my imagination to take me where it will, it’s such a liberating feeling when you do that, don’t you think? I mean, you see those clouds in the northwest? There’s one in particular, right there, which reminds me so much of Thomas Ekins famous portrait of Walt Whitman which he painted in Camden, New Jersey where the poet lived following his stroke at age 58.”
“And there’s another, just ten degrees east of Whitman — a remarkable outline of the stoning of Steven, which I believe to be one of the most penetrating metaphors in the Gospels and the essence of the Christian message. It is, perhaps, the quintessential Christian paradigm.”
“And far to the southeast is that patch of broken clouds which looks like a thousand islands in a vast sea, bringing to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s imprisonment in the infamous Gulag Archipelago. It calls to mind the remarkable changes in the former Soviet Union which I believe Solzhenitsyn had a serious hand in.”
After a pregnant pause Lucy responds, “That’s wonderful Linus. Just wonderful. Charlie Brown, do you see things in the clouds?”
Charlie Brown says, “I was going to say I saw a horsie and a duckie, but I’m not going to say it now!”
Now why do you suppose I used that story in my first sermon from this pulpit?
In that sermon I also used part of the story of the Velveteen Rabbit:
“What is REAL,” asked the rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz in side you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” Said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without those uncomfortable things happening to him.
There are some with sharp edges who are difficult to deal with. There are some who have to be carefully kept. We say they are high maintenance.
There are some who break easily, of course.
This magic thing about being Real to one another doesn’t happen easily, or all at once. It takes time. And effort. And risk.
But it takes more than time. It requires opportunities to interact in important, meaningful ways, the way we do when people come forward on a Sunday morning to light a candle in memory of a loved one, or to offer support to a loved one who is undergoing surgery or some difficult time; and it takes things like sharing a wedding, funeral or memorial service, or the birth of a child who parents bring forth the way they did today to dedicate that child.
And, yes, sometimes it hurts.
I spoke in that sermon about disappointments. Sometimes we are disappointed in one another, that’s the way it is.
And I spoke about having reasonable and realistic expectations — otherwise we are easily disappointed and the disappointment turns to resentment.
I asked a question: What do we expect from one another?
What do you hope? Hope is different from expectation. We have to have hope.
Looking back over these sixteen years, so far, I think we’ve become very Real — to one another.
Sometimes I’ve been disappointed in myself, in my own work. Sometimes I think I should teach more — I should get into the Bible and the Koran — the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tao Te Ching; that I should read from Emerson more — and Channing, Parker and the others.
I’ll keep trying. And I’ll continue to find poems — yes, the poems that speak to me, which I hope will speak to you, too.
But the most important thing is this thing about being Real together — which is the essence of community — is that we are sharing a portion of our lives. That we are honest. That we take the risk of revealing vulnerabilities.
In our affirmation every Sunday we say that “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
You can’t love what you don’t know. So we need to spend the necessary time and effort getting to know one another; we need to welcome newcomers, and get to know them, and provide opportunities for them to get to know us. It’s an ongoing process. We’re a verb.
Of course when you love someone, that love gets transferred to others, even to those we don’t know. The source of love, or loving, gets nurtured and it develops within each of us.
Let me ask: Do the names Carol and David Clemetson sound familiar?
Carol and David Clemetson were 40 years old when they went down in the Alaskan airlines crash this week — with their children Coriander, 9; Blake, 7; Miles 6; and Spencer, 6 months.
I read their names in the passenger and crew list published in the New York Times. I was on the train, going to a conference on the Koran at Temple Emanuel in the City. I had to stop reading. I had to put the paper down. I wept.
Suddenly it was real! They were real. So real! They were a family, traveling together, and I could picture them in my mind’s eye. They were a family who died together, and that picture was too powerful to look at with the naked eye.
When I walk on the hill — our Memorial Garden — I stop and read names on the plaques. Then the ministry I’ve had here, among you, is so, so very real! There are nearly 60 names on plaques for people I knew and cared for — people at whose services I officiated — that were interred in the garden. There were about 200 others who were interred elsewhere.
Yes, sometimes it hurts.
We ask, of course, if the pain is necessary. Sometimes it seems to hurt more than is necessary. Sometimes pain is inflicted without cause. There’s such a thing as evil in the world. And there’s sadism. And there’s ignorance. And there’s incompetence. Any of these may cause or create more pain than is necessary.
To illustrate let me provide a benign example of what I mean. Some years ago, while at a clergy conference in Northern Connecticut, I went swimming where I should not have gone, and things started to grow in my ears — things which should have been growing under water in that pond.
I went to a specialist whose task it was to remove these things.
He put a vacuum cleaner kind of thing in one ear and turned it on. I jumped away. The pain was excruciating! I thought he was pulling my ear drum out, and I didn’t want to cooperate with that kind of mistake!
“One of us is going to have to be still,” he said, in an agitated, condescending tone — in his heavy Indian accent.
“Well, one of us should tell the other one that it’s going to hurt like hell,” I said. “I thought you were pulling my ear drum out of my head.” I didn’t want to be complicitous in the job!
Sometimes it hurts, but we want and need to know if ‘this pain is necessary.’
There were two other things in that first sermon which I want to include.
The first is a little poem written by a woman who was a member of the first congregation I served, in Lexington. Ruth Codier was a patent attorney who, as I understand it, was the last to become a patent attorney without attending law school. Like Lincoln, she took the bar exam — a long time ago.
Ruth was an ardent feminist, ecologist, and worker for peace and justice, and she didn’t suffer fools gladly; she didn’t put up with any nonsense.
Quite frankly, she frightened me. At first. Just to look at her sitting there in the congregation with a stern, hard look on her face made me anxious.
One of my tasks in that Assistantship was to edit the church newsletter. Once I edited a piece Ruth had written, which I thought was too long, and I needed to make it fit.
She came in the day after the newsletter was mailed and cornered me: “Did you edit my piece?” I confessed. She said, “Don’t you ever touch something I write. If you need to ask me about it then call, but don’t edit what I write!”
A year or so later Ruth said one day, “You know, you could be my friend, but don’t ever try to be my minister. I don’t like ministers!” I knew what she meant: she didn’t like feeling patronized. I knew her well enough, by then, to understand what she meant.
When I left the Lexington congregation to go to Attleboro, Ruth wrote a poem and sent it to me:
you stood me
it could be
you stood me
I concluded that first sermon with one of my favorite readings — which I know is often over-done, but is seldom really heard, if you know what I mean:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, and if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing..
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on having its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in things that are wrong but rejoices only in things that are right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Love never ends. As for tongues they will cease, and as for prophecies they will cease, and as for knowledge it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect, but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.
When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I stopped being childish. For now we see as if in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part, but then we shall understand fully even as we have been fully understood.
So faith, hope and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.