September 11, 2011
Scripture: Ex 14:19-31
The Heart in a Heartless World,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
She didn’t know how to swim. But she loved the water. As soon as the shore was in sight, she would run down to the water ahead of her mother and little brother, ahead of me, her little four-year old arms flailing at her sides and she would put her feet in the water and squeal with delight. “I want my frog!” she would turn to us and say. So, her mother would reach in to the little red wagon that we pulled all the way to the beach and take out the blow-up turtle that she called a frog. To her, it was a frog.
I watched as her mother set it down on the skin of the water and there it floated, moving to and fro with the subtle tide of the ocean. Her mother lifted her small daughter onto the back of the beloved turtle/frog; one leg hanging down on either side of the plastic animal and as if trotting a pony around the ring at the county fair, her mother led her around the shallow water, her daughter on top of her turtle/frog gliding along its surface, squealing with delight. She didn’t know how to swim, but she loved the water.
The boy’s name was Santiago. Though he was probably older than the age that you or I would consider to be still a “boy,” the boy’s name was Santiago, as the story goes – the story of the Alchemist – have any of you read this story? Santiago was born in a small Andalusian village in Spain and ever since he was very young, his parents wanted him to be a priest. They spent all of their money sending him to seminary to study until he was 16 years old. But, like most children who are products of a predestined career path, Santiago decided he didn’t want to be a priest, he wanted to explore the world so he left seminary and his poor village and he became a shepherd. His parents gave him their blessing and even three ancient Spanish gold coins with which he could buy a flock of sheep. He set off with his sheep and traveled the countryside, seeing and experiencing the ways of the world. He was happy – but he began to wonder – as people who set out in faith for a foreign land often do – is this really my life’s purpose. He feared it was not.
It wasn’t long after that he started having these bizarre dreams, involving the pyramids in Egypt and a treasure, and he started meeting some strange people in his travels - gypsies and kings. An old man he meets toward the beginning of the story urges him to sell his sheep, to go to Egypt, to see the pyramids, and to look for his treasure – all in the quest of discovering his Personal Legend. Santiago didn’t know what a Personal Legend was. So the old man explains to him:
Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.
I won’t give away the story, because it’s one you really should read, but I will say the boy, Santiago, goes to Egypt in search of his Personal Legend. He steps out in faith for a foreign land; he sells his flock of sheep - the only thing he has to his name - and he misses each one of them dearly as he journeys on his quest. But he journeys still.
The book of Exodus stands as perhaps the most well known story of journey and quest, the one that resides at the very heart of our memory of faith. The Hebrew people could have stayed in Egypt. They could have remained in captivity. Moses could have denied God’s call to lead the people into the strange and foreign Promised Land. But, he didn’t. Instead Moses chose to step out in faith, to lead this outnumbered and outgunned group of former slaves against Pharaoh’s army to what he hoped was a better land, a place where his people could begin to write their own story. And when, with God at their back and Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, the Israelite army came to an impassable barrier, the Red Sea, Moses stared fear in the eye and famously stretched out his hand over the sea - it parted, straight down the middle, turning into dry land allowing his people to pass clear over to the other side.
The country of India could have remained under British rule with no civil rights had not Mohandas Gandhi stepped out in faith to voice a new kind of protest which allowed his people to cross over to the other side of freedom. Our American sisters and brothers held in slavery so long ago could have remained so had not Dr. King stepped out in faith to respond to the cries of his people, extended his hand and made a way where there was none. South Africa would have remained a nation divided had not Nelson Mandela spoke a word of reconciliation when otherwise there was none to be heard. From Moses to Mandela, these are people who from their youth never lost sight of their call from God – their Personal Legend - so much so that they looked fear straight in the eye in order to live it. Journey and quest; fear and hope; freedom and reconciliation.
Pharaoh was never named in the story of the exodus, just as since September 11, 2001 our enemy has not been named as an individual – even not the one Osama bin Laden, for threats persists still – but, like Pharaoh, you have heard it said that our enemy is a force of evil and terror in the world.
Today we honor the men and women who looked fear in the eye against an unknown enemy – thousands whose names we will never know. And, we are asked to demonstrate that same bravery as we are propelled into the future. So that we remember 9/11 not with some kind of voyeuristic emotionalism but that we remember with respect and honor, to step out into faith as they have, to make a way when otherwise there would be none. Particularly as Christians in the coming days and weeks and years ahead to lead with words of love and gestures of peace.
This past Thursday I was stuck in afternoon school traffic on 37 here, heading home from the church. The crossing guard stopped me right in front of St. Francis when the school there was being let out – and for those of who have had this experience, you know that when this happens it’s as if South Braintree Square is being invaded by hundreds of little creatures with colorful backpacks. To my left, I could see a mass of children huddled outside the school and perhaps because it was just days before 9/11, I noticed that it was multicolored. There were Asian and Hispanic; black and white children gathered together waiting for their parents to retrieve them. Then, stopped there at the cross walk, two little boys walked in front of my car, one black and one white, holding hands and peacefully crossing over from one side of the street to the other. A common sight, thank God, in this country, but one that caused me pause this week especially.
We have the power, right here, each one of us at First Congregational Church in Braintree, Massachusetts on this day – whether you’re a member here or simply gracing the pews of this sanctuary with your presence on this day – you and I have the power to live as God has called us to live. To preserve the spirit of unity in diversity that exists in this country, to offer the kind of peace to the world that surpasses all understanding. If we step out in faith, we can meet ruminations of evil with love and violence with grace.
I heard it once preached that it takes great courage to be human. This was true in Moses’ day as it is in ours. After all, each one of us was once that child who did not know how to swim, but loved the water and trusted that our parent would lead us safely above its depths. At some point along the way we become the adults who endorse headlines on the 6 0’clock news warning, “Taking your kids to the park? You may want to think again; new studies have shown that metal playground slides could be harming your children.” Jesus asks us to be like the brave child rather than the fearful adult – when dealing in playground slides or threats of terror. Be the child who floated on water not knowing how to swim. Be the shepherd who sold his sheep in search of his call. Be the prophet who stared fear in the eye and parted the Red Sea waters.
In college I studied a bit of Karl Marx. If I’m idealistic now, then I was really idealistic then. If I ever needed a reminder to take the stars out of my eyes, it was at that time in my life. And we know that Marx famously said that “Religion is the opiate of the people.” He did say this and in fact he does mean that religion puts stars in peoples’ eyes and can mask social realities, but he also writes in that very same moment of his work, “That religion is the heart of a heartless world.” This is where Marx speaks to me. Religion is the heart of a heartless world.
We can be the heart in a heartless world; the hope in a hopeless world; the love in a world of hate; the faith in a world of fear. Of all lofty ideals and goals, hopes and dreams that we may have for our congregation this year – may this be the greatest of all – that we may be the heart in a heartless world. May we overcome our fear of the water enough to trust that God will carry us over the depths of the sea, that Moses’ hand will part the waters before us, with the breath of God at our back. And, we will cross over safely to the other side.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life
September 4, 2011
Scripture: Ex 3: 1-15
The Spirit of Camp,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
He began by recalling the night his parents announced their divorce. They called him and his two little brothers into the room. They sat them down at the kitchen table and they told their three children the news that their family would no longer be that same family. Things would be different. But it wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. But things would be different from now on. Completely blindsided by this news with two brothers far too young to truly understand the significance of divorce, Tim was left alone to wonder at the newly uncertain future.
He grew even more confused and concerned and angry and scared and broken as his father began to sink into a deep and severe depression. “I have terrible thoughts about what I could do to myself,” his father would tell him over the phone.
Through all of this, Tim shared, it was camp that kept him going. Even in the darkest of dark days in the middle of winter, he would imagine the faces of the people at camp and could begin to feel the spirit of that place. And, he knew that he would be ok. Thank you. Thank you. He repeated over and over again.
By the dim light of the bonfire, I watched this young man crumple up the single piece of paper that he held and toss it into the fire. He turned away from the center of the circle and found his place in the sea of teenagers that surrounded him on that last night that he would spend at camp as a high school senior.
At that moment the voices around the campfire grew out of the silence, out of the pines, out of the dark, clear, night singing:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see…
“The first summer I came to camp I was going into seventh grade and I had just become homeless for the first time.” Heart and eyes now fully opened, I watched and I listened as the next senior began to speak her story, to offer her testimony. She remembered that it was nighttime; that the day had nearly ended without a fight when she heard her mom and stepdad screaming at each other. It was the night her stepdad found out that her mother had told her who her real father was. He was enraged. He told her to get out because she was stupid and ugly and no good. So she left the house with her mom and they temporarily moved to an apartment. This happened a few more times throughout junior high and high school. Her mom kept going back to her stepdad and he would kick them out. He would tell them to leave and they would. Then her mom would go back.
The campfire continued to burn in the heart of our large circle and this young woman’s words just melted into the air, “For that one week that I spent at camp in the summer,” she said, “I could believe that I was good enough. And now, because of the weeks I have spent here in this place, I know I am beautiful and strong even though I was only ever told just the opposite. Because of the confidence that each of you have given me and the love you have shown me, I can stand here and speak to you tonight.”
When she was finished, this 18-year old woman rolled her single sheet of paper that she had been reading from into a careful ball and she threw it into the flames of the campfire and she watched it burn. I looked up at the sky, full of beautiful pinholes revealing just how far we were from Braintree or Weymouth or Quincy or Hingham and just then voices emerged again out of the darkness with the second verse of that familiar tune:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart my heart to fear
and grace my fears relieved
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed…
Do you remember this story - Moses and the burning bush? Moses and the burning, living presence of God? Do you remember learning it as a child-perhaps one among those stories so easily forgotten? Do you remember Moses? An ordinary man. A child conceived in a time of oppression, born in a time of bondage and slavery of his people. Moses. A Hebrew born in Egypt. Right before the time of Moses’ birth, Pharaoh, the King of Egypt commanded all of his people to take every Hebrew boy that was born and throw them into the Nile River. But, Moses’ mother tenderly and secretly crafted a special basket for her baby boy and she put him inside and she set the basket on top of some reeds on the bank of the river and she left him there, alone, praying that his life might somehow be spared. And, it was.
So many years after his mother left him in a basket on the bank of the river, Moses was busy tending some sheep when all of the sudden he notices a bush that had caught on fire. He looks at this bush and he sees that although there are flames on it, the bush itself was not actually burning. Very strange, Moses thought. So, Moses stops leading the sheep and moves closer to the bush to try to understand what’s going on. When God saw that Moses had turned to see, he called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses responded, “Here I am.”
“Come no closer!” God commanded, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for you are standing on holy ground.”
Then God told Moses, “I have chosen you. You will go to Pharaoh and you will lead your people out of Egypt. I have chosen you.” You. The Hebrew baby in a handmade basket abandoned on the reeds of the riverbank. I have chosen you.
Do you remember this story – Moses and the burning bush? In many ways, I found camp to be like the burning bush for the young people that found themselves there. A curious distraction at first that turns out to be a dynamic force containing the living, breathing, burning presence of God. Throughout the week and especially on the last night of camp, when I heard of the experiences these kids had growing up I was overwhelmed by where they had been and the situations that they had come from. Like Moses, some of these kids had been born into incredibly difficult circumstances – addiction, abuse, divorce, bullying – and they had every reason to believe that they were alone. Yet at camp, on the shore of the lake and by the burning flames of the bonfire, thousands of kids over the past fifty years have heard the voice of God calling out to them, speaking their name and hearing God say, “I choose you.”
One of the staff counselors who has been coming to camp for over 12 years said during one the of the Chapel messages that he gave while we were at camp, “Camp is my faith.”
Another senior camper said about camp in his testimony at the last campfire, “We don’t live here, but this is our home.”
This is grace. I was lost, but now am found. This, is amazing. Was blind, but now I see. This is the spirit of camp. It’s the living presence of God. It’s faith. It’s home. It’s redemption. It’s love. It’s holy ground. I bring these stories to you this morning because they are a part of our story, First Congregational Church. The burning bush is right here in our midst and you have offered it to countless young people in your lifetime through sponsoring our youth group to attend camp each year for the past fifty plus years. Standing by the light of the dancing flames of fire, as the seniors say to one another on that last night they’ll spend at camp as a camper, so they also say to you: thank you. Thank you.