River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Comforting the Afflicted

A Sermon by the Rev. Phyllis LeNoir Hubbell
Preached at the River Road Unitarian Church
March 26, 2000


Kathleen Norris, poet and author, has taught writing classes in the public schools of South Dakota. In her book, Dakota, she tells a story about one of her students. Norris had given this class an assignment and was walking up and down the aisle to see how they were doing:

"When my third snail died," the little girl writes, sitting halfway in, halfway out of her desk, one leg swinging in air," I said, I'm through with snails.'"

I'm going to tell you a story about a member of our congregation. I've changed some of the details to protect privacy, but the facts are essentially true. Five years ago, we held our first coming of age class at our church. In it was the fifteen-year-old grandson of long-time members of the church. On the day of the ceremony, this boy spoke eloquently of his beliefs. Afterwards, someone was so impressed, she asked him for a copy of his remarks.

A year later, the boy was in the kitchen fixing a snack when he fell over, dead. Heart attack. Gone in seconds. In preparing for the funeral, I learned that the grandparents had lost a daughter thirty years earlier. Last night, I learned that their second child has just been told that he may have Lou Gehrig's disease.

"When my third snail died," . . . I said, "I'm through with snails.'"

Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once said that the purpose of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. While I hope my congregation would tell you that I preach passionately about justice issues, especially those involving discrimination, I have again and again returned to the question of where is there comfort in our faith for those of us who are afflicted. Today the subject has particular poignancy for me. Some of you may have read the column I wrote about my mother that Scott reprinted in your newsletter recently. A week ago last Wednesday, after several years of declining health, my beloved mother died.

I do not know most of you here this morning. But I know that among you are people like me still grieving from your own losses. Some are so great - the death of a child or a spouse with whom you have spent a lifetime that they never fully leave us. But among us too, are people worrying about their own health, those who have lost a job or live in fear of getting the bad news, those whose spouse has left or is threatening to go, those who have been taunted or even attacked on the streets because they are of a different color, or gays or lesbians or transsexuals. As the Buddha says, we live in a world of suffering, even if it appears amid much beauty and love. Sometimes as a minister, I find the stories I hear keep me awake nights and bring tears to my eyes. A gay parishioner tells me that twenty-three of his friends have died of AIDS. Twenty-three friends. How do you get out of bed in the morning when twenty-three of your friends have died?

Often, we turn to church not for theological reasons, but simply because we hurt. We come to church seeking community, seeking an extended family who will support us in times of trouble, seeking people who will treat us with love and respect and acceptance unlike the sometimes cruel world we encounter. We hope that in church we will find people who will embody the words spoken from the pulpit. We seek here people acting at their best all of the time. Perhaps even a new love that will be truer, finer than the old. We seek here a secret garden hidden from the world, "where love grows deep and true." A place where we can find renewal and hope. "And everywhere will be called Eden once again."

That's a tall order for any church to fill. Let's face it, The same kinds of people inhabit churches as we find outside of them. That's why organized religion has historically done such frightful things in the name of a loving god. We ourselves are not much kinder inside these walls than outside them. Churches at their best may produce grand moments of refuge for weary souls, but they, too, harbor tensions. Some are generated over holy causes. But others occur simply because human beings create and people churches. Much as we may try, much as we may want to, as we grow closer to one another, we also increase our ability to hurt one another.

But we who are Unitarian Universalists face another problem. We offer an ambiguous faith, filled with uncertainty. While some of us may believe in a personal god that loves each one of us, most of us have no such comfort. Within the last two months, two of my congregants struggling with problems told me that they wished they could have that certainty - that somewhere a divinity rested waiting for them when they died. Last week, at my mother's memorial service we sang that old song, "Abide with me."

When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Where do we turn when those we count on for help fail us and all our comforts flee? What is there to help us?

Believing in a personal god that always brings good things to good people may be comforting until we love someone who personifies goodness like my mother did who is stricken with a terrible disease. My mother has a disease that ate away at her brain and her nervous system until she lost the use of her legs, her eyes. Language failed her. She could no longer control her bladder. She had no strength left to suck water with a straw.

We all have known Job. We watch the kindest and the best stricken by a thousand blows, until they fall at last from burdens too great to bear.

And yet, and yet. Something calls us to goodness, to justice, to mercy and compassion. Something creates the miracle that is life. Something creates beauty, music, love. That something is a mystery. It may be one. It may be many. If we look at it closely we may see that what creates also destroys. If something calls us to goodness, we must also concede we feel a call to complacency, to greed, to lust, even to cruelty.

Our faith demands that we choose goodness, choose justice, choose mercy, choose compassion. Our faith assures us that no matter how often others may fail us, how often we may fail them, all of us hear this call. Our faith rests in this unnameable, invisible source of all that gives life meaning, all that gives life worth.

I see it in my congregation. One of the most ardent atheists, devotes his life to goodness - risking his life to bring medicine to parts of the world where war has brought devastation to both sides. He has given up the possibility of a life of ease to donate his time. Some powerful conviction which may or may not have a name also leads his wife to go to jail in the cause of peace. Call it conscience. Call it god. It does not matter.

Something similar leads my congregants, theists and atheists alike into the most amazing acts of kindness. Recently someone's father died. Another congregant, not a wealthy one, sent her a check - a large check -- out of the clear blue because "she knew money was tight." Two of my congregants literally saved another's life when he was dying from AIDS by confronting his doctors who saw no need to treat this poor, black, gay man aggressively. A new member joined the church after several years as a friend while she was struggling with breast cancer. She told us she didn't join so much because of our beliefs. She joined because we were kinder to her even than her friends were as she was going through all of this. One couple in the church brought her a meal every week.

We fail. We are not always kind or patient. Often, we don't even know each other well enough to realize when people are in need. The man who is thinking of suicide may seek help a tenth or twentieth time and find that we are exhausted. Sometimes our needs are so great no mortal can help. We want someone to hold us in their arms not for a few moments, but for days, for years. We want to find perfect understanding. We want people to love us while we rage on about the unfairness of life. People offer a hand when we need both their arms. A child shows us a rainbow when we want her to heal the dying. God sends us music when we were demanding a resurrection.

"When other helpers fail, and comforts flee." It is then that we need to know that somehow, somewhere, something in the universe remains waiting, calling us to love one another. It is this source of love, this source of the divine, which appears and disappears, reappears and vanishes, that abides, waiting for us, reflected in one another's faces, in one another's hearts, in one another's arms. I like to think that it has embraced my mother. I know that it embraces me.

I started this sermon today with a story of a little girl engrossed in writing about the death of a snail. Her third, to be exact. At the end of Kathleen Norris' class, the little girl called to her, holding out her paper. Here is her finished composition:

When my third snail died, I said, "I'm through with snails," But I didn't mean it.

Our purpose as a religious community is to help one another find our way back to Eden when we are lost in despair. To discover and rediscover love, beauty, hope, joy are only hiding, have been there all along, surrounding us, embracing us, steady, unchanging. To be able to say once more, "Yes."

The last two lines of the third verse of "Abide with me" are these: Where is death's sting? Where grave thy victory? I triumph still if thou abide with me.

Love abides. Life abides. Joy abounds. May we have eyes to see. Ears to hear. Hearts that stay open.