Kneeling in the Snow

The First Parish of Watertown

December 4, 2016

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

 Opening Words    from “Ma Rainey,” by Sterling Brown

They come to hear Ma Rainey from the little river settlements,
From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps;
They stumble in the hall, just a-laughin’ an’ a-cacklin’,
Cheerin’ like roarin’ water, like wind in river swamps.

And some jokers keeps their laughs a-goin’ in the crowded aisles,
And some folks sits there waiting with their aches and miseries,
Till Ma comes out….

O Ma Rainey,
Sing your song;
Now you’s back
Where you belong,
Get way inside us,
Keep us strong. . . .
O Ma Rainey,
Little and low

Sing us ’bout the hard luck
Round our door;
Sing us ’bout the lonesome road
We must go


Time for All Ages     A Zen Koan

The Master summoned the Student one Autumn day as the winds began to chill the fields near the school.

The Master said, ‘I offer you the gift of patience. You may receive this gift at this moment or you may receive it later.’

The Student replied, ‘I would like this gift now, Master.’

The Master lowered his eyes and said, quietly, ‘You are dismissed.’

A week later, the Student encountered the Master and said, ‘Master, I am confused.’

The Master said, ‘You may choose again,’ and the Student said, ‘I will receive this gift, then, later.’

The Master, once more, lowered his eyes and said, ‘You are dismissed.’

Time passed, and the snow covered the fields and the streams near the school froze in their beds, and the dry air crackled when the Master summoned the Student.

The Master gazed upon the Student and the Student said, ‘Master, I would decline this gift.’

The Master smiled at the student, looking directly into his eyes, and said, ‘You are dismissed.’


Reading   from Mary Rose O’Reilly, The Barn at the End of the World

One day last winter, on a date sacred on various religious calendars, “I went for a walk among bare oaks and birch. Nothing much was going on. Scarlet sumac had passed and the bees were dead. The pond had slicked overnight into that shiny and deceptive glaze of delusion, first ice. It made me conjure a vision of myself skimming backward on one bladed foot, the other extended; the arms become wings. Minnesota girls know that this is not a difficult maneuver if one is limber and practices even a little after school before the boys claim the rink for hockey. I think I can still do it – one thinks many foolish things when winter’s bright sun skips over the entrancing first freeze.

A flock of sparrows reels through the air looking more like a flying net than seventy conscious birds, a black veil thrown on the wind. When one sparrow dodges, the whole net swerves, dips: one mind. Am I part of anything like that?

Maybe not. The last few years of my life have been characterized by stripping away, and this solitude is one of the surprises of middle age, especially if one’s youth has been rich in love and friendship and children. … So the soul must stand in her own meager feathers and learn to fly – or simply take hopeful jumps into the wind.

It’s an ugly woods, I was saying to myself, padding along a trail where other walkers had broken ground before me. And then I found an extraordinary bouquet. Someone had bound an offering of dry seed pods, yew, lyme grass, red berries, and brown fern and laid it on the path: “nothing special,” as Buddhists say, meaning “everything.” Gathered to formality, each dry stalk proclaimed a slant, an attitude, infinite shades of neutral.

All contemplative acts, silences, poems, honor the world this way. Brought together by the eye of love, a milkweed pod, a twig, allow us to see how things have been all along. A feast of being.”

Sermon    Kneeling in the Snow

When you go out into the world, what do you look at?  Where do you turn your eye?  To the streets – a current-day Whitman, perhaps, noting the people – the woman in her fleece pajamas with her tiny leashed dog, which could almost be mistaken for one of her slippers; the kind man whose glasses glint hello as he walks to the library each day; the woman with amazing calf muscles, who commutes on the type of bike I didn’t think they made any more; no gears, no special tires.  She usually has a bag or two slung over the upright handlebars, and she never looks tired.  Maybe you notice the physical environment – the house on the corner of Fayette and Church streets, half-torn down and with mattresses blocking the doorways; the old stones of a foundation tumbled about; the pink roses that, incredibly, were still in bloom last week in front of Mila Deluca-Pedersen’s house; the random spot where the workers stopped edging the curb with granite and switched over the asphalt; the banners hanging in Watertown Square, the historic figures who shaped our story gazing back at you, and permeating the landscape.

Or maybe you look down.  You watch your step, literally.  Careful of where your feet land, the places you wander into.  Sometimes it is a way of tuning in to your own thoughts; just blocking out the world around you.  And sometimes it is what the world demands of you; a way of being on alert; keeping safe.

It could be – and probably is, if I am realistic – that you look at your device.  Texts.  I can’t get over how many people walk and drive while staring at their screens.  Although, I must say, I LOVED watching all the people hunting Pokemon this summer.  It was fun, and hopeful – exciting.  All these people who are so often hidden emerged, and were in turn searching for something I couldn’t see.

Perhaps you turn your eye heaven-wards – to the hills, for strength; the clouds, promising change; the sun and its warmth; the stars, for a glimmer of hope.

Last month I was sitting in a meeting room at a Minneapolis hotel stuck between an airport and a wildlife refuge that is part of the National Park Service, thinking about love.  How can you measure it?  What does it look like?   I was at a talk about the survival of the Universalist side of our religious identity; which, for those of you who are not quite as passionate about history as the folks in my house, is the part of our religion that is associated with love.  Our denomination is 55 years old, formed by a merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the stereotype is that we live in a perpetual tug of war between the bookish rational Unitarian types, a bit stiff and probably with the means to be comfortable if we believed in such a state; and the agrarian family centered Universalists who are plenty warm even though there is no hell fire burning below.

There is a zen like possibility here – head and heart; urban and rural; elite and just plain folk – but the fear has been that the merger was not equal; that the Universalist name was tacked on, their resources absorbed, but their message of inspiring love rather than dispensing truth was not taken seriously. The worry is that the love has been lost.

This presentation in the hotel, examining the centrality of love in our faith today, was a very 21st century affair.  Thousands of pages of required reading for current ministerial student were scanned, in order to quantify how much love there was among the Unitarians, and the Universalists; and then, after merger, did the amount of love go up, or down?

But wait!  I wanted to interrupt.  What is love?  How do you know?  I for one have been fooled by it, and I know plenty of you have been, too.  And what kind of love do you mean?  Protective, nurturing, responsible; like a parent to a child; or something more like adoration, and blind faith?  How do you reconcile counting words with embodying a feeling?  And what about who or what the love is being ascribed to? The idea of a loving God can actually be less inclusive than simply caring for one another. Isn’t it more to the point to just get on with offering our hands and hearts to one another; to see the needs and hear the sighs, and know they are our own?  What I really wanted to know was why one side has to win.  Why can’t we be who we are, both/and, whole?

I found myself thinking back to an observation I made about ten years ago, wondering why I had never noticed earlier.  The branches on evergreen trees point down.  They start higher on the trunk, and then aim slightly towards the earth; that lovely tapered shape of our Christmas trees; but on deciduous trees – the ones that lose their leaves – the main branches reach up, like arms grasping for the sun.  There are practical reasons for this, involving shedding snow so branches don’t break, and letting light in so leaves can grow – but I was thinking about love; and directionality.  What flows down, to us from the heavens above; and what is sent aloft, soaring towards the light?  And I was thinking about  Jesus, born low in the stable among the animals, and reaching up to become part of the royal house; and Guatama, born a prince in the hills of India, seeking a way in to the valley of ordinary life, of suffering and loss.

Meanwhile, I was in such an odd landscape – perhaps for the simple reason that it was foreign to me.  I had never been in Minnesota before, and I agreed to go for a silly reason.  I wanted to see the Mississippi River.  Years ago I learned in a song that the river started there, in the land of a thousand lakes, and that you could cross it in five steps, even though by the time it rolled south the water was impossibly wide; a separation so vast we are still unmoored by it.  But in Minneapolis, the airport and all its ring roads didn’t really end before we were surrounded by what seemed like miles of military graves; a quarter million white stones lined up like so many squared shoulders behind black iron fencing; then, the broad boulevard and a cluster of long-term parking garages, and alongside them, hotels.  Ours was in the back, one block off the main road, and if we had turned right instead of left, we would have been in the wildlife refuge instead.  It didn’t look like much – a long, low visitor’s building was all you could see; but from the 8th floor of the hotel, that building became a gateway to small rolling hills in various shades of yellow and green, and then a winding blue ribbon of river.  Nesting sites for herons, egrets and bald eagles lined up along the runways for the giant metal birds that carried us in and out of this place that had once been the western frontier.  What does love look like?  Where does it look to?

Mary Rose O’Reilly, in a book different from the one used in today’s reading, said that as a child she had “fallen into a geography of light;” looking to the sky for direction.  She thought it was because her father had been a pilot; that her whole family was attuned to what was happening in the sky, and that it took her some time to look around her instead; to see the ground; or even to look inside herself as well as outside. In her words, I heard Thoreau:  Heaven is under our feet as well as above our heads.

That line comes from a chapter of Walden called “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau is kneeling in the snow, boring holes in the ice and calculating the volume of the pond, which is also a way of measuring himself.  He writes of the impossibility of getting a level read; and he is talking about the uneven surface of the ice, but also of our ethical selves.  “We are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the most part,” avoid the depths, stand off “on a harborless coast, and converse only with themselves” he says.  He wants to go wide and deep; to count every hidden cove and secret inlet, and to find the true bottom of the pond, to see if its lows correspond to the peaks of the hills nearby. The frozen pond, its surface mottled with shallow puddles, becomes a kind of looking glass.  He writes, “I saw a double shadow of myself, one standing on the head of the other, one on the ice, the other on the trees or hillside.”

How are we to look at this world?  I have had to practice this week.  Originally my mind was partly on Standing Rock, the Lakota reservation where the water supply is threatened by an oil pipeline.  The Army Corps or Engineers has said that as of tomorrow, the water protectors at Standing Rock must leave, or risk arrest.  The state of North Dakota announced that taking supplies to the protestors can get you fined to the tune of $1000 for each infraction.  Today is the Interfaith Day of Prayer at Standing Rock, and I believe it is helping. On Friday, over two thousand veterans decided to head to Standing Rock, arriving today and staying for at least three days.

All week, instead of writing, I have been watching the world around me, having trouble looking; having trouble turning away; waiting.  Thinking of our story this morning, I wonder — Did I receive my gift of patience when I should have rejected it? I do not need to recount it all – the fires, the tornadoes; the fists, sticks, knives and guns from Columbus to Aleppo; the Merrimack River flowing by.  Where do we turn our eyes, so that we see ourselves whole, and in context?

This is the time of year when nature grows quiet, uses less energy, sinks into dormancy.  It is the season of unseen change; of life that looks like death, and we learn to submit to it; to trust the outcome.  So often we represent winter as an old man, tilting against the wind and sleet, but the picture is not really one of age.  This is about endurance – how long can we go on with how little. Maybe it is also about learning we do not need so much after all.  So much of what we thought necessary was delusion. Now we relinquish our desires and our schedules and burrow down, reduce to the elemental, knowing that there is so much that is hidden –  in the world, and in ourselves.  The depths are not always visible; the ghosts of previous lives still inhabit our places and we do not always know where we are; what lies beyond the thin edges; what will emerge in a new season.  Our capacity for reverence deepens as we linger on days that are far too short for any of us to believe we have time.   At noon the shadows are already long and slanting; the sun gives way to the moon long before supper.  But a single light is enough to call us home.

Years ago, when Toni Morrison wrote the novel Beloved, she was awarded the Melcher prize, which comes from the Unitarian Universalist Association.  It goes each year to the book judged to make the most significant contribution to religious liberalism.  In her speech accepting the award, at First Parish in Cambridge, Morrison asked herself why she had written this book, which tells the story of a ghost – the spirit of a baby murdered by her mother, an escaped slave facing recapture.  Morrison said “ Well, it has become a little bit more clear to me, a year after Beloved, what perhaps, in very personal terms, the book has substituted for.

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to. But I didn’t know that before or while I wrote it. I can see now what I was doing on the last page. I was finishing the story, transfiguring and disseminating the haunting with which the book begins. Yes, I was doing that; but I was also doing something more. I think I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words.

In response to that speech, the Bench by the Side of the Road project began.  It took twenty years, but in 2008 the first of Morrison’s museum in the streets – a bench – was placed, at Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina.  This island – home to a National Park housing Fort Moultrie, with Fort Sumter hugging the shore nearby, in Charleston– was the entry point for approximately 40% of the West Africans enslaved in this country.  The picture of the ceremony moves me – three hundred people, mostly dressed in white, walking out on the water.  Of course it is not the exact pier that slave ships docked on, but it is the same place, the same ocean.  The people are all under yellow umbrellas, like they are carrying their own suns.

At the time, the plan was for ten benches to be placed in spots significant in African American history, to help us acknowledge our past, and to remember more fully.  But at least eleven benches have been placed by our road sides – and two of them are close by.  One is at Walden Pond, and another at Caesar Robbins house, the home of a former slave that was moved to site near the Old North Bridge.  Robbins home used to be on Brister’s Hill, overlooking Walden.  There is a kind of poetic irony; a bench for those who were granted no rest; a small spot to stop and gaze out on a vast history.   It is the nothing special that is everything, a feast of being.  Toni Morrison liked the simplicity and accessibility.  She said it was welcoming, open.   “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”

Research shows that our eyes turn different directions, based upon whether we are imagining – constructing an image – or remembering. When we recall smells of pine and cinnamon; the experience of cold pinching our noses or the warm embrace that stops us from shivering, our eyes turn one way; and when we are imagining what it might feel like to be truly free, or to live in peace, they turn another.   Maybe if we look straight ahead, we can find the balance between what we aspire to and what we feel ourselves to be; to knit the halves of ourselves together.  Maybe we can sit together, and close our eyes; brought to our knees by the knowledge that we are here, together, part of this day; that every faint footstep leading up to this place matters and is honored in our shared silence.  The horizon is as wide as the sky, and we are tethered to a world of meaning, even when darkness falls, because we are sitting here, together.


Closing Words– Andrew Wyeth

I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”