Sermon, June 5, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
Thank you, friends, for your care and well-wishes and offers of help while I was in COVID quarantine last week. I’m grateful to you, grateful to have only struggled with it for a few days, and grateful especially to Anton who agreed to step in on short notice to guide worship last week. I did not envy Anton’s role in taking the pulpit last week - for I, too, did not know how to preach a sermon in the midst of the pain and heartbreak we are all feeling for the parents, classmates and community of those 19 children and 2 teachers.
Let us pray…
Before my COVID diagnosis, I had been attending a conference called the Festival of Homiletics; Homiletics being a fancy word for preaching. It was basically preaching, teaching, and lecturing on the art of preaching. The theme of the week was After the Storm; Preaching and Trauma. And indeed, we have all been - and continue to - live in various stages of trauma right now, but it’s complicated, because it’s not a shared trauma like a world war, or a traumatic moment in time like 9/11. We have been living through 1 million COVID deaths nationwide - generally ensuring that everyone knows someone who has lost someone to COVID, and we feel that grief and loss for them. We’ve been living through a slow roll-back of our civil rights and democratic potency, watching a breakdown of a system (and the forewarnings of what is to come) in real time, and we feel that shock and alarm as part of our daily news intake. And then there’s the unending tally of gun violence; just in the last month, 10 elders in Buffalo, 19 children and 2 teachers in Uvalde, and 4 in the Tulsa hospital, all lives needlessly terminated and seemingly no recourse. Even untouched by these tragedies ourselves, we feel that pain and outrage, and struggle to find ways to heal.
The Festival featured some speakers trained in trauma response and they shared with us that when a person or people have been traumatized, they can experience a loss of identity, and a loss of purpose. A formerly driven, ambitious person can become blasé or indifferent to something they formerly loved. A community formerly proud can become unmoored, confused and bedraggled. They lose the sense of who they are and who they are meant to be in the world.
Trauma also shows up as specific emotions. It may manifest as a feeling of numbness or going dormant, which echoes the loss of identity and purpose, or a dark humor that covers despair with jokes. It also shows up as anger that is fueled by unacknowledged grief, or as an anxiety that comes out in controlling behavior and blocking new ideas in order to maintain the ‘norm’. These are all emotional responses to the experience of trauma - whether personal, collective, or experienced through compassion for others. And truly, I can see all of these in our collective mindset. The mass shootings are so frequent and so devastating that often we have to numb ourselves to get through the week. Late night comics cover up all our traumas with dark humor. I believe we have become a much more angry culture in general through COVID, with less patience to suffer fools and quicker flashpoints. And the anxious desire we have to control and not take unnecessary risks - whether in our family relationships or in our homes, in our friendships and communities, or even in our churches - shows itself in uncomfortable ways.
Trauma can make you think you have nothing of value to contribute. And what’s most worrisome, trauma can drive us away from what we most need - other people.
Thankfully, the Festival didn’t just lay out how to spot trauma, but also provided some guideposts on how to heal from trauma, and how we might practice this in our congregations. The first instruction they gave was to heal trauma by being present. Trauma can begin to be healed by intentionally employing the concept of presence in 3 ways; presence to others, presence to self, and presence to God. Today I want to focus on Presence to others.
Do any of you have that one friend, or two or three if you are extremely lucky - who when they spend time with you, you feel a sense of calm descend upon you? Someone who simply settles your soul with their company? For me, this usually happens when someone gives me their full attention. They may focus on me with really intuitive listening, watching for when my body language and expression reinforces or betrays what I’ve been saying. They compliment whatever I might be saying by searching for the right question to ask, a critical question that gives me a little more clarity or affirms what I’ve been already thinking. When I emerge from the time spent together, I often feel more calm, more resolved, and more at peace than when I started the conversation.
Do you have someone like that? Do you become like that for someone in your life?
That person is being present to you. They are intentionally focusing all their energy and attentiveness on your well-being while they are with you. That kind of listening is an effort, an art form, and a gift - but it is possible for all of us. It is not an inherent trait, but rather a learned skill - something that we can all adopt and utilize. In this day and age, when we all have our phones on the table, when there are TV’s hung like wallpaper in every restaurant, when alerts of the latest news breaks constantly in 180 character messages, when we are chronically distracted, the practice of being present and a good listener is a muscle that we must choose to build by intentionally practicing it in our daily interactions. It is a holy blessing and a self-less gift to have someone focus on you and listen with intention.
One way to begin to heal trauma is to show up with a consistent presence. Dr. Thema Bryant, speaker at the conference and the incoming president-elect of the American Psychological Association, likened this principle to the women in Jesus’ life. The women were with him during his ministry, and they were with him during his suffering. They were present when he was on trial, and called their presence to him while he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. They were there, at the foot of the cross, and they were the first to arrive at the tomb in the morning. The women always showed up. Even though they were not at peace, they were doing everything they could to comfort Jesus in his suffering.
Who offers you comfort in your times of pain?
Who shows up when you are bleeding, metaphorically?
Who stays when you are going through pain?
That consistency builds trust that begins the healing process for trauma.
Here we are in Pentecost, where the disciples were gathered all in one place, and then suddenly, literally, **blown out of the doors** by a powerful wind. They were huddled and hiding, and then God took charge and they burst through the doors into the street, into a crowd as diverse as the Jews themselves. You see, by this time, the 12 tribes of Israel had scattered from east to west and north to south; they had been scattered to the winds and had learned the customs and language that they needed in their home to survive. Specifically, they returned to Jerusalem speaking dozens of languages. And suddenly, the apostles can speak in all these languages.
Traditionally, Pentecost is regarded as the beginnings of the church, the beginnings of the apostles’ evangelism, the first time they were inclined to share the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Pentecost is the beginning of Proselytizing - and traditionally on Pentecost, we are charged with the same. Pentecosts asks us to speak of our faith, to unambiguously declare ourselves ‘those people’, ‘those christians’ who ‘talk about Jesus all the time’. Pentecost calls on us to be like the apostles who suddenly find themselves fluent in talking about God, no matter what nationality they are speaking to. Is that what’s required of us?
Possibly. But - here at Pentecost, when Jesus says he will leave us with the advocate, the companion, the one who comes after, he also promises peace.
the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Jesus leaves with us an advocate, sometimes translated as a companion, someone to stay with us during troubling times and help remind us of the peace Christ offers. This companion will be with us always. AT it’s root, com-pan-ion literally means to eat bread with. “Com” and ‘Pan” = with and bread. This is the companion that joins us at the communion table and the dinner table; this is the companion that is with us always, offering peace.
Perhaps what Pentecost demands of us is not to go out and speak of the good news that defies understanding, but to go out and be the good news. To be the comfort. To be the companion that stays, the one who listens, the one who brings peace, the one who tries to embody the peace that Jesus offers and offer that peace to others.
In times of trauma, when we can’t muster it for ourselves, perhaps we can let it show up for others, and therefore be the constant companion that is needed.
Because we as the church are called to comfort - not jus tot some, but to all. We are called as one body with the message of peace - and in this world right now, this world so filled with trauma, we are needed more than ever. How might we ‘bear peace’ to one another, in this church and in this community?
Are we being present to one another? In tumultuous, traumatic times, we may only have ourselves; we need to show each other love. We need to show care for each other. We are called on to exude the invitation as Jesus does: the invitation to have peace, the invitation to be part of the body of christ, the invitation to the table that does not discriminate.
We are blown out into he world to speak the invitation to be fed, to be nurtured, to be listened to, to be valued, to be loved and to be at peace. And, after these several years of slow-boiling trauma, we may need more practice. We may need to work to flex that muscle of presence, listening, and connection. We need to work to be there for each other even more than we have in years past, because we are all in need of healing from this society-side trauma. And even if we don’t feel that peace, perhaps we can manifest it for each other and, in the process, feel more at peace ourselves.
A few weeks ago, 6 members of our church attended a MORE2 Listening Training. Their commitment, in attending this training, was to schedule 5 one to one conversations with members of the church to do some good listening within our congregation.
We also need the opportunity to deepen our friendships and our connection to each other within the church. This congregation has 35-year members and 8 year members who are still unknown to each other; we have new members who have become central to our church operations and life long members who have become too distant due to the changes that always happen later in life - and we need to cast the lines to pull each other back together. To that end, I am looking for a few volunteers to help recreate our Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner events that have helped us build those friendships in the past. In light of COVID, we will keep those gatherings small - no more than 5 people from 3 households - and if we hurry, hopefully eating outdoors will be an option.
We also need a church body whose function is to take care of each other. This is our calling, as a church family, to be there for each other. Prior to COVID and prior to our much-needed reorganization, this congregation had 6-8 ministries that functioned independently to offer some sort of care to some segment of our congregation, but it seemed like many of them faded, became hard to fill, and fell away from active engagement. That’s ok - it is the human inclination to build things up and too often we fail to break things down when they have surpassed their usefulness. It’s important to release the functions that are no longer serving our family, congregation or community. But this congregation is still in need of a collective response to the trauma that we have all, collectively, experienced. We need an intentional standing committee to tend to the spiritual care, the emotional care, the peace and the comfort offered through the fellowship of presence.
My proposal is that we bring together the potential priorities of all the caring ministries that used to function independently, and work as one team. We, as a collective, can go through the list of what used to be offered, and hold onto what we deem helpful while discarding that which is superfluous, impractical, or overwhelming. We can work together to identify how we may offer fellowship and nurture to our membership - and any new visitors we might have; how we might decide together to provide the spiritual and educational nourishment to our adults and our children; and how we might foster comfort and peace in our congregational body. With practice and with intentional presence to others, we will manifest the peace that Jesus so lovingly offered through companionship. And we will carry it forward and out into the world.
I look forward to your help and collaboration in all these things, and the new ways we find to be there for each other as we deepen our fellowship, heal our wounds, and offer Holy Companionship to each other. May it be so. Amen.