Naming and Releasing

Naming and Releasing

March 14, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

I remember this Sunday a year ago, many churches all over the country had closed their doors and moved their worship online. And we in your church leadership agonized about what to do, that week. Beginning of the week leading into this Sunday a year ago, we thought, of course we'll have church on Sunday we always have church. And then we thought, well we hope too many people don't come. And then we thought we can't have coffee hour, and then we thought we have to tell people that if they're sick, they have to stay at home. And we considered moving the service online. But I thought, we need to be together one last time before we close our doors and move our operations online to end this pandemic. About 50 people came to church that Sunday. No one got sick, thank God. We worshiped together. We sang together, because we didn't know at that time, that singing was one of the more dangerous things we could have done. We prayed for one another, for our world. It was a comfort to be together. Even though the service brought tears to my eyes, seeing how few of us there were, and knowing that some people were already sick, and not knowing how long it would be until we’d be together again. And of course, at that point we thought we might be together again in a matter of weeks. We thought, well maybe Easter, or maybe by May, or certainly by the Fall, and here we are, a year later, and here in the sanctuary with me we have a few people, you can sign up to come to worship on Sunday morning, up to 10 people, but it's not the same, and most of you are at home gathering together in this online community, keeping the spirit of our church whole, even when we can't be together in person.

The word that comes to mind is perseverance. We've persevered through a very difficult year. We persevered through those scary days of last spring when people were getting sick and dying. When the world closed down around us. When we feared that the basic structure of society might grind to a halt when basics were hard to find in the grocery store. When we worried about those who are most vulnerable in our society. We persevered through a time of hope, last summer when case numbers went down, and we were able to visit with loved ones outdoors and we thought that the epidemic might be coming to a close. We persevered through the sinking feeling in the Fall when cases rose higher than ever. When children began another school year at home. When church stayed distant. We've persevered through despair over our nation's politics, over the epidemics of racism and violence against people of color, for which we have no vaccine as yet. We persevered through so many rituals that changed: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s, with COVID still sweeping our communities. And now finally we are daring to hope again and continuing our perseverance, finding some durable hope, as people begin to receive vaccines for the Coronavirus. We mourn what we have lost, and we welcome better years ahead.

For me one of the hardest things about this year, apart from missing all of you, missing my loved ones, missing the ways in which we gathered together. Apart from that missing people, one of the hardest things was the change in my rituals and habits of life. I am a creature of habit, and ritual and almost everything had to change. I used to begin every weekday for instance, by walking my younger son to school, about a one mile walk with him on the way there, and often in silence on the way back, and it was a time to be with nature and to begin my day with quiet. That changed. Now my mornings are about getting the children organized for online school. My practice of writing had to change because I no longer have time alone in my house, and I had to find new ways to write my sermons and find that time for spiritual reflection. The rituals of seeing friends changed, and especially the rituals of being at church changed. My Sunday mornings were described by ritual. I would arrive at church between 8:30 and 9:00, is usually quiet. The coffee was on, and I could always count on getting a hot cup of coffee to begin. I would go into my office and get my things ready for the service, and then I would come down, 20 or 30 minutes before the service, if I didn't have a meeting that morning, and the church would be beginning to fill up with people. And I could say hello to folks who are here, or as often, a small group gathered for coffee in the dining room. I could greet people, see if there were newcomers. Come into the sanctuary, make sure everything was set in the pulpit. Feel that excitement, as more and more people filed in the door for church, and then go into the vestry to take off my jacket and put on my robe and begin another Sunday. And my favorite part of the services is not anything that I create, or have responsibility for, my favorite part is singing the hymns with everybody. The sound of the organ, and all of our voices joining together in that ritual of song. It's one of my most beloved spiritual practices. And that's one of the things I miss most. We all need these rituals in our lives. Ritual helps us order our experiences; it creates a space where we can meet the holy. It opens to us our innermost lives and our fears, our loves. It helps us present them to a loving God. In ritual, we name and transform our hardships, moving past shame to acceptance. Rituals create safe and sacred spaces for the growth of our souls.

We have all spent a lot of time alone this year. And when we're alone with our thoughts, we can be confronted with shame. Those things we think are wrong with ourselves, past memories that haunt us, broken relationships, missing virtues, missed opportunities. These feelings come up for us, I think for all of us, in those moments when our anxiety spirals on the path to recovery from illness or addiction, even in our ordinary spiritual practice. And ritual helps us face and accept these thoughts, ritual brings us to a space where we can meet a loving God, the source of our being, a being who accepts us just as we are and makes it possible for us to accept ourselves. Pastoral theologian and Chaplain Sonia Waters has worked with people recovering from addiction. And she names ritual as a healing tool on the road to recovery. She says addicts are often people who have said to themselves, “well, at least I'll never do that”, and then in the grip of their addiction, they do it. and then feel the shame that goes with that failure. And ritual, Waters writes, allows people to name and release that shame. To find a relationship with a loving spirit who can see the thing that they did, and say you are beloved anyway. Even though you are the person who did these things, they are part of you, and you are loved. Name them, and release them, accept them, and step forward, on the road to recovery. In our sacred rituals we are put before the one who knows us and names us, the source of our inherent worth and dignity. The one who sees us as we are and loves the wholeness of us through this great love, we come to love ourselves. And through this acceptance of ourselves, we accept the wholeness of other people. This love is for everybody, it exists for all of us. In our service this morning, we said together a Unitarian Prayer of Confession from the 1930s. And when I lead communion services here at FirstU, we say together this prayer, or one like it, some prayer that acknowledges that we have made mistakes, done things we wish we had not done, left undone those things we ought to have done. And then I offer an assurance of pardon. We cannot undo our mistakes, yet in our sacred rituals, we can know that we are accepted and loved just as we are, and then, in turn, we love and accept others.

When John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, they were participating in a sacred ritual. Judaism includes opportunities for ritual bathing, especially around the moments of conception and death. It makes these boundary crossing moments in our lives a coming into view, and exiting life, makes them holy. The writer of Mark's gospel might have been thinking of a passage in Ezekiel when he wrote about John baptizing Jesus. John and Jesus might have been thinking of this when they themselves were baptizing their Jewish followers as part of their Jewish ritual practice. In Ezekiel, God is very angry with the Israelites, they've been worshipping pagan gods, they've been doing everything wrong. But, God says, “For the sake of my holy name, I will sanctify you. I will sprinkle clean water upon you,” God says, “and you will be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols, a new heart. I will give you, and a new spirit, I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” No matter what we have done, no matter the ways in which we have strayed from our best selves, the return and newness of life are always possible. In our encounters with the holy, we can name and release the things that we are ashamed of and find acceptance instead. Today, here, and now, a sacred Spirit loves and accepts our pandemic selves. We have found new rituals to help us through this hard time, prayer, birdwatching, zoom calls; even mask wearing and hand washing and distancing, and walking.

And as we re-enter society, we will bring these rituals with us, even as we return to old ones. We will bring our pandemic selves, with us, even as the pandemic ends. Our spiritual practices and rituals help us accept the whole of who we are. The whole of our being, which is beloved and holy. Priest Richard Rohr writes, “In the spiritual life, nothing goes away. There is no heavenly garbage dump. It's all here. Wherever we are, everything belongs. Even forgiveness does not mean it goes away. It means we forgive it for being there, nothing more. Even our demons do not go away. Everything belongs”.  For all the challenges of the pandemic, if we can name and release our shame, and find acceptance in the heart of God, we will help to heal the world. In accepting ourselves, we accept others as people, with whole and Holy Spirits. We will rebuild a world of compassion, and freedom for all.

I love you all. Amen.