by Frank Campagna
After purchasing the old church in Stockbridge Mass which once housed the infamous Alice’s Restaurant and turning it into a rescue mission of sorts, providing food, clothing, job training, counseling to anyone who needed it, Arlo Guthrie (son of the famous Woodie Guthrie) was asked by a local minister who stopped by to check the place out, “So Arlo, just what kind of church is this?” Arlo thought about the question for a while and then in his own indelible style said: “Well I guess it is kind of a Bring your own God church.” I would ask you to consider that perspective this morning as you listen to my thoughts and understand that I express them to you as my opinions and they are not meant as some type of theological expression. Rather I offer them to you as my personal perspective.
(The following was added ad hoc from the pulpit on the morning of giving the sermon) I am going to go off script for a second and this is the point when I look down and see Kathy cringing because I am going off script however I thought of something this morning on the way to church and wanted to tell you about it. A couple of years ago when Kathy and I visited St. Petersburg Russia, we were touring I believe it was St. Isaac’s cathedral. Inside the cathedral, the floor, walls and ceiling are all covered with most beautiful artwork. Upon closer inspection, you discover that it is all mosaic. It is incredible. Our guide said something that I think is relevant to my talk with you today. She said to us as she discussed the artwork, “You know in a mosaic, the artist simply rearranges pebbles until a story comes out.” Most of you have known me for some time now and I am sure you have heard one or more of the stories that I am going to tell you this morning. I ask for your tolerance as I rearrange my pebbles until another story comes out.
In preparing my notes for my sermon this morning, I kept coming upon the theme of resolutions and my lack of progress so far in 2018 with my own resolutions. The fact that I would be talking on the last Sunday of the year was giving me pause. I was having a hard time trying to relate our two Bible passages this morning to this particular day and I was getting stuck on how I could address them in a meaningful way.
Then I had a flash. The passage from Luke this morning reminded me of something that happened a number of years ago one Sunday morning at another church Kathy and I were attending at the time. It was the little Oran Community Church on Route 92 between here and Manlius. It is a beautiful little country church with small wooden pews. Every Sunday a family of six kids and their mom and dad would always come in at the last minute in a frenzy and all squeeze into the last remaining pew which of course was the first pew in the front of the church because just like any church that is the pew that everyone else always avoids. The father is a doctor and the mother a nutritionist. Both highly educated and respected people in the community. One Sunday they came flying in and got situated just as the minister was beginning the service. As we all stood for the first hymn, I noticed the father and mother have a rather worried conversation and then the father jumped out of the pew and ran out of the church. I had figured he received a page and had to run to the hospital. The service carried on and then a few minutes later, the door of the church opened and in came the father with their 4-year-old son. In their rush to get to church that day, they had forgotten him at home!
How could we ever get so caught up in what we are doing that we could actually forget one of our kids? How many pressures were they dealing with their personal and professional lives that allowed that to happen? Yet Luke talked to us this morning about the two parents, Mary and Joseph, who had been charged with the care and feeding of not just anyone but the son of God and what happened to them? While returning home, in the midst of the caravan of people, preoccupied with the issues of their time, they lost track of Jesus. I found that comforting in a strange sort of way. Maybe if Mary and Joseph could screw up like this there might be hope for me. Especially when we read on to what happened when Mary and Joseph cycle back to find Jesus in the temple courts after looking for him for three days! They must have been frantic. Can you imagine? If we relate their situation to our world today, we would find them running all around desperately trying to find Jesus. Then maybe they would get a call just like when you get that call from your mother in law who asks “How are the kids? “right in the middle of some crisis or melt down. Only instead of your mother in law it is God! “So, Mary, how is Jesus doing? I just thought I would check in.” And she has to answer God, “Well we aren’t too sure as we haven’t seen him for three days and we don’t know where he is.” This probably ranks as one of the top ten screw ups of all time starting with Adam and Eve in the garden and working our way through a number of human bumbles.
The next part is the part I can really relate to. Mary and Joseph are in full crisis mode, franticly trying to find him and after three days when they find him, Jesus asks, “Why have you been searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” This is what always happened to me with my kids. They never seemed to understand why I would get so wound up about things. It didn’t seem like they had the same sense of urgency that I did. They always had a cool, calm and collect answer that left me silent and shaking. This is the point where communication usually broke down and cool heads do not prevail. This is unlike what we heard in our passage from Luke this morning where Jesus although he was feeling he was right takes a step back, realizing that the three of them had to grow into what was to be and humbles himself as he returns with Mary and Joseph to travel home. They all seemed to have found a better way.
Trying to deal with this type of situation more effectively has been a major theme of introspection for me over the years and it actually was the genesis for what I talked to you this time last year about when I discussed with you how I had figured out how to simplify my new year’s resolutions. I talked to you about how I was going to narrow my resolutions down to a few simple things and focus on them and actually accomplish them for 2018. To re-cap, I was going to work hard on the concept that “Words Matter” and the concept that “Kindness is the Highest form of Intelligence”. I really wanted to find a way to listen better and stop building walls between myself and others just because of a difference of opinion.
I was also going to get a better grip on my personal health and as I had suggested to all of you, just work on eating one less cookie a day. So here I am thinking about what to talk to you all about this morning, while cruising through a tin of Danish Butter Cookies and thinking about some of the near disastrous results I had with some interactions with friends, family and co-workers over that past year. I am here to confess that year end results were less than stellar. The 15 pounds I had committed to take off resulted instead in ten more going on.
This time last year, I had taken stock of myself and tried to be introspective and address what I felt was keeping me from having better inter-personal relationships with my family, friends and co-workers. After 69 trips around the sun, it seemed to me that it was simply a matter of accepting some simple truths. “Words Matter” and “Kindness is the Highest Form of Intelligence”. Yet time after time, my words and my lack of kindness created chasms instead of bridges. I simply let life events get in the way of experiencing life. I was losing ground and it started to feel as though time was not on my side. I began to have more and more emotional responses to the events of the day. Those that touched me directly and those that I was barraged with by all types of media. I started to really doubt myself and began to feel as though I did not have purpose. I also started finding reasons not to exercise and solace in too many snacks. I began pulling away from the people I love and began erecting protective barriers around me. This was not what I wanted but it was what I was doing.
One day, while preparing to participate in a leadership conference at work, I was reading a passage by the writer David Mitchell as some of my pre-work for the conference. The passage read: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” That same day at my conference, Learning as Leadership director, Shawn Hughes, asked the group these questions: “Why do you need to be right? What is it about being right that makes you think it makes you a better leader? Are you strong enough to embrace, Ego Free Leadership?” Those two events, thinking of my importance as one drop of many and the challenge of embracing the concept of removing my ego from my personal interactions started me down a path that is helping me embrace my faith, my relationships and myself. I also recognized that I had work to do and that started with some personal redemption.
Bob’s epistle reading today from Colossians provides the foundation for us to build our personal redemption, when we get to a place like the one I was in. “He forgave us all our sins having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” What powerful symbolism in this passage! Cancelling the charge of our legal indebtedness and nailing it to the cross!
My mother had another way of saying the same thing whenever she would see me lost and non-forgiving of myself. She would tell me to take my burden and kiss it up to God.
Kathy’s mother who espoused more common sense than any ten people I know, had another saying which went, “We too soon get old and too late smart!”
Years ago, I found myself at a moment in my life when I was very lost and in a very dark place. For someone who had always been the person in control and who could always fix everything, I no longer could. A dear friend of mine had committed suicide and I blamed myself for not preventing it. On a long, cold ride home from the funeral on Long Island, my dear friend Hal looked over at me and said, “Cap you know all you ever need in life to find your way is a compass and a flashlight. I know you cannot handle them right now so I will do my best to be both for you until you can use them on your own.” He then handed me a little note and told me to keep it folded to read sometime much later. Hal like myself was a great fan of John Steinbeck. The note was a quote from Steinbeck that read: “What good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?” I was able to walk through that valley mainly because of the unselfish support of Hal and my then good friend and to become best friend and wife, Kathy who keep coming back over and over again with a bearing from the compass and fresh batteries for the flashlight.
Yet you think I would have held those lessons in my soul and let them be the teachers of my being yet somehow, I let the lessons slip and my ego take hold. Over time I found it easier to hide my vulnerability by having to be right never realizing the devastation that it could cause to others and myself.
The Dali Lama has said, “It is very rare or almost impossible that an event can be negative from all points of view.”
Most of you know that I was raised a roman catholic, was an altar boy and also had at one time considered a calling to the priesthood. At the time, the mass was performed in Latin. The ritual of the Latin mass is cathartic. Like many things such as meditation, yoga and the like, the ritual of the Latin Mass transported you to a higher plane. It required concentration and thus the issues of the moment left you for the focus on something much deeper albeit maybe not understood but you were transported all the same.
I find a similar thing happen inside these walls with our music especially around the holidays. Anyone who was here for any of the advent services or the Christmas Eve candlelight service would have to agree that your concerns of the moment were replaced by a rapture which leaves behind the burden we walked in with if only for a moment.
Sarah Dessen author of Dreamland wrote, “Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.”
As I sat in church Christmas eve, the music filled my soul. There was no room for hate, distrust, discontent or dislike. There was no room for being right. There was only room for love. I know it was a moment in time but we all shared it in common. No one was judging anyone else. We all celebrated the birth of Jesus who came to give us a compass and a flashlight.
In closing I will leave you with this. I was helping baby sit our Cazenovia grandkids one afternoon and my 10-year-old grandson Nolan and I were in his room. He wanted to read with me which is one of my favorite things to do with my grandkids. We both read for a while and then both fell asleep in the chair. When I awoke, it was dark in the room and I was nervous as I didn’t know where the light switch was and I didn’t want to scare or upset Nolan. I whispered to Nolan to ask if he was awake and he said he was. I then asked him if he knew where the light switch was and he said to me, “Grandpa we can just turn on the flashlight I keep by my bed and then go find the switch.”
I am going to work hard from now on to remember that. To remember to turn on the flashlight to find the switch every time I start digging the chasm deeper instead of building a bridge. I need to remember that being right is no replacement for being with those we love.
Martin Luther King leaves us with something to take home. Something to remember whenever we find ourselves in those frantic moments. When we find ourselves needing to be right. When we find ourselves in a dark place with no way out.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” A compass and a flashlight.