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Shelter from the Storm – 5/1/2011

As I begin my words to you this morning, I would ask you to join me in holding prayerfully in your hearts the people of northern Alabama and the surrounding region, so terribly afflicted by storm this week. I have been moved deeply by the stories of destruction and suffering inflicted there by a massive cluster of tornadoes on Tuesday and Wednesday. I know that many of you here this morning have also feel the tearful, humbling weight of that disaster. Our faith teaches an attitude of respect and awe towards the natural world, and while this attitude is often earned by the beauty of nature, it is just as often encouraged by its terrifying power. There are a few lines from the poetry of the 55th Psalm that call to mind for me the terrible destructive power of the world we inhabit:

My heart is in anguish within me;

the terrors of death assail me.

Fear and trembling have beset me;

horror has overwhelmed me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest—

I would flee far away

and stay in the desert;

I would hurry to my place of shelter,

far from the tempest and storm.”[i]

Together with the stories and images of heartbreaking loss, come also the notices of human beings being humane towards one another. First responders, relief workers, and just plain ordinary neighbors doing whatever they can do, whatever has to be done, to care for the wounded, restore basic services, and respectfully lay the dead to rest. People coming to the aid of their communities, and of each other. These hopeful signs of human kindness do not erase the loss, they cannot fully replace the pain of destruction. But they are a reminder of why this imperfect world and our imperfect lives are so perfectly, perfectly worth it.

As I was reading one of these news reports from the South, there was a picture that caught my eye – not because it was particularly sad or inspiring, but because it was something I hadn’t seen before. In the middle of a torn up front lawn there was something that looked like a big, gray turtle shell, set right down in the ground. I was curious to find out what it was and I learned that the big fiberglass dome was the top of a particular type of prefabricated emergency shelter that’s a big seller in tornado country. Most of its buried below the ground, but if you get a look at one before its installed its sort of like a big plastic bubble, flattened out on the bottom so people can stand inside with square zig-zags on one of the walls for stairs. The whole thing looks a little like a cartoon submarine; but when you hear the storm coming, I’ll bet you’re real happy to have one to climb inside of.[ii]

That funny plastic bubble reminds me just a little bit of us, of our religious community, because we are also here to be a shelter from life’s storms. In terms of literal bad weather, our record is somewhat spotty. During the revolutionary period, one of our previous meetinghouses was used to store gun powder, down in the cellar, and the congregation would have to clear out whenever there was a thunderstorm during one of their services. But lightning and wind are not the total, nor the worst of life’s dangers. Our congregation exists to be a place of refuge, for hearts in anguish and lives beset by fear and trembling. Our faith, which affirms the worth of every person, which preaches justice and compassion for and between all people, calls on us to be a community that welcomes folks in out of the storm. Out of the storm of loneliness and disconnection, of intolerance and fear and into a place of caring hearts, and helping hands, and fresh hope. It is a grand mission we share, and at the same time it is best accomplished by the humblest of acts.

There is a story in the Muslim tradition of when the Prophet Muhammad was in the early days of his career as a religious leader. He was an advocate of the poor and of the rights of women, and this made him many enemies among the wealthy leaders of his city. When word came to him that some of these enemies were coming to kill him, Muhammad fled with one of his closest companions, and hid for the night in a cave in the mountains above the city. As the two men hid in the cave together, they heard the band of would-be assassins approaching the mouth of it. All seemed lost. But the killers did not search the cave, for while the two men had been hiding a spider had spun a great wide web over the entire cave’s entrance. Muhammad’s pursuers saw the web and assumed that no one could have set foot in the cave for years, for a web like that to cover it. The Prophet was able to proceed safely to another city and continue his religious mission. And in fact, still in Muslim practice there is a taboo against killing spiders found in the wild. The simplest, and most humble actions can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.[iii]

And in fact, just being there, just the promise and hope of respite and comfort can have a deep impact. Radio personality Garrison Keillor tells a story about being a middle schooler in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Like many other of the rural school’s children he was bused in from the countryside. At the beginning of the school year, he was assigned a storm home – the home of a family in town where he would go to stay safe and warm if school ever had to be dismissed during a blizzard. The Krugers, were the family he was assigned, and he never met them, but he would walk past their house many times and they grew very large in his imagination.

Even though, that year, there were only convenient blizzards, on evenings and weekends, there was some special solace in having that storm home assignment. If it ever got to be too much, well, “There’s always the Krugers…” he’d think to himself. He’d imagine knocking on the door of the picturesque house with the neatly manicured lawn. Mrs. Kruger would open that door and instantly she’d know it was him, know it was the storm-child she and her husband were meant to take in. She’d make him hot chocolate and give him an oatmeal cookie, and she and he and Mr. Kruger would all play cards together, talk about how bad the weather was outside, and how nice it was to finally meet.[iv]

Many of us don’t seek out a spiritual community until we really, really need it. For some of you it was a deep and sudden need that brought you through those doors for the first time. You got sick, you had a nasty breakup, you lost your job, or your father, or your child. For some of you, that first visit, hoping for some connection, some place to be and not to be alone for a little while; that’s today. Welcome. I am sorry for your pain, and I hope that it is a little bit easier, not having to sit alone with it at home.

And if you stick around, what you’ll find is that this congregation, this community aims to be a shelter from life’s storms but not in the temporary sense. Not just a lean-to built beside a forest path, a place to get out of the weather until the rains have passed. We are a safe harbor for the long haul – that is the purpose of this place. To be a home for the spiritually homeless. To do that, to live out that mission takes three things:

First, we have to be welcoming. I don’t just mean meeting people at the front door, or shaking their hand during the fellowship greeting. I don’t even just mean talking to folks you don’t know or don’t know that well during coffee hour. I’m talking about getting curious about the people around you – every human life is a wondrous and mysterious thing, filled with more beauty and complexity than any aria or novel or sunset could ever contain. So it is fundamental to our theology that we be interested in the lives of others – appropriately interested; politely interested, in case there’s any confusion – but deeply interested and open to learning from new folks and to sharing ourselves with them in return. That’s what it takes to really welcome someone in.

The second essential part of serving as a spiritual home is that we must a challenging place to be. This may seem like it is the opposite of the comfort and the refuge and the solace I’ve been talking about, but its not. Because the storm isn’t just out there; the storm is in here too. It rages in every human heart, and we all need to be reminded regularly of that. We need help to struggle with the people who we presently are, in order to become the people that we are called to be. There is a false satisfaction in complacency; do not settle for it. We come to church on a Sunday that we might depart in a better state of being than when we entered it: more compassionate, more determined to practice love and pursue justice, better prepared to face the world and make it a finer place for our living in it. We cannot hope to arrive at such a state, without being challenged, and challenged often.

The third way we answer our call as a spiritual home is by growing. Now I’m not talking about growth in terms of the size of our building or the size of our endowment, or of the number of people you see in the pews. I’m talking about the growth of our understanding of who we are as a community and what we are for. I’m talking about a sense of purpose that is constantly increasing and evolving, adapting to address the needs of its place and time. Expanding who we think of and who we include and pushing out the boundaries of what we think we can do together. A congregation is not bound by the walls of its meetinghouse or by the members on its rolls: its limits are prescribed by its collective heart. So we have to be constantly growing our congregational heart, to make more room in our circle of shelter and care.

These three practices lie before us: welcoming those who need us, challenging ourselves to

follow our own high ideals, and growing our sense of who we are and what we serve. By way of illustration, I want to close with a concrete opportunity to engage in all three things. I’ve spoken about our mission to provide shelter from the metaphorical storms of living and to provide a home to the spiritually homeless. But we live in a society that does a shameful job of housing and sheltering the literally homeless.

Our congregation offers a free meal once a week to the people of Beverly, and I am very proud of the ministry of food and hospitality that you make possible. From that pride comes an awareness that there is more that we could do. Many of us were dismayed to hear the recent news that River House, the only homeless shelter in Beverly, would have to close its doors for the next several months do to a lack of funds. When I spoke with John Archer, from the River House board, on Friday, he told me they would likely be able to remain open, for now, due to some last minute donations and emergency funds. But this ought to be a wake-up call. We have an existing commitment to serving folks in our community who cannot make ends meet, and we have the gift of our location here in the historic downtown. There is more that we can do to be the place of refuge that our faith calls on us to be. I look forward to hearing about your insights into how our congregational heart can grow to better serve this critical need. I promise to share a few of my own with you, in next week’s sermon.

[i] Psalm 55: 4-8

[ii] It was the “yard bunker” found here:

[iii] This story is alluded to in the Qur’an (9:40), sketched out in the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and told in greater fullness and richness throughout the Muslim tradition.

[iv] Told originally on his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.



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