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Keep On Giving – 12/16/2012

I would guess that in the offices of my colleagues across the country right now there are a good many half-finished manuscripts resting in filing cabinets or hard drives. Because whatever it was that we were planning to preach on Friday morning seemed suddenly less meaningful on Friday afternoon, after the terrible news of a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Like all human beings, we preachers make our plans, and then sometimes an immediate reality intervenes. I only wish that such intervening realities were not always so bloody or so heartbreaking.

When I was an undergraduate, I went to see a student production at the school theater and was so affected by it, that I had to go back for the closing performance the next day. It was a play about school shootings, centered around a fictional teenage assailant and the psychiatrist meeting with him in prison. At one point in the play, a woman, playing a reporter trying to cover the story, stands up from the audience and interrupts the action on the stage. She has done her best, she says, to tell the facts of the case as they happened. To transcribe the names, the sequence of events and the body count. But no one really cares about any of that, she says. “The who, the what, the where, the when: they’re all accessories. The why is the only thing that matters.”[i] And it’s the only thing she cannot give.

In the weeks to come there will be much said about the ‘why’ of this tragedy. All of it will be guess work, and there will be little to prove this theory or that theory right or wrong. But there are a few things that are said over and over again in the face of such horrors and which are always wrong. Any theology that would teach that senseless and violent death is a part of some larger plan, serves some ultimate purpose, or should otherwise be filed under the heading “mysterious ways” – any theology that would make that argument is broken and in need of repair. As the biblical figure Job said to his friends, as they tried to explain his personal tragedy with similar arguments, “Your proverbs are like unto ashes, your platitudes made out of clay.”[ii] If you could not look into the face of a parent who is burying their child and say it, then it is not worth saying on this matter.

But there is a ‘why’ that I would like to talk about this morning. Not the ‘why did this happen?’, but the ‘why, in a world where this did happen, where things as awful or worse have happened before, and will most likely happen again, why is it worth going on?’ In the congregation where I was raised, we used to say these words by Marjorie Montgomery together every Sunday, both in the sanctuary and in our religious education classes: “Life is a gift for which we are grateful. We gather in community to celebrate the glories and mysteries of this great gift.”

The gift is great, but it is not simple. It is glorious, but it is not perfect. It is mysterious in its complexity, but sometimes it seems only full of pain. From the depths of grief and anger that are sometimes the sane and appropriate response to life as it is, gratitude for life can seem very hard to manage. When something is truly, terribly wrong, and nothing else feels right. Dismissing or diminishing real pain and suffering, deep loss, or hard truth, does no one any good. But the picture is always wider than our temporary and narrow view of it.

Many of you are already familiar with this quote from the Rev. Fred Rogers, who was a mainstay of children’s television for 35 years. But it is so good, I’m going to tell it to you again, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” Viewed one way, the world is full to brimming with injustice and wrong. Somewhere, right now, a child is crying. Somewhere a body is bleeding. Somewhere a heart is breaking. Yet, viewed another way, kindness and compassion fill the earth – so much so that none of our lives would be possible without their constant outpouring.

If you are looking for meaning in a tragedy, or for the will of God, if that phrase is relevant to you, it is not to be found in the violent death, the gun that dealt it, or the hand that accomplished it. Nor will you find it in the society which manufactured the gun, that failed to stay the hand and that taught its children violence as the means to security, freedom, and power. Instead, you will find the purpose, the gift of life, in the people who tried to stop the killing, and in everyone who tried to help. We are called to help others, to keep on giving in response to the gift of life – both out of gratitude and out of grief, for joy and sorrow and anger are all resources that can be put to work in pursuit of change.

We are called to keep on trying, keep on giving, even though the world isn’t easily fixed, and not everything works out the way we expect it to. Last month, a police officer in New York City saw a man sitting on the sidewalk, on a cold night, with no shoes. Feeling he had to do something about this, the officer, Larry DePrimo, went to a nearby store and bought the man, Jeffrey Hillman, a sturdy pair of boots. Nearby, someone was moved by the scene and took a picture of it, and that picture ‘went viral’, as they say. A simple rendering of a simple kindness in action.

Of course, in these days of internet celebrity, the story is never definitively over, and in the inevitable follow-up, when both the men in the photograph were identified, came the detail that Jeffrey Hillman was seen on the street again in bare feet. The boots, he explained to a reporter, were too valuable to just wear around; someone might try to steal them.[iii] Poverty and homelessness are huge, messy problems that cannot be resolved through quick fixes. Like so many other evils they are tied into systems of interlinked injustice and oppression – layer upon layer of wrong settled into the strongest possible configuration, like the atoms in a molecule. And absolutely none of that does anything to diminish what officer DePrimo did. One human being saw another human being with blisters on his bare feet, in the cold night, so he gave him a pair of shoes. It matters to work to be effective; we can always learn more and move steadily from addressing symptoms to treating the cause of injustice. But what matters first is to pay attention to the world as it is, and to let yourself be moved by it. We give back to the world because the world has already given to us. Given us life and the means to reach this moment. So there should be no need for an expectation of further reward in order to give back to the world.

Yet, there is such reward, and in amazing abundance. It feels good to help others; it lifts the spirits and it satisfies the soul. Some years ago the French photographer, Sacha Goldberger was worried about his aging grandmother, Frederika. She had not had an easy life – she was a holocaust survivor and a refugee – and now in the autumn of her years, long retired, she seemed at loose ends with herself: depressed. So he resolved to find a way to bring some more excitement into her life. He managed to convince her to pose for some portraits for him; not staid, plain affairs; instead ones full of wonder and whimsy. A few photographs became more and more until they were able to fill a whole book called Mamika: My Mighty Little Grandmother. The title comes from one of the recurring themes in these shots: Frederika as a superhero named Mamika, wearing a red and silver costume with a silver cape. In one picture this short, 90-something woman is seen walking her dog while flying, or appearing to ride on the wing of an airplane; crashing (almost) through a brick wall, riding in a tiny red car, and then lifting it, and then playing with superhero action figures.

The project has become so successful to that Goldberger has expanded it to other models and other characters. There is Mister Papika, Mamika’s costumed love interest, and Dark Papouka, a suave villain who may also be Papika’s rival for Mamika’s affections. Sacha reports that just taking the photographs lifted his grandmother’s spirits, but since their publication she has become a bit of a celebrity. She gets quite a bit of fan mail, with people writing to say things like, “You’re the grandmother I have dreamed of. Would you adopt me?” And her grandson gets amazing satisfaction of the smile on her face, and helping a woman who has seen so much, to see the world in a new way.[iv]

Now, in the midst of the holiday crush, is not an easy season for many of us, and there is never a time when all of us are without hardship or trial. One of you here this morning has been bearing an especially hard burden, and for a long while. We talked about it a bit, and like everything that is hard and real, it’s not a thing that has any easy answers. But there is something just in sharing our stories that connects, and helps us. And just this week, you wrote me a note not about what you need, but about how good it feels to give aid to others. About a connection you made with someone else around grief and loss, and how your story spread out through that one connection to reach others. And you said, if it helped “even one person to feel less alone or comforted in any way, it will be the best gift I have received in a long time.” Knowing that we have given some help to others doesn’t erase our own worries and cares, but it expands our vision beyond them; it allows us to see that life is larger, and more beautiful.

In her poem The Poet Speaks, Georgia Douglas Johnson asks:

How much living have you done?
From it the patterns that you weave
Are imaged:
Your own life is your totem pole,
Your yard of cloth,
Your living.

How much loving have you done?
How full and free your giving?
For living is but loving
And loving only giving.

We owe ourselves to a broken world; life is imperfect, and yet we could not be without it. Confronted by terrible things, we can give into fear, crawl into despair, or insulate ourselves with hollow comfort and false security. Or, we can make the decision to keep on giving: return to the people we share this world with some of the hope, strength, and sustenance which is not truly ours, but which we hold in trust on behalf of all existence. The true spirit of giving is not in what is bought and sold. It is not in tinsel and colored lights, or at least not there alone. It is giving of ourselves, one to another, in the daily work of healing the world.

[i] From The Why, by Victor Kaufold (2000)

[ii] Job 13:12


[iv] You can read more about Mamika, and see a few of her pictures, here:


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