Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 13th of Ninth Month, 2020
Speaker: Jon Berry
Scripture: Acts 7:30-34
When my mother’s father was a teenager, he ran away, and
joined the army, and was sent to France to fight in World War I.
It wasn’t that he was idealistic. He didn’t want to work in the
coal mines in the small, poor Appalachian town where he was
born, and didn’t have family he could turn to. He had run out of
options. So he enlisted and went to the front.
One day, according to the story that my mother told years later,
he was sent out of the trenches to go down to a stream in no-man’s
land to fill the troop’s canteens with water.
After he’d been at it awhile, he looked up from his task and
looked straight into the eyes of a young German soldier sitting
across the stream from him doing the same.
For a moment their eyes locked. They reached down toward
the rifles laying by their side. They were at war, after all – a
war that, by its end, took 20 million lives.
Then my grandfather and the German soldier looked at each
other again. I’m not sure how they communicated it – with a
nod, or smile, or what. But neither picked up their gun.
They returned to filling their canteens, and when they were
done, made their way back to their respective sides.
For this moment, in this day, they would not fight.
I’ve been thinking about that story. We are again, just over a
century later, in momentous times and facing the question he
faced: how will we respond?
In less than two months, we’re having an election that, I’ve
heard many say, will be the most important of our lifetime.
We are in a pandemic that is showing no signs of going away –
a pandemic that has revealed the inequities in our society on
who gets access to health care, and all of the things that
support good health – access to food, education, work, a living
wage, good housing, safety – with the toll falling most on
people of color, the old, the poor, and those working in poor
conditions like meatpacking plants.
We are witnessing the continued, shocking violence
perpetuated by our society on people of color, with each new,
terrible act, traumatically, triggering the past: Jacob Blake.
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice.
Philando Castile. Trayvon Martin… With it there has been a
growing outcry: No more.
This week, the West is on fire, years of neglect of our warming
earth turned all too real, with skies turned orange, and gray, as
millions of acres burn, an area, by my calculations this
morning, the equivalent to a quarter of Indiana. Imagine
everything south of, say, Liberty, on fire.
It appears a burning bush is not enough.
This week, in an online support group for Quaker chaplains
and caregivers sponsored by Quakers in Pastoral Care and
Counseling, a friend from Earlham School of Religion said it
seems we have entered a time of Revelation. The veneer is
being stripped away. Truth is being revealed.
How will we respond?
I’ve heard people say – in the hospital where I am training as a
chaplain; in casual conversations; and on the call-in talk radio
show I listen to on my drive to and from work – that it is all
overwhelming. Where do you begin?
I’ve heard people, in these conversations, putting their faith in
forces out there in the future. “After the election.” “After the
New Year, when things settle down.” “After the vaccine.”
As Friends, and people of faith, I think we here today hear
differently. I heard this last week in Brian’s sermon, and the
messages that followed from the silence, and the
announcements of activities in the meeting. And I’ve heard it
over the years in this meeting where I grew up, and went to
First Day School, and have come back to over the years.
And so this morning I would like, first, to hold up the work that
is being done in this congregation. Of standing up for racial
justice, and protesting for Black Lives Matter, with the risks
that brings, as was brought home last week when people were
injured when the driver drove into the protest.
I want also to hold up the work of caring that goes on here:
bringing food to those who need it; helping those who are ill
and in need; holding each other up in hard times. And of
educating – particularly in this moment, when racial justice
demands an accounting that is both societal and individual.
I want you to know that I – and many across the country and
world – are praying for you, and inspired by you.
I want to hold up, as well, two truths that I know are known in
this congregation, and among Friends, but maybe we need to
remind ourselves of from time to time, especially times like
this when we are asking: how will we respond?
The first is that the time to act is not out there in the future or
to be taken up by someone else, like a new president. When
Spirit calls, we answer. The second is that the present moment
– wherever we are, whatever is happening, or not happening –
In the teachings of Jesus, that sometimes – in the crush of news,
and my own feelings of powerlessness, I lose sight of: the
Kingdom of God is here. The Kingdom of God is now.
Right here. Right now.
In the Twelve-Step world – which, along with Quakerism, has
been my spiritual home for the past few decades – there’s a
saying: “Look down at your feet.” In full, it’s, “Look down at
your feet. Where you are is where you’re supposed to be.” It
can sound, at first, judgmental, like you make the bed you lie in.
But I’ve come to see that’s not what it’s about.
What it says, I believe, is, start from where you are.
We can only start from where we are.
That’s an important message for me. I don’t know about you,
but I have a tendency to put off what I know in my heart I
should do. I’ll tell myself a rational reason. “It’s not the right
time.” “I don’t know enough.” “I’m not ready.” “I’m not smart
enough.” “Not fit enough.” “Not Quaker enough.”
I’ve come to see that what my “reasoning” brain is doing is
rationalizing my fear. Deep down, I’m scared. What am I afraid
of, I’m realizing, is like peeling the layers of an onion. On the
surface, I suppose, it’s things like fear of making people angry;
or some consequence I might suffer.
But deeper down it’s fear that, I feel, goes back generations,
and been passed down to come out in ways I don’t understand,
and can come out when I react – fight, freeze, or flee (usually,
for me, freeze or flee) – in ways I immediately regret.
I’ve been reading the trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem’s
book My Grandmother’s Hands. It has been a revelation to me.
One insight that I’m gaining from him is that to help heal the
world of racial injustice (and injustice of all kinds), and play my
part, I need to own up to, and resolve, that fear.
Many times, my fears – when I really look at them – are not
real. In the words of another Twelve-Step saying, it is False
Evidence Appearing Real (F.E.A.R.).
I need to remember at these times to look down at my feet, and
ground myself, in the here and now – in Menakem’s words,
settle, myself, which sounds, to my ears, something Quakers
can relate to. Return to the Seed. Listen to the Inner Guide.
Turn toward the Light Within.
There’s another layer to that saying, “Look down at your feet.”
It’s a reminder that where we are, now, is sacred.
I think it’s not a coincidence that the words from Alcoholics
Anonymous, Al-Anon, et al, echo ones we read in Scripture.
“Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place you are
standing is holy ground.”
In it is a reminder that, no matter what we feel in this moment
– be it despair, or fear, or numbness, or joy – we are not alone.
God – however we see that force that binds and connects and
uplifts and inspires – is with us. Within that is an invitation to
connect – to those around us, and the Spirit within us – and
I love reading those words in the Bible – like today’s reading, in
Acts, where Stephen, in his time of trial, tells the story of
Moses. We become the stories we tell.
In the Twelve-Step world, the moments of absolute
powerlessness that life brings us – where we hit bottom and
the self-will that has perpetuated us onward gives out – are
sacred. When we realize we are powerless, we clear space for
something else to come in. God. Loved ones. Friends. Strangers.
We realize we are not alone.
We don’t get to choose the moment that life comes to us. I see
this in the hospital. We don’t get to choose the day we have a
car accident; or have a heart attack; or get a diagnosis; or are in
the wrong place at the wrong time. We can only start from
where we are.
I never got to know my mother’s father. He died of emphysema
in a hospital in Cincinnati when I was just a child. So I never got
to ask him how it was that he came to not pick up his rifle that
day in World War I. Or why it was that story he chose to tell –
rather than, for example, when he got a Purple Heart for being
wounded in action.
But he left clues. He came back with a nickname: Old Bolshevik.
He came back, as well, with a prodigious love of reading –
particularly novels critiquing injustice. He loved Dickens. Some
of those novels are now on my bookshelves.
I’ve come to believe that, like more than a few soldiers, he
was converted by someone, the Socialist, Communist, union
organizers, religious people, and pamphleteers roaming up and
down the trenches in the last years of the war. He came to see
the world differently. So that day when he was sent down to
get water, and was confronted, face-to-face, by what he’d been
trained to hate and see as his enemy, he saw, instead, just
another young man, caught up in systems that were larger than
themselves. Militarism. Capitalism. Empire.
And in that moment, he chose a different way.
May we all choose the way of peace, and justice, and love. May
we become grounded in peace, and justice, and love, and
re-grounded in them, and come, together, to learn to be forces
to settle our bodies, and communities, in this world, this day,
and the days and weeks to come, for this world so sorely needs
it. May we remember that no matter where we are, and no
matter what comes, we are on holy ground.
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