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Look Down at Your Feet

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

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 –

is sacred.

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

move forward.

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.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2020 Jon Berry. All rights reserved.

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