Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

October 8, 2017: “The Only Sacred Ground”

Story Justin Simons
“The Priest and the Levite”

Jerusalem was a city of temples, sacred ground, about 2,500 feet above sea level.

Jericho was 18 miles north and 800 feet below sea level. It was a city in the desert, an oasis with natural springs. It was an early version of a resort, so a lot of people went back and forth between the two cities.

The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was heavily traveled, but treacherous nonetheless. The climate changed as dramatically as the elevation, from relatively green, to arid and dusty. There were ditches along the sides of the road where the occasional hard rain would send water rushing without being absorbed into the dry soil.

Wendell Berry once said there are no unsacred places; only sacred places and desecrated places. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a desecrated place. It was travelled mostly on foot, occasionally with donkey or mule, and patrolled by bandits who robbed nearly everyone coming through. At least, that was its reputation. The Romans built an outpost 12 miles from Jerusalem, a place for travellers to find safety. (1)

One day, as often happened, man was attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes and left for dead.

A priest saw the man in the ditch, and crossed over to the other side to avoid him. Later, a Levite did the same. Levites were the class of people who became priests of the temples in Jerusalem.

The Samaritan – a mistrusted stranger – stopped to help the man, bandaged him, got him a room at an inn, and promised to pay for his stay. The stranger was the good man.

Sermon Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

I wanted to share the story of the Good Samaritan with you this morning because I’ve always had a lot of judgment about the priest and the Levite.

I know the point of the story is to be a good neighbor, like the Samaritan, but I always hung onto the behavior of the priest and the Levite as proof of the hypocrisy of religion.

Their behavior served the old fallacy I held onto that organized religion served no-one and nothing but itself. The story of the Good Samaritan affirmed for the young me that religion is not to be trusted, but the ethics of good secular people can be.

Like many Unitarian Universalists, I didn’t grow up UU. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, the son of immigrants, in a town where I never felt like I belonged, a town whose main industry was prisons. 
It felt like a desecrated place dominated by religious hypocrisy. I couldn’t wait to get out.

But other places would prove to be my sacred ground.

In Providence I restored my first home and learned to imagine three dimensionally unbuilt spaces. I learned to think holistically, like and architect.

In Ohiopile Pennsylvania, standing by the stream in the shadows of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece called Fallingwater, I began to see light differently.

In Long Beach I was nurtured into loving the rhythms of congregational life through preaching and prayer and play and plain hard work with members and friends of the congregation and a long list of community partners.

All of those sacred places taught me to trust the religious impulse, the impulse to bind ourselves together in covenant, again and again.

But perhaps the most sacred ground to teach me that impulse was Walden Pond.

The replica of the little cabin on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts where Henry David Thoreau lived as he tended to the ground, catalogued wildlife, and charting the depth of the pond, was not what I expected. It was more compact, more dense.

From reading his books, I knew Thoreau “went to the woods to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.”

But being there I realized that the scale of the place forced him to engage with other residents of Concord and passers-through, all of whom walked along railroad tracks that were surprisingly close by.

He wrote that he had more visitors while he lived in the woods than at any other period of his life. (2) I suddenly understood why the place made him reach outward as much as it made him reach inward.

One of the men he spoke to frequently was a French Canadian woodchopper named Alek Therien. Thoreau clearly liked the guy, though he flip flopped between admiring Alek’s practical intelligence and physical strength, and judging him as having an inadequate parochial education. Thoreau didn’t know if Alek was “as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child, whether to suspect him of fine poetic consciousness or of stupidity.” (3)

On that visit, I could feel his reverence for the place still palpable, 
in that little shack, and in the ground itself. It made me begin to think that Thoreau’s work was a kind of precursor to contemporary community ministry, especially the more entrepreneurial of them, made up of practical tasks, research, and spiritual reflection, all in relationship with the community.

I know it’s not a perfect comparison. While his work is still influential after a century and a half, he wasn’t a really community minister in the sense that he wasn’t employed by or accountable to anyone in particular.

He didn’t name it a community ministry. He didn’t even name it a ministry.

But it was similar to a community ministry in that he engaged in his work with the kind of love and reverence and connection that all community ministers strive for as they discover more about themselves and the places they serve as stewards and companions.

At least that’s what I was striving for when I worked in a community ministry in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. The people there were as confounding to me as Alek the woodcutter was to Thoreau. They could be intellectually brilliant but paralyzed by confusion and paranoia. Or they could be sweet and generous in the morning after a fix, then cruel and demanding in the evening, haunted by cravings. They could be skilled at turning refuse into hard currency, but incapable of standing in line fifteen minutes for a necessary service.

I walked those streets the way Thoreau sauntered through the woods of Concord. I walked that sacred ground daily from my apartment at the top of Cathedral Hill to the purple building on the flat part of Hyde Street the way Thoreau did: with reverence and with a commitment to self-reflection and spiritual exploration, in conversation with the people of my community.

I came to know the migration from block to block of drug dealers the way Thoreau knew the nesting and migration of geese and quail. 
I knew the layout of the streets and building the way he knew the topography of pond.

It was my sacred ground, and for a few years, it was the only sacred ground in my life. Those streets taught me that wherever I am, everything I need to live, from food and drink to love and social engagement, are right there. Waiting for me to see them and partake.

That place taught me to meet people where they are, 
without trying to turn them into whatever it is I need them to be… so I can be comfortable. Most of all, I learned that if I am to survive as a minister, I have to have really good boundaries. I have to know when to stop, when to power off my batteries and let them recharge. To say no, even when it’s hard.

My job as a community minister was to find the places where the congregation and the community meet. I would bring folks from the streets into the historic UU Cathedral on the Hill, with its rose windows and the pulpit from which Thomas Starr King preached. And I would bring members of the congregation to the streets for self-reflection, advocacy and even charity work.

It didn’t always work. Trust can be difficult between people so different. But it happened, usually in the most unexpected ways. And often in the middle of the night.

I was unlike Thoreau because my work was community ministry. Officially.

I was employed by a mission driven non-profit and affiliated with the UU congregation a half block from my apartment, with a stipend from the church and clear expectations about what I would do there. I had a lot of people and organizations I was accountable to, for income and financial support. For evaluations. For maintaining professional standards and right relationship.

You know, during the month of October, we’re welcoming an unusually high number of guest preachers.

Three, in this five-Sunday month. And all of them, I realized recently, are community ministers. Renee Ruchotzke, here last week, serves the Central East Region of our Unitarian Universalist Association, supporting congregations like ours as we figure out how do church better AND become more integrated into our communities.

Rina Shere, who will be here next week, is a chaplain to patients at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland.

She’ll be followed by Kevin Lowry, hired by the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant as chaplain to students at University Circle. Both are employed to journey with people of all faiths, but have the opportunity to pay particular attention to Unitarian Universalists, and both are in relationship with UU congregations as affiliated ministers.

Rina and Kevin can both tell you, Community ministry is incredibly fulfilling, but it can be challenging, serving such diverse and transient populations, while maintaining covenantal relationship with congregations that may not feel connected to their work.

So anyway, one evening in my community ministry, I was slogging up the hill back to my apartment. I was tired. Dog tired. And hungry. All I wanted was to get home to a shower and a meal.

I saw someone a couple blocks up. Someone I had accompanied by standing in line with him, advocating for his care at the hospital, 
and sharing meals with him. He was someone I really liked, even though I sometimes lost patience with him. Or judged him, without realizing it. He was my Alek. And from that distance, I could tell that he was in a situation that he probably considered a crisis. I could see it in his body language.

Honestly though, just about everything for him was a crisis. He lived in a scary world, and always needed help.

But in that moment, I was too tired to deal with him compassionately, 
so I did what any self-respecting community minister would do. I ducked behind a bus shelter and stared straight ahead until I could cross the street and make my way to another block. I avoided the man in need.

Once the coast was clear, I came to a realization. On that day, on my way up that hill, I wasn’t the good Samaritan, I was the priest. I was the Levite. This guy wasn’t naked and unconscious, but he was in need, and I crossed the street to avoid him.

Suddenly, I had a lot more compassion for the priest and the Levite. It made me think “What if they knew they were just too tired to be helpful? What if they knew the guy in need, and his whole backstory? What if he was a chronic drunk, waking up daily in a ditch along that road? And they just felt like it wasn’t their turn today?”

And in that moment, I had to just be okay with believing that some Good Samaritan was going to come along and take care of him. And I confirmed the next day that someone did. As always.

Now, years later, I’m tending to new sacred ground here. You’ve charged me with preaching in relationship with you; addressing your spiritual needs; accompanying the dying and their families; guiding couples in the creation of meaningful covenants of marriage; nurturing children into adulthood in our faith. I spend a lot of time in the building and on the grounds, with not a lot of sauntering. Mostly, I drive between the 36 zip codes and four counties where you all live.

But it’s 2017, and we are living in turbulence.

You don’t need me to get into the list challenges from environmental degradation and social and political conflict. It’s everywhere, and most of us have the sleepless nights and frazzled nerves to show for it.

Our shared spaces out there, our roadways and public squares, are being desecrated by people who’ve been robbed and left for dead….literally and figuratively.

The silhouettes on the lawn this month, each representing a woman in Lake County killed in an act of violence perpetrated by an intimate partner, is tangible proof of the turmoil.

Every week we’re faced with a new horror story that demands our attention and responsiveness, and those of us who serve congregations find that the communities we live in need us to make these grounds sacred again.

There are people out there suffering, and if we aren’t out there, 
collaborating with the community, attending the meetings, taking responsibility for organizing public action, we run the risk of not seeing them. And these days, it’s increasingly likely that the next person who comes by will be not a Good Samaritan, but a torch-wielding white nationalist.

Congregational ministers need to be out there, working alongside community ministers in our neighborhoods, hospitals, schools and armed services.

And we need to be really good at keeping our batteries charged so that we don’t find ourselves constantly crossing streets to avoid the suffering.

So now, perhaps more than ever, our congregations need community ministers. When we are confused by the events in the news, we need someone affected by those events to come and share their stories. When we are in conflict among ourselves, we need more pastoral presence. When we need time to recharge, we need someone to sit with us, and just be with us.

Congregations, their ministers, and Community Ministers need each other.

You know, up until recently, we had a community minister in our midst. Her role, like Thoreau’s, was unofficial, but she did the work of caring for Grace Woods at Breckenridge Village, and the people who lived there. And she coordinated the care of people here, at East Shore. Her name was Peggy Clason, and we sent her off with a memorial service last Sunday.

So now we have a void. There is no longer a community minister to make the link between the community out there, the church in here, and the members and friends who may be in need of regular accompaniment.

Peggy cared for the people – like Rickie and Pam and Bonnie and David and Don – who took on the role of caring for those among us who need just a bit of extra attention. People who are shut in, people whose memories are leaving them.

But I want to let you both know that from this vantage point, what I see in this congregation is that everything we need to do this work and stay in relationship with each other – in terms of financial and human resources – they are all right here in front of us, waiting to be used to heal a hurting world as we love, revere, discover and connect with one another. In fact, this kind of care for one another is HOW we love, revere, discover and connect.

I know this from my time in the streets, and it’s proven itself to be true again and again. Everything we need is right there in front of us. In abundance.

So this ground isn’t sacred just because of its history and the people who have laid claim to it over the centuries. This ground is sacred because of the bond you share with one another, and your commitment not to think alike but to journey together.

With that kind of commitment, I know we’ll figure out exactly how we can continue to accompany one another, even without our beloved community minister. Because we can do whatever we want to do, whatever we have the will to do. And I know one of the things we want to do is care for and support one another.

May it be so.


(2) Henry David Thoreau. Walden and Other Writings. 2000. Modern Library paperback edition. P. 135

(3) Thoreau. Walden and Other Writings. 2000. P. 140.