An Invitation to Be Real: A Sermon on the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of Rev. Catherine MacLean Crooks’ Ministry at Plymouth Congregational Church
John 15: 12-15, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
Sept 20, 2015
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation. I hear the real though faroff hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
She was one of those people whose brilliance was obvious from the minute you met her. It took a bit longer to see the desire to create beauty and connection and love—through music, art and by acting decently and honestly. But it was all there.
She came into the warehouse that served as our sanctuary about once a week for quite a stretch of time because she was looking for a place to be safe as she battled the pain. Some times she’d just sit and pray. Some times I would hear music as she sought to claim beauty amidst too many bad memories that wouldn’t let her go.
Every so often, she’d schedule a time to talk and I learned more about the ways in which her body and soul and heart had been violated and how her mind had helped her survive.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…
Mostly, our conversations were opportunities for me to meet the different parts of her and spend time. I could tell she allowed her “multiplicity” to be known to me because she’d had an experience of some pastor who had been worthy of her trust. In some other context, she had learned that it was ok to talk to a pastor about her multiple personalities. And because of some other minister’s gifts, I got to meet and sit with Squirt, Peter, Mark, me inside, Kelldog, Quiet, Arizona, Alex and 489. And I was privileged to hear of how they were trying to help each other heal.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God.
When I was five or six, my family attended St. John’s United Church of Christ in Dayton, Ohio. As new members, our family was invited to consider the different activities of the church. Since I loved to sing, I was invited to join the children’s choir.
It was perfect for me. I got to be with other people singing, I can’t begin to articulate the joy I felt.
But it quickly became a bit complicated. The choir director was a woman named Mrs. McCash. I came to know later that order, control, precision and appearance were all very high values for her. She was not unlike some church ladies in any given number of churches around the country. For her, there was a proper way of doing things and an improper way. One of the proper ways had to do with how one dressed for church. Boys and men wore suits or at least pants, a dress shirt and a tie, and girls and women wore dresses and the shoes that matched.
Into this well-ordered, gender binary walked my little pant-wearing tomboy girl self. And let’s just say it didn’t go well. On the first Sunday the choir was to perform, Mrs. McCash came up to me and rolled up my pants so you couldn’t tell I was wearing them under my choir robe. My memory isn’t clear but somehow I went to my mom crying before church started and told her what had happened. She rolled down my pants and told me to go up there and sing my heart out. (Thank God for my mom!)
I have often reflected on that incident as a microcosm of my life’s journey in relationship with the church, particularly as I later went through the coming out process. The church is at once a place of great joy, of communion with God. It is the sanctuary in which my voice joins with those of others in praise and prayer and adulation. But the church often asks me and us to hide who we really are in order to join the song. It asks us to roll up or cover the unseemly, the improper.
It, too often, requires of us a kind of Sophie’s choice between the realness of our lives and the deep connection of community.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
It was after at least a year of hearing the music coming from our sanctuary and coming to know all of her parts, as she called her different personalities, that Kelly invited me to a special worship service. Her home faith community was baptizing all of her nine parts in an evening service and would I come…
In preparation for today’s sermon, I was looking back at the bulletin from that service and I got tears anew. Gathered together in the sanctuary, rooted in the hymns of the church, communally professing our faith we, together, named out loud that violence and abuse are real, that pain and suffering touch each one of us and it is not seemly or pretty. And we invited each of us and all of us to show up in our fullness and realness to worship a God who knows us.
The opening prayer was this:
The beauty of the world is created by God.
The wonder of the world is blessed by God.
The rage of the world is heard by God.
The agony of the world is embraced by God.
Come, let us worship God—Creator, Christ, Spirit whose loving presence we cannot flee.
In the sermon that was preached that night, entitled “A Concerto of Life,” the preacher said outloud words like sexual abuse and multiplicity. And then she professed the depth of our faith, that neither death nor violence nor threat of both is more powerful than the healing, relentless love of God from which all that is beautiful comes. And then we baptized Squirt and Peter, Mark and me inside, Kelldog and Quiet, Arizona and Alex and 489.
In our Scripture for this morning, Jesus is sharing what Biblical scholars refer to as his “Farewell Discourse.” He knows he is soon to face his own crucifixion by those who fear his invitation to put aside power and privilege and appearance of piety. And he is intent upon helping his disciples get the message.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
As you might have guessed, the presider at the baptism that night, the pastor whose impeccable gifts and skills helped remind Kelly that the church was a safe place to be herself; the pastor who challenged us all to remember that the core of our tradition is the call to love one another in real and deep ways and that life and music and healing are always God’s answer to violence and suffering. That pastor was Cath Crooks. In the thank-you section, Kelly wrote, “Thank you to Cathie, the best [freaking] minister I have ever had. You have entered so fully into our lives. You are so real. You are so accepting. Thank you for your faith in me. Thank you for your ministry. Cathie, speaking quite frankly, which I have been known to do from time to time, you rock my world.”
Today we mark the tenth anniversary of Rev. Catherine MacLean Crook’s ministry here at Plymouth Congregational Church. We are also in the 26th year of her ordained ministry (a ministry that is rooted in the soil of Cape Breton and the Maritimes and in the best of our Christian tradition.)
There are many things I could share of the ways in which I’ve learned to be a more faithful, more loving and wiser minister and person because of her. But none seems more important than her tenacious refusal to allow me or those with whom she ministers, to turn away from the invitation to be real.
It is this journey: away from whatever lies we’ve been told, away from whatever addictions we’ve been gripped by, away from whatever people we tried to be or thought the church would find proper or seemly, away from all of these…. and toward the fragile but resilient, healed and healing, seeking-to-be-real community of friends that Jesus invites us to be… that’s the invitation.
And I believe it is nothing short of our lives, as people and as church, that’s at stake with how we answer the invitation. But we don’t have to take the journey alone. It is none other than God, from whose loving presence we cannot flee, that pours out the nudges and reminders and guideposts along the way.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
So let us claim our place. Let us roll down our pant legs. Let us take up the invitation.