Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, August 30, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
A few weeks ago, I was walking to the grocery store in Porter Square when I suddenly realized I wasn’t wearing a mask. It was so startling to find myself a mile from home without one that I almost felt like I had left the house without getting dressed. Fortunately, it was early and there weren’t many people out and about, so I hurried home as fast as I could, grabbed a mask from the basket by the door, and tried again to go buy a gallon of milk.
It takes a while to create a habit — I still catch myself going out the door without a mask from time to time. But there are people around to remind me when I forget and gradually I won’t have to think about it as much. My hand will remember to reach into the basket by the door, even if my mind is elsewhere.
We’re all having to create muscle memory for the new habits we are being asked to cultivate —masking, keeping our distance, washing our hands more frequently than usual. But it’s worth the trouble, because these practices will make a difference for the health of the people and communities among whom we move. It’s a small thing, putting on a mask; it doesn’t ask much of us — a little discomfort, a little more difficulty in communicating. Masking is a small gesture within the larger practice of caregiving, but one without which our caregiving falls short in these times.
History is full of stories of people and communities who cultivated the muscle memory for practices that asked more — more risk-taking, more exposure to danger. One of the most inspiring, to me, is the story of a small community of Huguenots in rural France that sheltered 3,500 Jews and 1,500 others persecuted under the Vichy regime and helped many of them get over the border to safety in Switzerland. They knew the paths to the border well because their ancestors had walked them during their own persecution, and the community kept that memory alive, and the paths cleared, over generations. They also kept alive, through constant practice, the life-saving habits of hospitality the community had honed during those years. So when refugees began knocking on their doors in the early 1940s, the community didn’t have to spend time wondering what to do or how to do it. They simply kept doing what they had always done, in good times and in bad: they welcomed the strangers who came to them for help. They offered food and shelter to those who needed it. They opened their doors and their kitchens, they provided false documents and ration cards, they made up beds in their churches and their schools, and they accompanied people on the perilous journey to the border. As one former child refugee in Le Chambon put it, “Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just took us in.”
One day, the families and children coming to us for safe harbor at the southern border of our country will tell their stories, too, as this woman has done. Imagine if they could say: those people just took us in, they just cared for us. Imagine who we would be as a country if that were so.
The community of Le Chambon was formed by their religious convictions and by the gestures and habits through which they passed those convictions down the generations: opening the door when the knock came rather than sitting still and silent until whomever was knocking moved on. Keeping extra pillows and blankets and food on hand. So when it was a matter of life or death, they could open their doors without hesitation. They’d practiced being ready. It was second nature. Sometimes, heroic acts like these feel like miracles that have come out of nowhere. But most of the time, they’re prepared for, in community, through practice.
Practices can work in the other direction, too, of course. Established habits are powerful, and sometime dangerous, precisely because our body remembers them, and does them, automatically. As we’ve seen yet again this past week, with the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the relentless practices of violence against Black people in this country have a muscle memory of their own. If we are going to recognize — and cherish — and protect — the dignity of each other’s humanity, there are habits of mind and body that we must practice resisting. Our practices can open us to transformation or close us off, locked into the status quo.
The practices and habits out of which our lives are made matter, for good or for ill. Thinking is an important formative practice, but we can’t just think our way to the people we want to become. No matter what beliefs we profess, it’s our choices moment to moment about how we spend our time, how we respond to others, the quality of the attention that we bring to the world that gives our life its shape and its meaning. That’s why ancient philosophical movements focused less on articulating doctrines about the good, about justice, about truth and more on cultivating the practices that would create an orientation toward life that opened them to conversion, to change. That’s why you can’t just skip to the end of one of Plato’s dialogues to find the answer to Socrates’s questions. The answer’s not at the end. The answer’s in the practice of dialogue itself: a practice of moving together toward truth, toward justice, toward the good.
This is also why practice is so central to religion. Every religious tradition passes down wisdom about how to address human needs and hungers through its practices. The need for a place to rest and food to eat calls forth practices of hospitality. The desire to exhale one’s breath in praise or joy or lament calls forth the practice of singing; the need for reconciliation between human beings calls forth the practice of forgiveness. Religious rituals are grounded in the things we do because we’re human: eat and drink, rest, move our bodies through the world. In Christianity, the ritual of communion — which we miss so much sharing with you in the sanctuary of the Memorial Church — draws its power from the life human beings cultivate around food and returns us to that life with a vision of a meal in which all are welcome and there is enough for everyone, a meal that draws us beyond ourselves into community with God and others. In Islam, the practice of pilgrimage draws on the deep human experience of moving through the world, rendering each step holy, sharpening our attention to the sacred within us and around us. In Judaism, the practice of Sabbath keeping is grounded in the human need to structure time for work and rest — something we all need to keep in mind as classes begin this week. But it’s not only a practice that offers rest for the overworked but also illuminates the fact that only free people can take a day off. And so God’s commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath is also God’s testimony against slavery and economic injustice. This practice — like communion, like pilgrimage — makes a claim on us that goes far beyond the boundaries of our individual lives.
In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that Alden read so beautifully for us, Paul heaps practice upon practice, urging us to live ardently, to outdo one another in loving, to seek the company of the humble, to care for the members of our community and to show hospitality to strangers. I love this passage because almost 34 years ago, my best friend read it at Kevin’s and my wedding. Hearing Alden read it now, I remember my friend’s voice, too, urging us not only to cultivate our own loving household but to keep turning outward, to make room for our love to spill over. The practices of faith keep us living at the intersections of what is inside us and what is all around us, between strangers and friends, between what we know and what we don’t. At their best, our practices help us reverence the mystery even of those with whom we are most intimate. These practices are practices of hope because they remind us that we can choose to love, we can choose to change.
The story of Moses and the burning bush that Lara Glass read from Exodus this morning, describes practices that I hope will ground our life together this year. What does Moses do in this passage? He stops, and turns, toward the eruption of the sacred in his midst. He takes off his shoes to acknowledge the holy ground he stands on. He hides his face. He listens. He asks questions: Why call me to save my people? Who should I tell them sent me? What is your name?
As usual, God’s answer is enigmatic. I am who I am, God says to Moses. Tell the people, I am sent me. God insists on God’s own being: I am, God says. Perhaps God is saying: I am being. I am the heart of existence itself. I am life.
This year at the Memorial Church, our theme is practicing hope. The Rev. Peter Gomes, one of our former ministers, once defined the good news of the gospel like this: We don’t have to be as we are. The good news is that we can change. But rarely do we change in a moment, like Paul on the Damascus Road. We change gradually, over time, as we practice new ways of being in the world, new ways of gathering up the scattered parts of ourselves and living more fully present in the world.
If we do not have to be as we are, then the world does not have to be as it is. That is where hope lies: that we can change, that the world can change. And so we invite you to join us this year as we explore practices of hope: Each month we will explore a new constellation of ways in which human beings have cultivated resilience and hope in solitude and community; through practices of study, work, and refreshment; through nourishing body and soul with a rich table life; through music-making, caregiving, testimony and protest; through prayer and discernment; and through practices, like pilgrimage, of moving through the world with care for others and the earth we inhabit. All of these practices are made up of the ordinary gestures of human life, and together they add up to a way of living that makes us more conscious of life itself, more connected to the world around us, and more open to change. Our religious traditions pass these practices down through people’s lives, and there are people all around us who are making ordinary life sing through their open, attentive ways of doing things we all do: eating and drinking, reading and writing, working and resting, protesting and praying, caregiving, thinking, loving. Find the skilled practitioners in the geography of your life, wherever you are, and study them. Pick a practice that interests you, try to get better at it, and practice it with others, in community. And together, let’s spend this year practicing being the people we hope to become.