September 10, 2017 — Rev. Paula Norbert
In this wonderful passage from Exodus, we hear God telling Moses to take off his shoes because the place where he is standing is Holy Ground. I have been thinking about that image as I prepared to begin my ministry here at Union Church. The place where I am standing this day, where we are all standing is indeed holy ground, and I know well that God and all of you were here long before my arrival. I feel deeply privileged to be with you all and I hope to bring the reverence that God asked of Moses to my encounters with each of you and with all those we will meet along the course of our journey. Let us pray, “Gracious and loving God, please bless each of us gathered today as we seek to live out your message of love and faith, of justice and peace, of courage and compassion. May your Spirit abide with us and inspire us in our individual and collective journey of faith. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
An important part of what makes this Holy Ground is the fact that we each bring the stories of our lives to this important moment. When I traveled to Nicaragua with a college group some years ago, I remember one of the leaders began the week by telling us, “we will read from two books this week, the book of the Bible and the book of Life, for there are important lessons we will learn from both.” We all have our sacred stories to share, stories of joy and challenge, of sorrow and triumph. I thought that it might be helpful for you to hear a little bit of my life story and I very much look forward to hearing your stories in the days ahead. I shared some of this text with the Search Committee here so my apologies to you, but I thought it important to share this with the larger congregation.
There are three important themes that have framed my journey of faith to this point in my life: Contemplation, inspiration, and consolation. At different times, they have served as the grounding for my spiritual journey of inquiry and witness, growth and exploration. We hear in Psalm 46 those precious words, “Be still and know that I am God.“ From my earliest memories, I remember seeking out moments of quiet and contemplation. Raised in a large, energetic family of 7 children, I would often seek out time in my room for reading and dreaming. I recall loving going to church and having the chance to sit or kneel in the quiet and let the songs and words wash over me. I felt that awesome and mystical presence of God in those moments and I deeply appreciated the opportunities to be nurtured and nourished in faith. Later in high school and college, I had wonderful experiences on retreats. Over the years, I sought out many opportunities for daily prayer, for meditation, and for quiet. Even as a young child, those times of quiet brought peace to my soul and they provided me with the chance to dream about the big questions of life, of God, of joy and suffering, of what God was calling me to do with my life. I cherish the people in my life, my family and the many friends, teachers and colleagues who have deepened my faith in God and walked with me on this journey. I also know that times of quiet contemplation are essential both for my well-being and for my continued growth in faith and spirituality.
The second essential theme of my spiritual journey is that of inspiration. When I was in the third grade, I went with my mother and sister, along with my grandmother and aunts, all women of deep faith and compassion, to see Dorothy Day speak at my church. Even now I can see her sitting there speaking both passionately and humbly about her work with the poor in the lower east side of Manhattan. I can see her simple dress, the kerchief she wore in her hair and I knew that she was speaking directly to me. She shared her own faith journey and the way in which her Christian faith inspired her to live and work among the poorest folks in the city of New York. I knew very early on, both from her message and from the fine example of my parents, that faith and justice were inextricably linked and that I was called to work for justice because of my deep faith in Christ Jesus. I have met many saintly people along my journey who have continued to inspire me by their courage and faith, their witness to the Gospel in their work for peace and justice in our broken world.
The central and most challenging text for me in all of Scripture is that of Matthew 25. I remember hearing a powerful sermon on that text during a year of faith based service in California following college when I worked with political refugees from Central America as well as prisoners in the state system. “Whenever you do this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did this to me.” It is the defining reference point for me life, a challenge to many of the decisions I have made along the way, especially in my later work as a college chaplain when I accompanied college students on service/immersion programs to the heart of the city of Boston and to impoverished communities in Ecuador, Mexico and Nicaragua.
When I was a college chaplain in Boston, I remember the head of our department challenging us to discover what we love and to do our ministry from that place. I knew that I loved to be with others in community as we explored what it meant to be people of faith working for justice in a world filled with injustice. What then must we do? We explored together what we might share of our gifts, talents, education and privilege that could make any difference to our brothers and sisters who were struggling to survive in many forgotten places. What would it mean for our lives?
I recall the preparation that we would do with the group of students over many months before we traveled to Nicaragua. We would invite various people to come speak to the group so that we could learn more about the context of the community their strengths and challenges before we journeyed there. At one point, a Jesuit professor of Economics came to speak to the group…and told of time he had spent in El Salvador. He actually lived with some of the priests who were killed there in 1989. At one point, a family traveled a distance to ask him to baptize their new baby…and in the midst of that baptism, the baby died. He shared that story with our group and he said that it helped to frame his ongoing work in economics. What does economics mean in the face of that reality? How are we each invited to consider our studies and work in the face of extreme poverty in the world? It was a deeply moving and important experience for me…and for the students gathered there.
The third important theme of my life’s journey is that of consolation. Along the course of my life, and like so many others, I have experienced personal loss and I have been present to others at times of great suffering and loss. Perhaps those have provided the greatest challenge to my faith. Why does a beautiful young woman at the threshold of adulthood die after a four year battle with bone cancer? Why do we lose my precious nephew at the age of 10 after his own painful struggle with leukemia. Grief requires time and attention and it is not a straight road. I have strived to carry forward the gifts and inspiration of those I have loved and lost, but I know that part of my innocence was also lost along the way. Jesus himself “wept” and was “deeply moved” (JN 11:35, 33) at the loss of his dear friend Lazarus and as he visited Martha and Mary. I do believe that the cross shows us Jesus’s desire to join us in our suffering. Many times in my life, I have felt God’s love and consolation through the presence of those who have surrounded me with compassion and care in my times of mourning and I felt the strength of God when I have been able to accompany others in their suffering as well.
In all of the varied ministerial experiences I have been a part of over the years, I have been privileged to build relationships with others and to help others explore their own faith and spiritual journeys. We all have walked a different path, but it has been my great joy to engage in conversations about the meaning of life and what our Christian faith and other faith traditions may teach us about how we might live together and find deep meaning along the way.
“And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” I Corinithians 13:13