A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester
October 7, 2018 By Rev. Joanna Lubkin
“What then is sanctuary? The sanctuary is often something very small. Not a grandiose gesture, but a small gesture toward alleviating human suffering and preventing humiliation. The sanctuary is a human being. Sanctuary is a dream. And that is why you are here and that is why I am here. We are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter.” ~ Elie Wiesel
I’ve always liked the story of Channah. I always sensed that there was something 1 powerful hidden within its drama. We heard the story from I Samuel, in which Channah, Elkanah’s favored wife, is barren and spends her days weeping and fasting. Elkanah cannot understand her grief, and asks Channah why his love isn’t as good as ten sons. Channah’s soul is filled with bitterness, as she cries and pours out the prayers of her heart in the Temple. She makes an elaborate vow to G-d, promising her future-son’s life in service to G-d. The priest, Eli, sees her lips moving but cannot hear her voice and he assumes she’s a drunkard. He reprimands her, yet she has the courage to tell him that she was pleading to G-d out of a deep sorrow. Eli replies, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your prayer.”
And here is where the story touches my soul. The narrative concludes:
And the woman went on her way and [resumed] eating, and her expression was no longer downcast. (1 Samuel 1:18)
There is a crucial, beautiful detail here: G-d’s answer to Chanah’s prayer was not what changed Chanah’s expression and brought her back to life; the human interaction of a person witnessing and acknowledging her suffering was what eased her pain.
This is an essential truth: being seen and acknowledged matters. Being seen and acknowledged can save lives. And I believe that the act of seeing and acknowledging others is a religious and moral imperative.
Show of hands: How many of us had or are currently having awkward and painful teenage years?
Yup, me too. I sought refuge in the synagogue, clinging to the traditions and the prayers like lifelines. If I couldn’t figure out the rules of the game of being a teenager, at least I
1 I Samuel 1:1-19
could follow the rules of religious observance and maybe, just maybe, have a place where I fit in.
As you might guess, attending religious services wasn’t a popular activity for too many teenagers. When I walked into the sanctuary, I’d look around, trying to see if there were any friends in my age range with whom I could sit. There rarely were, so most Saturdays, I’d sit alone in the back row. I tried so hard
to fit in, to do everything right.
Then comes Fred Malkin. Fred was larger than life. He was a regular at the synagogue, seemingly friends with everyone. Fred was actually my first music teacher; he’d volunteer at the religious school to teach us Jewish music, and he’d always play the piano very jauntily. In synagogue, he’d sing loudly, chat loudly during the service, and always made a point to “accidentally” bonk the microphone with his arm when he covered up the Torah. I still think of Fred every time I hear this sound. (Bonk.)
One Saturday, I was in my usual spot, in the otherwise-empty back pew. The congregation and I were all standing and singing for one of the prayers, and Fred walked over behind my pew.
I looked up at him and caught his eye. With a faint smile on his face, he said, “I see you.”
My first thought: he must be talking to someone else. Second thought: that’s a bizarre thing to say to someone. Third thought: he must have caught me doing something wrong. But I was trying so hard!
“Um?” I said.
“I see you,” Fred repeated. “I see that you come every week and sit by yourself, and I see how much you want to belong. You seem lonely. Sometimes, I feel lonely here too.”
This boggled my mind. Fred, the biggest personality in the room, felt lonely here?
He went on: “When I’m feeling lonely and worrying about fitting in, I sing harmonies. I’m going to teach you to sing harmonies, too.”
And he walked off, leaving me stunned, but glowing a little.
I felt seen. I felt acknowledged. I felt the constraining bonds of loneliness begin to loosen. Like Chanah, someone recognized and gave voice to my pain and my hope.
And Fred, in his wisdom, gave me a way in. True to his word, in the coming weeks, I’d hear him booming out a harmony from across the sanctuary. He’d catch my eye, nod, point to his ear, suggesting that I listen to what he was singing. I’d smile, listen, and join in once I got it. Pretty soon, I was improvising my own notes, and Fred and I would
build these soaring harmonies around the congregation’s ancient melodies. And people would sometimes turn around in their pews, to see where the sound was coming from. And they’d see me, they’d smile, and then, miracle of miracles, they’d talk to me over pastries after the service.
There were two amazing gifts that Fred gave me. The first was an understanding of how I could choose to be a part of that community. I had been straining so hard to fit in, to sing the same melodies as everyone else, and couldn’t stop feeling like I came up short. Singing harmonies was literally and metaphorically a way to be myself, to sing my own song, and to let my originality enhance everyone else’s experience – when we sang harmonies, we were in effect saying, “I’m here. I am who I am. I will turn my loneliness into beauty.”
The second gift was companionship. Even though we rarely spoke to each other, I knew Fred was an ally, a friend on the journey. And that made all the difference.
I thought of Fred when I heard this TED talk from Drew Dudley, a leadership educator based out of Toronto. He told this story:
“I went to school in a little school called Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and on my last day there, a girl came up to me and she said, ‘I remember the first time that I met you.’ And then she told me a story that had happened four years earlier.
“She said, ‘On the day before I started university, I was in the hotel room with my mom and my dad, and I was so scared and so convinced that I couldn’t do this, that I wasn’t ready for university, that I just burst into tears. And my mom and my dad were amazing. They were like, ‘Look, we know you’re scared, but let’s just go tomorrow. Let’s go to the first day, and if at any point you feel as if you can’t do this, that’s fine, just tell us, we will take you home. We love you no matter what.’
“And she says, ‘So I went the next day and I was standing in line getting ready for registration, and I looked around and I just knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I wasn’t ready. I knew I had to quit.’ And she says, ‘I made that decision, and as soon as I made it, there was this incredible feeling of peace that came over me. And I turned to my mom and my dad to tell them that we needed to go home. And just at that moment, you came out of the Student Union building wearing the stupidest hat I have ever seen in my life. It was awesome. And you had a big sign promoting [the charity] Shinerama, which is Students Fighting Cystic Fibrosis, and you had a bucketful of lollipops. And you were walking
along and you were handing the lollipops out to people in line and talking about Shinerama. And all of a sudden, you got to me, and you just stopped, and you stared.’
“’And then you looked at the guy next to me [in line], and you smiled, and you reached in your bucket, and you pulled out a lollipop, and you held it out to him, and you said, ‘You need to give a lollipop to this beautiful [person] standing next to you.’ And she said, ‘I have never seen anyone get more embarrassed faster in my life. He turned beet red, and he wouldn’t even look at me. He just kind of held the lollipop out like this. And I felt so bad for this dude that I took the lollipop, and as soon as I did, you got this incredibly severe look on your face and you looked at my mom and my dad, and you said, ‘Look at that. Look at that. First day away from home, and already she’s taking candy from a stranger?!’
“And she said, “Everybody lost it. Twenty feet in every direction, everyone started to howl. And I know this is cheesy, and I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but in that moment when everyone was laughing, I knew that I shouldn’t quit. I knew that I was where I was supposed to be, and I knew that I was home, and I haven’t spoken to you once in the four years since that day, but I heard that you were leaving, and I had to come up and tell you that you’ve been an incredibly important person in my life, and I’m going to miss you. Good luck.’
“And she walks away, and I’m flattened,” Drew continued. “And she gets about six feet away, she turns around and smiles, and goes, ‘You should probably know this, too. I’m still dating that guy four years later.’
“A year and a half after I moved to Toronto, I got an invitation to their wedding.
“Here’s the kicker,” Drew continued. “I don’t remember that. I have no recollection of that moment, and I’ve searched my memory banks, because that is funny and I should remember doing it, and I don’t remember it. And that was such an eye-opening, transformative moment for me to think that maybe the biggest impact I’d ever had on anyone’s life, a moment that had a woman walk up to a stranger four years later and say,’You’ve been an incredibly important person in my life,’ was a moment that I didn’t even remember.
Drew concludes by asking his audience these questions, and I’ll ask you today, too. “How many of you [all] have a lollipop moment, a moment where someone said something or did something that you feel fundamentally made your life better? All right. How many of you have told that person they did it? See, why not? We celebrate birthdays, where all you have to do is not die for 365 days — and yet we let people who
have made our lives better walk around without knowing it. And every single one of you, every single one of you has been the catalyst for a lollipop moment. You have made someone’s life better by something that you said or that you did, and if you think you haven’t, think about all the hands that didn’t go back up when I asked that question. You’re just one of the people who hasn’t been told.” 2
In his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,
UU minister Robert Fulgum said, “You may never have proof of your importance but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”
So here and now, this is my wish for us. Let’s let each other know. Let’s thank those who have made our lives fundamentally better by seeing us when we felt invisible. Let’s pay that kindness forward, and see each other.
And in case no one has said this to you recently:
You are important. And I see you. And I am so glad you are here.