I must be the only person on Earth who has not read the Harry Potter books,” said the Rev. Mary Luti. “I remember when the last book came out, everyone said it was a very ‘dark’ book.”
Luti preached at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “The Power of Presence: No One is Alone,” and the Scripture reading was Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calming the storm.
A review of the last Harry Potter book said that each book had become darker and darker as Harry grew up. He was initiated into the complexity, sadness and suffering of adulthood to become a man.
“There are countless children who will suffer more before age 10, than all the adults I know,” Luti said. “The adult world is a place where a kiss does not heal boo-boos, parents no longer spell to protect your innocence and night lights do not keep the monsters away.”
As adults, we have to bear up, “whether you are a widow who can’t face going home to a dark apartment, a man in a bad marriage with no end in sight or a parent panicked about your kids,” she told the congregation.
Mark’s story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the lake begins in the evening. It is late and Jesus is exhausted — so exhausted he could have slept through the swamping of the boat when a storm came up.
“The disciples woke him and asked, ‘Don’t you care that we are perishing?’ ” Luti said. “They were more afraid that he would not care, that no one would know what happened to them. They were scared they might be in the storm alone.”
Psalm 23 is the favorite psalm of many people.
“Many people love the verse, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me,’ ” Luti said. “No one wants to get battered alone. We expect to get knocked around by life, but we generally know that isn’t the worst that could happen. We are most afraid to be in the hard places alone. If we know you (Jesus) are with me, it is all I need to make it through.”
When her 90-year-old mother was told she had six weeks to live, Luti said her response was, “It went by so fast.” Her mother thought she could handle dying if she took it one day at a time and if she did not have to do it alone.
“From that day until she died, she was never alone,” Luti said. “To not be alone makes the unbearable, bearable and the undoable, doable. It brings a death full of grace.”
When Luti was teaching in seminary, she would tell her students that it was not their job to fix things, to find solutions, to make things better.
“Their job was simple presence, to be with their parishioners,” she said. “They loved the way that sounded — so wise, so profound. They would take notes and tweet it.”
As soon as the new pastors got into their first congregation, they reverted to “fix-it mode.” They could not trust the power of simple presence; it felt useless.
“Yet what most people want,” Luti said, “is presence, not solutions. Not being alone is more important than not being in trouble.”
In her first church, a parishioner called Luti with an emergency.
“In the midst of her screaming, I peppered her with questions and possible fixes,” Luti said. “She stopped me and said, ‘You are supposed to tell me that God is with me, that I am not alone.’ ”
Jesus asked the disciples in the boat, “Don’t you have faith yet, a fundamental trust in God, even when I am sound asleep?”
“This really is the love that will not let us go,” Luti said. “We say there are places where God would not be caught dead, but God will accompany us to those places, come hell or high water.”
Theologian Martin Copenhaver, in preaching about the Apostle’s Creed, said that the phrase “he (Jesus) descended into hell” had always puzzled him.
One day a parishioner said to him, “That is my most cherished phrase.” Copenhaver asked her why, and she said: “Because hell is where I spend most of my life.”
“In the deepest valley, in the sinking boat, as grown-ups, we have all been there,” Luti said. “God in Jesus has been there, too. He will be with us even to the end of the age.”
Jesus never promised a trouble-free life or a quick fix, but a presence.
“We are never not accompanied; we are held in mercy, and we are not alone,” Luti said. “Jesus is the simple presence for the weary, sin-sick world. He can’t fix it, but he can get us through the night.”
Luti said Copenhaver, with whom she worked at Andover Newton Theological School, is a great fan of Stephen Sondheim, especially his show Into the Woods, which he has seen many times. The first time Copenhaver saw the show, he waited for the happy ending.
“But this is a show for grown-ups; there is no happy ending,” Luti said.
The show ends with the song, “No One is Alone.”
“Mother cannot guide you. / Now you’re on your own. / Only me beside you, / still, you’re not alone. / No one is alone. / Truly, / no one is alone. / Sometimes people leave you / halfway through the wood. / Others may deceive you. / You decide what’s good. / You decide alone, / but no one is alone.”
The latest time Copenhaver went to see the show, he looked around at the jaded New Yorkers as the song began and some were sniffling. By the time the actor sang, “No one is alone,” several were weeping.
“Do they really believe someone will be with them?” Luti asked. “Maybe they don’t know who that is, but we do. The one who is with us is the one nearer than our own hearts, whose presence alone makes the storms survivable, the valleys walkable and life livable — and death full of grace.”
The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. Pat Mahoney Brown, a retired library media specialist and co-host at the Baptist House from 2007 to 2015, read the Scripture. For the prelude, Barbara Hois, flute, and Joseph Musser, piano, played “Andante Pastorale,” by Theobald Boehm and Musser’s “Allegro for Flute and Piano.” The Motet Choir sang “What Shall I Render,” by John Ness Beck, for the introit and “My Soul’s Been Anchored In the Lord,” arranged by Moses Hogan, as the anthem. Organist and Coordinator of Worship and Sacred music Jared Jacobsen directed the choir. Thanks to the magic of Chautauqua and the generosity of several individuals, braille worship books and hymnals for the weekday worship services are available for the sight-impaired to participate more fully in worship. Books are available at Gate 4, the Ralph C. Sheldon Gate. Ask any usher for assistance. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Mary E. and Samuel M. Hazlett Memorial Fund.