The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Numbers 35: 9-15; Psalm 27: 1-5, 14; Matthew 11: 28-30
March 5, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part III: Steal Away
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.” That’s how the old spiritual puts it. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s how Jesus puts it. My words today shall revolve around those two statements, separated by centuries, but united by a dream of rest. Steal away, the song says. Come to me, Jesus says.
Consider the song first. It’s a spiritual that’s appeared in hymnals for well over a hundred years, capturing the ways each of us as human beings occasionally find ourselves longing to slip away toward Jesus. In the song, Jesus becomes a figure who represents one of the most basic needs that humans experience, which is that of safety and embrace. When troubles mount, when slings and arrows are fired in our direction, we long for a place of retreat, where we’ll be affirmed without judgment, where we’ll feel nourished and upheld. When our struggles seem too much to bear, we need a place or a person in our lives which will, or who will, strengthen our fundamental sense of being, of well-being. When it seems as though our lives have little value, and that we’re in danger of being discarded, or worse yet, forgotten entirely, we need a person or a place toward which we can steal away, knowing that in that sacred zone, our bodies, our infirmities, our frailties, our failures, all of it, will be looked upon with understanding, and with a gracious embrace. Sometimes we need to steal away to Jesus.
Have you ever needed to steal away? Have you ever needed a place or a person or a group of people to hold you up and to embrace you in a trying moment? Where did you turn when that happened? Who or what became your consolation, your assurance that come what may you would be OK? As children, it’s often a nook in a corner that functions as that sort of space – it becomes a kind of enclosed shelter. But in human terms it’s often the presence of a grandparent or an adult friend who somehow supplements the care that parents give. But it’s no less a need for adults. Where or who do you turn to for succor, for support, for sanctuary? What I wish to affirm for you is this: wherever you have found that support, wherever you found a place or person of nurture, no matter with whom or where, no matter how unlikely it might seem, Jesus is present. Wherever you have been allowed to flourish; wherever you have experienced grace; wherever your spirit has somehow been lifted up; whenever you have felt affirmed in the fullness of your being, Jesus is there.
I don’t know about you, but there have been moments in my life when I’ve needed to steal away to Jesus. I think in particular of the year I spent working as a hospital chaplain, witnessing a fresh human misery on a daily, and sometimes on an hourly basis. It was one of the hardest years of my adult life. Rather than accepting a temporary academic job in Pennsylvania, I felt the need to get out of my head for a while, and working in a hospital struck me as a helpful way to do just that. The hours were long, the pay was miniscule, the emotional toll was severe, and I soon wondered if I had made a huge mistake.
One Saturday in October, I was the chaplain on duty overnight. At about 3 in the morning, a young man in his early twenties was wheeled into the emergency room. Over the course of the next 6 months, the young man became a friend, as I talked with him in the hospital burn unit. His name was Will. But on that fateful night in late October, he had somehow become trapped in a burning car, and his whole body was charred from the flames. I’ll never forget the smell that hung in the air of the ER that night. It took hours to clear it from my nostrils. I’ll never forget the doctors who nearly wretched when they cut the remains of Will’s clothing away. And I’ll never forget sitting with Will’s family that night, seeing how scared they were, and trying to help them reckon with what had happened.
By the time the night ended, I was exhausted, and shaken by all that I had seen. I drove home, and thought about going to bed, but I was too unnerved to sleep. And so I went to church with Rachael and with Sabina and Elsa. I can freely admit that there were some Sundays that I felt pretty indifferent to church, because of how routinized it could often feel. On that Sunday, though, it felt like stealing away to Jesus. In that congregation, we had a moment where we passed the peace, saying to one another, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The response would be: “And also with you.” When it came time to pass the peace, I could only say it once. After that the tears began to flow, and I just sat down. Because those were precisely the words I needed to hear. That was precisely the place I needed to be. And those were the people I needed to be with. I felt the presence of Jesus that morning among those good and flawed people. After that terrible night, I needed to steal away, and I can tell you that Jesus found me there in those pews. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.”
But there’s another dimension of the hymn “Steal Away” that is all important. The spirituals always have at least two meanings – one having to do with the inner life, akin to what I experienced that Sunday morning in New Haven, and the other working as a coded system of communication among slaves concerning escapes, uprisings, and other events too dangerous to name in direct language. In this case, to steal away to Jesus meant slipping away toward the north, toward literal enclaves of freedom and autonomy that an enslaved population could only dream about. Jesus, still a symbol of all that would allow human beings to flourish, would be incarnated there, in those enclaves, among those who protected the runaways. You may have noticed at the bottom of the page, among the credits offered for the hymn “Steal Away,” that it was a song sung on the night of Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia in the early 19th century. To steal away to Jesus, in that sense, was to assert one’s humanity and value forcefully against a system that devalued and degraded such humanity. In the spirituals, the name “Jesus,” becomes synonymous with whatever, whomever, and wherever the dignity of human life is upheld, wherever an easing of burdens is found, wherever rest is provided.
That sense of stealing away was captured beautifully in a recent novel from Colson Whitehead called The Underground Railroad, a book I hope everyone spends time reading. It offers a vivid reconstruction of the sadism at the heart of 19th century America, reminiscent of the slave narratives of Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs. But it also tells the story of Cora and her escape from a Georgia plantation on the Underground Railroad, imagined not simply as a network of furtive abolitionists, but as a literal railroad beneath the earth, crisscrossing the South, and guiding its riders to safety. The novel functions as a travelogue for Cora, who “steals away” time and again, first to a city in South Carolina which seems to provide the conditions for flourishing human lives. That sense of flourishing is upended when she discovers that the city uses black bodies to conduct medical experiments. She travels to North Carolina where she becomes stranded in a conflicted abolitionist’s attic, and then finds her way to Tennessee, the site of what seems to be an apocalyptic plague. Finally she finds herself in an isolated black commune in Indiana, where she briefly thrives. But that too is destroyed by mistrustful whites. And so she steals away once more, this time reaching the northern terminus of the railroad, presumably in Canada. Cora stumbles out of a tunnel, famished and dazed, and she soon discovers a road. Eventually, a wagon guided by a black man taking his family toward the West rolls by, and the family, wary but receptive, invites her to join them. The final scene of the novel finds Cora sharing a meal with the family, as they all continue to “steal away” toward those places and communities where Jesus might be found, however such places are finally named. That concluding image conveys that it may not be a place, finally, that can provide a lasting scene of safety and embrace. Places can become temporary shelters. But it’s people who ultimately provide the sense of sanctuary and rest that each and every human being requires, and deserves.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,” the song goes. “Come to me, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. Generations of people have been doing the same ever since Jesus spoke those words, ever since the Underground Railroad operated. They come overland from Central and South America because of the crushing poverty they’ve experienced, or because of wars being fought in their region. They come by plane and ship from the Middle East or from Africa, fleeing persecution and violence. They come from far flung places, the way each of our ancestors did. My own ancestors arrived from a German speaking part of Prussia in the early 20th century, a region that now falls in Russian territory. They came for religious reasons, stealing away toward some imagined community that would incarnate the spirit of Jesus for them. Their path brought them first through Canada, and then they dipped down into North Dakota. That’s where my grandfather was born. Soon after, the winters proved too fearsome, and so they found their way to the orange groves of Southern California, where my dad was born, and, about thirty years later, where I was born. Someone within each of our families has put those words into practice: steal away, steal away. Stealing away because we are heavy laden is a part of our narrative too.
Many of us have been alarmed and appalled by the rhetoric surrounding immigrants during the election cycle, rhetoric that is now being enacted in policy. Talk of building a wall between the US and Mexico, a travel ban on residents of several predominantly Muslim countries, an attempt to suspend the refugee program, increased raids against immigrant communities, and a climate of fear that can only be termed “domestic terrorism” for the dread and foreboding that has swept through immigrant communities across the country – all of this has left many of us wondering how such heartlessness has come to thrive around us. And it’s left many of us wondering what it means to be a Christian here, now, in the midst of so much callous disregard for human life. Where is Jesus now, and how is it still possible to steal away toward Jesus?
Here’s one way: last week you affirmed the move to purchase a house to be used for refugee resettlement in perpetuity, trusting in faith that such opportunities can and will still be granted. I was immensely proud of our community after last week’s vote, and I want to tell you how grateful I remain to be a part of a place such as this. You continually help to renew my own faith – in humanity, but also in Jesus. I want you to know that.
But I also want to tell you about another acute need that has arisen. A few weeks ago, we conducted a simple experiment around here, with startling results. I had been wondering how many of the folks that show up in our church on Saturday mornings for our food pantry might have concerns about their immigration status, or about that of someone they know and love. And so Paul Chapman, one of our members, put together a questionnaire that could be filled out anonymously. And it asked just a few simple questions. Are you concerned about your immigration status right now? If so, how concerned, on a scale from “very” to “moderately” to “a little.” And then, would it be helpful to speak to an attorney? We conducted that experiment because I imagined there would be a handful of people passing through our doors who might need advice or help. But I didn’t imagine the scale. Fifty people filled out the questionnaire, some responding in English and some in Spanish. Of those fifty, every single one responded that they were very concerned. Of those, some thirty responded that they would like to speak with someone with legal expertise. That was one Saturday, with one representative sample of people who show up at our Food Pantry. Whether we realize it or not, those are members of this community every bit as much as those of us who show up for worship on Sunday mornings.
I shared that story this past Tuesday when our Board of Deacons met, and we had a long conversation about how to respond not only to the challenges confronting those who come to the Food Pantry, but how to provide an ethical and faithful response in the face of the assaults on the dignity and humanity of immigrants under the new administration. Our Deacons represent a variety of political persuasions, but there was unanimity around the table that to be faithful right now requires a commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. And there was unanimity around the notion that the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme should understand itself in more than a casual way as a sanctuary for those who might need such a sanctuary. There was unanimity around the notion that we should be those among whom Jesus can be found. Let me say a few words about what we understand all of that to mean, and what we don’t understand it to mean.
First, it might mean opening ourselves to providing a space of hospitality should someone threatened with deportation need such a space. It might mean allowing individuals or families to dwell within these walls for a time, in order to slow down an overly aggressive or hasty deportation process. That’s what happened among a number of faith communities in the 1980’s, when refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua were threatened with deportation, an action that would have had life threatening consequences. Those refugees lived within the walls of various faith communities, and the authorities respected the autonomy of those communities, which were, quite literally, practicing their vocation by providing sanctuary to those individuals. They were fulfilling the original meaning of that word, “sanctuary,” which traces its roots back to the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Numbers, Moses is instructed by God to establish cities of sanctuary where individuals could flee should they be in need of protection. Monasteries and other religious communities continued to fulfill that vocation for hundreds of years, and in the 1980s, churches here in the United States drew on that legacy when they offered protection to those under threat of deportation. And that’s a possibility that some religious communities are now exploring. We know that one woman in Colorado is currently living in a church, because so far, police and ICE agents are reluctant to enter a house of worship to detain someone. It’s relatively rare for people to take up residence in a church for these purposes, and it’s unlikely that we would ever be asked. But should it occur, you need to know that the Board of Deacons has discussed it, and has signaled their willingness to explore that option. You also need to know that neither the ministers nor the Board would be breaking the law – should it ever come to pass, it’s incumbent upon us to be forthright and transparent about our actions, and to reach an agreement with the authorities. In other words, this couldn’t be an underground effort aimed at concealment. Instead, it would be an effort to let the full array of legal resources be tapped prior to any precipitous actions by immigration authorities.
That’s one possibility, and a very, very unlikely one. As with Colson Whitehead’s novel, for many right now safety won’t be found in a particular place, at least not for long. At present, the fullest meaning of sanctuary will be discovered in a different form, which is to say, in the ways that individuals and communities organize to support those who are feeling threatened. It’s the act of accompaniment, of being with, that will provide the greatest sense of security. And I think that’s a far more likely way that we can be of use in this moment. We’ve learned that having someone be present as an observer and friend during a court hearing or summons makes it far less likely that the individual in question will be detained, or deported. We’ve heard stories suggesting that the presence of a friend or companion, especially (and I’m sorry to report this) if they’re white, makes it far more likely that the individual in question will be released quickly.
We won’t need this yet, but soon, I’ll ask for volunteers to sign up, so that we have a list of individuals who would be willing to serve as sanctuary liasons, those who accompany and journey with, those who offer themselves as sanctuaries. The time may well come when we’re asked to do just that, to accompany those who are walking through hell. But what we need right now is a small of group of lawyers willing to do some pro bono work on Saturday mornings, offering free legal counsel to those who could use it. If you have those skills, or if you have contacts with those who do, please let me know, or let Carleen know, or let Lina Tuck know – Lina has agreed to help organize our efforts. But even if none of this ever comes to pass for us, even if we’re never asked to house someone, or to accompany someone, the ministers believe, and our Board of Deacons believes, that it’s important for us to openly declare ourselves a space of sanctuary, which, I hasten to add, we already are, simply by being a house of worship. That declaration can help to establish a moral and ethical norm, where institutions and communities like this one become sites of safety, protection, embrace, and yes, sanctuary.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” At some point in each of our lives, we’ve experienced some form of sanctuary, where we’ve felt held and protected amidst forces that would undo us. At some time or place, we’ve all experienced that sense of healing enclosure, whether in a place or, more likely, among people. Whenever we do, no matter where or with whom, I believe that Jesus is present. And it’s that experience of finding peace within the clamor that will enable us to provide the same to others, whether in a dramatic way, or in a way far smaller.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. May we become those among whom Jesus can be found.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Ruth 1: 6-17; Romans 12: 9-18
February 26, 2017
Our Sanctuary is Your Sanctuary, Part II: A Muslim and Christian Friendship
“Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.”
Those are words from the Book of Ruth, a lovely, if also a heartrending tale about loss, but also about the bonds of friendship and love that develop between two women. It’s a story found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it constitutes one of the great gifts bequeathed to us in the pages of the Bible. It’s a story we need right about now.
Here it is, in a nutshell. Naomi lives with her husband and two sons in Bethlehem, but food is scarce, and so the family opts to become refugees, journeying to a neighboring land that is more prosperous. While the family is there, Naomi’s sons mature, and in time, they both marry women from that neighboring land. These are marriages across cultures, across religious lines, across tribal and familial allegiances. One daughter in law is named Orpah. The other is Ruth. But after a decade, tragedy strikes, and Naomi’s husband dies. Both of her sons do too. The text doesn’t tell us what happened or why, only that it happened. Some of you have experienced the death of a spouse, and a few of you, I know, have even lived through the death of a child. And so you know how everything in life gets scrambled and rearranged after such an event. But it’s even more complex for Naomi, for she is an exile, and she decides to return to Bethlehem to be with her own people. And she urges Orpah and Ruth to return to their own homes, and to rebuild their lives, for she has nothing further to offer them by way of a future. Orpah protests, but then relents, and departs. Ruth, however, chooses to remain. A bond had developed between the women, and Ruth decides that her future lies within that bond, and not outside of it. Despite the differences of culture, history, and language between the women, Ruth chooses to preserve that bond, rather than letting the circumstances of life dissolve it. I suspect the bond between Ruth and Naomi was forged in their shared adversity and sorrow, as they came to depend upon one another for their well being. “Where you go I will go,” Ruth says. “Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.” Ruth’s story is a beautiful testimony to the power of friendship, to the power of walking together, to the power of journeying with one another, especially through difficult or painful moments.
I cite the story of Ruth because it functions as a parable for the kind of friendships that I believe each of us is called to. I cite the story of Ruth because it’s a parable for the kind of friendship that I believe our entire community is called to. I cite the story of Ruth because it might even function as a metaphor for the relationships that we’re celebrating today with our friends from the Berlin mosque. That set of relationships developed through shared visits and journeys and conversations, and I can tell you that I can think of few leaders of religious communities whose wisdom I trust more than Reza or Aida Mansoor, or the many other individuals we’re privileged to know within the Muslim community here in Connecticut. In a time when suspicion and fear are being directed toward the Muslim community with renewed force, I wonder if Ruth’s words to Naomi might also be used to ground our relationships with our Muslim friends: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” It’s a vision of accompaniment, of journeying with one another, of sharing life with one another. It’s a vision in keeping with the sort of stretch theology I’ve been advocating around here for a while now, where drawing close in relationship with others opens us to a holy envy, rendering the borders between traditions and practices more than a little porous.
I don’t need to tell you how important those bonds of affection are right now. I don’t need to tell you how important it is for different religious faiths to accompany one another through what may prove to be perilous times. I don’t need to tell you such things. But I will. Muslims have been rendered incredibly vulnerable by voices that have attempted to delegitimize Islam, making it somehow alien to what is called “American life,” or “Western Civilization.” Several weeks ago, some kind and generous soul anonymously sent me a brochure that detailed all the ways Muslims supposedly undermined American democracy, relying on stereotypes and misinformation that reminded me of the anti-Semitic document from the early 20th century, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That document described a global conspiracy of Jews intent on world domination, a piece of propaganda that spread through Europe, and that Henry Ford himself paid to have printed and distributed throughout the United States. The brochure I received wasn’t nearly as sophisticated, though I hesitate to apply that term to The Protocols. It was crude, but it traded in some of the same tropes, like these: Islam is bent on world domination. The Muslim mind is incapable of exercising reason, and is hostile to science. Islam spreads dictatorships and terror, while the West spreads democracy. The Koran is a uniquely violent document. And Islam and its practitioners are a monolithic entity, where everyone somehow shares identical beliefs and practices. It’s painful to repeat those stereotypes, because they’re so flagrantly misinformed. But the brochure I received represents the kind of paranoia that’s afflicting many segments of our culture right now, even among some otherwise thoughtful people. And while a part of me feels a sense of frustration and outrage over what seem to be willful misrepresentations, another larger part of me feels heartsick, because the capacity for relationship, for trust, for conversation, and for friendship has been foreclosed. There can be no Ruths or Naomis in such a paranoid climate.
Reza and Aida Mansoor have been tireless in their efforts to help individuals and communities understand Islam a little better, and to help everyone, even those of us who occupy a different religious identity, to fall in love with Islam. I don’t know how they manage to be in all of the places that they do. Their energy and their spirit seem boundless to me. I’ve asked them to share a little of what they’re experiencing these days, in hopes that our bonds of friendship will continue to grow as we journey with one another into the mystery of life, into the mystery of God, into our shared commitment to stay human in what is coming to seem like an inhumane time. And so I’m delighted to welcome Reza/Aida to the pulpit this morning.
Reza (9:00)/Aida (11:00)
Let me conclude with an image. Every few months I find myself on the Tappan Zee Bridge, crossing the Hudson River. Over the last two years, a new structure has started to take shape alongside the old one, and I look forward to seeing its progress every time I’m there. And I marvel at the ingenuity and skill and precision required to build such a structure. I’ve come to think that bridges might be the single most powerful invention that human beings have learned to build. All of you engineers in the room may not see it as particularly mysterious, but this bookish humanities major finds it nearly impossible to fathom how construction started on one side of the river can meet the construction started on the opposite side in such a precise fashion.
I’ve come to think of that construction as a symbol for the crossings of friendship that can and do occur between individuals and communities. I’ve come to imagine that if we can engineer such incredible structures like the Tappan Zee, let alone other marvels like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate, then surely it’s possible to engineer other sorts of crossings as well, ones that help us affirm the common humanity that we share with our neighbors. Ruth and Naomi are one such human bridge, and Ruth’s words are the concrete pylons and scaffolding that allow such a crossing to take place. But really, there’s a relational set of pylons and beams that allow similar crossings to take place all the time. I’m grateful to be part of a community that fosters those crossings, those friendships. And I’m bold enough to hope that the spirit of Ruth might be enacted between our community in Old Lyme and the Muslim community in Berlin, in Groton, and elsewhere. I’m bold enough to hope that the spirit of Ruth can nurture acts of friendship, acts of accompaniment, journeys of the spirit, allowing us to cross toward one another, and to meet.
That’s the sort of infrastructure I long for these days. That’s the sort of infrastructure I wish to cross as often as I can, as our communities become sanctuaries, one for the other. Perhaps Ruth shall be the spirit guiding us toward one another.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Leviticus 19: 33-34; James 1: 2-5
February 19, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part I
To start, a poem from Marilyn Nelson’s collection of poetry The Meetinghouse, published in honor of our church’s 350 years of ministry. It’s one I’ve shared with many of our boards and committees these past several months, and the time has come to share it with all of you. The poem is entitled “Christians,” and the subheading reads “Rev. Stephen Colton, Minister, First Congregational Church, 1829-1840.” Under that, we see another subheading that says: “The Amistad trial, New Haven and Hartford, 1839-1840.” The Amistad, you’ll recall, was a ship on which slaves being shipped to the United States enacted a successful mutiny, only to be captured by a naval ship in the Long Island Sound. Thereafter, the Amistad was docked in New Haven, where the ship’s African population was placed on trial. It was a moment when a convulsive geopolitical event took place in Connecticut, and Marilyn’s poem imagines how this community may have responded. Here’s the poem, “Christians.”
Are they those who go to church on Sundays,
who close their eyes and whisper the words of prayers,
whose generosity causes no pain,
but the glow of self-congratulation
on a pedestal of self-righteousness.
Are they those who treat people like themselves –
Upright, educated, with good manners –
As they would like to be treated by them.
Are they those who strive to imitate,
In minute kindnesses, His gentle life.
Are they those who know inner conversion
Into the discipleship of service.
Are they those who are good Samaritans,
Who can see straight through a black prisoner’s face
To the joy filled vastness of a free heart.
Those who know an African mutineer
Is more infinity than rich cargo.
Are they those who accept persecution
As the price of trying to feed His sheep.
Between Christmas Eve, when the Church Council
Voted to stop paying their minister,
And the June day when they bade him farewell,
The church record was carefully erased.
So much of history has been blacked out.
Zipped lips hold back many guilty secrets.
Perhaps Reverend Colton asked them to give
The Amistad prisoners Christmas gifts.
Or perhaps he pointed out that the wealth
Amassed from ships in the Triangle Trade
Was tainted by commodified people.
Did everyone in the congregation
Sigh with relief when Reverend Colton left?
Did anyone ask what a Christian is?
We don’t know, really, why Stephen Colton left Old Lyme. We don’t know why his salary was cancelled. We don’t know how the events playing out 35 miles away in New Haven affected those who lived in Old Lyme. But it seems more than possible that the Amistad trial was a subject of debate in this community, and at the Congregational Church. And it seems entirely likely that conversations occurred then that mirror the conversations occurring around and among us right now. We can imagine comments such as these: “Whatever one thinks about the matter of slavery, it’s divisive to speak of it, and it need not divide us in Old Lyme. Slavery pertains to a different part of the world, and however unfortunate that peculiar institution, it belongs to a different geography. We have local needs to attend to, and need not concern ourselves with far off problems. It’s a political matter, and it has no place in the pulpit or the church. The sphere of the church has to do with matters of the spirit, and so churches should speak of spiritual things, but not public controversies.”
We don’t know what might have been said here in Old Lyme during the Amistad trial. And we don’t know precisely why Stephen Colton’s salary was cut off, an action, I can share, that I fervently hope won’t be repeated! But then as now, conversations surely occurred in Old Lyme about how to respond to the world around us. Then as now, the gospel of Jesus pulls its adherents deeper and deeper into the life of the world. Then as now, the question that concludes the poem crosses into our own place, into our own time, as xenophobia, bigotry, and racism are enacted as a matter of open national policy: Did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
Let me share with you several stories of encounters I’ve had over the past several weeks, encounters that have brought to mind Marilyn’s poem, and the question that hovers around it: did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
First story: I’ve been having my class up at Harvard Divinity School read the work of a German Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, who worked to understand the origin of the hate besetting mid-century Europe. After class, a student approached me and introduced herself, telling me she was thinking about becoming ordained. “You have a church, right?” she said. “Yeah, I do,” I responded. “Well then you’ve got to tell me, where the f— are the churches right now? And where were they in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Germany and France? If there’s ever been a time that churches have demonstrated their absolute irrelevance, with a handful of exceptions, it was then.” She went on to suggest that it felt to her that the same was true now. “Where the hell are you guys?” she wanted to know. It was a question born less of anger or accusation, but rather of anguish.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Second encounter: last weekend, I spent an afternoon at the Hamou household up in Lyme. As most of you know, the three churches here in Old Lyme helped to sponsor and assist this family fleeing the war in Syria, and they’ve since become dear friends. I asked how they were getting along in this new, hostile climate, and they reported that they were OK. But after a pause, Darin, the eldest of the children, shared that another student had approached her at the high school, asking in a hostile tone, “Why are you even here?” What she reported next was heartbreaking to me. She said that the encounter made her want to leave, made her want to go back to Syria, where Syrians can be Syrians. She asked me, “Why don’t Americans like Syrians anymore?” Friends, we need to recognize how delicate, how fragile, how tenuous the sense of welcome and hospitality and embrace that we’ve provided so far actually is. For all the love and support that our friends have received since they arrived, all it takes is one, one, hostile encounter to make it all crumble.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Last set of encounters: I’ve had a number of conversations with those in the gay and lesbian community these past several weeks about the deep sense of unease they’re feeling in this new ideological climate. One person reminded me that it was only one generation ago that homosexuality was removed from the manual of psychological disorders as a form of madness or mental illness. Another confided that it was only two generations ago that gay and lesbian people were being gassed. For all the advances that the LGBTQ community has made over the last several decades, that sense of inclusion and embrace remains fragile, delicate, and all too tenuous. And sadly, churches have harbored and nurtured homophobia for so long that the assumption among many within the LGBTQ community is that no matter how often or forcefully we declare ourselves open and affirming, heteronormativity is so deeply embedded within our discourses that there’s little hope of redeeming the churches. In other words, for many, places like this still feel threatening, and less than hospitable, especially in this new ideological climate.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
For the past month or so, I’ve been recalling practices and themes within the Christian story that can help to guide and orient us within a turbulent moment. I’ve cited the practice of solitude and the practice of discovering wonder and delight as important to our common life. I’ve cited the practice of discernment and I’ve tried to remind us of the agency and power which we all possess, an agency that enables us to enact the values and commitments that are born from our faith. And I’ve circled back to that formative episode between Jesus and Peter, shortly after the disaster of the crucifixion. Jesus offers a simple set of instructions to Peter: feed my sheep. Jesus doesn’t give Peter a theology lesson. He doesn’t quiz him about whether he believes this or that. There’s no catechism, no faith statement, no creed, no orthodoxy to affirm. If you love me, Jesus says, you’ll feed my sheep, which is to say, those most vulnerable to predation from the wolves of the world. These are all gifts of our tradition, stories and practices that can and will anchor us. They’re all clues to the question haunting me, haunting many of us, just about now.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is?
Today, I’d like to introduce the concept of sanctuary to you, an ancient practice that now has a contemporary resonance. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming weeks as well, because I think it’s a particular gift that a number of faith traditions are now providing to the world. You can find references to the practice of sanctuary throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew tradition, for example, the Israelites are instructed in the law to provide welcome to the stranger and the alien dwelling in their midst, a reminder that the Hebrew people were themselves strangers and aliens in Egypt. But that concept was extended to include the establishment of sanctuary cities, spaces in which those under threat could flee. Later, the monastics established that practice within the monasteries, welcoming and protecting those who needed sanctuary from some particular threat. In modernity, it’s a practice that was used by the Underground Railroad. It was used to provide sanctuary to Jews in the Third Reich. And it was used several decades ago in this country as refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador, who had fled their countries because of violence aided and abetted by the United States, were threatened with deportation. Churches organized to offer sanctuary, or protection, to those under threat of deportation.
It’s fast becoming clear that we need a renewed sanctuary movement in this country to address all manner of vulnerabilities that individuals and communities are facing. And it’s fast becoming clear that our community here in Old Lyme will need to play a part. That’s a commitment that our board of deacons has clearly affirmed. And some very concrete plans are now taking shape. I’d like to tell you about one of them today.
Shortly after the election, it was clear to many that the refugee program we had participated in would likely be severely curtailed. The refugee program is one of our country’s proudest traditions and most honorable historic practices. Knowing what was likely to happen, I was quietly approached by a number of donors, who let it be known that they could offer a substantial sum toward the purchase of a house to be used for the resettlement of refugees in perpetuity. The dream was to acquire a house, and then to use that house as a space of refuge for families for a year at a time, give or take some months. It would be a place that they could live as they began the process of seeking work and permanent housing, acquiring language skills and working through the traumas that forced them to leave their homes. It would be, quite literally, a sanctuary. It was a dream, one that did, and still does, require a strong measure of faith and trust, for we don’t fully know what will become of the refugee program. Even so, we began a search. And after several weeks, what seemed to be a perfect house for our purposes came on the market for a thousand dollars less than the amount offered in donations. Time was of the essence – we knew what was coming from the new administration, and we also knew the house would soon be snapped up. It was time to make a move.
I love the symbolism of what followed. On Inauguration Day, as a cold January rain fell on Washington and Connecticut alike, a small group from our refugee resettlement committee gathered to look at the house. We expected the worst, fearing it would need a lot of work. One among that group was a contractor, who reported that it was in fine shape, needing minimal work. By Monday morning, when the barrage of executive orders began to roll out of the White House, we had made an offer. Days went by, and the ban on refugees went into full effect. At the end of the week, we learned that there were other, higher, offers that had been made, and so we countered with a significantly higher bid, refugee ban be damned. We waited again, following the news anxiously, wondering what the fate of that program would be. A week later, the refugee ban had been suspended, at least temporarily. And our offer had been accepted.
Several impediments remained, and remain. Here, you have a part to play. First, our offer was for more than our donors had committed, a sum we planned to make up over time with a modest rent. But another anonymous angel stepped forward, to cover the exact shortfall. We’ll now be able to purchase the house with cash, and without a mortgage. Second, all of you need to have a say in this. Our board of trustees has approved the acquisition of the house, but our bylaws state that any purchase of property by the church requires a special all church meeting in order to vote on that purchase. We’re planning to have that meeting next Sunday, immediately following the 11:00 service. My hope is that the meeting will be brief, because of the urgent and pressing need before us. Third, we’ll need a good many more volunteers to help resettle the next family that arrives. Our current committee is strong, but they’ve worked incredibly hard for the past year. Some members may well be ready for a break. I trust that between the three congregations in town, we’ll find the individuals and skills that we need. But finally, finally, we’re trusting that the refugee program will continue to exist. We know well that there is a significant population from Syria, but also from a good many other countries, that desperately need sanctuary right now. We’re hoping, trusting, and praying that we can help to meet those needs. But that may be beyond our control. What we can do, what we are doing, is to prepare ourselves as an act of faith. During Advent, I told you about the trapeze artist that flew in midair, hoping that he would be caught. His words: the flyer flies, the catcher catches. The flyer, hanging in midair, must trust, trust, trust. So it is with us, and this first gesture toward sanctuary. We prepare ourselves. We leap. And we trust, trust, trust.
Does anyone ask what a Christian is, here, now, in the 21st century? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, not fully. It’s kept me up at nights, wondering what the poets might say of us a hundred years hence, should we be remembered at all. Let them at least say that in a benighted era, we risked a response, in fear, in trembling, and in faith. Let them say that we let it be known that our sanctuary is your sanctuary.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Matthew 6: 19-21; Hebrews 12: 1-3
February 12, 2017
Angels of Alternate Histories, Clouds of Alternate Witness
I’ll give you fair warning here at the beginning: this will be a sermon about money, ultimately. And so if you’re visiting or you’re trying to get your bearings in this place, I’ll preempt any discomfort you might feel by acknowledging that yes, there are some institutional realities to contend with this morning. But I’ll also try to short circuit any sense of boredom or impatience you might feel by saying that, sure, we’ll talk a little bit about money eventually, we’ll also talk about a lot of other things along the way, because money’s never really about money – it’s about what and who we’re related to. Let’s speak of other things first.
Like this: Hanging on the wall in my office is a reproduction of a 1920 painting from the great Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. It’s entitled Angelus Novus, or “The New Angel.” You have an image of the painting on the cover of your bulletins. It is indeed an angel, though there’s something raw about the way it’s sketched, almost as if it was done by a child. In fact, to my eye, it looks vaguely primitive, as if the artist were attempting to remember the traditional form of an angel, but can only approximate it – wings, a head, eyes, a torso, but little else. Gone are the soft or soothing features that one might notice on a Renaissance canvas. There’s nothing particularly sweet, or cherubic, about Klee’s angel. And yet I love it. It’s an angel fit for modernity, a mythic form recast for a new and turbulent era. But I also love it because of an essay written in 1940 in which Klee’s painting figures prominently. The essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” was written by a Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, fleeing the Third Reich. Benjamin is a figure I return to again and again, and one of the great pleasures of the past several weeks has been introducing my students at Harvard to his incomparable writings, and getting to immerse myself in his words again. Benjamin witnessed some of the most painful and tragic parts of the 20th century, and so it’s not surprising that he interprets the Angelus Novus from within that space, as a witness to the history of human wreckage. About Klee’s painting, he writes:
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. (The angel’s) face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, (the angel) sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed, but a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.”
For Benjamin, Klee’s angel is a witness to history, storm tossed by the calamities that human beings seem continually to heap up at the angel’s feet. The angel is a tragic figure in Benjamin’s writing. I keep the image on my wall as a reminder of my great love for Walter Benjamin. I keep the image there in order to remind myself of the ethical and spiritual importance of bearing witness to the tragedies piling up at the angel’s feet. And I keep that image on my wall because the angel’s wide eyed gaze somehow helps me recall that there are other possibilities available to us, born not from wreckage, but from grace.
Every Monday morning I catch the train up to Boston, and I’m afforded several precious hours of uninterrupted time, which I try to use for reading. This past week I came across an essay about an angel corresponding to the one found on my wall, but with a very different purpose. This angel is described by Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark. Solnit is, for my money, one of the most creative and freewheeling and consistently surprising writers out there right now. Instead of Walter Benjamin’s mute witness to the catastrophes of the world, Solnit proposes an equal but opposite angel bearing witness to all the terrible things that might have occurred but didn’t because of the activity and presence of this or that person, of this or that group of people. It’s an idea that she borrows from Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. You remember the film, I’m sure. After a financial mishap brings George Bailey to the brink of suicide, a hapless angel named Clarence walks him back from despair by showing George the world as it might have been had he never been present. His brother might have drowned, a grieving pharmacist may have inadvertently filled a prescription with poison, the townspeople might have fallen into bankruptcy had George not intervened, and so on. George can’t see it or notice it without angelic eyes to guide him, but his activities and interventions wind up mattering not so much because of what does take place, but because of what doesn’t take place.
Solnit expands upon that image, making it a metaphor for the work of the engaged and active community in the world. The thought is that, even if we can’t see or notice it, the smallest interventions, the acts of courage and grace that individuals and collectives really do manage every now and then may just wind up staving off disaster, or at any rate, worse disasters. And so instead of an angel bearing witness to the catastrophes that do take place, she proposes an angel bearing witness to the victories that are won because people do step up, show up, stand up, like that iconic image of the Chinese man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, blocking a parade of tanks.
One of Solnit’s animating concerns is ecology, and she notes the many forests that stand today because conscientious groups demonstrated or wrote or exercised boycotts to prevent them from being turned into malls or parking lots or lodges. To the untrained eye, a forest is just a forest and a mountain is just a mountain, but to those with angelic eyes, trained to see the futures that never came to pass, those forests and mountains bear witness to what might have happened but never did, thanks to the dedication and agency of a small group of concerned people. She cites an area on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that would have become a huge Disney owned ski resort had the Sierra Club not opposed it. She cites Mono Lake in California, which is back to its historic water levels after years of being siphoned off by the city of Los Angeles, a result of nearly twenty years of concerted action by environmentalists. She cites Ward Valley, in the Mojave Desert, which was slated to be a nuclear waste dump before five tribes intervened and fought the action for a decade. She cites a town called Sierra Blanca on the Texas-Mexico border, where another nuclear waste dump was planned, and she cites an effort by the Cherokee Tribe in Oklahoma that halted uranium mining that was devastating the landscape. “If we did more,” Solnit writes, “the world would undoubtedly be better; what we have done has sometimes kept it from becoming worse.” In other words, Solnit says, while the angel of history, the one hanging in my office, looks at things and sighs, the angel of alternate history looks at things and says: “Could be worse.”
We need both angels, the one to bear witness to that which really does happen. We need to contend with the tragic dimension of the world if we’re going to be faithful and engaged and alive. But we need the other angel as well, represented by Clarence, to help us understand that our actions, yours and mine, matter, maybe way more than we realize.
As I read Solnit’s essay, I got to thinking about the life of faith, and the cloud of witnesses written about in the book of Hebrews. The writer had in mind all sorts of biblical characters when he was writing, but I started to wonder about a cloud of witnesses in keeping with Paul Klee’s or Rebecca Solnit’s angel. Might we have our own angels, our own cloud alternate witnesses, observing not what happens, but what doesn’t happen because faithful people put their faith into action? Might there be both an angel of alternate history, and a cloud of alternate witnesses?
That question, in turn, got me thinking about this place, and about all of you. I got to wondering if perhaps there might be a cloud of witnesses observing the tragedies or hardships that were actually prevented because of the work that you’ve pursued, that we’ve pursued, for so long now. I got to thinking about the heat that wasn’t turned off in the middle of winter, the family that wasn’t evicted and put out on the street, or the person that didn’t lose their job, all because those individuals received help from our Minister’s Discretionary Fund – which so many of you have contributed to. I got to thinking about the families that weren’t hungry during the week, and that did receive a good breakfast once a week, because so many of you have helped with the Food Pantry over the years. I thought about the Morning Glory Café, and how it wouldn’t be there except for the efforts of this congregation, joining hands with the other faith communities in town to help Laotian refugees during the 1980’s. I thought about our friends the Hamous, and wondered what their alternate future might have been had our community or communities like this one not offered them hospitality.
And then my thoughts drifted farther. I thought about all the things we can barely imagine or fathom, wondering if maybe, just maybe, an angel of alternate history might be able to show us what might have happened had we not chosen to enter a relationship with our friends at Green Grass, had we not chosen to engage in a partnership with various communities in Palestine, had some of you never boarded a plane for South Africa to do a Habitat Build, had we never bothered to travel on a Wheels of Justice journey through the South. It might be that our angel, our alternate witnesses, would report no change. It might be that had we not been a part of those things, some other community would have. It might be that everyone would be better off if we’d just minded our own business, tended our own yards, concerned ourselves with this or that. It might be. I don’t mean this to be an exercise in narcissism. But it might also be that those relationships helped someone survive a depression, or make it through an alcoholic winter. It might be that something we did kept a child in school, or offered someone the gift of literacy. It might be that we helped our friends to believe that someone in the world still remembered them. Without being narcissistic, without being self-congratulatory, without hubris or pride, the angel of alternate history might help us to understand how consequential our work actually is.
I warned earlier that this would ultimately be a sermon about money, and it is. Most of us give some amount of our money away – to the organizations or the people or the places or the causes that we care about most. I think the angel of alternate history might offer us perspective on that as well, bearing witness to all that wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened had we not given something away, or to all that might never have taken place had we chosen to keep that money for ourselves. Only the angel could say. But I believe that what we give is a vital part of how we participate in the world around us, how we enact our agency, how we proclaim what we believe to be true.
One of the initiatives we’ve been working on around here is to establish a preservation fund to help cover our major maintenance needs. We have this iconic building, made famous by artists who have flocked to Old Lyme for a century now, so famous in fact that Oprah Winfrey, of all people, owns the most iconic portrait of our church, painted by Childe Hassam. Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me – a church is not a building. A church is a community of people – it’s you and me and all that we do together. But the architecture, the meetinghouse, the grounds, these are the tools – the hardware, if you will – that allow us to do what we do, and to do it well. Our wider mission would be strengthened by an ongoing set of resources that covered the costs of maintaining and preserving this beautiful structure. Tom Grant is a member of our board of trustees, and he’s worked to help us jump start the preservation fund. And so I’ve asked Tom to offer some of his thoughts this morning on one set of possibilities for enacting, and preserving, our agency.
I leave you with a question: what might the angel of our alternate history show us? What might the cloud of alternative witnesses offer about the ways we’ve contributed to the world? How might you participate in that work? You may or may not be able to help the preservation fund to grow. You may or may not be able to give to our ongoing work here at the church. If you can, know how much it means. If you can’t, know that we need you in other ways. One way or another, I believe that each of us is empowered to act, empowered to give, empowered to participate in building a world of compassion and grace, tolerance and beauty, justice and generosity. I’d like to believe that, in part, because of the ways each of us throw ourselves into the work that needs to be done, an angel of alternate history, and a chorus of alternate witnesses looks upon the world and thinks, for all the damage that can and does occur, thank God for all that didn’t occur. Thank God for all that didn’t occur because of a handful of faithful and committed people. May we be among them.
 As quoted in Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2016), pg. 70.
Our 2017 Stewardship Campaign is called “Investing in Our Church’s Life-Changing Mission” and, as part of the new campaign, we’re inviting members both old and new to “step up.” Our stewardship fund accounts for more than 4/5ths of our annual budget, supporting the vital ministries that engage and challenge us, lift our spirits and sometimes even change our lives. We welcome – and are grateful for – any and all donations.