The end is near! The world is coming to an end! And I’m not talking about the election anymore! Like a thief in the night, some will be taken and some will be left. At an unexpected hour, the Son of God will come again in all his glory to judge each and every one of you. He will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, the good from the bad. So, stay awake and be prepared! Are you scared yet? Confused? Are you looking at your bulletin thinking, hey, isn’t this the first week in Advent? Aren’t we supposed to be preparing our hearts for Christmas? Isn’t her sermon title about hope?
Most of us are having a hard-enough time trying to get our heads around the first coming of Jesus, to even begin to discuss the second coming. And why talk about this on this first week of Advent? Because the first advent, the coming of Jesus, is not complete. The risen Jesus instructs and empowers the church to continue its witness until the second coming, the second Advent. God dreams of a day of real justice and love, a day when glory outshines shadow, when joy extinguishes sorrow, when peace silences violence, when rebellion cedes to obedience – when faith becomes sight. (1) Then the Son of Man will come again. Yea, so I don’t think this second coming is happening any time soon because we’re really far off from that dream of this world, but we are told to always be prepared.
Now we know some religious groups have an exact date and time of this second coming of Christ, right?! Although it has had to be adjusted over the years. And then there are the books and shows like the “Left Behind” Series, some taken, some left to fight off the demons and try to do enough good to be chosen – pretty frightening stuff which does leave us wondering, especially if you read Revelations! Even the Apostle Paul makes it quite clear that there will be a time when we will be given new spiritual bodies, where the faithful will be vindicated and the oppressors destroyed. But this is known to God and to God alone. For unlike the days of Noah, it is not that we live in a time of wickedness and that life must be struck down because we are not living God’s ways, life is going on around us as usual with no mysterious signs or warnings of the approaching judgment, but even so we are not supposed to live in complete – what did they call it? Drunkenness and debauchery, quarreling and reveling. But we are to be prepared, awake and alert.
And like Noah before the flood, in the days of calm, Noah slowly and deliberately prepared himself so that when the floods came, he was ready. This scripture passage is a warning to us to never become so immersed in time that we forget about eternity; to never let our concern with worldly affairs, however necessary, completely distract us from remembering that there is a God, and that the issues of life and death are in God’s hands, for whenever God calls us we must be ready. And whether or not all of this apocalyptic stuff will be realized, all that the prophet Isaiah speaks of, all the Jesus speaks of with his disciples; it is here and spoken of on this Sunday, to give us a vision of hope. To help us live into that hope, to surround us with a mantle of hope, an armor of hope and peace and light.
So, on this day, as we begin the season of Advent, what do you hope for? What do you wish for? Do you wish nations would stop fighting other nations, countries would stop bombing each other? Do you wish there was harmony in our cities, in our communities? Do you hope for a day when violence against people, against cops, against children will come to an end? Do you wish there was peace in your own families? I don’t know but maybe after a Thanksgiving weekend with your family, maybe you could use an entire sermon on hope and peace in this area!
The Prophet Isaiah envisioned a new Heaven and Earth, a poetic vision of the world in the future. A world without war, where people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. For while now disputes are settled by the sword, in the latter days, the day of our Lord, they will be settled by peaceful means. This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools, images of death-dealing turned into food-producing is an incredibly huge hope for the days to come. Did you know Isaiah’s words are carved into the wall across from the United Nations building? Wonder if the General Assembly ever reads those words before making decisions and thinks about a new peaceful earth?
My friends, this road we are on is long and the hill we must climb is steep, Christ will come again who knows when, so we need to prepare, so we need this to be a season of hope, so that our lives may be filled with love, our hearts with peace, and our souls with the strength of God. And then and only then may the light of God which permeates our lives, shine from our hearts to others. So maybe instead of the word preparation, maybe this should be a season of emptying. Instead of looking at Advent as a time of shopping, wrapping, baking, parties, rushing, and stress; maybe this should be a season of less, not more, of emptying. Because this is also a season of strong emotions, unrealistic expectations, incredible busyness, old and new sadness, harsh memories, and family strife. So maybe we need to empty our lives and hearts of all the clutter, all the stuff that fills our time, and center ourselves on what it most important, joy and love and the birth of the Christ child. Choosing what is most important and letting go of all the rest. That’s right, I said, let it go, or should I sing it, let it go.
So, how do we create this kind of vision of hope as we enter into another season of Advent, another season of preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ? It starts with peace and hope and love within us. So on this day, what has Steve told us, because I have pulpit rights, let me suggest to you three ways of creating peace within, love near, and hope around.
First, we need to create lasting memories. While the stuff of Christmas, the presents, the parties, the shopping, are fun; but the traditions, the memories, the sharing, is what we really cherish. Just try changing one little tradition in your home, where you eat Christmas dinner, where the tree will go, who puts the star on top, and watch how people react! The symbols, the memories are what hold families together. And that is what makes it so hard when things change, when things come to an end.
Every year my parents used to make these special Christmas tree breads. It would take them hours to make, rolling out the dough, creating these long strands they would curve and braid, putting red and green cherries on each branch, delicate and beautiful. On Christmas morning, it would be what we would nibble on as we opened presents. But my favorite part as a child would be delivering all of the extra breads on Christmas Eve to neighbors, friends, and people who had had an especially hard year. To see their faces, light up with this little token of love, made my Christmas.
As Susan B. Anthony once wrote, “Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.”
So, this year maybe we should consider giving children that one gift they want and one they don’t expect, like a letter or written memory with a memento from our childhood. Maybe giving grandchildren one present they want and a book you once read to their parent along with a tape of you reading it to them. Maybe giving our parents and siblings that one gift they want and one they don’t expect like a donation made in their name to their favorite charity. Maybe we should create more memories and less stuff, beginning new or keeping old traditions of our faith.
This season, as we light the Advent candles, we need to light a candle of our own and think about those who don’t have a family to share memories with, the lonely, the grieving, those serving in the military so far from home, maybe someone right beside you. And invite someone new to your Christmas celebration, start a new tradition, (we had two friends at our Thanksgiving table who would have been alone – try it!) start a new memory, a new dream, a new vision. To begin to lift the valleys of pain and begin to smooth the rough road for others, and create peace, love and hope, all around.
Second, we need to be quiet! Seriously, we need to shut up. What did God say, “be still and know that I am God”? Every year we are all guilty of it, we easily get caught up in the constant noise, the fast pace, the 4:00 a.m. shopping sprees – did anyone really get up at 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday?! I never understood that tradition! And while singing as loud as we can with our favorite Christmas Nate King Cole CD – hope you don’t ever see me driving down the road this month – I love to sing in the car! Or watching your favorite Christmas movie – like the Griswold’s Christmas Vacation – classic! But we also need to spend a little time in silence. Some of us purposely avoid the quiet of this season, but going to a place of quietness on purpose, turning off that TV at times, is creating a place of peace and hope.
This season we need to light a candle and be alone for a while or attend something like the performance of the Messiah and just sit and listen. For solitude is the one place where we can gain freedom from the forces of society that will relentlessly mold us, constantly trying to change us. And it is in those moments, that we learn how to pray to the Prince of Peace, it is there that we may actually understand God’s vision of hope for us.
Third, we need to prepare ourselves through the power of forgiveness – In Paul’s letter to the Romans we are reminded of the greatest commandment – love your neighbor as yourself – and that involves forgiveness; first of ourselves, then others, and then by receiving the forgiveness of God. And here is how I define forgiveness; it is creating a clean and open heart. It is letting go of the power someone has over us, our feelings, our memories and setting that pain free. Letting go of that which we have done or not done and asking others to do the same. It is not saying that someone who has hurt us is now okay, what they did was okay, God will judge what that person has done to us. It is not allowing it to have a power over us and our feelings, it is allowing the free grace from God into our hearts.
This season we need to light a candle and think of that one person we need to forgive. Someone we have a hard time living with, someone who brings us pain, someone who takes away our peace, maybe ourselves. And make that call, send that note, say that prayer and forgive. Jesus states, “If when you are bringing your gift to the altar, you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make your peace with your brother, and only then come back and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-25)
At times, we all think, but this is only Isaiah’s dream, this is only God’s dream, it can never happen. Jesus is the one who possessed the spirit of wisdom and understanding, insight and inner strength, righteousness and justice, gentleness and forgiveness, not us! I’ve heard it said, “If we were to stop striving for this unbelievable world in which the wolf lies with the lamb, in which the nations of the world reject the use of war, if we were to stop dreaming, we would destroy the mountain itself and the great adventure of life on earth would come to an end.”
As the days grow shorter and the darkness grows, we light Advent candles and our own candles, shining in the darkness to give hope. So, amidst all the preparations of your homes, your trees, your packages, your stomachs, remember to prepare your heart as well. For lights and candles can banish the darkness of our lives with the warmth of hope; traditions and memories, even new ones – I am going to try to make those Christmas tree breads this year! – traditions and memories bring comfort and healing; forgiveness, prayer, and silence can open up our closed hearts to a celebration of God’s love come down to us.
My friends, Advent is a season of Hope, hope that can only come from the birth of our Savior and from us, God’s chosen messengers. For although there are distinctions among us, a time will come and we do not know how soon, when all distinctions will cease and we will all be joined in one place. So, this year – let go, please let go of the clutter and empty yourself, and put on the armor of light so that others may feel and know God’s love; and bring a new vision to this day, this time, a vision of hope only realized through our love of one another. In the name of our God who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, loves us, and hopes for beautiful things to shine from us.
(1) Chan, Michael. “Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5”. RCL/Narrative.
This past week I found myself trying to heed the advice of the Apostle Paul in the book of Philippians, doing my best to recall that which is good and honorable, upright and true. Like many of you, I’ve been searching for wisdom, for that which can provide a sense of ballast in a stormy moment. I’ve had lots of conversations with old friends, and with many of you as well. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve listened to old songs, gone for walks, and reached for historical antecedents. I’ve poured a few strong drinks. And I’ve returned to a story that I read years ago, one that I believe speaks a word that we all need to hear right now. I’d like to share it with you.
It’s a story by Raymond Carver, published in 1983. It’s called “A Small Good Thing,” and it contains as rich a pastoral theology as anything I know. It’s a sad story, but at least for many of you whom I’ve spoken to, these are sad times. Sometimes sad times require sad stories. Even so, I ask you to bear with me – the story goes somewhere.
Carver’s tale tells of two grieving parents, Howard and Ann, whose son has been hit by a car during his walk to school, a day that happens to be his eighth birthday. In a moment of absentmindedness, the boy steps into oncoming traffic and is knocked to the ground by the car, hitting his head on the pavement. Initially, he seems fine, but after an hour or so he loses consciousness and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors are optimistic, cheerful even, and they assure Howard and Ann that their son simply has a mild concussion and that he should wake up any time. But hours and then days drag out, and Howard and Ann become despondent.
Meanwhile, they take turns going home to rest and to bathe. When they do, the phone rings, and on the other end a strange, creepy voice asks them about their son. “Have you forgotten about him,” the voice wonders? “Where is the birthday boy,” the voice asks? At other moments, there is only silence on the line. The anxious parents slam the phone down and wonder who could be so cruel in a moment like this. They feel rage inside. Then they go back to the hospital to maintain their vigil.
After several days of this, the unthinkable does occur, and their son dies from what is called an occluded hemorrhage. When there is nothing more to be done at the hospital, they return to a terrible and barren house, and, eventually, to the disturbing phone calls. The phone rings, there is silence on the other end, and the mother, Ann, loses it. “Who are you?” she shouts, wishing she could kill whoever is on the other end of the line. And then suddenly she knows. She realizes beyond a shadow of a doubt that the caller is a local baker, a man she had hired several days earlier to bake a cake for their son’s birthday. She gets in the car with her husband, furious from grief, and she drives to the bakery. When they arrive, Ann pounds on the back door of the bakery, for it is very early in the morning. The baker answers the door. He’s older, and overweight. He has a thick neck and squinty eyes that make him look rather mean. He knows immediately that the game is up. “I don’t want no trouble,” he tells the parents. But the parents push inside, and Ann gives full vent to her fury. “What kind of evil person are you,” she shouts. “Don’t you know that we just lost our son, our boy?” And then she slumps to the floor in her grief, utterly spent.
To everyone’s surprise, Howard’s, Ann’s, and our own as readers, the baker takes off his apron and offers the two parents some chairs. Then he sits down with them, and after a while he tells them how sorry he is. He tells them a little about what made him behave as he did. Here’s what he says: “I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know, but I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son and my part in this. I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Can you forgive me?”
And then he says and does the most marvelous thing. “You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small good thing in a time like this.” He pulls hot cinnamon rolls from the oven and the three of them, the grieving parents and the lonely baker, sit there until the sun comes up. Carver tells us that it is warm there, and that the parents “do not even think of leaving.”
“Eating is a small good thing in a time like this,” is what the baker says. “Come and have breakfast,” is what Jesus says to his disciples in one of his resurrection appearances in the Gospel of John. It’s not an accident that nearly every one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances takes place against the backdrop of food. Indeed, it’s not an accident that from beginning to end, the Bible is strewn about with mentions of food – tables set before me, feasts prepared in the presence of enemies, a small meal shared between a lonely prophet, a widow and her daughter, bread broken and a mysterious traveler recognized as the risen Jesus. To a group of perplexed and traumatized disciples, Jesus appears one last time. “Come and have breakfast,” he says. To eat together is a small good thing when the world falls apart, or when things get hard, as things tend to do from time to time, whether in our personal lives, or in our collective lives. Cinnamon rolls, grilled fish, turkey and gravy, bread and wine – sometimes these are the elements that allow us to collect ourselves and to notice the fragile and precious humanity of those before us.
To eat together is a bodily act, one that reminds us of our needs, our limits, of our frail mortal flesh that requires constant sustenance and care. To eat together is to be reminded of that which binds us, for we are all frail mortal flesh together. To eat together is a reminder of the pleasure we can and do share in one another’s company, a reminder of what it is to feel alive to the world. To eat together is to mark a passing – of one more year, of a job accomplished well, of somebody we love who has departed from us. To eat together is also a way of inviting newcomers into our company. To eat together is to be initiated into moments of wondrous beauty, as complex tastes stimulate our tongues, as strong drinks rush to our heads, as the smell of cooking food ushers us into the fullness of the present, and also into gatherings long since dissolved. Many of us will rehearse those culinary scenes this week as we gather with others for Thanksgiving. There’s a risk with all of that, to be sure, for at times, holiday gatherings can be fraught with tension, or with unspoken pain or frustration. We often tread gingerly around the table. This year more than most, many of us will tread gingerly around the table. Even so, something deeper and truer than a perfunctory ritual is taking place. I believe the act of gathering and eating together that many of us will perform later this week is a pastoral and theological act, where we do our very best to celebrate the goodness of being together, the joys of shared life, the pleasures of our senses, the depth of our sadness, and the value of simply being with one another.
Several years ago, I spent a year working at Bridgeport Hospital as a chaplain, and I witnessed suffering in that place that unnerved me. I often found myself wondering what kept people going through it all. The loss of somebody they’ve loved for years, the loss of mobility or freedom, the loss of an imagined future, the loss of beauty and youth – where do people find the strength to go on, I wondered? I don’t really know, not for sure. I do know, however, that often in the midst of the storm there would be an impromptu meal – coffee and rolls brought by the hospital staff or fast food hastily gathered by a well-meaning relative. If those things weren’t present, as often as not, food would factor in the bedside talk – memories of home cooked meals, or anticipations of the meals that would need to be prepared in the coming days. Sometimes it was as simple as the yearning for the plenty symbolized by a Chinese buffet. In all those bedside gatherings, rituals of eating, and rehearsals of culinary memories and dreams performed something that the Bible, and Christian liturgies, know well. In the midst of the storm, eating together is a small good thing.
We need small good things right now. We need reminders of the grace and beauty, the wisdom and truth that still persist in the world. We need reminders of that which connects us one to the other. We need small good things like gatherings such as the one I attended on Friday at the Berlin mosque, of friends from across racial and cultural and religious lines who pledge their mutual support. We need small good things like wise old stories that we can reread, and we need practices like the welcoming of new members into our community. We need small good things like the reading of poetic words that remind us of who we’ve been, and who we might yet become. We need small good things like the bread and the cup, where somehow and in some way Christ becomes present all over again. “You have to eat and keep going,” the baker says. “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Wherever you are along the way today, full of anticipation for a holiday celebration, full of sadness or fear or dread, full of confusion, full of nothing much at all: know that you are welcome here at this table. In a time such as this, eating and drinking together is a small good thing. May the grace and peace of Christ be present to you anew as we eat and drink together. “You have to eat and keep going.” May the grace and peace of Christ become present to us all in this small good thing. “Come and have breakfast.”
We gather today as we do every Sunday, because this is where we turn when we need to be reminded of that within our world and within our lives that has the greatest value. We gather in worship this morning because we know in a moment like this how vital it is to organize our lives around that which is good, around that which is just, around that which is honorable and decent and true. We gather here just as we do every week to recall the message that Jesus proclaimed, calling us to the best of who we are, appealing, as Lincoln once put it, to the better angels of our nature. We gather today as we do every Sunday, because in moments of uncertainty and apprehension, we instinctively reach out to that which can anchor us in a swiftly tilting world, calling us to be mindful of the precious humanity and the precious creation that we all participate in.
For 351 years, this has been a congregation that has honored and affirmed the freedom of the pulpit. For 351 years, various ministers have stepped into this holy and sacred area and have attempted to speak words that are honest and real, words that stand a chance of landing somewhere, and of making some sort of difference. That freedom has been granted because an equal and correlative freedom has also been affirmed in this congregation, that, as the words of our mission statement read, “every member shall have the undisturbed right to follow the word of God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” In my time with you, I have been grateful for that freedom, and I’ve tried my best never to abuse it, even as many of you have exercised your own freedom of conscience with me and with one another. That represents the best of our Congregational tradition, and it’s something that I wish to honor and uphold this morning. That represents one part of the firm foundation that is ours.
As you can imagine, I’ve thought and prayed about what I might say to you this morning, recognizing that many of us interpret the results of Tuesday night in different ways. For some among us it felt cataclysmic, not simply because our preferred team lost, but because of what that loss signified about what we value most. For others of us, what happened on Tuesday, however surprising, is simply a part of the ebb and flow of American political life, no more alarming than any other presidential election. I want you to hear this morning that I understand and respect those differences. I want you to hear and understand that I affirm your freedom to construe this event in a way that feels sensible and right to you. Hear me say that first and foremost. But let me also say that I intend to claim the freedom of the pulpit this morning. I intend to do so not to provide a platform for my own personal views, but to say what I believe needs to be said in light of the faith tradition that we all claim. I intend to do so in order to suggest what following in the way of Jesus might require of us just now.
Let me begin by stating the most obvious thing. The sky didn’t fall on Wednesday morning. The world didn’t collapse on Thursday when the president and the president elect finally met. The apocalypse has, so far, failed to materialize. The sun still rose and it still set, as it has every day before and as it will every day after. The kids went to school, and ordinary and decent people went to work and met the needs of those in their care. In my world, I encountered people who had every reason to feel anger or apprehension, and what I witnessed was extraordinary generosity. I was in Harlem on Wednesday for a meeting, and an African American woman at a restaurant there told us that even though she was nervous, she was admonishing everyone she met not to behave toward the president elect the way some people behaved toward Obama. So too, when I spoke to some of our friends in the Muslim community, they told me that though they had deep concerns, they were trying to trust that this wasn’t ultimately a vote about racism or Islamophobia, but rather an expression on the part of many people for change, no more and no less. When I went to check in on our Syrian refugee friends, they shared that they were OK, and that they were grateful to have a network of friends who were supporting them. Finally, another friend who works on issues related to Palestine reminded me that if Palestinians can get up every morning and retain a sense of hope, then my God, surely we can do the same. There are, in other words, people all around us – Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, people of color, folks in the LGBTQ community, young people, and older folks – who are urging and imploring us to do precisely as Lincoln said – appealing to the better angels of our humanity. We need those voices right now, and I was grateful to find them throughout the week.
That’s the first thing to say. But we also need to be honest and forthright about what took place on Tuesday, because I believe the best parts of our humanity, the best parts of our democracy, and the best parts of the faith tradition that we all value are at risk. No matter what the reasons ultimately were for the way individuals chose to vote, our country has elected a man who was endorsed by the KKK. We’ve elected the man who began the birther movement, cynically stoking racist conspiracy theories about our first black president. We’ve elected a man who has boasted of sexual assault, and has humiliated women on the basis of their looks. We’ve elected a man who has denigrated the disabled. We’ve elected a man who, at his rallies, routinely instructed his supporters to silence, or “take out” those who dissented, including members of the press, instruction that led to some rather ugly scenes. We’ve elected a man who has called Mexicans rapists and murderers and who has vowed to build a wall stretching across our border. We’ve elected a man who has said he would like to ban Muslims from entering the country. We’ve elected a man who has called climate change a hoax. We’ve elected a man who has avoided paying income tax for more than two decades. These are things of public record. And while it might sound pedantic to rehearse that litany for you, to ignore or forget all of that in the post election rush toward unity seems to me unconscionable. I don’t believe people of faith and conscience can afford to do that. I don’t believe anyone can.
The phrase we’ve heard over the last several days is that the president-elect’s opponents took him literally, but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously, but not literally. The phrase is meant to reassure us that what was said and promised during the campaign won’t come to pass, and that it was all a kind of show. Could be. It might be that the most extreme statements we’ve heard will never be enacted. It might be that some things run quite well over the next several years. It might be. But I believe that words matter. We’re part of a tradition in which words and language matter immensely. The single icon we display in this Meetinghouse is this open Bible, a demonstration of the centrality of the Word, and of words. John’s Gospel puts it thus: “In the beginning was the Word.” And then it continues, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s a way of saying that ideas and ideals circulate in the world, but that eventually they tend to be enacted, given flesh. Our tradition affirms that in Jesus of Nazareth the best and noblest of ideals became enfleshed in a powerfully significant way, showing us what it means to live lives of service and self sacrifice. We affirm that God was present in that enfleshed Word. But if that’s true, the opposite must also be true: hostile and angry words can also become manifest and incarnate in human lives.
Years ago, the novelist Chaim Potok wrote about the power of words, and especially about the power of poisonous rhetoric. He said, “This is a time when one must be especially careful about the power of language – that mysterious and otherwise blessed invisible bridge that binds us. It would help us a good deal now if we worried about the law of unintended consequences and considered words as sticks of dynamite, as nitroglycerine.” He then went on to warn: “A constant quantity of raging words turns, after a time, into the cruel quality of a speeding bullet, or a ghastly explosive.”
I’m sorry to say that it’s already begun. In truth, it began a while ago, but starting on Tuesday night and accelerating throughout the remainder of the week, we’ve seen an increase in threats and intimidation against minority populations, stirred up by the words that have thus far been uttered by our president elect. Here are several notable instances: at Texas State University, fliers depicting men in camouflage, wielding guns and an American flag appeared in restrooms across campus. Below the image, the fliers said “Now that our man Trump is elected, time to organize tar and feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting that diversity garbage.” At Wellesley College, two male students from nearby Babson College drove through campus in a large pickup truck adorned with a Trump flag. They parked outside a meeting house for black students, and then they spat at a black female student walking on the sidewalk. In Durham, North Carolina, walls at a busy intersection were painted with the message: “Black lives don’t matter and neither does your votes.” In Greenville, Mississippi, a black church was burned, and the words Trump 2016 were spray painted across the ruined walls. In towns in New York and Pennsylvania, swastikas have appeared, while a high school in York, Pennsylvania reported a band of students moving through the halls yelling “white power.” And in East Haddam, a sign much like the ones we now have on the Meetinghouse steps, a sign demonstrating solidarity with a number of vulnerable populations, was defaced, with the words Trump 2016 scrawled across it.
Words matter, and whatever this administration does or doesn’t do, the words of our president elect have enabled some of our very worst tendencies to surface. Those of us who live in an affluent cultural bubble like Old Lyme aren’t the ones who face the greatest risk right now. But we need to have the courage to look beyond ourselves, and beyond the affluent white bubble that many of us inhabit. The measure will be what happens to Muslims, to people of color, to women’s reproductive rights and to LGBTQ folks, to immigrants and to refugees. In truth, the measure will be what happens not only in this country, but in other countries that see this election as legitimating their own nativist tendencies. We ourselves may not face the worst, but we need to be mindful about the ways in which those ugly tendencies will materialize.
I’ve promised to deliver a word of hope to you this morning. So far what I’ve delivered are cautionary words that I believe people of faith need right about now. But I would be remiss if I didn’t use the freedom granted me to offer words that provide some orientation, some direction, some assurance. The word I have is this. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the trauma of the crucifixion, Peter shares an intimate moment with Jesus. You recall that it was Peter who betrayed Jesus, insisting at the moment of Jesus’s arrest that he never knew the man. The writer of the Gospel tells us that Peter immediately regretted what he had done, breaking down and weeping bitterly. And so it’s poignant that in the aftermath of the crucifixion and resurrection, in the aftermath of Peter’s bitter tears, Jesus seeks out his friend Peter first of all. Their exchange is brief and to the point. “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus says. “Lord, you know I do,” comes the response. “Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Once again, the question comes: “Peter, do you love me?” “You know I do, I love you,” Peter says. “Then feed my sheep.” And then again, to reinforce the point, Jesus asks Peter, the Rock upon which his community will be built, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, you know I do,” Peter replies again, frustrated now. “Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says.
Those are the words you and I need right now. In a time of uncertainty and apprehension, the words spoken to us by Jesus from across the ages, are precisely those: feed my sheep. If you love me, as you say you do, take care of those who are most vulnerable right now. The sheep aren’t members of a religious club or fraternity. The sheep are those in every time and place who are most vulnerable, whether from predation or neglect, from prejudice or from fear mongering. The work of Peter, the work of all of those who follow after Jesus, is to take care of those who need it the most, exercising compassion, mercy, and if need be, protection from the wolves of the world. What Jesus tells Peter, what Jesus tells all of us, is this: don’t get stuck. In the wake of a turbulent event, don’t get trapped pointing fingers or assigning blame. Confront what has happened, be realistic about what took place, but do not wallow in it. What Jesus tells Peter, what Jesus tells all of us, is that if you love me, you’ll get moving, and that right soon. If you love me, you’ll get to work, because there’s work to be done.
People of faith have heeded that wisdom for a long time now. I think of Augustine, perched at the edge of the Roman Empire in North Africa as that ancient order fell apart around him. Augustine didn’t remove himself to a private locale. He didn’t move to Canada. He got to work, writing some of the most trenchant theology the world has ever known, while also taking care of those within his community that needed his care the most. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who chose to return to Nazi Germany from the safety of the United States. He didn’t go to Bermuda. He effectively entered the viper’s nest, precisely so that he could take care of the needs of those he knew were being harmed by his government. I think of a Lutheran minister in East Berlin that I once read about, who was given the opportunity to flee that city with his family as the Berlin Wall was going up. He had several hours, and he faced an agonizing choice: to stay in that city, trapped behind a wall for the foreseeable future with his congregation, or to escape while he could. He chose to stay, heeding the words of Jesus all those years ago: feed my sheep.
I cite those examples not to suggest that our situation is analogous to any of those historical moments. We don’t know precisely where we are or what’s going to happen. But neither did any of the individuals I mentioned. They only knew that their times required their participation, and so, heeding the words of Jesus, they got to work. And that’s what we’ll do too. To start, we’ll stand proudly beside our Muslim friends, and do everything within our power to stand against any Islamophobia that arises in our community. Next Friday at the Berlin mosque, there will be a demonstration of solidarity for our Muslim friends. I’ll be going to prayers at noon, and if anyone would like to join me that afternoon, it would be good to have your company. But we’ll also continue our work with refugees. We’re still getting the Hamous stabilized, but perhaps now is the time to redouble our efforts, lest it become more difficult to resettle refugees in the future. Perhaps it’s time to create another team to prepare for receiving another family. But we’ll also have to be attentive, and responsive, to incursions on the environment and to the repeal of freedoms for those in the LGBTQ community. We’ll have to be mindful about outbreaks of racism, or bullying in the schools. We’ll have to be responsive to cuts in social services that will send more people to our food pantry, and to the Homeless Hospitality Center. This is going to test us and stretch us in ways we can’t yet foresee, but we know what we must do. Jesus said it all those years ago, and people of faith and conscience have been doing it ever since: feed my sheep. That’s what we’ll do.
I’ll close with an affirmation sent to me yesterday evening by one among us. They come from a minister in Berkeley, California, adapted from a meme now circulating in cyberspace. They form the resolution that all of us need right now, individually and collectively. I invite you to make it your own.
If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.
If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.
If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.
If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.
If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.
If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.
If you’re LGBTQ, I’ll remind you that you are beautiful and beloved, just as God made you.
If you’re a woman, I’ll make sure you get home ok.
If you’re tired, me too.
If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I’ll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too. Together, we’ll be the strong arm of God.
We’ll do this together, heeding the words of Jesus, and feeding his sheep. We’ll do this together, reminding ourselves of the firm foundation upon which we stand. We’ll do this together, confident of the strength and wisdom that are ours in Christ. We’ll do this together, trusting the Spirit of the living Christ to uphold us as we do.
Our church has had considerable experience working together in partnership with this remarkable organization.
Through the gift of land in Salem by Rachel Robinson, the wife of the great baseball player Jackie Robinson, our church sponsored its first house, raising over $50,000 and working in partnership with the Madry Temple in New London, a predominantly African American congregation, over 200 volunteers, skilled and unskilled, worked toward the completion of that house. This effort was in honor of the memory of Clarence Jordan, the White founder of Koinonia Farm and Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
Our next sponsorship was on land donated by Phil and Judy Simmons, long time members of our church. Their beautiful land on Upper Pattagansett Road in East Lyme became the site for yet another partnership between our church and the Madry Temple, and this effort was dedicated to the honor of Rachel Robinson for the extraordinary spirit that she exemplifies. Once again, over $50,000 was raised and over 200 members and friends worked together in the construction of a Habitat for Humanity House.
When our church learned that the Jimmy Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity would take place in Durban, South Africa, given our long standing partnership with Central Methodist Mission in downtown Johannesburg, for a gift of $50,000 our church became a “sponsor” of that Project. With 35 volunteers from our church, the Madry Temple, and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, we traveled to Durban where we were joined by our friends from the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and together we were able to work together on the construction of 7 Habitat for Humanity Homes and at the same time build a stronger sense of community among ourselves.
When our church and the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut led a “World House Journey to Israel and Palestine”, upon our return, working with an interfaith community here in Southeastern Connecticut, we sponsored an interfaith “World House” a Habitat for Humanity home built on Summer Street in New London.
When possible work groups from our church still take part in the activities of the local Habitat chapter; Habitat for Humanity of Southeastern Connecticut.
“On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Those are words from a popular hymn written in 1834 called “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less,” words inspired by the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 7. The wise man builds his house on a foundation of solid rock. When the storms come, that house is not moved. The foolish man, by contrast, builds a house upon the sand. When the storms come, that house is swept away. Those of us who traveled on the Wheels of Justice journey sang that hymn when we visited the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston a few weeks ago. We had dinner with members of that congregation, and then the choir got up and concluded the evening by leading us all in that song. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
All of you know the story of Mother Emanuel by now. You know about how a young white man showed up to this historic black congregation for a Wednesday evening Bible study on June 17th of last year. You might know that he asked to sit next to the pastor during the Bible study, and you probably know that he was welcomed into that space, and was shown hospitality. You might know that the young man sat there for an hour, listening to the conversation. You probably also know that during a moment of prayer, when those in the room were at their most vulnerable, he pulled a gun from the fanny pack he was wearing and shot and killed 9 people, including the senior minister of the congregation, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. You also probably know that he fled, and that he was apprehended a day later in North Carolina by the police, who showed him the utmost respect and courtesy, even stopping to buy him food on the way back to South Carolina. And you know that a day after that, at the bond hearing held for the killer, family members of those who had been murdered publicly offered forgiveness to the killer, saying that they were praying for his soul.
Now, a little more than a year later, the trial of Dylann Roof is scheduled to begin. Jury selection will start this coming week. And amidst all that’s going on around us right now, I’ve been fixated upon that old hymn that the Mother Emanuel choir sang to us that night, replaying it again and again in my head. Most of you know me well enough by now to know that I spend what probably is an embarrassing amount of time trying to discern the secrets contained in the performance of songs. And so it’s not a surprise that ever since that visit, I’ve been thinking about the deep spiritual truth that song conveyed to all of us when it was sung that night in Charleston. And so this morning I’d like to share something about that evening with you, because it felt powerfully significant to all of us who participated in it. But to get at the meaning of that night, and especially the meaning of that song, I think we need to hear the extraordinary story of Mother Emanuel AME Church. It’s a story that all people of faith need to learn, but I think it’s especially instructive to learn it now, as we prepare for an election on Tuesday.
The story begins in the late 18th century, when Richard Allen established a new denomination in the city of Philadelphia specifically for people of color. He wound up calling it the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it quickly began to gain adherents throughout Northern cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. But it was slower to catch on in the South. Several decades later, down in Charleston, two leaders within the Methodist church, Morris Brown and Henry Drayton, knew of Richard Allen’s efforts, and so they traveled north to become ordained in the new AME tradition. They returned home transformed and inspired. In 1817 or 1818, we don’t know exactly when, Morris Brown led some 4000 black members of the Methodist Church out of the larger white church, leading them to establish their own independent church in Charleston. It’s stunning to consider that event: several thousand black folks living in the Deep South, during the height of slavery, under threat of racial terror, who dared to establish their independence from white authority and white scrutiny, at least in matters of the church. It’s stunning to consider it, but that’s part of the proud legacy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Mother Emanuel is called “Mother” because it was that community that wound up giving birth and nurturing so many of the African American churches that were formed in the aftermath of that great exodus.
But the story of Mother Emanuel goes deeper still. One of the first church leaders to emerge after the Charleston exodus was a man named Denmark Vesey. Vesey was a free black man, but he had spent the first 30 years of his life as a slave aboard a shipping vessel, traveling throughout the Caribbean, and most importantly, to Haiti. His owner allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1800 with the winnings of a lottery ticket, and Vesey spent the next several decades in Charleston working as a carpenter, and also reading and teaching the Bible. This remarkable man developed what would later come to be known as black liberation theology, arguing to any who would listen that slavery was inconsistent with the will of God. He identified with the book of Exodus, and he tried to persuade all of those he came into contact with that the slaves of Charleston could share the same destiny as the Hebrew people. Vesey had been to Haiti, and he knew of the successful slave rebellion that had occurred in that country beginning in the 1790’s. He thought it could be duplicated in South Carolina, and so in 1822 he actively began to organize a mass slave rebellion. His hope was to create enough chaos that an enormous slave population could swarm the docks of Charleston and then set sail for Haiti, the world’s single enclave of black liberation. Now, the Haitian Revolution scared the living hell out of white slaveholders everywhere, and the United States was no exception. And so when the white authorities got wind of Vesey’s plot, they ruthlessly suppressed it. 131 people were arrested. 35 people were publicly executed by hanging in downtown Charleston. Denmark Vesey was the most prominent of those who were executed.
But Denmark Vesey’s uprising had further consequences for Charleston, and for the community that would eventually be named Mother Emanuel. Fully sixty percent of those executed after the rebellion had been nurtured in the newly formed AME church, and so white authorities in Charleston issued an order that the church be burned, and that its congregation be scattered. As with the earliest Christians, the black church in Charleston was understood to be deeply subversive. The structure was rebuilt, but several years later, after the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia, a law went into effect that banned all black worship in the city, a ban that wasn’t lifted until after the Civil War. Once again, we can call to mind the earliest Christians among the Romans. As in the early centuries of Christianity, black Charlestonians worshiped underground and in secret in those years, preserving their theology, their spirituality, and their dignity in rooms and clearings safely removed from sight. Even so, it wasn’t enough to reassure the white population of Charleston. They felt a heightened sense of paranoia in the wake of the Vesey uprising, and so they began to envision the necessity of a constant military presence in the city to defend against further revolts. The idea was to integrate enough white men skilled in combat into the general population that the sense of danger would diminish. And so the Citadel was founded in downtown Charleston in 1842. Its original building is located just down the street from the present location of Mother Emanuel. It’s now an Embassy Inn and Suites hotel. Ironically, in the wake of the shooting last year, that very hotel was used as a triage center for grieving friends and family members. Its presence testifies to the unfinished business of truth and reconciliation that still looms in the city of Charleston, and in our country at large.
But the story continues. After the Civil War, a man named Richard Cain became the minister of Mother Emanuel, and it was Cain that established a pattern of civic involvement that Emanuel’s ministers have followed ever since. He founded a black owned newspaper in town, and he vigorously promoted public education. He advocated for laws allowing for black folks to purchase land, and he even organized the purchase of 500 acres just north of Charleston for the creation of a black owned community, a protected and sheltered space for black residents to flourish. While he was a minister at Mother Emanuel, Cain served in the South Carolina State Senate, and in the 1870’s, he was elected to the United States Congress. That’s a pattern that’s been duplicated by nearly every minister who followed after Richard Cain. All of them have been both pastors and committed civic leaders. That was certainly true during the civil rights era, when Mother Emanuel hosted Martin Luther King and served as a base of operations for campaigns around Charleston. And it was true right up to the present, for Rev. Clementa Pinckney served as a state senator in South Carolina, helping to pass legislation that provided health care for poor people, and advocating laws that promoted greater public accountability of police.
You see, Mother Emanuel has never split the difference between the sacred and the secular. They’ve always understood that to be a person of faith is to be, in the widest sense of the term, political. Mother Emanuel has always known that the Bible is a political document through and through, not in the narrow sense of electoral politics, but in the sense of articulating a vision that promotes the flourishing of human lives, especially for those at the margins. And for two hundred years, that’s meant affirming, as a more recent phrase has it, that black lives matter. In a world of relentless assaults against black humanity, Mother Emanuel has said to the wider world: our lives have worth. Our lives deserve respect. Our lives are worthy of dignity. Can you see that? Can you recognize that? Can you affirm that too? The tragedy, of course, is that for two hundred years, the dominant white culture has been finding ways to say: No. We cannot make that affirmation, not really. Not when the Vesey rebellion occurred, and not when the Citadel was formed. Not when the first shots were fired from Ft. Sumter and not during the years of racial terror that followed the Civil War. Not during the era of civil rights and not during the era of mass incarceration and police violence. Dylann Roof said it in ways that no one in their right mind would condone, but in a way, that was just another more extreme instance of a message that’s been reinforced for centuries. Mother Emanuel became the target of violence precisely because they’ve been countering that dominant message all along, affirming a different way.
Which brings me back around to that powerful hymn: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” What was being conveyed when that hymn was sung? What did those words mean on the eve of an election that’s stirred up some of the worst racial tendencies in America in decades? What did that song mean as the trial of Dylann Roof was set to begin? Let’s start with the sinking sand. Many of us have been deeply unsettled by the misogyny, the racism, the Islamophobia, the xenophobia, the paranoia, and the fear mongering that have taken place during this election cycle. Many of us have been appalled by the vile things said about women, about immigrants, about Muslims, about Mexicans and other Hispanics, about African-Americans, about the environment (when it’s been talked about at all), about nearly everyone or everything that exists outside of the affluent white cultural bubble. To believe those things, and to participate in those realities is to build a house upon sinking sand. But I think we have to go farther. We have to say that so much of what we’ve predicated our lives upon is precisely that – sinking sand. Our collective pursuit of wealth. Our trust in wealth to provide us with security. Our continual consumption and acquisition of stuff. Our devotion to work and vocations that enable our overconsumption of stuff. Our determination to wall ourselves off in ever shrinking enclaves of privilege and protection. Our indifference to the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. Our plundering of the world’s resources in order to keep our economy humming. My God, but do we ever stand upon sinking sand right now.
But there is another hope available to us. The folks at Mother Emanuel testified to that hope on the night we visited them. “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” they sang. It’s tempting to hear those words in a narrow and sectarian way. It’s tempting to hear those words and to imagine the story of old time religion, where Jesus washes sinners clean by dying and shedding his blood for them. It’s tempting to imagine a flight from the hard world of public life and a retreat into the privacy of religion. It’s tempting, but I would have us resist those temptations, because those words mean something different when sung in the context of Mother Emanuel and the long history that congregation represents.
Those words have to do with affirming that in that singular human being, Jesus of Nazareth, a poor and marginalized peasant executed by the state, God was somehow present. It has to do with affirming that Jesus thereafter becomes a lens through which we see God at work in the world. It has to do with affirming that somehow and in some way, God is present first and foremost, not only, but first and foremost with those who struggle the most, among those whose lives are rendered most vulnerable, among those whose blood has too often been shed. In this country, and in the city of Charleston, those words wind up being an affirmation of Richard Allen and Morris Brown, Denmark Vesey and Clementa Pinckney and so many others in that long lineage. That song winds up being an affirmation of ordinary folks who maintain their pride in a culture that vascillates between indifference and open hostility. But more than that, those words are an affirmation that any public policy, any theology, any politics, any life project that forgets or ignores the truth of God’s identification with the least of these, is a house built upon sinking sand. By contrast, to build theologies and policies and life habits that recognize the face of Jesus in the most vulnerable, and that strengthen those whose lives have been rendered precarious, is to build a solid rock foundation upon which to stand, one that winds up strengthening everybody, including you and me.
I’ve told you about Mother Emanuel because I think that church has been and continues to be a beacon to the world. They’re a beacon for all of us here in Old Lyme. Under immense pressure, that congregation has managed to exhibit extraordinary courage and grace for nearly two hundred years. We need that kind of witness now. As we face down our own anxieties, as we head to the polls on Tuesday, let’s remember the song that the choir at Mother Emanuel sang a few weeks ago. Let’s remember that even as we do participate in the political life of our nation, our primary allegiance isn’t to a person or a party or a country or God help us, a flag. Our allegiance is to the broken and bleeding man called Jesus of Nazareth, who links us to others throughout history and throughout the present who know what it is to be broken. Come what may on Tuesday, that’s the solid rock upon which we stand. Mother Emanuel helps to remind us that all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.
Lest you forget, let’s join in singing that song now: My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less Than Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness.
We depend upon our faith to guide us. We depend upon one another as we share and deepen our own spirituality to perform our work. And we know, too, that there are people who depend upon us – even as we depend upon them - to be signs of hope in troubling times. With our annual Stewardship Campaign, we depend upon you. We rely on you to make our ministries and our outreach possible. Our annual Stewardship Campaign raises nearly 90% of the funds needed for our ministry and missions. We welcome – and are grateful for – any and all gifts.