This is a Sunday that presents the preacher with a wide palette of colors to paint with, having to do with food, the offering of thanks, and of course, communion itself. But given communion, and given the holiday feasting that will soon be upon us, I’d like to share a story worthy of consideration on a Sunday such as this.
The story was written by Isak Dineson, entitled Babette’s Feast. It was adapted into a beautiful film in the late 1980’s. Whether in print or on the screen, it’s a story that every lover of food should see, but every lover of God and of grace as well. The story is set on a windswept island off of Denmark in the late 19th century, and it features an austere Christian sect akin, in some ways, to the early Puritans. Their lives are devoid of color or ornamentation, as they rigorously seek to obey the commandments of God. Two aging sisters lead the community, both of whom declined offers of marriage years earlier, choosing instead to remain devoted to their community. One day a stranger named Babette shows up at their door, a refugee from revolutionary Paris. She carries only a letter from one of the sisters’ former suitors, pleading with them to take Babette into their care. They have no money, but Babette begins to cook and to clean without pay, remaining in the community for years. One day, in a stroke of good fortune, a winning lottery ticket is sent to Babette as a gift, enough to allow her to return to her home, and to her former way of life. But instead, Babette, who prior to her exile had been the chef at the finest restaurant in France, chooses to prepare an exquisite, sumptuous, intricate feast for the community that has sheltered her, to signal her gratitude. She spends months preparing the feast, sending a courier to fetch all the ingredients from Paris. She invites the two marriage suitors, now grown old, to return to the community, and finally, she invites all the remaining residents to gather around a table. Some of those residents have covenanted among themselves not to reveal the pleasure they’re deriving from the meal. But soon, the sheer artistry of the food breaks down their defenses. Distrust and old animosities melt away. Discarded love is rekindled, and haunting regret is overshadowed by the grace of second chances. Something like redemption settles over the entire community.
I got to thinking about that film when I was visiting with a few friends in our congregation. After a little while, our conversation turned toward films we admire, and Babette’s Feast was mentioned. I ventured that I thought it was about a terribly repressed community being called out of themselves by the splendor of a feast. One of those friends had another interpretation, though, and truth be told, it struck me as far better than mine. “You know,” she said, “I think the film is about the different ways that people find throughout their lives to praise God. For some, praising God means to give something up, to sacrifice something. For others, it means to dedicate oneself to service. For others still, it’s to create objects or experiences of surpassing beauty. They’re all ways of praising God.”
I loved that thought, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What does it mean, really, to praise God? What does that phrase, found so often throughout the Psalms, “Praise the Lord,” mean for those of us who live in the 21st century? For many of us, there’s something more than a little archaic about it, belonging to a worldview that we no longer inhabit, or worse, belonging to the world of TV preachers that we find goofy at best, or reprehensible at worst. For me, it often conjures the world of megachurches, which I flirted with in my youth, filled with individuals who all have their eyes closed and hands raised, singing songs about how worthy, or majestic, or awesome God is. It doesn’t, in other words, sound like a phrase that New England Congregationalists would say or exclaim on the regular. Even so, there’s something to it. What if that phrase described a basic feature of our humanity? What if to render praise was as natural as breathing, and to forgo it was deprive ourselves of something precious, like oxygen? What if our very vocation as human beings was to discover how best to render praise to God?
In Hebrew, one of the words used for praise is yadah, which means something like “to throw down, or to cast down.” In that sense, to render praise would imply encountering something before which you threw yourself down. It might also imply putting something aside, for the sake of something greater. That would be in keeping with several of the more pious characters in Babette’s Feast, who seek to humble themselves through abstention, or simplicity, or austerity. It would be in keeping with a lot of Lenten practices, where people deny themselves that which they love, for the sake of a higher love. It would be in keeping with our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors. There is an honor and dignity to that form of praise. There are times when we’re asked to give things up, for the sake of something greater than us. It’s something that every parent knows well. It’s something that everyone who strives to lead a life of integrity should recognize. There are behaviors and activities that are best avoided if one is to live a life of decency and respect. There are times that to render praise requires the exertion of a kind of discipline, where we simply say no to something that might, for whatever reason, feel thrilling, or interesting, or pleasurable. There is an honor to abstemiousness that I wish to uphold, an honor that every member of Alcoholics Anonymous can attest to. It is an important, and too often trivialized, way of rendering praise.
But there’s another possibility inherent in the words used for “praise.” A word that is sometimes interchanged in the Hebrew is halal, which means to “flash forth light,” and this too is an important valence that we must acknowledge. We all have ways in which we flash forth light. Most often it happens when we’re immersed in something, to the point that we cease to be conscious of what others might think or say. When we’re given to witness a person at work, for example, one whose skill and craftsmanship serve to call forth a sense of awe, we’re witnessing one who flashes forth light, which to say, a person offering praise. When we witness a performance, of music, or dance, or film that suspends time, I think we’re witnessing the flashing forth of light, which is to say, the offering of praise. When we offer a word of encouragement or express interest in the life of another, we become those who flash forth light, which is to say, those who offer praise.
Many of you are just that – a flashing forth of light in the way that you live, in the way that you conduct yourselves, in the way you share with others. Just a few weeks ago, I heard of how a few of our choir members gathered together, and visited one among us who is in her last moments. She loves music, and she loves our choir, and so these individuals surrounded her bed, and sang a few old hymns. It meant the world to her. But as I heard the story, it also meant the world to those who sang. To offer such a gift is to render praise. But to receive it – that too is to render praise. Like Babette offering her feast of thanksgiving, like the austere Protestant sect learning how to receive a gift so lavish, that bedside scene struck me as a beautiful way to render praise to God.
But perhaps that story from Luke’s gospel offers a final insight into the question of praise, one fitting for the week we’re about to embark upon. It’s a story of healing, but really, it’s a story of thanksgiving. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus, who thereafter tells them to present themselves to a priest. When that task is over, only one bothers to return to find Jesus, a Samaritan the text tells us. He throws himself at Jesus’s feet, in a way that ought to remind us of that Hebrew word, yadah. And he offers thanks for what had been given to him. The others simply go on their way, as if they were entitled to all they had received. Not the Samaritan. Like Babette and her feast, it was the exile who recognized the gift that he had been given, and who found a way to say “Thank you.” It’s as fitting a way to render praise as anything I can imagine.
There are, I imagine, as many ways to praise God as there are people on the earth. How do you give praise to God? How does your life express grace and thanksgiving? As we celebrate the sacrament of communion, and as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope that you feel invited to consider all the ways that you offer praise. I hope you consider the ways you flash forth light.
Jacob is on a journey in the story we heard from Genesis. He’s departed from his home, having said goodbye to his mother and his father. He travels alone in territory that is unfamiliar to him. Imagining Jacob’s story, we can envision a sense of estrangement and loss when we meet him, for he knows he can only keep going forward, away from what he knows. The text gives us to imagine that there must have been a struggle within him as well. When he goes to sleep, he uses a stone for a pillow, a way of highlighting his discomfort in that place. We can wonder at Jacob’s choice of sleeping implements. When I go camping if there is so much as a small pebble under my hip, I lay awake most of the night. Nevertheless, Jacob sleeps deep enough to dream. And in his dream he sees a ladder or a stairway extending from earth into the heavens, and on it, spirit beings ascending and descending, passing between those two realities. Standing at the top of that ladder he sees a vision of God, who offers him a message of affirmation and reassurance – the sense that he belongs to that place. When he awakes, he says, “Surely God was in this place – and I didn’t know it.” He then gives the place a name, Beth-el, which means “House of God.”
“Surely God was in this place – and I didn’t know it.” I love that formulation, for the way it opens us to thinking about the spaces and places we inhabit. I love it for the ways it invites us to discern the hidden messages that emerge, dream like, in the spaces we inhabit – in cities, towns, forests, houses, everywhere. And I love it for the ways it invites each of us to work to build such places, or to notice the ways portals between heaven and earth might already exist around us. Ultimately, the story of Jacob asleep on the rock, and his awakening to the divine realities around him, is a story we need as we embark upon a new adventure in providing hospitality here in Old Lyme. My hope this morning is that we’ll be something like Jacob, dreamers who awake, and discover that God is indeed present in this place.
Spaces speak. They communicate in a language that often lies buried in the recesses of the past. I first discovered that from reading Walter Benjamin, a giant of 20th century intellectual history. He was a Jewish literary theorist, a philosopher, and most importantly, a chronicler of urban geographies. In a massive tome called The Arcades Project, about the intricate city spaces of 19th century Paris, he includes a fragmentary thought that has reanimated studies of cities, towns, and architecture. He says this: “at the approach of the solitary walker’s footsteps, the city has roused. Speechlessly, mindlessly, its mere intimate nearness gives him instructions.”
It’s a strange passage, but maybe not as strange as you might think. Benjamin is suggesting that when we encounter a place, it’s telling us a story. He’s suggesting that material elements like buildings, and streets, and the flow of traffic, and the movement of other people can be read and deciphered, as if it were a novel or a poem. He’s saying that for those who linger long enough, space and place can begin to whisper in a hushed tone, revealing truths that aren’t immediately perceptible until we’re given eyes to see and ears to hear. The intimate nearness of a solitary walker offers instruction.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been awakened by a space, so that it began to speak to you, to tell you stories whenever you drew near? Maybe it’s just me – I don’t know. But I think of the way people speak about their houses sometimes, or even a room within a house. I think of the way some of us fall in love with a landscape that keeps us returning, or the way philosophers sometimes talk about the “architecture of happiness,” the idea that elements within a building really do have the power to affect our emotions or sense of well being. I think about hospitals and schools, and the way those are now being designed to facilitate healing, or new modes of learning. Maybe it’s just me, but I do think that the spaces of our lives speak in ways that we may or may not register consciously.
I hadn’t really considered that a space was something to be read until Rachael and I spent a couple of summers living in Berlin. It was there that Walter Benjamin’s insights exploded across my mind as we explored that city’s many neighborhoods. Echoes of the past reverberated everywhere, and I began to hear and see traces of German Romanticism here, the ghosts of World War II there. In one quadrant, the austerity of the East German era could still be seen, while in other sections the dazzling postmodern architecture of embassies and banks and commercial centers bespoke the power of global finance, while in other sectors still a different story was being told, about Turkish and Muslim immigrants and the way they were recreating portions of the city. With Walter Benjamin as my guide, I walked the streets of Berlin, waiting for it to speak in its hushed and whispered tones. They were some of the most intoxicating conversations I’ve ever been privy to, and I’ve never stopped wondering about the ways in which the spaces we inhabit tell stories about who we are, and what we value.
Last week I invoked the story of Paul Verryn, our friend and partner in South Africa who provided shelter to some 3000 refugees, all crowded into Paul’s Johannesburg church. This week I’d like to invoke another longtime hero of our congregation, along with a space well known to many of you. Today’s hero is Clarence Jordan, who knew something about the way spaces speak. Many of you have been to Koinonia Farm down in Americus, Georgia, and you know the story of how, in 1948, at the height of Jim Crow segregation, Jordan created an interracial farming community. Black and white folks lived together, and worked together, and ate together, and prayed together at Koinonia Farm. Jordan called those acres of Georgia soil a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. It was a space, a built environment that for many was a portal, where heaven and earth, to say nothing of black and white, could touch. During the Civil Rights era, it became legendary as a space in which residents were conducting a bold experiment in the geography of faith.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course. Many days and nights must have been like sleeping on a stone, in a hostile country. Stories are still told about the Klan rolling past Koinonia and opening fire on its houses. Jordan was subjected to scorn among his neighbors, and many within Americus refused to do business with Jordan. The hardest part of the story of Koinonia, for me, is hearing from Jordan’s children, now grown adults, and learning of the pain they suffered in school as a result of Jordan’s experiment. And yet it was, and is, a demonstration plot. Will Campbell, a spicy civil rights activist and minister, spoke about how visiting Koinonia in that era was like finding a home in a dry and desolate land. He spoke about how it was like finding God after sleeping on a hard stone. His heart would race, he said, every time he rounded the last bend in the road and the farm came into view. He knew, he said, that he was about to encounter what he called true Gospel living within that space. Every time we visit, I marvel at that place, which became a portal between heaven and earth, and I think about what it means to be such a place. To walk around Koinonia Farm is to hear whispers and sighs, revelations offered in hushed tones. To walk around Koinonia Farm is to open oneself to the way the spaces we inhabit can become portals of the divine.
Which brings me to you. When I first learned of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, I was living in New Haven, and I read of how this place aspired to be a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. I knew of Koinonia Farm and its history, and my curiosity was piqued. In time I came to know about the many mission partnerships that have thrived in this place, of how a rotating cast of characters from places all over the world found their way to Old Lyme. And I came to know about the Food Pantry that operated within the walls of this place every week, the largest on the Connecticut Shoreline, spilling out onto the streets and sidewalks every Saturday. Later, I came to learn the history of resettling refugees here in Old Lyme, and of inviting families from South Africa and Rwanda to live in the parsonage throughout the years. Later still, I came to hear the rumors of how, once upon a time, a house along Lyme Street was a station along the Underground Railroad. I’ve since learned that it likely wasn’t so. Still, the wish that it were so is instructive. It indicated to me a desire to be such a community in the present. I’ve loved getting to know those stories, and the way the streets and sidewalks around our church have whispered, at least to me, of the ways this place has been a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. Those are the whisperings that have led us to pursue our work of welcoming Syrian refugees, and to wait, hoping against hope, that we shall be given the opportunity to welcome still others. We wait, and we hope, instructed by the whispers and sighs of this space that we inhabit.
But here I come to our second text for the morning, this one from the Prophet Isaiah. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out,” he says. Do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” It’s yet another vision of space and place contained in the Bible. I take that message to be a perennial challenge to individuals and communities such as ours. I take it that we’re always being asked to stretch the curtains of our tent, not in terms of property or acreage, but in terms of the openings we create for others to come in. I take it that we’re always being asked to enlarge the space of our welcome, especially toward those who construe the world differently. It’s not that our tent isn’t open – it is, and it always has been. The instruction, however, is to stretch it.
That’s precisely what we’re doing in our sanctuary project. It’s a need that emerged among our neighbors here in Connecticut, some of whom are panicked at what may soon befall them. This past week I received a phone call asking just how ready we are to receive an individual or family threatened with deportation. The question was asked because a particular family may soon make the decision to go into sanctuary, and the caller was wondering if we were as good as our word. I told him we were. Meanwhile, a remarkable thing was happening almost at the very same time I received that call, entirely unbeknownst to me. After preaching last week about the need to prepare for the arrival of a person or family seeking sanctuary, several people got to work, and found a bed and a mattress and a couch and a little table. On Friday, I learned that a number of people had helped to move that furniture into one of our Sunday School rooms downstairs to prepare a place for whoever may arrive. One of the beautiful things about it was that Kamber Hamou was one of the helpers, himself recently arrived here from Syria. That’s the way it seems to run around here. When there’s a need, you spring to action. I want you to hear and know how powerful that is. There’s a sense of agency around this place that is impressive to behold.
But this needs to be said as well. As with Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, as with Jacob of old, we too may have some days and nights when we feel as though we’re sleeping on a cold rock, using a stone for a pillow. We too may have moments in which we’re uncomfortable and out of our element. I hope not, but that may well be the condition for witnessing the holiness of a particular space. We’ll have to be very public about our activities, and so I imagine there will be detractors and critics, both within and without. I hope there won’t be many, and I trust it won’t be like Clarence Jordan being shunned in Americus for creating an interracial community. But I have no guarantees about that. If Koinonia Farm is any indication, to become a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God is also to court the possibility of disagreement and opposition. If the lessons of Koinonia are accurate, to say nothing of the lesson of Jacob himself, to witness that ladder extending between heaven and earth, and to sense the blessedness of a particular space, is also to struggle within it. It’s to feel the press of the cold stone beneath our heads from time to time.
If our text is to be trusted, if the story of Koinonia, which has been told and retold in this congregation over the years, is to be trusted, then the wisdom to be gleaned is this: Risk it. Risk sleeping in strange new territory with a stone for a pillow, for you may wake up to realize that God truly is in this place. Risk becoming a fool for Christ, a fool for the Gospel, for it may be that in so doing, we truly will become a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. Risk stretching the curtains of your habitation, for the guest you receive may stretch you as well, in ways you can’t fully imagine just yet. Risk it.
A concluding image, and a concluding petition. Every week at our 9:00 service, our Sunday School kids form lines at the door of the Meetinghouse, handing bulletins to those who come through the doors. But sometimes they get restless just standing there, and they begin to venture down the steps, looking for those who may be coming, and then running to be the first to hand them a bulletin. I think one of my kids made it half way across Ferry Road in her quest to be the first to greet a church goer, and I’m pretty sure there were a few Sundays that, had someone not intervened, they would have been at people’s car doors down by the ice cream shop, handing out bulletins. So ok, it might be a little zealous, but there’s something about it that I love, kids tripping over themselves to be the first to welcome people into the doors of the church. They spill out onto the steps, onto the sidewalk, and along the street to draw people into this place. It’s an image we need. We’ll do it when we welcome new friends into sanctuary. But the petition, really, is this. Be zealous in welcoming others into this work. Be zealous and excited to share what it is we’re doing, what it is we believe, who it is we are. Be proud to welcome everyone who enters into this sanctuary, trusting that this can be a place of which people say: “Surely God is in this place.”
Spaces speak. Even now the eyes and ears of the future are upon us. Even now, we can anticipate some solitary walker on some distant day drawing near to this place. And we can imagine the way this space, this place, might speak, as the streets of the city did to Walter Benjamin, and to me. May the instructions whispered onto the sidewalks and streets be this: surely this is, surely this has been, and surely this shall be, a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.
If you had occasion to visit Lyme Street on Tuesday night, you would have seen hundreds of people on either side of the street decked out in all manner of costumes, ringing doorbells and asking for tricks, or more likely, treats. It’s the one night of the year that Old Lyme comes alive after dark, and I enjoy the sense of festivity and play that comes with the evening. I love the creativity that goes into some of the costumes, and I especially like thinking about the tradition of dressing up, and becoming a different character for a time. It’s something that many of us got to do in school plays when we were kids or adolescents, trying on new identities for a short period, and then playing with the emotions associated with those identities in a way that allowed us to experience something outside of our ordinary experience, without being capsized by it. That’s why I enjoy thinking about the masks that kids put on when Halloween comes around every year. There were the ghouls and zombies and superheroes and children’s book characters, all of them trying on a different identity, knocking on the door, holding out buckets already loaded with candy, hoping to add a little more to the load.
As I was walking up Lyme Street on Tuesday, trying to catch up with my kids, I caught myself thinking that perhaps this practice of masking was theological in its orientation. There are certainly powerful examples throughout the world of human beings donning masks in order to incarnate a god or a spirit. I take it that Halloween is a vestigial trace of those practices. But it’s the reverse dynamic that caught my imagination on Tuesday. I began to wonder if perhaps it’s God who most often wears a mask. Halloween and the Scriptures alike encourage us to treat appearances delicately. Beneath the ghoulish mask, after all, you might find your neighbor, or your neighbor’s kid. And beneath the appearance of an ordinary person, the Scriptures teach us, you might discover a god, or an angel, or perhaps Jesus himself.
The New Testament is filled with stories about the concealed appearances of the divine. In fact, once you begin reading the New Testament through this prism of masks, of concealment, you find examples everywhere. Everywhere. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus himself is a concealed appearance of the divine, and very few are able to recognize him. But our Scripture lessons for the morning dramatize these moments of masks and misrecognitions in powerful ways.
We’ll start with Hebrews. That book counsels its readers never to cease the practice of hospitality, for in welcoming the stranger, one often entertains angels unaware. We’re all familiar with the iconography of angels, the winged beings who announce this or that in various biblical tales. But the real definition of an angel is looser in the Bible, and more mysterious by far. An angel is simply a messenger of God, though in the tales we read, those messengers are usually personified and given regal sounding names. Still, I think we can understand an angel as that which conveys a message of the divine to us, that which causes us to pause and wonder at something, that which reminds us of our vocation as carriers of the gospel of peace into the world. In that sense, each of us possesses the capacity to become as angels, not in the sense of phantasmatic beings, but in the New Testament sense of becoming a window into the divine, of providing a glimpse of God, albeit a God disguised or masked. You are a mask of God. I want you to hear that this morning. Each of you is a window into the divine when you practice acts of compassion and hospitality, when you exhibit moments of generosity or understanding. Each of you possess the capacity to be an angel, which is simply a fancy way saying a messenger of God. So too, when you open yourself to another, receiving them with care, you entertain angels, masks of the divine, who may bear important messages that you need to receive.
But it’s our second lesson that I find most striking of all. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” are the words Jesus speaks to the church at Laodicea. “If you hear my voice and open the door to me, I will come in to eat with you, and you with me,” he tells the church. What’s interesting about that passage is the scene of misrecognition that it conveys. Jesus stands outside the church, not inside, asking to come in. It’s not that Jesus is inside, trying to get out to the rest of the world. Rather, it seems for this church, he’s never been there. Which begs the question: just what has been there all along? Presumably, this early church possessed all the appurtenances of Christian worship. Presumably there were songs that were sung, prayers that were prayed, meals that were shared, Scriptures that were read. Presumably Jesus had been proclaimed within the walls of that church, but the text hints that the church at Laodicea had mistaken all of that for the presence of Jesus himself. But he had never been there. Jesus is still trying to get in, but somehow the church can’t hear him or see him or notice him, because the appearances have deceived them. “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the church at Laodicea heard the knocks. We don’t know if they received that visitor. But in a way it doesn’t matter. It’s our response that the text elicits, not that of the church in Laodicea. Perhaps it’s the door of every church that Jesus is knocking upon. Perhaps the door is ours.
This past week I started reading a book that I recommend to all of you, a book that is, ultimately, about the masks of God. It’s about the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, and about Paul Verryn’s leadership there. Paul is a long time friend of this congregation, known to many of you through his frequent visits here, or through your visits to South Africa. If you haven’t met Paul, you’ve likely seen his portrait in the hallway leading toward the fellowship hall. We keep it there because Paul has served as an angel to our congregation, a messenger reminding us of who and what we’re called to be. But let me tell you about the book. It’s entitled Sanctuary: How an Inner City Church Spilled Onto a Sidewalk, and it describes how, through Paul’s leadership, Central Methodist became a refuge to the homeless and the displaced living in Johannesburg.
Here’s the story: as the situation in Robert Mugabi’s Zimbabwe deteriorated, a flood of refugees fled across the border looking for safety. And because of Central’s long history, and because of Paul’s reputation for exercising hospitality, many of them knocked at the door of the church, so to speak. Paul turned none of them away. The numbers swelled from a handful, to a few hundred, to a thousand, and, at the height of a xenophobic scare that swept through South Africa, more than three thousand. You can see pictures and videos of this if you search for it. People slept everywhere – in pews, under pews, in cabinets, in hallways, on narrow steps, arrayed one by one on each level. Meanwhile, the church began offering classes for all of these refugees – dance and karate classes, language classes and job training. It provided a makeshift health clinic. Food trucks were set up on the streets outside to provide food, while a whole system of organization was established to maintain a semblance of order.
You can imagine how that set with many of the neighbors. You can imagine how that set with many of the long time parishioners of the church. You can imagine, as well, how it set with some of the political authorities in Johannesburg. Even in the face of severe backlash, Paul refused to stand down. He refused to cast these individuals into the streets, because each of them was, for him, an instance of Jesus drawing near. “There is no doubt that the way in which we treat the stranger reflects our humanity,” Paul told a reporter at the time. “Whether that stranger be from another country or whether those strangers be strange because they are poor is beside the point. If we are going to survive as a human race, we are going to have to reassess our fundamental value system.”
At our last Deacon’s meeting, we agreed to read this chronicle of Paul Verryn’s efforts to answer the call of Jesus in Johannesburg. We did so because we thought it might provide insight into some of the questions our church is currently facing. Last year’s political campaign brought with it a wave of xenophobic resentment, which after the election was converted into policies that have scared the living daylights out of immigrants residing in the US without documentation. Deportations are up 43% in 2017 vs. 2016. Now, I know a common rejoinder is that these are people who have come to the United States illegally, and that this crackdown is simply an enforcing of preexisting laws. Maybe. But many of the targets have been here for decades. Many have families, and children. Many came in order to join other family members who were already here. Many were fleeing political instability, or violence. Many have never known a home other than the United States, having arrived here as infants. Whether you know it or not, these are our neighbors. They come to our Food Pantry and work in our stores and service our cars and take care of our properties. Might they also be the masks of God? Might they also be the guises in which Jesus appears to us?
For the second time this year at our Deacon’s meeting, we discussed the prospect of inviting a person, or a family, threatened with deportation to reside here in our church building. We had discussed that prospect back in February as well, and the Deacons had offered unanimous consent that this was something we ought to pursue. Since then, I had received an email suggesting that, if we were willing, we might soon be asked to house someone here in the church who was under threat of immediate deportation. While that particular case didn’t come to pass, it did make plain that the moment of being asked could arrive suddenly and without warning, and it seemed to me that we needed to be prepared. I’m pleased to share that the Deacons remained steadfast that our community should be willing to provide sanctuary to such an individual if called upon.
Here’s what it would mean. Thus far, immigration agents have agreed not to enter houses of worship to arrest people. And so that individual would have to reside within this building. We’ve asked about whether our refugee house would work, but unfortunately it won’t. Only houses of worship apply, which in this case entails this whole contiguous building. Working with our property committee and our Sunday School team, we’ve been able to identify a room that we think would work well for such a residency. We think we’ve located enough furniture to make it habitable, and Lina Tuck, our immigration assistance coordinator, is working with her list of volunteers to coordinate other details, such as food.
But other questions came up during our Deacon’s meeting, such as the following: Is it illegal to provide sanctuary at a church? The answer to that is no. In order to do this legally, we would have to conduct a press conference immediately upon receiving an individual or family, and we would have to notify both the local police and ICE. We can’t be furtive about this. We wouldn’t be contravening the law, so much as seeking to slow the legal process down, so that an appeals process can do its work. Another question: how long would this individual stay here? The answer is that we don’t know. There are several churches in the New Haven area providing sanctuary at the moment. One individual has resided in a church in downtown New Haven for several months now, while another went into sanctuary, and was granted a stay by the court 4 days later. So it’s impossible to determine how long it could last. Another question: will this individual or family be “safe” for our community, meaning will they have criminal backgrounds? The answer to that is a qualified no. These are individuals who have been screened by a team of lawyers currently assigned to them, whose cases allow for some hope of an extension, or an appeal, or a legal path toward residency. They could, theoretically, have police records involving minor infractions, but we wouldn’t be asked to harbor violent criminals, or anyone, really, whose case was at a legal dead end. But again, what we would be allowing is a temporary cessation of the deportation process, so that an appeals process can unfold in a fair and timely manner.
But here’s the last, and most important question: why should the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme engage in such an activity? To that, I point first to the portrait of Paul Verryn hanging in our corridor. Why should we honor him so, why should we sustain our relationship with Paul, inviting him to visit us and preach and pray over us, if we’re not prepared to enact the sort of theology he has envisioned, and the sort of hospitality that he has enacted? Paul Verryn is one of our angels, a messenger, offering us a clear vision of what it means to be a people of bold faith in the world. So too, I would point to the long history of this congregation, courageously challenging what the Apostle Paul called the powers and principalities of this world. We’ve done it near, and we’ve done it far, but it’s been a consistent part of our 352 year history. I do occasionally hear the complaint that we ought to be worrying about what goes on in our backyard more than we do about what happens in other places around the globe, and while I have questions about that dichotomy and the ideological biases that undergird it, this is a moment when I can say: now’s our chance to address what’s happening in our own backyards. Now’s our chance to speak forcefully about something befalling our neighbors here in Connecticut. But finally, and most importantly, I’d answer in a theological vein. I’d review all the instances in the Bible when God appears incognito, under cover of a mask. I’d point to those instances in the Bible when we’re instructed to find Jesus among the dispossessed, the homeless, and in this case, the stateless. And I would point to that passage in the book of Revelation, that depicts Jesus as standing outside the church, waiting to come in, as if he were a refugee, as if he were a migrant, as if he were under threat of deportation. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says. Were we to open the door, I suspect we would open ourselves to a rather large, and indefinite, project. But I also suspect we would be opening ourselves to an enlargement of our hearts, an enlargement of our world, an enlargement of our faith. I suspect we would be opening the door to an immense opportunity to grow as people of faith and conscience.
Jesus continues to knock. How shall we answer?
 Kuljian, Christa, Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled Onto a Sidewalk, (South Africa: Jacana Press, 2013), pg. 164.
The life was seeping out of her. Some rupture in her life, some wound within her body failed to close, and the blood just kept draining from her in a slow drip drip. At first, it terrified her, for it seemed as though something external was draining her of vitality, slowly robbing her of her will, her drive, her very spirit. In time, over the course of twelve years, her condition became more or less permanent, a constant and unwelcome companion. There were days that she wasn’t able to get out of bed, for the energy to do so just wasn’t available. There were other days that she did manage to get up, rallying for a brief instant to find help from a healer. She delivered herself to doctors, and she delivered herself to those promising cures by alternative means. She delivered herself, and she delivered vast sums of money, but it was for naught. The life kept drip, drip, dripping away, until it was all she could do to perform the basic tasks of existence. Friendships, like her vitality, began to drip away. Family stuck around longer, but after a while, they too kept their distance. The woman understood why, for there were long passages of time in which she tired of her own company.
Still, she nurtured some tiny reserve of inner strength, given to her from she knew not where, a small and fleeting resolve to recover a sense of vitality. Perhaps it arose from memories of the way life had been prior to the rupture, prior to the continual hemorrhaging of blood and of life. Perhaps it arose from fantasies of what life could become if she could stop the bleeding. When rumors of the healer from Galilee began to circulate, and when they reached her ears through the kindness of another woman bringing food, something arose within her, like a tiny rebellion. If only, if only she could get to him, something might change. It wouldn’t need to be much – not a procedure, not an exorcism, not a spectacle. It would be enough simply to touch the hem of his robe. Doing so might restore to her that which she grieved the most, that which she missed the most, that which she longed for most, which was touch. Of all that had been drained from her, it was ordinary touch, contact, that she missed most, reminders that she didn’t dwell beyond the living in the land of the shades, a reminder that she remained human, that she hadn’t become a ghost, not fully, not yet. It was touch that she craved above all, for it would serve as a recognition, not least to herself, that she did in fact exist, that not everything had been drained away.
And so on a morning when the healer is said to be near, she leaves her house, shrouded and veiled, so as not to be recognized, and shunned. She slowly, ever so slowly makes her way toward the center of the town, where the merchants sell their wares and where the rabbis and the learned speak. She finds there a great throng, at the center of which is a figure who must be the healer. It’s all she can do to move. But she does move, lowering her head so as not to be noticed, but inserting herself into the throng all the same. The healer begins to move, and the crowd moves with him, crowding and pressing in upon so that even he becomes agitated by the claustrophobia. He moves in her direction, even as she presses toward him, and then she freezes, uncertain about what to do. He’s near, his entourage is with him, they’re trying to whisk him away, but they pass by her, and instinctively, without thinking, as if someone else was doing it, she reaches out her hand and she grasps his robe, just for a second. She tugs it, and then lets go. It’s as if a burst of electricity passes through her. The healer stops. He turns and he searches the faces of those near him. “Somebody touched me,” he says. “Was it you?” he asks, gazing at her downturned face. She raises her eyes and returns his gaze. “It was me.” “Your faith has made you well,” he says in response. And then he is gone.
It’s worth imagining this woman’s story in detail for several reasons. First, she’s a figure who represents each one of us at certain moments throughout life, who feel our vitality being sapped away by forces beyond our control. Second, she’s an exemplar of a holy desire, stirring within her like a hot coal in a cooled fireplace. She offers instruction for those of us who chase healing, or wholeness or the fullness of life in ways we don’t fully comprehend, in ways that lead us to confront that which diminishes us. But third, I believe we can read this courageous, and yet nameless woman, as an avatar for the women throughout the world right now who have felt the life being drained from their lives and from their communities, and who possess the courage to risk finding a source of healing, to risk contact, to risk touch with those who may make a difference. Let me say a word about each of those areas.
First, the hemorrhaging. I wonder how many of us, male or female, can recognize ourselves in this woman’s struggle. To do so, it helps to understand her condition as a metaphor for those periods in each of our lives when flourishing seems beyond us, when for emotional reasons, or material reasons, or because of some complex chemical reasons beyond our control, a sense of well being seems to drain from us in a steady drip drip drip. It can happen as a result of a sudden rupture or trauma, like a powerful wound that never heals. But it happens in all sorts of other, more subtle ways as well. Illness or pain can do that to us. The loss of mobility as we age can do that to us. A steady infusion of unbearably painful news can do it, in ways that I don’t think many of us fully comprehend as yet. Fractured relationships can do it – the sense of having screwed up in friendship or marriage or with one’s children. Guilt can do it, and shame as well, steadily draining us of our sense of value or worth – I don’t deserve whatever good is out there, we sometimes think. I’m not really worth it, we think. And depression…that unbearable abyss into which so many of us slide – it threatens to drain us of every last drop of vitality. I know that there are many among us at the moment confronting life situations that seem remarkably akin to the hemorrhaging woman, feeling the life drain from us moment by moment, and wondering how or if we’ll ever emerge.
This story, which all three of the synoptic writers repeat, is a way of speaking into that situation. It’s a way of describing an all too familiar part of the human condition. And it’s a way of encouraging each one of us to trust that in ways we can neither schedule nor predict, relief will come. Trusting, as I do, that Jesus both lives and finds ways to touch us in the places that hemorrhage life, I believe the story of the woman and her encounter with Jesus is an indication that there is healing and wholeness to be found for each of us. That doesn’t mean that our struggles will cease outright. It doesn’t mean that life will never drain from us again. It does mean that in God’s own way and in God’s own time, a touch of grace will restore to us the sense that we do not carry our burdens alone. It means that in ways we may not comprehend as yet, we shall be given the power to endure, and to move forward with our lives.
But there’s another important part of the woman’s story that we should attend to. It has to do with that ember kindling within her which pushes her to extend herself, propelling her out of her bedroom, out of her door, into the streets, in search of that which will make the bleeding stop. I think of this as a holy desire. And here too this woman in search of life becomes our guide. In my estimation, religion is about nothing if it’s not about desire. All of theology can be summed up as the working out of a desire that burns within our hearts, moving us, stirring us, drawing and luring us out of our stasis and toward that which we dare to name God. Sometimes that fire within roars hot, and we know exactly the direction we need to go if we are to flourish, and sometimes, like the woman in the story, the fire cools to a faint ember, so that it must be fanned a little bit, brought back to life. Sometimes our desire gets away from us, and we wind up chasing the wrong things, that which we thought would bring life but in truth only draws the life out of us. To have faith is to undergo a therapy of desire, examining what’s worth desiring and what isn’t, what brings life and what doesn’t. It might be that what you’ve been chasing for most of your life isn’t bringing you life at all, but is leaving you as drained as the woman suffering continual hemorrhaging. It might be that your career is killing you, draining your soul. It might be that a particular relationship is destroying you. It might be that the success you’ve been taught to desire is a vampire, eating you alive. And it might be that something within you, in the midnight hour or in moments of unguarded truth, is stirring, saying, is this it? Is this all there is?
In a hypercapitalist society such as ours, nearly everything is seeking to activate our desire – billboards, radio ads, flashing windows on every website we open, television ads, magazines, everything. I remember years ago finding myself at a professional baseball game in Cuba. I’ve been to plenty of ball games in my life, but this one felt both similar and utterly strange. The game was played exactly as it is here in North America, and I sat for a while trying to figure out why it felt so different. And then I realized: there are no advertisements here. There’s nothing flashing, nothing blinking, nothing blaring, nothing that’s seeking to stimulate my desire beyond the game itself. There were no ads for donuts or office supplies or gasoline or sports equipment, nothing. Say what you will about Cuba and its policies, but I have to tell you that that absence of assaultive stimulants felt really, really good. Most of us no longer notice or appreciate how immersed we are in such coercive environments. We no longer notice the way our desires are being worked upon in minute detail nearly every waking moment until we step out of such environments, and experience something utterly different. We’re suddenly invited to consider that which is worth desiring and pursuing, and that which isn’t. The baseball game in Cuba didn’t reorient my life. But it did serve as a reminder that perhaps the human heart contains desires that can scarcely be heard amidst the voices that compete for our attention, our dollars, our values, and ultimately, our lives. It was a reminder that perhaps there is a faintly glowing ember of desire underneath all the ash, still pulsing with life.
And isn’t church, at its best anyway, about precisely that? About thinking through what sorts of things really are worth chasing? Isn’t it about being reminded of a world of touch, a world of connection, a world where healing and hope and flourishing can and do occur? If church is about anything, isn’t it about reminding us of that which is worth desiring – things like compassion and hospitality, forgiveness, generosity, and mutual support in the journey of life? Much of the time, we exist in the world as those akin to the hemorrhaging woman, having the life drained from us. Meanwhile, something does kindle and stir within us. Meanwhile the Bible and theology and the very Spirit of God draws us toward moments of touch, moments of tender embrace with one another and with those unlike us, who live in places unlike Old Lyme. The woman in our story is a reminder to stir those embers, to blow on them, and to let that holy passion stir within us, lest our lives slip away. The woman in our story is a reminder to notice and to cultivate that holy desire that stirs within us, that which leads us toward what exists beyond us, and then to find the courage to chase it.
Finally, this. I believe the bleeding woman provides a framework by which we can read a powerful change occurring throughout the world. In one of his Beecher lectures down at Yale, Allan Boesak shared that it’s women who are actively changing the world right now. He used the story of the Hebrew midwives in the book of Exodus, and how it was they, far more than Moses or Aaron, who organized the uprising of the Hebrew people in that book. The same is true today. From the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. to Black Lives Matter, and from some of the best work occurring in Palestine and among First Nations peoples, some of the most important social justice work taking place right now is conducted by women. It’s not that men are uninvolved or unimportant. We’ve just been slower to respond. Meanwhile, like the unnamed woman in our story, it’s women who seem to sense the hemorrhaging of the world around them, of the people around them, and they’ve chosen to do something about it. They’ve roused themselves and they’ve sought out help. Like that unnamed woman, they seek to touch and to make contact with those who have power, forcing them to say, “Somebody touched me. Was it you?” They seek to make the bleeding, the hemorrhaging, stop.
A recent documentary was made about women in Haiti who are doing just that. It’s called Poto Mitan, and it documents the way women in sweatshops are circumventing male dominated unions, and male dominated bosses, to change the living conditions of workers in free trade zone sweatshops in Haitian cities, where much of our clothing is made. A Poto Mitan is the central post or column within a Vodou shrine, at the foot of which an altar is set for the spirits to be honored. It’s said that the spirits travel down through the poto mitan as individuals dance around that column. The poto mitan is thus the portal by which spirit enters the world. So it is with these women. They’re the central pillars by which spirit enters the world to say, “I am here. Notice me. I exist. We exist. Help us to stop the bleeding.” Is that what it means, finally, to be spiritual? To let the cares of the world flow through us, thereafter animating us and all those around us? Is that what it means to catch the spirit? It is in the film about these remarkable Haitian women.
That emphasis on spirit is a part of the Tree of Life program we’ll be hosting later this afternoon, entitled Courageous Women of Resistance. Madonna Thunder Hawk and Farouz Sharqawi are two such courageous women who have kindled an ember of holy desire within them, a pulsing flame that they have nurtured into a fire. Like the woman in the story, they have known the hemorrhaging of their communities, whether in Palestine or on the Plains of the American West. And they possessed the courage to rouse themselves, in hopes of making the bleeding stop. We’re among those privileged to hear their voices. We’re among those who may yet feel the tug upon our own garments, the tug upon our own hearts, so that we too may stop and say, “Somebody touched me. Somebody made contact with me. Was it you?”
In truth, I think that’s what many of us desire most of all. We long to be touched. We long to make contact. We long to have our energies drawn toward that which is significant, and real, and meaningful. Because in truth, we occupy both roles in the story, the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus himself. Sometimes we’re the woman, trying with everything within us to stop the bleeding and find resources that will upbuild and sustain our humanity. But sometimes we stand in the role of Jesus too, those who possess resources, and who wish to be touched, who wish to offer what life we have in service of another. Sometimes we’re both.
If you’re bleeding a little bit today, if you sense the life being drained out of you by something or other, I want you to know that Jesus is there for you, awaiting your touch. If you’re the one who has the capacity to offer healing, to offer your presence, to share what gifts or resources you have within you, then I want you to know that the hemorrhaging woman awaits you, in all her many guises. May we all have the courage to nourish the embers of desire burning within us. May we all have the courage to reach out and touch the beating heart of the world, whether sitting right next to us, or dwelling half a world away. We long to be touched, and we long to make contact.
This morning we welcomed Rev. Dr. Allan Aubrey Boesak to the pulpit. Dr. Boesak served as Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis from 2012 to 2017. He has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on liberation theology. Boesak studied at the University of Western Cape and earned his doctorate in theology from the Protestant Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands. His early activism and service led to international recognition as an influential leader in the fight against apartheid. During the 1980s he worked alongside Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela to lead efforts against apartheid and promote reconciliation.
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