Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky (From Now On), or, Keeping Church Weird
To begin, a preview of sorts. There’s a commercial that Starbucks put out a few years ago for one of its canned espresso drinks. It’s ingenious, and I hope whoever thought it up was handsomely rewarded with stock options and canned espresso drinks. Here’s the premise. An office worker named Glenn is getting ready for work in the morning, and he’s looking a little glum about it all. He pops open a can of ready made espresso, and he takes a sip. And suddenly, there in his apartment, that 80’s band “Survivor” shows up, the ones that sing “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky. And they’re singing just for him: “GLENN! GLENN, GLENN, GLENN, they sing. They’re in the bathroom with him as he shaves, on the bus during his morning commute, and on the elevator in his office building, helping him get charged for his day in middle management, and fueling dreams where “One day he just might becoooooome….supervisor.” But then the commute ends, and the band’s job is done. They look dejected, until another person walks by, drinking a Starbucks canned espresso. They brighten, and set out in pursuit. “ROY! ROY, ROY, ROY, they sing.
Now, say it was you. Say a band followed you around for an hour every day. What would your song be? Let me ask the question in a different way. In baseball, every time a batter takes the plate, they have theme music that plays for a few seconds to get them amped and inspired and ready. And so say it was you, stepping up to the plate. What would your song be?
Hang on to that question for a bit. We’ll come back to it. And don’t worry too much. If you can’t think of anything, I’ve got a suggestion for you. But more on that in a few minutes.
For now, let me take you on a brief tour. If you ever pass through Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, or any number of other towns for all I know, you might see bumper stickers and window signs that say the following: “Keep Portland Weird.” “Keep Austin Weird.” Amidst the pressing challenges of gentrification, that slogan is a way of reminding everyone that what makes those cities remarkable is not how similar they are to everywhere else. What makes them remarkable is how different those cities feel. They fairly pulse with creativity, filled with everyone from artisans to urban farmers, from intellectuals to young entrepreneurs. But even as that energy attracts all sorts of new residents and businesses, it also brings with it that which would homogenize those towns and populations, rendering them somehow more sterile. I take it that something like that happened in Manhattan in the 90’s. Something like that happened in San Francisco in the 2000’s. It’s happening in other places too. It’s not that those cities become terrible places. They just become a little less risky, a little less edgy, a tad more one dimensional. Thus the plea: keep Austin weird! Keep Portland weird.
One of our members told me about a seminar she attended recently that used that slogan to admonish churches, and those who show up there, not to lose their distinctive character and flavor. Just as some residents of Portland or Austin wish to resist the creative flattening of their cities, this speaker was admonishing churches to claim and celebrate what makes them distinctive, interesting, pugnacious, and dynamic. Annie Dillard writes that church too often becomes a sort of garden tour of the Absolute. She writes about how if we really took seriously some of the claims that are made on Sunday mornings, we’d need to wear crash helmets, because God only knows what sorts of challenges we’d be taking on. Finding the courage to speak the word “God,” or learning the stories of Jesus, or hearing about the prophets, or discovering the stories of the earliest disciples, is to encounter something like a holy madness, a divine folly that defies social convention and good sense alike. The life and ministry of Jesus was an attempt to lure and seduce us with a mad vision of the world. They’ve become stories that wish to crack something open within our souls, stories that wish to chase us out of the doldrums of respectable conformity to the mores of the day. The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were both seized by that vision. You are to be a peculiar people, one writes. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, the other says. Let me paraphrase a little: if you take all these stories about Jesus seriously, you’re going to wind up being a little strange, a little weird, a little funky. Don’t dodge that. Accept it with enthusiasm. Keep this thing we call church peculiar, weird, funky.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you are skeptical, because churches are, as often as not, places that wind up being the opposite of weird. For younger people especially, church is a tool that the decent and the upright use to press you into a less interesting mold. And young people are often right about that. Churches have functioned as the places people go to banish their deepest selves – the questions that haunt us, the desires that would undo us, the passion or creativity that stirs within us. As often as not, churches become the places we go to receive stability and comfort, the institutional equivalent of grilled cheese and tomato soup on winter’s night, which, I hasten to add, I do sort of love. We need comfort, and we all love grilled cheese, but my God, we need so much more than that if we’re going to be worthy of this thing called faith. We need to be those who are peculiar. We need to resist being pressed into a narrow mold. We need to keep the churches weird, places not of bland conformity but places of outrageous and provocative and I hope deeply ethical forms of life. And so, consider this license to get a tattoo or a piercing this week, for the sake of your souls. Go ahead. Consider this license to dye your hair a fuschia or magenta color. Consider this license to free your inner weirdness, because I do think it’s a sin to stifle those parts of ourselves.
But these days, it’s a different sort of weirdness that interests me most. It’s what we can call the ethics of maladjustment. In reading through some of Martin Luther King’s writings recently, I came across a passage in which he speaks of the need not to become adjusted to reality, not to become adjusted or conformed to various social conditions, but to declare ourselves maladjusted in relation to those conditions – discrimination and segregation, physical violence and tragic militarism. Those are realities to which no person of faith and conscience should ever be adjusted, King argues. He then names a small cadre of the maladjusted whose company he wishes to keep – Amos, Jesus, Lincoln, even Thomas Jefferson, who, in an era grossly adjusted to slavery, wrote immortal words about “all humans being created equal.” We need the courage of maladjustment, King writes. And he implores his readers to be so maladjusted that they’re willing to risk themselves for the sake of the reality that Amos, and Jesus, and even King himself pointed toward: the sanctity of the world, the equitable distribution of resources and the dignity and worth of every human being. In a culture where those values are maligned, we need the courage to risk an ethic of maladjustment. We need the freedom to be weird.
The world has changed since King wrote those words in the late 1950’s. The world is both depressingly similar to the one King described, but it’s also more dizzying. And so we may need to summon other kinds of weird just about now. We may need to summon other forms of maladjustment. Just last night, we had a celebration of our immigrant roots here at the church, a celebration meant to remind us all of our common ancestry as pilgrims and wayfarers. But that event was necessary only because of a new reality to which we’re being asked to adjust, where human beings without documentation are being driven or intimidated out of our country. To such a reality, we must become maladjusted. There’s a new reality to which we’re being asked to adjust, where those who don’t belong to a state are declared illegal, becoming those resembling the ghosts or shades of Hades, forgotten, left over, and without material form. No human being should be declared illegal. To that reality, we must become maladjusted. We’re being asked to adjust to a reality in which children and young people without documentation are at risk of being forcibly removed from the country, and where Haitians, after relocating here and rebuilding their lives here after the earthquake are at risk of being sent away. To that new reality, we must remain maladjusted. We’re now being asked to adjust to a new reality where refugees proliferate around the world, a reality to which no one should have to adjust. But in addition to that, we’re being asked to adjust to a reality in which those refugees are unwelcome within our national borders. We’ve now halved the number of refugees we took previously, which was already pathetically low. To that new reality, and countless others like it, we must remain maladjusted. We must remain a peculiar people. To those new, and yet also depressingly old realities, we must hold on to our distinctive weirdness as people of conscience.
Let me put a finer point on it still. After Charlottesville, there were bold statements from nearly everyone that white supremacy has no place in American life, which is absurd, because we all know that white supremacy is as American as any of the things that Ken Burns gets excited about – baseball and jazz and national parks and wars. Even so, it was good to see business leaders and political leaders alike finding some moral clarity about the issue. But let’s be real: it’s easy to get incensed about scary white folks descending on the UVA campus with torches. It’s easy to get incensed about Nazis and Confederate flags, and mobs that beat up and kill black people and their allies. I’m as bothered by those realities as anyone. But the white supremacy that worries me far more is that contained in all of the developments that I named earlier. The white supremacy that worries me is the pronouncement about DACA and the Dreamers, and the possible revocation of the rights of Haitians who fled here after the earthquake, and the so called Muslim ban, and the steady uptick of deportations. The white supremacy that worries me most is the hypocrisy of denouncing the Klan, while shrugging away all the other ways that white supremacy is on the loose right now, in health care debates and voter suppression and the elimination of social services, while saying that it’s just the winds of change that are blowing. That’s the most seductive adjustment we’re being asked to make right now, yielding to the voices that claim we have no social obligations at all, yielding to the cynics who would ask, like the Pharisees, “well, who is my neighbor anyway?” To that cynicism, we would all do well to remain deeply maladjusted.
Now, there may be some among us who are uncomfortable with how I’m framing things right now. There may be some who wish to put on the brakes and come at all of this from a different angle. And I’ll concede that I might be missing this or that nuance. I’ll give you that. But if we’re more worried about this or that inflection or nuance in a sermon than the fact that human beings all around us are being designated illegal, and steadily targeted for humiliation, abuse, detention, surveillance, fines, and deportation, I would argue that we’ve lost our distinctiveness. I would argue that we’ve become all too adjusted. Maybe it’s time to risk maladjustment. Maybe it’s time to quit worrying about propriety and appropriateness in churches, and to risk the project of making, or keeping, church weird. If all this legislation being threatened right now actually does go through, we’re going to need to risk making the church very weird indeed, which may well include housing people right here in our facilities if we need to. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where we’re headed.
Being maladjusted to the times, keeping church weird – these are, to my mind, very serious issues, involving thoughtful and considered responses. But I also think we need a spirit of joy and of play in the midst of it all, which is what brings me back to my original question: say you had a band following you throughout this particular moment in time, playing your song. Say you were stepping up to the plate, trying to knock one into the bleachers. What would your song be? If you don’t know, I’ve got a recommendation for you.
My recommendation is a song written by Allen Toussaint in the late 1960’s, and recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1969. It’s the song from which I’ve borrowed my sermon title, called “Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky (From Now On).” It’s been covered many times throughout the years, but most recently, it appears on a tribute album to Allen Toussaint released by Stanton Moore. We stumbled into a record shop down in New Orleans one Friday night to find Moore’s band performing, and they gave up a blistering version of “Everything I Do.” And I stood there going, yes, if I had a band following me, if I were stepping up to the plate, that’s the song I would want for inspiration. Funk is originally an African term, meaning something like sweat, or body odor, in its original Kongo form. But it soon became a word identified with the integrity of one who worked hard, who worked out, to achieve his or her aims. To encounter one who has funk, in the African sense of that term, is to encounter a person of spirit and exertion, one who gives off a positive energy, one who has a deliberate and powerful vision that cuts against the current. To be funky, in that sense, is to be blessed with the gift of maladjustment.
We need funk in our lives as people of faith. We need to remind ourselves again and again who we are and what we take to be true. We need to be those who do things a little differently. We need to be those who put a little swagger in our walk. We need to carry ourselves into the world with a positive energy that makes others go, “Where’d you find that?” That’s the meaning of funk. The funk is what all people of faith ought to possess in times like these. The funk is what I believe a church following in the paths of Jesus ought to possess all of the time, not just some of the time. Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky From Now On, Lee Dorsey sings. Here’s a clip of that beautiful song.
Keep church weird. Make it funky. And may Lee Dorsey’s band follow you around for the rest of the day, and maybe for a long time after that.
 King Jr., Martin Luther, A Testament of Hope (New York: Harper One, 1991), pgs. 14-15.
 See Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (New York: Vintage Books, 1983). See https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/17228/where-does-funk-and-or-funky-come-from-and-why-the-musical-reference.
Today I wish to talk about baptism, about remembering our baptism. We’ll get to that important ritual in a few minutes, but first, a story about songs and waters, blues and floods, baptism writ large.
As I’ve struggled to process the damage and destruction of Hurricane Harvey, it’s been an old blues song that’s been on constant repeat in my mind all week. It’s by Charley Patton, the greatest of all the Delta blues singers. It’s called “High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 and 2,” recorded in 1929. Patton chronicled the watery destruction caused by the Mississippi flood of 1927, when melting snow and rain caused that river to swell and break its levees. It broke first in Missouri, and then Arkansas. But the worst break was at Mound Landing, 18 miles north of Greenville, Mississippi, a break that flooded much of the Mississippi Delta. By the time it was over, sixteen and a half million acres of land were flooded in seven different states. 162,000 homes were destroyed as well as 41,000 other buildings, and 600,000 people were made homeless. Patton was there, and his song chronicles the sheer menace of the waters. In the first part of the song Patton keeps moving to towns on higher ground, only to find the waters have reached there as well: places like Vicksburg, Greenville, Leland, Rosedale – all flooded, all washed away. By the second part of the song, Patton exhibits a worn resignation as he witnesses the catastrophe. “Lord, the water is rollin,’ got up to my bed,” Charley sings. A little later, at the end of the song, he bears witness to the disaster, stating simply: “I couldn’t see nobody, an’ wasn’ no one to be foun.’” Charley knew a thing or two about liquid apocalypses. More than 70 years later, Bob Dylan recorded a song in tribute to Charley, also called “High Water Everywhere.” Dylan’s song channels Patton’s ghost seventy years later. “Things are breakin’ up out there,” Dylan growls, as if he was planted in 1927 during the Mississippi flood, or in 2005 during Katrina, or in 2017 during Harvey. “It’s High Water Everywhere,” he says.
Charley Patton’s songs have been my accompaniment this week as I’ve scrolled through story after story about Houston. Dylan’s song too has been on constant repeat as I’ve offered prayers for that city and wondered about how or if we might respond. Those songs, and the images circulating through various news outlets have me thinking anew about the meaning of water in Christian and Jewish thought, and whether the symbols of Christian faith, especially baptism, might have a particular resonance and relevance now, in the aftermath of so much destruction. And so let me put forth a thought that’s both provocative and challenging. For all of us who live in the 21st century, water is akin to our unconscious, that which we wish not to think about, that which we wish to banish to the recesses of our imagination, even as, from time to time, water surges forth into our public consciousness during storms or other crises. Water is our ecological unconscious. The more we banish it, the more forcefully it reasserts itself. The time has come to confront the power of water. The time has come to remember the significance of baptism.
Water, we learned this week, was a part of the cultural unconscious of Houston, as swamps, bayous and wetlands were paved over in the name of “development,” to make way for all those malls and parking lots. It was more or less forgotten or ignored, until the sky poured 50 inches of rain onto the city. Water was a part of the cultural unconscious of Flint, Michigan, polluted by industrial runoff until residents of that city started becoming sick. It was an afterthought, until it became a public health catastrophe. But let’s be honest – have you thought about Flint’s water supply lately? Water was a part of the cultural unconscious surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, all but ignored until the Lakota tribe began raising the alarm about the danger to their water supply. Let’s be honest – have you thought about Standing Rock since the camp was sweeped clean? Water was, and is, a part of the cultural unconscious of New Orleans, until Katrina deluged the city and the levees failed. Let’s be honest – prior to this week, when was the last time you thought about Katrina? Still, there comes a time when water reasserts itself, forcing humanity to contend with its awesome and threatening and contaminating, and yes, also sustaining power. But then the floodwaters recede, rebuilding occurs, and the cultural unconscious takes over once again, until the next storm, the next flood, the next deluge.
This summer, our family experienced flooding on two different occasions in New Orleans, on two different Saturday afternoons. You can see evidence of the first of those on your bulletins this morning. That’s a picture taken from the front door of the house in which we were staying. We had been having lunch at a restaurant across town, and the skies opened up while we ate. It was a pleasant enough meal, but getting to the car afterward was like standing under a garden hose. We piled into our van, drenched, and began driving home, only to find our way blocked by floodwater everywhere we turned. After an hour or so of slow navigation, we got close to our house, only to find it surrounded by thigh deep water. And so we left our car about a block away, took off our shoes, and waded home. Several hours later, after the rain stopped, the pumps beneath the city caught up, and sucked the streets dry. Everyone came out of their houses, picked up the trash, shook their heads, and went on with life. The water was out of sight and out of mind, a piece of the cultural unconscious of the city once again. Until it happened again two weeks later, and we had to wade home all over again. As in each of our personal lives, try as we might, the unruly and unmanageable unconscious will assert itself from time to time. The violence and force of that assertion often depends upon how forcefully the unconscious has been repressed.
I wonder: how long will it be before we face 50 inches of rain here on the Connecticut Shoreline? Irene can shake us for a while, flood our homes, cut off the power, but no sooner do the lights go back on and the shore front building continues. Sandy can deliver a jolt, but then the event recedes and we quit giving water a whole lot of thought. In the years following those storms, we’ve hosted several public conversations about what it all portends, and a handful of folks show up. But how long do we have? You’ve seen the reports about how quickly the Arctic is melting. You’ve seen the reports about the disappearing ice shelves in the Antarctic. How long until we feel the effect of all that extra water here in Connecticut? Dylan said it best: things are breakin up out there. High water’s everywhere.
Water contains the power of life, but these days I’ve come to think that we need reminders of its ambiguity, of its terrible destructive powers in addition to its life giving powers, lest it recede into our unconscious yet again. Troubadours and bluesmen like Dylan and Patton aren’t the only ones who can help. They stand in a long line of seers and visionaries who have both celebrated and lamented the power of water throughout the years. In truth, they stand within a Scriptural tradition that we need to recall right now.
I’ve often reminded you of the ambiguity of water in biblical literature. Whenever water appears in the Bible, it is always the symbol not only of life, but of chaos. In the Bible too, water is akin to the unconscious – a potent force that it is all too easy to ignore, but that must be confronted if healing and wholeness are to occur, if life itself is to continue. In the Bible, the waters must always be confronted, not ignored, which is what the ritual of baptism means. We can think of God shaping the chaotic waters into something with form in the early verses of Genesis, one of the first acts of creation. We can think of Noah, the sole human being who is willing to confront the challenges of water in the early chapters of Genesis, thereafter saving himself and the animal species that he could. When the Hebrew slaves flee Egypt, they pass through the Red Sea, symbolizing the chaos of their captivity, while their pursuers eventually drown within that chaos. The Hebrews must walk through the waters if they are to achieve their freedom. When Jonah flees from the call of God, it is into the watery chaos that he is flung, where he undergoes a transformation in the belly of a beast. That pattern is replicated in the New Testament, when Jesus appears before his cousin John to be baptized. He’s pushed into the watery void, where he too experiences a transformation, one that begins his public ministry. Later, it’s Peter who sinks in the water as he undergoes the rigors of becoming a disciple. He sinks and splutters. Later, after the resurrection, when Peter first spots Jesus on the shore of Galilee, he leaps from a boat back into the water. It’s a rich and symbolic moment suggesting immersion into a formless and watery void as somehow necessary if one is to find new life. Again and again throughout the Bible, in addition to being a necessity for living, water is also that which humans would rather forget or ignore. But in story after story, characters within the Bible are asked to confront water as if it were a form of the unconscious, to submerge themselves in the waves and swells. Water is always the occasion of confrontation, contention, struggle, and transformation.
And so what does it all mean? To start, it means that faith isn’t just about being led beside still waters, as Psalm 23 has it. It has to do with getting wet. But more than that, I confess that it’s the images of Peter being immersed in water have come to have another connotation for me this week. As the images of Harvey’s destruction were broadcast, I began to wonder if Peter might be just the figure we need right now. I began to wonder if Peter was the person within our tradition who reminds us of the need to keep water at the forefront of our consciousness, leaping into the water, if you will, rather than remaining safely on shore, where the water can remain far from our conscious thoughts. I began to wonder if people of faith in the 21st century ought to be those who, like Peter, become immersed in water, in the challenges of water, in finding ways to live with and in water, rather than suppressing, forgetting, or ignoring the challenges of water. Like Peter, I wonder if we in the 21st century are called not to ignore the chaos of water, but to throw ourselves into it, metaphorically speaking, lest more and more people be cast into it in a far more literal way. How many people will need to lose their homes and their lives before we confront the challenges posed by water? How many of the poor and vulnerable will lose everything before we realize that this isn’t a problem for those poor folks down South, or on some Pacific Island, but is rather a global issue affecting all of humanity? What I began to wonder was whether this is what it means to remember our baptisms here in the 21st century.
Sitting on one of my shelves is a book of old photographs of river baptisms in the early 20th century, many of them taken at the very time Charley Patton was singing “High Water Everywhere,” at the very time that many people were still contending with the displacement caused by the Mississippi flood. Vast throngs of congregants crowd the banks of various riverways, many standing on bridges or even rafts in order to get a better view of the baptism ritual. In the center of each grainy photo stands a preacher, and with him a solitary individual, waiting to be immersed into the chaos. The paradox of their watery immersion can’t be lost on those individuals, for even as the waters embrace them in this moment of baptism as a source of life, those same waters had the power to sweep them away when the rains came. And yet down they go, into the void, in photograph after photograph. What were all those people gathered at those old American rivers doing when they descended into the watery void?
In part at least, I think all those gathered around those waters were visiting the source of life and the source of sorrow, all at once. I think they were confronting the terrible ambiguities of water, which somehow mirror the terrible ambiguities of the human heart. I think they were doing so with a tenacity and courage that we might do well to revisit just about now. I believe that all those river folk were somehow coming to terms with water, accruing a kind of wisdom that I suspect many of us have lost. And so in honor of all those old time immersion baptisms, in honor of Peter and the baptism he undergoes in the Sea of Galilee, in honor of Jesus in the River Jordan and Jonah in the Mediterranean, I would have us all remember our baptisms. I would have us remember the blessings and threats of water, rather than letting the waters recede back into our unconscious lives.
But I would have us remember our baptisms in honor of those who are suffering the effects of Hurricane Harvey as we speak. I would have us remember our baptisms in honor of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, the effects of Hurricane Katrina, or Sandy, or Matthew. I would have us remember our baptisms as a way of merging our faith tradition with a public consciousness about water that we desperately need right now. I appreciated reading a proposal this week about the need for a Green New Deal, which would create funding and jobs around levees, dams, locks, canals, pumps and drainage systems, as well as other mechanisms for living with water. Meanwhile, draft plans are being submitted for the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico, a complacently stupid project that will solve nothing and help no one. A Green New Deal is a project that would actually help millions of people. It would be a public way of remembering the lessons of baptism.
But we need to do it too. We also need to remember our baptisms, our encounters with the waters. I don’t have a solution to climate change or encroaching water any more than anyone else. But I do think we have an obligation to remember our baptisms as more than just a private, arcane symbol. In this instance, in this moment, I believe it has to do with keeping issues surrounding water from receding back into the collective unconscious. Maybe that means creating a work team to help restore homes in flood damaged areas sometime this fall. Maybe that means that while we’re in a holding pattern, waiting for another refugee family to arrive, we inquire whether evacuees from East Texas and Louisiana need it during the clean up process – that was a need after Katrina, and it may emerge as a need now as well. We’ll see. And we need to keep learning about the ways rising tides and massive storms will affect the Northeast – including Old Lyme. Is that what it means to remember our baptisms here in the 21st century?
On the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, they’re fond of saying that winter is coming. I think they’ve got it all wrong. I’d prefer to say: Water is coming. As Charley Patton reminded us 90 years ago, as Bob Dylan reminded us 16 years ago, as Katrina reminded us 12 years ago, and as Harvey reminded us just a few days ago… it’s high water everywhere.
This is a call to us all to remember our baptisms.
The day is May 24, 1942. The morning finds a young German literature professor, named Daniel Decourdemanche in a German prison, composing a letter to his parents shortly before his execution. He was, to put it mildly, unsympathetic to his country’s xenophobic ambitions, and so in return, his country became unsympathetic toward him. His letter is remarkable for its steadiness and resolve. He admits that religion has not been the place he has turned for comfort. He declares his love for his parents, and urges them to care for a woman he loves. But then his letter takes a turn toward something both surprising and not: food. He asks that a menu from a restaurant near Versailles be sent to his lover’s parents. But then Decourdemanche continues:
“All these last days I have thought a lot about the good meals that we should have together when I was free. You will eat them without me, all the family together – but not sadly, please! During these last two months of solitude without even anything to read I have run over in my mind all my travels, all my experiences, all the meals that I have eaten. I had an excellent meal with Sylvain on the 17th. I have often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Year’s supper with Pierre and Renee. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.”
What does it mean that hours before he dies, Daniel Decourdemanche is rehearsing the meals he has tasted? What does it mean that shortly before facing the end, he wishes to send a menu to a friend’s parents? What does it mean that in his final moments, Decour (as he was known), took comfort in the imagination of the meals his family would share after he was gone?
Let’s broaden the questions. Let’s frame it this way. What’s the relationship between food and troubled times, between pleasure and struggle, between taste and crisis? I confess that at times, I’m tempted to believe that those categories are wholly at odds with one another. I’m tempted to believe that when confronted with questions of moral or spiritual urgency, it’s frivolous to concern oneself with something like food. I confess that even this week, as I imagined speaking about this topic today, I wondered if I was being irresponsible as a preacher and minister, given all the other urgent concerns around us at the moment. Here’s my self talk this week: “White supremacists are marching and organizing and garbing themselves not in sheets, but in designer clothes and with economic and social theory. They’re out there staking a claim in universities with endowed chairs and they’re gaining voices of prominence in local and national office across the land. They’re arguing that preachers shouldn’t object to any of it in church, because it’s, you know, too political, and you, Steve, want to use the time granted to you as a follower of Jesus to talk about….what, swapping recipes from Rachel Ray? Casseroles? Cupcake wars? Burgers and dogs on the 4th?”
To which, another part of me can only respond: “You’re damn right.” You could, of course, raise the same objections about poetry, or fiction, or the visual arts, or music, or dance, or virtually any of the arts as secondary or tertiary to human consideration in a time of trouble. You could do that, as many have and as many do, but it’s not long before all of life takes on a gray and depressed hue, while spirits everywhere become as flattened and two dimensional as a cardboard cutout. God forbid. Decour knows something that we need to learn, or recall, a truth everywhere echoed throughout our faith tradition. Food is precisely what we need in a moment of uncertainty. To risk pleasure, even if for an instant, is precisely what we need in times of upheaval. As one writer puts it, the table, and the conversations that take place around it, is the raft on which we sail through the strains, stresses and storms of life. It’s over food that we so often work things out. It’s over food that we so often celebrate life passages. It’s food, as often as not, that marks the still points within our day. It’s food that provides strength and encouragement in the midst of danger.
There’s a telling and important scene in the recent film Selma, when MLK and other leaders of the civil rights movement are gearing up for the conflict ahead. Before they take to the streets, they gather at a home for one of those Southern breakfasts that makes me want to hop in my car and drive 15 or 20 hours to experience it – coffee and biscuits and gravy and eggs and bacon, all done up just so. They know they’re about to take a beating, but there’s laughter and delight around the table. It’s as if the biscuits themselves are great doughy lumps of courage and wisdom. It’s as if they’re saying, “You’re about to pass through an ordeal of epic proportions, but take heart in the pleasure you find here, now, and remember that other such moments await you, in the midst of your struggle, after your struggle. Take your lumps for the sake of justice, those biscuits say, but take your lumps of pleasure as well, because that too, that too, is a reminder of what it is to be human.
Decours knew that and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement knew that. But the Bible knows it too. It’s inscribed right at the center of our faith tradition. Think of the meal that Jesus takes great pains to prepare, and then to share, with his friends just before he faces his own execution. Why does he do that? What’s food doing in that scene? Think of the meal he prepares on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection – why does Jesus become a chef in that of all moments? What’s the role of food in that moment? Think of the meal that the father of the prodigal prepares when his lost son returns after what must seem an enormous betrayal – the father, it turns out, is just as prodigal as his son. And think of that all important phrase from Psalm 23, the phrase that I’ve chosen for my title this morning: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
In that most beloved and well known passage in all of the Bible, those two realities – food and crisis, eating and conflict, are explicitly joined. The image moves in two directions. By placing food and struggle together, it suggests, perhaps, that difficulties with others might be overcome not through preparation for battle, but through the preparation of a table. Sharp edges are softened when bread is available. That’s one direction, but here’s another. I’ve come to believe that the enemies in question might also be understood as the internal voices that sometimes war within us, the voices that erode our sense of confidence and well-being. I’ve known them, and maybe you have too – the ones that say: “I’m not worth all that much. I don’t have anything of value to contribute or offer. I don’t make much of a difference. I don’t matter. I’m a mess, and I make other people’s lives messy too.” Those are voices that can and do speak within each of us from time to time. And of course, they can be magnified by real voices that do speak around us, voices that really do devalue human life and dignity based on the color of one’s skin, or one’s age, or one’s body shape, or one’s national origin, or one’s economic status. For some of us those voices are noisy and insistent. For others of us, they’re mostly kept in check. But those internal voices can become enemies that wither our spirits, shrinking our souls. I like to think that the Psalm is a kind of intercession within that self talk, a way of saying, “You’re worth it. Even as all those voices can and do assail you, here’s a meal, here’s food, to remind you just how valuable you are. Here’s a loaf of bread to remind you just how beautiful you are. Take and eat. Because good Lord, you’re worth it. Might those enemies, those voices, be put to rest, at least for a time, by the care of a well prepared meal?
A final thought, a final parable. One of my habits of late is to keep a list of the America’s Classic Award Winners handy, restaurants honored year by year by the James Beard Foundation for their longevity, ambience, and cuisine. These aren’t fancy places. Sometimes they’re dives, but they’re uniformly good. Every time our family rolls through a new town, we check the list to see if anything is listed, and then, if fate and time allow, we chase down the lead like hounds trailing a rabbit. There was the old Polish place in Cleveland, and the Mexican joint in Albuquerque. There was the all in one car wash and breakfast stand in El Paso, and the sno-ball stand in New Orleans, the hot dog counter in Providence, the hot chicken shack in Nashville. Over the years we’ve collected those experiences the way some people collect stamps or coins. This year, as we rolled past Birmingham, we caught wind of an old Greek restaurant on the list called The Bright Star. It was in a suburb outside of the city that had seen better days, a place where Greek and Italian immigrants had once resided alongside African Americans, exiles and outcasts all. We had already driven about 6 hours that day, everyone was tired, and we were all, to be frank, a little bitchy with one another. The kids didn’t want to be there, and we were on the verge of one of those meltdowns that you see sometimes in Target or Walmart, the kind that make you wince and sympathize at the same time. Inside, the place showed its age, and it smelled a little funny, which didn’t help the situation. We were right on the edge of becoming our own enemies.
But then a server with an upbeat and gracious demeanor appeared. We made some decisions, and shortly after that two warm and buttery loaves of bread arrived, and we passed it around and took a bite, and each and every one of us, from 5 to 43, went, “Whoa!” And then a couple of deceptively simple but delicious salads arrived, with anchovies on top and feta cheese and an oil based dressing that made both Rachael and I go, “Whoa!” And then plates of food arrived that weren’t frilly or fussy but were just straight up perfect – plates of pasta for the kids, a perfectly cooked steak, and more of the bread to soak up all the drippings. When that was done, pie was served, which was so lush and rich that the next day I added a couple miles to my morning run as recompense. But here’s the little miracle of it all. We had entered the restaurant on the brink of a fight. By the time we left, we were giggling and a little giddy and glad to be together and grateful for what seemed like a gift, like grace. The gift was a delicious meal, but really, the gift was the pleasure we suddenly discovered in one another. If, perish the thought, I were ever forced to write a letter such as the one Daniel Decourdemanche wrote, that’s the meal that I would reference, and that’s the menu that I would send.
Sometimes it’s the table, and the ordinary pleasures it provides, that calms a weary soul, that comforts a person in distress, that bestows courage in a time of struggle, that draws a fractious and tired family together. Sometimes it’s bread that softens the sharp edges around us. Sometimes it’s a meal that can orient us toward things that matter. Sometimes it’s good to quit talking for a little while, and to just eat and drink with one another. Take and eat.
 Gopnik, Adam, The Table Comes First (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), pgs. 3-4.
“Take up your mat and walk.” Those are the words that Jesus says to a paralyzed man that he encounters in the Gospel of John. Recall the scene. There’s a pool of water, with healing properties. There are hordes of people desperate to bathe in that healing water, where an angel is said to dip his finger. There’s a man who longs to immerse himself in those waters, to feel himself restored, but he’s stuck. His body rebels against him, and we can imagine that after a while, perhaps his spirit turns upon him as well, sinking into a form of spiritual paralysis. And there’s Jesus, intervening in what, to my eyes, looks like a desperate moment. “Take up your mat, and walk,” he says to the man. “Be free. Put a lilt in your step. Skip, run, lope, teeter, limp, strut, do it however you must, but take up your mat. And walk.”
It’s a word, and a parable, that I’ve returned to again and again this past week. It’s a word that’s reached me in my depths as day by day I’ve struggled to fathom what’s going on in our country and in the world. And it’s a word, and a parable, that I believe can provide hope, and healing, and courage for each of us here in this community. “Take up your mat, and walk,” Jesus says. But more about that in just a little bit.
What I’d like to do first is to recap a few of the important things that have taken place while I’ve been away, paying attention to a few of the restorative waters that I’ve encountered on the way. Some of this I shared by email, but if you’re anything like me, emails arrive in your inbox in such cascading waves that it can be hard to keep track of it all. Others of you may not be on our email list yet, and so I want to use this as an opportunity to bring all of you up to speed on some of the events that have taken place this summer.
The first segment of summer was the journey to Green Grass, which I was grateful to share with a number of you. Later in September, we’ll have a service organized around that theme, but as ever, it felt powerfully significant simply to be with our Lakota friends, and to hear what’s happened in their community over the past year. Of course, the subject of nearly every conversation, sooner or later, was the Standing Rock Encampment. And I think it’s hard to overstate how significant that experience was for everyone out there. While there was a wistfulness about losing the camp, and about losing in the struggle over water and land rights, there was still a palpable energy about the empowerment and the friendship and the solidarity between tribes that hadn’t been on speaking terms, and between other allies. For many, it seemed to be a powerful reminder of how vital our spiritual traditions are when we confront various threats. For others, I think it was a reminder that their culture hasn’t simply been forgotten, and that they’re not alone in their struggle. The worship service that we conducted at Green Grass was organized around the theme of water and water protectors, and it made me proud to know that even here in Old Lyme, we had played a small part to support the efforts of our Lakota friends. It’s a partnership that this congregation has nurtured for 32 years now, and I know that it might be easy to take those relationships for granted at this point. But I hope you know how special, and how rare, that sort of friendship is. If you can, if you’re able, I hope that everyone in our congregation can somehow make an effort to be a part of that incredible partnership. To be invited to a Sun Dance, to participate in a sweat lodge, and to hear songs and rhythms that might be ten years old or a thousand, is truly to be a part of something capable of shaking one out of a moral or spiritual paralysis. It’s a way of bathing in restorative waters. And so let me remind you what a gift our friends offer us in their generosity and welcome every year.
Let me also say this. Next weekend there’s an opportunity for any who wish to attend a Pow Wow being held up at the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, about 35 minutes from Old Lyme. Tribal Crafts will be there representing our community, and it’s a chance to witness the incredible aesthetic and ritual traditions of a variety of tribes who converge on that space. Our family went last year and I thought it was an amazing thing to be a part of. After the week we’ve just had, I believe it’s another opportunity to bathe in restorative and healing waters.
Immediately after our group disbanded in Green Grass, I hopped a flight to Baltimore, where the UCC General Synod was taking place. You may remember that our congregation was the lead sponsor of a resolution concerning the treatment of children in the occupied territories of Palestine, a topic that became especially poignant to me after journeying to Palestine and Israel with one of my own children. At first, I confess that I felt a little whiplash, trading the open sky of the Reservation for the cavernous space of the Baltimore Convention Center, and trading the intimacy of our Green Grass group for a conference of several thousand members of the UCC. But a strange, and kind of wonderful thing happened along the way. As I prepared for, and then presented the resolution in committee, it felt clear that our community’s relationships at Green Grass, and our work in Palestine, fit together seamlessly. While I spent most of my time attending workshops and sessions related to our resolution, and strategizing with others who worked on the resolution to insure its passage, I took stock of the other workshops and sessions being held. There was one on Standing Rock and on environmental activism. There were several on the importance of Black Lives Matter, and on racial justice. There were some concerning immigration, and refugees. There were workshops on economic inequality, and on becoming a more welcoming church to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks. It indicated to me that our community here in Old Lyme is exactly where we need to be. We have work to do in all of those areas, but it was gratifying to know that, far from being way out there in the blue yonder, as I hear around here from time to time, we’re right in the thick of it with so many other communities around the country and indeed, around the world. We can and should be proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ.
As for the resolution, it passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 80% voting for it, with 13% against it, and with about 7% abstaining. Immediately after the UCC voted, the Mennonites had their national gathering, and they too voted on a similar resolution concerning the treatment of children in Palestine. Right after that, the Disciples of Christ, a sister denomination to the UCC, did the same. And so let me say how proud I was to present that resolution in the name of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. Let me say how proud I was that all of you have participated in and supported our efforts to raise awareness about the injustices taking place in Palestine and Israel. Our resolution was one small operation in a wider theater of struggle on this issue. Taken on its own, it doesn’t amount to much. But joined to so many other efforts, among so many other people of faith and conscience, it takes on a much wider significance. I’ll say in addition that being a part of the group of friends and allies working to pass the resolution was another way of bathing in restorative waters.
Here’s a mixed metaphor if ever there was one: restorative waters or not, by the time Synod ended, on July 4th, I was feeling as cooked as the burgers I hoped to enjoy later in the day. The previous weeks had been good, but also intense, and so our family took some time just to gather ourselves for a bit. We spent a little time with Rachael’s family, a little time with mine, and then we retreated to New Orleans. And for a few blessed weeks we had the opportunity to exist without juggling competing schedules or demands. It felt like grace. We found donuts and po-boys, sno-balls and beignets, and salads when our arteries screamed “Enough!” Rachael and I found tiki drinks (not to be confused with those now infamous torches found at Costco). We found pools around the city, and the zoo, and a little amusement park. We found museums and we walked through parks and neighborhoods at dusk. We found music. We found sites important to the history of jazz, r&b, and funk music. We found Louis Armstrong. And here and there, I think, we found each other. Not that every moment was easy. Not that we didn’t have moments of frustration. There was rain, there was heat, there were the two floods, but no matter. It was good to be with one another, even when our jagged humanity sometimes broke through.
So OK, probably my favorite memory of the entire summer took place in New Orleans. It was inspired by that movie Sing, which came out last Christmas. It’s a kid’s movie about a bunch of animals auditioning for a talent show, and they sing Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and classic rock songs. And there’s this clip in the commercial, which we heard a dozen times in our car, where a huge purple bull is trying to look suave while performing a hip hop song that goes: “Come my lady, come, come my lady, you’re my butterfly, sugar, baby” – just those lines. Watch it sometime. It’s pretty hilarious. But then what was awesome was that every now and again we would catch five year old Augie in an unselfconscious moment, walking down some street in New Orleans with his light up sneakers and his Paw Patrol hat, going, “Come my lady, come come my lady, you’re my butterfly, sugar, baby.” For me, there’s such a grace that comes from witnessing that. It’s the grace of seeing a child that unguarded. It’s the grace of having the time and attention as a parent to actually see and relish such a moment. It was another way of entering those restorative waters, stirred by the hand of something divine.
Which brings me back to Old Lyme, back to our community, back to that parable that I began with. The last thing I saw in New Orleans as we gassed up the car before hitting the road was the empty pedestal where the statue of Robert E. Lee had long stood. Removing it felt like a significant step toward addressing our country’s terrible racial history, and I felt glad to see it gone. Little did I know as we drove away that just a few days later the streets would erupt in Charlottesville around a similar statue. I don’t know what this past week has been like for each of you. But if the conversations I’ve had with some of you are representative, there’s a mixture of alarm and disbelief, even after all the warning signs for the past year, that such naked forms of hatred and racism could be emerging. There’s a gnawing anxiety about what it all portends for our country. There’s pain that our highest elected official seems incapable of moral leadership. And there’s the very real awareness that stoking that sort of racist and xenophobic hatred has sent other parts of the world spiraling into decades of violence. It’s all chilling to contemplate. There are moments when that stunned disbelief can yield to a kind of paralysis, where we wind up lying on our mats, staring at the world, knowing that there exists a wider, larger, and deeper restorative pool than any I have so far envisioned or mentioned, where our infirmities and prejudices and divisions are healed, while also feeling a sense of frustration that while the angel may somewhere be stirring those waters, we just can’t get there. I don’t know about you, but there are moments I’m tempted by such thoughts.
Thankfully, the voice of Jesus intercedes. “Take up your mat, and walk! Don’t succumb to paralysis or despair. Don’t succumb to cynicism or fear. Take up your mat and walk. I think I heard Jesus speaking those words all around me this week. I heard Jesus’s voice when I thought about Heather Heyer and all the other ordinary folks who left their homes last week to stand against hatred, knowing they were at risk. I heard Jesus’s voice when I read an account of Charlottesville from a fellow UCC minister who described storefronts that stayed open even after violence erupted, to provide water and shelter to those who needed it, who described anti-fascists who surrounded clergy members to protect them from violence, who described selfless acts of generosity after that speeding car unleashed chaos upon the scene. I heard the voice of Jesus when that same minister reminded people of faith and conscience to take heart, because we’ve been preparing for this all our lives. I heard the voice of Jesus as CEOs and business leaders and governors and mayors and artists and ordinary folks everywhere found their moral voices. I heard the voice of Jesus in each of those moments, saying, “take up your mat, and walk.” There’s immense work that needs to be done – in our world, in our towns, in our own hearts. There’s immense blindness and paralysis around us and within us, but in one form or another, I believe Jesus intercedes, saying to each and every one of us, “Take up your mat, and walk.” I promise that we’ll walk together, in search of that deep and restorative pool, where an angel dips his finger, where we’re given eyes to see what we hadn’t seen before, where we’re given the strength to move in ways we hadn’t before, and where our collective moral infirmities might be healed. The voice of Jesus comes to us all, urging us to walk.
But let me end with something smaller, something simpler. Since returning, I’ve spent time visiting with a good many of you. And I know that among us, there are concerns that are far more immediate than what’s happening in the news. Some among us are dealing with the aftermath of surgeries, or wrestling with illnesses. Some among us are feeling the loss of someone precious, or feeling displacement after a move, coping with depression, or feeling overwhelmed by the burdens of aging. Those concerns can take a profound toll on anybody’s ability to stay sane or positive throughout the day. They can leave us not only physically and emotionally drained, but spiritually exhausted as well. It can leave us in a kind of torpor, lacking the will to move. If you happen to reside upon such a mat right now, I believe that Jesus’s words are meant for you too. It’s not an exhortation to do what you can no longer do. It’s not an admonishment to change. It’s the promise that there do exist moments, and people, and communities, and places, that work like restorative waters upon us. It’s a reminder that there is yet something beyond the mat upon which we sit, moments of grace in which the divine dips its finger, offering wholeness. It’s a reminder of the great love that surrounds us and holds us together, even if, as Paul puts it, we only see and feel it dimly. Jesus’s words, take up your mat, and walk, are a reminder that we can yet move toward that which restores and heals us. What’s the restorative pool for you? Where and when and with whom does it exist?
The word I have for us all, challenged as we are in so many ways, is to pick up our mats, and to walk, confident of the restorative waters that truly are before us and around us and within us. Take up your mat. And walk.
Isaiah 11: 1-3, 6-9
Romans 12: 9-13
Matthew 19: 13-15
REFLECTIONS ON A STILL LIFE
(ON FINDING THE L KEY, A LUNCH BUCKET, THE MYTH OF SYSYPHUS, A TEQUILA COMMUNION, PADDINGTON BEAR AND RUSTIC STEPS)
Today’s sermon probably could fall under the “Self-Help” category. Which is rather ironic as I confess I’ve always been rather contemptuous of that genre.
I’ve always found it to be overly narcissistic and self-referential, thinking that there are bigger and more important issues that need to be addressed. Plus, the titles of such books are frequently too precious and corny, and if you read the books they rarely deliver on what they promise.
In fairness, some self-help books actually do have some integrity and merit, and if truth be known, they’ve been a part of our progressive theology for long, long time.
Horace Bushnell, for example for whom Bushnell Hall and Bushnell Park are named was a congregational minister up in Hartford who is sometimes referred to as the father of Christian Education. He would argue that nurture is at least as important as nature.
In the Gospel of John, it says, “we have the power to become children of God.” In other words, being a child of God is something we can work on; we’re all a “work in progress” as we say.
Likewise, John Wesley spoke of “going on to perfection”, not in the sense that any of us ever can be perfected, but given the right kind of nurture, by others and by ourselves, we can, little by little, become more like the children of God we were created to be. Wesley created a system or a method by which incrementally we could make progress toward that goal of Self-fulfillment or Soul-Realization. Thus was coined the name of that denomination, “Methodism.”
These ideas are deeply rooted in the Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophy.
One of my favorites in that tradition was an Italian philosopher by the name of Pico Della Mirandola. In his essay, “On the Dignity of Man”, he says,
Thou art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou Canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes. Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the Higher natures which are divine…
Let then a certain holy ambition invade the mind, so that we may not be content with mean things but may aspire to the highest things and strive with all our forces to attain them: For if we will to, we can…
Let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory.
I don’t know about you, but I would hate to lose that Renaissance philosophy. Given all the very noticeable failures or even the depravity of the human spirit, and God knows, we don’t have to look too far to see such evidence that would leave us totally despaired, paralyzed by hopelessness, but as for me, I’m tired of the cynicism of this age. I think we need any and all reminders of the capacities of the human spirit. We need reminders that yes, we were “fearfully made, but also wonderfully made”, that there are dimensions of the human spirit widely, even universally unexplored, that each one of does indeed have the power to become “children of God.” Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t a “method” by which we can make incremental changes, but I do believe in that philosophy. I believe that we are each one of us God’s greatest gift to the world, and if we want the world to become a better place, a good place to start is with ourselves.
The great psychologist, Robert Jay Lifton said in one of his books, “We live by images…”
I can’t claim to understand exactly what he meant by this, but for me, it’s a reminder that some of us, if not all of us, need images or pictures to remind us of our true identities. In their use of icons, I suspect that our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends know, perhaps instinctively, what this means. For me, these icons or images don’t have to be of the usual or traditional variety but anything that reminds us of where we are, who we are and what we want to become.
For each of us those images will be different, and so in this rather unusual collage or “Still Life” that I have assembled on the communion table, I offer these “Reflections on a Still Life” only in the hope that you might put together your own “Still Life.” What are the images or pictures that remind you of your own true humanity and the work and prayers that need to be done to reach that goal?
“Let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory.”
So, here we go. On finding the L Key. On the communion table and on the front cover of your bulletin, you’ll see a photograph of an Olivetti typewriter, and if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s missing the “D” key. The typewriter in this photograph is similar to one that Corinne brought over from Aberdeen, Scotland when we were married, and it was on this typewriter that I wrote most of my early sermons here in Old Lyme.
Where the “D” key was supposed to be, there was a sharp metal spike, and so I found to my bemusement, that almost unconsciously, I would avoid using that key, which meant that words like “devil” and “demonic” and “damnation” were avoided, which was fine with me as they weren’t really a part of my theology anyway, and if and when I did need to use the “D” key, sometimes, the sharp spike would draw blood. Suggestive, perhaps, of how all sermons should be written in blood!
Anyway, we long ago donated that typewriter to the White Elephant Sale. (I’m still awaiting my $2000 tax deduction!) I had long since forgotten about the challenges of that portable typewriter until this last winter when it was discovered that I have what is called Polyneuropathy which adversely affected the ulnar nerve. The outward manifestation of this was that I woke up one morning to find that the outside fingers on my right hand no longer “cooperated,” shall we say.
One of my first concerns was what impact this would have on my ability to type. (It also meant I would have to give up my hopes of becoming the next 3rd baseman for the New York Yankees.)
Now, I don’t know how many millions of times I’ve used a typewriter, but I would be hard pressed to tell you where each of the keys is, but somehow, our fingers know where they are. Of course, it’s not really the fingers, but another dimension of the mind. It’s like Stephen Curry and Lebron James and their jump shots. If you asked them the mechanics of what they do and if self-consciously they tried to show you how it works, chances are they’d miss their shots. But it’s truly a thing of beauty to watch them when they’re “in the zone”, no longer thinking about the mechanics but sinking one basket after another.
It’s sometime called “muscle memory” and I’d like to suggest that it’s at least suggestive for the Christian education of our children. I want our children to “practice the presence of God” as Brother Lawrence would say, I want them to practice acts of love and kindness such that it becomes for them like Muscle Memory for the Soul, such that regardless of what challenges they may face in life, I want them always to be able to find their way to that all important “L” key.
If you look at the keyboard, you’ll see that the “L” Key is on the far right and would ordinarily be reached by the ring finger on your right hand.
Now, missing the “D” key is one thing, but not having use of the “L key” is catastrophic for us all. Any preacher knows that one should hit that “L key” as often as possible, for of all the many words, too many words we preachers use, nothing is more important than that little word “love” – love for God, love for ourselves, love for our fellow human beings, indeed love for all Creation underscores how important that L key is.
Back in the first century, Rabbi Hillel said anything and everything that needs to be said about God and Humanity could be said and said very simply, standing on one leg – “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” That’s it. All the other creeds and laws and by-laws and theologies and systematic theologies might be helpful commentaries and footnotes, but everything that is essential can be said while standing on one leg.
Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The first time I tried to type after my surgery, I discovered something rather interesting. When I tried to use the “L” key, I looked down and saw that it wasn’t the usual finger that was doing the work, but rather, unwittingly, unconsciously or subconsciously, it was my middle finger reaching over to hit the key, as if to say, “don’t worry little buddy, I’ve got your back.”
This tells me that there are capacities to the human spirit, reservoirs of resilience and tenacity that would be good for all of us to tap. When knocked down or knocked back or knocked out by life’s vicissitudes, there’s always another way to that “L key.”
Of course, I didn’t need my fingers or a typewriter to figure this out. This is something I learned from many of you. Over the years, I have been astounded by how so many of you have found your way, quite miraculously, to the L key. Despite overwhelming personal tragedy and grief, despite the loss of your children, some debilitating illness or rejection, I have seen how time and time again, those who have suffered so much, metaphorically speaking, have “found their way to the L Key.
And in doing so, please never forget. In the love and kindness and courage you exemplify, you are the curriculum of this church. When children see your Love in all of its wonderful manifestations, that then becomes a part of their own “muscle memory” for the soul.
The next item in my Still Life is actually 3 items – a lunch bucket, a copy of Albert Camus’ book, The Myth of Sisyphus and a bottle of Tequila. I wager this may be the first time that a bottle of Tequila has been on this table.
It may be trite; it may be a truism, but it’s a truth we too often forget – that our failures can sometimes be our best teachers.
Now, when we preachers start confessing our sins, some understandably, given my profession’s propensity for such sins, automatically expect to hear a juicy Jimmy Swaggert kind of confession.
My failure was not about a wild night that started with a bottle of Tequila. Actually, my sin was far more egregious than that. If Paul Tillich is right that Sin is not any particular thing we do but more a state of being in which we’re separated from someone else, separated or alienated from God or separated from our true identities, then I am guilty of sin, to be sure.
Back when I was in college, I worked as a laborer for a construction crew in Indianapolis. My labor foreman or ramrod, as he was also called, was a Mexican American by the name of Prezzy. Perhaps because of Prezzy there were a number of other Mexican Americans as well. Whether they were legal or illegal immigrants, that was not even a question that was asked in those days.
For whatever reason, Prezzy took a liking to me, and during our half hour lunch breaks, he would take my lunch bucket and throw out my bologna sandwiches and share some of his tacos with me instead.
I would sit with Prezzy and the other Mexican Americans in an old beat up car with an 8 track playing Mariachi music full blast, and yes, every now and then, someone would pass around a bottle of tequila. It was only a half hour lunch, and it wasn’t as if anyone was trying to get drunk; no, it was more like…. More like a Tequila communion.
Well, after several weeks of this, I started bringing a book with me to work, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. And so while the rest of the crew was in Prezzy’s car eating their lunch, I sat on a pile of 2 X 4’s and read what I could of Camus’ book during those 30 minutes.
This lasted only 3 days. On the 4th day, I went to look for my lunch bucket and it wasn’t there. Only later and indirectly did I learn that my lunch bucket had been buried in a pile of freshly poured concrete.
In retrospect I smile when I think of my lunch bucket, bologna sandwich, Hostess Twinkie and The Myth of Sisyphus all entombed in concrete at a power station in Indianapolis.
But over the years, this incident has been an invaluable teacher for me. I could analyze myself ad nauseum. Maybe it was the Sunday School in which I was brought up in which I promised never to have alcohol touch my lips, a promise I had broken even long before this incident. Or maybe it was just an “innocent thing” on my part. I am to philosophy and theology as a pirate is to a treasure map. I figure that one more book, and I’ll have it all figured out. Such is my arrogance. So, maybe forget everything else, I simply loved reading that book. Then again, heaven forbid, maybe what I did was rooted in some latent or blatant form of racism…. A College kid listening to Mariachi music and sipping Tequila! I don’t think that’s what it was, but it really doesn’t matter, because that’s how it seemed to Prezzy and my Mexican American friends.
When this finally dawned on me, I couldn’t believe how stupid, and not only stupid, but also how cruel I had been.
Nothing was ever said between us, but another thing I learned in Sunday School is that there is this blessed thing called the Ministry of Reconciliation, redemption and forgiveness. So, shortly after figuring out what had happened and the Sin I committed, I invited Prezzy and all my other laborer friends over to our family’s home where I asked Prezzy to teach me how to make tacos, a recipe that we still use even to this day. And yes, as we sat around the table enjoying Prezzy’s tacos, we also passed around a bottle of Tequila… Call it a Tequila communion.
Now, we come to Paddington Bear.
Michael Bond, the author and creator of Paddington Bear, died on June 27th at the age of 91.
The first book about Paddington Bear was published in 1956, and it tells the story of a stowaway bear from Peru who arrived at Paddington Station in London. Given the number of children who became refugees after World War II, this illegal immigrant bear became identified with all those from a foreign place in need of kindness and hospitality. On every Paddington Bear, there’s a little tag that reads, “Please Look After This Bear.”
So, I’d like to offer this bear as a gift to the Sunday School children of our church in honor of all the Paddington Bears, all the refugees who have enjoyed such wonderful kindness from you and your families. Laos, Burma, Burundi, Rwanda and now most recently, Syria. “We live by images”, Robert Jay Lifton said, and I hope this bear will be a visible reminder of St. Paul’s uncompromising admonition, “Practice Hospitality.”
But also, and this is most important, Paddington Bear represents not only refugees and stowaways but also the rest of us as well, for in a deeper sense, we are all in need of someone else’s love. In reading the obituary of Michael Bond I read with interest how late on a Christmas Eve in a department store in London, he was looking for a last minute gift, a stocking stuffer for his wife. He looked up and saw a toy bear sitting all by itself on a shelf, looking rather forlorn and unwanted. So, I love how Michael Bond reached up and bought that bear, and it was out of this that he created the story of Paddington Bear.
Further, I hope this Paddington Bear will be for our children but maybe for the rest of us as well, a reminder of a spiritual truth, and that is that we are all refugees, citizens of a Far Country, citizens of a Fair Country, far distant from all the unfairness of these earthly shores. We are all as the philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “unheimlich” or not at home in this world. Or as the poet Wordsworth said and as Plato said before him,
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our Life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness..
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
We’re all stowaways from that sacred place. That’s our origin, and if all of us Paddington Bears would only be true to ourselves, that could be our destiny as well.
Our true home can never be with those who trumpet stars and stripes forever in ever increasing decibels. Rather our home is with another stowaway, one is also far too often left alone up on a shelf, one who quietly bears the stripes of his own persecution and crucifixion, one who refused to compromise on the principles of his citizenship in that Far Country, one who even on the cross, somehow, miraculously, found his way to the L key, saying, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
We may not know it; we may not realize it, but we are also refugees of that Far Country, dropped off at birth at Paddington Station. May Paddington Bear remind us of this Truth.
Finally, the rustic steps.
When I retired, I knew this church was in good hands when Steve elected to lead one of our Tree of Life journeys to Israel and Palestine, and not only that, he decided to bring his 9 year old daughter, Sabina, with him.
When they got home, I deeply appreciate how Steve found some rustic steps to make it possible for Sabina to bear witness to what she had heard and seen. You could see it in her eyes, a passion to share with others the injustices she had seen, the friendships she established with those from a different culture 5000 miles away and the responsibility we all have to work for justice and for peace.
As she stood in this pulpit, standing on those rickety steps, I was reminded of the image of a child in the scripture lesson from Isaiah that Lowell read this morning:
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain..
And a little child shall lead them.
“We live by images…”
As she spoke I also thought of our scripture lesson, those familiar words where Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me…”
For me, this is not only about allowing little children to come and be cuddled on Jesus’ lap. It’s also an open invitation to let them know that they are needed in the great prophetic ministry of the church –to stand with Jesus, to take a stand for all that is good and decent and true, to speak out against hate and fear wherever it appears, to be unfailing and unflinching in their efforts to speak truth to power, to stand with Jesus in defense of those who cannot stand it any longer, those in need of hope and a better future for their children.
It was as if Jesus was saying, “Allow the children to come unto me…” for I need them now, more than ever. I need their enthusiasm, I need them to stand on whatever steps or podium they can find and give voice to their dreams of a better humanity. I need their idealism, and I need their unrelenting passion.
You know, if you’re a young family and you’re looking for a church, and you’re looking for a place that will be disconnected from the world, a place where your children can grow up isolated and dissociated from this troubled world in which we live, forget about it! This is probably the wrong church for you.
For here is a place that teaches its children to be Citizens of the World. Here is a church where children go to homeless shelters in New London or New York; here is a church where children are encouraged to go to Haiti or Palestine or Cheyenne River or South Africa, and when they get back home, they’re encouraged to stand on these rustic steps and bear witness to what they have seen.
We don’t want to infantilize our children; we want to empower them. We want them to “compete with the angels in dignity and glory.”
About the time I learned of the death of Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear, I also heard the horrific story of the immigrants who died in the sizzling, suffocating heat of a truck in Texas.
I give thanks that here is a church that teaches its children to burn with righteous indignation at such reports. Here is a place where we want them to grow up to have the heat of their indignation be commensurate with the searing heat inside that truck.
Jacob needed a ladder to be assured of angels, and Noah needed an oversized boat to believe in a more promising future, but as for me, I find hope in simple rustic steps from which a child can peer out over this pulpit and offer his or her own voice of conscience. Celestial ladders and big boats cannot compare to a child on a step stool with a message that has to be heard.
May the prophetic witness of all our children lead us – as Isaiah said. May we be led by their example to hit the “L” key just as quickly and as often as we can. Amen.
The Rev. David W. Good
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut
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