Tomorrow the town’s annual Memorial Day parade will pass by the face of our Meetinghouse. Our town’s leaders will be waving at the crowds, probably from the seat of a red convertible. There will be packs of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, sports teams of all manner, regional fire departments, and the marching bands of both the Middle School and High School. There will be refurbished military vehicles, and, in all likelihood, a fife and drum corps. All this in honor of those who have died in our nation’s wars.
It is estimated that nearly a million of our country’s men and women have died in war – not counting those who died in the Civil War. Records for the Civil War dead are unreliable. But calibrated on the population of the country at the time, the Civil War is thought to be the bloodiest and most devastating war in all our history. There were single days when as many as 26,000 men died. And it was a particularly painful and bitter war. The Mason-Dixon line often divided families, pitting brother against brother. The deep divisions that drove that war still rock our nation’s foundations to this day. Just this past week, a young black ROTC student from the University of Maryland, who was within days of graduating and heading off to serve his country, was viciously slain by a man claiming to be a proud member of an alt-right supremacy group.
When I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I stumble at the words, “One nation, under God, indivisible.” Indivisable????? “One nation, under God, divided we stand.”
The celebration of Memorial Day began in the very first few years
following the Civil War, when women of the South started the tradition of
laying flowers upon the graves of those who had died. Insuring, in the
words of Ecclsiasticus, that “Their bodies are buried in peace, and their
names live on for ever.” The tribute, and the flowers, and the mourning,
are, for me, what Memorial Day is really all about.
I come to the task of preaching on Memorial Day Sunday with a heavy heart,
for war troubles my soul. And there are times like this one – when the threat of
war hangs like a black and terrifying cloud over some distant horizon.
I confess that I have never had to watch a husband or a father or a brother go off to war. But I have had to watch a son-in-law return from 15 months of service in Baghdad during the Iraq War. I’ve had to watch him shoulder the burdens of all that he was asked to endure in a war the nation has subsequently admitted we fought without justification. The number of the wounded from that war? – that war without justification- staggering. The rate of suicide amongst its veterans? – catastrophic. The legacy of that war is very painful, indeed.
Is there such a thing as a Just War ? Maybe…. Maybe. A very good argument can be made in its support. But the older I get, the more I realize that human life – all human life- is precious and precarious and fleeting. And death, any death, falls heavy upon my soul.
Toward the end of the gospel of John, knowing he will soon die, Jesus says to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love that this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he went willingly into Jerusalem, knowing full-well the sacrifice that he would make. The mission that lay ahead of him – to confront the principalities and powers with a gospel of love – was worth laying down his life for.
For what would you lay down your life?
It is an all-together appropriate question for us to ponder on this eve of Memorial Day. And I’d like to begin our soul-searching with another question: What is it about this country we love – this America we celebrate and honor tomorrow – that is worthy of the sacrifice of nearly a million lives? Hold onto that question.
Not long ago, David Brooks, in an editorial in the New York Times, said we are a country whose very birth is steeped in the Exodus narrative. We were founded by a people who sought freedom from oppressive systems, and who journeyed forth in hopes of creating a better world. “This,” says Brooks, “is our “overarching narrative.”” Our forefathers left the Old World determined to create a social politic that was true to the Christian values they held dear. The “promised land,” the land of Canaan, Biblically speaking, was never, and never should be, about real estate. From the earliest pages of the Bible, from the earliest pages of the Torah, “the promised land” has always been about an ideal. It’s been about creating a place of brotherhood and grace and equality and compassion. It’s been about an engagement in faith and hope and honor and truth. And while I admit that the Promised Land has never been fully actualized in this America we love, this was the quest that gave meaning and purpose to the founding of this nation.
“The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a…people with a sacred mission gave their task dignity and consequence.” (David Brooks, NYT, April 2017)
The words that follow, spoken by John Winthrop, leader of the Puritans, became their guiding treatise;
“We shall be as a city set upon a hill….for this end we must be knit together in this work as one. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection… we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities….we must make other’s conditions our own….we must labour and suffer together… the eyes of all people are upon us…” (from the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Robinson)
Some historians have argued the Puritans were arrogant. Some argue that a search for prosperity in the face of England’s Industrial Revolution was a significant factor in their pursuit of a new world. And most of us would have to admit that the Puritan enterprise was NOT without its failures and shortcomings. And while all of this may hold some truth, I would simply like to propose that the Exodus narrative is one that resonates with my heart and soul and mind – flawed as it may be when fleshed out. To build a nation true to the highest ideals of Christian charity, to borrow from the words of John Winthrop, would be a mission for which I would be willing to lay down my life.
In the years since the arrival of the Puritans upon our shores, waves of immigrants have seen themselves as performing an exodus narrative of their own. They have left one place and come to our shores to build a better future. They have seen themselves as part of a great spiritual drama- not just a financial one. They have helped to build this nation. They have served in our military, some of them laying down their lives. It always stuns me on trips into Native American communities that we hear Native Americans express great pride in having served this nation in the military- these a people who have often been betrayed by governmental policies. But the great and noble founding mythology of our nation – the pursuit of ideals of brotherhood and equality and honor and truth – those are goals for which they are willing to sacrifice their very lives.
I will take for my own the optimism, the courage, the determination and the hope that the Exodus story weaves into my national imagination. I want to believe that we Americans are always working toward becoming an ever more perfect union. As the poet Langston Hughes said:
“America never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath: America will be!”
America is a goal. America is a vision of a place where compassion overcomes greed, where lust for power or wealth is overcome by strength forged in brotherhood and equality. That is the essential message of the gospel itself. The quest for that America, the America our forefathers sought to create, is the basis for the “sacred mission” which, I fervently hope, we still pursue to this day.
You might have read a speech given earlier this week by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, on the occasion of the removal of the last of the city’s several Confederate monuments. “We are hereby showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves – making straight what has long been crooked, and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and, yes, with violence.” (New York Times: May 23, 2017)
The America that will be and can be and should be is the America that Mitch Landrieu and Langston Hughes lauded: the America that nearly a million men and women have died for; may they rest in peace and may we never forget or take for granted their sacrifice.
America, as a body-politic, is in a very difficult place right now. Our divisions are deep, and there is a tragic lack of cooperation and trust on both sides of the aisle in the halls of Congress. If I were a soldier being sent off to Afghanistan, and there are soldiers now being requested for that purpose, I think I would feel a profound sense of confusion about what I am to fight for, and who I am to fight for. I would wonder what I’d find at home when my tour of duty ends. For what would you be willing to lay down your life? Probably not for disarray, and division and partisanship.
Surely what we really need right now is the dialogue by which reasonable people agree, and disagree, and compromise and forge a way forward. Whether politicians in Washington D.C. call themselves Republicans or Democrats or Independents, they owe it to the nearly one million men and women who have given their lives to this great country to sit down around a common table and listen to one another. And they owe it to those who have sacrificed life itself to stay there, at that common table, until they’ve hammered out the important decisions by which this nation continues to become an ever “more perfect union.”
“We must entertain each other in brotherly affection…we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities … we must make other’s conditions our own….. we must labor and suffer together.” Our leaders in Congress TODAY stand on the shoulders of the giants who crafted those words – who gave their lives in pursuit of a sacred mission.
There is enough capital and wealth in this country to move toward a “more perfect union,” in accordance with Winthrop’s vision. Let me confess something you might be surprised to learn: in college I almost became an economics major. When I see the wonderful sculpture of the little girl on Wall Street facing down the Bronze Bull, I smile and say to myself “I coulda been a contender.”
I’ve read Thomas Piketty, and Robert Reich and I’ve even slogged my way through the writings of a few economists who disagree with them. But not one economist that I have been able to find has convinced me that the nation lacks the resources to do the right thing. We do not lack the resources to face the threats of a changing climate. We do not lack the resources to provide a good basic education for all our citizens – or good, basic health care. We do not lack the resources to repair our failing infrastructure, and honor our national parks, while still giving aid to other nations, and supporting NATO, and concurrently maintaining an adequate military of our own. How do we access the wealth the country needs? How do we design programs that are efficient and successful? Those are really the challenges before our Congress. It’s not a question of whether or not we can do the right thing: it’s a question of whether or not we will do the right thing!
In a conversation with my son-in-law who served in Iraq, he told me one thing – one positive thing about his time there – that has really stayed with me. He said he has sincerely missed the spirit of camaraderie that he felt with the other members of his National Guard troop when they were engaged in what they thought was a mission. For a few summers when he first returned home, he volunteered to travel as a member of the Connecticut Department of Environment and Energy, to fight fires in the West. Working together, taking risks together, trusting one another in the trenches where cooperation is critical – saving lives – that brought the best of all he had experienced in military service to bear on a mission of which he felt very proud. That brotherhood of firefighters was united in a kind of noble, sacred mission.
Just this past week, we were once again witness to a tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England. Once again we grieved. Once again we wrestled with the painful questions of who and why and how. But through the din and cacophony of all the voices that spoke, what captured my attention most was the incredible, incredible display of unity and support and compassion that the people of Manchester rallied to display for one another. They brought to fruition these word: “We must make other’s conditions our own…we must labor and suffer together…” Indeed, the eyes of all people were upon them. And the unity and power of brotherly affection they demonstrated was an inspiring testimony to the optimism, the courage, the determination and the hope that I find in the Exodus narrative – the narrative that fuels my national imagination.
I want to live in the kind of country that binds people together – that makes another’s conditions my own – where people entertain their neighbors with brotherly affection – where people give of their superfluities for the sake of other’s necessities – where people labor and suffer together – so that when the eyes of the whole world are upon us we can say we are proud to be Americans.
I am going to close with a few lines from an inaugural address, and ask you to guess who might have said them!
“How can we love our country and not love our countrymen? And loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick and (help them to be) self-sufficient so that they will be equal in fact and not just in theory.” (Ronald Reagan)
The prophet Jeremiah claims these as the words of the Lord: Take your stand and watch at the crossroads; enquire about the ancient paths; ask which is the way that leads to what is good. Take that way and you will find rest for your souls.: (Jeremiah 6:16)
God Bless America. And may she find rest for her soul. Amen.
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
-The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
“It is not good for man to be alone.” So states the book of Genesis, words spoken by God during the creation of the world. Thereafter, a quest takes place to find a suitable companion for the first human, a process of elimination that moves through the animal kingdom, and that culminates in the creation of another human being. It’s a myth, an orienting story, and it’s been used and misused over the years to justify this or that social arrangement. I don’t wish to rehearse those arguments this morning. I merely wish, on this Sunday celebrating membership, to recall the importance of those foundational words uttered at the beginning of the Bible: “it is not good for man to be alone.”
Cut now to a video shot from a film I no longer remember, capturing a suburban neighborhood from the air, in which all the houses are neatly appointed and evenly spaced from one another, a shot in which not a single human being is seen. The image then shifts, tracking a freeway system clogged with traffic on a morning commute. Individual drivers, alone in their cars, stare fixedly out the windows of their vehicles. Everyone is in proximity to each other, but they’re all alone in their cocoons. Cut once more, this time to a crowded urban coffee shop, brimming with tables and chairs. People sit at the tables, hunched over their computers, headphones on, staring into cyberspace. A few people talk, but most reside within a private funnel constituted by the space between their screens and their heads. The Beatles provide the music for this montage. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Paul McCartney sings. The song, of course, is Eleanor Rigby, from the 1966 album Revolver. It’s a lament for lonely people everywhere, describing Father McKenzie, writing a sermon that no one will hear (haunting words for a preacher), and Eleanor Rigby herself, staring out a window in isolation, and then, in a later verse, being buried, in a funeral that no one bothers to attend. “Ah, look at all the lonely people,” McCartney sings against orchestral accompaniment. It is not good for humans to be alone.
Images like traffic jams and suburban homes are easy targets for those wishing to depict loneliness, and those images may conceal a more complex reality, where genuine connections actually do occur. Those images may actually prevent us from seeing moments of conviviality that take place within those homes, or at job sites at end of a commute. But Eleanor Rigby haunt us all the same. Because we do sense that sort of loneliness around us and within us at times. We do sometimes experience an isolation that gives rise to the fear that we shall become Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie, gazing out a window alone, or writing a sermon that no one will hear. We value our independence, and we prize our ability to stand apart from a crowd. But we also wish to avoid the fate of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, for it is not good for humans to be alone.
I recently came across a study out of Duke University that reported that one in four Americans consider themselves lonely, having no one that they can talk to about their personal troubles or their joys. 25% of us. That number increased to 50% when the question became more focused, asking about whether respondents had people outside of their families with whom they could talk. One in two people suggested that beyond their families, they had no significant bonds, no one that they could call upon to share confidences. It’s a heartbreaking statistic. While I don’t know if those numbers necessarily hold for a community like ours, I’m also certain that many among us struggle with this particular modern affliction called loneliness.
Several years ago, a Harvard sociologist named Robert Putnam published a book entitled Bowling Alone, a book whose insights continue to resonate. Putnam charts the rise of loneliness and isolation in American life throughout the latter portion of the twentieth century, noting especially the precipitous decline in participation within communal forms of belonging. Think of all the organizations that once thrived in American life, but which are now forgotten, or seem quaintly anachronistic. The Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Masons, the Elks Club, Kiwanis, Ruritan, labor unions, and bowling leagues – many of these have all fallen so far out of fashion that it’s hard to imagine an afterlife for most of them. It’s also true that the churches have mirrored that general trend. For many folks in my generation, you may as well be talking about the Elks Club when church is mentioned – it leads not toward disgruntlement, but bafflement. For every church such as ours that is doing well, at least for now, ten others are facing difficult questions about their future viability.
The causes behind it all are widely varied, and it would be wrong to blame that decline on any single factor. The causes are multiple. Surely it has something to do with technology, and the social isolation produced by staring at screens all day long. Surely it has something to do with economics, and with the privatization of public life, such that spaces for social gathering seem difficult to find. Surely it has something to do with the individuality prized by my generation, Gen X, and the generations following mine, which tend to look upon communal belonging with suspicion and wariness, fearing the social conformity that belonging might induce. Of course, there are signs that all of this is being contested and reformulated, as young people discover new ways of being together – moving into cities, joining gyms or hobby groups, flocking to funky and innovative coffee shops and cocktail bars. I happen to believe that those are important developments. But I also believe they prove the exception to the rule. We Americans have become, by and large, a lonely and isolated people.
If the causes of our isolation are varied, so too are the consequences. Among the long term effects of loneliness are a suffocation of spirit, depression, suicide, physical deterioration, and even heart disease. There’s evidence that loneliness is now becoming a public health concern, on par with tobacco or sugar as a cause of human decline. But it’s another consequence of loneliness that I’ve become most interested in of late, one first written about by Hannah Arendt, shortly after the Second World War.
Arendt was a German philosopher and emigrant who fled to the United States during the war. Her contribution to our moral understanding of the world is immense, and she herself remains an intellectual giant. It was Arendt who, while watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” as she and the rest of the world struggled to comprehend the enormity of the man’s crimes, especially when weighed against the backdrop of his gross sentimentality. But it’s her book The Origin of Totalitarianism that speaks most profoundly right now, for it walks through the circumstances that led to the worst authoritarian regimes throughout the first half of the 20th century. I pulled it off my shelf recently, hoping to find wisdom or insight within our particular American moment. Let me say that I have no idea if it’s possible to map the situations in early 20th century Europe that Arendt describes onto our own condition. I leave it to you to read it for yourself if you’re so inclined, and to make up your own mind on that question.
But I will say this: the final pages of Hannah Arendt’s book are as important a meditation for people of faith as anything I’ve encountered in the last six months. It ends in a way few would have predicted. In a five hundred page tome dedicated to tracing the rise of far right populism in modernity, the book concludes not with a warning about the power of crowds, or with a consideration of economic struggle. Arendt concludes her book with a powerful meditation on loneliness. The condition of loneliness, she argues, is what makes humans most susceptible to authoritarian leaders and to totalitarian impulses.
One of the figures that Arendt cites to make her case is Martin Luther. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine a more isolated figure in all of Western history, standing alone against the power structure of medieval Europe. Even so, Luther was a convivial, deeply social person, and he sensed the grave danger of isolation. In a sermon on the text “It is not good for man to be alone,” Luther notes the way the human mind, when divorced from social bonds, tends toward imagining dangers and catastrophes lurking everywhere. “A lonely man,” says Luther, “always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.” Arendt follows on Luther by observing that the root of authoritarian extremism consists precisely of this penchant for thinking everything to the worst, imagining barbarians at the gates of civilization, bent on destruction. There may really be dangers, Arendt suggests, but the lonely and isolated mind can see only the worst, without comprehending the strengths or virtues or graces that may also be present. Apocalyptic thinking, such as that which we witness now in certain quarters of our culture, tends to be the result of social fragmentation and isolation. It truly is not good for humans to be alone.
Luther’s insight, and Arendt’s, makes sense. It is true that when we’re most alone, our worries become magnified and nearly insurmountable. I remember long days in grad school when worries about money and bills gnawed away at me, to the point that I let myself consider, fleetingly, briefly, radically altering my vocational path. When I shared the problem with Rachael after she arrived home, she was so nonplussed and steady that I immediately quit worrying and began coming up with a solution. So too, I can recall sleepless nights on backpacking trips, when a storm, or a midnight visit from an unwelcome animal foraging for food sent my imagination looping in cartwheels. Alone as others slept, I often imagined the very worst – being mauled by a bear or a mountain lion, only to wonder, at daybreak and now in the company of others, how the sound of a squirrel or a raccoon could have unsettled me so. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience – few of us escape them. A stay in the hospital, the death of a spouse, a divorce, the departure of children for college – it often leaves us free to imagine the catastrophic and the apocalyptic. The company of others can be a check on the imagination of the worst, a soothing balm in Gilead.
Let me reiterate once more: I don’t know that we in America are living in a situation analogous to those that Arendt describes. I really don’t. I’ll leave it to you to decide that. I do know, however, that Americans have become an exceedingly lonely people. And I know that the consequences of loneliness can be truly malignant for individual and collective lives. Even if you don’t wish to overlay Hannah Arendt’s analysis onto our 21st century condition, her meditation is a cautionary parable that shouldn’t be ignored right now. It is not good for humans to be alone. We need one another, you and I.
That’s why communities like this one are so very important right now. That’s why the celebration of membership that we’re marking today is so very important. Yes, it’s a time to welcome new people to the fabric of our community, and yes, it’s a way of sustaining our ongoing work as people of faith. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s about discovering one another, in all of our human fullness. It’s about finding a place where we feel less alone. It’s about being touched, safely, appropriately, by other human beings. It’s about discovering others who will listen if you wish to unburden yourself of some inner struggle. It’s about raising children in an environment that helps them to experience intergenerational relationships, and that helps them to feel a sense of kinship and belonging. It’s about sharing questions, and wonder, and celebration and joy with one another. It’s about discovering, in the company of others, an ethical and moral sense that transcends our own private concerns.
And – this is not to be overlooked – it’s about guarding our minds from always thinking the worst, fearing the worst, expecting the worst, especially of one another. We need one another to guard against the apocalyptic mind, in which disaster is ever poised to strike. That’s not a recommendation toward a pollyannish or sentimental worldview. It’s rather an affirmation made possible by the bonds of affection that do exist in a place like this, an affirmation of the grace that is at the heart of things, a recognition of the good things that can and do take place around us all the time. Alone in the dreamland of cable news, we might imagine that Muslims here and abroad are intent on terror plots. When we’re drawn into community, we stand a chance of meeting Muslims all over the world who abhor that kind of violence, and are dedicated to upholding goodness within themselves and within the wider world. Isolated in the cocoon of Internet news feeds, we might imagine that black and brown neighborhoods in our cities are little more than places of carnage and warfare. In community, we come to discover lives not altogether unlike our own, filled with aspirations and fears and challenges and triumphs. Alone on Facebook, we might be tempted to imagine hordes of immigrants coming to take our jobs or to peddle drugs, whereas in community, we stand a chance of meeting those immigrants, and learning of the journeys that brought them here. And this needs to be said as well: alone, we might imagine those who chose to vote differently from us as somehow less than rational, less than informed, less than deserving of our attention or care. In community, we’re able to see and understand the life stories that shape those decisions, and to remain connected to one another, even if we diverge in matters of public policy. Together, we manage to remind ourselves of the dignity and worth inherent in everyone. It is not good for human beings to be alone. In bonds exhibited in communities like this one, we stand a chance of avoiding the pitfalls and paralysis of apocalyptic thinking, reminding one another of the capacities for grace and generosity that truly belong to us.
“Ah, look at all the lonely people,” Paul McCartney sings. He’s not wrong about that. But we need visions and enactments of human belonging now more than ever, to counteract the burdens and the dangers of loneliness. One of the best visions I know can be found in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, about a barber living in Port William, Kentucky, grown wise in his observations of human life, and of the ways we’re all of us bound to one another. It’s a vision for us, living in Old Lyme, struggling to figure out the life of faith together. It’s a vision for a divided and fractious moment of our history. It’s a vision for all of us who sometimes feel the loneliness of the world, and sink into an imagination of the worst. The concluding words on this morning, given to the celebration of membership, belong to Jayber Crow.
“What I saw was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”
May we become so perfected in one another’s company.
I know I talk about New Orleans a lot, probably way too much, but I beg your indulgence on yet another Sunday. Because I’d like to share something of what I experienced last weekend, when Rachael and I spent four glorious days in that beautiful gritty city.
To start, I saw a man riding a bike in the wrong direction on a one way street, wearing a disheveled shirt and a top hat out of a Dickens novel. I saw people the age of my parents, 70, 80 maybe, swing dancing in a field of dust and mud to the sound of Cajun accordions. I heard Stevie Wonder deliver a short sermon about the state of the world that moved me to tears, after which he played his song “Higher Ground.” “Teachers, keep on teaching….preachers, keep on preaching,” he sang, as a sea of humanity swayed and bobbed. I saw black New Orleanians arrayed in magnificent costumes of feathers and beads, singing rhythmic chants that link them to Cuba, and to Haiti and to West Africa. I felt the thunderous and nasty bass lines of a funk band deep in my chest, tones so deep they could have flattened houses. I saw a cross dressing transsexual hip hop queen from an uptown housing project twerking. As strong tobacco smoke wafted through the air, I saw a Cuban rumba group, clad all in white, call forth ancient spirits using rhythms first heard on the coast of West Africa. I saw Native Americans in regal costume, and I raised my arms in praise of Jesus in the Gospel Tent. I heard one of America’s finest jazz musicians deliver a deafening and blistering and funky tribute to Malcolm X. I sat beside a woman in a hijab as we listened to a trumpeter mix electronic beats and jazz riffs. I saw a supremely talented singer exhale in what seemed like emotional exhaustion, after performing a song based on an old slave narrative. I biked through the French Quarter, dodging inebriated college boys as well as families with their children in tow, cognizant that those buildings and streets had received every form of human behavior imaginable, welcoming and receiving them all, like a sacred river, like a bonfire of the spirit, like a god. I went to bed late, dusty, sweaty, with my ear drums still ringing, and I woke up early, unable to sleep any more because of the promise of the new day.
Rachael and I witnessed all of this and more last week during our annual pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It can all be understood religiously, theologically even, as a liturgical celebration and affirmation of life. For me, the display of human creativity and eccentricity discovered there is one of the most necessary and hopeful signs of Spirit that I have discovered, especially in what feels like a gray and benighted cultural moment. But it’s even more than that. The festivity on parade can be understood as a parable of the Spirit that we can all learn from, one that all of us who care about religion and faith need to rediscover right about now, in ways large and small. I’ve come to believe that we need the Spirit of festival and play in our lives now more than ever, for those constitute essential elements of what it is to be human.
Many of you know of my deep admiration for Harvey Cox, a theologian and ethicist up at Harvard who several years ago visited us here in Old Lyme. In 1969, when the world was on fire, he published an unlikely book entitled The Feast of Fools, a book I have returned to in recent days for the wisdom it possesses. Cox cites the medieval practice known as the feast of fools at the beginning of his book, a carnivalesque festival in which social conventions and established identities were lifted, and a spirit of Dionysian play swept through cities and villages. It’s a practice that gradually disappeared after the Reformation, and especially after the Protestant work ethic was introduced and enforced. According to Cox, many of us in the West have paid a frightful price for our material abundance, gaining the world while losing our souls. We have been deprived of vital elements of life, which include the capacity for genuine celebration, and the faculty for envisioning radically alternative life situations. In a technologically saturated, screen oriented, success driven culture of affluence, we have gradually become shrunken souls, unable to imagine, let alone to dwell within, a spirit of creative and joyful play.
There are exceptions to that assessment, of course. The global South, of which New Orleans is but the northern tip, preserves the practice of carnival every year, using masks and costumes and dance and parades as a means of tapping into this vital spiritual dimension of life. Cuba and Haiti and Brazil preserve that dimension through their ritual patterns and musical rhythms, expressed in Santeria and Vodou and Candomble ceremonies. In South Africa, and in nearly every other traditional culture I can think of, pleasure is built into the life cycle of human beings through music, dance, and celebration. I think it’s something of what our young people sense when they travel to Haiti, and witness both crushing poverty and a celebratory spirit of life, both existing side by side. I think it’s something of what drew many of you to travel to South Africa, to witness the artistic and musical abundance that is Soweto. It’s why I long to visit Havana or Jacmel or Rio or New Orleans during Carnival season. There’s something powerfully important for our collective humanity in those celebrations, a spirit of deeply, deeply serious play and frivolity. I sense there a powerful liturgy of the Spirit, a performative theology that explodes into the streets in those moments. It’s an expressive theology that’s every bit as nuanced and world orienting as a systematic theology text from Tillich or Bonhoeffer or Niebuhr. As my favorite documentary filmmaker of all time, a creative eccentric named Les Blank, puts it: “God respects us when we work, but loves us when we dance.” That’s a mantra we in New England, we in the Protestant north, we in churches still dominated by an austere sobriety, desperately need to heed.
That’s why the two Scripture passages we heard earlier are so very important. One of the single greatest images in all of the Bible is that of King David in the book of II Samuel, making a holy fool of himself by taking off his clothes and dancing at a particular festival moment. He had his detractors. The former king’s daughter spies him dancing, and clucks at his lack of decorum, his lack of modesty, his lack of sobriety. David shakes it off, as Taylor Swift might say, and he keeps on dancing. The text informs us that the former king’s daughter remained barren throughout her life, perhaps symbolizing what it means to be cut off from the spirit of play and creativity, the spirit of celebration and frivolity. Perhaps some vital element within each of us does become shriveled and malnourished from our inability to become as fools, moving our limbs and torsos to rhythms newly discovered. Perhaps in a very real way, we do render ourselves unable to nourish and birth new life.
Jesus understands this basic component of our human condition as well. Yes, there’s a tragic dimension to life. Yes, there’s an ethical dimension to life. We ministers talk about those dimensions ad nauseum. But there’s also an aesthetic and playful dimension that must never be dismissed or forgotten if we are to experience wholeness. Surely that’s why the first public miracle that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John has to do with a party. Surely that’s why his first demonstration of power isn’t the healing of the sick or the raising of the dead, but a simple gesture that keeps a party going, turning water into really, really, fine wine. In a very real way, Jesus is raising the dead in that moment. He’s saving the host from embarrassment, to be sure, but he’s also signaling the profound necessity within each of our souls for celebration, for festivity, for frivolous play. Absent those things, something inside us truly is dead. Absent those things, something inside us really is in need of resurrection. First things first, the Gospel of John seems to say: above all, keep your capacity for celebration alive. That will carry you through all manner of adversity. Remember to celebrate
. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a hard time remembering that of late. I’ve had a hard time feeling much beyond a sense of anxious foreboding, coupled with the sense that there’s work to be done. Don’t mishear me: there is work to be done. But we need a celebratory sense of life to remind us of what it is we’re actually striving for – the fullness of life in all of its dimensions, in all of its messy complexity, filled with flourishing, abundant, creative, zestful, and deeply serious frivolity. And we need those moments to remind us of the many good things within the world that we actually do have, and that we already do participate in. Say what you will about the world, but there are things to celebrate, even now. I hope we all refuse to yield to the apocalyptic mood that seems to have set upon us of late. It’s why it was great to have Tom McDermott come to Old Lyme. It’s why it was great to have Julius Kyukawa come to Old Lyme. It’s why we’ll have to keep finding ways to create celebratory and playful moments that pull us into that wide open sense of human flourishing. It’s why in the coming months I want to explore the lives of various dreamers and fools who exhibit a wisdom that I sense we all need right now, people like Don Quixote and Falstaff, Ignatius Reilly, and perhaps even a man riding a bike down a one way street, wearing a top hat and a disheveled shirt. I wish to elevate the clowns and the saints, the fools and the poets, those who demonstrate the mad wisdom of folly.
Let’s start right now. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but communion is a way of helping us recall the importance of doing just that, discovering moments of pleasure in simple gestures like eating, touch, and human contact. We do so in the midst of a wider celebration on this Mother’s Day, a time to celebrate any and all within our lives who have offered us nurture and guidance, whether that came from a biological mother or someone else. If you’re alive, you experienced that somewhere. As we take communion today, give thanks for the people that have cared for you. Give thanks for the ways you have encountered the grace of the world. Give thanks for the people sitting to your right and to your left, to whom you belong. Give thanks for the food that you do have, for the relationships that you do have, for the blessings you do have. Some of us have more, some have less, but we all have them. Give thanks for them.
And then later today, my God, find a way to celebrate it. Call your mom. Call your kids. Call someone you love. Fire up the grill. Eat something decadent. Make a cocktail. Go for a walk or a run. Do something, anything, that will bring you a sense of pleasure and joy, even if it only lasts for a minute or two. I’m telling you, pleading with you, to do it in the name of Jesus. Do it in the name of that batty Old Testament king. Do it in the name of your own God given, precious, glorious, off-kilter and frivolous humanity. Do it. Because God respects us when we work. But God loves us when we dance.
On April 7, Ted and I and two adult chaperones landed in Port-au-Prince with 12 teenagers in tow for our annual Senior Pilgrim Fellowship trip to Haiti. This was the 4th trip for Haley McMahon, who has been a member of these trips from the very beginning, the 2nd trip for Conrad French, Eli Doggart, Finn McGannon, and Chase Wilson. 7 travelers were initiates. Landing on the small airstrip in Port-au-Prince, going through customs, and locating our suitcases felt normal enough for our teenagers; but exiting the airport is an immediate immersion in Haitian life – the heat hits you in the face; the loud and rapid Kreyol language confuses the brain; the smell of charcoal, sweat and exhaust fumes are an affront to the Connecticut nose. The mass of people wanting a hand-out or to help you with your luggage for a little money adds to the chaos of the moment. Thankfully the bus was waiting in the crowded parking lot. The driver recognized us and waved to get our attention. Everyone boarded the bus while the 16 pieces of large luggage were loaded through the back window with the help of the driver, his assistant and Ted. Filled to its capacity, the tired bus crawls out of the parking lot to the crowded streets on the outskirts of the city of Port-au-Prince.
For Ted and me after 18 years, the entry to this island nation of Haiti is a familiar one. The sights, smells, heat, and chaos of Port-au-Prince feel normal to us, but I can see on the new arrivals’ faces a sense of being out of their element, perhaps a little ambivalence, perhaps a sense of hope that where we are going is a better place than this. I hear our seasoned Haiti travelers reassure the initiates, “It gets better,” they say, “once we get there.” I smile to reassure them, reminding them that we are going to a Haitian resort for the first night, where they will be able to swim in the ocean. Smiles return and chatter begins once again. We travel 1½ hours to Moulin-sur-Mer, “Mill on the Sea,” an 18th century sugar plantation that once thrived by sweat and blood of Haitian slaves, but now the plantation is a quintessential Haitian resort, which hosts a small museum of Haitian history with a special focus on the grim life of the slave plantation. This spot is a great place for the teenagers to transition to this poor but culturally rich, magical island nation, and, in many ways, Moulin sur Mer is halfway geographically and psychologically to Deschapelles, our destination.
This morning three of our travelers will share reflections with you. Afterward, I will offer my own. I am very honored to share my reflection alongside theirs. I admire and feel incredibly proud of our young travelers, who demonstrate through their kindness, compassion and gentle smiles what it means to be the hands and heart of Jesus Christ in this world today. They represent the best of this church, this nation and give us hope for the future.
Reflection by Brynn McGlinchey – 10th grade (first trip to Haiti)
On the rainy evening that we left for Haiti, 12 students and four chaperones stood in the church vestibule with their families. Ted took out his luggage scale and began to check that our suitcases fell under the weight requirements.
Each one of us traveled to Haiti with 50 pounds worth of pillow case dresses, books, and art supplies. These 50 pounds represented some of the only clothes people might have for a year or more, a tool for education and literacy, or the supplies for a day of fun for children, some of who had never seen a crayon before.
There were so many wonderful aspects to our trip, but one of my favorite parts was going to the Baptist Church in Deschapelles, the main town that the Crosby Fund works out of. Even though the service was in Creole, everyone understood the same message of faith and love. Music was a very important part of the service. The lead singer of the choir was a young woman with a beautiful voice that rang throughout the church. Accompanied by a resounding chorus, together they made joyful and uplifting music. There was one song that everyone in the church, our group and the Haitians alike, loved. We all began to dance and clap and the whole room was alive with happiness. Afterwards, we shook hands with the members of the congregation, all of whom welcomed us into their church with big smiles and open arms.
I also loved going to different schools to do art projects with the students. The school we went to in the mountains was a three-roomed structure with a thatched roof and walls. Students from kindergarten to fourth or fifth grade attended the school, which had a very limited amount of school supplies and learning materials. We made crafts like coffee filter butterflies and tissue paper flowers with the kids and afterwards, we took pictures of the kids holding their creations. They would laugh every time I showed them their own picture, excited to see themselves with their art. We also had the chance to tutor English at the beautiful, newly opened Crosby Center for Education. A few dozen students, mostly our age, came and together we read books. I worked through the book Holes with a girl who, although her English was not very good, worked so hard to imitate the way I read the words. All around us, there were different classes going on, some for children and some for adults. We could all see that the new Education center, in the few months that it has been open, is already making a huge difference in peoples’ lives.
Over the course of 7 days, I formed deep friendships with my fellow travelers, as well as with many of the Haitians. I will never forget Nayla, the little girl who, 2 minutes after we met, walked up from behind, grabbed my hand, and began to swing our arms in sync as we walked home from the soccer game. I will cherish the laughs we shared with Dave, Cholz and Kevin, three little boys with limitless energy, who would come over to play with us every day. I will always remember the voices of older women reciting the alphabet for the first time in their lives at the impressive education center that Becky and Ted worked so hard to open. From showing children pictures of themselves, to handing out lollipops to the children we saw on our walk to the Verettes Market, the smallest of moments in Haiti made the biggest impact on me.
I went to Haiti with a huge suitcase filled with things to give to the Haitian people. My returning suitcase may have been lighter, but I came back with a much heavier heart. Haiti and its people filled me with so much love and hope, but our trip also opened my eyes to the daily struggles faced by the Haitian people. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with the Crosby’s to learn about the Haitian culture and be a part of the amazing work they are doing to make a brighter future for many through education. I hope to be able to travel to Haiti again in the future, and I hope that some of you will as well, because it is a truly moving experience to be able to see firsthand how education can change lives.
Reflection by Finn McGannon – 10th grade (second trip)
As some of you may know, this was my second time traveling to Haiti. At first, I wasn’t sure if repeating the trip would be as interesting or exciting as the first time around, [pause] but as soon as I stepped off the plane I knew I had made the right choice. Last year, I was overwhelmed for much of the first few days, by all the new sights and smells that were so different from home, but this time around I was more prepared and knew what to expect. This really helped, and I was able to experience the trip on a deeper level and notice more of the details.
One of the most enjoyable aspects this time around was seeing how people lived and how different an average day was in Haiti compared to America. At first, it could be sort of a shock to see something like a dead animal being prepared for a vodou ceremony, because we obviously aren’t used to seeing that on an average day. But I found it pretty captivating whenever we saw things like that, and it helped get me thinking about why we live our lives the way we do.
One of my favorite events from the trip was experiencing the marketplace in Verette, which I can confidently say was the most crowded place I have ever been. When you combine that with all of the unusual smells and lots of shouting and other noises, it becomes a very hectic, one-of-a-kind experience. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing on my first trip; I was so overwhelmed that I stayed on edge the whole time and ended up missing a lot. This time around, I made an effort to let my guard down some more and really take everything in. We walked through rows and rows of people, selling everything from flip flops to raw meat to medicine, and I know without our guide, Evanson, I would have gotten lost very quickly. But I found it fascinating that for Haitians, this chaotic experience was as ordinary as going to the supermarket. Basically, the market trip helped show me that just because something is different from what we’re used to doesn’t make it worse.
The last thing I have to say is that I’m still trying to sort out the impact that the trips to Haiti have had on me. I know the trips have changed the way I look at the world, but I’m not completely sure how. It’s very easy to fall back into old patterns upon returning to the US, and it can be tough to evaluate the experience while jumping back into everyday life. What I can say for sure is that the trips to Haiti have shown me the importance of keeping an open mind, and I’m sure I won’t forget the places we visited or the people we met for a very long time. Thank you.
Reflection by Haley Mahon – 12th grade (4th trip to Haiti)
I didn’t know what to expect at all. This was the Crosby’s first time bringing such a large group of young high school students to Haiti. All I had seen was a few pictures from Becky’s PowerPoint presentation, and all I knew was that my mom thought that this trip would be a great opportunity for me. Little did I know, this trip would be life changing. When we arrived, I remember my flood of emotions. I was happy, sad, overwhelmed, shocked, amazed, uncomfortable, and curious all at the same time, but never once was I scared. My eyes had been opened for the first time in my life. Nothing about Haiti resembled Old Lyme at all. I was surrounded with different sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels, and I appreciated all of it. I had forgotten what Old Lyme was like, and I did not want to go back.
“And may I say, even the bus ride experience was truly amazing. Being exposed to a whole new culture was eye opening. I just wanted to hug everyone I saw because they all looked so kind. It is a country where everyone is family.”
Everything about my first trip made me want to go back again. I missed the cultural experience, and I wanted a break from Old Lyme. It was time for me to do a little more giving again. I expected my second trip to be exactly like my first because we had a similar itinerary, but I was wrong. When we arrived at Kay Ayiti, our hotel, the 3 and 6-year-old boys who live next to the hotel, Dave and Cholz, were standing outside waiting for us to arrive with big smiles and franticly waving hands, welcoming us home. It was then that I noticed that the biggest difference for this trip, in addition to meeting new people, was being able to reconnect with friends from the past year. It was this second time around that I was able to begin to build such strong friendships that would last for years. But, this only made it harder for me to leave.
“I was expecting Dave to pop out of my suitcase with a balloon and smile, but instead I only saw memories. I would love to help educate Americans about Haiti. The experience is truly unforgettable. It is something everyone should open their eyes to, even if they don’t necessarily enjoy it.”
I just missed all the people, and that’s what made me go back. I missed Dave and Cholz, I missed Olcy, one of the artists, and I missed Louines, one of our translators. These are just a few of the many people I had become friends with, but hadn’t seen in a year. It’s so hard to become so close with so many people, just to part our separate ways. This was the trip when I realized how much I could miss while I’m home in Old Lyme. When we arrived at Kay Ayiti, I was expecting to see Dave and Cholz there waiting for us again with smiles and waving hands, just like last time, but that wasn’t the case. Dave was very quiet and un-amused. He seemed like a whole different person. It wasn’t until later that I would find out that his grandmother had recently passed away. I felt as though I couldn’t do anything to help, and it sunk in deeper that I had missed a whole year of his life. I spent the whole trip giving Dave small gifts like balloons, candy, and friendship bracelets, and eventually I began to see the old, happy Dave a little more. I came to the realization that if I’m only able to see these people for one week each year, then I have to make the most of my time with them. I spent the majority of this trip with Olcy, Louines, Dave, and Cholz because I knew that in just a few days I would have to leave them for another year. We all exchanged gifts throughout the week so that none of us would forget each other within the next year. Returning home my third year put me into a state of depression. The culture shock made me feel guilty in my own home and uncomfortable in my own bed. When my parents asked me how my trip was, I said nothing. It took a couple adjustment days, but I realized that I definitely have two different homes; one in Old Lyme and one in Haiti. The adjustment between the two is the hardest part.
“I knew for sure that if I hugged Louines goodbye that I would cry. And that is exactly what I did. I walked over to him, hugged him, and fell apart in his arms. As we hugged and cried together for about a minute he told me that whenever he looks at the painting on the wall that I bought him for a housewarming gift, he would think of me. He said he would even spend the money to get it framed.”
This year I knew exactly what to expect. I knew that I would notice something new about the Haitian culture that I hadn’t seen in the past three years, I knew to take plenty of pictures so that I could flip through them when I feel incomplete at home, I knew to comfort the new travelers on the trip because I am more experienced, I knew that I must savor every minute with the friends I have made over the past 3 years, and I knew that I would return home even more shook up and uncomfortable, with even more mixed emotions than the years before. And all of this scared me. Knowing that I had to return home in only a week made me question whether or not I should go in the first place. Then, at just our first day at Kay Ayiti, Becky told the group exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. She told the whole group a story about how on one trip she had to pause her work and let her emotions overcome her, and because of this, she saved the life of a little girl named Remi. She explained that in order to be able to work in a place of such poverty, there must be emotional balance in order to be productive, which can be extremely hard for most people. There’s a time to work, and there’s a time to cry. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so guilty for becoming so depressed after returning home last year. I realized that I actually have the perfect emotional balance to be able to work in Haiti. I take everything in with optimism and curiosity, and then I save the crying for my room. It took me 4 years and 4 weeks in Haiti to really discover and understand this essential lesson, and overall, discover who I really am.
“The whole trip my goal was to experience everything with joy and not dwell on the fact that I’m leaving soon. I accomplished my goal and lived one of the greatest weeks of my life to my best ability. I realized that I want to be able to see and experience more. I want to be able to visit Haiti more often and interact with more people.”
Final Reflection – Rebecca Crosby
As you may remember, the last time Ted and I were in Haiti in January, we opened our Education Center with a grand celebration with 350 Haitians joining in the festivities. Several days later, we returned to the U.S. leaving an empty building that still needed a little more work before our staff moved in. Over the past few months, I heard daily accounts of the move, and saw pictures of the first classes held in the building. Programs in tutoring, adult literacy and computer classes began last month. Ted and I were anxious to return.
We arrived at the Education Center with our teens and chaperones. It was a great joy to witness all the programs in full swing: our 10 staff members were at work, security guards were present, tutors were on hand, students were seated in chairs with tables, the computer lab was open. I was so excited to see the Center swell with students of all ages, just as I had imagined.
Our group was offering a tutoring program for Haitian teens who are studying English. (Many thanks for all of you who donated books to this effort). Haitian teens join up with our teens in small groups of 2 or 3, the Haitians read aloud English books and our teens help with pronunciation and comprehension. This type of engagement is rare in Deschapelles. Most volunteers are older and work in medical fields in the hospital. There are few international teenagers volunteering in the area. Haitian teens are very interested in U.S. teens. I have noticed how they look closely at each other – observing articles of clothing, shoes and haircuts; but as always, the smile breaks the barrier immediately, and the hour goes by very quickly, equally enjoyed by both groups.
While the teens were reading with Haitian high school students, I wandered off to visit Fednor Sidort our Program Administrator, who now also runs the Education Center. After a brief catching up, Fednor asked if I wanted to audit the literacy classes in session. Of course, I did. He smiled, and said “Good, because they have been waiting for your return.” There were two classrooms with 25 Haitian adults in each room, ranging in age from 30-65, mostly female, but there were some males too. They are learning to read and write Kreyol, the native language of Haiti. Statistics tell us that over 55% of Haitian adults are illiterate, but I think in the Artibonite Valley, the rural area of Haiti, the percentage of adult illiteracy is much higher.
When I entered the room, the teachers smiled and some of the students smiled as well, but others looked away. I recognized many from the local community, and I wondered if some were ashamed for me to know they are illiterate. I smiled in return, and told them how happy I was to see them in this program, and how proud I was that they had taken this big step towards literacy. I assured them that I understood that it took great courage. I said this in Kreyol, which I am sure wasn’t perfect, and so my words broke the ice. Perhaps my imperfect Kreyol made me seem a little more human to them. The adult closest to me slowly moved her work paper in my direction as if to say, “See what I am learning.” I looked at the wide lined paper, all donated by Flanders Elementary School. Here was a woman probably in her 40s, most likely a mother, and on her page was written, “aaa bbb ab ba.” These letters were written as if she had never held a pencil before. It looked like my 4-year old granddaughter’s Pre-school papers back in September. I was struck with sense of sadness, and I didn’t want her to notice it. I smiled and congratulated her on a job well done, reminiscent of the way I encourage our granddaughter Madelyn with her writing. After congratulating this one student, the others expected me to look at their papers too, and so I took the time to look at the work papers of all 50 students – congratulating each one and patting them on the shoulder. I could see they liked my approval. When I finished with that, I sat and watched some students go to the black board and write their letters and make the appropriate sounds after each letter. When each student finished, the class clapped for him or her, and the next person went forward. The teachers were patient and loving, encouraging each adult. This was the first school experience for this group. They begin their class with prayer and ended it with prayer, unlike our other programs at the Center which do not include this religious practice. When I asked Fednor about this, he said they want to pray because they need the encouragement. It is hard for them.
Two days later when the class met again, I returned with beautiful, fancy pencils that were intended for some children. I gave each of them a sparkle pencil as a gift. They loved them.
It is hard to put in to words the emotion of that afternoon. I was thrilled that we were offering this literacy program and giving these adults the opportunity to learn to read and write, but I was so sad to see the stark reality of adult illiteracy and its negative effect on one’s self esteem. I can’t imagine being illiterate at my age. Can you?
I thought about our journey in education over the past 18 years – from one student to 436 – ranging in age now from 4 to 65 or more. Education is a privilege that so many of us take for granted. We read and write, add and subtract and think nothing of it. But imagine, just imagine, if you couldn’t. That thought was behind my sadness when I witnessed the class … I was imagining sitting in her chair and writing “aaa bbb.”
Illiteracy is another face of poverty, to accompany hunger, lack of medical care, lack of decent housing, fresh water and free education. All of these experiences shared with you this morning represents the diversity of our on-going work in Haiti, for though education is our main objective, we are deeply immersed in all aspects of Haitian life, in all of the joys and sorrows in our beloved community of Deschapelles.
Steve Jungkeit and Lina Tuck
Texts: Luke 4: 16-29; Luke 15: 1-10
April 30, 2017
An Extended Grace
Every preacher’s got a story to tell about a sermon that didn’t go well. It’s a badge of honor in the trade. I’ve got a few that I could share, and one day I probably will. But few of them top what happens to Jesus on his first outing. I’d like to explore that story with you this morning as a way of framing what Lina Tuck will be sharing about our emerging work on immigration and sanctuary issues. Several months ago I shared that we had learned that a significant number of people who come to our food pantry had concerns about their immigration status. I also shared that our Board of Deacons had spoken at length about how we as a community of faith should respond to the wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy being enacted. There are varying political and theological positions within our Board of Deacons, but everyone was convinced that some form of response was necessary. And Lina has been unbelievably helpful as we’ve explored what that response should be. But before we go there, I want to set that work up theologically. And I want to do it by exploring that disastrous first sermon that Jesus offers in his hometown. Every preacher’s got a story to tell about a sermon that didn’t go well, but few of them can stack up to Jesus on that Sabbath morning.
He shows up in Nazareth a hometown hero. And he just gets out by the skin of his teeth. What happens along the way during that first sermon? Why does the crowd move from adulation to agitation in such a short span of time?
The crux of it all comes in Jesus’s chosen texts. He reads first from Isaiah, a famous passage then as now, about good news being offered to the poor, restoring sight to the blind, and releasing the captives. It’s red meat for any preacher, and the congregation eats it up. They cast themselves as those in need of release, as those in need of freedom. They read the text as many of us tend to, turning it into a mirror of their own concerns. They hear, and they read, narcissistically. There may well have been important ways that members of that congregation needed release, or freedom – we don’t know. But Jesus effectively blocks them. What he says, in so many words, is this: This is not about you!
He goes on to cite two instances from the Hebrew Bible when a singular, lonely outsider was chosen to receive special attention from the prophets Elijah, and Elisha. In the first instance, during a time of political crisis, Elijah both receives and offers hospitality not from a religious insider, one of the righteous, but from a widow and her son, residing in ancient Israel as immigrants, as outsiders. In the second, it is a man from Syria named Naaman who receives healing. Another immigrant, another outsider, receives the attention of the prophet, not those who dwell comfortably inside.
This is not about you, Jesus tells that congregation in his first sermon. It makes them mad, angry enough that they attempt to harm Jesus. But it was a way of establishing at the very outset of his public ministry where the good news of the Gospel would be directed. It was a way of reorienting the congregation at Nazareth, repositioning their gaze. To the insiders, to the righteous, to the prosperous, to the well cared for, Jesus says: this is not about you! It’s about the invisible ones living among you. It’s about the lost and forgotten ones living right under your noses. This is not about you. But you might have an important role to play.
Then as now it’s a word the faithful need to hear. To help us understand a little more about that word, and about our response, I’ve asked Lina Tuck to share some of what she’s been up to these past few weeks and months. It’s something that both of us have been excited to share with all of you.
My story this morning begins with a young family, the husband, hoping to find a better life for his wife and children applied for a temporary visitor’s visa and arrived in Hartford, CT in 1969 from Portugal. He stayed with his wife’s aunt, helping with cooking and cleaning while looking for permanent work and a pathway to becoming a permanent resident of the United States. His visa, after a few months, quickly expired, and he now found himself classified as an illegal alien. His dreams for a better life were quickly disappearing and it was just a matter of time before he would be deported back to Portugal. By grace, an acquaintance came with information about a glove factory looking for seamstresses, having heard that his wife was a skilled seamstress. By grace, documents were collected, and immigration papers were prepared and in November of 1970, this family was reunited. They could now be together. They were terrified but hopeful, unable to speak the language, having to adjust to a new culture, starting over again. Think about this family, hold them in your heart for a little while; we will come back to their story.
After the election, my first reaction was utter sadness and despair. There was nothing about this president elect that made me feel hopeful. All of the campaign rhetoric caused me much worry. This worry led to a powerful state of being, a need to do something. I had conversations with Steve and Carleen, joined local activists groups and I became hopeful to make a difference.
This surge of civic participation, all over the country, was quickly becoming the grace of our human strength. We marched for Women’s Rights, we protested against the ban on refugees and migrants at our airports. We made calls, sent letters and emails to Congress in support of the Affordable Care Act, and it worked. Civic participation has bound us together in grace, the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate and strengthen us.
And so too it was grace on a Sunday morning when Steve came looking for me. We all know that look Steve and Carleen have when they need you! There is no saying no, because you are completely taken in by their request. Steve told me of the Food Pantry questionnaire asking patrons whether they or their family members have concerns regarding their immigration status. There were many concerns from our Food Pantry patrons and an even greater need for facts and information. Steve challenged me to think about how we as a community of faith could help. Could we gather legal assistance to provide concrete and useful information to help immigrant families understand their legal rights, could we provide sanctuary for families to think about their options should they be facing deportation, could we provide financial assistance should they be unable to pay for the legal aid necessary to make concrete decisions. And, before our very eyes, a fledgling immigrant assistance initiative was coming into formation.
I reached out to local civic organizations, looking for groups who were focusing on immigrant rights, I was heartened to learn that the ACLU was organizing a People Power movement providing educational materials to help immigrant populations understand their rights as well as advocating for immigrant rights with local officials and law enforcement within our own communities. Indivisible groups were already working for the justice of undocumented families. And, workshops were being held to help immigrant families understand their rights with the help of local attorneys. These are but a few examples of groups coming together for the humane and dignified treatment of immigrants. It became apparent that our church could build this immigrant assistance initiative by working together with these civic organizations.
As I began building a plan to reach out to our local officials and civic organizations, hoping to form partnerships for the mutual cause of immigrant rights, we were approached by a local family in deportation crisis. Even though we were in that fledgling state, Steve, Carleen and I immediately mobilized and were readied to provide assistance.
Sanctuary was provided for the family to tell us their story, action to find legal counsel was initiated and critical living needs were addressed. We were poised to help this family as our church mission says:
“We’re more than a building; we’re a community. A community of people of faith who care about the world we live in, whether it is right outside our door or half a world away. A community that is constantly striving to live up to Christ’s teaching, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”’
Just like that young family I spoke about, grace makes things happen, you don’t know how it happens, it just does. By grace, a lead on an attorney that will consider this family’s case has been found, volunteers have come forward to take this family into their home, and ideas for fundraising to help this family and others like them are coming together.
Just yesterday, FCCOL offered its first “Undocumented Citizens Rights Workshop”. We were grateful to have Attorney Meghann LaFontaine speak about the rights of all people living in the United States, regardless of their immigration status.
By providing sanctuary to think and make a plan, education to know immigrant rights and at times financial assistance to get legal counsel, we offer hope and especially dignity for anyone who is in fear of deportation. We are that grace.
So let’s go back to the family at the beginning of my story. That family is my family. I am that little girl who arrived in Hartford in 1970, the first in my family to attend college. My brother is that little boy, who grows up to serve his country in the first Gulf War as a United States Marine. My Mother is that wife who was terrified but hopeful to start anew, today she shares fellowship with our own church Sewing Group. My Father is that husband who succeeded in making a new life for his family, despite all of the odds against him. We were given hope and dignity; we were given grace.
I invite you to all to think about that one thing that may make all the difference in someone’s life. We will need many hands to make a difference during this immigration crisis. Let us all work together to keep our country strong through our acceptance of all that we are, a land of immigrants. Let us be that grace.
I’d like to add a short addendum to all that Lina has shared. The addendum has to do with the signs we’ve been displaying off and on over the past several months. As you might imagine, I’ve heard a lot about the signs, some of it positive, some of it less so. For a few weeks, we’ve had banners sent to us by some students at the Lyme Art Academy hanging on the side of the meetinghouse, and prior to that we had the “We Affirm” sign sitting on the corner of Ferry Rd. and Lyme St. I’m cognizant that there are differing opinions among us about the aesthetics of those signs, and that’s OK. But what I want everyone to hear is this: the foremost reason that we were approached for help on this matter of sanctuary, the foremost reason that one particular woman found the courage to enter an imposing, wealthy, white dominant structure to ask for help, was the “We Affirm” sign. She had seen it from the road many times while taking her daughter to school. It was that sign that convinced her that we were a trustworthy community, one that might have the ability to help.
I’ve had to field a number of criticisms about the signs from various apostles of good taste, complaining about how we’ll ruin property values in town, or how inappropriate they look in a historic district. My response, at least lately, is to tell the story that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke, about the lost coin, and the lost sheep. In those stories, the 99 are found, and they’re all doing quite well, but one coin, one sheep, has been lost. And so the shepherd concerns himself with the one, seeking out what has been lost, forgotten, or left to the wolves. Most of us are among the 99. Most of us are among those who are doing well, even if we do have concerns, even if we do struggle at times. But most of us, most of us, aren’t at risk of police violence because of our skin tone. Most of us aren’t at risk of deportation. Most of us aren’t at risk of losing our homes. Most of us won’t ever be subjected to religious persecution. I don’t want you to misunderstand me: it’s not that we don’t have profound needs here. We do, and they matter. There are powerful concerns of life and death and sickness and health to be confronted here, that’s all true. And it does matter. Not only that, Lina’s story helps to remind us that things aren’t as simple as we assume them to be. Some among us have faced the wolves. Even in Old Lyme, our neighbors may be at risk. Nevertheless, nevertheless, it’s also true that, for the most part, we in Old Lyme, we who worship at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme are not the ones that the wolves will pick off under cover of night. We’re not, by and large, the ones who go to sleep afraid, or who fear to leave the house because of what might happen after a chance encounter with the authorities.
For those of us who do dwell in safety, for those of us who do dwell in comfort, for those of us who do rest easy at night, Jesus says this: Rejoice! Be glad! Give thanks! Truly, you have your reward. But the Gospel isn’t, first and foremost, about you. It’s about the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. It’s about Naaman the Syrian. It’s about the lost coin and the lost sheep. It’s about those whose value as human beings has been ignored, or forgotten. It’s about those who wander alone in the darkness, without support. It’s about those who are not property owners, not office holders, and don’t come from prominent families. It’s about those who hope someone will notice them, and offer a hand of friendship. But really, for the most part, it’s not about us.
It’s a hard word that Jesus offers to people like me, and perhaps to people like you. The Gospel isn’t about us, not really. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus wages a long and consistent argument with those who would make of religion an exercise in spiritual narcissism. What Jesus tells his hometown crowd, then as now, is that this is not about you!
But that doesn’t leave you out of the picture. It doesn’t mean that you’re unimportant. The Gospel becomes about you when you participate in an extension of grace, when you worry less about the status of the 99 who are doing well, and more about the status of the one who is most at risk from the wolves.
That’s why the signs have been out there. That’s why I preach as I do. That’s why we engage the sorts of missions and ministries that we do. That’s why we bought a refugee house. It’s why we care about Palestine and Haiti and Green Grass. And it’s why Lina is working so hard to respond to the needs of those who fear what may happen to them as a result of the social policies now being tested. It’s why we need your help as well. We all participate in the Gospel when we concern ourselves not with the 99 who are found, but the one who is lost. We need your help to extend this grace.
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