“This is my quest; to follow that star; no matter how hopeless; no matter how far.” Those are the words that Don Quixote sings in the musical Man of La Mancha, words that I’m grateful we were able to hear from Brian Cheney and Simon. The musical is very loosely based on the great novel by Cervantes, which I spent much of the summer and fall reading. It’s a novel about the wisdom of folly, and the folly of the so-called wise. You likely know the story, or at least a version of it. Alonso Quixano is an aging landowner in early 17th century Spain, and he reads so many novels that he loses his sanity, thereafter assuming the name of Don Quixote of La Mancha and riding into the countryside on his emaciated horse Rocinante, along with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, in order to renew the tradition of courtly love and honor and to set to right the injustices of the age. Comic misunderstandings abound, and Don Quixote’s family and friends conspire to trap him and bring him back home, a place that, for the Don, bears all the features of a prison. Three times he breaks free and ventures into the countryside on adventures, dreaming his impossible dreams, following his unreachable star.
Quixote has been on my mind, and so it’s no surprise that when we entered the season of Advent, and as I began to think about the characters surrounding the Christmas story, the wise men took on shades of folly akin to Quixote that I haven’t been able to shake. You’ll notice on our communion table two sets of statues – on one side we have Quixote and Sancho Panza, and on the other we have the wise men, stories that I’ll be running together this morning. To follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far – are those not words that could just as easily describe the mad journey of the wise men, guided by a star toward the Bethlehem event? They’re deemed “wise” in Matthew’s text, the only Gospel in which they appear, and generations of Christmas hymnody and pageantry and iconography have given the impression of three sage men, who alone discerned the stars correctly. A closer examination reveals characters who may have been closer to Quixote than not, closer to folly than what usually passes for wisdom. While the appearance of the wise men usually comes after the birth of Christ, it’s their mad quest, born of an impossible dream, that I’d like to think about this morning. That journey, that quest, yields several insights that are valuable on our own journey toward Bethlehem this Advent season.
Who were those ancient sages, and where did they come from? Matthew’s text gives us precious few clues. Tradition tells us that there were three. It’s true that three gifts are mentioned, but Matthew’s story doesn’t specify the number of travelers on that journey. There could have been two, or three, or twenty for all we know. Tradition tells us that they were from Persia, where present day Iran is located, and that their practice of consulting the stars marked them as ancient Zoroastrians. Perhaps, but the text says only that they came from the East, and were magi, or astrologers. Nevertheless, they came. They set out. That basic truth constitutes the first important insight we can draw from these old astrologers. They discerned a message in the stars, and it proved compelling enough to load up their pack animals, to kiss their wives goodbye, and to set out on a perilous journey across deserts and through villages where God only knows what dangers awaited. Were they ridiculed when they set about making their plans? What did they tell their children about what they were doing? How did they explain their quest? Perhaps a few in their community understood their reasoning, but a more likely refrain might have been: “What difference would it even make, even if you are reading the stars aright, even if something is poised to take place, what difference could it possibly make to travel thousands of miles just to see something?” Perhaps they discerned something true in the stars, the way Quixote discerned something true in his books of chivalry, but that no more made it necessary to launch an expensive and arduous journey than discerning the motion of the planets makes it necessary to travel to the moon.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the difference between the wise men, and the scribes mentioned later in the story, after the travelers have entered the courts of Herod. Kierkegaard notes that it’s movementand motion that set the wise men apart from the scribes, for while the court scholars could explain where the Messiah was to be born, they remained quite nonplussed there in Jerusalem. Though Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only several miles apart, the scribes stay put, while the magi continue on. “The scribes were much better informed, much better versed,” Kierkegaard writes. “They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many tenured professors, but it did not make them move. So too, he says, “we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.”
Which one are you – a scribe, or a magi? What earthly difference does this rumor of divinity in the hay make to you? Is it, as so many Hallmark cards have it, just a pleasant reminder to be nice, or kind, or compassionate, or does it involve something more, something that unhouses us, sending us into the desert on a mad quest whose outcome is far from certain? Does this rumor impel us toward motion, or is it the kind of thing that we know, while never letting it interrupt our just-so-orderly lives?
But let’s confront another important feature of the story. Matthew’s text is very specific about placing the birth within history. What’s more, the text places it within political history. “In the time of King Herod,” the passage begins, which is a way of conveying what sort of world Jesus was entering, and what sort of world the wise men, those ancient Quixotes, were visiting. We know some things about Herod, that he had ordered two of his sons to be strangled on suspicion of conspiracy, for example, and that he had ordered one of his wives killed. We know that around the time of Jesus’ birth, some three hundred public servants were executed, again, for suspicion of conspiracy. Matthew’s text confirms that cruelty in the story of the slaughter of the innocents, when children under the age of two are killed because of Herod’s raging paranoia. The point, however, is this: when Matthew introduces his story by telling us that it took place during the time of King Herod, he’s introducing politics into his story, telling us that Jesus was born in a time of political repression and terror. Everything that follows in the text, from Jesus’s public ministry through the events of Holy Week, is set against that backdrop. Even so, note that it doesn’t deter the wise men. They journey toward the star, even as it leads them directly toward a scene of tension and conflict.
Last week I listened to a radio program on NPR about the tax bill, and how portions of it allowed religious institutions to engage in direct political action, without jeopardizing their tax exempt status. Most of the listeners were rightly concerned about that development, and they argued, again, quite rightly, about the separation of church and state in our country. But I was stunned by the simplicity of the assumptions about those twin realities, religion and politics. Without exception, those listeners ceded any kind of public moral dimension to religion, arguing that religion ought to be a private matter of the heart. So too, politics was imagined only along the lines of electoral gains and losses, rather than a long conversation about how we organize our lives together. No one seemed to remember the biblical and theological foundations of the civil rights movement, of how that movement took shape in churches. No one recalled the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, or the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th century, both of which found their origins in a reading of the gospels. No one mentioned the biblical foundations of the abolitionist movement, or the fact that much of the impetus toward those reforms came from the pulpit. And no one, but no one, noticed that the story of Jesus told in this season is couched in explicitly political terms: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” Luke’s Christmas story begins. “In the time of King Herod” is how Matthew begins his narrative. A star shines and a child of hope is born precisely into that drama and not outside of it, within the public sphere, and not simply in the private recesses of the heart. “The time of King Herod” is the world the wise men choose to enter.
Even so, we shouldn’t miss another crucial nuance about those ancient Quixotes, those half mad astrologers tracking that star across the whole of the Middle East. The detail is this: by the time they arrive in Jerusalem, the trail has gone cold, and the star has ceased to shine. And it’s here that the wise men make a terrible error. In the absence of GPS devices or gas stations from which they might seek direction, they show up at Herod’s palace, reasoning that if a king is to be born, surely it would occur in such a place. Later in the story, the star reappears, helping them to locate their hope not in the palace of the king, but among a poor peasant community outside the city. But how should we understand the star’s disappearance? Was there something within the magi that clouded its presence? Were they prone to place their hope and trust in palaces? Were they tempted, the way many religious folk in our day are tempted, by the blandishments of political power? We can’t say, except to note that something clouded their vision, leading them to enter Herod’s palace, inquire after the new king, and set in motion a chain of events that the magi couldn’t have foreseen. Those events include the murder of the city’s children, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’s refugee status in Egypt, forced as they are to flee the terror. And it’s all caused by the wise men, who prove to be less than wise in that particular moment. There are grave consequences, sometimes, when we lose sight of our guiding star. The wise men learn that even if their hope has a public dimension, it doesn’t reside within palaces. It’s only after they depart the palace, training their attention away from it, that the star reappears, guiding them toward their ultimate destination at the manger. It’s a lesson for all of us who care about public affairs. If we are looking for hope, we must remember that it is not found primarily in kings, presidents, and prime ministers, but rather in villages, ghettos, favelas, and barrios, far outside the capitols and centers of finance. The star leads to a peasant village, not a palace mansion.
By the story’s end, after some twists and some fateful turns, the wise men do find the child, the source of their hope. They do pay him homage, and they deposit their gifts, frankincense, gold, and myrrh. They sense his greatness, but they also sense his end. The gift of myrrh indicates that apprehension of death, for it was a resin used for embalming bodies. They sense it all, they take it all in, and then they return home, as the text tells us, “by another road,” having consulted not the stars, but their dreams. What becomes of those ancient astrologers when the story has concluded? How does chasing the star change them? What’s it like to encounter a revelation, a god incarnate, but then to have to return home?
T.S. Eliot imagines the return in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” It’s narrated from the perspective of one of the magi, and it concludes this way: “All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down, This set down, This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.”
I don’t understand Eliot’s words as a wish for the termination of life, as if encountering Jesus had somehow elicited a depressive and suicidal impulse within the magi. I understand the “other death” for which the magi would be glad to be that within him that hinders the fullness of life that he experienced at the manger, that which diminishes and prevents a life of flourishing, that which still clings to the appurtenances of power evidenced in their encounter with Herod. I understand the “other death,” for which he longs, to be that within him which veers toward despair, or nihilism, or lassitude. I understand it as a wish to return, again and again, to the scene of the manger, as we each of us do year by year, to be reminded of that hope born in a donkey’s stall. The Scriptures don’t tell it, but I like to imagine that perhaps one day, those old magi ventured forth again, returning to find the lowly one they had once worshiped, entering the new dispensation once and for all.
And what of you, and me? It turns out that the saga of those ancient wise men, those old Quixotes, is a story about each one of us. Aren’t we all called, each in our own way, to mount our Rocinantes, to saddle up our pack animals, and to ride forth? Aren’t we all called, each in our own way, to dream impossible dreams and to follow unreachable stars as those astrologers of old? It’s a story about what it means to be set in motion, rather than simply remaining at home with all of our insights and knowledge. It’s a story of what it means to be guided by a rumor, a fleeting sign, a flimsy and impossible dream, one that cannot help but seem foolish to the respectable, but that might be more true than all of the good sense and learning and common wisdom that the world has ever known. It’s a story about what it means to lose our way from time to time, and to wind up in the wrong company. And it’s a story of what it means to live in the in between, having glimpsed a reality that is too good not to be true, even while being forced to take up residence within the old dispensation. We know what it means to live in the old dispensation. And we also know what it means to come to the manger year by year, and to pay homage to the birth of this child of hope called the Christ. And yet the world grinds on. A shooter takes aim. Powerful men consider women their prey. Jerusalem becomes a bargaining chip for yet another palace ruler. Refugees shiver as winter sets in, and the impossible dreams of another year seem just that – impossible. We know what it means to live in the old dispensation.
And yet the star still shines. It still beckons and calls and lures and prods us out of our stasis and into movement. The star still calls forth the Quixotes and the wise men and women alike in each one of us, asking us to dream impossible dreams. The star disappears from time to time, it’s true, and we do lose our way, but I believe it’s there still, if only we’d notice, waiting to lead us to the manger, waiting to shake us free of the old dispensation that weighs upon our souls and shackles our feet. It waits, to set us in motion, this impossible dream, this unreachable star.
 Soren Kierkegaard, as found in the book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington: Plough Publishing, 2001), pgs. 288-289.
This morning we thank Marilyn Nelson and welcome her to our pulpit. Marilyn is a member of our church and a Poet Laureate of the state of Connecticut. In celebration of the 350th anniversary of our church, Marilyn has published a volume of original poetry entitled “The Meeting House” that beautifully illuminates many aspects of our church’s history.
Since this is the first Sunday of Advent, the time of preparation for the birth of Jesus, the Christ, the period in which we clean out our cluttered and filthy interior barns and lay sweet hay in our heart’s mangers, I was surprised, when I googled the common lectionary, to find that the first of today’s readings does not express the awed joy of anticipation, something like the tremulous mixed feelings of a woman’s first reading the annunciation of her future in the positive color flag of a pregnancy test. No, it’s accusation, impatience, blame. Isaiah seems to be seeing our generation, as we ask why God doesn’t step down from heaven with a Paul Bunyan stomp that would make the mountains shake and make people who disagree with us tremble with recognition and vote the way we believe God thinks (in agreement with us) is the right way. Isaiah seems to speak for us, shaking a fist at the sky, saying it’s all Your fault we are doing such a miserable job of being stewards of the planet and serving Christ’s sheep. If You hadn’t turned away from us in anger, we wouldn’t have transgressed. If You hadn’t hidden Your face from us, we would be better people. What a colossal cop-out! I bet marriage counselors hear a lot of that kind of excuse.
I’m reminded of a cartoon I clipped out, framed, and had on my wall for a long time, back in my distant college days. There were two frames: in the first, a tiny priest bows his head under a high stained glass window in a vast, darkened cathedral. Picture a rose window in Chartres at dusk. He is praying the petitionary common prayers we are all familiar with, something like this: “Please help us to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter. Show us how to serve one another, to offer love, care and support. Help us carry peace to other nations.
Comfort those who live with grief. Embrace those in pain and physical suffering. Watch over all those who feel isolated and alone. Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable. Comfort the broken-hearted…” The prayer appears in small white letters spiraling upward against the dark background. In the second frame of the cartoon, a blinding light bursts through the shattered rose window, and big, bold black letters say, “Do it your damn selves!”
As we struggle today to stand on our feet, in the unrelenting current of dismaying events, it’s hard not to beg, along with the psalmist, “Please don’t be angry with us any more; come back, save us from this torrent of misfortune!” Yet this is the first Sunday of Advent; we already know of the peace that exists between God and ourselves, the incarnate peace beyond our understanding, which is perpetually born in grace as possibility within us.
Yes, these are dark days. Most of the people I know confess that they sometimes feel they have to take breaks from the onslaught of bad news. Of ugly news. Of breaking news. Of headlines we hope children don’t understand. It’s hard not to want to ask God to step into history and make things right. I realize this is not a universal sentiment, but I am one of those who would like God to reverse time, as Superman did in the first Superman movie by flying around Earth so fast that it began to turn in the opposite direction, making time go backward. Many of my friends and I would be very happy to turn back to September or October of 2016. I know many people would like to go back even farther: how about 1937, for instance? Or 1620. It’s too bad history has no “undo” button. But we are here, in this moment, in this broken world. Is this moment darker than a moment ago? Is it darker than yesterday? Than last September or October? Than 1937, or 1620? Everywhere I look, I see the prosecution’s argument against humanity. Yet everywhere, as Leonard Cohen so poignantly reminds us, humanity’s broken hallelujah rises.
Perhaps we need to move past blaming God for the darkness we see, and wake to new vision. And perhaps the way to wake to new vision is to recognize that God has not turned away from us; that God is with us, God is within us, and within each profoundly local, tiny, ordinary reality we can take in as blessing, and can bless. Knowing that one is blessed makes one want to pass blessings on. Is that not what that cartoon of God’s loud voice is telling us to do? We can’t change history. We can’t turn back the clock. But we are not helpless. Perhaps individually we can’t affect history, but many small pebbles together can change the course of the mightiest river. Many pebbles together, many actions, even the smallest actions. Remember Michael Jackson’s song, “The Man in the Mirror”? I’ll remind you:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror I’m asking him to change his ways And no message could have been any clearer If you wanna make the world a better place Take a look at yourself and make a change! Na na na, na na na, na na, na nah (Oh yeah!)
We have to change every day, every moment, every time we look in the mirror. That change is expressed in blessings. Every blessing we bestow, even the smallest, a smile exchanged with a stranger, a loving thought held for a moment for a person in need, a decision to donate $5 to a worthy cause instead of having a pumpkin spice latte, becomes a pebble against the rising currents of rage, nationalism, and nihilism. Living those blessings, constantly resisting the temptations of spiritual and interpersonal laziness, makes one a person who acts for rightness, justice, and fairness: one who, in contemporary “hip” parlance, is “woke.”
When I told my daughter a few days ago that I had agreed to give an Advent sermon based in part on Jesus’ parable about the temptation of spiritual laxity, in which he tells us to “keep awake,” and that I didn’t yet know what I would be saying but that I had offered as a place¬holder title the phrase “Stay Woke,” she told me that the phrase originated in a 2008 hit song by Erykah Badu, whose refrain is “I stay woke,” and that, adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement, it quickly became a catchword in African American slang, meaning aware of and actively attentive to issues of racial and social justice. So there you have it: a transition from Jesus to Erykah Badu. But that leap, though perhaps odd, seems appropriate. Jesus tells us that we servants must not be found asleep if the master suddenly comes home expecting to find us doing our assigned work; that we must keep awake, we must “stay woke.” I take this to mean we must be vigilant about social issues, aware of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, greed, and fear. If you’re a white person, pretty much the best thing you can hope a black person may say about you is that you are “woke.”
And staying “woke” is, finally, the message of this earliest Advent season, during which we prepare for inward change by blessing every moment with our broken, “woke” hallelujah.
Today we welcome new members of our church family to come together with us as a people trying to understand how to enact the deepest truths of Jesus’ life in our own clumsy and limited ways. How do we together constitute “the body of Christ”? How do we bless the earth and its teeming universe of life? How do we best take the responsibility for doing God’s work with our hands? With these questions we lay out the sweet, soft hay to welcome the infant helplessness of God’s self-gift.
Since I am a poet, I’d like to leave you with a few lines of verse. First from a poem called “Christians,” in my little book, The Meeting House, based on the early history of our church. This poem, based on incidents that happened in 1839-40, when the congregation was apparently roiled by divided opinion about involvement in the trial in New Haven of the Amistad mutineers, asks whether the truer Christians are those who take the safe, easy, painless path of self¬congratulation and self-righteousness, or whether Christians…….
Are .those who strive to imitate, in minute kindnesses, His gentle life. Are they those who know inner conversion into the discipleship of service. Are they those who are good Samaritans, who can see straight through a black prisoner’s face to the joy-filled vastness of a free heart. Those who know an African mutineer is more infinity than rich cargo. Are they those who accept persecution as the price of trying to feed His sheep.
I’ll end with a more recent poem, which tries to confront the feeling of being overwhelmed by the now, and to ask how to prepare in wokeness an interior place where Christ can live. It begins with an image I saw from the bus window as we drove through Jordan on the Tree of Life journey.
As the Wolves Gather
As a shepherd on a plain of sparse brown grass leans on his crook with his senses on high alert, surrounded by a sea of moving sounds, let me listen. Give me the strength to stop being awakened by the radio stuck on a station of depressing news. Let me wake woke and lie there listening for a minute to the minute musics of my heart, my house, and the world outside. Stopper my ears against the siren calls of in-boxes and junk email.
Help me resist my Facebook stranger-friends. Help me reclaim in simple solitude the whistle of nothingness in my ears. Give me a day without background music, its beautiful face masking distraction.
Firm my commitment to being alone with the thought of the cavernous cosmos. Remind me that I am an iota enveloped in infinite love, and that I am surrounded by like minds.
Give me the shepherd’s focused vigilance, the shepherd’s strength to fight off wolves.
Thank you. Many blessings. May you find that strength, as well.
Lessons from Lesbos: Stories from the Moria Refugee Camp
I begin by begging your pardon. This past Monday Carleen, David Good and I ventured down to New York to catch our most recent Nobel laureate in literature, Bob Dylan. It was a wonderful night, and I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I am to have such colleagues and friends here in Old Lyme. But I beg your pardon and ask for your indulgence because I know well just how often he shows up in the pulpit, and I imagine more than a few of you are prone to roll your eyes. Still, what can I say? The man’s been on my mind.
In particular, the words of a song that he released in 1963, “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” have been coursing through my mind as I’ve thought about this morning, and what Abigail might share with us. The song is about seeing clearly, and then speaking about what one has confronted. “Oh what did you see my blue eyed son, what did you hear, my darling young one?” each stanza begins. Toward the end of the song, after cataloguing all that he has seen, images of struggle and pain redolent of imagery found in Isaiah or Jeremiah, the singer resolves not to hide from what he has witnessed, but to confront it forcefully. He sings:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest Where the people are many and their hands are all empty Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten Where black is the color, where none is the number And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it. I thought of those words as I was piecing together thoughts about the refugee crisis, and about Abigail’s recent journey to the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesbos, just off the coast of Greece. Two years ago stories about refugees were everywhere, and we were told that the flow of refugees from Syria, Libya and many other countries was the largest displacement of human beings since World War II. And we responded as best we could. But the world moved on, and we’ve all been forced to address other pressing realities.
Meanwhile, we’ve quit hearing much about the Syrian crisis, or its aftershocks. As in the story we heard from the book of Acts, they’ve washed ashore on a Mediterranean island, and they’ve thrown themselves on the kindness of strangers. The reception hasn’t always been as hospitable as that found in Acts 28. I, for one, haven’t thought hard about what the refugee ban means for those who have now been shut out of the United States, or other European countries. We give thanks for our friends the Hamous, and for their arrival here in our community before the gates were closed. We give thanks for the friendship we’ve discovered with them. But speaking personally, I often forget to consider all the other individuals and families like the Hamous, now stuck in limbo somewhere. We need to think about them. I need to think about them. We need reminders of all those who are trying their best to stay human in an inhuman time. We need, as the song puts it, “to walk to the depths, where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where the executioner’s face is always well hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.” It’s a lesson born of the prophets, and of Jesus, and of every manifestation of religion worth its weight in salt.
Somewhere along the way, Abigail Cipparone learned something of that lesson. When I learned that she would be journeying to Lesbos to explore the implications of the refugee crisis after the US and others had begun closing their borders, I knew immediately that it was something we should all hear more about. Abigail is well known to many of you. She has participated in our global ministries here at the church for years now, work that helped to shape her course of study down at Yale, where she’s spent a lot of time learning about the issues surrounding refugees. And so this morning I’m pleased to share the pulpit with Abigail, for she has seen and heard that which we all must heed.
On October 13th I embarked on a Yale journalism class trip to the refugee camps in Lesbos, Greece. Our group consisted of Jake Halpern, a writer for the New York Times, 9 Yale students, and three refugee translators from Lesbos. We spent 10 days reporting a humanitarian crisis. We collected audio files and videos that we are now publishing as a publicity initiative to build opposition towards the institutionalized suffering we witnessed there.
Since the trip, that burden of witness weighs on my shoulders. Before we left Lesbos, Jake named this burden as a pain just to the right of the heart. Jake told our class to keep that pain alive and use it to motivate us to tell the world what we saw.
So before I begin, I’d like to first thank you for listening to the story I am about to tell. Thank you, all, for lifting a bit of the burden of witness from my shoulders. I’d also like to thank you, my church family, for supporting me since I was a child. You have shaped how I approach the world.
During our first day on Lesbos, we met a Syrian refugee named Abed. Abed used to be an operations manager of a packaging company in Aleppo, Syria. He fled after a bomb dropped on his apartment.
Now, in Lesbos, Abed lives in an all-male overflow section of Moria refugee camp. Moria is run by the Greek government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, known as the UNHCR. The Camp is 2,000 people over capacity. They call where Abed lives “the jungle.”
That day, Abed gave us a tour of the jungle. The entrance was a concrete arch, painted with multicolored handprints. It said “Welcome to Moria” in black letters. As we approached the arch, we could see the paint was peeling, and someone had scribbled “no good” over the word Moria.
As Abed showed us the UNHCR’s food station, which consisted of a folding table on a clear spot of dirt in the center of the jungle, another refugee approached. He told us that the UNHCR gives each person in the camp a single water bottle a day. Fights over food are frequent. There is never enough for everyone.
Soon, more men surrounded our group. Abed invited us into his tent. Abed’s tent was about half the size of the FCCOL kitchen. The tent floor was canvas, lined with 12 thin blankets – one allotted blanket for each refugee living in that tent. The 12 male residents had been randomly assigned the same tent on their first day in the camp.
When Abed led us into his tent, about 20 men crowded around the entrance. As I sat down, I could feel an electric, unsatisfied, anxious energy in the air. Soon, everyone began to talk. Our translators struggled to keep up with the Arabic, Farsi, and Congolese voices. We learned most men had lived in Moria for over a year. None had heard news of their asylum applications. A math teacher from Morocco piped up, saying no one had warm clothes for the winter, and they didn’t know of any other living options outside of their summer tents. All of the men in the tent said they were violently strip searched by the greek police if they went into town, so most stayed in their tents all day.
We left Abed’s tent and saw the 10 portapotties that were meant to serve the 1500 people living in the jungle. We walked ½ a mile to their one shower – a hose, fed through a metal fence. The men told us they’d stopped showering after they’d all gotten sick from the shower’s freezing water. We passed by a Congolese worship service. One of my classmates is from Nigeria so knew a few of their hymns and joined in. We stopped and I asked Abed if he liked the singing. He nodded, telling me they worshipped here in the camp every day. It was something beautiful.
The next day, we awoke to refugees streaming out of Moria, some flushed and bruised, others limping. A man carried a 2-year old boy over his shoulders. Blood ran down the little boy’s face. We heard he was hit with a rock. Inside the camp a Syrian man had recently punched an Afghani elder while waiting in line to petition their asylum decisions. We heard riots similar to this one happened more than three times a day in the camp.
Refugees on Lesbos cannot leave the island until granted asylum. With asylum applications forever pending, and no news from the asylum offices, tensions ran high.
Soon more than 400 Afghanis sat outside Moria, chanting “Moria is not safe! Moria is not safe!”. At the sit in, we met an eight months pregnant woman named Zahra, who told us she and her three children were going to sleep outside of the camp that night rather than return to Moria. As her three-year-old clung to her skirt, Zahra said that if the situation in Moria didn’t improve, she would walk into the sea and drown.
That morning we, Jake and his 9 students, heard that the entire Afghani community in Moria was marching to the city square of Lesbos in protest of the camp’s conditions. We found them stopped in the middle of the road, huddled between two armored police vehicles and a police riot line. We approached the riot line, waving to the dozen or so refugees we knew in the crowd, who were now detained by the greek police. A murmur rippled across the group as our friends recognized Jake.“The New York Times reporter is here” they said in Farsi. A dozen or so afghani men approached the police riot line –a scuffle – a clashing of shields on t-shirts, and the riot line broke. Soon a wave of people trotted past us. They held cardboard signs saying “Moria no good” and “Moria is not safe”.
That night, between souvenir stands filled with devils eye jewelry and Grecian laurels, a few feet from bewildered honeymooners and tourist families, 60 mothers tucked in 240 children. Seventy men huddled together, worrying.
As I speak, in this beautiful church in Old Lyme, the situation in Greece remains bleak. But amidst the sorrow, there is still hope. I’ve stayed in touch with Abed the Syrian man from the jungle. He’s sick right now, and it’s getting colder. But Abed is a great Arabic teacher, and Jake, my professor, sent him a sleeping bag the other day. The math teacher from Morocco we met in Abed’s tent just received asylum. Zahra, the pregnant woman from the sit-in, is still living in the city square on Lesbos, with 150 or so other Afghanis. Lesbos isn’t ignoring the refugees’ protests. The mayor called a citywide strike a few weeks ago to protest the conditions in Moria, and the Greek government recently sat down with officials in Lesbos to figure out a plan on bringing refugees to Athens. UNHCR has failed to give refugees in Lesbos proper winter clothing, enough food, running water, or heat, let alone electricity. Luckily, local nonprofits on the island work to fill the gaps. Niko Santorini’s restaurant feeds a different family from Moria every night. The one happy family refugee community center, run by a former investment banker, funds refugee led projects. Now the center has a gym, craft center, school, pharmacy, and community garden. They serve one hot meal a day, and recently ran a winter coat distribution.
This church also gives me hope. Your eagerness to help those you’ve never met, people from vastly different backgrounds, with vastly different experiences than you, inspires me. Your support of artists in Haiti, your relationship with the communities of Beit Sahour and Green Grass gives me hope. It renews my faith in the Christian welcome, in that radical love, that we as disciples of Christ, must always show. Thank you.
(Concluding Thoughts: Steve)
I’m drawn to the words of Abigail’s teacher: that we must feel a pain just a little to the right of our hearts. I can think of few better ways to sum up the way of Jesus than that – a pain just a little to the right of our hearts. Preachers are charged with proclaiming the good news, but sometimes that good news has to do with confronting that pain to the right of our hearts. We proclaim such things not because we revel in the darkness or ambiguity of the world, but because of an assurance, born from the gospel story, born from encountering Jesus, that God has not given up on human beings, even if the rest of the world seems to have done so. It’s born from the conviction that God has drawn close to the world, that God continues to draw close to the world, and that God dwells first and foremost within spaces such as the Moria refugee camp, which is one more Golgotha in the world, one more site of crucifixion. The gospel we proclaim insists that God dwells even there, silently luring each and every one of us into a tenderness of heart. Preachers and poets and all people of faith are called to tell and think it and speak it and breathe it, as Abigail has demonstrated. To do so is good news, if only because it returns us to the barest and most fundamental thing we hold to be true, that each and every human life possesses infinite value. It’s hard to believe that in the furnace of the world. But we must, as the singer says, “walk to the depths, where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.” We must do so in order that our hearts may be pierced, and that we may not forget those lost souls, which is a way of proclaiming good news.
This is a Sunday that presents the preacher with a wide palette of colors to paint with, having to do with food, the offering of thanks, and of course, communion itself. But given communion, and given the holiday feasting that will soon be upon us, I’d like to share a story worthy of consideration on a Sunday such as this.
The story was written by Isak Dineson, entitled Babette’s Feast. It was adapted into a beautiful film in the late 1980’s. Whether in print or on the screen, it’s a story that every lover of food should see, but every lover of God and of grace as well. The story is set on a windswept island off of Denmark in the late 19th century, and it features an austere Christian sect akin, in some ways, to the early Puritans. Their lives are devoid of color or ornamentation, as they rigorously seek to obey the commandments of God. Two aging sisters lead the community, both of whom declined offers of marriage years earlier, choosing instead to remain devoted to their community. One day a stranger named Babette shows up at their door, a refugee from revolutionary Paris. She carries only a letter from one of the sisters’ former suitors, pleading with them to take Babette into their care. They have no money, but Babette begins to cook and to clean without pay, remaining in the community for years. One day, in a stroke of good fortune, a winning lottery ticket is sent to Babette as a gift, enough to allow her to return to her home, and to her former way of life. But instead, Babette, who prior to her exile had been the chef at the finest restaurant in France, chooses to prepare an exquisite, sumptuous, intricate feast for the community that has sheltered her, to signal her gratitude. She spends months preparing the feast, sending a courier to fetch all the ingredients from Paris. She invites the two marriage suitors, now grown old, to return to the community, and finally, she invites all the remaining residents to gather around a table. Some of those residents have covenanted among themselves not to reveal the pleasure they’re deriving from the meal. But soon, the sheer artistry of the food breaks down their defenses. Distrust and old animosities melt away. Discarded love is rekindled, and haunting regret is overshadowed by the grace of second chances. Something like redemption settles over the entire community.
I got to thinking about that film when I was visiting with a few friends in our congregation. After a little while, our conversation turned toward films we admire, and Babette’s Feast was mentioned. I ventured that I thought it was about a terribly repressed community being called out of themselves by the splendor of a feast. One of those friends had another interpretation, though, and truth be told, it struck me as far better than mine. “You know,” she said, “I think the film is about the different ways that people find throughout their lives to praise God. For some, praising God means to give something up, to sacrifice something. For others, it means to dedicate oneself to service. For others still, it’s to create objects or experiences of surpassing beauty. They’re all ways of praising God.”
I loved that thought, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What does it mean, really, to praise God? What does that phrase, found so often throughout the Psalms, “Praise the Lord,” mean for those of us who live in the 21st century? For many of us, there’s something more than a little archaic about it, belonging to a worldview that we no longer inhabit, or worse, belonging to the world of TV preachers that we find goofy at best, or reprehensible at worst. For me, it often conjures the world of megachurches, which I flirted with in my youth, filled with individuals who all have their eyes closed and hands raised, singing songs about how worthy, or majestic, or awesome God is. It doesn’t, in other words, sound like a phrase that New England Congregationalists would say or exclaim on the regular. Even so, there’s something to it. What if that phrase described a basic feature of our humanity? What if to render praise was as natural as breathing, and to forgo it was deprive ourselves of something precious, like oxygen? What if our very vocation as human beings was to discover how best to render praise to God?
In Hebrew, one of the words used for praise is yadah, which means something like “to throw down, or to cast down.” In that sense, to render praise would imply encountering something before which you threw yourself down. It might also imply putting something aside, for the sake of something greater. That would be in keeping with several of the more pious characters in Babette’s Feast, who seek to humble themselves through abstention, or simplicity, or austerity. It would be in keeping with a lot of Lenten practices, where people deny themselves that which they love, for the sake of a higher love. It would be in keeping with our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors. There is an honor and dignity to that form of praise. There are times when we’re asked to give things up, for the sake of something greater than us. It’s something that every parent knows well. It’s something that everyone who strives to lead a life of integrity should recognize. There are behaviors and activities that are best avoided if one is to live a life of decency and respect. There are times that to render praise requires the exertion of a kind of discipline, where we simply say no to something that might, for whatever reason, feel thrilling, or interesting, or pleasurable. There is an honor to abstemiousness that I wish to uphold, an honor that every member of Alcoholics Anonymous can attest to. It is an important, and too often trivialized, way of rendering praise.
But there’s another possibility inherent in the words used for “praise.” A word that is sometimes interchanged in the Hebrew is halal, which means to “flash forth light,” and this too is an important valence that we must acknowledge. We all have ways in which we flash forth light. Most often it happens when we’re immersed in something, to the point that we cease to be conscious of what others might think or say. When we’re given to witness a person at work, for example, one whose skill and craftsmanship serve to call forth a sense of awe, we’re witnessing one who flashes forth light, which to say, a person offering praise. When we witness a performance, of music, or dance, or film that suspends time, I think we’re witnessing the flashing forth of light, which is to say, the offering of praise. When we offer a word of encouragement or express interest in the life of another, we become those who flash forth light, which is to say, those who offer praise.
Many of you are just that – a flashing forth of light in the way that you live, in the way that you conduct yourselves, in the way you share with others. Just a few weeks ago, I heard of how a few of our choir members gathered together, and visited one among us who is in her last moments. She loves music, and she loves our choir, and so these individuals surrounded her bed, and sang a few old hymns. It meant the world to her. But as I heard the story, it also meant the world to those who sang. To offer such a gift is to render praise. But to receive it – that too is to render praise. Like Babette offering her feast of thanksgiving, like the austere Protestant sect learning how to receive a gift so lavish, that bedside scene struck me as a beautiful way to render praise to God.
But perhaps that story from Luke’s gospel offers a final insight into the question of praise, one fitting for the week we’re about to embark upon. It’s a story of healing, but really, it’s a story of thanksgiving. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus, who thereafter tells them to present themselves to a priest. When that task is over, only one bothers to return to find Jesus, a Samaritan the text tells us. He throws himself at Jesus’s feet, in a way that ought to remind us of that Hebrew word, yadah. And he offers thanks for what had been given to him. The others simply go on their way, as if they were entitled to all they had received. Not the Samaritan. Like Babette and her feast, it was the exile who recognized the gift that he had been given, and who found a way to say “Thank you.” It’s as fitting a way to render praise as anything I can imagine.
There are, I imagine, as many ways to praise God as there are people on the earth. How do you give praise to God? How does your life express grace and thanksgiving? As we celebrate the sacrament of communion, and as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope that you feel invited to consider all the ways that you offer praise. I hope you consider the ways you flash forth light.
Jacob is on a journey in the story we heard from Genesis. He’s departed from his home, having said goodbye to his mother and his father. He travels alone in territory that is unfamiliar to him. Imagining Jacob’s story, we can envision a sense of estrangement and loss when we meet him, for he knows he can only keep going forward, away from what he knows. The text gives us to imagine that there must have been a struggle within him as well. When he goes to sleep, he uses a stone for a pillow, a way of highlighting his discomfort in that place. We can wonder at Jacob’s choice of sleeping implements. When I go camping if there is so much as a small pebble under my hip, I lay awake most of the night. Nevertheless, Jacob sleeps deep enough to dream. And in his dream he sees a ladder or a stairway extending from earth into the heavens, and on it, spirit beings ascending and descending, passing between those two realities. Standing at the top of that ladder he sees a vision of God, who offers him a message of affirmation and reassurance – the sense that he belongs to that place. When he awakes, he says, “Surely God was in this place – and I didn’t know it.” He then gives the place a name, Beth-el, which means “House of God.”
“Surely God was in this place – and I didn’t know it.” I love that formulation, for the way it opens us to thinking about the spaces and places we inhabit. I love it for the ways it invites us to discern the hidden messages that emerge, dream like, in the spaces we inhabit – in cities, towns, forests, houses, everywhere. And I love it for the ways it invites each of us to work to build such places, or to notice the ways portals between heaven and earth might already exist around us. Ultimately, the story of Jacob asleep on the rock, and his awakening to the divine realities around him, is a story we need as we embark upon a new adventure in providing hospitality here in Old Lyme. My hope this morning is that we’ll be something like Jacob, dreamers who awake, and discover that God is indeed present in this place.
Spaces speak. They communicate in a language that often lies buried in the recesses of the past. I first discovered that from reading Walter Benjamin, a giant of 20th century intellectual history. He was a Jewish literary theorist, a philosopher, and most importantly, a chronicler of urban geographies. In a massive tome called The Arcades Project, about the intricate city spaces of 19th century Paris, he includes a fragmentary thought that has reanimated studies of cities, towns, and architecture. He says this: “at the approach of the solitary walker’s footsteps, the city has roused. Speechlessly, mindlessly, its mere intimate nearness gives him instructions.”
It’s a strange passage, but maybe not as strange as you might think. Benjamin is suggesting that when we encounter a place, it’s telling us a story. He’s suggesting that material elements like buildings, and streets, and the flow of traffic, and the movement of other people can be read and deciphered, as if it were a novel or a poem. He’s saying that for those who linger long enough, space and place can begin to whisper in a hushed tone, revealing truths that aren’t immediately perceptible until we’re given eyes to see and ears to hear. The intimate nearness of a solitary walker offers instruction.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been awakened by a space, so that it began to speak to you, to tell you stories whenever you drew near? Maybe it’s just me – I don’t know. But I think of the way people speak about their houses sometimes, or even a room within a house. I think of the way some of us fall in love with a landscape that keeps us returning, or the way philosophers sometimes talk about the “architecture of happiness,” the idea that elements within a building really do have the power to affect our emotions or sense of well being. I think about hospitals and schools, and the way those are now being designed to facilitate healing, or new modes of learning. Maybe it’s just me, but I do think that the spaces of our lives speak in ways that we may or may not register consciously.
I hadn’t really considered that a space was something to be read until Rachael and I spent a couple of summers living in Berlin. It was there that Walter Benjamin’s insights exploded across my mind as we explored that city’s many neighborhoods. Echoes of the past reverberated everywhere, and I began to hear and see traces of German Romanticism here, the ghosts of World War II there. In one quadrant, the austerity of the East German era could still be seen, while in other sections the dazzling postmodern architecture of embassies and banks and commercial centers bespoke the power of global finance, while in other sectors still a different story was being told, about Turkish and Muslim immigrants and the way they were recreating portions of the city. With Walter Benjamin as my guide, I walked the streets of Berlin, waiting for it to speak in its hushed and whispered tones. They were some of the most intoxicating conversations I’ve ever been privy to, and I’ve never stopped wondering about the ways in which the spaces we inhabit tell stories about who we are, and what we value.
Last week I invoked the story of Paul Verryn, our friend and partner in South Africa who provided shelter to some 3000 refugees, all crowded into Paul’s Johannesburg church. This week I’d like to invoke another longtime hero of our congregation, along with a space well known to many of you. Today’s hero is Clarence Jordan, who knew something about the way spaces speak. Many of you have been to Koinonia Farm down in Americus, Georgia, and you know the story of how, in 1948, at the height of Jim Crow segregation, Jordan created an interracial farming community. Black and white folks lived together, and worked together, and ate together, and prayed together at Koinonia Farm. Jordan called those acres of Georgia soil a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. It was a space, a built environment that for many was a portal, where heaven and earth, to say nothing of black and white, could touch. During the Civil Rights era, it became legendary as a space in which residents were conducting a bold experiment in the geography of faith.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course. Many days and nights must have been like sleeping on a stone, in a hostile country. Stories are still told about the Klan rolling past Koinonia and opening fire on its houses. Jordan was subjected to scorn among his neighbors, and many within Americus refused to do business with Jordan. The hardest part of the story of Koinonia, for me, is hearing from Jordan’s children, now grown adults, and learning of the pain they suffered in school as a result of Jordan’s experiment. And yet it was, and is, a demonstration plot. Will Campbell, a spicy civil rights activist and minister, spoke about how visiting Koinonia in that era was like finding a home in a dry and desolate land. He spoke about how it was like finding God after sleeping on a hard stone. His heart would race, he said, every time he rounded the last bend in the road and the farm came into view. He knew, he said, that he was about to encounter what he called true Gospel living within that space. Every time we visit, I marvel at that place, which became a portal between heaven and earth, and I think about what it means to be such a place. To walk around Koinonia Farm is to hear whispers and sighs, revelations offered in hushed tones. To walk around Koinonia Farm is to open oneself to the way the spaces we inhabit can become portals of the divine.
Which brings me to you. When I first learned of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, I was living in New Haven, and I read of how this place aspired to be a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. I knew of Koinonia Farm and its history, and my curiosity was piqued. In time I came to know about the many mission partnerships that have thrived in this place, of how a rotating cast of characters from places all over the world found their way to Old Lyme. And I came to know about the Food Pantry that operated within the walls of this place every week, the largest on the Connecticut Shoreline, spilling out onto the streets and sidewalks every Saturday. Later, I came to learn the history of resettling refugees here in Old Lyme, and of inviting families from South Africa and Rwanda to live in the parsonage throughout the years. Later still, I came to hear the rumors of how, once upon a time, a house along Lyme Street was a station along the Underground Railroad. I’ve since learned that it likely wasn’t so. Still, the wish that it were so is instructive. It indicated to me a desire to be such a community in the present. I’ve loved getting to know those stories, and the way the streets and sidewalks around our church have whispered, at least to me, of the ways this place has been a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. Those are the whisperings that have led us to pursue our work of welcoming Syrian refugees, and to wait, hoping against hope, that we shall be given the opportunity to welcome still others. We wait, and we hope, instructed by the whispers and sighs of this space that we inhabit.
But here I come to our second text for the morning, this one from the Prophet Isaiah. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out,” he says. Do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” It’s yet another vision of space and place contained in the Bible. I take that message to be a perennial challenge to individuals and communities such as ours. I take it that we’re always being asked to stretch the curtains of our tent, not in terms of property or acreage, but in terms of the openings we create for others to come in. I take it that we’re always being asked to enlarge the space of our welcome, especially toward those who construe the world differently. It’s not that our tent isn’t open – it is, and it always has been. The instruction, however, is to stretch it.
That’s precisely what we’re doing in our sanctuary project. It’s a need that emerged among our neighbors here in Connecticut, some of whom are panicked at what may soon befall them. This past week I received a phone call asking just how ready we are to receive an individual or family threatened with deportation. The question was asked because a particular family may soon make the decision to go into sanctuary, and the caller was wondering if we were as good as our word. I told him we were. Meanwhile, a remarkable thing was happening almost at the very same time I received that call, entirely unbeknownst to me. After preaching last week about the need to prepare for the arrival of a person or family seeking sanctuary, several people got to work, and found a bed and a mattress and a couch and a little table. On Friday, I learned that a number of people had helped to move that furniture into one of our Sunday School rooms downstairs to prepare a place for whoever may arrive. One of the beautiful things about it was that Kamber Hamou was one of the helpers, himself recently arrived here from Syria. That’s the way it seems to run around here. When there’s a need, you spring to action. I want you to hear and know how powerful that is. There’s a sense of agency around this place that is impressive to behold.
But this needs to be said as well. As with Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, as with Jacob of old, we too may have some days and nights when we feel as though we’re sleeping on a cold rock, using a stone for a pillow. We too may have moments in which we’re uncomfortable and out of our element. I hope not, but that may well be the condition for witnessing the holiness of a particular space. We’ll have to be very public about our activities, and so I imagine there will be detractors and critics, both within and without. I hope there won’t be many, and I trust it won’t be like Clarence Jordan being shunned in Americus for creating an interracial community. But I have no guarantees about that. If Koinonia Farm is any indication, to become a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God is also to court the possibility of disagreement and opposition. If the lessons of Koinonia are accurate, to say nothing of the lesson of Jacob himself, to witness that ladder extending between heaven and earth, and to sense the blessedness of a particular space, is also to struggle within it. It’s to feel the press of the cold stone beneath our heads from time to time.
If our text is to be trusted, if the story of Koinonia, which has been told and retold in this congregation over the years, is to be trusted, then the wisdom to be gleaned is this: Risk it. Risk sleeping in strange new territory with a stone for a pillow, for you may wake up to realize that God truly is in this place. Risk becoming a fool for Christ, a fool for the Gospel, for it may be that in so doing, we truly will become a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. Risk stretching the curtains of your habitation, for the guest you receive may stretch you as well, in ways you can’t fully imagine just yet. Risk it.
A concluding image, and a concluding petition. Every week at our 9:00 service, our Sunday School kids form lines at the door of the Meetinghouse, handing bulletins to those who come through the doors. But sometimes they get restless just standing there, and they begin to venture down the steps, looking for those who may be coming, and then running to be the first to hand them a bulletin. I think one of my kids made it half way across Ferry Road in her quest to be the first to greet a church goer, and I’m pretty sure there were a few Sundays that, had someone not intervened, they would have been at people’s car doors down by the ice cream shop, handing out bulletins. So ok, it might be a little zealous, but there’s something about it that I love, kids tripping over themselves to be the first to welcome people into the doors of the church. They spill out onto the steps, onto the sidewalk, and along the street to draw people into this place. It’s an image we need. We’ll do it when we welcome new friends into sanctuary. But the petition, really, is this. Be zealous in welcoming others into this work. Be zealous and excited to share what it is we’re doing, what it is we believe, who it is we are. Be proud to welcome everyone who enters into this sanctuary, trusting that this can be a place of which people say: “Surely God is in this place.”
Spaces speak. Even now the eyes and ears of the future are upon us. Even now, we can anticipate some solitary walker on some distant day drawing near to this place. And we can imagine the way this space, this place, might speak, as the streets of the city did to Walter Benjamin, and to me. May the instructions whispered onto the sidewalks and streets be this: surely this is, surely this has been, and surely this shall be, a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.
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