Texts: Matthew 8: 18-22; I Corinthians 1: 18-31
Your God is Too Big
In 1953 a British evangelist named J.B. Phillips published a book entitled Your God is Too Small. It’s a slender little volume, and it’s not a bad book, really. I read it in college, and I remember appreciating its simple and plainspoken style. Phillips argues against the tribal and doctrinaire understandings of God that he noticed in the post-War world in which he wrote, a tribalism that, unfortunately, we still encounter in public life. But somewhere along the way, I found myself wanting to argue just the opposite. Somewhere along the way, I started dreaming about writing a theological counter-proposal entitled not “Your God is Too Small,” but rather, “Your God is Too Big.” Lately, as the Christian Far-Right has ascended to power, I’ve sensed a greater urgency about that argument, as “God” (in quotes) is pressed into the service of various national and moral programs that have left many among us feeling deeply uneasy. Even for those of us who are fairly settled in our relationship to religion and faith, if we’re honest, there have been times of late when we’ve recoiled a bit, and thought, “If this is the understanding of Christianity and God that passes as normative in the United States, then perhaps I’m better off in the company of those without religion, without faith, without God.” If you’ve had those moments, you may as well know that your minister has too. But for me, that feeling is accompanied by another impulse, this one born from a desire to rethink that word “God” from the ground up, for it is, probably, the single most abused and misunderstood word in human vocabularies. In truth, I wonder sometimes if churches, even progressive ones like ours, tend to reinforce those misunderstandings rather than opening up toward something different. And so in the coming weeks of the Lenten Season, I want to unpack that word “God.” I want to take it apart to see how it works. I want to see its mechanisms, its movements, its construction, and I want to see if it’s possible to put the pieces back together in a different way. As we go, I’ll be referring to a book a friend of mine named Doug Frank wrote several years ago called A Gentler God. In terms of books that have affected my life, Doug’s is top five. And so I’d like to share something of what I’ve learned from him with you.
The place to start this Lenten journey is with a story I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share. Lent feels like the proper time to do so. It’s something that happened to our family this past summer on our cross country road trip. It was shortly after we had departed from Green Grass, and we found ourselves camping in Bryce Canyon National Park. We got one of the last available campsites, and the evening was cool and beautiful. Instead of getting food in a restaurant, we went for a hike along the rim of the canyon, and then bought picnic food that we would eat at our site, after I got a good fire going. It was a good night – the food was tasty, the fire danced high and hot, and the smores we made were nearly perfect. Around bedtime, we were gathering things and putting them back in the car, and I filled a few water bottles at a nearby pump in case we got thirsty at night. Meanwhile, Sabina was reading, and Augie and Elsa were chasing each other around the site, like puppies teasing and tumbling about. It’s something that happens most nights, truth be told, when they get tired and punchy, and I confess to feeling a rising irritation at it that night in Bryce. We had talked on many of the nights that we camped about being aware of their surroundings, and not tripping over a tent stake, or a log. But then as I was walking back from the water pump, something happened that every parent just dreads. Augie and Elsa began arguing about something or other, and in a moment of frustration, Augie pushed Elsa backward. Elsa, as it happened, was standing right in front of the fire pit, with a bed of smoldering embers at her back. And I watched from 15 feet away as she fell backward, landing in the fire pit the way you would if you were floating on a river in an innertube. What happened next was a blur – a split second of silence and then a howl and then me sprinting over and yanking her out and dousing her with water and then seeing her hands and her legs and her back and then giving vent to a torrent of expletives born of panic and anger and then Rachael and I hurriedly wondering out loud, what do we do, what do we do? We piled everyone into the car and found a ranger, who gave us directions to the nearest hospital about 30 miles away. And while it was one of the worst moments that I can recall as a parent, it was also, weirdly, one of the best, because Elsa became brave and generous and forgiving, and Sabina became compassionate and supportive and caring. Most of the attention was focused on Elsa, but Augie was mostly silent in his chair, and I tried to reassure him that Elsa was going to be OK and to help him remember that he hadn’t been trying to hurt Elsa and that he was going to be OK. And in truth, while the night was long, and while the burns were significant, we actually were OK. The doctors were kind, and they bandaged Elsa up, and while the wounds lingered for a while, we were on our way the next day. I worked with burn patients when I was a chaplain at Bridgeport Hospital, and what I can tell you is that we were incredibly fortunate, all in all.
But the reason I’m sharing this story with you, what I want to meditate upon this morning, and in truth, for the entire season of Lent, is a question that Augie asked Rachael right after the accident. While I was with Elsa in the ER, Rachael took Augie outside, and he asked, kind of quietly, “Mom, do you think Santa Claus saw what I did to Elsa?” And then, “Do you think God saw what I did to Elsa?”
Let me pause there. I want to let that question hang in air for a time. Because what would you have said? How would you have responded to a scared and sad four year old asking a question like that? Who or what was this “God” that Augie referred to? Where had he learned it?
I don’t know where he picked it up, but it turns out that I did too as a kid. When I was young, I learned a song in Sunday School, a song that I internalized. It went like this:
Be careful little hands what you do.
Be careful little hands what you do.
For your Father up above,
Is looking down in love,
So be careful little hands what you do.
I suppose if I’m generous, I can imagine why adults might teach something like that to a child. I suppose it has to do with learning important things about self control, or keeping your hands to yourself. I suppose I can imagine that. But what it communicated to my young mind was that there was an invisible presence watching my every move, overseeing my every thought, even when I was confident no one was watching. It communicated a superhuman power before whom no one could hide, and who saw clearly all the things about me that felt embarrassing or shameful. This was an invisible presence who, I was told, loved me. And yet, the song made clear that one needed to be careful about how one behaved before this big, all observant deity, a being that we can call “The Big Powerful Sky Father.” Because there’s something vaguely threatening about the Sky Father. He can see you, but you can’t see him. And he evidently has the power to judge, to pay back, and to punish things that he doesn’t like. The very language of the Bible lends itself to that understanding, at least at a superficial level. To read the Old Testament is to encounter a God who smites his enemies and destroys cities he dislikes, who favors some and threatens others, who demands obedience while punishing those who go their own way. I was well into my twenties before I realized that I did not love that God. With regard to that God, the Big Powerful Sky Father God, I realized that I wished to twist free of such a God. With regard to that God, I realized that I was, and still am, an atheist. Maybe you are too. That God began to feel way too big.
Think about the word, “God.” Is there a heavier word in the English language, or in any language for that matter? Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian, put it thus: “God is the most heavy laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated.” Another author, David James Duncan, writes “How to unsay the ponderousness we humans attribute to this word, ‘God’?” The very word feels big, mighty, as if it needed to be written in all capital letters. Not only that, the language that we use to define that word tends toward images of power: almighty, all powerful, Lord, Sovereign, Judge, Ruler, Creator, Provider – these are active and power laden words that reinforce that image of the Big Powerful Sky Father who sees you, even if you don’t see him.
In 1974, a French philosopher named Michel Foucault published a book called Discipline and Punish, about the development of the penal system in modernity. It’s a book that has had an enormous influence upon me, but on a lot of others as well. His books are assigned in divinity schools as often as they are literature departments, in social science curriculums as often as they are in medical schools. I happen to believe literate church goers ought to read Foucault diligently as well. Toward the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes a form of architecture first developed by an Enlightenment philosopher named Jeremy Bentham, an architecture that was later used in prison construction around the world. It was called the panopticon. Let me describe the spatial arrangement of the panopticon. It was an open circular room of many different levels. A grid of individual prison cells would make up the circumference of this room, all of them backlit by a window in the outer wall of each cell. At the center of that circular room was a guard tower, at the top of which was a glass room from which each individual cell could be observed, not unlike Jimmy Stewart and his camera in Hitchcock’s famous film Rear Window. Each cell, recall, was backlit, so that no shadows existed, so that there was no place to hide. The windows of the guard tower, by contrast, were blinded, so that it was never clear if there was a guard watching or not. One never knew. Indeed, after a time, guards weren’t even necessary all that often. The intention of the architecture was for prisoners to so internalize the feeling of being observed that they would come to discipline themselves, without external force. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, you can tour the Fairmount Prison in downtown Philly, where you can see a version of this architecture on display. The Quakers, it turns out, favored it. If you ever go to Dublin, you can see it at the Kilmainhaim Jail, a notorious prison that also deployed that form of observation. The panopticon, it turns out, is all around us.
For Foucault, that architectural principle came to be about so much more than prisons. It was an example of how power came to function in modernity, as human beings learn to internalize a kind of disciplinary power, for fear of who might be watching or observing our aberrant behaviors. It’s the principle behind every security camera in every store you’ve ever walked through. It’s the principle behind all the CCTV cameras you see if you walk the streets of London. It’s the principle behind whatever it is that makes you pause for a second before downloading something you’re not sure about, because, well, who might be watching? But more than any of that, it’s the principle behind that song I learned as a Sunday School child, and it’s the unexamined assumption at work for many of us when we think about God. It’s the reason that I realized at some point during college that I did not love God. It’s the reason I wished, and still wish, to twist free of God, to forget God, to dwell in the shadowlands where such a God can’t find me or see me, and where something like freedom might even exist.
My friend Doug tells a story to illustrate what it feels like to live under the scrutiny of the Big Powerful Sky Father, to live within the divine panopticon. Imagine a growing up in a house, he says, where your great uncle Harvey lives upstairs in the attic. Uncle Harvey doesn’t like to be seen, and he hasn’t come down from the attic in years. Nor does he accept visitors upstairs. And so you’ve never seen Uncle Harvey, but you’ve been told that he’s up there. And furthermore, you’ve been told that Uncle Harvey actually loves you very much. Even though you’ve never seen Uncle Harvey, he does write letters, and sometimes at night, your family reads them together. Uncle Harvey writes a lot about how much he loves everyone in your family, but he has things he wants you to do to show him that you love him back. If you fail to do those things, because you don’t want to, or because you forget, he might remind you of his presence, and of his love for you, with a little electric jolt, nothing big, just a little zap to remind you of what you need to be doing. But sometimes in his letters, he talks about the big zap, the one that comes if you haven’t proven your love to Uncle Harvey before you die. For a while, you profess your love for Uncle Harvey, and you do as he says. Before long, however, you begin to resent the letters, the admonitions, the veiled threats, the manipulative and egocentric declarations of love. Not long after that, you make arrangements to move out of the house entirely, because negotiating the family dysfunction is too burdensome.
It’s a limited metaphor, I know, but it captures something of what it feels like to live in the presence, if it is that, of the Big Powerful Sky Father. And I could be wrong, but I suspect there’s a part within many of us that feels that way about God. I suspect it’s something of why people drift away from church in adolescence and their early adult years. I suspect it’s why some of us feel a certain reluctance about religion, even if we do show up at church. As with Augie, I suspect it’s rooted in certain childhood conceptions and experiences, and then reinforced by layers of cultural sedimentation from popular culture and political discourses and half heard sermons and psychological projections. I suspect it comes from a good many sources, maybe deeper than that. But I also suspect some portion of us longs to be free of that gaze, of those expectations, of that emotional blackmail. Even if it’s barely conscious, even if we’re not fully aware, I suspect more than a few of us have found ourselves longing to escape that God.
What I want to accomplish this morning is to set the stage for what comes next. Because it so happens that people of faith have come up against the problem I’m describing for a long time now. Martin Luther was tormented by his own struggle with the Big Powerful Sky Father, until he found a way to reread the Bible with different eyes. He wound up writing: “You must not climb up to God, but rather begin where God began – in his mother’s womb. If you wish to be certain in your conscience…then you must know no God at all apart from this human Jesus, and depend upon this, his humanity.”
And so it’s a kind of Lutheran project that I’ll be following in the coming weeks. With Luther, I’ve come to believe that the story of Jesus isn’t a way of reinforcing images of the Big Powerful Sky Father, but rather a way of shattering them. I’ve come to believe that the story of Jesus is a therapy for those of us who have grown weary of religion, for those of us who chafe against the gaze of the penal God. I’ve come to believe that the story of Jesus is a kind of therapy we can undergo in order to free ourselves from the power of the almighty. Jesus, it turns out, leads us toward a certain atheism far more than Marx, or Freud, or Nietzsche, or any of the so called new atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Because to read the Gospels carefully is to come to the realization that the God Jesus gives expression to, the Father that he proclaims, is something far smaller, far more humble, far less powerful, far more shabby, than the Big Powerful Sky Father of religion. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, which is far better translated as “the Human One.” In Jesus, I’ve come to believe we discover a frail and vulnerable God who serves as a corrective to the Big Powerful Sky Father, one that invites us all deeper into our own humanity.
That’s the Lenten journey I want to take us on. As the Big Powerful Sky Father is being called into service yet again for a variety of national and international projects, I wish to declare my disbelief. I wish to cry foul, and to say, “Your God is Too Big.” I wish to do so in the name of Jesus, in the name of the love of Jesus, in the name of my love for Jesus. During this season of Lent, I want to help us all to fall in love with Jesus, maybe for the first time, and maybe all over again. What I want is for all of us to discover Jesus as if for the first time.
 This sermon has Doug’s insights scattered throughout. You can find in his book references to Foucault’s panopticon, and the Sunday School song I reference later. The power of his writing, however, is that it captured experiences that I, and many others, have had in almost identical terms. See Doug Frank, A Gentler God (Albatross Books, 2010).
 I term I’ve appropriated from Doug Frank.
 From a chapel talk I heard more than twenty years ago at Messiah College.
 Quoted in Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pgs. 234-235. As quoted in A Gentler God, pgs. 196-197.
March 12, 2017 Psalm 126 Luke 10:1- 9, 17-19
Reflection on Haiti: “Do Not Worry, Madame, We Can Do This”
On January 22, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we celebrated the grand opening of our Education Center. The planning and building of this Center has consumed Ted and my life for the past 2 years, and it is a lovely site to behold — a dream come true. We purchased the land in November 2013 from an elderly Haitian woman, who said she dreamed that on this land there would be a place where many young people could gather. She contacted us with the desire to sell her land. Needless to say, she is very happy with our new Education Center.
When I stepped down as your Associate Minister in September of 2014, many of you contributed to a gift toward this new project. The money collected was enough to drill our well, which I have fondly named the “FCCOL well.” The building was designed by two architects from the U.S, but the construction company and all the workers were Haitian. All the material, including the solar panels, were purchased in Haiti. Some of our choices were limited, but it was important to us to have the building be truly Haitian made.
For 13 years, we had rented 3 different inadequate spaces, especially with our growing staff now at 9 Haitian employees or 23 if you count all the tutors and guards. The new building is our permanent domain for our scholarship work that supports education for almost 400 students from kindergarten to university study. The Center is not a school in the traditional sense; it is a tutoring, teacher training and seminar center to advance education in the region.
As the completion of the building drew near, our Haitian staff told me of the need to plan an inauguration before we moved our offices. They told me not to worry about the event, they would take care of everything once I gave them a budget. I had very little input; I wanted to give them the liberty of planning the ceremony. As the Executive Director of the organization, I oversee all aspects of the operations in Haiti, but I do not micro-manage the staff. Ted and I strongly feel that our organization should be a Haitian-run organization, and our roles are to oversee, advise when needed, and financially support the mutually agreed upon budget and program. This mode of operation has served us well over the past 13 years, and our Haitian staff and advisory board truly feel ownership and responsibility for the organization. The work we do, we do together. Yet, there are times when I have the urge to simply tell everyone what I would like them to do, but I hold back and allow them to spread their wings, explore options and come up with their own ideas. Many times, even though the process takes longer, they present to me very good ideas and implement them successfully. We work very well together and truly respect and trust each other. Many times our Program Administrator, Fednor Sidort, a graduate of our program who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, says to me, “Madame, we are of the same mind. I think you are becoming Haitian.” That is a great compliment for me.
Ted and I arrived in Haiti 4 days prior to the inauguration. I asked Fednor and Vaudy, our Program Director, about the plans for the celebration. Fednor answered, “Do not worry, Madame, we have arranged everything.” I had the feeling they wanted to surprise us, so I decided to not press them and go with the flow, always a bit of a challenge for me. Later that day, I learned the staff had invited over 300 people, and I asked about chairs (we only had 100). Fednor’s reply was, “Do not worry, Madame. We will borrow 200 chairs.” “And you have food and drinks for that many people?” “Yes, we have arranged everything,” he replied. “Within the budget?” “Yes,” he replied. I was impressed, but secretly had a few doubts. “Great” I said. “I knew I could count on all of you.”
At 2 pm the designated time of the service, Ted and I and the staff were at the new Center. There were a few people – maybe 30 at the most. I thought no one was coming. About 15 minutes later, I heard music in the distance. We waited and watched as the music became increasingly stronger, and then I saw the marching band and students winding their way through the field towards the Center. 100 of our students of all ages, dressed in school uniforms representing the 64 schools they attend, were marching behind a brass band. Behind the students were most of our guests, who wanted to be part of the “fanfare,” a Haitian tradition. I could feel my eyes swell with tears. Fednor noticed this and smiled. The marching students came to the building and stopped, and a group of 20 or so separated and danced for us in front of the building. When the dance was over the students saluted Ted and me. We were uncomfortable with all this attention, but we knew this was an expression of deep gratitude, and it was important for them to honor us in this way. We are much more comfortable giving than receiving, especially in Haiti, where there is so much poverty. Yet this fanfare, as a gift to us, reminded me again that it is as much, if not more, a pleasure to give than it is to receive. Many times, students have said to me, “You give us so much, yet I have nothing to give to you, and I feel ashamed about that.” I remind them that their friendship and their success in school is our gift. Yet somehow that doesn’t feel right to them. Gifts seem to be calculated in material objects, which are difficult for them to obtain. How far from the truth! The Haitian people with their rich culture, gifts and talents, their vibrant and gracious spirits have blessed our lives abundantly – far more than they can possibly know or understand, certainly far more than some material object.
When the student dance was over everyone entered the Center and filled the classrooms well beyond capacity. The hour-long program included speakers representing local officials such as the mayor of the region, alumni, a parent, director of a school, staff, and board members. Ted and I opened the program with words, Ted’s in French and mine was in Kreyol – my first speech in their native language. The good news is everyone said they understood me. I was relieved because I thought I would still need a translator. Musical interludes including the National Anthem and a hymn were scattered throughout the program. A local minister served as the Master of Ceremonies. Cutting the ribbon followed the program, and a very festive (rather hectic) reception with music, sandwiches, and drinks for all went on until 7 pm. Ted and I will cherish the memory of this day for the rest of our lives. Fednor was right, I had no need to worry. The day was perfect. How proud Ted and I are of our staff. How humbled we were on this day showered by a community with so much gratitude and love.
Since then, our staff has moved to the building; the tutoring program has begun, and the computer lab is being established. We have been approved by the Haitian government to be a literacy center as well. Over 55% of Haitian adults are illiterate, and so we are very proud to help in this area of community education. The Haitian government uses a program that was created and successful in Cuba under Castro’s leadership. This program has been translated in Kreyol and other languages and is used throughout the Caribbean. The government sent a person to train 3 teachers, and we will begin literacy classes for 50 adults this week. All of these programs, are handled efficiently by our Haitian staff, 4 of whom are graduates of our university program. These graduates are fiercely loyal to our program, and they say it honors them to give back to the program that gave them a life.
Several years ago, we hired Vaudy Jean Baptiste as Director of our program in Haiti. With Vaudy’s leadership skills, our young staff have gained much experience and are building a great organization that runs smoothly and efficiently. By letting go of the operations and simply overseeing and advising, I have empowered our Haitian staff to grow, and they have proved to me they are up to the challenge. I have witnessed how proud they are of all they have accomplished, and I love to see their faces glowing with pride. Having Haitian leadership and staff is the key to our success. Many other NGO’s (non-government organizations) working in Haiti have taken a different approach and have failed to accomplish their goals because they did not employ Haitians to do their work, but rather brought all their own staff members to Haiti. Most of the foreign staff do not speak the language, do not understand the customs, are not knowledgeable of Haiti’s history and the strong will of the Haitian people. It is not easy to work in Haiti.
After the 2010 earthquake, the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere that killed an estimated 300,000 people and placed a million and half people in refugee camps, the world responded by donating 13.3 billion dollars to aid organizations and foreign contractors. Less than 2% of that money went to the Haitian government. Yet the President of Haiti and the Prime Minister of Haiti were alive and attended the international meetings held in Haiti, yet they were allowed very little input, practically ignored. Almost half the money went to the immediate relief effort, which was mostly successful, except for the introduction of cholera by a Nepalese U.N. worker. The remaining money was designated for the rebuilding of Haiti and that has largely failed. For example, USAID planned on building 15,000 houses and they have built 900. 700 were promised by the Red Cross and only 9 were built. The intentions were good, but without working with the Haitian government and employing Haitian people many of the projects failed. Global Communities, on the other hand, an international partnership organization, hired Haitian engineers, architects, and contractors and built 300 multi-family houses in a short period of time. The Haitians know what to do; it is their country and their future, and they simply want to be given a chance to improve it.
Empowering Haitians to take on leadership roles and responsibility for their own country is the only way to move Haiti from being “a nation of NGOs” to being an independent nation of productive citizens. All Haitians want this. Haiti has an unemployment rate of 78%. Just think how that would change if the hundreds of NGO’s hired Haitians, trained them, and paid them a decent wage. Haitians are bitter about all the international employees taking away jobs and leaving them hungry, homeless and jobless. Aid agencies need to rethink the way in which they operate, and shift the aid toward empowering the people, instead of creating job security for themselves. Haitians need the financial support, there is no doubt about that, but the country could become a nation of mutual partnerships, where the goals are long term fixes for the future of Haiti instead of the band-aid approach. Our focus on education and youth development builds a foundation for a nation to grow and creates a job bank of educated young adults with post-secondary degrees ready for professional employment in Haiti. They need and want to be employed.
We are all called to empower and lift-up the vulnerable among us. Jesus provides an example in our reading in Luke. He delegates authority to 70 disciples to do the work of spreading the news of the kingdom of God. I am sure many of these followers were of the lower echelon of society. He sends the delegates on their way to strangers’ homes with no purse, bag or sandals to live in community with them and bring them to faith through curing the sick. The disciples return with joy saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” The joy in the disciples reflects their pride at being given a challenging task and having accomplished it beyond their own expectations. We see this again in the great commissioning of the apostles and the way in which they do Christ’s work in the Books of Acts.
That feeling of joy and success is desired by all people, who are trying to live a life that has meaning and to feel a sense of worth to their family and community. No one wants to feel useless as if their life is a waste. This brings about depression, anger and resentment. As part of our challenge to ‘love our neighbor’ we are called to lift-up vulnerable people and help them see their own self-worth as human beings, to balance the vast inequalities that are growing in this nation and world.
Empowering another is a gift of no small value. I see this so clearly in Haiti, where the slave mentality is still very much a part of their inner psyche. There are not a lot of white people in the area where we work. Many children hide when they see us. Even our students have shared with us that they were frightened of Ted and me because we were white and powerful. Our university graduates have a difficult time interviewing for jobs in the international businesses in Port-au-Prince, especially if the interviewer is white. The slave mentality lingers as many are taught that it is disrespectful to look at a white person face to face. Interviews do not go well with our graduates staring in their laps. We are working on building up the self-esteem of our students with seminars on how to prepare for an interview, how to present their gifts and talents, and how to carry themselves with dignity and pride. One of the best ways to build self-esteem is to have native role models in their communities, who they can look up to, who are educated and have good jobs, who are admired in the community, who work with mutual respect as partners with white people. Our Haitian staff offer great role models for the students they serve.
Mutual respect is the foundation for all the mission work of this church: empowering the vulnerable and embracing the dignity of every human being is what it means to practice the teachings of Jesus, whose ministry focused on the ‘least of these.’ We have witnessed our church at work so clearly with the Hamou family, who came to us as vulnerable Syrian refugees. We have seen their growth of confidence and each of their accomplishments brings joy to them and all of us.
As our Psalm for this morning proclaims, “It is time that those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” This joy was the nature of the day as we opened our Education Center and began a new chapter in our work in Haiti. Joy was the nature of the day when we purchased the refugee house that lays a foundation for more refugee families to be granted a new life; joy is the nature of the day when the most vulnerable among us are lifted-up by the love of God through our hearts and hands. As Christians, this is the work we are called to do. “It is time that those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” Let it be so… Amen.
The Rev. Rebecca Crosby
Old Lyme, Connecticut
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Numbers 35: 9-15; Psalm 27: 1-5, 14; Matthew 11: 28-30
March 5, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part III: Steal Away
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.” That’s how the old spiritual puts it. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s how Jesus puts it. My words today shall revolve around those two statements, separated by centuries, but united by a dream of rest. Steal away, the song says. Come to me, Jesus says.
Consider the song first. It’s a spiritual that’s appeared in hymnals for well over a hundred years, capturing the ways each of us as human beings occasionally find ourselves longing to slip away toward Jesus. In the song, Jesus becomes a figure who represents one of the most basic needs that humans experience, which is that of safety and embrace. When troubles mount, when slings and arrows are fired in our direction, we long for a place of retreat, where we’ll be affirmed without judgment, where we’ll feel nourished and upheld. When our struggles seem too much to bear, we need a place or a person in our lives which will, or who will, strengthen our fundamental sense of being, of well-being. When it seems as though our lives have little value, and that we’re in danger of being discarded, or worse yet, forgotten entirely, we need a person or a place toward which we can steal away, knowing that in that sacred zone, our bodies, our infirmities, our frailties, our failures, all of it, will be looked upon with understanding, and with a gracious embrace. Sometimes we need to steal away to Jesus.
Have you ever needed to steal away? Have you ever needed a place or a person or a group of people to hold you up and to embrace you in a trying moment? Where did you turn when that happened? Who or what became your consolation, your assurance that come what may you would be OK? As children, it’s often a nook in a corner that functions as that sort of space – it becomes a kind of enclosed shelter. But in human terms it’s often the presence of a grandparent or an adult friend who somehow supplements the care that parents give. But it’s no less a need for adults. Where or who do you turn to for succor, for support, for sanctuary? What I wish to affirm for you is this: wherever you have found that support, wherever you found a place or person of nurture, no matter with whom or where, no matter how unlikely it might seem, Jesus is present. Wherever you have been allowed to flourish; wherever you have experienced grace; wherever your spirit has somehow been lifted up; whenever you have felt affirmed in the fullness of your being, Jesus is there.
I don’t know about you, but there have been moments in my life when I’ve needed to steal away to Jesus. I think in particular of the year I spent working as a hospital chaplain, witnessing a fresh human misery on a daily, and sometimes on an hourly basis. It was one of the hardest years of my adult life. Rather than accepting a temporary academic job in Pennsylvania, I felt the need to get out of my head for a while, and working in a hospital struck me as a helpful way to do just that. The hours were long, the pay was miniscule, the emotional toll was severe, and I soon wondered if I had made a huge mistake.
One Saturday in October, I was the chaplain on duty overnight. At about 3 in the morning, a young man in his early twenties was wheeled into the emergency room. Over the course of the next 6 months, the young man became a friend, as I talked with him in the hospital burn unit. His name was Will. But on that fateful night in late October, he had somehow become trapped in a burning car, and his whole body was charred from the flames. I’ll never forget the smell that hung in the air of the ER that night. It took hours to clear it from my nostrils. I’ll never forget the doctors who nearly wretched when they cut the remains of Will’s clothing away. And I’ll never forget sitting with Will’s family that night, seeing how scared they were, and trying to help them reckon with what had happened.
By the time the night ended, I was exhausted, and shaken by all that I had seen. I drove home, and thought about going to bed, but I was too unnerved to sleep. And so I went to church with Rachael and with Sabina and Elsa. I can freely admit that there were some Sundays that I felt pretty indifferent to church, because of how routinized it could often feel. On that Sunday, though, it felt like stealing away to Jesus. In that congregation, we had a moment where we passed the peace, saying to one another, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The response would be: “And also with you.” When it came time to pass the peace, I could only say it once. After that the tears began to flow, and I just sat down. Because those were precisely the words I needed to hear. That was precisely the place I needed to be. And those were the people I needed to be with. I felt the presence of Jesus that morning among those good and flawed people. After that terrible night, I needed to steal away, and I can tell you that Jesus found me there in those pews. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.”
But there’s another dimension of the hymn “Steal Away” that is all important. The spirituals always have at least two meanings – one having to do with the inner life, akin to what I experienced that Sunday morning in New Haven, and the other working as a coded system of communication among slaves concerning escapes, uprisings, and other events too dangerous to name in direct language. In this case, to steal away to Jesus meant slipping away toward the north, toward literal enclaves of freedom and autonomy that an enslaved population could only dream about. Jesus, still a symbol of all that would allow human beings to flourish, would be incarnated there, in those enclaves, among those who protected the runaways. You may have noticed at the bottom of the page, among the credits offered for the hymn “Steal Away,” that it was a song sung on the night of Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia in the early 19th century. To steal away to Jesus, in that sense, was to assert one’s humanity and value forcefully against a system that devalued and degraded such humanity. In the spirituals, the name “Jesus,” becomes synonymous with whatever, whomever, and wherever the dignity of human life is upheld, wherever an easing of burdens is found, wherever rest is provided.
That sense of stealing away was captured beautifully in a recent novel from Colson Whitehead called The Underground Railroad, a book I hope everyone spends time reading. It offers a vivid reconstruction of the sadism at the heart of 19th century America, reminiscent of the slave narratives of Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs. But it also tells the story of Cora and her escape from a Georgia plantation on the Underground Railroad, imagined not simply as a network of furtive abolitionists, but as a literal railroad beneath the earth, crisscrossing the South, and guiding its riders to safety. The novel functions as a travelogue for Cora, who “steals away” time and again, first to a city in South Carolina which seems to provide the conditions for flourishing human lives. That sense of flourishing is upended when she discovers that the city uses black bodies to conduct medical experiments. She travels to North Carolina where she becomes stranded in a conflicted abolitionist’s attic, and then finds her way to Tennessee, the site of what seems to be an apocalyptic plague. Finally she finds herself in an isolated black commune in Indiana, where she briefly thrives. But that too is destroyed by mistrustful whites. And so she steals away once more, this time reaching the northern terminus of the railroad, presumably in Canada. Cora stumbles out of a tunnel, famished and dazed, and she soon discovers a road. Eventually, a wagon guided by a black man taking his family toward the West rolls by, and the family, wary but receptive, invites her to join them. The final scene of the novel finds Cora sharing a meal with the family, as they all continue to “steal away” toward those places and communities where Jesus might be found, however such places are finally named. That concluding image conveys that it may not be a place, finally, that can provide a lasting scene of safety and embrace. Places can become temporary shelters. But it’s people who ultimately provide the sense of sanctuary and rest that each and every human being requires, and deserves.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,” the song goes. “Come to me, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. Generations of people have been doing the same ever since Jesus spoke those words, ever since the Underground Railroad operated. They come overland from Central and South America because of the crushing poverty they’ve experienced, or because of wars being fought in their region. They come by plane and ship from the Middle East or from Africa, fleeing persecution and violence. They come from far flung places, the way each of our ancestors did. My own ancestors arrived from a German speaking part of Prussia in the early 20th century, a region that now falls in Russian territory. They came for religious reasons, stealing away toward some imagined community that would incarnate the spirit of Jesus for them. Their path brought them first through Canada, and then they dipped down into North Dakota. That’s where my grandfather was born. Soon after, the winters proved too fearsome, and so they found their way to the orange groves of Southern California, where my dad was born, and, about thirty years later, where I was born. Someone within each of our families has put those words into practice: steal away, steal away. Stealing away because we are heavy laden is a part of our narrative too.
Many of us have been alarmed and appalled by the rhetoric surrounding immigrants during the election cycle, rhetoric that is now being enacted in policy. Talk of building a wall between the US and Mexico, a travel ban on residents of several predominantly Muslim countries, an attempt to suspend the refugee program, increased raids against immigrant communities, and a climate of fear that can only be termed “domestic terrorism” for the dread and foreboding that has swept through immigrant communities across the country – all of this has left many of us wondering how such heartlessness has come to thrive around us. And it’s left many of us wondering what it means to be a Christian here, now, in the midst of so much callous disregard for human life. Where is Jesus now, and how is it still possible to steal away toward Jesus?
Here’s one way: last week you affirmed the move to purchase a house to be used for refugee resettlement in perpetuity, trusting in faith that such opportunities can and will still be granted. I was immensely proud of our community after last week’s vote, and I want to tell you how grateful I remain to be a part of a place such as this. You continually help to renew my own faith – in humanity, but also in Jesus. I want you to know that.
But I also want to tell you about another acute need that has arisen. A few weeks ago, we conducted a simple experiment around here, with startling results. I had been wondering how many of the folks that show up in our church on Saturday mornings for our food pantry might have concerns about their immigration status, or about that of someone they know and love. And so Paul Chapman, one of our members, put together a questionnaire that could be filled out anonymously. And it asked just a few simple questions. Are you concerned about your immigration status right now? If so, how concerned, on a scale from “very” to “moderately” to “a little.” And then, would it be helpful to speak to an attorney? We conducted that experiment because I imagined there would be a handful of people passing through our doors who might need advice or help. But I didn’t imagine the scale. Fifty people filled out the questionnaire, some responding in English and some in Spanish. Of those fifty, every single one responded that they were very concerned. Of those, some thirty responded that they would like to speak with someone with legal expertise. That was one Saturday, with one representative sample of people who show up at our Food Pantry. Whether we realize it or not, those are members of this community every bit as much as those of us who show up for worship on Sunday mornings.
I shared that story this past Tuesday when our Board of Deacons met, and we had a long conversation about how to respond not only to the challenges confronting those who come to the Food Pantry, but how to provide an ethical and faithful response in the face of the assaults on the dignity and humanity of immigrants under the new administration. Our Deacons represent a variety of political persuasions, but there was unanimity around the table that to be faithful right now requires a commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. And there was unanimity around the notion that the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme should understand itself in more than a casual way as a sanctuary for those who might need such a sanctuary. There was unanimity around the notion that we should be those among whom Jesus can be found. Let me say a few words about what we understand all of that to mean, and what we don’t understand it to mean.
First, it might mean opening ourselves to providing a space of hospitality should someone threatened with deportation need such a space. It might mean allowing individuals or families to dwell within these walls for a time, in order to slow down an overly aggressive or hasty deportation process. That’s what happened among a number of faith communities in the 1980’s, when refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua were threatened with deportation, an action that would have had life threatening consequences. Those refugees lived within the walls of various faith communities, and the authorities respected the autonomy of those communities, which were, quite literally, practicing their vocation by providing sanctuary to those individuals. They were fulfilling the original meaning of that word, “sanctuary,” which traces its roots back to the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Numbers, Moses is instructed by God to establish cities of sanctuary where individuals could flee should they be in need of protection. Monasteries and other religious communities continued to fulfill that vocation for hundreds of years, and in the 1980s, churches here in the United States drew on that legacy when they offered protection to those under threat of deportation. And that’s a possibility that some religious communities are now exploring. We know that one woman in Colorado is currently living in a church, because so far, police and ICE agents are reluctant to enter a house of worship to detain someone. It’s relatively rare for people to take up residence in a church for these purposes, and it’s unlikely that we would ever be asked. But should it occur, you need to know that the Board of Deacons has discussed it, and has signaled their willingness to explore that option. You also need to know that neither the ministers nor the Board would be breaking the law – should it ever come to pass, it’s incumbent upon us to be forthright and transparent about our actions, and to reach an agreement with the authorities. In other words, this couldn’t be an underground effort aimed at concealment. Instead, it would be an effort to let the full array of legal resources be tapped prior to any precipitous actions by immigration authorities.
That’s one possibility, and a very, very unlikely one. As with Colson Whitehead’s novel, for many right now safety won’t be found in a particular place, at least not for long. At present, the fullest meaning of sanctuary will be discovered in a different form, which is to say, in the ways that individuals and communities organize to support those who are feeling threatened. It’s the act of accompaniment, of being with, that will provide the greatest sense of security. And I think that’s a far more likely way that we can be of use in this moment. We’ve learned that having someone be present as an observer and friend during a court hearing or summons makes it far less likely that the individual in question will be detained, or deported. We’ve heard stories suggesting that the presence of a friend or companion, especially (and I’m sorry to report this) if they’re white, makes it far more likely that the individual in question will be released quickly.
We won’t need this yet, but soon, I’ll ask for volunteers to sign up, so that we have a list of individuals who would be willing to serve as sanctuary liasons, those who accompany and journey with, those who offer themselves as sanctuaries. The time may well come when we’re asked to do just that, to accompany those who are walking through hell. But what we need right now is a small of group of lawyers willing to do some pro bono work on Saturday mornings, offering free legal counsel to those who could use it. If you have those skills, or if you have contacts with those who do, please let me know, or let Carleen know, or let Lina Tuck know – Lina has agreed to help organize our efforts. But even if none of this ever comes to pass for us, even if we’re never asked to house someone, or to accompany someone, the ministers believe, and our Board of Deacons believes, that it’s important for us to openly declare ourselves a space of sanctuary, which, I hasten to add, we already are, simply by being a house of worship. That declaration can help to establish a moral and ethical norm, where institutions and communities like this one become sites of safety, protection, embrace, and yes, sanctuary.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” At some point in each of our lives, we’ve experienced some form of sanctuary, where we’ve felt held and protected amidst forces that would undo us. At some time or place, we’ve all experienced that sense of healing enclosure, whether in a place or, more likely, among people. Whenever we do, no matter where or with whom, I believe that Jesus is present. And it’s that experience of finding peace within the clamor that will enable us to provide the same to others, whether in a dramatic way, or in a way far smaller.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. May we become those among whom Jesus can be found.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Ruth 1: 6-17; Romans 12: 9-18
February 26, 2017
Our Sanctuary is Your Sanctuary, Part II: A Muslim and Christian Friendship
“Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.”
Those are words from the Book of Ruth, a lovely, if also a heartrending tale about loss, but also about the bonds of friendship and love that develop between two women. It’s a story found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it constitutes one of the great gifts bequeathed to us in the pages of the Bible. It’s a story we need right about now.
Here it is, in a nutshell. Naomi lives with her husband and two sons in Bethlehem, but food is scarce, and so the family opts to become refugees, journeying to a neighboring land that is more prosperous. While the family is there, Naomi’s sons mature, and in time, they both marry women from that neighboring land. These are marriages across cultures, across religious lines, across tribal and familial allegiances. One daughter in law is named Orpah. The other is Ruth. But after a decade, tragedy strikes, and Naomi’s husband dies. Both of her sons do too. The text doesn’t tell us what happened or why, only that it happened. Some of you have experienced the death of a spouse, and a few of you, I know, have even lived through the death of a child. And so you know how everything in life gets scrambled and rearranged after such an event. But it’s even more complex for Naomi, for she is an exile, and she decides to return to Bethlehem to be with her own people. And she urges Orpah and Ruth to return to their own homes, and to rebuild their lives, for she has nothing further to offer them by way of a future. Orpah protests, but then relents, and departs. Ruth, however, chooses to remain. A bond had developed between the women, and Ruth decides that her future lies within that bond, and not outside of it. Despite the differences of culture, history, and language between the women, Ruth chooses to preserve that bond, rather than letting the circumstances of life dissolve it. I suspect the bond between Ruth and Naomi was forged in their shared adversity and sorrow, as they came to depend upon one another for their well being. “Where you go I will go,” Ruth says. “Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.” Ruth’s story is a beautiful testimony to the power of friendship, to the power of walking together, to the power of journeying with one another, especially through difficult or painful moments.
I cite the story of Ruth because it functions as a parable for the kind of friendships that I believe each of us is called to. I cite the story of Ruth because it’s a parable for the kind of friendship that I believe our entire community is called to. I cite the story of Ruth because it might even function as a metaphor for the relationships that we’re celebrating today with our friends from the Berlin mosque. That set of relationships developed through shared visits and journeys and conversations, and I can tell you that I can think of few leaders of religious communities whose wisdom I trust more than Reza or Aida Mansoor, or the many other individuals we’re privileged to know within the Muslim community here in Connecticut. In a time when suspicion and fear are being directed toward the Muslim community with renewed force, I wonder if Ruth’s words to Naomi might also be used to ground our relationships with our Muslim friends: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” It’s a vision of accompaniment, of journeying with one another, of sharing life with one another. It’s a vision in keeping with the sort of stretch theology I’ve been advocating around here for a while now, where drawing close in relationship with others opens us to a holy envy, rendering the borders between traditions and practices more than a little porous.
I don’t need to tell you how important those bonds of affection are right now. I don’t need to tell you how important it is for different religious faiths to accompany one another through what may prove to be perilous times. I don’t need to tell you such things. But I will. Muslims have been rendered incredibly vulnerable by voices that have attempted to delegitimize Islam, making it somehow alien to what is called “American life,” or “Western Civilization.” Several weeks ago, some kind and generous soul anonymously sent me a brochure that detailed all the ways Muslims supposedly undermined American democracy, relying on stereotypes and misinformation that reminded me of the anti-Semitic document from the early 20th century, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That document described a global conspiracy of Jews intent on world domination, a piece of propaganda that spread through Europe, and that Henry Ford himself paid to have printed and distributed throughout the United States. The brochure I received wasn’t nearly as sophisticated, though I hesitate to apply that term to The Protocols. It was crude, but it traded in some of the same tropes, like these: Islam is bent on world domination. The Muslim mind is incapable of exercising reason, and is hostile to science. Islam spreads dictatorships and terror, while the West spreads democracy. The Koran is a uniquely violent document. And Islam and its practitioners are a monolithic entity, where everyone somehow shares identical beliefs and practices. It’s painful to repeat those stereotypes, because they’re so flagrantly misinformed. But the brochure I received represents the kind of paranoia that’s afflicting many segments of our culture right now, even among some otherwise thoughtful people. And while a part of me feels a sense of frustration and outrage over what seem to be willful misrepresentations, another larger part of me feels heartsick, because the capacity for relationship, for trust, for conversation, and for friendship has been foreclosed. There can be no Ruths or Naomis in such a paranoid climate.
Reza and Aida Mansoor have been tireless in their efforts to help individuals and communities understand Islam a little better, and to help everyone, even those of us who occupy a different religious identity, to fall in love with Islam. I don’t know how they manage to be in all of the places that they do. Their energy and their spirit seem boundless to me. I’ve asked them to share a little of what they’re experiencing these days, in hopes that our bonds of friendship will continue to grow as we journey with one another into the mystery of life, into the mystery of God, into our shared commitment to stay human in what is coming to seem like an inhumane time. And so I’m delighted to welcome Reza/Aida to the pulpit this morning.
Reza (9:00)/Aida (11:00)
Let me conclude with an image. Every few months I find myself on the Tappan Zee Bridge, crossing the Hudson River. Over the last two years, a new structure has started to take shape alongside the old one, and I look forward to seeing its progress every time I’m there. And I marvel at the ingenuity and skill and precision required to build such a structure. I’ve come to think that bridges might be the single most powerful invention that human beings have learned to build. All of you engineers in the room may not see it as particularly mysterious, but this bookish humanities major finds it nearly impossible to fathom how construction started on one side of the river can meet the construction started on the opposite side in such a precise fashion.
I’ve come to think of that construction as a symbol for the crossings of friendship that can and do occur between individuals and communities. I’ve come to imagine that if we can engineer such incredible structures like the Tappan Zee, let alone other marvels like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate, then surely it’s possible to engineer other sorts of crossings as well, ones that help us affirm the common humanity that we share with our neighbors. Ruth and Naomi are one such human bridge, and Ruth’s words are the concrete pylons and scaffolding that allow such a crossing to take place. But really, there’s a relational set of pylons and beams that allow similar crossings to take place all the time. I’m grateful to be part of a community that fosters those crossings, those friendships. And I’m bold enough to hope that the spirit of Ruth might be enacted between our community in Old Lyme and the Muslim community in Berlin, in Groton, and elsewhere. I’m bold enough to hope that the spirit of Ruth can nurture acts of friendship, acts of accompaniment, journeys of the spirit, allowing us to cross toward one another, and to meet.
That’s the sort of infrastructure I long for these days. That’s the sort of infrastructure I wish to cross as often as I can, as our communities become sanctuaries, one for the other. Perhaps Ruth shall be the spirit guiding us toward one another.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Leviticus 19: 33-34; James 1: 2-5
February 19, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part I
To start, a poem from Marilyn Nelson’s collection of poetry The Meetinghouse, published in honor of our church’s 350 years of ministry. It’s one I’ve shared with many of our boards and committees these past several months, and the time has come to share it with all of you. The poem is entitled “Christians,” and the subheading reads “Rev. Stephen Colton, Minister, First Congregational Church, 1829-1840.” Under that, we see another subheading that says: “The Amistad trial, New Haven and Hartford, 1839-1840.” The Amistad, you’ll recall, was a ship on which slaves being shipped to the United States enacted a successful mutiny, only to be captured by a naval ship in the Long Island Sound. Thereafter, the Amistad was docked in New Haven, where the ship’s African population was placed on trial. It was a moment when a convulsive geopolitical event took place in Connecticut, and Marilyn’s poem imagines how this community may have responded. Here’s the poem, “Christians.”
Are they those who go to church on Sundays,
who close their eyes and whisper the words of prayers,
whose generosity causes no pain,
but the glow of self-congratulation
on a pedestal of self-righteousness.
Are they those who treat people like themselves –
Upright, educated, with good manners –
As they would like to be treated by them.
Are they 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.
Between Christmas Eve, when the Church Council
Voted to stop paying their minister,
And the June day when they bade him farewell,
The church record was carefully erased.
So much of history has been blacked out.
Zipped lips hold back many guilty secrets.
Perhaps Reverend Colton asked them to give
The Amistad prisoners Christmas gifts.
Or perhaps he pointed out that the wealth
Amassed from ships in the Triangle Trade
Was tainted by commodified people.
Did everyone in the congregation
Sigh with relief when Reverend Colton left?
Did anyone ask what a Christian is?
We don’t know, really, why Stephen Colton left Old Lyme. We don’t know why his salary was cancelled. We don’t know how the events playing out 35 miles away in New Haven affected those who lived in Old Lyme. But it seems more than possible that the Amistad trial was a subject of debate in this community, and at the Congregational Church. And it seems entirely likely that conversations occurred then that mirror the conversations occurring around and among us right now. We can imagine comments such as these: “Whatever one thinks about the matter of slavery, it’s divisive to speak of it, and it need not divide us in Old Lyme. Slavery pertains to a different part of the world, and however unfortunate that peculiar institution, it belongs to a different geography. We have local needs to attend to, and need not concern ourselves with far off problems. It’s a political matter, and it has no place in the pulpit or the church. The sphere of the church has to do with matters of the spirit, and so churches should speak of spiritual things, but not public controversies.”
We don’t know what might have been said here in Old Lyme during the Amistad trial. And we don’t know precisely why Stephen Colton’s salary was cut off, an action, I can share, that I fervently hope won’t be repeated! But then as now, conversations surely occurred in Old Lyme about how to respond to the world around us. Then as now, the gospel of Jesus pulls its adherents deeper and deeper into the life of the world. Then as now, the question that concludes the poem crosses into our own place, into our own time, as xenophobia, bigotry, and racism are enacted as a matter of open national policy: Did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
Let me share with you several stories of encounters I’ve had over the past several weeks, encounters that have brought to mind Marilyn’s poem, and the question that hovers around it: did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
First story: I’ve been having my class up at Harvard Divinity School read the work of a German Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, who worked to understand the origin of the hate besetting mid-century Europe. After class, a student approached me and introduced herself, telling me she was thinking about becoming ordained. “You have a church, right?” she said. “Yeah, I do,” I responded. “Well then you’ve got to tell me, where the f— are the churches right now? And where were they in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Germany and France? If there’s ever been a time that churches have demonstrated their absolute irrelevance, with a handful of exceptions, it was then.” She went on to suggest that it felt to her that the same was true now. “Where the hell are you guys?” she wanted to know. It was a question born less of anger or accusation, but rather of anguish.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Second encounter: last weekend, I spent an afternoon at the Hamou household up in Lyme. As most of you know, the three churches here in Old Lyme helped to sponsor and assist this family fleeing the war in Syria, and they’ve since become dear friends. I asked how they were getting along in this new, hostile climate, and they reported that they were OK. But after a pause, Darin, the eldest of the children, shared that another student had approached her at the high school, asking in a hostile tone, “Why are you even here?” What she reported next was heartbreaking to me. She said that the encounter made her want to leave, made her want to go back to Syria, where Syrians can be Syrians. She asked me, “Why don’t Americans like Syrians anymore?” Friends, we need to recognize how delicate, how fragile, how tenuous the sense of welcome and hospitality and embrace that we’ve provided so far actually is. For all the love and support that our friends have received since they arrived, all it takes is one, one, hostile encounter to make it all crumble.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Last set of encounters: I’ve had a number of conversations with those in the gay and lesbian community these past several weeks about the deep sense of unease they’re feeling in this new ideological climate. One person reminded me that it was only one generation ago that homosexuality was removed from the manual of psychological disorders as a form of madness or mental illness. Another confided that it was only two generations ago that gay and lesbian people were being gassed. For all the advances that the LGBTQ community has made over the last several decades, that sense of inclusion and embrace remains fragile, delicate, and all too tenuous. And sadly, churches have harbored and nurtured homophobia for so long that the assumption among many within the LGBTQ community is that no matter how often or forcefully we declare ourselves open and affirming, heteronormativity is so deeply embedded within our discourses that there’s little hope of redeeming the churches. In other words, for many, places like this still feel threatening, and less than hospitable, especially in this new ideological climate.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
For the past month or so, I’ve been recalling practices and themes within the Christian story that can help to guide and orient us within a turbulent moment. I’ve cited the practice of solitude and the practice of discovering wonder and delight as important to our common life. I’ve cited the practice of discernment and I’ve tried to remind us of the agency and power which we all possess, an agency that enables us to enact the values and commitments that are born from our faith. And I’ve circled back to that formative episode between Jesus and Peter, shortly after the disaster of the crucifixion. Jesus offers a simple set of instructions to Peter: feed my sheep. Jesus doesn’t give Peter a theology lesson. He doesn’t quiz him about whether he believes this or that. There’s no catechism, no faith statement, no creed, no orthodoxy to affirm. If you love me, Jesus says, you’ll feed my sheep, which is to say, those most vulnerable to predation from the wolves of the world. These are all gifts of our tradition, stories and practices that can and will anchor us. They’re all clues to the question haunting me, haunting many of us, just about now.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is?
Today, I’d like to introduce the concept of sanctuary to you, an ancient practice that now has a contemporary resonance. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming weeks as well, because I think it’s a particular gift that a number of faith traditions are now providing to the world. You can find references to the practice of sanctuary throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew tradition, for example, the Israelites are instructed in the law to provide welcome to the stranger and the alien dwelling in their midst, a reminder that the Hebrew people were themselves strangers and aliens in Egypt. But that concept was extended to include the establishment of sanctuary cities, spaces in which those under threat could flee. Later, the monastics established that practice within the monasteries, welcoming and protecting those who needed sanctuary from some particular threat. In modernity, it’s a practice that was used by the Underground Railroad. It was used to provide sanctuary to Jews in the Third Reich. And it was used several decades ago in this country as refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador, who had fled their countries because of violence aided and abetted by the United States, were threatened with deportation. Churches organized to offer sanctuary, or protection, to those under threat of deportation.
It’s fast becoming clear that we need a renewed sanctuary movement in this country to address all manner of vulnerabilities that individuals and communities are facing. And it’s fast becoming clear that our community here in Old Lyme will need to play a part. That’s a commitment that our board of deacons has clearly affirmed. And some very concrete plans are now taking shape. I’d like to tell you about one of them today.
Shortly after the election, it was clear to many that the refugee program we had participated in would likely be severely curtailed. The refugee program is one of our country’s proudest traditions and most honorable historic practices. Knowing what was likely to happen, I was quietly approached by a number of donors, who let it be known that they could offer a substantial sum toward the purchase of a house to be used for the resettlement of refugees in perpetuity. The dream was to acquire a house, and then to use that house as a space of refuge for families for a year at a time, give or take some months. It would be a place that they could live as they began the process of seeking work and permanent housing, acquiring language skills and working through the traumas that forced them to leave their homes. It would be, quite literally, a sanctuary. It was a dream, one that did, and still does, require a strong measure of faith and trust, for we don’t fully know what will become of the refugee program. Even so, we began a search. And after several weeks, what seemed to be a perfect house for our purposes came on the market for a thousand dollars less than the amount offered in donations. Time was of the essence – we knew what was coming from the new administration, and we also knew the house would soon be snapped up. It was time to make a move.
I love the symbolism of what followed. On Inauguration Day, as a cold January rain fell on Washington and Connecticut alike, a small group from our refugee resettlement committee gathered to look at the house. We expected the worst, fearing it would need a lot of work. One among that group was a contractor, who reported that it was in fine shape, needing minimal work. By Monday morning, when the barrage of executive orders began to roll out of the White House, we had made an offer. Days went by, and the ban on refugees went into full effect. At the end of the week, we learned that there were other, higher, offers that had been made, and so we countered with a significantly higher bid, refugee ban be damned. We waited again, following the news anxiously, wondering what the fate of that program would be. A week later, the refugee ban had been suspended, at least temporarily. And our offer had been accepted.
Several impediments remained, and remain. Here, you have a part to play. First, our offer was for more than our donors had committed, a sum we planned to make up over time with a modest rent. But another anonymous angel stepped forward, to cover the exact shortfall. We’ll now be able to purchase the house with cash, and without a mortgage. Second, all of you need to have a say in this. Our board of trustees has approved the acquisition of the house, but our bylaws state that any purchase of property by the church requires a special all church meeting in order to vote on that purchase. We’re planning to have that meeting next Sunday, immediately following the 11:00 service. My hope is that the meeting will be brief, because of the urgent and pressing need before us. Third, we’ll need a good many more volunteers to help resettle the next family that arrives. Our current committee is strong, but they’ve worked incredibly hard for the past year. Some members may well be ready for a break. I trust that between the three congregations in town, we’ll find the individuals and skills that we need. But finally, finally, we’re trusting that the refugee program will continue to exist. We know well that there is a significant population from Syria, but also from a good many other countries, that desperately need sanctuary right now. We’re hoping, trusting, and praying that we can help to meet those needs. But that may be beyond our control. What we can do, what we are doing, is to prepare ourselves as an act of faith. During Advent, I told you about the trapeze artist that flew in midair, hoping that he would be caught. His words: the flyer flies, the catcher catches. The flyer, hanging in midair, must trust, trust, trust. So it is with us, and this first gesture toward sanctuary. We prepare ourselves. We leap. And we trust, trust, trust.
Does anyone ask what a Christian is, here, now, in the 21st century? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, not fully. It’s kept me up at nights, wondering what the poets might say of us a hundred years hence, should we be remembered at all. Let them at least say that in a benighted era, we risked a response, in fear, in trembling, and in faith. Let them say that we let it be known that our sanctuary is your sanctuary.