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.
If you had occasion to visit Lyme Street on Tuesday night, you would have seen hundreds of people on either side of the street decked out in all manner of costumes, ringing doorbells and asking for tricks, or more likely, treats. It’s the one night of the year that Old Lyme comes alive after dark, and I enjoy the sense of festivity and play that comes with the evening. I love the creativity that goes into some of the costumes, and I especially like thinking about the tradition of dressing up, and becoming a different character for a time. It’s something that many of us got to do in school plays when we were kids or adolescents, trying on new identities for a short period, and then playing with the emotions associated with those identities in a way that allowed us to experience something outside of our ordinary experience, without being capsized by it. That’s why I enjoy thinking about the masks that kids put on when Halloween comes around every year. There were the ghouls and zombies and superheroes and children’s book characters, all of them trying on a different identity, knocking on the door, holding out buckets already loaded with candy, hoping to add a little more to the load.
As I was walking up Lyme Street on Tuesday, trying to catch up with my kids, I caught myself thinking that perhaps this practice of masking was theological in its orientation. There are certainly powerful examples throughout the world of human beings donning masks in order to incarnate a god or a spirit. I take it that Halloween is a vestigial trace of those practices. But it’s the reverse dynamic that caught my imagination on Tuesday. I began to wonder if perhaps it’s God who most often wears a mask. Halloween and the Scriptures alike encourage us to treat appearances delicately. Beneath the ghoulish mask, after all, you might find your neighbor, or your neighbor’s kid. And beneath the appearance of an ordinary person, the Scriptures teach us, you might discover a god, or an angel, or perhaps Jesus himself.
The New Testament is filled with stories about the concealed appearances of the divine. In fact, once you begin reading the New Testament through this prism of masks, of concealment, you find examples everywhere. Everywhere. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus himself is a concealed appearance of the divine, and very few are able to recognize him. But our Scripture lessons for the morning dramatize these moments of masks and misrecognitions in powerful ways.
We’ll start with Hebrews. That book counsels its readers never to cease the practice of hospitality, for in welcoming the stranger, one often entertains angels unaware. We’re all familiar with the iconography of angels, the winged beings who announce this or that in various biblical tales. But the real definition of an angel is looser in the Bible, and more mysterious by far. An angel is simply a messenger of God, though in the tales we read, those messengers are usually personified and given regal sounding names. Still, I think we can understand an angel as that which conveys a message of the divine to us, that which causes us to pause and wonder at something, that which reminds us of our vocation as carriers of the gospel of peace into the world. In that sense, each of us possesses the capacity to become as angels, not in the sense of phantasmatic beings, but in the New Testament sense of becoming a window into the divine, of providing a glimpse of God, albeit a God disguised or masked. You are a mask of God. I want you to hear that this morning. Each of you is a window into the divine when you practice acts of compassion and hospitality, when you exhibit moments of generosity or understanding. Each of you possess the capacity to be an angel, which is simply a fancy way saying a messenger of God. So too, when you open yourself to another, receiving them with care, you entertain angels, masks of the divine, who may bear important messages that you need to receive.
But it’s our second lesson that I find most striking of all. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” are the words Jesus speaks to the church at Laodicea. “If you hear my voice and open the door to me, I will come in to eat with you, and you with me,” he tells the church. What’s interesting about that passage is the scene of misrecognition that it conveys. Jesus stands outside the church, not inside, asking to come in. It’s not that Jesus is inside, trying to get out to the rest of the world. Rather, it seems for this church, he’s never been there. Which begs the question: just what has been there all along? Presumably, this early church possessed all the appurtenances of Christian worship. Presumably there were songs that were sung, prayers that were prayed, meals that were shared, Scriptures that were read. Presumably Jesus had been proclaimed within the walls of that church, but the text hints that the church at Laodicea had mistaken all of that for the presence of Jesus himself. But he had never been there. Jesus is still trying to get in, but somehow the church can’t hear him or see him or notice him, because the appearances have deceived them. “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the church at Laodicea heard the knocks. We don’t know if they received that visitor. But in a way it doesn’t matter. It’s our response that the text elicits, not that of the church in Laodicea. Perhaps it’s the door of every church that Jesus is knocking upon. Perhaps the door is ours.
This past week I started reading a book that I recommend to all of you, a book that is, ultimately, about the masks of God. It’s about the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, and about Paul Verryn’s leadership there. Paul is a long time friend of this congregation, known to many of you through his frequent visits here, or through your visits to South Africa. If you haven’t met Paul, you’ve likely seen his portrait in the hallway leading toward the fellowship hall. We keep it there because Paul has served as an angel to our congregation, a messenger reminding us of who and what we’re called to be. But let me tell you about the book. It’s entitled Sanctuary: How an Inner City Church Spilled Onto a Sidewalk, and it describes how, through Paul’s leadership, Central Methodist became a refuge to the homeless and the displaced living in Johannesburg.
Here’s the story: as the situation in Robert Mugabi’s Zimbabwe deteriorated, a flood of refugees fled across the border looking for safety. And because of Central’s long history, and because of Paul’s reputation for exercising hospitality, many of them knocked at the door of the church, so to speak. Paul turned none of them away. The numbers swelled from a handful, to a few hundred, to a thousand, and, at the height of a xenophobic scare that swept through South Africa, more than three thousand. You can see pictures and videos of this if you search for it. People slept everywhere – in pews, under pews, in cabinets, in hallways, on narrow steps, arrayed one by one on each level. Meanwhile, the church began offering classes for all of these refugees – dance and karate classes, language classes and job training. It provided a makeshift health clinic. Food trucks were set up on the streets outside to provide food, while a whole system of organization was established to maintain a semblance of order.
You can imagine how that set with many of the neighbors. You can imagine how that set with many of the long time parishioners of the church. You can imagine, as well, how it set with some of the political authorities in Johannesburg. Even in the face of severe backlash, Paul refused to stand down. He refused to cast these individuals into the streets, because each of them was, for him, an instance of Jesus drawing near. “There is no doubt that the way in which we treat the stranger reflects our humanity,” Paul told a reporter at the time. “Whether that stranger be from another country or whether those strangers be strange because they are poor is beside the point. If we are going to survive as a human race, we are going to have to reassess our fundamental value system.”
At our last Deacon’s meeting, we agreed to read this chronicle of Paul Verryn’s efforts to answer the call of Jesus in Johannesburg. We did so because we thought it might provide insight into some of the questions our church is currently facing. Last year’s political campaign brought with it a wave of xenophobic resentment, which after the election was converted into policies that have scared the living daylights out of immigrants residing in the US without documentation. Deportations are up 43% in 2017 vs. 2016. Now, I know a common rejoinder is that these are people who have come to the United States illegally, and that this crackdown is simply an enforcing of preexisting laws. Maybe. But many of the targets have been here for decades. Many have families, and children. Many came in order to join other family members who were already here. Many were fleeing political instability, or violence. Many have never known a home other than the United States, having arrived here as infants. Whether you know it or not, these are our neighbors. They come to our Food Pantry and work in our stores and service our cars and take care of our properties. Might they also be the masks of God? Might they also be the guises in which Jesus appears to us?
For the second time this year at our Deacon’s meeting, we discussed the prospect of inviting a person, or a family, threatened with deportation to reside here in our church building. We had discussed that prospect back in February as well, and the Deacons had offered unanimous consent that this was something we ought to pursue. Since then, I had received an email suggesting that, if we were willing, we might soon be asked to house someone here in the church who was under threat of immediate deportation. While that particular case didn’t come to pass, it did make plain that the moment of being asked could arrive suddenly and without warning, and it seemed to me that we needed to be prepared. I’m pleased to share that the Deacons remained steadfast that our community should be willing to provide sanctuary to such an individual if called upon.
Here’s what it would mean. Thus far, immigration agents have agreed not to enter houses of worship to arrest people. And so that individual would have to reside within this building. We’ve asked about whether our refugee house would work, but unfortunately it won’t. Only houses of worship apply, which in this case entails this whole contiguous building. Working with our property committee and our Sunday School team, we’ve been able to identify a room that we think would work well for such a residency. We think we’ve located enough furniture to make it habitable, and Lina Tuck, our immigration assistance coordinator, is working with her list of volunteers to coordinate other details, such as food.
But other questions came up during our Deacon’s meeting, such as the following: Is it illegal to provide sanctuary at a church? The answer to that is no. In order to do this legally, we would have to conduct a press conference immediately upon receiving an individual or family, and we would have to notify both the local police and ICE. We can’t be furtive about this. We wouldn’t be contravening the law, so much as seeking to slow the legal process down, so that an appeals process can do its work. Another question: how long would this individual stay here? The answer is that we don’t know. There are several churches in the New Haven area providing sanctuary at the moment. One individual has resided in a church in downtown New Haven for several months now, while another went into sanctuary, and was granted a stay by the court 4 days later. So it’s impossible to determine how long it could last. Another question: will this individual or family be “safe” for our community, meaning will they have criminal backgrounds? The answer to that is a qualified no. These are individuals who have been screened by a team of lawyers currently assigned to them, whose cases allow for some hope of an extension, or an appeal, or a legal path toward residency. They could, theoretically, have police records involving minor infractions, but we wouldn’t be asked to harbor violent criminals, or anyone, really, whose case was at a legal dead end. But again, what we would be allowing is a temporary cessation of the deportation process, so that an appeals process can unfold in a fair and timely manner.
But here’s the last, and most important question: why should the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme engage in such an activity? To that, I point first to the portrait of Paul Verryn hanging in our corridor. Why should we honor him so, why should we sustain our relationship with Paul, inviting him to visit us and preach and pray over us, if we’re not prepared to enact the sort of theology he has envisioned, and the sort of hospitality that he has enacted? Paul Verryn is one of our angels, a messenger, offering us a clear vision of what it means to be a people of bold faith in the world. So too, I would point to the long history of this congregation, courageously challenging what the Apostle Paul called the powers and principalities of this world. We’ve done it near, and we’ve done it far, but it’s been a consistent part of our 352 year history. I do occasionally hear the complaint that we ought to be worrying about what goes on in our backyard more than we do about what happens in other places around the globe, and while I have questions about that dichotomy and the ideological biases that undergird it, this is a moment when I can say: now’s our chance to address what’s happening in our own backyards. Now’s our chance to speak forcefully about something befalling our neighbors here in Connecticut. But finally, and most importantly, I’d answer in a theological vein. I’d review all the instances in the Bible when God appears incognito, under cover of a mask. I’d point to those instances in the Bible when we’re instructed to find Jesus among the dispossessed, the homeless, and in this case, the stateless. And I would point to that passage in the book of Revelation, that depicts Jesus as standing outside the church, waiting to come in, as if he were a refugee, as if he were a migrant, as if he were under threat of deportation. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says. Were we to open the door, I suspect we would open ourselves to a rather large, and indefinite, project. But I also suspect we would be opening ourselves to an enlargement of our hearts, an enlargement of our world, an enlargement of our faith. I suspect we would be opening the door to an immense opportunity to grow as people of faith and conscience.
Jesus continues to knock. How shall we answer?
 Kuljian, Christa, Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled Onto a Sidewalk, (South Africa: Jacana Press, 2013), pg. 164.
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