The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Matthew 6: 19-21; Hebrews 12: 1-3
February 12, 2017
Angels of Alternate Histories, Clouds of Alternate Witness
I’ll give you fair warning here at the beginning: this will be a sermon about money, ultimately. And so if you’re visiting or you’re trying to get your bearings in this place, I’ll preempt any discomfort you might feel by acknowledging that yes, there are some institutional realities to contend with this morning. But I’ll also try to short circuit any sense of boredom or impatience you might feel by saying that, sure, we’ll talk a little bit about money eventually, we’ll also talk about a lot of other things along the way, because money’s never really about money – it’s about what and who we’re related to. Let’s speak of other things first.
Like this: Hanging on the wall in my office is a reproduction of a 1920 painting from the great Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. It’s entitled Angelus Novus, or “The New Angel.” You have an image of the painting on the cover of your bulletins. It is indeed an angel, though there’s something raw about the way it’s sketched, almost as if it was done by a child. In fact, to my eye, it looks vaguely primitive, as if the artist were attempting to remember the traditional form of an angel, but can only approximate it – wings, a head, eyes, a torso, but little else. Gone are the soft or soothing features that one might notice on a Renaissance canvas. There’s nothing particularly sweet, or cherubic, about Klee’s angel. And yet I love it. It’s an angel fit for modernity, a mythic form recast for a new and turbulent era. But I also love it because of an essay written in 1940 in which Klee’s painting figures prominently. The essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” was written by a Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, fleeing the Third Reich. Benjamin is a figure I return to again and again, and one of the great pleasures of the past several weeks has been introducing my students at Harvard to his incomparable writings, and getting to immerse myself in his words again. Benjamin witnessed some of the most painful and tragic parts of the 20th century, and so it’s not surprising that he interprets the Angelus Novus from within that space, as a witness to the history of human wreckage. About Klee’s painting, he writes:
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. (The angel’s) face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, (the angel) sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed, but a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.”
For Benjamin, Klee’s angel is a witness to history, storm tossed by the calamities that human beings seem continually to heap up at the angel’s feet. The angel is a tragic figure in Benjamin’s writing. I keep the image on my wall as a reminder of my great love for Walter Benjamin. I keep the image there in order to remind myself of the ethical and spiritual importance of bearing witness to the tragedies piling up at the angel’s feet. And I keep that image on my wall because the angel’s wide eyed gaze somehow helps me recall that there are other possibilities available to us, born not from wreckage, but from grace.
Every Monday morning I catch the train up to Boston, and I’m afforded several precious hours of uninterrupted time, which I try to use for reading. This past week I came across an essay about an angel corresponding to the one found on my wall, but with a very different purpose. This angel is described by Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark. Solnit is, for my money, one of the most creative and freewheeling and consistently surprising writers out there right now. Instead of Walter Benjamin’s mute witness to the catastrophes of the world, Solnit proposes an equal but opposite angel bearing witness to all the terrible things that might have occurred but didn’t because of the activity and presence of this or that person, of this or that group of people. It’s an idea that she borrows from Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. You remember the film, I’m sure. After a financial mishap brings George Bailey to the brink of suicide, a hapless angel named Clarence walks him back from despair by showing George the world as it might have been had he never been present. His brother might have drowned, a grieving pharmacist may have inadvertently filled a prescription with poison, the townspeople might have fallen into bankruptcy had George not intervened, and so on. George can’t see it or notice it without angelic eyes to guide him, but his activities and interventions wind up mattering not so much because of what does take place, but because of what doesn’t take place.
Solnit expands upon that image, making it a metaphor for the work of the engaged and active community in the world. The thought is that, even if we can’t see or notice it, the smallest interventions, the acts of courage and grace that individuals and collectives really do manage every now and then may just wind up staving off disaster, or at any rate, worse disasters. And so instead of an angel bearing witness to the catastrophes that do take place, she proposes an angel bearing witness to the victories that are won because people do step up, show up, stand up, like that iconic image of the Chinese man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, blocking a parade of tanks.
One of Solnit’s animating concerns is ecology, and she notes the many forests that stand today because conscientious groups demonstrated or wrote or exercised boycotts to prevent them from being turned into malls or parking lots or lodges. To the untrained eye, a forest is just a forest and a mountain is just a mountain, but to those with angelic eyes, trained to see the futures that never came to pass, those forests and mountains bear witness to what might have happened but never did, thanks to the dedication and agency of a small group of concerned people. She cites an area on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that would have become a huge Disney owned ski resort had the Sierra Club not opposed it. She cites Mono Lake in California, which is back to its historic water levels after years of being siphoned off by the city of Los Angeles, a result of nearly twenty years of concerted action by environmentalists. She cites Ward Valley, in the Mojave Desert, which was slated to be a nuclear waste dump before five tribes intervened and fought the action for a decade. She cites a town called Sierra Blanca on the Texas-Mexico border, where another nuclear waste dump was planned, and she cites an effort by the Cherokee Tribe in Oklahoma that halted uranium mining that was devastating the landscape. “If we did more,” Solnit writes, “the world would undoubtedly be better; what we have done has sometimes kept it from becoming worse.” In other words, Solnit says, while the angel of history, the one hanging in my office, looks at things and sighs, the angel of alternate history looks at things and says: “Could be worse.”
We need both angels, the one to bear witness to that which really does happen. We need to contend with the tragic dimension of the world if we’re going to be faithful and engaged and alive. But we need the other angel as well, represented by Clarence, to help us understand that our actions, yours and mine, matter, maybe way more than we realize.
As I read Solnit’s essay, I got to thinking about the life of faith, and the cloud of witnesses written about in the book of Hebrews. The writer had in mind all sorts of biblical characters when he was writing, but I started to wonder about a cloud of witnesses in keeping with Paul Klee’s or Rebecca Solnit’s angel. Might we have our own angels, our own cloud alternate witnesses, observing not what happens, but what doesn’t happen because faithful people put their faith into action? Might there be both an angel of alternate history, and a cloud of alternate witnesses?
That question, in turn, got me thinking about this place, and about all of you. I got to wondering if perhaps there might be a cloud of witnesses observing the tragedies or hardships that were actually prevented because of the work that you’ve pursued, that we’ve pursued, for so long now. I got to thinking about the heat that wasn’t turned off in the middle of winter, the family that wasn’t evicted and put out on the street, or the person that didn’t lose their job, all because those individuals received help from our Minister’s Discretionary Fund – which so many of you have contributed to. I got to thinking about the families that weren’t hungry during the week, and that did receive a good breakfast once a week, because so many of you have helped with the Food Pantry over the years. I thought about the Morning Glory Café, and how it wouldn’t be there except for the efforts of this congregation, joining hands with the other faith communities in town to help Laotian refugees during the 1980’s. I thought about our friends the Hamous, and wondered what their alternate future might have been had our community or communities like this one not offered them hospitality.
And then my thoughts drifted farther. I thought about all the things we can barely imagine or fathom, wondering if maybe, just maybe, an angel of alternate history might be able to show us what might have happened had we not chosen to enter a relationship with our friends at Green Grass, had we not chosen to engage in a partnership with various communities in Palestine, had some of you never boarded a plane for South Africa to do a Habitat Build, had we never bothered to travel on a Wheels of Justice journey through the South. It might be that our angel, our alternate witnesses, would report no change. It might be that had we not been a part of those things, some other community would have. It might be that everyone would be better off if we’d just minded our own business, tended our own yards, concerned ourselves with this or that. It might be. I don’t mean this to be an exercise in narcissism. But it might also be that those relationships helped someone survive a depression, or make it through an alcoholic winter. It might be that something we did kept a child in school, or offered someone the gift of literacy. It might be that we helped our friends to believe that someone in the world still remembered them. Without being narcissistic, without being self-congratulatory, without hubris or pride, the angel of alternate history might help us to understand how consequential our work actually is.
I warned earlier that this would ultimately be a sermon about money, and it is. Most of us give some amount of our money away – to the organizations or the people or the places or the causes that we care about most. I think the angel of alternate history might offer us perspective on that as well, bearing witness to all that wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened had we not given something away, or to all that might never have taken place had we chosen to keep that money for ourselves. Only the angel could say. But I believe that what we give is a vital part of how we participate in the world around us, how we enact our agency, how we proclaim what we believe to be true.
One of the initiatives we’ve been working on around here is to establish a preservation fund to help cover our major maintenance needs. We have this iconic building, made famous by artists who have flocked to Old Lyme for a century now, so famous in fact that Oprah Winfrey, of all people, owns the most iconic portrait of our church, painted by Childe Hassam. Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me – a church is not a building. A church is a community of people – it’s you and me and all that we do together. But the architecture, the meetinghouse, the grounds, these are the tools – the hardware, if you will – that allow us to do what we do, and to do it well. Our wider mission would be strengthened by an ongoing set of resources that covered the costs of maintaining and preserving this beautiful structure. Tom Grant is a member of our board of trustees, and he’s worked to help us jump start the preservation fund. And so I’ve asked Tom to offer some of his thoughts this morning on one set of possibilities for enacting, and preserving, our agency.
I leave you with a question: what might the angel of our alternate history show us? What might the cloud of alternative witnesses offer about the ways we’ve contributed to the world? How might you participate in that work? You may or may not be able to help the preservation fund to grow. You may or may not be able to give to our ongoing work here at the church. If you can, know how much it means. If you can’t, know that we need you in other ways. One way or another, I believe that each of us is empowered to act, empowered to give, empowered to participate in building a world of compassion and grace, tolerance and beauty, justice and generosity. I’d like to believe that, in part, because of the ways each of us throw ourselves into the work that needs to be done, an angel of alternate history, and a chorus of alternate witnesses looks upon the world and thinks, for all the damage that can and does occur, thank God for all that didn’t occur. Thank God for all that didn’t occur because of a handful of faithful and committed people. May we be among them.
 As quoted in Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2016), pg. 70.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Matthew 5: 13-16; 2 Corinthians 4: 1-12
January 29, 2017
To Risk Delight
Here’s a poem that I’ve been sharing at our board and committee meetings recently. It’s called “A Brief for the Defense,” by a poet named Jack Gilbert. When I introduce it, I warn that it’s dark in tone, but that it has insights and wisdom that speak to our needs right about now. And I’ll offer the same introduction to all of you. This is a poem for troubled times, but I happen to know from conversations I’ve had that more than a few of you feel troubled down to your bones right about now. Even so, there’s wisdom here, and I think it’s important to reflect on Jack Gilbert’s wisdom, especially on the day of our annual meeting, when we reflect on where we’ve been this past year, and anticipate what might yet be required of us in the coming year. And so without further introduction, here’s “A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that may yet come.
I’ve come back to Jack Gilbert’s words again and again for the wisdom embedded in several lines. Here are a few: we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. We must admit there will be music, despite everything. There is laughter everyday in the terrible streets of Calcutta. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. But above all, I return to the line: We must risk delight. That may sound counterintuitive. It might sound like a middle class justification for fiddling, while Rome burns. It might strike you as irresponsible, or decadent. Even so, what I have to offer you this morning is the admonition to risk delight, even in the furnace of the world.
Before risking delight, however, I’d like to risk an affirmation. I’m aware that we’re a diverse congregation, composed of differing points of view. I’m aware that for some of you, the pronouncements rolling out of Washington aren’t especially alarming, and are simply part of the cycle of change and transition that we all need to adjust to. I’m also aware that for many within our community, executive actions and pronouncements having to do with border walls, immigrants, refugees, religious discrimination, women’s reproductive rights and the environment have been the cause of enormous emotional anguish, to say nothing of fear and vulnerability. I do recognize that as a community, we are diverse in our composition, made up of numerous, and sometimes competing points of view. That’s all true.
But I also believe that as people of faith, we possess core values that unite us, what the Apostle Paul called treasures contained in clay pots. We possess treasures, you and I, that should not be forgotten, diminished, or neglected. One such treasure that unites us is a desire to discover, or perhaps to retain, a moral bearing in the world. We wish to be good, and to do the right thing. Another such treasure that unites us is this faith that, at root, encourages a spirit of generosity and compassion, hospitality and grace, humility and kindness and truth telling. This is what the Apostle Paul described as the fruits of the Spirit, which our children are busy learning about downstairs every week. Those are the sorts of human qualities that we all strive to practice. Here’s another treasure: we’re united by a faith that places value not only on interpersonal exchanges, but a faith that has a lived social dimension. To follow Jesus, to belong to the Reformed Tradition, to be a Congregationalist, means that faith isn’t only about a personal relationship with Jesus, although I’m glad if that’s something you have. It means that we care about social and cultural trends, and participate in shaping, or resisting, those trends as best we’re able. Another treasure: we’re united by a faith that insists on the goodness of the natural world, a world that, in the earliest stories of the Bible, humans are instructed to care for. We’re material creatures, embedded within a material world, and that very materiality is to be embraced and cared for – whether that involves caring for bodies or caring for the planet. Yet another treasure: we’re united by a faith that affirms the sanctity of human life, an affirmation that stretches across religious and national and economic and ethnic and racial and sexual boundaries. You are God’s beloved child, and so is everyone else, even the bigots, even the religious extremists. And then this, the most important treasure of all: we’re united by a sense that we’re all of us pursued, called, lured, drawn and invited by a gentle Presence that, despite the furnace of the world, despite the animosity and fear, wishes us well. We’re united by the affirmation that there is a beating heart within the universe, one that is both broken and playful, somehow upholding and guiding those with eyes to see and ears to hear. We have these treasures.
Those are non-negotiable pieces of what it means to follow in the ways of Jesus. They’re non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be a part of a community of faith. And so yes, we’re composed of differences, but whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Socialist, moderate, anarchist, or apolitical in your orientation, we are all united by a common faith that affirms that we are all stitched together as God’s beloved children in God’s beloved world, tarnished and sick at heart though it is.
Those affirmations, those treasures, have profound implications, which I believe are also non-negotiable for people of faith. It means that we’re called upon to embrace those who are feeling justifiably scared these days. It means that we’re called upon to listen to our brothers and sisters who are expressing profound anxiety, and not to dismiss it or ignore it. Our affirmation of faith must, must, extend so that it can be heard by Muslims and people of color, gay and lesbian and bi-sexual and trans folks, women who have endured sexual humiliation or assault, the disabled, and immigrants and refugees. I believe the values emanating from our faith unite us, and move us to affirm the dignity, worth, sanctity, and belovedness of all those who are feeling a sense of alarm right now. That’s a non-negotiable cornerstone of our faith, and it pains me that it even requires saying. But it does. Even here.
Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the Second World War. He learned the hard way about the importance of affirmation. Niemoller became a leading voice of conscience during the Third Reich, though initially he cheered the rise of National Socialism. But in time, he became disillusioned, leading him to protest, which eventually led to his imprisonment. He survived, and wound up spending the remainder of his days speaking in favor of pacifism, while also warning about the dangers of nationalism. But Niemoller is most famous for the words he wrote shortly after his release from prison. You’ve likely heard them. They bear repeating, and often. Niemoller said, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” Throughout his life, Niemoller substituted various groups and populations within his statement. Sometimes it’s the communists. Sometimes it’s diseased patients, or the disabled, or those in psychiatric facilities, those deemed to be a drain on society. Sometimes it’s dissidents in other countries. You and I, we could substitute our own, couldn’t we: first they detained the refugees on their way to America. Niemoller’s words remind us to guard against complacency. They remind us to continue to do the work that we’ve been given to do, work that this church has engaged throughout its 350 years of ministry. We have these treasures, and we are united by a faith which moves us to affirm our friendship and solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in this ideological climate. We’ll do so boldly.
So much for affirmation. Now for delight. I’m convinced that if we are to retain our moral clarity within the furnace of the world, if we are to retain our humanity and our spirits within a turbulent moment, we’ll need to retain our capacity for delight. We’ll need to retain our capacity for laughter, even if in Calcutta, even if in the cages of Bombay, even in a benighted moment of history. Jesus puts it thus: “You’re the salt of the world; if salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” He says further: “You’re the light of the world; no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel. Let your light shine.” If I were permitted an addendum to those words, a supplement, I would say: “You are a jalapeno pepper in the world. You are the spice of life. You are the hot sauce that brings flavor, zest, punch and kick to the world. You are the adrenaline rush, the fever, the thrill, the hot sweat that comes from a spicy pepper. If I were permitted my own commentary on that famous sermon delivered by Jesus, I would say: No need to be dour. No need to be bland. No need to be flavorless. You’re the habanero, you’re the zest, you’re the jolt, you’re the buzz. Paraphrasing Jesus: without flavor, what good are you? What good are any of us?
Last week I spoke about the need to preserve solitude, but I also think we need to find ways to preserve our delight, and our enjoyment, lest we praise the Devil by worshiping at the altar of injustice. That can mean a lot of things, but it certainly has to do with embracing the arts. It’s not a coincidence that there’s talk of eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. But as Jack Gilbert’s poem reminds us, we need to recall that “there will be music, despite everything.” There will be poems, despite everything. There will be paintings and films and novels, despite everything. There will be theater, despite everything. There will be dancing and culinary feasts, despite everything. One of the most powerful moments of my life was being at a house party with some Palestinian friends not a mile from the Apartheid Wall. They cooked an incredible feast, and we weren’t there ten minutes before the instruments came out and the singing and dancing began, followed soon by a hooka, and by a strong bottle of something or other. In the ruthless furnace of the world, our friends knew the importance of creating moments of delight, and enjoyment. They knew that their own humanity was at stake. And they used art and music and food to bring themselves together, and to renew their spirits.
We could learn a thing or two from our Palestinian friends, though perhaps in our own idiosyncratic ways. We’ll need to continue to gather together, the way some of you did last evening over assorted dinners. We’ll need to affirm professional and amateur artistic expressions around us, like those offered by our choir. We’ll need to share stories that make us laugh, the way everyone laughed yesterday afternoon in this meetinghouse at Janie Davison’s funeral, when stories of her zest for life were shared. We’ll need to cherish moments like the one I heard about yesterday. When Allison Hine took Kamber Hamou, one of our Syrian refugee friends, shopping to get a suit for the school dance, the salesman helping them heard that Kamber was a refugee. He was so upset by the ban on refugees that he wound up helping to pay for the suit, just to feel as though he was contributing. We’ll need random acts of kindness and grace, like that one, even as our friends are struggling to understand what’s happening around them. We’ll need to tap our toes during requiems, whistle during the Dies Irae, grin though the news is grim. We’ll have to defy the leaden spirit of the age, weighing us down. We’ll perform a dance upon the abyss.
One last story before I’m through. On the morning of August 7th, 1974, a man appeared to be hovering in thin air in the space between the Twin Towers. His name was Philippe Petit, an acrobatic artist, and he had launched a clandestine mission in the middle of the night to string up a wire between the towers. It was maybe an inch in diameter. Just after 7 AM, he stepped out upon the abyss and walked across the chasm. Passersby on the street stopped to marvel and stare, and more than a few were relieved when Petit, a quarter of a mile above them, got close to the far tower. Except then he reversed himself, and walked back toward the center. The wind whipped around him, but Petit was supremely balanced. For forty five minutes, he walked on air. At one point, he sat, and then he laid down on the wire. Police made their way to the roof, and Philippe Petit toyed with them, drawing near, and then moving back onto the wire. One cop, who must have had a sense of humor, said, “You get in here right now or I’ll come out there and I’ll get you myself.”
Petit’s performance took place two days before Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. It took place after an unpopular war had divided the country, one that would soon result in a humiliating withdrawal. It took place after the counterculture and all of its promise had been more or less shattered. It took place after the civil rights movement had fragmented. It took place as New York itself was poised at the brink of bankruptcy, and as some of the outer boroughs smoldered. There was reason to feel gloomy, and more than a little hopeless. But there was Philippe Petit, moving his way across the abyss, and then miraculously, there he was, playing upon it. This was a man embracing the spice of life, giving it kick, zest, and heat. When he was asked why he did it, he was rendered inarticulate. One may as well have asked why children play or lovers love. He did it for the delight of it, for the wonder of it. Some who witnessed it knew they would never see anything of that magnitude in their lives again. I’m sure they were right.
I take it that Philippe Petit’s performance is a metaphor for the kind of faith required of us just now. There are reasons to feel gloomy. There’s sorrow all around. That’s the abyss over which we stand. And we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity we can muster in order to confront that sorrow and its sources, in whatever way we can. When we do, we’ll be taking our step onto the wire, defying the spirit of the age, defying gravity, defying that which would weigh us down. That’s when we’ll perform our own movements, even as the empty air attempts to claim us. We won’t fall. We’ve been rehearsing this act for a long time now. We’ll risk delight, even in the furnace of the world. We’ll do so because of the treasures that have been gifted to us in the life of faith, the affirmations of ourselves and our neighbors that we carry within us. Such will balance us, even as we dance across the abyss.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Mark 1: 35-39; Luke 4: 1-13
January 22, 2017
Hymns to the Silence, or, A Few Words in Praise of Solitude
This won’t be the sermon you imagined this morning. It won’t be the call to arms you might wish for. This isn’t a summons to the barricades. Instead, I’ve borrowed my theme this morning from the incomparable Van Morrison, who released a meditative song by that title back in the early 90’s. But my true inspiration comes from Thomas Merton, a cosmopolitan intellectual who left New York City in the middle of the 20th century to become a Trappist monk, living for the remainder of his days in rural Kentucky. Merton knew something about silence, and about solitude, and I’d like to lead off my reflections this morning with a word of wisdom from Merton. It’s a counterintuitive word in a time such as this, but it’s the word we need.
Here’s Merton: “It is the solitary person who does humankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its capacity for maturity, freedom, and peace.” Solitude is what gave Merton the presence of mind to compose some beautiful pieces of writing that continue to provide solace and counsel to those seeking wisdom. In that, he joins other such solitary figures who retreated from time to time in order to gain clarity and vision, those like Lincoln, those like Emerson or Thoreau, those like King, or Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. Those were all figures of extraordinary vision, but that vision was honed only through long hours of solitude, of contemplation, and for some, like Merton, of prayer and meditation. At the start of a new American era, at the beginning of yet another year, during a time that shall demand much from us, what I have to commend to you, above all else, is the practice of solitude. What I have to commend to you is a hymn to the silence.
More than a few of you will no doubt think that I’ve lost my mind, or my nerve. More than a few of you will think that a hymn to the silence is exactly what we don’t need in this new era of so called American carnage. What we need is to bring the noise, to raise our voices, to stir up a fuss, to raise some hell. What we need is solidarity, not solitude, community, not isolation, networking, not withdrawal. To all of that I say…yes. To all of that, I say…absolutely. It is time to raise hell and it is time to organize. But I also believe strongly that we could use a hymn to the silence, lest we lose the capacities that Merton names, for maturity, freedom, and peace. And so I beg your patience this morning as I compose my little hymn.
Before proceeding any further, allow me a few qualifications about what I mean by solitude and silence, and what I don’t. I’ll start at the most personal level. The first thing to say is that there’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Loneliness is something that can often be felt in the company of others. It’s not an accident that many people report feeling most lonely at parties, or other such gatherings. Loneliness is an affliction of the soul, being unable to connect with others in a meaningful way. Sometimes that comes about because of inner struggles, dealing with insecurities or old wounds. Sometimes it comes about as a result of social policy or spatial arrangements. But loneliness, we must realize, is not to be confused with solitude. Loneliness is the absence of communion with the world. Solitude has to do with the deepening of communion with the world, which includes a deepening communion with other people. In that, it’s a gift offered to extroverts and introverts alike, for while solitude may come more naturally to those who are introverted, it helps lend a quality of substance and care to the interactions of those more sociable by nature. That’s the first thing to say.
The second is this: solitude should never be mistaken for withdrawal. It is, I suppose, a kind of temporary removal of oneself from the noise and chatter of the world, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for disengagement, or retreat, or quiescence. It is, in fact, an intensification of our immersion in the world. I think here of the monastics. When they turn toward a life of contemplation, they do so in order to deepen their engagement with the world. That was certainly true of Thomas Merton, and it’s been true of some of the best practitioners of the monastic form of life throughout the centuries. One of the most vivid conversations I’ve ever had was with a monk who exhibited a contagious exuberance about the world – for food, for literature, for music, for people. His questions, and his replies to mine, were all penetrating and filled with surprises I couldn’t have imagined. His solitude was an act of preparation for engaging with those around him in a spirit of maturity, freedom, and peace. I’m not recommending a monastic life to any of you, not necessarily. But I am arguing that solitude is not about withdrawal. Rather, it’s about enhancing our capacity to pay attention, and to engage meaningfully and fully in the life of the world.
Consider Jesus. It’s no accident that the beginning of his ministry begins in solitude. There were urgent and pressing matters to attend to, matters of life and death, but Jesus begins his work in solitude. In Mark, we find the story about Jesus getting up early in the morning and slipping off by himself for a time, long enough that his disciples begin to wonder where he is. It’s a pause, a caesura, a respite in an otherwise overfull existence. Immediately upon being discovered, Jesus is submerged again in the life of the people, healing the sick, casting out demons, and building his movement. The inclusion of that brief detail in Mark’s story helps us understand the vital necessity for all of us to dwell in solitude for a time, as a way of equipping us for the work we’re given to do. Even Jesus composed a hymn to the silence.
But it’s the story in Luke’s Gospel that I like best. We’re told that after his baptism, Jesus goes to the wilderness, where he spends 40 days in solitude, fasting and praying. The importance of the story isn’t simply the fact of solitude. Rather, it’s what happens to Jesus as he devotes himself to that solitude. You heard the story, of course, and so you know. He’s alone in the desert, though not fully, not quite, for the devil pays him a visit. It’s commonplace in biblical stories to personify the devil as a means of dramatizing the confrontations and conflicts that can occur within the human heart at vulnerable moments. Even as solitude conveys the maturity, freedom, and peace that Thomas Merton wrote about, Luke’s story suggests that those qualities develop in the crucible of conflict with devils and demons arising in the depths of the human spirit.
I’m reminded of an account I once read about ultramarathoners, running distances of 100 miles or more at a time. Many of them do well for 25 or even 50 miles. But in the latter portion of the race, as their physical and mental reserves are depleted, the demons are unleashed from the depths of the unconscious – unresolved childhood traumas, or hidden shame, or guilt, or sadness, or helplessness conspire to make the runner quit. The best ultrarunners know that in order to make it to the finish, they must confront the devils, speak to them, befriend them even, in order to make them less powerful. They’ve learned, in other words, what those like Thomas Merton and other solitary individuals have gone into the woods or into the monastery to learn: that hymns to the silence often serve as occasions for contending with the devils and demons of the human spirit.
It’s no different for Jesus in the wilderness. The devil, his devil, tempts him with bread, with political power, and with religious authority. There’s particular significance behind each of those temptations, but for the time being, I’m more interested in the fact that they happen at all within the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. And I’m fascinated by what might have occurred within Jesus had he not undergone that long period of solitude, had he not communed with devils, had he not sung his hymns to the silence. Without that inner contest in the wilderness, would he have become a third rate purveyor of spectacle, as the devil urges? Would he have become a common tyrant, an autocrat thirsty to control those around him with his pronouncements? Would he have become a religious demagogue, manipulating the symbols and prestige of religion in order to stupefy those around him? The odds are more than fair. Thankfully, none of those possibilities came to pass, precisely because Jesus went to the wilderness, spent his time in solitude, and confronted the devil that he was given to struggle with. For his sake and for ours, we can be grateful that he sang his hymn to the silence prior to beginning his public ministry, a time during which he wrestled with his demons.
Let’s come closer to the present. One of the articles that I most enjoyed reading this past year was about President Obama’s hymns to the silence. It concerned his habit of retreating to his office after dinner, where he spent long hours alone – sometimes reading briefs or working on speeches, sometimes watching sports with the sound turned down, sometimes reading letters written by ordinary Americans, and often, often, reading books. This past week I read another article about the President’s reading habits, and I found myself admiring the way he used those solitary hours to commune with great minds of the past, like Lincoln’s or Gandhi’s, and also those of the present, like Colson Whitehead, and Elizabeth Kolbert, and Marilynne Robinson. What he said was that fiction especially helped him to imagine the lives of other people and what they might be going through. When he wanted to connect with rural Americans in Iowa, for example, he turned to Marilynne Robinson in order to help open up the emotional lives of those like his grandparents. Thank God for the power of fiction.
Now, you may say what you like about his politics. You may quibble about this decision or that. I may even join you. But now is the time to praise our now former President’s habit of mind, born from the discipline of solitude. It was, evidently, in those long evening hours that Barack Obama discovered his voice. It was in those long solitary hours that he listened to the profound wisdom of the past. It was in those stretches of solitude that he found the words he needed in order to respond to painful or traumatic events, like those in Charleston, or in Newtown. And, this needs to be said too, it was in those moments of solitude that he found it within himself to practice the wisdom of that benediction I use every week: returning no one evil for evil. My hunch is that his solitude allowed him to confront his devils in private before he did so in public. I believe that it was solitude that helped our President to discover that deep reserve of grace under tremendous pressure from the left and from the right alike. Say what you may about this or that policy, this or that decision. I believe that much of the American public has diminished itself by failing to recognize the dignity and bearing the President exuded, born, in part at least, from those long hours of solitude.
I wish every person in leadership long periods of solitude, including our new President. I hope he avails himself of that discipline. But I hope each of us does as well. Whether it’s teachers or stay at home parents, whether physicians, home health aids, or lawyers, whether it’s social workers or those bagging groceries, I wish every single one of us would be enabled to maintain a discipline of solitude, for at least a small portion of the day. That’s because each of us possesses capacities for leadership, if only in the disposition we cultivate, and thereafter spread. But so many things compete for our attention that it becomes difficult to hear and absorb that within ourselves, and within the world, that might provide wisdom. One of our now departed members was fond of saying that one ought never to trust a person whose house contained no books. I wonder if the same could be said for those incapable of solitude. I tend to think we would all do well to learn to sing a hymn to the silence.
Yesterday, a good many of us traveled to New York City to take part in a march meant to demonstrate solidarity around things like women’s rights, as well as those of Muslims, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, transgender, and anyone else who finds themselves vulnerable within the new political landscape of America. Despite the occasion, there was joy in the streets. There was exuberant humor, and energy, and I couldn’t have been more proud to have been there with some of you. But I also came away wondering if one of the greatest and most urgent needs of the moment is the necessity of preserving solitude. I wondered if the greatest virtue we might possess at the moment is the capacity to be alone, not in loneliness, but in solitude, in order to truly hear from ourselves. I wonder if the most important act required of us now, in addition to everything else that will call for our attention, is to maintain a discipline of solitude, whether in reading, or writing, or meditating, or praying – in order to enhance our capacities for attention. Amidst the circus spectacle to which we have been subjected, I wonder if one of the most important acts of resistance shall be to compose our own hymns to the silence. If Thomas Merton is to be trusted, and there are few I would trust more fully, it’s only from within that solitude that maturity, freedom, and peace shall be discovered. And so I vowed to myself that amidst all the challenges that confront us, I shall compose my own hymns to the silence here and there – in the early morning hours when I run, in the evening hours when I read, in the stretches of quiet reserved for writing. I shall, as best I can, sing a hymn to the silence, even as I prepare for movement.
I’ll conclude with an image that demonstrates the strength born of solitude better than any I know. It’s an image born from Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. The image I have in mind is a figure in motion, spinning, turning, swirling, but always upon a steady and fixed inner axis. My image is the whirling dervish. Several years ago, travelers on our Tree of Life journey were privileged to witness a dervish ceremony when we visited an active Sufi community on the outskirts of Istanbul. After a short series of meditations, musicians began playing instruments that I didn’t recognize, and the men and women participating in the dervish ceremony arrayed themselves in a large open space. And they began to spin in place, their long shirts flaring beneath them as the air caught the material up around them. They were gorgeous in their motion, instances of incredible beauty, turning and turning and turning and turning. None of them faltered. Not one of them grew dizzy. Not one of them stumbled or fell. Periodically, the music would cease, and the dervishes would cease turning without a trace of vertigo, without a hint of nausea. They would process a little, and as the music started again, they would begin to spin once more, though now in a new position on the floor. It was, I came to realize, a representation of the inner life of the spirit, and of the human relationship to the world. The dancers spun and spun and spun, but they were enabled to do so because they were attuned to a still point deep within, a still point around which they moved. And it was that inner focus that kept them oriented and balanced. As each of them spun, a figure dressed in red, representing a tempter, a kind of devil, circulated among them, whispering in each of their ears, attempting to break their concentration. None were broken. Another figure seemed to preside over it all, and appeared to orchestrate the movements, moving in and out of the dervishes, though never interrupting them. This was the spirit of God, moving among them, yes, but also serving as the axis around which they spun. I found the ceremony stunningly gorgeous, and I’ve thought about those dervishes ever since. They represent the kind of inner calm, and inner focus, that I believe people of faith need to be cultivating right now. Amidst their turning, they cultivated their own hymn to the silence, one that made them impervious to the seductions of the tempter, the seductions of the age.
And so it is with us. The world spins. We spin. God, but are we spinning right now. Will we lose our balance? Shall vertigo claim us? Or shall we be enabled to discover the maturity, freedom, and peace that Thomas Merton wrote about? With Merton, I believe that it is in solitude that we will discover that inner axis upon which we turn, the one that allows us to spin without stumbling, without falling. I believe that it will be within a deep inner solitude that we shall be enabled to endure the whispers of those who would distract us, and emerge again to raise some hell, and to raise our voices as well. It will be a hymn to the silence that shall enable us to discover our voices as we turn, turn, turn.
 As quoted in William Sloane Coffin’s sermon “Tempted of the Devil,” from Feb. 26, 1978. Found in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Vol. 1, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), pg. 56.
 An insight borrowed from Marilynne Robinson in her article “A Proof, A Test, An Instruction,” published in The Nation, December 5, 2016.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Genesis 4: 1-10; Matthew 12: 46-50
January 15, 2017
Am I My Brother’s and My Sister’s Keeper? Steve Jungkeit and Rose Jones
“Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.”
Those are the opening lines of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, published in 1925. Kafka was a Prussian Jew, living in Prague at a time when anti-Semitism was at its most virulent. Kafka knew what it was to live an existence as one condemned, simply for the crime of being. And so it’s not an accident that his novel has resonated with those living a minoritarian existence, for the accusation leveled against Josef K is not specific to any particular act, but general, a guilt incurred just for being alive.
I got to thinking about that novel, and those lines, when our Wheels of Justice travelers passed through Montgomery, Alabama a few months ago. We had rolled into town late in the day after attending a morning worship service at Emory University. Montgomery’s not large, and we soon turned onto Commerce Street, where the Equal Justice Initiative is located. We tumbled out of our vans and made our way inside, where we were shown into a lecture hall. The hall is ordinary enough in most respects, except that on the back wall, several hundred glass jars of dirt are displayed, each of the jars bearing a name, and each of them filled with soil of different hues. The wall is a memorial to the more than 4000 individuals who were lynched in America during the years 1877-1950, and the soil collected in each of the jars comes from the site where the individual named on the jar was murdered. It’s an extraordinary and visceral way to confront the truth of our country’s racial terrorism, and it made for a sobering way to begin our visit to EJI.
But none of us could have predicted what happened next. Two staff members from EJI gathered us, and told us a little about the work that goes on at EJI. For those of you who don’t know, it was started by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and the author of the book Just Mercy, which many of you have now read, and which some of you will be discussing later today. For years, Stevenson has worked to provide legal counsel to death row inmates and to others who may have received inadequate legal assistance at the time of their hearing. These days, EJI employs a staff of about 50 people, all of them dedicated to insuring that our justice system functions in a manner that is humane, merciful, and compassionate. The two lawyers who met with us described some of that work, and then they showed us a video from ABC’s Nightline News program, about a man named Anthony Ray Hinton, who had recently been exonerated after spending 30 years on death row, an exoneration that occurred because of EJI’s persistent interventions, which reached all the way to the Supreme Court. It was a powerful video, a testimony to the ways issues of race and class undermine the justice system in America. None of us were unfazed.
The video ended, and the lights came back on. A man walked from the back and took his place at the front of the room. It took a moment to realize that it was Anthony Ray Hinton himself. For the next hour, he shared his story with us in detail, a story not unlike Kafka’s brutal and absurd novel, where a man can be arrested without having done anything wrong.
I’d like to share some of that story with you this morning. It feels right to do so on this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. And it feels especially right to do so as we enter a new era of our country’s history later this week. Mr. Hinton’s story is a reminder of the acute dangers faced in this country by people of color. But it’s also a reminder of the sheer power of the human spirit, the power of encounter, and the possibilities that arise when we recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters of one another.
Three portions of Mr. Hinton’s story strike me as important: the absurdity, the fantasies he constructed while in prison, and then the aftermath. I’ll offer a word about each.
First the absurd. Mr. Hinton shared that in 1985, he was mowing the lawn at his mother’s house, where he was living at the time. A police cruiser rolled up, and officers got out. They wanted to know if he was Anthony Ray Hinton, and he replied that yes, he was. They began to question him about a murder that had recently taken place, and suddenly he was placed in handcuffs and arrested. Mr. Hinton shared that he assumed it was a terrible mistake that would shortly be remedied when his alibi was checked out – he had been at work when the crime had been committed. But he also shared that the sheriff working the case wasn’t concerned about things like facts. The sheriff told Mr. Hinton, “It doesn’t matter to me if you did it or not. We’re going to find you guilty.” Later, the same sheriff told Mr. Hinton that he was seeking the death penalty, and that he was confident that he would win. When Mr. Hinton asked why, the reply was that the judge was white, the prosecutor was white, the jury was white, and Mr. Hinton was black. “That’s how I know you’ll be convicted,” the sheriff said. Despite inconclusive evidence from a ballistics report (conducted by a so called expert who was blind in one eye), despite a rock solid alibi, despite passing a polygraph test, despite it all, the sheriff’s words came to pass. Mr. Hinton was sentenced to death. That’s the absurd: to be caught within a mechanism that renders you powerless, one that defies logic or reason, one that is pitiless and also faceless. I take it that Mr. Hinton’s case exposes the absurd at the heart of the racial caste system of America, one that renders everyone’s life, whether black, brown, or white, more than a little senseless.
Mr. Hinton proceeded to tell us about how he spent the next three decades of his life. It’s here that we encounter the power of imagination, fantasy, and dreams, the second lesson of Mr. Hinton’s tale. For thirty years he was confined to a 5×7 cell, forced to sleep in a fetal position, with his legs pulled against his chest. During that time, he witnessed the state execute more than fifty individuals, men that he came to know in his time on death row. He was allowed out of his cell for an hour every day, but it was thirty years before he felt the rain on his face again. In those long hours, Mr. Hinton said that he went deep into himself. He said he traveled the world in his mind, taking a long journey to England, where he was privileged to have tea with the Queen. In his dream, the Queen was intensely interested in his story, and asked him about his life while they had tea at Buckingham Palace. Mr. Hinton said that in the long hours in his cell, he took many such trips, and met all sorts of interesting people. Somehow, that imaginative power gave Mr. Hinton the courage to continue appealing his case, to continue to insist upon his innocence, and to begin reaching out to people who might help him. Ultimately, the power of imagination helped him to win his freedom. That’s the second lesson I would have us learn from this story: we need the power of imagination to propel us into the impossible. In our case, we need the power of a utopian imagination to actually continue to dream about what racial equality and justice would look and feel like. Any of us concerned with racial justice need to have a part of ourselves focused not on what is, but on what might be, impossible as it might seem. That’s the second lesson.
The third lesson of Mr. Hinton’s story brings us around to our Scripture readings for the morning. Upon his release, Mr. Hinton told us that he struggled to process all the ways the world had changed during his long incarceration. The first thing he wished to do when he gained his freedom was to visit his mother’s grave. She was Mr. Hinton’s lifeline, and she had died while he was in prison. A driver plugged in directions to GPS system, and as Mr. Hinton and his driver set out for the cemetery, a voice spoke within the car. “Turn left at the next intersection.” Mr. Hinton said that he jumped, and looked around the car. “There’s a white woman hiding in this car,” Mr. Hinton told his friend, who laughed, and explained the GPS system. But there were other realities to contend with as well. The unresolved feelings he had about the sheriff who falsely accused him. The feelings he had toward the state, which robbed him of thirty years of his life. The ways racial tension in the United States actually seemed worse now than it had in 1985. Mr. Hinton was faced with yet another decision: to hold onto all that bitterness, allowing his heart to grow hard, or to practice a radical forgiveness. He chose the latter. “They took 30 years of my life,” Mr. Hinton said. “But they can’t take away my joy. They can’t take away my love.” Through tears, Mr. Hinton described the way he refused to harbor bitterness within him. He had suffered the worst that can befall a human being, but through a deep act of devotion, he chose to walk in a spirit of openness, grace, sorrow, truth telling, and forgiveness. He chose to become a brother to his fellow human beings.
Mr. Hinton’s decision about how to live the remainder of his days links to our Scripture passages for the morning. Throughout the book of Genesis, story after story unfolds about broken relationships between siblings. I’ve chosen Cain and Abel, the first of those stories, as the exemplar, but they continue throughout the book. After Cain and Abel have their falling out, something similar happens between Ishmael and Isaac, between Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and all of his brothers. These are heartbreaking stories, as bitter rivalries spiral into cycles of violence and desperation. It’s all exemplified by that terrible question posed by Cain after he murders his brother. Asked about his brother’s whereabouts, Cain responds, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer, of course, is yes. Cain was his brother’s keeper. As Isaac was Ishmael’s, as Jacob was Esau’s, as the eleven brothers were Joseph’s. Failing to understand themselves as their brother’s keepers produced years of heartache and misery, not only for themselves, but for those caught up in their dramas. Not all of those stories turn out well. A few, however, do. Jacob and Esau reconcile. Joseph weeps and embraces his brothers when they show up in Egypt, starving and destitute. Healing can happen, and it does. Like Mr. Hinton, those characters come to a crucial juncture, and they choose to embrace one another, rather than ruining themselves further with bitterness and resentment. Like Mr. Hinton, they make the choice to become their brother’s keeper, even when they have every reason not to.
In the Gospels, Jesus extends that question – Am I My Brother’s Keeper? – and that ethic, when he says, in effect, that those ties have to do not with blood, or family lineage, but a shared purpose. “Anyone who does the will of my father is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus says. In other words, we’re all brothers and sisters of one another, keepers of one another.
I would contend that those stories in Genesis, and the words spoken by Jesus, might also apply to race in America. White, black, of Middle Eastern descent, or Latino descent, or Asian descent, or whatever, we are meant to be brothers and sisters of one another. The great tragedy of our history is how little we’ve treated one another that way. The great promise, however, detailed in stories like those found in Genesis and coming from Mr. Hinton, is that it’s still possible to tell a different story, and to preserve one another from further soul crushing damage. It’s still possible to dream, to imagine, and to move forward, even in a moment that seems particularly fraught with danger.
To help imagine what that might be like, I’ve invited Rose Jones to share some of her thoughts this morning. Rose is a member of our community, and a friend who traveled with us on the Wheels of Justice journey. She composed a set of reflections shortly after that journey, reflections that I’m glad she’s going to share with all of us. It’s an honor to be able to share the pulpit this morning with Rose.
My Vision for a Better World – Rose Jones
As we huddled around in a dialogue circle at a rest stop in Maryland during our final lunch, one of the questions Steve posed to our group was…What is your vision for a socially justice world?
I thought, wow…such a profound question. It’s so easy to offer our expressions of what’s unjust in our world. But rarely, are we task to articulate the world we’d like to see…
Having pondered this question…I invite you to join me in spirit, hope, and prayer of what could be…as I share my reflections with you.
My vision for a Socially Just America is that ancient hate becomes present love…
My vision for a Socially Just America is the realization that prisons are not the highest and best use of its resources…and that it open its doors to hold public conversations on forgiveness, and restorative justice…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that citizens ask that a national apology be extended to indigenous people on this continent…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that Congress pay reparations to indigenous peoples and African Americans for the 300 years that they gave free labor and the years that they were denied the right to an education…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that descendants of the enslaved receive free college education and adequate health care as compensatory settlement for the physical, economic, emotional, and psychological suffering the African Americans and Native Americans have endured in the United States…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that fear based organizations that espouse hate and separation work toward a new mission, with objectives to be inclusive, caring and loving to all people in America.
My vision for a Socially Just America is that we do what President Bill Clinton call us to do in a speech more than 20 yrs. ago…He asked every governor, every mayor, every business leader, every
He asked every governor, every mayor, every business leader, every church leader, every civic leader, every union steward, every student leader, and most important every citizen in every workplace, learning place and meeting place across America to take personal responsibility for reaching out to people of different races, for taking out time to sit down and talk through this issue, to have the courage to speak honestly, and frankly, and then to have the discipline to listen quietly with an open mind and an open heart, as others do the same…
This is my vision for a Socially Just World.
The Work begins with US.
Rose offers the kind of vision we need to boldly and courageously pursue, now more than ever. And so I’m grateful that we’ve all been able to hear that vision named.
I’ll close with words that Bryan Stevenson shares at the end of a film called The 13th, about some of the challenges we all face around racial justice, particularly given the era we’ll be entering this coming Friday. Stevenson says: “We all like to imagine that had we been around during the time of slavery, we would have heroically resisted. We like to imagine that had we been around during the time of racial lynchings, we would have been the ones to stand up and call it wrong. We like to imagine that during the era of Jim Crow segregation, when water fountains and lunch counters and hotels were segregated according to skin tone, we would have stood up to power, and said ‘This is wrong.’” Stevenson continues: “But it continues to happen today in different form. Where are you now?”
It’s a brave new world out there. How shall we be keepers of our brothers and sisters? And what does it mean to call oneself a Christian in a time such as this? Let the conversation begin. Let the work begin. Amen.
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