December 3rd- Marilyn Nelson-with audio
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.