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.
 All citations from Solnit, pgs. 70-72.