January 14th – Carleen Gerber – with audio
“…And the End of All Our Exploring will be to Arrive Where We Started and to Know the Place for the First Time.”
As our sermon opens, I’d like to take you back in time to the year 1900. And I’d like to draw your attention to the strange assortment of items on the communion table this morning: one so-called “crazy quilt” sewn in (approximately) that year; one crocodile carved of ivory; a time-worn doll, and a sketch of the great 19th century evangelist preacher, George Whitefield.
And like a Will Short puzzle challenge, our task will be to figure out how these items are connected to one another, and what connects them to The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. And so the story begins….
In the year 1900, a devout and dedicated group of women from a large and prosperous Baptist church in downtown Philadelphia gathered every week to stitch together the intricate quilt which we see before us this morning. The quilt was to be sold to raise money for the mission work of their church. The wife of the minister (later to become my great-aunt) purchased the completed work of art. She is now no longer among the living. But when I was a young child if one used the phrase “put the fear of God into your hearts,” a picture of her upright carriage and stern face would have come immediately to mind.
As the twentieth century dawned, a courageous and devout movement in Christian missions was taking root all across the globe. Many of our churches here in America were a part of a mission movement, born in Great Britain, which I will call a “holy passion for Christian mission.” Britain, you will remember, had been the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. And in many ways, the nineteenth century belonged to Britain. London was the financial center of the world, and British commerce circled the globe. Modern economists tell us that, at least in part, the drive to explore the world came about because Britain’s own natural resources were insufficient to support her ravenously expanding economy. The British Museum at Yale holds an impressive collection of art works by British artists who traveled widely, portraying a world far beyond their own. As if their island – beautiful as it was and is- just wasn’t big enough to satisfy their appetites.
The hardy Scotsman, David Livingston, who opened the so-called “dark continent” of Africa, was sent forth by the churches of Britain to proclaim the gospel. He was, in his own words, “drawn further and further into Africa by the smoke of a thousand villages who have never yet seen a missionary.”
The fiery evangelist preacher George Whitefield, and the passionate reformist William Wilberforce, and the devout William Carey, were all forged on the spiritual anvil of nineteenth century Britain. The story of William Wilberforce’s fight to end slavery is featured in the great movie “Amazing Grace,” and if you’ve not seen it – I recommend it highly. These leaders of a coalition called The London Missionary Society believed passionately that the work of the Christian church was to carry the gospel to the farthest reaches of the world, in order to convert the heathen and win all souls to Christ. In the words of an old gospel hymn of that era, “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.”
I remember finding a tombstone in a graveyard on the north island of New Zealand, where a member of the London Missionary Society had been buried in the 1860’s. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for him to try to convince the native Maori people to take Christ as their Lord and Savior. This, of course, would have been contingent on first persuading them not to cannibalize foreigners. Just the thought of that missionary getting to New Zealand by sailboat from halfway across the world is enough to give you an inkling of how dedicated he was to his quest.
This “holy passion for Christian mission” succeeded in making a strong mark upon many a congregation here in America. And this leads us back to the group of women huddled around a table, sewing a quilt, in Philadelphia, in the year 1900.
These will-intentioned women were supporting the work of a missionary by the name of Miss McAllister. She lived and worked in Burma (now known as Myanmar). And she visited the church in Philadelphia whenever she was home on leave. I never met Miss McAllister, but I have conjured up a picture of her in my mind as a petite, stern, humorless woman with a backbone of steel. That could well be unfair – but I have a journal in which she chronicled her days, and I think my image is fairly accurate. She was in Burma, as she put it, to save the souls of the heathens.
The women of the Philadelphia church purchased a doll and made clothes for the doll. These clothes were intended to enable Miss McAllister to instruct little Burmese girls how to dress according to proper Christian codes of modesty: pantaloons, petticoats, and hats to cover the head. Never mind the considerable climate differences that existed between Philadelphia and Burma, and the insurmountable challenge of finding the money it would take to afford such elaborate clothing. The doll’s given name, by the way, is Rosemary. I believe “Rosemary” means remembrance. So maybe she was named Rosemary to say “don’t forget how to dress appropriately.”
The ivory crocodile was brought to the women of the church as a gift from Miss McAllister. The crocodile sits on a shelf in our house and I tell the grandchildren it would have been far better if that ivory had remained attached , as it once was, to some gentle and noble Asian elephant. As a child, visiting in my great-aunt’s home, I wasn’t allowed to touch the crocodile- or play with Rosemary, either, as far as that goes.
Now to be fair, there was a lot of good – real good – that was carried forth by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hospitals and schools were built, communication and transportation between countries was strengthened, and we learned more and more about other cultures. Medical clinics were planted in far-away regions, and health care was improved all across the globe.
As a child, Nelson Mandela was educated by the missionaries of the Methodist Church in rural school in Kwa ZuluNatal. It was an education he later credited for a good deal of his compassion and critical thinking skills.
But all of that “good” came with a subtle and not so subtle hidden cost. The diversity of cultures was threatened. Ultimately many of the world’s great religions were demeaned and denigrated on the high altar of Christianity. And the missionaries carried with them an understanding of a fiscal economy that radically transformed the more equitable sharing of resources on which many indigenous economies thrived.
Those well-meaning women who gathered in Philadelphia probably had no inkling that the gospel there were promoting was doing any measure of damage at all. But Imperialism and Colonialism are now seen by sociologists as the foundation upon which all of Africa’s nation-state upheavals and civil unrest began. Africa’s natural resources had great value to Portugal, France, and, of course, Great Britain. And so national lines were drawn arbitrarily to capture Africa’s wealth – regardless of social or geographic or tribal consequences. Do you know what is the shortest sentence in the Bible? “Jesus wept.” He wept over the Jerusalem, but I think he wept again over Africa as imperialism seized the continent.
You can see, I hope, how the items on the communion table are connected. But what, you might ask, does all that have to do with The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme? Well, for one thing, it makes quite clear that we have a different understanding of mission work than our historical antecedents did!
Over the past thirty years, this congregation has developed a theory and a practice of doing Christian mission that bears little or no resemblance to Miss McAllister, to Rosemary, to the ivory crocodile, or to George Whitfield. Thanks be to God.
Some thirty years ago, when our Board of Missions entertained the notion that we should do more than just send money to worthy causes, Ramona McNamara suggested that we visit a Native American Reservation in her home state of South Dakota. And we did just that. And now well over 300 members and friends of our congregation have spent time in the Green Grass community. We have taken part in the sacred ceremonies of the Lakota people. We have shared in a precious cross-cultural friendship. Our own spirituality has been broadened and strengthened. We’ve struggled, along with the people there, to understand the systemic injustices which still encumber their daily lives. We have been enriched, mutually, I think, in countless ways. We have not told them how they should dress or how or whom they should worship.
When we saw, and witnessed, the desperate oppression in South Africa, known as “apartheid,” we entered into a friendship with a Methodist congregation in the impoverished township of Soweto. I, for one, have come to love the culture of South Africa- her vibrant music and dance, and the indomitable spirit of her people. I’ve found enormous enrichment from their concept of “ubuntu “ – their belief that the suffering of one of us diminishes and jeopardizes the shared humanity of all of us. Twenty-nine years ago this congregation embarked upon a journey in friendship that has brought us several South African choirs, visiting ministers named Paul Verryn and Derrick Maragele, a Sunday School teacher named Nyameka who worked with our children for part of a winter some years ago, and an opera singer named Mxolisi – and numerous other extravagances of cultural expression. We have never told them how they should dress or how or whom they should worship.
Soon after the great tragedy of September 11, 2001, our Board of Deacons made the decision that we should urgently embark upon a journey to understand, and work alongside, the other religions of the troubled Middle East – a region whose injustices and prejudices, we believe, were operative in the birthing of terrorism as we know it today. Muslims, Jews and Christians; how are we different and how are we alike? What can we learn from one another? How can we work together on the anvil of America’s tragic, heart-breaking loss to forge peace?
Surely this was not to be about telling others how to dress or how or whom to worship.
And that is why Steve Jungkeit, together with the Muslim leader Reza Mansour, and a leader of New Haven’s office of Jewish Voice for Peace are right now in the Middle East – experiencing and exploring together the birthplace of the world’s three great Abrahamic religions. Together with 25 others, they are doing the work of building bridges of understanding and of peace.
In a region torn asunder by misunderstandings and mistrust, they are courageously bearing witness to the issues that will continue to divide this world if we don’t begin to commit ourselves to a central truth for which Jesus lived and died. Jesus Christ came, in his words, that “we might all be one.” He did not come to teach us to dress or worship in the same way. He came to make clear to us that we are all knit together in one shared humanity; regardless of our skin color or race, our means or lack thereof, our sexual orientation, our age or disability or skills. He came to help us understand that, in the spirit of UBUNTU, whatever diminishes or threatens or jeopardizes one of us diminishes and threatens and jeopardizes all of us.
Our new understanding of Christian mission is, in many ways, much more complicated than it was for Miss McAllister. But it has made mission work here at The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme more colorful, more enriching, more challenging and, I believe, more fulfilling.
We believe mission work is not just about going out into the world to do good. It is also about going out into the world to allow the breadth and diversity of the world to do good in us. The ultimate goal of our mission work is not that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.” The ultimate goal of all our mission work is that in the name of Jesus we will come to know and understand and affirm our common, shared humanity – our spirit of ubuntu.
When our teenagers go with Ted and Becky Crosby to Haiti each April they don’t, in that one week in Deschappelles, significantly change the lives of the Haitian men and women and children they meet. But they give to the Hatitian people they meet a kind of spiritual lifeline to the outside world. They help the people there to know that there really are people in other parts of the world that are concerned about them, that are aware of the realities of their daily lives. And they carry in their hearts some of the burdens of the Haitian people with them when they leave to come home. They return to life here in our community with their eyes wide open about the blessed differences that make for such a challenging, interesting, colorful, flamboyant world. They come home – whether they can name it or not- with the flame of an understanding of UBUNTU ignited in their souls.
And our understanding of the importance of UBUNTU is not built solely upon outreach to other countries or other climes. When we serve at the soup kitchen in New London, or visit the Homeless Hospitality Center in New London, or work as a volunteer at our own food pantry here at our church on a Saturday morning, we encounter people whose life experiences are often vastly different from our own. And one cannot share a meal with one of these folks, or sit down and really talk with one of these folks, without feeling – in the deepest regions of our own hearts – that their struggles exact a certain toll on our complacency, and our peace of mind. What diminishes each of them, diminishes each of us as well. The stories we hear from those we seek to serve go home with us and live on, somehow, in the deepest regions of our being.
In his poem “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot says,
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.”
We attempt to do mission here at The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme in a spirit of humility, honoring the wisdom we believe we’ll gain from spending time with others, honoring the new understandings we know we’ll gain as we broaden our own awareness of the breadth and wealth of God’s wide, diverse world. And we bring home with us an awareness – in the deepest parts of our being- of how magnificent and transformative and enriching is the spirit of ubuntu that connects us all in one shared humanity. We come home knowing something of ourselves, and the place we call home, in new ways.
I’ll close with one short story from the recent work we’ve done with other faith communities here in our town to resettle a refugee family from Syria; and now a second family who became a climate refugees in the hurricane that decimated Puerto Rico. Our new Syrian neighbors have a 12 year old son named Mohammed. And when Mohammed learned that the newest refugee family to arrive in Old Lyme had a son – Adrian- who is the same age, he wanted to go just after Christmas to greet him. On the appointed day, Mohammed came bounding out of his house with his signature broad, contagious smile – and a small gift for 12 year old Adrian and 2 year old Gustavo.
Now Mohammed and Adrian know English only as a second language. So verbal communication was something of a challenge-but the body language of making a new friend is common to both Syria and Puerto Rico. Do you know how to play soccer?? Yes!! Do you want to try out there in the snow? Yes!!! (That didn’t last long – it was very, very cold outside that day) Will you start Middle School next week with me? Yes!!!
Then Mohammed got down on the floor and played for a little while with Gustavo. On the way back to his house, he turned to the friend who drove him to the visit and said,
“ You know – welcoming new people makes you so happy right here.” (while banging on his chest over his heart.)
I’ve thought about that story dozens of times since first I was told of it. Whatever has been done by this generous community to help resettle refugees in need – even more has been accomplished deep within our own hearts and souls. Maybe we’ve come back to where we started and we see the place – clearly – for the first time. I could wish for no clearer synopsis of the value of Christian mission. Amen.
Carleen R. Gerber
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Old Lyme, Connecticut