Tag Archives: ferguson

Sermon: Breathing Room (Isaiah 11:1-10)

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For me, personally, over the last few days, it has been so very strange and so particularly unsettling to see t.v. coverage of the streets of New York filled with people, weary and hurt and baffled…and marching peacefully through places that I know well.

They have been marching in places like Times Square and Grand Central Station, and even the 79th entrance ramp to the West Side Highway.

That last one is hardly a cherished landmark, but, as it happens, it is a block away from a school where I used to work, and so it was strange to see cameras and crowds and news happening in a place that feels so powerfully familiar.

Last week in this time, I preached about weariness, and about how strange and yet fitting it is that the weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, might begin on that note.

Weariness comes from many different directions these days, and we acknowledged that. We did not acknowledge Michael Brown or Ferguson, by name last week, but I also had them in mind, and maybe you did, too.

And now this week, we have another situation, surrounding the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island—a situation that voices as different as Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly have both said they find troubling.

So, seeing those pictures on t.v. was a reminder to me about how we are all caught up in these questions, and how we are all surrounded by the challenge of how to respond.

If we are inclined to think that what’s happening on the ground elsewhere need not be on our radar, well, it seems fair to say that the ground might just be shifting underneath our feet.

Of course, some of us here today can remember another December 7th …December 7, 1941…when it also must have seemed as if the ground was shifting underneath everyone’s feet, and the problems surrounding people in other places suddenly became not so nearly far away.

It is heavy, indeed, to think about all that. Confronting it daily is, of course, much, much heavier.
“WE CAN’T BREATHE” said a headline in the Daily News. So many people feel as if they can’t.

And yet, as we return to the words of Isaiah this morning, it’s clear that Isaiah can. That Isaiah is not weary.

Isaiah is talking about new life this morning—about trees that were cut off at the root, leaving only the stump behind, suddenly growing new branches…suddenly showing signs of life—and it’s an image of old, abandoned promises being rekindled, re-inhabited.

And instead of looking around and despairing about everything that is not right, Isaiah talks about the remarkable one who is to come, in whom God’s people will find a way to make things right, at last.
His eyes are on the future, and what Isaiah sees is good.

The bad marriage of God’s people and the world, which seems to bring out the worst in everyone, will be transformed, and a second honeymoon will one day come.

Liz and I were once at a dinner party where another couple we didn’t know began squabbling right in front of everyone.

It was all very subtle at the beginning. One of them would tell a story or make a point, and the other would smile at the rest of us, and then politely correct some detail.

But as the evening wore on, the smiles were fewer, and the corrections grew more pointed in both directions, and I began to wonder what would happen the minute they got in the car to go home.

We never did see that couple again, and it seems like mere curiosity on my part to ask the host from that evening about what has become of that unhappy couple in the years since then.

But I’ve always hoped they were able to find a way forward from where they were. Some way to be transformed together. To fall back in love.

Isaiah might jump in here and remind us that, in fact, the road forward is a winding road, a road that loops backward into the past before it turns and heads over the horizon into the future.

For Isaiah, transformation, becoming something new, is also a process of un-becoming, a kind of dismantling of the person we have learned to be in order that we might be free to become a new person.

Many years later, the Apostle Paul would say, “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And Isaiah imagines a world transformed by the Holy One, and gives his vision of the peaceable kingdom that will unfold once the Holy One, God’s messiah, at last arrives.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,” he says, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isaiah 11:6-8).

It is a stunning vision, that peaceable kingdom. A vision of new creatures, indeed.

But let’s be real.

If the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling shall learn, one day, to lie down together, it is not because they simply decide that, going forward, they are going to love one another.

The peaceable kingdom will only come as the old nature gets patiently dismantled, and the old antagonisms of the way things are enter a process of un-becoming, a journey backward, and then forward, that will slowly lead beyond the horizon to a new, transformed Creation.

Why does Christmas have the power over us that it does?

Maybe it’s because it has power like no other time of year quite does – a power to take us back, to remind us of the people we once were – to put us back in touch with the hopes we once held, and the visions that moved us.

Whatever we have become in the years since, whatever life with all its challenges and indignities has done to us, at Christmas we find a way back—a way back to a moment when our joys were more pure, and our loyalties less divided.

If we want, we can let this be a short, nostalgic little breather before we get back to the grind.
But Isaiah seems to point to another possibility.

Isaiah seems to suggest that in these days, as we reconnect with old promises, and old dreams, we might find the energy to un-become some of what we’ve let ourselves turn into—that we might dismantle some of what we have constructed, and if we have somehow become a wolf, or a leopard, or a lion, we might yet be part of a new Creation, a part of the peaceable kingdom that is coming, and which will be running along different lines.

But in a very real way, the peaceable kingdom depends on how we learn to un-become the people our petty shortcomings and our grievous sins have turned us into.

And the peaceable kingdom depends on how we dismantle the world that our brokenness has taught us to build.

More and more these days, I’m feeling that call to dismantle what is broken. What’s broken in the world and what is broken in me.

More and more, I find myself honor-bound, conscience-stricken, and just plain ready to try to see those things clearly.

I love Christmas. But maybe it’s time we gave up our hope of a future without coming to terms of what it is in us and in our world that got us to this place where we are.

Because only as we take account of such things that we can expect to see the road turn toward a place of wholeness, a place of peace and justice and hope, a place where the shalom of God will permanently dwell.

These are days when, in so many different ways, it seems as if the ground is shifting beneath our feet—days when so many of God’s children choke to say that they can’t breathe.

Perhaps Christmas seems like a temporary antidote to all that unpleasantness.

But this morning, Isaiah, at least as the Church has read him, says that Christmas is not just a temporary antidote, but a permanent solution.

It’s not a breather. It’s a call to action. And especially, it is a call to action for those of us who can breathe in these days to come to the aid of those who cannot.

Isaiah promises that:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

And at Christmas, the part that jumps out at us is the part about the child.

That child leads us to un-becoming, so that we might learn to conduct ourselves aright.

That child leads us into the patient dismantling of all that has lead us astray.

That child comes to guide us, so that in Him, we might finally become the people of his way.

That child comes to begin a whole new era, when the old divisions will be no more, and peace with justice will reign and you and I will be transformed with all Creation.

That child comes so that we all might breathe again.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and a little child shall lead them.”

Lord, may it be so. May it be soon. May there be a place for me there…and one for you…and one for each and every one.

Ruth: Gold-Digger or One True Love? (A Sermon on Ruth 3)

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Congregationalists of Connecticut had a short-lived dream of Christianizing the entire globe in a single generation.

That dream came about because of the arrival of a young Hawaiian native, later known as Henry, who had signed onto a Connecticut whaling ship when it had stopped for resupply on his island. Little did the ship’s crew realize that they had arrived during a lull in vicious internal wars by different island factions—the kind that made a ticket to anywhere else something very much worth thinking about, and which Henry acted upon.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that Henry stayed with the ship until its voyage concluded in New Haven and was in no hurry to return home.

He was taken care of by a series of students, then boarded with the families of several local pastors, and was converted to Christianity. His story was a matter of great interest throughout Connecticut, New England, and New York.

But he was only the first young “heathen” man – that was their term – to visit Connecticut, and soon it became clear that others were arriving, too, not only from Hawaii, but from all kinds of places.

And so the ministers of the Congregational churches began to imagine what might happen if these young men were not only converted, but then trained as missionaries and returned home to serve.

The possibilities seemed enormous. Funds were raised. Celebrities endorsed. Faculty were hired.

Eventually, buildings for a school were acquired upstate, in the town of Cornwall, which is in Litchfield County.

But after auspicious beginnings and ongoing coverage in the newspapers, tragedy struck.

A local mob attacked, and burned down the school.

You see, some of the heathen boys had taken the idea of Christian brotherhood too far.

“In Christ, you are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free,” it says in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Perhaps with that in mind, the boys had struck up friendships, and then potentially romantic interests, with some of the local girls of Cornwall.

Christianity, it seems, was one thing; racial mixing was quite another.

And so that was the end of that.

I’m thinking of that story today because it can be easy to forget how brave, in its way, Ruth’s visit to the threshing room floor to be with Boaz really was.

Remember: she is a woman in a time when women were viewed as having few, if any rights—and on top of that, she is a woman who comes from another place, where people worship another deity, and she has no one of any standing to protect her, much less vouch for her character, or her purity.

She comes in tow of her “mother-in-law Naomi,” but it’s “mother-in-law” in quotation marks because Ruth’s husband is dead, and Naomi’s husband is dead, and there are no children, and they had been living out there in Ruth’s country, so any notion of the letter of the law protecting anyone from anything was a non-starter.

And yet, as we noted last week, things are not so bad now that they’re in Bethlehem.

Life isn’t easy. But good things are happening.

In particular, Ruth receives generous treatment at the hands of Boaz, a wealthy, well-meaning landowner who was perhaps a cousin of her late husband’s family.

Boaz, it seems, is just one of those pay-it-forward kind of people. He’s been moved by Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, and he treats her not only with generosity, but even more remarkably, he offers her tremendous face-to-face respect.

And in that, of course, he sets the tone for how she will be treated by the community at large.

Ruth is the consummate outsider–a childless, destitute woman of another ethnic tradition. By contrast, Boaz is the consummate insider: a figure of great respect, a man, wealthy, in the prime of life, and religiously observant.

A cynic might say that in going to him on the threshing room floor, then, Ruth has nothing to lose, while Boaz has everything to lose—and perhaps that’s true.

On the other hand, the difference in their power abides with them in the darkness of that night, and come the morning, had Boaz decided to act as if nothing had happened—and simply ignored Ruth—well, there would have been no court of appeals for Ruth to turn to.

If by chance she became pregnant, the minute she began to show, they would have run her straight out of town for good.

Ruth would have known that all too well. And so it is brave that she goes.

Why does she?

She goes because in a world where so often, power and privilege come with the right to tell the story the way it suits the powerful few, Ruth is bold enough, loyal enough, and caring enough to imagine a different story.

As someone who gave up the protections of her own tribe to come to be with a foreign people and to see herself under the watchful eye of a foreign god, Ruth is uniquely well-positioned to see some things about tribes.

Specifically, she sees with remarkable clarity that tribes and their customs—their stories, their roles and responsibilities—offer a measure protection and predictability in a confusing world. Thank God they do.

But Ruth also sees that those roles can prove confining, and that all stories have their limitations, and that being one of the privileged insiders means coming to see the world in a certain way…and feeling free to ignore the people and the situations that don’t fit into that worldview.

Now, there is more to Boaz than that. She sees that.

But she also knows that despite whatever chemistry there is between them, if she sits out on the front porch waiting for Boaz to show up with a dozen roses, she will be waiting a long time.

Boaz does not seem to know any stories like that. He does not seem to see the world that quite that way.

In a deeper sense, that’s just it: Boaz cannot wholly know just how his own lenses have shaped how he has come to see the world.

And so Ruth dreams of a new prescription, a different kind of story, not only for herself, but for Boaz, and Naomi, and for all of them.

So often, we speak of faith as a kind of patience – as a way of enduring with hope that things will be made right in God’s time.

Some of religion’s toughest critics have called faith an “illusion” or the “opiate of the masses,” precisely because it can so easily be misused as a way to keep things safe, tidy, and predictable—which is the way that all tribes like the world to be.

But this morning’s Scripture reminds us that, sometimes, God’s time is now.

At its best, our faith is a constant reminder that the world we see is not all the world there is, and that the path toward human wholeness is a path of engagement and encounter.

Whatever our stories may be, all Creation is part of God’s story – and that the role God has asked us to play is a role far greater, and far richer, than the expectations of any human tribe.

God’s love is unfailing and unchanging. But at its heart lies the promise of new possibilities for all of us.

You and I know that over the last few weeks, the world had reverted to many of its own – our own – most destructive and most tribal impulses.

In the last few days, the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has raised over a quarter of a quarter of a million dollars on the Internet. Sad to say, this is not a reflection of our nation’s commitment to due process – the comments left by visitors on the website are, frankly, a cesspool of every conceivable prejudice, and their glee is unmistakable.

Never has our need to imagine and work for new stories, and a broader understanding of fairness, been more urgent.

Sometimes, I worry that the only thing white Americans actually like about living in a pluralistic society are Mexican food and jazz music.

And if, from time to time, it so happens that we inhabit the same space, even so, let’s not pretend for a moment that we live in the same world.

Except that, as faith reminds us, we do.

We live in God’s world.

And if our tribes tell us how it is that we might coexist, and get along enough to live side by side, God’s word points to something much harder and more profound: it says that we are to learn how to live together.

We are to learn how to be part of one another’s stories, and to seek a new prescription for the lenses of our tribes.

That’s what Ruth did. In a world where people would have been all too ready to label her a shameless gold-digger, she was brave enough to act as Boaz’s one true love, and to rewrite their stories.

What can you and I do to rewrite the stories of who we are and what we owe our neighbors?

How can we come to see the things our own lenses may distort or even hide?

These are the questions of Ruth, and Ferguson, and even the Heathen School in nearby Cornwall—the questions of every era of American history, and every community. Port Chester and Stamford, Bridgeport and Greenwich.

Let’s ask those questions with hope and humility, remembering that it was the Congregationalists of Connecticut who, two hundred years ago, built a school for boys from all over the world, hoping to share the saving love of Jesus Christ.

And let’s remember that it was other Congregationalists of Connecticut who burned that school to the ground.

But let’s ask the questions.

And may the story of Ruth and Boaz remind us that new answers and new stories are always possible, if only we find the courage to help write them.

Amen.