If Jesus were trying to get into the U.S. these days, we wouldn’t let him in.

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

March 12, 2017 (Matt. 2.13-15a)

There’s a line halfway through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer that lands like a fist to the chest. It is the last line in a paragraph of longing. The narrator, a Vietnamese refugee now living in the United States, has offered a long litany of things remembered from his homeland. The music, the noodle soup, the parks, the mangos, the bomb craters, the mud roads, the sea. It’s a breathless, page-long paragraph that grows in intensity and grief until the narrator catches himself at the end. The most important thing we could never forget, he says, was that we could never forget.[1]

When I read that sentence I had to put the book down for a moment. I have never been to Vietnam, but I grew up around people who could never forget. Most of you know the story of my father’s work with Vietnamese refugees in Hawaii in the 1970s, then later in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1980s. My American boyhood was punctuated by visits to Vietnamese markets and Buddhist temples. I remember the grandmothers putting extra spring rolls onto my plate. You’re a growing boy, they said. And the monks inviting me to slip off my shoes and pad across the cool floor of the meditation hall. So while I never went to Vietnam, a part of it came to me. It welcomed me into its own culture and traditions, hidden just around the corner from the dominant culture of which I was a part. If you knew where to look, my father taught me, and if you were a good listener and respectful, you could learn many stories.

I couldn’t help but wipe the tears away, then, when I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen read from his work last month at the University of Georgia. He ended his first reading with the sentence that had struck me so hard. The most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget. And I wasn’t tearful because being in a roomful of Vietnamese-Americans conjured my boyhood and my father, although it did. I was tearful because I felt like the majority community had forgotten. As I sat in the hall on campus, I was aware of the current attempts to ban refugees and immigrants from entering our country. I couldn’t decide if we had forgotten who we were or if we had misremembered, if we had never really been who we thought we were at all.

One thing Viet Thanh Nguyen does perhaps better than anyone is put theory into practice. His first book was fiction, The Sympathizer. It tells the story of a double agent, skillfully playing with questions of identity known to any refugee community. His second book was nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It offers the theory that undergirds the storytelling. And his new book is a collection of short stories, The Refugees. It could hardly have come at a better time, sharing fictionalized versions of the lived experiences of Vietnamese people who fled their country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen has spent a lifetime telling the same story in different ways. But it is a story we desperately need to hear.

At the heart of his project is a certain ethic. And I offer it here because it has something to do with faith. Nguyen is asking us to tell true stories. He begins by asserting that every war is fought twice, the first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory.[2] So he considers how we remember. The most common form of remembering, he suggests, is remembering our own. When we tell stories, we remember those who were like us. We favor them, take their sides, imagine ourselves in their places, confirm our allegiance to the group. Remembering our own is the most natural way to tell a story, but it is also the narrowest. Moving beyond this, Nguyen offers a second way we tell stories. We remember others. When we tell stories remembering others, we try to consider those who are not like us. We include their points of view, we value their experiences, we try to tell a fuller story and offer a whole picture. But Nguyen cautions that when we do this we too often implicitly compare these others to ourselves, whom we take to be normative. We remember others only insofar as they actually relate to us. A third way of remembering, which Nguyen would like to move us toward, is remembering our shared inhumanity. When we remember ourselves, he says, we are remembering our humanity. When we remember others, we are trying to affirm their humanity. But the truest story, he says, especially in wartime, is that a deep inhumanity is realized. Everybody on every side is human, but everybody on every side is conflicted, complicated, and capable of acting in cruel and inhumane ways.[3] To paraphrase my old professor Bill Schulz of Amnesty International, the first rule of ethics is that nobody’s hands are clean. That’s what Nguyen would say, adding that it’s also the first rule of storytelling.

We may wonder what ethics and storytelling have to do with faith. But we gather on Sunday in a place where we tell stories every week. We read sacred stories, passed down to us. We tell personal stories of how our lives are going. We listen to the stories of others over coffee or during the time of prayer. And we’re trying to tell our stories in a true way, recognizing our own complex subjectivity. We are beautifully and wonderfully made, but sometimes we all act in ways that are cruel and inhumane. We remember this is true about ourselves. It is true about others. It is true about all of us. We find it in the stories.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ story according to Matthew, we remember our inhumanity. We don’t often focus on it because we read it at Christmastime. All the kids are here and families who haven’t visited for a while. So we center on Joseph and Mary, the birth of their baby, the poetry of shepherds and angels and hills. But Jesus represents a threat to the existing order. He is born, called king, and revered. King Herod, the sitting monarch, hears of the baby, senses him as a rival, and seeks to kill him. And this is the beginning of our faith, our own origin story. A baby is born who will teach a different ethic. He will speak prophetic critique. He will practice radical inclusion. He will follow the way of creative nonviolence. And he’s a very real threat to the status quo. Kill him, says King Herod, and an angel warns his parents. Get up, says the angel, take the child, and flee to Egypt, and remain there. . .Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.[4] They were refugees.

Anyone who is forced to flee is a refugee. And at the very heart of Christianity is the story of two refugee parents and their child. We should hold that story in mind anytime we read the headlines. I leafed through The New York Times earlier this week and read an article detailing who is barred and who is not according the ban that is scheduled to go into effect this Thursday.[5] Syrian refugees are barred, it said. Parents and children fleeing for their lives. It wasn’t an easy article to read, and afterwards I looked forward to The New Yorker. But the last issue in February had a story about the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe fleeing war.[6] Approximately 100,000 children a year. The next issue I picked up had a story about the new Underground Railroad from the U. S. to Canada, as refugees flee our country in hopes of a safer, more welcoming place.[7] Since 2011, it said, requests for asylum in the U.S. have grown tenfold. And our response to the requests is to delay and deny. It leaves little doubt in my mind that if Jesus were trying to get into the U.S. today, we wouldn’t let him in. Or if he were already here, we might drive him away.

Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us that the refugee crisis is related to another crisis, a crisis in our imagination. Refugees are fleeing war, as they always have. And we are making more and more war. We have so narrowed our imaginations that we see war as a kind of solution, we militarize every problem, we invest all our resources in violence and its machinery and then find ourselves surprised that we are engaged in unending wars. According to Nguyen, wars are no longer discreet events for us. War is our way of life. It is our condition. We now spend 51% of our resources, he says, on the military. We now have over 800 bases in foreign countries. We now have an administration that seeks to gut social programs in order to spend even more money on militarization. And this is the crisis of our imagination. That this the way we see ourselves? That this the way we see others? That this the way we see our future?

Those who resist war, says Nguyen, fight for the imagination, not the nation. And if we would resist, we would have to do so with our imagination. Which has everything to do with faith.

The refugees Mary and Joseph watched their baby grow up possessed by a religious imagination. He was a prophet and a poet, a teller of stories and a crosser of boundaries. He encouraged us to receive others with grace and hospitality and to welcome and include all people, especially the most vulnerable and those we have been taught are our enemies. He refused the way of violence.

It is with him in mind that we, as people who claim to follow in his way, must free our imaginations to see what he saw. And to say what he said. And to live the way he lived. Because we all know he wouldn’t have turned them away. The families and children who are fleeing. Those who are cold and hungry and afraid. The refugees who are coming to our door. I wonder, in the spirit of Viet Thanh Nguyen, how their stories will be told. And I wonder, in the spirit of Jesus, if we will turn them away as enemies or welcome them in as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.

At the end of his final talk, I handed Viet Thanh Nguyen a copy of The Refugees and asked if he might sign it for my dear friend, Phuc Luu. Phuc and his family left in 1974, I said. We lived near each other in Houston, but we didn’t meet until we were grown. He was my best man. Viet looked up at me with a smile. At your wedding, he asked. Yes, at my wedding, I said. He finished signing the book, handed it back, and we spoke for a moment longer. As I walked out of the building, I opened the book to the first page and looked at the inscription, written in a beautiful hand from one refugee to another. To Phuc Luu, it read, May you always be at home.

Amen.

 

[1] Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 239.

[2] Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 2.

[3] Author’s notes, Betty Jean Craige Lecture, featuring Viet Thanh Nguyen, University of Georgia, February 13, 2017.

[4] Matthew 2.13-14, New Revised Standard Version.

[5] Anjali Singhvi and Alicia Parlapiano, “Trump’s New Immigration Ban: Who is Barred and Who is Not,” The New York Times, March 6, 2017.

[6] Lauren Collins, “The Children’s Odyssey,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017.

[7] Jake Halpern, “A New Underground Railroad,” The New Yorker, March 13, 2017.

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Beginning with Ourselves (Mk. 8.22-26)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

February 26, 2017

I think that it might be useful, in order to survive our present crisis, to do what any individual does, is forced to do, to survive his [or her] crisis, which is to look back on his [or her] beginnings.

(James Baldwin)[1]

In my own beginning was the Hawaiian kindergarten. On the windward side of the island of Oahu. A playground with folded cliffs for a backdrop. A mile or two from the sea. I still remember the room. Our sandals lined outside the door. My friends padding barefoot between their desks. They were Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, and a few were haole, or white, like me. It was a multicultural classroom with no majority racial or ethnic group.

This is the part of the story that everyone who knows me has heard. But the second part of the story is the harder part. I changed schools when my parents moved us back to their home of Texas. My father became the minister at a very affluent church with a prestigious private school attached. I was enrolled in a new class. I still remember the room. No sandals outside the door. Everyone buttoned up in crisp uniforms. Sitting quietly at their desks. They were all white.

I had never been anyplace like that before. My parents said that I came home from the new school with a question. Where is everybody? I asked. And by that I meant where were the Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Filipino kids. I knew they were somewhere. But they weren’t in my class. I do not remember how my parents answered the question, but whatever words they provided did not console me. I remember a palpable grief, my first. I missed my friends. I didn’t like this new class. I didn’t like it that everyone was white. I didn’t like being separated.

In his essay “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin wrote that “one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.”[2] I am not sure that I was at war with my society as a young boy, but I am sure that I was grieving my society. And it was only when I began to look at my life through the lens of race that I realized something about myself that was so obvious that I had never seen it before. I am still the same boy with the same question. Where is everybody? That question is at the heart of the way I see the world and the work to which I have given myself. And I still feel, more often than I care to admit, that I am in that second classroom, dropped into a separate space where everyone is white. If you have lived in a multicultural space and then been forced into a monocultural one, then you have felt the loss yourself. My fear, however, is that so many in greater Charleston, children and grown-ups alike, live and move in patterns of separateness with no way of knowing what they are missing.

Last year the president of our denomination, John Dorhauer, stood in this sanctuary and told part of his own story through the lens of race. He shared that a professor had asked him to write his autobiography in this way and, as a white man, he hadn’t known how to do it. He drafted and redrafted his story until the race and ethnicity of every character in it became apparent. And then he saw some things that he had never seen before. The experience was so powerful that he, along with our church’s national leadership, developed a curriculum extending our work in racial awareness with the hope of achieving a greater wholeness. The curriculum is entitled “White Privilege. Let’s Talk,” and it begins with an invitation to tell our stories in a new way. It is, as Baldwin said, useful for each of us to look back on our beginnings. Only then can we address the crisis in which we find ourselves. And by crisis I mean the racial moment signified by de facto segregation in housing and education, the killings of unarmed black men and women by police and neighborhood watches, the presence of white nationalists now at the highest levels of our government, the protest movements that have arisen in response, and the proximity of hate in our own community. Many of you saw the same thing I did as you drove home from church just last week. A large Confederate flag waving over Marion Square, two blocks from Mother Emanuel AME Church.

Sometimes the enormity of the problem seems too much. But we have a chance this Lent to raise our consciousness and begin taking transformative steps together. It starts by reflecting on our own stories. Who we are. Where we came from. How we first understood or experienced race. How we understand the current state of things. And what it means for us as people of faith. As people who believe in what Omid Safi taught us just last week. That love, beauty, and justice are linked. That we are all of us lost and looking for the way home together. The way home is love. But not the sentimental kind of love, the kind that Martin Luther King called “emotional bosh.” We mean the hard working, critical thinking, risk taking kind of love. The love that wants to see what is really going on.

So beginning next week for the six weeks of Lent, we are invited into an all-church study. We’ll gather just after 9:00 a.m. in the sanctuary for an opening session and then break into small discussion groups. The idea to engage the material as a whole church came from the program staff, the worship mission group worked on logistics, the choir generously agreed to adapt their schedule, and our church council approved the idea unanimously and enthusiastically. The contents of the curriculum include Spiritual Autobiography Told through the Lens of Race, Whiteness as the Norm, The Cash Value of Whiteness or Whiteness as a Tax-Exempt Status, and On Becoming an Ally.

Now at this point there are some who may be getting nervous. I am reminded that every black pastor I’ve told about this has given me a double-take. You’re doing what? So it may help to clarify what exactly it is that we are and are not doing. What we are not doing is gathering to shame white people or to make anyone feel guilty. We are not pointing fingers and assigning blame. And we are also not affirming our self-awareness or patting ourselves on the back to affirm how good we are for doing this kind of work. What we are doing is trying to learn to tell a better story. We are trying to tell the whole truth. We are trying to be church together in a way that is deeply challenging and even transformative. We are trying to see some things about ourselves that we haven’t always been able to see. We are trying to change the way things are, beginning with ourselves.

According to our sacred stories, the way to change is through sight. Like the man at Bethsaida. He was blind, we are told. The people brought him to Jesus in the hope of healing. Jesus took the man outside the village and spread saliva on his eyes, asking if he could see. The man described his first impressions, people whose figures were blurred like trees. Then Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes a second time and the man’s sight was restored. He could see everything, the text says, “clearly.” Biblical scholars note that while the early gospel of Mark includes this episode, both Matthew and Luke omit it. Some have suggested that its two-part healing is problematic and makes Jesus appear to be less powerful somehow. But I find the story especially powerful because it takes place in stages. Seeing doesn’t happen right away. It may take some time. Some work. Some trusted friend to touch our eyes and ask what things look like to us. That’s the invitation this Lent. To take the risk of seeing things more clearly and then asking what that might mean in our own lives. How we might become more loving. How we might become more beautiful. How we might become more just. How we might become more whole.

Perhaps what excites me most is that we’ll be able to do this work together. For if I am still the boy asking where everyone is, then I would like to know what boy or girl you are. What is your spiritual autobiography told through the lens of race? How do you look back on your beginnings? What do you see when you do?

Just a couple of weeks ago, I sat in a conference room in Cleveland for another strategic visioning meeting of our national church. There are only nine of us in the group and we are white and black, gay and straight, men and women, married and single, with diverse abilities and perspectives. As I have mentioned before, I am the only member of that group who is a straight white man. And I say this with a smile because anytime I’m in a room where there is no clear majority, I feel right at home. It was like kindergarten again. And that group brainstormed and planned for ways to make our church look more like our world. Because, thankfully, the world really is more like a Hawaiian public school than a Texas private academy. Anyone with eyes to see already knows that. The work that our national church is now doing embraces this reality and celebrates its possibilities. Beginning with ourselves, we are asking what it means to be a church of love, beauty, justice, and radical inclusion in the years to come. A part of that work is bringing some things into clear sight.

Then Jesus led the man out of the village, put saliva on his eyes, and asked, Can you see anything? Seeing was the first step on his journey to wholeness. Friends, may it be the first step on our journeys as well.

Amen.

 

[1] James Baldwin, “The White Problem” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Vintage International, 2011), 91.

[2] James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 685.

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Coming in from the Cold (Ex. 23.9, Heb.13.2)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

February 5, 2017

 

Every story begins inside a story that’s already begun by others. . .

(Richard Blanco)[1]

 

She ducked into the church because it was cold outside. She had been on a run. But it was February in New York and the chill was too much. She ducked into the church and only then realized it was Sunday. Elaine stayed at the back for a moment, warming her hands, and looked from the shadows into the sanctuary. A priest in vestments stood at the front. People rose and sang together. The old building was warm with light and color. And she realized that it was the place she most needed to be.

Like any visitor to any church, she had a backstory that no one knew. The woman in running clothes was Elaine Pagels, a Princeton professor and noted historian of early Christianity. She was in the city for medical appointments and had received the worst news. Her two-year-old son had pulmonary hypertension, a condition the doctors couldn’t cure and predicted would be fatal. She hadn’t been able to sleep at all. Finally she rose, left her sleeping husband and son, laced up her sneakers, and ran. Through the cold city, block after block, until finally she ducked into the church. There in the vestibule the tears filled her eyes. She stood for a moment, wondering.

I think of Elaine’s story often. Just about every Sunday. Just about every time I see someone walk through the door for the first time, stand in the vestibule or Keller Hall and wonder. Sometimes they look around for a moment. Sometimes they stand and squint, looking for a place to sit. Sometimes someone greets them, offers them coffee and a bulletin. And I always wonder what their story is. What cold they might be ducking in from or shelter they might seek. Because we have all been there. Sleepless, on the run, not sure where to go, ducking in someplace looking for a refuge.

What Elaine found in that church in New York was a place that “spoke to her condition.”[2] She found a place that allowed her to be who she really was without any strings attached. And who she really was was beautiful. She had spent her life studying early Christianity. She knew of the thousands of doctrinal disputes, the splinter groups and stories of councils and their arguments. She also knew of the earliest Christians and their gospels, the gnostic literature that presented Jesus as a mystic and a wisdom teacher. Her scholarship focused on these gospels, the ones early Christians would have known and used, though most of us have never heard of them since they didn’t make it past Irenaeus, Constantine, and the other gatekeepers of what would become the orthodox canon of Biblical literature. But Elaine found in that church something that resembled the early Christians. A community of care, a communion circle of sharing, a radical welcome of strangers as guests, and rituals connecting the divine and the human, a pageantry of the Golden Rule lived out week to week. “I know from my encounters with people in that church,” she wrote, “believers, agnostics, and seekers, that what matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe (or what we do not believe).”[3] Put another way, what matters in religious experience is the experience itself. And Elaine experienced welcome. She experienced a place she could come in from the cold.

It’s a striking image these days. Because while we haven’t had much cold winter weather, then the storms of our politics have more than made up for it. Perhaps you’ve noticed what I’ve noticed lately. More and more people showing up on Sunday, ducking in from all that is going on outside and looking for a refuge. Not a week goes by, not a day lately, that we don’t receive more bad news. In the world of politics, for example, our health care is threatened, our Muslim friends are singled out for discrimination, refugees fleeing dangerous lands are turned away, scientists are censored, and there are whispers of hateful executive orders to be directed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. I could go on, but I won’t. The winds of the worst kind of change are blowing and God knows we all need some shelter from them. In the world of personal relationships, things are no better. Every week you share with me about employers you have trouble talking with or family members. Strangers have been shouting and throwing things at demonstrators here in our own city. Everyone’s on edge and we wonder how much worse it might get before it gets better. And in the world of the mind, there are storms, too. As the scientific method, critical thinking, and even facts come under threat, we wonder if we will be attacked for holding these commitments. Which is to say nothing of being progressive or liberal Christians in a city that is staunchly conservative in its religious expression. Many of us duck into church every Sunday as the professor once did, wondering if there’s still a place here for people like us, people with more questions than answers, people looking for love and acceptance more than old dusty doctrine that may or may not make sense.

So it’s cold outside. In our politics, in our personal relationships, in our minds. And we are here standing in the vestibule looking in on a community that still gathers in a circle every first Sunday to break bread and pass it around. Is this the place for us, we wonder. Is this what we most need?

According to our sacred stories, one of the key elements of our faith is that of welcoming all. We heard two short excerpts this morning. One from the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus. Do not oppress the alien [or the foreigner], for you know how it feels to be [one]; you yourselves were [foreigners] in Egypt. And from the Christian Testament in the book of Hebrews. Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unaware. We read these scriptures together as bookends, from early in the Bible to late in its pages. If we look through the Bible, in fact, we find dozens of such admonitions. Be careful how you treat the alien, the foreigner, the stranger, the enemy. For we have all been those things before. And show hospitality to all. Receive every person with kindness, compassion, and grace. Welcome her or him in from the cold. For you don’t know the story, you can’t say what they’re seeking shelter from. Perhaps that person is a Muslim who feels attacked by our policies. Perhaps that person is a lesbian who has been shunned by the church of her upbringing. Perhaps that person is a skeptic who wonders if he and his questions are welcome. Perhaps that person is a Millennial who wants to see if institutional religion has any value. Perhaps that person is a professor, red-eyed with grief, nowhere else to run, looking for a safe place to pray and to cry.

If the story of Jesus is any example, then this may be the gospel itself. This welcome. This acceptance. This inclusion. It’s not a gospel of doctrine or dogma. That’s what Elaine had learned in all her studies of the early communities that followed Jesus. All the doctrine came later, the product of theological and political storms. But the gospel itself was more experiential. The gospel itself was the welcome. It was the love. It was the kindness of strangers making the world they wanted, ritualizing it in a space they called sacred, for an hour or two every Sunday. And it spoke to her condition.

That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why we keep coming. Not to turn out perfect people or pretend to be pious. But to welcome each other in from the cold. To break the bread and pass it around. To share the wine and juice together. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this so that you might see the sister or brother who is right next to you. Do this and let your heart be warmed by it. In a world that is a little too cold, do this. . .

Amen.

 

[1] Richard Blanco, For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 6.

[2] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2005), 27.

[3] Ibid., 6.

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The 200-Year Present (Matt. 5.1-12)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 29, 2017

We talk about politics as though they were a purely rational exercise in the world of deeds and powers, but how we view the world and act in it has roots in identities and emotions. There is, in other words, an inner life to politics. . .  

(Rebecca Solnit)[1]

We were walking in the rain, but our spirits were not dampened. Women, men, and children filing down the sidewalk in slick coats and rubber boots. And pink hats with cat ears. Homemade signs whose letters ran with the water. But the message was clear. Women’s rights are human rights. Build bridges not walls. Love not hate. This is who we are. This is why we march.

Half a day in the rain and no one complained. Women, men, and children smiled with water on their cheeks, hugged in soaked shirts, held wrinkled hands to the sky in fists of solidarity and two-fingered peace signs. Everywhere I looked I saw something beautiful, every conversation I had was enlivening and empowering. So many off their couches and onto the street, walking and singing in the rain. Yet one image stays with me. A young girl walking in galoshes. Her long wet hair falling down her back, partially covering a poster she wore like a sandwich board. Future Voter, it read, the V appearing as a check mark on an imagined ballot. She was walking near me for a time and that first word caught my eye. Future.

I must confess that there were also words in my head while we marched. They were the words of a great teacher named Elise Boulding. Elise worked on conflict resolution and I had heard her words in a talk by her student John Paul Lederach, now well known in the field of peace studies himself. John Paul shared an idea that Elise had shared with him. It was called the 200-year present. It’s an idea about time and ethics, an idea about how far backward and forward love’s arms can reach. It’s such a good idea that I’d like to read you a transcription of John Paul’s talk. These are his words, but they played in my mind while we walked in the rain. Let them play in your mind, too, for just a moment:

We do not live in a present that is a fleeting moment, that as soon as I speak this word, it is over. We don’t even live in the sense that it is only exclusively today or this week or this year. We live in a 200-year present. . .I want to illustrate this for you. . .

So go back in your memory to when you were a very young child, and remember the lap that you sat on, the people who may have stroked your face, who may have tussled your hair, who may have held your hand when you took your first steps. But don’t just remember any person. Try to remember the oldest person that you would have known at your youngest age. . .

Now when you have that person’s face, maybe their hands, the softness of that touch, the bigness of that lap in your mind, I want you to think approximately what year or decade might that person have been born.

Now I want you to go to your existing family right now, your extended family, your neighborhood, and I want you to think of the face and the small hand of the youngest child that you know in your extended family or in your wider extended set of meaningful relationships. The youngest child you know. Get that young child’s face in your mind. . .

When you have that person’s face in mind, imagine that person a grandmother enjoying her children. Imagine that person a grandfather enjoying their great grandchildren. Imagine the decade they might live to see as those grandchildren come. . .

Now Elise would always say, that’s your 200-year present. The birthdate of those who have touched, held, molded, and shaped you, and the date out to which those who are the youngest will live. These are the lives that have touched you and that you have touched. This is big expanse. This is closer to the seven generations, to the notion that we live in a bigger picture than that which, at any given moment, is happening. But it is in that that we have choice. How we will choose to be and respond in that expansive sense of time.[2]

The words played and replayed as we walked in the rain. And as I looked at the young girl in galoshes, I wasn’t thinking only of her. I was thinking of her grandchildren. That’s why I marched.

A day or two later I opened the Bible to the suggested lectionary text. It was a lifelong favorite, Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes in Matthew. I had read it more times than I could remember, but I heard something I had never really heard before. I heard the beginning. I saw in it a kind of march.

When Jesus saw the crowds, it begins. Then he went up to the mountain and sat to teach. Like a speaker standing before the marchers on the mall or in the park by the river. First came the crowds, then came the words. They had come to hear Jesus, to be sure, but perhaps they had come for solidarity, too. An old Mediterranean version of. . . Women’s rights are human rights. Build bridges not walls. Love not hate. And I say this because the movement Jesus was starting was egalitarian. He treated women with dignity and respect. He invited traditional enemies and outcasts. He crossed social boundaries at every chance. He criticized the status quo in both religion and politics. And the crowds came for that. Maybe on some of the days it rained. Maybe they walked anyway. For their mothers and grandmothers, for their children and grandchildren. Because this is what he said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. . .

Blessed are those who mourn. . .

Blessed are the meek. . .

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. . .

Blessed are the merciful. . .

Blessed are the pure in heart. . .

Blessed are the peacemakers. . .

Blessed are the persecuted. . .

Blessed are the young girls in galoshes, for the future belongs to them.

I added that last one, of course, but it seems more than faithful to Jesus’ project. Because he was always looking out for the vulnerable, saying that it was to them that the kingdom was given, it was for them that God was cheering, it was with them that the spirit moved, wherever they went with their meek and merciful, pure hearts.

And lest we hear the words in a way that is too gentle and bucolic, we might remind ourselves of movements and what they sound like. For while I couldn’t detect a trace of meanness on our rainy march, there was an extraordinary amount of energy and passion. We weren’t walking to mumble quiet mantras. We were walking to raise our hands and our voices, to sing and to chant, to not only say that women were equal in dignity and value but to shout it out loud. What if we heard the Beatitudes like that? As if they were printed onto placards and raised against a rainy sky? Blessed are the poor! Blessed are the hungry! Blessed are the persecuted! In a country that is currently on the road to making a great many more of them. Blessed are the ones whose health care is about to be cut. Blessed are those who work without a living wage. Blessed are those who went to college and are mired in debt. Blessed are our soldiers and their families suffering the effects of our endless wars. Blessed are those who are telling the truth about climate change and being censored and threatened for it. Blessed are those fleeing dangerous lands and wondering if they will find refuge here. Blessed are those who keep getting out of bed every day and going to work for the girl in galoshes and her grandchildren.

Friends, that’s the gospel that Jesus preached. It wasn’t a gospel of health, wealth, and success. He wasn’t selling that old American snake oil. No, our itinerant rabbi was teaching what his mother sang to him. My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sang to her baby, the Lord who has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. Maybe when she sang it she thought of the oldest person that held her. Maybe when she sang it she thought of the youngest person she knew as a future grandmother or grandfather. Maybe when she sang it she thought of her own child about to be born. That was the song Jesus heard growing up and then lived out in his own 200-year present, ending with the great question of how he would choose to be and respond in that expansive sense of time.

The question has been passed down to us. We walk with it in the gray of this moment. Dark clouds overhead threaten heavier weather. But behind us our grandmothers and grandfathers are walking. Beside us are girls in galoshes. And before us wait their children and their children’s children.

So we march on, rain or shine.

Amen.

 

[1] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 137.

[2] John Paul Lederach, “Living Now: Rehumanization in the 200-Year Present,” a talk given at the Upaya Zen Center, November 7, 2016, accessed via iTunes or online at https://www.upaya.org/2016/11/lederach-living-now-rehumanization-present/

 

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The Consolations of Stillness (Ps. 46)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 27, 2016

It’s Advent. Our season of watching and waiting. But to be honest, I only feel like watching. There’s no time for waiting. To that end, I offer this story:

I was already weary before the election. Not an easy year. Trials of Roof and Slager going on two blocks from church. Handwritten hate mail in my box. Country’s racial tension at a boil. And the nasty political cycle. Majority of Americans saying they’d had enough.

So I wheeled over to pick up the boy from school. Threw snacks into a backpack. He bounded from the building. We rode to the water, locked bikes, walked out on the spit.

No one was there. Just the onrushing tide. Strong wind off the harbor. Low falling sun. And every seabird we’d ever seen. Albatrosses. Skimmers. Night herons. Great egrets, stilting through the mud. More birds than people. We sat and watched. Passed crackers and water bottles. Quiet enough that you could hear the spartina rustling. Lap of the water on the wall.

Sat, watched, mumbled the words of poet William Stafford:

 

We live by faith in such presences.

 

It is a test for us, that thin

but real, undulating figure that promises,

“If you keep faith I will exist

at the edge, where your vision joins

the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,

feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”[1]

 

I hadn’t understood before. Down in the mud where the truth is. Until I sat, surrounded by herons and egrets, to watch and listen. And I set all our problems in the context of a larger story. A larger story that we are endangering, to be sure, but one that is also greater than us, and will continue no matter what we do. It was a comfort, the truth that there is something greater than our efforts, but I also sat worried. “I think we should keep this,” as Stafford said.[2] I think we should keep it.

I’m aware that the retreat to the outdoors is a feature of privilege, a stereotype of white liberals taking time away to hug trees and write poems. But I reject the caricature. Being outdoors is not a white privilege, but a human one. We are all children of this earth, its rightful inheritors and children, black, white, Asian, Latino, everyone. And grounding ourselves in it is no one’s privilege if not everyone’s. Earth is mother to all of us. Whether you live in my neighborhood or another, there is always an osprey, a dogwood tree, a community garden, or a ladybug climbing the wall. We can all ground ourselves in this larger story. Because we are all a part of it. But I’m not saying anything the psalmist didn’t say.

God, said the old Hebrew poet, is our refuge and our strength, and went on to sing of a greater story. We will fear, he says, of course. Waters, mountains, and kingdoms will move, but something grounding will remain. The works of the Lord, said the psalmist. Which we might translate, with the help of modern theologians, as the mystery, the ground of being, the serendipitous creativity from which we and the universe emerged. It’s not easy to get in touch with this. Especially if we never stop. If we never slow down to look. If we never bike down to the water and sit quietly, watching.

Be still, said the psalmist, and know. Be still. And in the midst of such a harried season, between the politics and the holidays it’s a good word: Be still. It brings us a kind of consolation. Knowing that we don’t have to do it all, acknowledging that we can’t. But grounding ourselves for the things that we can do. As I sat watching the egrets, I wondered about the consolations of stillness. Why is this helping? I asked. And the thoughts whispered as the wind. Being still consoles by focusing oneself on the breath. I breathed in and out. Being still consoles by grounding oneself in a larger story. I thought of the universe story and the wonder that any of us are here at all. Being still consoles by locating us as parts of a greater whole. I looked at the egrets and even the tide as my kindred and kin. Being still consoles by letting our loves rise to the surface. I looked at the scene before me and felt the mystic’s love for the whole. I love you, Lowcountry, I thought. I love you ocean, tide, sun, sky, birds, fish, boy sitting beside me eating crackers as the sun goes down. And this is where my ethic is grounded. In this love. Not anywhere else.

The psalmist might have understood this. Be still and know. Then act accordingly. Which brings me to a final thought.

The stillness isn’t a retreat. It’s a regrounding. The quiet isn’t checking out. It’s checking in. A beautiful paradox of faith. I was watching the world in order to get going. I was letting go of my worries in order to hold on to my work. The work the rabbis have taught: to restore and repair the world. Which is where we are.

We begin the season of Advent in the midst of the most turbulent political time anyone can remember. Our friends are threatened and afraid. Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, women, those of diverse ability, all explicitly threatened by the president-elect and his administration. We know we’re going to have to fight. We’re going to have to stand for all our dear ones. We’re going to have to speak and to say who we are and what we value. It’s a season of watching, to be sure. But there really is no time to wait. Our sisters and brothers, our earth, want to know what we have to say.

So we go outside and ground ourselves for the struggle. We remember who and what we love. And we rise from the places we sit to join the movement until every sister and brother, every being, can flourish.

It’s a salve for our troubled times. As poet Mary Oliver writes, we go outside because “the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields. . .can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”[3]

Maybe that’s Advent’s invitation this year. That we watch and listen so that we might re-dignify our stung hearts. So that we can join the struggle. Because God knows, this isn’t a season of waiting.

Amen.

 

[1] William Stafford, “Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron” in The Way it Is: New and Selected Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1998), 167.

[2] William Stafford, “The Whole Thing” in Even in Quiet Places, (City: Press, year), pp.

[3] Mary Oliver, “Staying Alive” in Upstream: Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 14-15.

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Our Inner Beasts (Luke 6.27-36)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 6, 2016

It’s not an easy time. Our politics are fragmented. There’s a meanness in the air. We’re worn and frazzled by the cycle of news and insults. And we’re not sure when it will end.

A New York Times article on Friday revealed that 8 out of 10 Americans are repulsed by the presidential election.[1] Just days before voting we feel more exhausted than inspired.

Yet there was another article in the New York Times last week, something of use from the Book Review.[2] Lois Lowry reread William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies and reflected on it. She wasn’t referring to our political moment exactly, she was gauging how she heard the story now against how she first heard it 60 years ago, but I heard in her essay a call to a deeper question. After reading it, I switched on the computer and Facebook showed me one of those pictures that is several years old. Seven years ago I was walking with Sara and a very small boy who was dressed as a monster for Halloween. He wore a t-shirt with green scales, puffy spikes sewn onto the back, a stuffed tail sticking out behind him. I looked at the picture and wrote this.   A poem about books and children and the season we find ourselves in:

Maybe there is a beast,

suggested Simon

in Golding’s book.

 

What I mean is. . .

maybe it’s only us.

 

You could have missed

his voice

in the tale

of boys’ brutality

and our own.

 

You could have missed

the author’s conviction

that none of us

is better

or worse

than the others.

 

If there is a beast

it isn’t out there

or in some other

but closer still

 

beneath the beating

of our hearts

the drawing of our breaths

the reach

for the conch shell

on an island overrun.

 

What I mean is. . .

if we see the beast

maybe we could

walk with it

for a while

and hear its voice

that of the boy

who is himself afraid

the girl

who is herself unsure.

I was inspired to return to Lord of the Flies this week. Began reading it aloud with my son after school. It didn’t seem any worse than the newspaper. And I’ll wager that many of you know the book because it was required reading at school for some time. But if you don’t know it, then I can tell you this without spoiling it. The story opens on a deserted island where a group of schoolboys has survived a plane crash. There are no grown-ups, and so they are left to create their own sense of social order. The book begins wonderfully and then slowly descends into darker and more difficult places. Throughout, it asks questions about who we really are. And it is Simon, a rather frail and innocent boy, who suggests, 120 pages into the tale, that perhaps the only beast we really need to fear is us. Perhaps the true danger lies within. He is not heard by the other characters, who laugh him off. But his voice haunts every reader, who can grasp that Golding has written an entire book and hidden its moral right in the center. In the whisper of an innocent boy who suggests that there is no innocence at all.

What a good book to read on the eve of an election. As millions are spent on showing how guilty the other person is, how awful and rotten. And while there are substantive differences between the candidates, and while there has been more hate speech, religious bigotry, racism, and misogyny than any of us can remember, we would be wrong to point at the politicians and make them out to be the beasts. That would be a form of scapegoating. And didn’t Jesus just tell a story about that? Thank God, I am not like him or her or them? The world has enough of that self-righteousness without us adding to it. The finer move might be to look within at our own fears and insecurities. We might examine the subtle biases we each hold and the privileges we have been arbitrarily given. We might ask about our own shadowy motives and impulses. We might whisper Simon’s question to ourselves: What I mean is. . .maybe it’s only us.

We should, of course, whisper this in the voting line. As citizens, we should go to the polls, wait there, and vote conscientiously for every office and on every proposed measure. But we should stop short of seeing it as a battlefield, as a zero sum, all or nothing grab for the conch, as the boys on the island would have it. Because no matter what happens, we’re all going to wake up on November 9th in a scarred and hurting land. And each of us can either add to the lasting damage or take some small step in a different direction.

Jesus was especially good at this. I often read him in a confident voice, poetic and forceful. But this week I heard his teaching in a kind of whisper, as if the boy Simon had said it. It has something to do with the beast inside each of us and resisting its temptation toward aggression and conflict. And it’s arguably the most radical thing Jesus ever said, though too few of his followers can be heard saying it these days. I say unto you, he said, Love your enemies. Do good to them. Bless them. Pray for them. Turn the other cheek. Be generous and merciful and your reward will be great. You’ll be called the children of the most high.

William Golding didn’t write this, but perhaps the old author of Luke was on to his trick: Hide the moral right in the middle. Let the readers hear it and be haunted.

What Jesus was teaching was what researchers call “noncomplementary behavior.” Chris Hopwood at Michigan State University and others use this term to describe surprising and novel behavior that disrupts established patterns.[3] Normally, Hopwood says, we mirror each other. If someone treats us with hostility, we are hostile in return. If someone treats us with warmth, we are warm in return. It’s classic, reciprocal behavior. Yet noncomplementary behavior subverts the system by doing the opposite of what is expected. If someone treats us with hostility in this model, we might be warm in return. This, according to Hopwood, is incredibly hard to do. But the results can be extraordinary. They can break up patterns in a way that nothing else can. You have heard it said an eye for an eye. But I say forgive. You have heard that you should hate your enemies. But I say love. You have heard that this person or that person is an outcast. But I say she is my sister, he is my brother, and it is to all of us that the kingdom belongs.

Perhaps this is just a way of looking more deeply, seeing that others are not enemies or monsters. Perhaps it is a way of hearing our own inner beasts, acknowledging that we would like to lash out sometimes because we are afraid and unsure. Perhaps it is a way of reaching out not to the boys in the book review or the Facebook photograph, but to the boys and girls in each one of us, the ones who really are worried about the election and the days that will follow, no matter who wins. And so long as we see each other as enemies, we’ll only deepen our wounds. So long as we think the beast is in someone else, we’ll fail to break free of the habits and patterns that have brought us here.

I don’t know what will happen on Tuesday. But I know what will happen on Wednesday. We’ll get up, take a deep breath, and go out into the world again. Boys and girls and beasts with a question: How to love our enemies so that we no longer even see them as enemies. How to do good to all no matter how we are treated. How to bless everyone we meet. How to pray for those with whom we disagree. How to see that the real battlefield is in our hearts and minds and imaginations.

Maybe we could go out whispering like Simon. And maybe it would make all the difference.

Amen.

 

[1] Jonathan Martin, Dalia Sussman, and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Voters Express Disgust Over U.S. Politics in New Times/CBS Poll,” The New York Times, November 3, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/us/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-poll.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.

 

[2] Lois Lowry, “Their Inner Beasts: ‘Lord of the Flies’ Six Decades Later,” The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/books/review/their-inner-beasts-lord-of-the-flies-six-decades-later.html?_r=0

 

[3] See NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, “Flip the Script,” July 15, 2016, accessed online at

http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485603559/flip-the-script

 

“I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”[1] (Ps. 103.15-17)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

All Saints/All Souls Sunday, October 30, 2016

Most of the town was washed away. Otsuchi had stood for a hundred years, but a half hour of water was too much. When the tsunami came it carried houses, boats, trains. After the waves receded the residents returned. Almost everyone had lost someone. Friends and family among the 19,000 Japanese who died. 2,500 still missing. The grief was almost too great to bear. The people didn’t know what to do. Gradually the word was passed about Itaru.

A couple of years earlier, Itaru Sasaki had been grieving the death of his cousin. He was desolate, in despair, and he did something unexpected. He bought an old phone booth and placed it in his garden. The booth was painted white and had large panes of glass from which you could look out and see the Pacific Ocean. Inside was a black rotary phone. It was not connected to anything. Itaru went regularly to the phone booth to place a call to his cousin. He dialed the numbers, waited patiently, then spoke into the receiver. “My thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line,” he said, “I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”

People heard about Itaru’s wind phone and maybe took him for an eccentric. Until the tsunami came. After that, they started going to Itaru’s garden themselves. They waited in line to place their own calls. Some spoke. Some cried. Some sat in silence, listening to the wind.

We come today for a similar reason. On the Sunday closest to November 1st, we celebrate All Saints/All Souls Sunday. We remember the ones we love who have died. They may not have been the saints of the church, but they were our saints. The dear souls we knew, washed away by the wave of mortality that comes for all of us. But we’re still here, remembering and listening and wondering how to place our own calls. And just for today we might imagine that our church is not actually circular, but that it is boxy. We might see not stained glass, but clear panes. We might not say prayers so much as place calls. Are you there, Dad? we might say. Can you hear me, Mom? Hello, son, daughter, neighbor, friend. It’s me again.

On the one hand, this is a very somber moment, and we bring some bitterness to it. We are not happy to have been put into this box as the ones who are left behind, holding the phone, unable to find the words for how much we miss them. And on the other hand, this is a very beautiful moment, because we are drawn to it. We have come here because we cannot forget, we will not forget, we do not want to forget. And we want to continue the conversation. Even if it is only in our minds and our hearts, even if we are speaking into the wind. But the wind has a presence, doesn’t it?

In his poem “Have You Prayed?,” Li-Young Lee answers the question of prayer by explaining that it is a conversation with his father. It’s a lifelong back and forth with a man who died long ago, but is not entirely gone. “When the wind asks, Have you prayed?,” Lee writes:

I know it’s only me

reminding myself. . .

 

. . .It’s just me

 

in the gowns of the wind,

or my father, through me, asking,

Have you found your refuge yet?

asking, Are you happy?[2]

Of course, it isn’t only poets who ask. The psalmist asked, too. Questions of the wind. The search for refuge. He picked up his own wind phone of prayer and uttered the words, which were then written down and passed to us by our ancestors. We heard a short cutting of the psalm this morning, just a flap, a gust of conversation. But it’s as good as a prayer from Itaru’s garden.

As for people, the psalmist wrote, our days are as grass, as a flower of the field. It flourishes for a time, but then the wind passes over it and it is gone and known no more. But somehow there is a larger picture, according to the old verses. Somehow divine love is everlasting, passing from one form and generation to the next. The flowers are not permanent and neither are we, but the love is and the stories are so long as they are kept, told, and shared.

It’s a rather stunning image. The phone isn’t connected, but the calls continue. We place them back and forth, between the dead and the living. We say their names and ring the bells and we look like them and laugh like them, the resemblance being uncanny.

The wisdom, of course, is in telling this truth. For the true disconnect is not the phone that is not hooked up. The true disconnect is the failure to speak of them, to remember them, to keep them alive in our minds and hearts and actions. Which is what our culture does so often. When someone dies, people stop speaking of them, assuming that the speaking will be painful when the truth is it’s the silence that hurts most. When a person is gone, people rush to act as if they are fine and things are back to normal when the truth is things have never been worse and it feels like there will never be a normal again. When a loved one is no longer here, people act like they’ve been gone forever, when the truth is we were just talking to them, holding hands, washing the dishes. And whether we were just doing that four months ago, four years ago, or forty years ago makes little difference. It’s within our lifetimes, within the days of the psalmist’s flower of the field.

Today we pause for a moment to tell the truth — that they were just here and that we carry them still. They are as close to us as the wind and just as invisibly felt. And there is no shame in calling them up and crying and saying: Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?

Maybe this is something we should do more often. If it is, then perhaps today is the day we are offered a gentle reminder. Saying names and ringing bells we are invited into a conversation with our ancestors. We remember their voices. We celebrate their lives. We claim them our family. We carry their spark in our eyes and in our laughter. And we imagine ways that we might keep listening. We trace the psalm with a finger. We sit on a bench and look out over water. We find a phone booth and pick up the receiver. And they are carried to us on the wind.

Amen.

 

[1] See This American Life, Episode 597: One Last Thing Before I Go, accessed online at: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/597/one-last-thing-before-i-go

[2] Li-Young Lee, “Have You Prayed?” in Behind My Eyes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008), 24.

We’re boarded up and battened down as Hurricane Matthew approaches the Lowcountry.  We’ve watched the storm rake the Caribbean and pull alongside the continental United States.  We’re staring at satellite images and looking skyward, wondering.

My own soundtrack for the day is another Radiohead song.  The band released a stripped down version of “The Numbers” yesterday in a video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  In it, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and a drum machine offer a beautiful rendition of a bittersweet song.

We are of the earth, Yorke sings.  To her we do return.

The future is inside us.

It’s not somewhere else.

It’s a fitting theme for days when we watch, wait, and wonder.  How do we understand our relatedness to the earth, sky, and sea?  What does it mean to live at such an elemental level, to be stripped of our illusion of separateness and flushed from our homes by forces much greater than ourselves?  Where is the discussion of our changing climate and the ways we continue to exacerbate the problem, contribute to the feedback loop, warm the seas to strengthen the next storm and the next?

I’ve been reading while waiting.  At least a few writers are raising the questions.[1]

But however this storm goes, there will be work to do when we get home.  We’ll take the boards from our windows and, hopefully, the scales from our eyes.

We call upon the people.

People have this power.

With aloha,

J

 

[1] Oliver Milman, “World Needs 90 Trillion Dollar Infrastructure Overhaul to Avoid Climate Disaster, Study Finds,” The Guardian, October 6, 2016, accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/06/climate-change-infrastructure-coal-plants-green-investment

Paul Krugman, “What About the Planet?” The New York Times, October 7, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/07/opinion/what-about-the-planet.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0

 

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They don’t dance because they’re guarding their stuff.

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

Sunday, October 2, 2016 (Luke 22.14-20; Acts 2.42-47)

When I thought of World Communion Sunday, I thought of the dance. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes it in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. People coming from all over. Bringing what they have harvested to share and joining in a great circle. It’s a ritual of thanksgiving they call the giveaway. And everyone is a part. She remembers the berries best. Bright “strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, currants”[1] that stain your fingers and burst in your mouth. The people bring what they have and offer it. Then they take some in return. Then they dance.

Kimmerer reminds us that in indigenous cultures a person is understood to be wealthy if he or she has enough to give away. If a person can be generous, if a person can share, if a person can pass gifts along to his or her neighbors and children, then that person is truly rich. What else are gifts for, if not for giving? And they have all been received anyway, out of the earth’s mysterious abundance. We offer them up. We take what we need. We share the rest. We taste the tart fruit. We smile, laugh, tell stories, and dance. At least this is the idea.

Kimmerer writes that sometimes a new person or family will come to the thanksgiving ritual for the first time. All too often, she says, they understand the gratitude, the gifts, and the celebration without understanding the ethic of reciprocity. So they take what is offered. And then take some more. They make a pile of their presents and are afraid to leave it. They don’t dance, Kimmerer says, because they’re guarding their stuff. Which is another way of saying they miss the fullness of the ritual, the depth of the relationships being expressed. No one is going to take your stuff. There is no such thing as your stuff. It’s all part of the circle. Let go. Join the dance.

I thought of this image as I prepared for World Communion for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s so earthy, taking the materials on hand to celebrate what is sacred. Jesus and his followers took the Passover bread and broke it. Kimmerer and her clan pass the raspberries. And the second is that its ethic of sharing is so strong. The early Christian communities shared with each according to need, guarding no stuff as their own but holding it in common, as gifts to be shared. First Nations people still do the same. At least the ones who have been brought up attending the giveaway. And maybe the ones who find their ways into it, hoarding at first until the way of the ceremony begins to dawn on them. Do I want to sit by myself next to a pile of things I won’t share? Or do I want to join in a larger circle, move to the rhythm of giving, receiving, and not worrying?

We heard excerpts from our sacred stories this morning inviting us to remember our spiritual ancestors as those who taught and joined in an ethic of sharing. We do not know if they were dancers, but we do know that they did not guard their stuff. The Book of Acts, the earliest narrative of Christian community, reminds us that the community they sought to create was egalitarian, non-hierarchical. Everyone was welcomed into the circle. And everyone was given what they needed. What was valued was not material wealth so much as the dignity of each person and the life he or she was living. So they shared the stuff. Because the stuff didn’t matter. Brothers and sisters mattered. Women, men, and children. With particular emphasis on those who had been left out before. Outcasts, enemies, the shamed, the shunned the suffering. And so the circle became a circle of healing.

They were following the teachings of Jesus, who not only refused to guard his stuff, he refused to guard his life. He let go in the most radical way, dancing his expansive dance until the hoarders had enough of it and put him on trial. He was threatening the way of things and inviting others to do the same. And he knew it. But he said that the stuff would never matter. Only the people. And the lilies and sparrows. And the circle into which we are joined, drawn by the hand of the God he was telling, breathed into life by stories, parables, and jokes.

All these years later when we make our communion circle, we’re remembering what he taught and how he lived. But the only way to really join his dance is to stop guarding our stuff and follow a different way. And by stuff we mean material stuff — wealth, status, the trappings of our acquisition and competition. But we also mean spiritual stuff — ego, judgment, fear and the aversion to risk. We can’t dance if we’re guarding our stuff. But if we were to walk away from it. . .

A few weeks ago I met a colleague for lunch in Washington, DC. I was on foot near the Mall and, looking for a landmark, I asked that he meet me at a favorite place, the National Museum of the American Indian. I love the museum for its exhibitions of the art, culture, and storytelling of the indigenous nations of the Americas, but I also love it for its cafeteria. You pick up a tray and move through the cafeteria by region, looking at the foods that were a part of each place. So it’s cranberries in one place, salmon in another. Corn, rice, and buffalo meat. We filled our plates with native cuisine and sat in the cafeteria comparing notes on our work in progressive UCC churches. It was a life-giving conversation, but not just for the content. It was life-giving for the sharing, for the giving and receiving of our lives. For breaking bread together, surrounded by strangers, who were also our kin. I chose to walk back to my hotel after that, eager to stretch my legs and my mind after the rich food and conversation.

I went without a map, angling across the Mall, then moving at right angles depending on what the crossing lights said and which side of the street was shadowed. At some point I realized I was near the White House and decided I would walk past. And as I approached I could see a large crowd, a mass demonstration, and hear the sound of drumming. Thousands were there on behalf of our sisters and brothers at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. As you know, a large corporation is trying to push an oil pipeline through the sacred lands of the Sioux people who live there. The pipeline would carry nearly half a million gallons of oil a day over the watershed that the Sioux use for drinking water.[2] The tribe doesn’t want the pipeline any more than the people of the city of Bismarck did. But that mostly white city was able to have the pipeline diverted due to threats to public health. So it was diverted through the heart of Indian Country. Now native people have camped there, putting their bodies in the way of the proposed pipeline, in the largest gathering of tribes in many generations. Over 280 tribes are now assembled peacefully, where they are singing, praying, drumming, and dancing.[3]

I stand with our sisters and brothers at Standing Rock. So I stopped at the White House and listened to the drums, read the signs, and spoke with a few people as the daylong vigil disbanded. One man carrying a homemade sign walked beside me as we left. I asked him how the day had been. He told me it had been good but that he was tired. He just got in after several weeks encamped at Standing Rock. Then he told me what it was like.

It was beautiful, he said. The people were empowered. They spoke their prayers out loud. They welcomed every new person. They shared what they had. Food, tents, sleeping bags. They were committed to nonviolence. But they were also committed to their children. And their children’s children. And so they were going to stay. At night they circled up and sang songs, told stories, and looked at the sky. It was kind of the way things should be, he said. Not the way they are. Then the man needed to cross in a different direction. We waved goodbye to each other. Peace brother, we said. I carried on for a few blocks and watched the sky turn pink and blue as the sun fell.

And they’re all communion stories, you know. Anytime we stand for each other and the earth. Anytime we break bread or pass the berries around. Anytime we see that there is a larger dance, a greater invitation. . .and we walk away from all the stuff we’ve been sold and join in.

Amen.

 

[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 380

[2] See Robert Redford, “I Stand with the Standing Rock Sioux,” TIME Magazine, September 26, 2016, accessed online at http://time.com/4501580/dakota-access-pipeline-protest/.

[3] See David Archambault II, “Taking a Stand at Standing Rock,” The New York Times, August 24, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/opinion/taking-a-stand-at-standing-rock.html?_r=1.

 

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“The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming. . .” (Ps. 19 & 121)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

September 4, 2016

 

The temple bell stops—

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.

(Bashō)

I was awakened by the breakfast bell. Overslept without knowing. Rubbed my eyes at the sound, surprised by the daylight. I had arrived tired. With a cough from the wildfire haze that had sunk over the valley. Packed an overnight bag and crossed the bay to Marin. A pilgrimage I had made many times. Golden hills slanted toward the sea. An old horse barn turned into a zendo. A farm that smelled of incense and eucalyptus in the morning, sunshine and dust in the afternoon. A small room with no lock on the door. A paper nameplate that read Rutledge.

I don’t know what makes a place sacred. Why we are drawn to a site or wish to return. I don’t why Jacob set a stone or why Jesus stole away before dawn. Unless it was the felt quality of the experience. Some connection in the quiet. In my own case, the pilgrim’s yearning was a part of it. The return. Every time I returned begged the twin question that my father used to ask: Where have we come from and where are we going? He had been gone a long time, hidden as the poet said, in the hills and vales, “among all that is.”[1] But now the hills themselves were asking. I sat up in the bed and listened to the fading sound of the bell.

The heavens declare the glory of God,

   the sky proclaims [divine] handiwork.

Day to day makes utterance,

   night to night speaks out.

There is no utterance,

   there are no words,

   whose sound goes unheard.[2]

I slid the door open. Put feet into sandals damp and cool. Looked out over what I could see of the hills under a low slung Pacific fog. Walked mindfully, having slept through zazen. I remembered the old kinhin breathing we had done with each step. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. One hand over the other, walking like a forest monk. Joining the end of the line. The chant of gratitude had ended, but I held it in mind. This food is the gift of the whole universe. I bowed to the others. I bowed to my bowl.

Back in my room was the book I had brought. Peter Matthiessen’s story of pilgrimage and presence. He had traveled to Nepal with the biologist George Schaller hoping to glimpse a rare snow leopard. But a few paragraphs into the book, it becomes clear that Matthiessen on a different kind of pilgrimage. On the third page, he reveals that he has brought a small green bronze Buddha with him; it had sat beside his wife’s hospital bed when she died of cancer the year before. Pico Iyer observes that as readers, “we realize that the ‘path’ that Matthiessen has referred to is an inner as well as an outer one.”[3] Matthiessen accepted Schaller’s invitation to trek through Nepal. But he is looking and listening for more than leopards.

I turn my eyes to the mountains;

   from where will my help come?[4]

It’s a question asked or possibly sung by the psalmist. Some scholars consider it a song of ascent, something known to pilgrims in the hills above Jerusalem. Perhaps they didn’t know what made a place sacred, either. Perhaps they were just drawn to it or wished to return. Perhaps there they could set a stone, say a prayer, or sing of the old twin question: Where have we come from and where are we going?

I’m sure that’s what Matthiessen was asking of himself and of the family to which he would return. He had come from a place of long suffering. He was going an uncertain way into a future that was not what he had planned. And his book holds the questions implicitly, as he looks to the hills, as he reflects on the wisdom writers, as he deepens his Buddhist practice, and as he considers the Universe itself the great Zen scripture.[5] Like Bashō did. The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming. . .

The book, which I had been reading before sleep, offered no ultimate answer, only the bell’s invitation to wake up. One passage rang in my mind as I sat at the breakfast table. Early on his pilgrimage, Matthiessen writes of immersion in the world as something that is natural to us all before we forget it.

In his first summers, forsaking all his toys, my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through.[6]

I looked at my bowl of oatmeal. Simple and full. I inhaled its rising steam, added milk and walnuts. Our breakfasts were eaten in silence. All that could be heard was the clink of spoon against bowl. Scrape of chair. Sound of pouring coffee. I felt at rest at the very center of the universe. Not that my table was the center. But that any place was. Any bowl of oatmeal accepted in gratitude.

I wished that everyone could eat one meal a day in silent contemplation. Feel the nourishment of the food. Smile at dear ones around the table. Make sure that everyone had enough. Then carry the empty dishes together. Dip them in soap and water. Walk into the morning light feeling awake and alive. Not an observer, but a part. Which is why I had gone to the hills. To be reminded.

If the twin question is where have we come from and where are we going, then it is held together by the present moment, by where we are. And if a pilgrimage is anything at all, then it is going to a place for the purpose of realizing where one is and being present there, inasmuch as anyone can be. The old Hebrew poets had beautiful language for this, evoking the sky and the hills as signs of sacred handiwork, telling of the earth and all that is in it as our relations. The law or the precepts were written in the stars, on our hearts, spelled in flesh and bone as we relate in body, speech, or shuffled prayer on the way to breakfast.

But the old Hebrews were also known for their prophecy. The spoke not only of wind and whisper, but of fire and demand. They thundered right relation and warned those who neglected, abused, or oppressed their relatives. Yet the two are related. The prophets must have gone to the hills, too, seeking sustenance. The poets must have come down from them, renewed and ready to do the work of restoration and repair. These are great themes of our religious tradition, handed down to us in Hebrew literature and in Christian story, bound and hallowed and come to be called sacred. We hold these themes in the present moment. In between where we have come from and where we are going.

Such thoughts came and went as I angled down the hillside toward the sea. It was too cold to swim. But I was only going to listen. To the bell of water and wind. The one that the psalmist heard. I was only going to follow. The path that was inner as well as outer. The one that Matthiessen had gone. I was only going to ask. The questions of past and future held together in the present. The ones my father had given. I was only going to “stand rapt for near an hour.” As the boy had done. The boy in the great sandbox of the world.

Amen.

 

[1] Wendell Berry, “Three Elegiac Poems” in Collected Poems 1957–1982 (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 51.

[2] Psalm 19.2-4, TANAKH translation.

[3] Pico Iyer’s Introduction to Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008), xx.

[4] Psalm 121.1 TANAKH.

[5] Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 32.

[6] Ibid., 38-39.