Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. June 14, 2020 The Third Sunday after Pentecost Ephesians 6:10-17 Luke 10:30-37
In a blog post this week, the author Annie Lamott tells this story, “When my son was five or six, we were visiting my friends in the city, when all of a sudden we heard a tiny distressed voice. . . Sam had managed to get his head stuck in the slats of a chair he had been clamoring on. He stared at us like a dwarf in the stocks of Salem. He said, “I need help with me.”
“I need help with me.” Exactly. The combination of Covid-19 lethality - especially in communities of color, the harassment of black folks for nothing more than going about their daily lives, the murder of George Floyd, the tumult of the protests, the cruelty of police all overwhelm me. I am outraged. I am appalled. I am sick to my soul.
“I need help with me.” Not because my feelings deserve attention in order to make me feel better – I want to be VERY clear about that. “I need help with me” because what is wrong in policing, our educational system, our health care system, our economic policies, our housing crisis, is also wrong with me. By virtue of my skin color, I benefit from these structures of injustice, whether I want to or not, and no matter my intentions. My life has had its share of bruises and soul-crushing experiences, but NONE of them had anything to do with my skin color.
In seminary, the first of my field education placements was in an after-school program in the South End. Run by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, those we tutored were poor, black and Latino boys and girls. I helped with math problems and vocabulary words, and made snacks –these kids were always hungry; but I could do nothing to change the structures in which these children of God were caught. Unsafe housing, family difficulties, incarceration, unemployment and little medical care were their life experiences. Their daily reality taught them they were NOT valuable human beings made in the image of God. Rather they were disposable. It was heart-wrenching. I drove home most days in tears. And on one of those drives, I realized I could LEAVE. Returning to my warm home and family, I could choose what we ate for dinner, with no concern about having clean clothes for the next day, never fearing for our physical safety. I could choose to look away and never go back. These children could not.
“I needed help with me” and I was part of a community that did just that in seminary. Wise folks helped me to reflect on my experiences so that I could name and know the oppressive structures of which I was a part. They held me accountable, so that I could not choose to forget the systemic oppression I had witnessed. In community, I learned that “justice is what love looks like in public” as Dr. Cornel West still reminds us.
Racism is a sickness of our souls that leads to a sickness in the systems in which we all live. Eliot is a congregation of mostly white folks. Good white folks – we give generously, we volunteer in food pantries, march for many causes, serve our neighbors across lines of color and social-status. We vote. We do our best to mitigate the consequences of the unjust systems in which we live –all good, necessary and faithful responses. But do we recognize the structures that create the oppression our black siblings live – and die- with each day? How do we even begin to challenge injustice if we can’t? “We need help with us.”
In our baptismal vows, and as a community of disciples, we vow “to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice.” Our baptism requires us to identify and confront systemic racism in our social structures. And we must confront how we have internalized these structures if we are going to be faithful disciples of Jesus. In her book “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander challenges us: We must do what is required of all liberation struggles; educate ourselves and others, speak unpopular truths, provide support for those who have been harmed, and organize against the systems that seek to oppress, control and divide us.” If we are going be faithful to our baptismal promises, this is work we white folks need to continue doing at Eliot. It is our sacred obligation to understand and recognize how we have internalized the unjust structures of racism, individually and as a community of faith. It is hard work. It is essential work. It is painful work. And we need each other to do it.
Rev. Rick and I invite you to join us for some in-depth learning this summer. Please watch the movie “Just Mercy” based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name. It is free on all platforms during the month of June. On the “Adult Education” page of our website, there are a wide variety of resources to help us wrestle more deeply with racism. There are also materials to share with our children. Stay tuned to TWEC and our website for times for us to gather via Zoom and share our learnings.
Annie Lamott ends her blog post with this: “I need help. We all do and it is how it should be . . . [our] country will need millions of people joining together for justice and reconciliation. We need help with us. It is the prayer of the miserable and scared and very stuck, who still against all odds believe that we can be changed and freed. It is my prayer for us now.” It is also my prayer – and I hope it will be yours too. Amen.
I would like you to listen for a moment to these words, which are really a kind of hymn.
“Democracy alone can bind, and ever seeks to bind, all nations, all men and women, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family. It is the old, yet ever-modern dream of earth, out of her eldest and her youngest, [out of] her fond philosophers and poets. Democracy is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties, and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing.” --Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871
The world is in the grip of a pandemic, on top of which America is in convulsions. What a month, what a week, my congregation.
The historic drama spans so many emotions—we felt sorrow, such deep deep sorrow at the killing of George Floyd, horror at the maleficence, stupefaction at stupidity, anger at mealy-mouth foot-dragging, shame that a familiar crime was happening all over again.
We felt pride, too, in the surge of people flooding the streets, the millennial, the old-timers, whites in huge percentages, and all colors—to grieve and rage at this base, cruel, senseless and too familiar act of inhumanity.
But these demonstrations which have run eleven consecutive days and nights in 30 different cities in the US and many others around the world, are just the late-breaking of a colossal wave on our democratic shore, a wave whose power started building in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, when the black community finally managed to push the nay-sayers aside and get their movies written and produced, like 13th, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, I Am Not Your Negro, Get Out, and many, many more.
African-Americans also got their books published over this period like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
It seems these testimonies of black pain in America cumulatively have seeped part of the way into white consciousness and consciences such that three police murders in a row in Minneapolis, or three in a row in one month between Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota, or the ten in a row going back to Eric Garner, finally ignited the simmering outrage into a full-blown national convulsion.
Today the country is calling us out and calling us up—we are being drafted into a movement. The nation is witnessing a street plebiscite, and we should be taking very personal instruction from it. We are witnessing in real time that Eliot Church is needed in this community and the whole city around us. Prof. Gary Dorrien of Union Seminary in NYC told us at the CMM annual meeting Thursday, “The love ethic of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry. This is a moment to put everything on the line.”
Our poet Walt Whitman celebrated the Democratic Vistas of continental America in the immediate aftermath of the war to end slavery. This week has visited upon an entire nation a new glimpse of those democratic vistas as they burst into millions of peoples’ hearts and raised us to a new level of hope—real hope again.
But Whitman had something interesting to add. Democracy, he wrote, “is vitalized by religion. . . . For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there.” Whitman saw that religion brings life into every human enterprise, most especially and essentially into democracy because democracy is a religious vocation—arduous, compelling, exciting. Because Whitman saw religion at the core of those democratic values, we have another source lifting up our mission in front of our eyes.
Our silence is violence—let us find our voice, Eliot Church. Our inaction is complicity—let us put our shoulder to the wheel, Eliot. Our impatience is healthy—let it fuel us during the long haul ahead, church, because it has only just begun.
On Thursday, Rev Al Sharpton quoted from Ecclesiastes in his eulogy for George Floyd in order to say to America its time has come. (Did you watch that sermon??) Two weeks ago I said something very like that—Eliot Church’s own time has come, I said. I called it our Kairos, which is the Greek term for a special time, pregnant time, due time, past time, you might say, as Rev. Al did, out of time. The Kairos moment for us has arrived, and we are stewards of that moment.
If we are to endure, if we are to produce another generation, if we are to be effective, if Eliot Church is to find our grip again—two things, I believe, need to happen:
First, Eliot Church must undertake to right-size itself. We must use this transition time to reorganize and rebuild. Our Discernment Committee and our Leadership Council are going to use this summer to get some remediations started, the better to position us to call a settled pastor.
And second, Eliot members have to find some trust. Take heart in yourselves. Look at the confidence that St. Paul had in the fledgling little communities he started in Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia and Rome. He was addressing you by extension, another Christian community in a secular environment. St. Paul wrote of them, I have no doubt in my mind that you yourselves are full of goodness and equipped with knowledge of every kind, well able to give advice to one another. He prayed that out of the treasures of glory God may grant you inward strength and power through his Spirit, that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love. St. Paul enjoined us to pursue justice, piety, integrity, love, fortitude, and gentleness. Run the great race of faith, he said, and take hold of eternal life, for to this you were called.
The French have a saying, they have many sayings, but one in particular applies to our transition time--reculer pour mieux sauter—pull back just enough to spring forward. If we pause and make the effort to re-establish a bridgehead, to use Dr. Elizabeth’s analogy from last Sunday, one day soon we will be able to provide others with the means to vault from this bridgehead into action.
Today is a day of mourning for George Floyd. So today, on our Annual Meeting Sunday, it is for us to believe in the democratic vistas that Walt Whitman could see and that people of all ages and races are seeing in this important week in America. Tomorrow Monday is two weeks since the police killing of George Floyd—Rev. William Barber and national clergy are calling for a day of fasting Monday to culminate at 5:00 with 8 minutes and 47 seconds of silence, the length of time it took George Floyd to expire.
Let us all participate in these rituals of respect and national contemplation. And let us renew our Christian vocation as a public in a community that needs us.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Day of Pentecost Genesis 11: 1-11 Acts 2: 1-18 May 31, 2020
Broken Towers; New Songs Lord, take my lips and speak through them. Lord, take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
Today is the day of Pentecost, the time when the Church celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. Traditionally, the Church prefaces the reading of the Acts account with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. For most of my life, I could not see what these two stories had to do with each other. It wasn’t until I told the Pentecost story from a children’s curriculum called Godly Play, that these two stories together made sense to me.
A people united by their common language and hubris build a Tower that is displeasing to God. In the words of the Godly Play script, “The Tower crashes down and at the same time, the one human language is broken into many different languages. Each language was beautiful, but the people of God could no longer understand each other.”
Language is the bridge between this story and the Pentecost narrative in Acts. The power of the Holy Spirit gives Peter and the disciples the ability to preach the Good News to a crowd of many nations and languages. Amazed, the crowd asks “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” What had been broken has been made whole – and the Church is born.
This is a familiar pattern in our Scriptures. God creates a Garden; human pride sends Adam and Eve into exile. God tries again and again – giving the people law and then a Temple. But human beings being human, these too end badly and the people are exiled to Babylon, believing God has abandoned them. God sends Jesus to re-create God’s vision of wholeness for the people, but human choices result in his execution. The disciples flee into a self-imposed exile until Jesus rises from the dead and meets them in the Garden and the Upper Room. But then, Jesus ascends to heaven and again, the disciples are abandoned – until the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus arrives with her flames and wind – and a new creation is birthed.
The passages we heard today do not speak to the time between the breaking of the languages and the wholeness re-created through the Spirit. But the Bible tells us over and over that God’s people often felt abandoned while exiled.
We know that same experience all too well in this time of pandemic. We are exiled from our building. As people we love die alone from this virus, and the violence of systemic racism erupts in our streets, how can we not feel abandoned? In an essay in Time Magazine this week, New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright calls us to “to recognize the present moment as a time of exile. We find ourselves “by the waters of Babylon,” thoroughly confused and grieving for the loss of our normal life.” We miss our sanctuary. We miss each other. And we have no idea if that for which we yearn will be possible again.
Bishop Wright reminds us, “Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward . . . A proper theology of “sacred space” ought to see buildings for public worship as advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation. Church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world . . .”
“Bridgehead” is a peculiar description. The dictionary defines it as “the strategically important area of ground around the end of a bridge or other place of possible crossing which at time of conflict is sought to be defended or taken over by the belligerent forces.” While I dislike using martial imagery – particularly when preaching – I think the metaphor is an apt one as we see the death and violence around us. We at Eliot are the Church, but not physically within it. I envision us standing on the front lawn with the Eliot Church building and all the love, service and creativity it holds supporting our backs. Grounded by Eliot’s past, we are ready to spring from our “bridgehead” of faith to extend it out into our city and the world which so desperately needs us. Exiled from our building but standing firmly on the “bridgehead” looking out into a world made unfamiliar by pandemic and the injustice of systemic racism we ask as the Babylonian exiles did: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Today, the Holy Spirit answers with fire and wind, empowering us to sing the Lord’s song in a new language of hope and possibility. But before we can sing, we must listen. We must listen deeply to the pain and despair beyond Eliot’s walls.
We must listen as we prepare for our annual meeting, continue our discernment process, and share our experiences through our Building Blocks of Faith project. All reveal something about what the Lord’s song has been at Eliot Church. And if we listen deeply, beneath the blowing winds and crackling fire of the Holy Spirit, we can also hear strains of the new language in which we will continue to sing the Lord’s song in a land made strange to us by Covid-19 and broken by systemic racism. This song demands that we “seek the welfare of the city” where we are, as the prophet of the Exile, Jeremiah wrote so long ago. In so doing, we claim the promise that Peter quotes from Isaiah at the end of the Acts reading we read today: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.” Expanding our bridgehead, listening for the Spirit’s guidance, a renewed Eliot Church will be born. Amen. Alleluia.