The Ties that Bind

I preached this sermon at First Congregational UCC of DC, my home church, during a time when we were preparing to move into our new building.  For years the church had lived in exile, buildingless, squatting with the Lutherans. We were often without a head pastor during this time.  And we struggled to keep our church afloat, to keep our spirit nurtured.  We sought to revisit and reclaim fundamental aspects of our community’s identity during this time, as a means to spark spiritual renewal and commitment.  This sermon was preached during a time we were revisiting the church’s commitment to a multi-cultural and multiracial vision. 

December 5, 2010
2nd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-3

Please pray with me:

God, when the weather becomes cold our tendency is to look down, fold up, put on our armor to resist the bite of the wind.  Help us now to open back up, to take off our layers, so that your own divine wind might make its way into our hearts.  So that your Word might be heard through the din of these finite, fallible, human words I am about to speak.   Amen.   

This is the story of two young boys, one Muslim, one Christian, born in Kaduna State in Nigeria.  One to a deeply religious family, the descendant of a long line of religious scholars, himself a fervent student of God.  The other who attended worship to flirt with the girls in the choir.   As the boys grew up the world in Kaduna began to crumble along fault lines.  Political and economic uncertainty ate away at the relationship between the indigenous and the new settlers, between the Ibo, Yoruba and Hausa tribes, between the Christians and the Muslims.  With violence and repression rising, everyone became conscious of difference, for the sake of their lives.  From someone different could come the gunfire, the rapes.  And these boys, seeking to defend and protect their community, picked up arms and began to fight.  This, like all wars, was a moral fight.  Their religion told them to defend their faith, their community, to fight injustice and in this way establish peace.  They lost family members.  The Christian boy lost a hand.  The Muslim boy lost his guru.  And still they kept fighting.

*

One of the reasons we come here to church each week is to get a Peace of Christ hug from Peg Lorenz.  Another reason we come is to do the work of deciphering what the world tells us about how to live from what God tells us.  The world, we know, often leads us down the wrong path, away from what brings peace.  During this cacophonous season the world feeds our vanity, our materialism, our anxiety.  The world’s pull is strong and annoyingly insistent… you know what I’m talking about… those irritating commercials for diamond jewelry you see this time of year.  So we come to remember that there is a different, redemptive, story around which to construct our lives.   We come to remember what really brings true peace, and to reignite our fire for shalom.

One thing the world tells us is that diversity is dangerous.   From the newspapers, the world screams its message – that within diverse communities, there is greater mistrust, greater propensity to violence.   And yet here, in this church, we hear a different story.  In the Qur’an, our God of Abraham says: O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other) (49:13).   The world tells us we keep the peace by staying in our dens of hegemony.  God tells us that diversity is something to be explored… not in a way that denies our rootedness in our own tradition and culture, not in a shallow or syncretistic sense, but in an authentic, insistent, ultimately transformative manner.   It is this that reduces hatred and violence, our God says.  And it must be worked for, lest the world’s story about difference pull us away from each other, and toward violence.

James and Ashafa, the boys from Kaduna who I have the privilege of working with in my day job, and who have been two of my greatest teachers, each, in their own way, as they grew older, felt God resisting their pull to a violence that had only brought death.  They felt God pulling them toward each other, to explore their differences, rather than to fight them.   It took years, but slowly, tentatively, they learned to trust each other.   And they began to work together to bridge Christians and Muslims in Kaduna.  They explore assumptions, they air fears, and through this they fight injustice, and give root to salaam.  Through exploring the difference they come to know each other, rather than to despise each other, and so to know God.

But tensions that may sound familiar to us pull at their constant intercommunal weaving.… as mosques are built in new places deemed offensive, or in the mess of elections – governors of Kaduna State, mayors of DC, minority presidents, as new settlers take up space alongside the indigenous in Columbia Heights or Arizona, as the schools change, and new markets go up, or Walmarts, dog parks, bike lanes… the fabric strains with the pull of these things… the world’s pull is annoyingly insistent.   And James and Ashafa, in Kaduna, they keep resisting, with their own annoying insistence.   Those two have taught me that there are no short cuts in the work of peace.   There is just the constant resolve to dig in again.  Slowly, the light of peace rubber cements the fault lines in Kaduna, so that they can bend and resist the world’s pull, without shattering into violence.

*

I’m a child of the exile.  I was born into this community after you had poured out the baptismal water into the ground at 10th and G and pilgrimaged here to our diaspora home under the rule of the Lutherans.  I have been raised here on an oral tradition that honors (and maybe romanticizes) the past, and on promises about where we are going.

One of these stories I’ve been raised is of the church’s founding as the first integrated church in the District, seeking to give root to a delicate peace after the civil war through creating reconciliation between races, sharing the table of Christ.  Radical stuff in those days, and perhaps still, sadly.   I have been raised on the beautiful vision woven in 2003, the Multi-Racial Multi-Cultural statement we have read in part today, and will weave into our next couple worships.    A commitment to make space for difference to manifest here, to build an inclusive beloved community.  These stories about us affirm the connection between diversity and peace.  This commitment  is exactly what brought me to this community three years ago.  But over the past three years I have felt pain around these issues, as the desire has not yet transformed our reality in this church, this city, this world.  There are times I have wondered if this community remains committed to the destination envisioned in the MRMC statement.

I hope so.  Not just because our God is too big to be contained in the experience of any one gender or race or culture, and so to glimpse God’s Infinite Truth we must explore God’s infinite manifestations.  Not just because the whole point of religion is to get out of the narrow trappings of our personal and collective egos, to expand our perspectives to encompass bigger things, to see ourselves as others, and that Great Other see us, even if that sometimes makes us uncomfortable – even because it sometimes makes us uncomfortable.   Not just because this is the hope that our church was first built on, and something our melting pot country, born and built on a legacy of racial division, needs desperately.

But also for a very practical reason.  Because we must understand difference in order to build a just peace, another of our foundational commitments.   As we seek to define our church’s new mission commitment moving forward, which the Homecoming Committee announced this week we would begin to do through engaging in social justice activities around the city over this next year, we have to remember that no issue can be pursued in complete isolation.

Let me give you an example.  Along with some other ordained folk in the congregation, I was a member of DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality, a group of several hundred clergy residing in DC who advocated for the passage of the marriage equality bill last year.  On that journey, what struck me is how the issue as debated in this city seemed to have as much to do with race as sexual orientation.    The story painted was of our mostly white NW-residing clergy pitted against black preachers from the other quadrants. The reality was that our group was comprised not just of white folk, but black and brown folk too.  In fact, it was led by two black preachers from SW.   And support for gay marriage more largely in DC was hardly the purview of white folk, just as opposition was not limited to black folk.  But there is no doubt that race impacted this issue, and that many out there – the opponents of gay marriage, the media, the sensationalists and reductionists, sought to exploit the racial divide.  If our clergy group had not acted with conscientiousness about that current reality, and about a history of racism in this country that manifested as accusations of sexual deviance, creating a persistent and complicated interconnection between issues of race and sexuality, we might not have acted with necessary sensitivity, and had the success we did.

This is how it works pretty much everywhere – justice issues are a web, and if you pull up one issue in that web, it often pulls up other issues.  Talk about living in an environmentally responsible way, about organic food and free range chicken, and you risk demonizing the poor by granting the rich the only means to serve as green saviors.  Talk about gentrification, a process often unfair to communities who have lived here for a long time, and you’re going to bump up against the needs of gay folks driven from rural areas to urban centers seeking a community of acceptance.  Talk about public health issues affecting the city– AIDS or diabetes, and you’ll encounter race, poverty, sexual orientation.  These issues are all related.  And so if we want to tackle any of them, we better be conscious of the greater web, so we are not deepening some fault lines even as we work to heal others, so that we are creating the wholeness of shalom.

This community has come so far already in our journey.  We may not have reached our destination yet, but we have gained wisdom, we have tested processes, we have affirmed the continued need in this church, city, nation and world to embrace a multi-cultural and multi-racist perspective for the sake of peace.  We have so much to drawn on – the richness of our own cultural histories woven together in this beloved community – (witness this table, and) come to the nurture hour to learn more!  We have the wisdom of our church ancestors, who set us on this journey.  We have the wisdom of this city, nation, and world, so much to explore, so many new ways to hear God’s voice, so much to do to rubber cement the fault lines.  I have felt new energy revitalizing the MRMC commitment in recent months.  As we move forward we might consider exploring the Potomac Association’s process of becoming  an anti-racist church, which will help us consider how all aspects of church life can be directed in annoying insistence toward rejecting the world’s pull towards racism, even as we continue to practice inclusive welcome.

We are in the wilderness now, these few weeks before the child arrives, these few months before we move into a newborn worship space.  Every year, people, it is in the wilderness that the redemption story begins.

You know, it is tempting, during Advent, to turn God into a spiritual Santa Claus; to rush to that easy celebration of what God gives us: hope, peace, joy, a child.  Of course the manger reminds us that God freely grants us what we cannot achieve alone:  Christ’s arrival is an act of God’s pure grace.  But there is more to the story (There is always more).   We are not the only ones waiting.  God is too…. waiting for us to respond to these gifts in a certain way, constructing and weaving our lives around the values he who is coming embodies so perfectly, and proclaims.

As we begin to reconstruct our world around the redemption story,  to build our communities around what we know brings true shalom, remember that we would not have come this far if not for the fact that God is present here among us.   Trust in Isaiah’s promise that a branch will grow from the stump of Jesse.    From what appeared a tired old lump of wood, a tender shoot will burst forth.   At first it may seem vulnerable and tentative.  That is how it always begins.   But it will grow into something remarkable, something that will teach us incredible lessons, something that can never be destroyed.

Amen

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