Monday, February 13, 2012

Through The Door

I've gotten a bit behind in my practice of posting my sermons from TJMC here on the blog.  In part that's because for a couple of weeks I was preaching extemporaneously from notes.  Nothing, then, to post except the audio -- which is available at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church website.

Here, though are the twin explorations from February 5th, 2012, the beginning of "Justice Month."

Elizabeth Breeden
In the late 1800’s the mathematician, Frances Galton, went to a county fair.  There you could guess the weight of an ox and if you guessed it you won a half/penny.  The fellow was writing the people’s guesses on a slip of paper.  Sir Galton was sure these simple country people could not guess correctly and certainly it was a rare person who came within the range necessary to win a prize.  At the end however, he asked the carnival fellow for the slips of paper, went home and found the average and realized that it was indeed within one pound of the actual weight of the ox. Sir Galton concluded (and reaffirmed by many, many studies of college sophomores) that we are together much smarter that any one of us alone.  As some of you already know, Sir Frances Galton is considered the father of Eugenics, a science trying to describe humans in better and worse paradigms which has taken us so sadly awry in awful decisions about sterilization but even thoughtfully in discussions about “best embryos.”
But, I’m not going there.  I’m stuck in the idea that together we are smarter than any one of us.  I think and I believe that that is true.  Of course, Jesus said it slightly more viscerally saying we are all one body and if your finger hurts, your whole body hurts, and how can we ignore our mangled finger.
So how do we regard the whole arc of our community, rich and poor, educated and not so educated, weird and plain, entertaining and boring, disabled and powerfully able as US?  How do we make sure we are ALL taken care of, not enabled, not given a fish but taught to fish?  How do we create an atmosphere that makes THOSE doors FEEL open…welcoming.  WE are a place that is helped by your presence, no matter who you are.
On Friday we are unloading the trucks, the place is brimming over with folks sitting around the edges of the room watching other folks work, walking 2 tons of food up that ramp, watching the food go into 108 bags, hauling 1000 lbs of potatoes, and… I mess up the chocolate pudding, mistaking it for jello because they both come in the same size boxes and they both say “jello” on the side.  What I want more than anything is for this room to feel like it is WE, not church people and we’re-so-bad-off-we’re-sitting-in-a-food-bank people, who are putting out this food and taking it home. So the Chocolate pudding is all put in the last row of bags and the folks sitting watching us (many of whom are tearing down boxes too) get it right away.  Luckily one of the ladies who is helping put out food and is very strong and forceful, starts to straighten it out by laboriously trading jello for pudding, bag by 108 bag.  The mood in the room starts to smooth a little and then (I don’t see this only the results are clear) one of our main, hard working, there early family helpers has stashed extra pudding in the first bags because she always gets the first bags and the strong forceful lady will have none of her (but I can do it because I’m special) and makes all of the puddings even, fair, equal for all.  Did you really think I was talking about pudding?  No, it’s about the feeling that we all should treat each other fairly and actually the worker who gets there early doesn’t necessarily get more special treatment. (oops that’s a jesus story too)  I think this is the part where everyone is heard.  Everybody in the room hopes to be there for the same bags of food and potatoes and I want us all to be working up a sweat to make sure we are all honoring that endpoint.
Most of all, I don’t want us all to be the same.  I am willing to look like I work harder if I know the poet is gazing at the geese crossing the sky, the hermit is walking in the woods and the engineer is inventing another darn screw that will have a different head and length because it is stronger in some indecipherable way.  I know that we reward folks who go to school successfully in outlandish ways, but god save us if we start to believe that it makes them better, because frequently they are not much fun to live with.  I want to be part of the stew and you can be the meat and even the potatoes and salt and especially the water but, well,  I want to be the corn or the pepper.
So here we are after our first night hosting PACEM.  If we were a truly warm, welcoming, socially just church our guests would not be able to resist being among us this morning.  I don’t think we know how to invite them. I think we have been doing this for 6 years.  Most of the churches where the guests are sheltered have begun to have conversations about the deeper issues we realize after this experience.  It is not enough to offer a band aide of winter shelter without thinking TOGETHER (where we are smarter than any one of us) about the ways to welcome into our congregation those with addiction issues, those who have been shoved out of any system of care for mental health issues, or how to assure there are hopeful steps to homefulness for those who have fallen into economic hardship.  I know that it should feel like collaboration and not competition.  I know that it should feel hopeful. Us is them, we are us, our doors must be found open.  Because we all know, they don’t change, we change. We are in this soup together.  Social justice…it’s not about giving, it’s about receiving.

Erik Walker Wikstrom
Last week, as part of the service, we lit candles while naming some of the many things that we’re doing here at TJMC and beyond our walls.  This morning, as we begin our month-long exploration of the theme of justice, I’d like to read part of that list again:
Adopt-a-highway, Chalice Lighters, Children’s Worship Collections, Emotional Wellness Ministry, Environmental Action – Green Sanctuary, Food Pantry, Gay/Straight Alliance, Giving Tree, Guest at Your Table, Hospital Food Packets, IMPACT, Marriage Equality, PACEM, Partner Church(es), Peace Action - UNO, Refugee Partnerships, Social Action Collections, Soup Kitchen, Undoing Racism, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our Youth’s work in relationship building with the residents of the Cedars.  (And beginning next week our children and youth will be introducing us to the Standing on the Side of Love campaign that’s spreading like wildfire throughout our movement.)
These things are all in different stages of activity at the moment, but they present a good picture of the social action efforts of this congregation.  We’re doing a lot.  How many of you have been involved in one or more of these things – either as a leader/organizer or as a participant?  I can’t say why y’all chose me, but I know that this list is one of the reasons I chose you.
We’re doing a lot.  We’ve done a lot.  There’s a lot here to be proud of.
And yet . . .
And yet, this week I received an e-mail from Kip Newland, chair of our Social Action Council.  He wanted to be clear that this wasn’t a critique, just an observation, but he noted that as the Worship Weavers prepared to engage the congregation in a month-long exploration of the theme of justice no one had reached out to the Social Action Council.  No one sought – or maybe even more apropos, no one thought – to engage the Social Action Council in the planning for this month, to elicit their thoughts about what we could say, to get their feedback on what our congregation needed to hear.  I replied that this was a very important observation.  Very telling. 
To be honest, I also noted that the themes of the year have been known since September and that the fact that February was going to be “Justice” month had long been public knowledge and that no one on the Social Action Council had made an invitation for the Worship Weavers to come visit and get to know the goings on of the SAC in preparation for this month’s worship.  We agreed that a real opportunity had been missed.
The overarching theme of this year, as set out in that wonderful joint Leadership Development/Board of Trustees retreat at the beginning of the year, has been “cultivating connections.”  And by this we haven’t just meant making connections among us as individuals.  We meant cultivating the entire web of connections that makes this place what it is.  As I said, I see this as a missed opportunity – the folks focusing on social action and the folks focusing on worship could have used this as an opportunity to deepen the connections among these often-seen-as-separate spheres.
One reason that’s been suggested by some for why no one thought of this is that the Social Action efforts of the church can sometimes feel like more of a collection of individual’s particular passions than a coherent, organic, integrated social action program of the church.  The Social Action Council, then, can seem like a coordinating body more than a collaborative co-creator of one of the ministries of our congregation.  What, then, does the SAC, as a whole, have to say to or for the congregation?  What is its voice?  What is its place in the ongoing conversation of who we are and who we want to be?
To the extent that any of this rings true, this points to another place where connections could be cultivated.  How do our various Social Action efforts relate to one another and to the mission, the ministry, and the message of TJMC?  I’m planning on attending the SAC’s February 22nd meeting, and I’m really looking forward to this seeing where this conversation will take us.
One thing that might help guide this conversation – or, perhaps, galvanize it – is the question that Elizabeth told us that the folks involved with PACEM have begun to ask.  It is well and good that temporary shelter is being provided for our unhoused sisters and brothers during the coldest months of the year, but what comes next?  Where do we go from here?  Having opened the door between the two worlds of the housed and the unhoused, what would it look like to go through it?
Some of you may remember an illustration I used earlier in the year.  It comes out of the writings of John Dominic Crossan, and is his way of trying to capture just how radical was (and still would be) Jesus’ practice of “open commensality.”  For those who don’t remember, “open commensality” is the anthropological jargon for, “he’d eat with anybody.”  Prostitute or Pharisee or Priest, it didn’t matter to Jesus.  We’re told that he made no such distinctions between people and blurred the lines that society had so carefully constructed.
To vividly illustrate this, Crossan suggests that you imagine that you’re having a dinner party.  Someone rings your doorbell, and when you answer it you see a poor family that’s been living under the bridge just down the road.  They’re hungry.  And you, at this point, have several possible responses.
·         You could send them away, saying that you’re too busy to be bothered.  (And you might or might not offer them a little cash to help tide them over.)

·         You could invite them around back where you’d give them some food and then send them on their way.

·         You could invite them around back and then into your kitchen so that they could both eat and warm up.

·         You could invite them to come into your dining room and join the party.

·         Or you could invite your guests to gather up all the food and beverage and dishes and head out together to the bridge, bringing the party where, perhaps, it’s needed most.
Lots of options, but this last, Crossan argues, is Jesus’ way.  I would argue that we’re called for it to be our way as well.  Because only in this last scenario is the encounter the catalyst for real transformation . . . of everyone.  The people under the bridge have their humanity reaffirmed, are reminded that even in their current circumstances they are worthy of a party (if you will).  And the original dinner guests are reminded that their china and their cutlery and their pate d’ foie gras doesn’t make them any different than these other people, just more delicately fed.  Only in this last scenario is the essential “only-us-ness” of the universe fully expressed.
So some of us roll up our sleeves and feed a good meal to some unhoused women and men twice a year.  And some of us, while working with also talk with and joke with and get to know a bit the women and men who come to our food pantry each month.  Good.  Important.  But what can we do to blur the boundaries even further?  What can we do to help more of these women and men get into their own homes so that they don’t need to go church to church to church in the winter?  What can we do to raise the standard of living around here so that folks don’t need to get their groceries in paper bags from the floor of a church social hall?  And what can we do to more fully realize a community, a world, in which “us and them” is replaced with “just us”?
That’s right.  As I said in my newsletter column this month, I believe that the true heart of all work toward justice is the deep and abiding conviction that it’s “just us.”  Just us.  Yet the world in which we live seems to predicated upon anything but.  There are so many ways that we make distinctions and differences between and among ourselves, and from these grow injustice.
So what, of all the things that cry out for attention, should we – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – what should we be putting our particular attention toward?  At the beginning of this sermon I named a lot of wonderful things that we’ve done and are doing, yet I have to ask the same question that PACEM’s asking – after opening up these doors, what comes next?  And to answer that, as a congregation, I think we also have to answer the question what is our unique calling in this community?  What is our true voice?  What can we offer that is ours to say and do?
These aren’t just questions for a Social Action Council, or the Worship Weavers, or even for a collection of dedicated activists among us.  They are questions for us all because the answers depend upon the connections among us all, and among us and those “Others” out there with whom we are truly one.
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