This Sunday I was blessed to preach at La Mesa Cafe, the bilingual service of the United Church of Chapel Hill. It is a lovely ministry which tears down walls separating Latino members of the community from others, including welcoming people who are documented and undocumented immigrants together with life-long citizens.
The service is structured to allow space for people to share how their own stories and experiences tie together with the Scriptures being explored. To me this time truly opens me up, for it is a time each week that I get to hear not just the voices of folks from one background or many, but also people of color, folks who live here under threat of Homeland Security and ICE, folks who live average white suburban lives like me, queer couples with children, straight widows and widowers like myself.. It is an amazing time in which I hear the Spirit speak in Her way as She blows where she will through the lives of so many different kinds of people, just as much as hear Her voice through the preacher. Being the preacher myself this Sunday as Pastor David traveled out of state with family gave me the opportunity to hear the Spirit speak to me through those voices of others in a unique and powerful way.
Sadly I can’t share the many stories I heard from others as preacher today. I can only share the words I gave. That said, I hope these words which I feel are timely in light of the upcoming Inauguration speak to and bless you.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 2He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. 3And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” 5And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Life has a way of shaking us to the core, bringing us experiences that truly make us feel like our hearts are splintering like rotting wood under pressure.
In my work in hospice, I see it so often when, in facing incurable illness people ask “why?”, wondering why either they or one they love must face pain and loss.
Such questions haunted me in 2015, when I saw one long-time friend, then one mentor of many years, and then finally my wife of 12 years all pass in sequence. “Why this pain that makes me feel my heart shall crack?”
Some feel such pain in experiences of joblessness, in struggles to support their family that lead them away from their home town or homeland, into new places full of risk.
Though I had some close to me rejoicing, I know many others who felt a similar pain deep in their heart at the election of a man to our highest office whose claim to fame is language of exclusion, building walls to keep others out, and creating lists of people of other faiths to target. For those heart-broken and shocked over our recent election, Inauguration Day this week is a time they, too, cry out “Why? Why this pain that makes my heart and our nation splinter?”
It is out of such experience of pain and searching a prophet in the school of Isaiah wrote his or her words which we read this Sunday. Their people, Judah, had felt specially called of God, called to be “great” as a nation. Yet, what happened? Their nation had been flattened, they were led away into captivity first by Assyria, then Babylon, and finally Persia. Their great cities had been devastated. Why? Why had this happened? They wondered, as hope of rebuilding appeared like sunrise glistening on the horizon of a new day.
This prophet’s questioning of her or his own pain, and that of their people, points a way forward in the pains we face individually and as a community.
It invites us to find meaning in our points of pain. This call reminds me of the words of Jewish poet and musician, Leonard Cohen, in his “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”
They also mirror the words of Muslim poet and mystic Rumi:
“This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival. / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, / who violently sweep your house / empty of its furniture, / still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out / for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, / meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes, / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”
In each crack we face, splintering through our hearts, communities, and lives, there are lessons available, in we can sit with that pain and let it teach us.
I wonder, have any of you here had experiences where pains you or others faced teach lessons which you would like to share?
(Pause to let people share for a few moments)
An example of someone learning lessons from their pain is beautifully shared by the late Father Henri Nowen, in his Life in the Spirit:
“I know of few people who have seen as much suffering as the Dalai Lama. As the spiritual and political leader of Tibet he was driven from his own country and witnessed the systematic killing, torture, oppression, and expulsion, of his people. Still, I know of few people who radiate so much peace and joy.
“The Dalai Lama’s generous and disarming laughter is free from any hatred or bitterness toward the Chinese who ravaged his land and murdered his people. He says, ‘They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion.’
“How is it possible that a man who has been subject to such persecution is not filled with anger and a desire for revenge? When asked that question, the Dalai Lama explains how, in his meditation, he allows all the suffering of his people and their oppressors to enter into the depth of his heart and there be transformed into compassion.
“What a spiritual challenge! While anxiously wondering how to help the people in Bosnia, South Africa, Guatemala, and, yes, Tibet … the Dalai Lama calls me to gather the suffering of the people of this world in the center of my being and to become there the raw material for my compassionate love.”
The ultimate lesson the Dalai Lama learns from his own and his people’s suffering is similar to what this prophet in the school of Isaiah discovers: it is not just about you; it is about being a light to others.
What does it mean to you to be a light to others? (Pause to allow comments)
The way in which some in this prophet’s day faced into their pain was very focused on themselves. How can we be great again? How can Israel be great again, be a called people, if we suffer, if we face the loss of our special place in the world?
Your vision is too small, the prophet says. A nation cannot be great if it is just great for itself. You cannot be great as an individual if you are merely great to people like you. No, your experience of pain, like the Dalai Lama’s, is calling you to see your connection with others.
As Christians, our marching orders come from the teachings of Jesus which, in the Sermon on the Mount, call us too to be light of the world.
In that Sermon Jesus calls us to do so by recognizing that categories like “stranger”, “immigrant”, “queer”, “disabled”, even “enemy” — in so far as they are not a way to allow another to tell their story in their own words but instead ways to act as if some other person is an outsider to be excluded — are false categories. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said it well in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [of us] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be”.
There is no I without a we, no me without a y’all. There is no way I can be great without those around me – especially those different from me – being allowed to live out their greatness. No nation can be great while building walls to exclude a single solitary soul.
What are ways we can act out this call to live recognizing our connection to others around us, in the face of the many cracks in our personal lives and in our community?
I want to close my message with the challenge of mystical writer Marianne Williamson from her book Return to Love, calling us to recognize our power to be light in this dark world:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? ‘Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Let us discover and live out this call to be light this day. Amen & Amen.