Spiderwebs and Stars
Each one of you is a child of God because of your faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, if you belong to Christ, you’re the offspring of Sarah and Abraham, which means you inherit all that was promised.
When I was in high school I did Model United Nations - have you done it? You take on the identity of a country and practice negotiations and trade agreements and pretend to be in the UN – you learn about the world and economics and politics, and it’s a great way to develop some leadership skills. For a weekend students from various Indiana high schools are gathered on a college campus to try to pass treaties and so forth. Sometimes in Model UN the organizers give students a challenge by announcing some breaking news, a hurricane or a pipeline burst or something, so the students have to scramble, and get creative, and work together.
In the middle of this weekend, the organizers – college students – announced that an earthquake had rocked India. Now this could have just been a tactic, a ploy, to get us to work harder. But it just so happened that my dad was in India, he was working with the Church of the Brethren in India, which has been in serious conflict for decades, and he was there on one of many trips he made. So when the organizers announced this earthquake I went to them to find out if this was fact or fiction.
If it had been today I would’ve pulled out my phone and looked it up online. But this was the late 90s and no one had cell phones, let alone smartphones, yet. So I asked and found out that the earthquake was real, and found out it was in the area where my dad was traveling. And then I found a phone and called my mom. She hadn’t heard from him. She was calling Elgin to find out what they knew. Well, many of you have met my dad, you know he’s fine, but we didn’t hear from him until the next day – they’d been in a car when the earthquake struck and so no buildings fell on them, they were safe.
Buildings fell on many people, that’s how most people die in earthquakes, nearly 20,000 died in that earthquake in northern India in 1998. And while I was waiting to hear if my dad was okay I was checking the news and reading the death toll estimates and I was praying he wasn’t dead and suddenly I realized that if I got my prayer, my wish, my hope, and my dad was alive, then someone else was dead. Because as many as 20,000 people were dead and if my dad was alive, someone else was dead.
So I felt guilty. But mostly I was afraid and wanted my dad to be okay.
Because I have a human heart. I can’t love like God does. God can love each of those 20,000 people, all the injured, all the unscathed, and God loves me even as I love unequally and incompletely.
As much as I’d like to reach some enlightenment and love the whole planet all at once, I can’t. I love the people closest to me the most, the people I spend the most time with, the people I’ve shared the most of myself with. I will always love them the most, I will always care more about my family and friends than I care about strangers.
The front page of the Daily News is filled with local stories about local people. Our hearts, our minds, are the same. We can't keep track of every person killed in all the latest terrorist attacks – 28 people died in airstrikes in Syria yesterday, and Syrian refugees are still dying on land and sea trying to find safety. A man killed over 80 people in France with a truck last week, but wasn't it only a couple weeks ago that a terrorist attacked in northern France? And the attempted coup in Turkey resulted in over 200 people dead, but wasn't it just last month that dozens died in a Turkish airport bombing?
I don't mean to be flippant – I'm sure many of you really do watch the news carefully and keep people around the world in your prayers. But the people we don't know will not be on the front page of our hearts or minds.
And we're well-intentioned people! We know that our lives are connected with people around the world, like the beautiful spiderweb on our bulletin this morning. In Martin Luther King's words, "It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a French [person]. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese [person]. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality." MLK 1967 A Christmas Sermon for Peace
Beyond our global economy, which King so eloquently describes, we are interconnected in so many ways. What we do in Huntingdon affects climate change, for example, the carbon we send into our atmosphere is like tugging on this spider web, and the vibrations ripple around the world, impacting storms in Bangladesh. What if someone had intervened during the many years Omar Mateen used steroids – would he still have killed 49 people in Orlando's Pulse nightclub? Just a small tug in the global spiderweb, we are part of healing and hurting that we will never understand.
But there are so many reasons not to speak up, or reach out, or stand for others. Maybe you spent hours on the phone some day last week, talking to one health insurance rep, then you were on hold, then you got transferred to another department, then you had to call your doctor's office for some bit of data and you're still not sure how to get the health care you need.
Maybe you couldn't stop replaying a painful conversation from work, or within your family, maybe your brain was busy rehashing and wishing that relationship could be different.
When we don't speak up or reach out or stand for others, it's not necessarily because we don't care. And still, we have a lot of excuses to not care.
I think about how today, nearly everyone believes that the Holocaust was a tragedy, was wrong. And yet at the time, as thousands and then millions of people were killed, most people didn't get in the way of that violence. Some people did! But most people didn't want to get involved, didn't want to get in trouble, didn't want to be in danger.
Elie Wiesel was one of the only people in his family to survive the Holocaust, though as a teenager in Auschwitz he came close to death himself. Elie Wiesel, who died two weeks ago, gave humanity a glimpse into the most tragic and the most hopeful aspects of humanity.
When his Jewish family was harassed by police and their own neighbors in Hungary, they just wanted to avoid violence. When Germany pressured Hungarian authorities to force Jewish citizens to wear the yellow star, Elie Wiesel's father said "The yellow star? So what? It's not lethal."
Jews have been forced to wear stars since at least the Middle Ages, by various authorities in various parts of the world. Nazi Germany didn't come up with the idea. We think of them, usually, as representing the Star of David, which Jewish people have used as a religious symbol for thousands of years. One theory about the meaning of this star goes back to God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 chapter 1:
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”... The Lord took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram would become Abraham and Sarai would become Sarah and their descendants would be as bountiful as the stars in the sky. We get the same words from God in Genesis 22:17 "I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven."
And that poetic promise of stars became a program of terror as Nazi soldiers and political officials and angry citizens tried to wipe out all the stars, all the Jews.
I bet you've wondered what you would have done. I have. I hope I would have been a neighbor like Miep Gies, who helped Anne Frank and her family hide in the Netherlands. I hope I wouldn't have given in to fear, or my own stresses or my sense of helplessness amidst so much suffering.
So many well-intentioned, kind people didn't speak up or reach out or stand for others during the Holocaust. One was Martin Neimoller, a German Lutheran pastor. Since he feared the rise of Communism in Germany, Neimoller was first a fan of Hitler. But when Hitler insisted that the state rule over religion, Neimoller got suspicious. You may recognize Neimoller's name. He was the one who said,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
And Neimoller, along with many other pastors who opposed Hitler, did end up in a concentration camp, and survived.
Neimoller reminds us of another reason we might not speak up or reach out or stand for others – we might feel guilty, or ashamed, that we didn't act sooner. What if he decided to stay defined by his mistaken support for Hitler, and never spoke up at all?
In this spiderweb world we live in, we hurt or help people without intending to. And sometimes we know exactly what we're doing. I think of that rhyme "oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." Or despair, or ignore.
The fear and loss that consumes France today, the terror that Syrians face in their country or in any place they're seeking refuge, the hopelessness that greets incarcerated people each morning – all of these stories, all of this pain won't ever be on the front page of our hearts or minds for more than a minute here and a minute there. Then our own worries, our own disappointments, our own longings will rise up again.
And our scripture from Galatians reminds us that we are family to one another.
In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, if you belong to Christ, you’re the offspring of Sarah and Abraham, which means you inherit all that was promised.
We are the stars of the sky that God promised Abraham and Sarah. We are part of the spiderweb in our suffering and in our celebration.
All are one in Christ Jesus – what does that mean to you? Does it mean we're only family to other Christians? I don't read it that way.
Think about those yellow stars during World War II. Jews were forced to wear them, but some Christians and atheists wore them too, in solidarity. Maybe some of them wore yellow stars because they read Paul's letter to the Galatians.
What I read is that our human love has limits. That we need a guide, like Jesus, to remind us that God's love is way bigger than our love can be.
Martin Luther King says, "We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize [the] basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality." We might not feel like we're family to despairing Muslim youth in Minneapolis who consider joining ISIS to give their lives meaning. We might not feel like we're family to the angry underemployed coal miners in West Virginia who support Donald Trump. We might not feel like we're family to tattooed teenagers smoking cigarettes as they push baby strollers around Huntingdon. Whoever it is you struggle to love, picture them now.
In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.
Our love has limits. But we gather as a community to follow Jesus' example of radical love. Beyond our understanding, we are connected in the web of life, we have each been born out of this Divine Creation, alongside the despairing Muslim youth and angry coal miners and teenage moms.
We love the people we're closest to the most. We give most of our brain space to our own cares and hopes. And we gather here in community to stretch our hearts. Let us join in a hymn that proclaims a large love.
This is my song
(Benediction) Sisters and brothers, go into this spiderweb world with care and gratitude for each opportunity you find this week to love. Love, like Jesus, the last, the lost, the least. Love large. Amen.
Feasting at Night
I was biking to church yesterday morning and on Cold Springs Road I passed a deer, dead, in the ditch. I bet many of you have seen it. On my bicycle I can see a lot. Because I go slowly, because I’m right up close, I could see the bluegrey sheen in her eyes. I could see where she had bled. I wondered what would happen in a bicycle/deer collision.
Actually, I don’t think there would be a bicycle/deer collision. On a bike we can turn on a dime, we can avoid a deer coming out of the woods, we can see more and adapt more quickly than in a car. Of course, if a deer and I collided when I was on my bike, I bet I would be hurt more than the deer.
I was biking to church yesterday morning so I could prepare this sermon, so I could figure out what to say to you all in a week of murder and anger and fear and blame. A week in desperate need of hope and direction, we come to church this morning to restore our faith and purpose. I’d been thinking every day of last week about what to preach, and each day another terrible thing happened. And Saturday morning came and I biked to church and thinking about how much I can see from my bike – I can look people in the eye, we can see each other smile. I couldn’t kill a deer with my bike. I’m gentle. So I started writing a sermon for you about how we can live more gently, look people in the eye. Live like we’re on bikes, treading lightly on this earth, moving with care.
And then Phillip called to tell me that after I’d left for church our dog Oliver had run down our long drive – he’d never done that before, it’s probably 1/3 of a mile to Cold Springs from where we live – but yesterday morning Oliver ran down that driveway and onto Cold Springs Road and as Phillip went down after him he met our neighbor coming up with the terrible news that Oliver had been hit by a man in his pickup truck, that he probably died instantly.
Phillip called and told me all that and there wasn’t much more to say but we stayed on the phone in silence until I could figure out how to work my feet and my hands and bike back home, and we buried Oliver up in the woods he’s loved since we moved here two months ago.
When someone dies so fast it just doesn’t seem real. It seems like there must be an undo button to push. I’m so sorry that most of you never got to meet Oliver. We loved him, we’ve loved a lot of dogs, but Oliver was truly exceptional. He was a champion Frisbee catcher. He was a gold-medal cuddler. Oliver could make friends with anyone. He got my parents, who are farm people, not pet people, to play with him. Oliver brought joy to our family and we expected years and years more joy with him.
We wanted to rewind, to undo. I wanted that all last week. To undo all the recent violence, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights.
As we dug Oliver’s grave he was wrapped in a sheet but still there were flies all around him. Scavengers like vultures and maggots that feast on death and decay give us the creeps.
I’ve heard white people say “five of ours for two of theirs” after the police were killed in Dallas. They’re keeping score on some fantasy race war from their armchairs. Vultures swoop in to watch a dying animal, they tear into road kill, they find satisfaction in another’s death. It’s their nature, they help this planet turn death into life. But when people do that, when people act like vultures and maggots in their armchairs it is distorted nature, diseased nature, it is sin.
Trucks and cars and guns. They’re all weapons, even when we don’t mean to kill with them. We make people wait 'til 16 and pass tests to drive 1-ton car weapons or 3-ton truck weapons. We know it’s a risk, but a calculated risk, we live with the 30,000 car-related deaths each year in this country. Even one death a year is a tragedy for that person's family. And we can also appreciate that the vehicle death rate has been cut in half over the past 50 years, thanks to seat-belts and safer vehicle bodies and stricter consequences for distracted driving .
Now at 30,000 deaths per year, US car-related deaths are about equal to US gun deaths per year, and gun deaths have been on the rise. Trucks and cars and guns, they’re all lethal, even when we don’t mean to kill with them. Guns are weapons by nature, but trucks and cars are lethal too. Americans love our cars and trucks, our interstate highways, we are people of the open road, romancing Route 66. Somehow we’ve adapted to safety features and legal restrictions regarding our vehicles, when will we agree to safety features on guns that will cut that death rate in half?
I wish we could hit the undo button on this whole week.
But it’s not just the week of killings, it’s been a month of killings that I wish we could undo. Ramadan ended last week. The holiest month for Muslims, it’s similar to our practice of Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, then break their fast with a feast each night. Fasting through Ramadan or Lent or any other spiritual fasting, is an opportunity for deep prayer and reaching toward God.
ISIS reminded the world how un-Muslim their ideology is by calling for increased killing throughout Ramadan. If anyone claiming to be Christian called for a Lenten spree of murders I trust we would doubt the sincerity of their Christianity. But countless people have killed in the name of Christianity, committed violence and abuse in the name of faith.
Ramadan’s nightly feasts are the best of what breaking bread together can be – families welcome each other with favorite dishes, call out to strangers walking past to join them in the iftar, the nightly feast of Ramadan. When I lived in Minneapolis Ramadan was a celebration across faiths, and local mosques held interfaith dinners for Christians, Jews and everyone to join them breaking bread.
Our Annual Conference theme this year was, beautifully, carry the light. We celebrate with Andy Murray this morning a powerful invitation for Brethren to carry the light of Christ into this world which so aches for Christ’s peace and love.
And Ramadan reminds us that we can feast at night, too. That light and dark are not simply opposites. That light and night interpenetrate, like the stars that the prophetic book of Daniel describes, in
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Night is mystery, filled with the unknown. We want to shine a light on all of it, get danger out of the way, or at least see it coming.
We who have sight have a lot to learn from people who move through this world without sight. Did you ever take a trust walk, maybe at summer camp? Put on a blindfold and trusted a friend to guide you down a path? We give up control in the dark, in the night.
The nighttime feasts of Ramadan are bright stars in the dark of night. And breaking bread together is what we do as people of faith to build community, to foster trust, to feed our physical hunger after a long day of fasting. To feed our spiritual hunger for wisdom, for purpose. To feed our emotional hunger for intimacy. And breaking bread is no guarantee.
Along with the horror of the murders in Orlando, along with the unthinkable 280 people killed with one truck bombing in Bagdhad, this Ramadan we witnessed the terror of murder in Medina, one of Islam’s holiest cities. As night settled and Muslims began their iftar feast, friends invited a stranger walking to join them in breaking bread, and instead he detonated the bomb he wore, killing all of them.
Like the Christians who welcomed Dylan Roof to their Bible study at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston and he killed 9 of them with a gun.
I was talking with one of you this week about all of this terror, and how we as people of faith still turn to one another, still bless and break bread together, and we asked rhetorically if we need metal detectors for communion this morning. We’re choosing to trust, in a week, in a month, in a year, in a world that is full of suspicion. We’re choosing to bless and break bread together because we gather in the name of Jesus and he told us to do this in remembrance of him.
When we talk about carrying Christ’s light into this world I recall that light is a spectrum. It’s not all or nothing. We might forget that, because we live in a wired world and flip light switches to suddenly fill a room with light. But when Jesus walked on this earth light didn’t work that way. Light came with oil lamps and candles and torches and the stars and moon were bright at night just like they are at the top of our lane near Huntingdon without city lights to dull their shine.
When we bless and break and share bread for our bodies and souls, we’re not flipping a light switch, we’re carrying a lamp. We don’t gather as church and suddenly redeem all the horrors of our lives. We gather and light our lamps, and kindle one another’s flames, and when we come together our light shines brighter than it ever could alone.
It will have to be enough, for today, to gather together and stoke one another’s light as we set out into this aching world. And we do that with the bright light of our joy and by sharing the sorrows that keep us up at night. I’ve just begun to journey with you, and we’re still getting to know each other, and you’re celebrating with Phillip and me today as we prepare for our wedding, and you’re grieving with us today as we mourn our beloved friend Oliver. And we are here with you to celebrate your joys and grieve with you your sorrows.
I wish I could preach a sermon today that would help us all make sense of the outrageous violence we’re living with. But all I can do is look for hope glimmering like candle flame, and hold this hope up to you, and ask you to hold up your hope, too. And first I had to tell you about Oliver, because I am consumed by raw grief this morning. And what’s the gift of this grief? Where is hope glimmering?
Well, I’m not comparing our dog Oliver to the people who have been killed this Ramadan, this week. It is a greater tragedy when a person is murdered than when a beloved dog is hit by a truck. But grief is grief. And what I can tell you about my grief is that I don’t get to hide it in anything else. There’s no one to be mad at. No one messed up. Oliver never ran down our lane before. Phillip and I had no idea we needed to protect him from this possibility. The man driving the truck couldn’t see him as he darted so fast from the beautiful thick trees of Cold Spring Road. There’s no blame to assign.
And there’s no legislation to pass. This was an accident, there’s no reason to widen the roads or lower the speed limit. The deer would probably appreciate both. I would appreciate both as I bike Cold Springs Road. But Oliver’s death was an accident.
So I can’t hide my grief in anger or guilt. My grief will work. We are divinely designed to grieve, and grief works on us. But sometimes grief gets stuck. I worked as a hospital and hospice chaplain for years and our technical term for it is complex grief. When grief is tied up in something else, usually guilt or anger, grief can’t work on us. Because we have to work through the anger or guilt, too.
How is your grief working these days, as you learn about the latest killing of a black man who was pinned to the ground by police? How is your grief working as you hear about police officers shot by a man with a sniper rifle?
Are you angry? Are you guilty? I am. We grew up with racism and militarism and we can’t flip a light switch and send all those monsters back under the bed.
It’s not just a month worth of killings we’d like to undo. We have to deal with guilt and anger and despair from generations of white privilege, generations of racial injustice, generations of putting our trust in weapons rather than relationships, rather than the light of Christ.
We can only flicker Christ’s light as little candles, gathering together to bless and break and share bread. And still, it is ours to do. We read in
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.
Our faith won’t simply or quickly fix the ache we’re living with. We're not here with a lightswitch. We're here with the songs of our faith, the rituals of our church, the prayers we share, guiding us on a path toward hope.