freezing the moment

Close your eyes, for a moment, and try to remember some place, some time, some moment when you felt that you were in the presence of something sacred. How long ago was that moment? How long did it last?

I remember this one particular afternoon, a sunny spring afternoon at the home of some family friends, a farm in Columbia County, New York, where we often spent school vacations. On this particular day, I was maybe ten years old, and I had wandered by myself out to a hillside above the pond. I was lying on my back in the long grass, eyes closed, feeling the breeze above me and the sun on my face. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant that any minute my parents would call to tell me it was time to go home. But for that moment, everything was perfect. I was completely at peace. I was basking in the glow of God.

And then my parents did call me, and the moment ended. You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before someone calls you, and you have to move on.

One day, Jesus takes three of his disciples on a hike up a mountain. They leave the others far below, and climb up to a high place, a place apart from the crowds and the conflict that seemed to be following Jesus everywhere lately. And in that place apart, he is transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than bleach could bleach them, whiter than humanly possible.

Transfiguration isn’t a word you hear every day. Really most of us hear it only once a year, if we happen to be in church on the Sunday before Lent. Its meaning is similar to transformation, or metamorphosis. A transfiguration is a complete change in form or appearance, into something more exalted, more beautiful. Think of caterpillars, turning into butterflies. The only reason that doesn’t totally freak us out, is that we have come to expect it. But just imagine, if it caught you by surprise.

Now mind you, the disciples have seen a lot of wondrous things since they have been travelling in Jesus’ company. Healings, exorcisms, crowds of hungry people miraculously fed, storm waves miraculously stilled, a child miraculously restored to life. Signs of the kingdom, everywhere they looked. But now it is as if a veil has been torn open, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes, because now they can actually see the light of God streaming from him. It catches them by surprise, and it takes their breath away.

Moreover, he is no longer alone with them, but appears to be in the company of the great leaders of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, the law-giver and the prophet. Not knowing what else to say, Peter offers to build them houses, tabernacles on the mountaintop. Because that is what humans do, in places where we have encountered the Holy: we build shrines. Jesus is transfigured, and now the only thing Peter can think of to do, is to stay there on the mountaintop, basking forever in the glow of God.

But Jesus declines Peter’s offer of a mountain-view home. Instead, they head back down the mountain together, and Jesus asks them to keep their peak experience to themselves. For ahead of them still lies the cross, and the empty tomb, and their vision of who Jesus is will be even more radically transfigured in the days ahead.

Moses and Elijah have this is in common: they, too, had profoundly vivid experiences of God on a mountaintop. Moses was on Mount Horeb, when he saw the burning bush, and heard the voice of God in the fire, telling him to return to his people in Egypt. Later, Moses again climbs Mount Horeb – it’s also called Mount Sinai, those are two names for the same place – and once again amid fire and smoke, God speaks to him giving him the Law to govern Israel.

But while Moses is up there on the mountain, the Israelites begin to get into trouble in the camps below, so God tells Moses he better get back down there to his people.

Generations later, Elijah, fleeing persecution, climbs the same mountain, and he too hears the voice of God there, not in the fire, but in silence. And that voice says, Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah comes to seek refuge in God; but like Moses before him, God sends Elijah back down the mountain, to serve the people of Israel.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

When I was in high school, we received word that our family friends would soon be selling the farm of my childhood. It was, after all, not really mine, not even my family’s property, but it was holy to me, and it was hard to imagine losing it. I was a budding photographer at the time, and I spent hours wandering the fields and barns, trying to freeze the farm in time, to capture it with the camera’s shutter. But looking through the lens was not like lying in the grass. Life is like that. Try to pin it down, and it turns into something different. The butterfly’s wings are never more beautiful than at the moment when they emerge fresh from the cocoon. But if we try to preserve it, to pin it down, we end up with something lifeless.

Butterflies exist in motion, just like moments exist in time. Pin them down, and they become something different.

Many of us have had mountaintop experiences, moments when the veil is torn open and we suddenly see things, not just by the light of day, but by the light of God. And it is tempting, in those moments of clarity, to think that perhaps we are done; that we have glimpsed not just the truth, but the whole truth. And so we want to linger on the mountain, to hold on to that particular moment in time. We want to pin it down, put it in a cabinet, and protect it from damage.

But the church is not a shrine, it’s a movement. There’s a reason why the first disciples referred to their faith as “the way.”

Jesus does not linger on the mountaintop; like Moses and Elijah before him, he returns to his people. We see Jesus, transfigured, in garments of dazzling white; but Jesus is ready to get his hands dirty. We try to pin him down, but he is on the move. We look for God on the mountaintop: but God, it turns out, is already down in the valley.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before Somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

(sermon preached by Liza Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, Transfiguration Sunday, 2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

If…

When my sister and I were kids, my Dad would buy two lottery tickets each week. Every Sunday, my sister and I would each get to hold one while he read out the winning numbers from the paper. We never won, of course, but we liked the game of imagining what we’d do if we did.

When I was small, I would imagine buying a pony, and a farm to keep it on. As I approached adulthood, I started to dream of making other people’s wishes come true. Maybe I’d buy a grand piano for my Dad, or a house on the beach for my Mom. Nowadays, I have to admit, my first thoughts are more practical: I dream of paying off the mortgage. But once the bills were taken care of, I imagine the rest going to some worthy cause – Doctors without Borders, perhaps.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

There are other versions of this game; a couple of years ago I remember driving in the car, listening to the call-in program Vox Pop on NPR, and the question for the day was, “What would you do if you were President Obama?” Most of those who called in said they would end the war, fix the economy, and institute universal health coverage.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

What would you do, if you were President?

What would you do, if you were God?

The devil comes to Jesus, in the wilderness, playing this game. If you are the Son of God, the devil says, turn these stones to bread. The devil isn’t asking for proof of Jesus divinity. He’s really saying: If I were the Son of God, that’s what I’d do.

The scripture refers to this exchange as a temptation.

It is tempting to believe that we could change the world, if only we were wealthier, or more powerful. It is tempting to believe that we would somehow do better than those currently in power. It is tempting to believe that only the powerful can change the world.

But here is a true story: once upon time, a church youth group set up a table on a downtown street corner, with an empty soup pot on it. They were asking the people passing by for donations to help feed hungry kids. The first person to approach the table told us that he was homeless, and broke, but that he really wanted to help. He found thirteen cents in his pocket, and he dropped it into the soup pot. He gave whatever he had. And so did many other ordinary people. And by the end of the afternoon the soup pot contained enough money to buy a year’s worth of food.

The fantasy of changing the world by winning the lottery is perhaps at its heart a wish to do good without having to sacrifice anything. A wish to change the world at no cost to ourselves. But it turns out, even Jesus, couldn’t do that.

If you were the child of God, what would you do?

For so you are.

 

Photo: http://dominicanes.me/tag/satan/

 

 

Royals

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” — Matthew 2: 1-12 (NIV)

How many kings are mentioned in this story?

That’s right: two. One is named Herod. And the other, is named Jesus.

Magi were not kings. They were students of astrology, probably followers of the Zoroastrian religion, a faith which may be older even than Judaism. The Magi, then, were people of a strange faith. Wise men, yes, but not Jewish wise men. Yet in Matthew’s gospel, these are the first to pay homage to Jesus, the first to bow down and adore him. Their presence at Jesus’ cradle is an early sign, that maybe, just maybe, there is more than one pathway to truth; that maybe, just maybe, God calls to her people through traditions other than our own.

But somehow, over the years, these interfaith seekers became transformed into royalty. The first depictions of the Magi as Monarchs emerged during the fifth century; by the seventh century, they had been given names, races, and physical descriptions. Their gifts were transformed into tribute, and their adoration became the homage offered by vassals to an overlord. They were no longer pious scholars, but Royals.

Maybe the interfaith message of Matthew’s story was a bit too shocking for the medieval church, bent as it was on crusades to rid the world of eastern heathens. On the other hand, in an age of monarchs, the image of kings bowing down may have seemed equally shocking. Imagine seeing the most important national leaders of our time, humbly bowing down in true love and respect before an infant, a poor child with no wealth, no army, no territory. Imagine seeing the wealthiest executives of our time offering up their wealth, not grudgingly, but joyfully. Imagine the powerful, willingly ceding their power. Imagine this, and maybe you can imagine the kingdom of God.

What a contrast, between these three mythical kings, and the historical king mentioned in this story.

Herod the Great was a controversial ruler of Israel. He was not a descendant of the ancient royal house of David, but was rather a loyal vassal of Rome, placed on the throne by the Emperor. He undertook ambitious building projects throughout his realm which were paid for by heavy taxes, and in his later years he grew increasingly paranoid and ruthless, eventually executing two of his own sons. So when the Magi came to Herod, asking: Where is the new King of the Jews?, you can guess how Herod reacted.

There are only two kings in this story. But as far as Herod was concerned, that was one king too many.

Herod craftily tells the Magi to bring him news of the boy’s whereabouts, so that he too can pay homage. The Wise Men are not fooled, however, and return home by another way. Herod’s true intentions are revealed later in the chapter; according to Matthew, Herod sent soldiers to kill all the young children in the region of Bethlehem, lest any of them turn out to be, indeed, King of the Jews. Herod had his own position to protect. The life of a child was a small price to pay.

In modern American imagination, Kings are the subject of fairy tales, or HBO television series, or tabloid headlines. Real world “Royals” are figures of romance, benign aristocrats who spend their time getting married and raising corgis. So it makes perfect sense to us that three benevolent kings might bring beautiful gifts to a poor child.

It is the image of Herod’s ruthlessness that shocks us.

It shocks us, even though our own generation has seen ample evidence of the extent to which the powerful will go to protect their power. Herod rules still, in the kingdoms of this world. Wherever politicians cling to power at the expense of their own people, Herod rules. Wherever leaders care more about their benefactors then their constituents, Herod rules. Wherever the life of a child is dismissed as collateral damage, Herod rules.

In a world such as this, we still need to hear Matthew’s story – a story, not of three kings, but of two. The story of a king who rules by force and serves the powerful, who would sacrifice even his own children to protect his position; and the story of a very different sort of king, who rules by love and serves the powerless, who sacrifices himself to save his children.

The Magi were not Kings, but seekers. Like you. Like me. They searched heaven and earth, looking for the One worthy of their homage. And they found him – not on a great throne, not in an expensive palace, not at the head of an army, but in the eyes of a child, who looked at the world through the eyes of God.

The Magi were not kings. But they were wise, because they knew a true King when they saw one.

 

(for Belchertown United Church of Christ, 01.03.2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp)

 

Risk Offering: for Epiphany

We don’t know much about the Magi,
and so we don’t really know how costly their offerings were.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were expensive
and would have seemed precious to the poor family receiving them;
but we don’t know how accustomed the Magi were to such extravagance,
or if these gifts represented any real sacrifice for them.
But we do know that the act of giving was in itself costly.
The Magi made a pilgrimage to a strange and unfamiliar land,
and risked both ridicule and retribution from Herod,
in order to pay their respects to the most unlikely of Messiahs.
Every time we make an offering to the church, or to the poor,
there is more at stake than the money in the envelope;
because in the eyes of the world,
every pilgrimage is a fool’s errand.

Prayer
Holy One, some of us have traveled far to find you,
and some of us have long roads ahead.
But we step forward in faith, O God,
that at the end of all our journeying
we shall find you waiting for us.
You are our beginning, and our ending, God,
and all our days we dedicate to you.
May the offerings of our hands,
the prayers of our heart,
and the steps of our feet,
bring us ever closer to that kingdom
where Love reigns over all.

Amen.

Prayer for the Unready

We have waited long,
and yet we are not ready.
For who can prepare for your coming?

Our houses untidy,
our promises unkept,
our potential unmet,
we are not ready
to meet our Maker.

Yet you, Jesus,
like any other baby,
will be neither hurried nor slowed,
but will be birthed
in the fullness of time.

Give us holy patience, God,
that we might be wholly ready
whenever our labor
begins.

 

Pathways of Peace

…to guide our feet in the pathways of peace. — Luke 1:68-79

I don’t know about you, but I am having trouble feeling peaceful this Advent.

Maybe some of you are having the same difficulty.

It isn’t just about the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations; I haven’t done much of that yet. It isn’t about the commercialism of the season; I can avoid most of that, if I steer clear of malls and stick to Netflix instead of television. I’m not even talking about the pervasive day-to-day stress of life in the hectic post-modern world. I can’t really escape that, but I’m pretty much used to that.

I am having trouble feeling peaceful this Advent because it seems like every few days the peace is shattered by some cry of violence and hatred. Over the past months those shouts have become more and more frequent until they have built to a steady roar that I can’t manage to ignore or dismiss. Each week, the litany of prayers gets longer: Paris, France… Beirut, Lebanon… Nola, Nigeria… Colorado Springs, Colorado… San Bernadino, California.

It’s getting to the point where I wonder, should I continue to post these events on our Facebook page and ask for prayer? Or are we getting as weary of prayer as we are of violence?

Welcome to Advent: the season when the world waits — hopefully, eagerly, and sometimes desperately — for the arrival of the Prince of Peace.

There is a paradox in our celebration of Advent, a sort of folding back of time, as we wait for Christ’s arrival – an event that happened almost two thousand years ago. How is it that we are still waiting? If the Prince of Peace came in Jesus – why is there so little peace in our world?

On the other hand, if we are still waiting, if Christ is coming still, then there is still hope. Hope that the miracle of Bethlehem may yet come to us as well, “to guide our feet in the pathways of peace.”

In my younger years I remember spending some time at a camp where the lawns had been freshly re-turfed, and it was drilled into our young heads that we could play on them or sit on them, but, we were told, “whatever you do, don’t make a path.” You see, if enough of us took the same route across the lawn from the dorm to the dining hall, eventually the grass would wear away, and a path would appear. So we instead had fun running across the lawn in crazy zig-zagging paths, shouting to one another “Don’t make a path! Don’t make a path!”

Here is my point: You make a path by walking it.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace because he walked the pathway of peace – not a peaceful path, but a peaceable one. Jesus made the path, by walking it. And the more of us walk it with him, the broader it will be.

Welcome to Advent, the season of peace.

 

(excerpted from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on December 6, 2015)

(photo: stepping stones on the pathway to peace, created by members of Belchertown United Church of Christ.)

What child is this?

An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 11: 1-10

What do we dare hope for? It’s an interesting expression, isn’t it?  Daring to hope. But how else to describe this vision, of a peace beyond our wildest imagination?

We don’t know exactly when these verses were written; the book of Isaiah contains material that ranges over a century or so of ancient Jewish history. Possibly this passage comes from sometime in the eight century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem. Possibly it comes from sometime in the seventh century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. Isaiah’s people were not accustomed to justice, or peace. Yet in these verses, the prophet offers them a bold vision of hope, based in his faith that God was not finished yet.

Isaiah begins with an image of new growth from a felled tree, a shoot from the stump of Jesse — Jesse being the father of King David. This new king of Israel will usher in a reign of justice:

With righteousness he will judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

As if this wasn’t already more than his people would dare to hope, Isaiah’s language then explodes into an even more extravagant vision — a Peaceable Kingdom in which conflict and enmity are ended, even between predator and prey; a world in which children will be free from all peril:

The cow and the bear shall graze,
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

This, Isaiah tells us, is God’s plan for us. Nothing less than this.

Think about this for a moment, and ask yourself, which seems like a more achievable form of security: a world in which the lion shall eat straw like the ox, or a world from which lions have been eradicated?

Before pursuing my call to the ministry, I was an ecology professor, and I can tell you from a purely biological perspective, there’s no way a lion is going to eat straw. It’s not just a matter of instinct; it’s a matter of digestive enzymes and dental structure. It’s just not going to happen. On the other hand, we humans have come pretty close to successfully driving lions to extinction.

The fact is, that we do routinely fantasize about killing off predators in our midst, or at least fencing them out. But do we dare to imagine a world in which foes are not vanquished, but reconciled? Or is such a world as unimaginable to us as a lion eating hay?

Several Christmases ago, a well-meaning relative sent my then two-and-a-half year old daughter Phoebe a picture book as a gift. It was the story of Henny Penny. Now, for those of you who may need your memories refreshed, Henny Penny is the tale of a chicken who, having been struck on the head by an acorn, becomes convinced that the sky is falling. She gathers together her friends – Turkey Lurkey, Loosy Goosey, and the other barnyard fowl – and they all set off to warn the countryside. On the way, they meet Foxy Loxy. The fox tricks the birds into entering his den, whereupon he promptly gobbles them up.

This particular version of the story was accompanied by remarkable illustrations, collages of photographs in which the animals appeared both realistic and full of personality. So when we turned the page, and there was the image of the fox, gleefully devouring Henny Penny’s friends, my daughter burst into tears. Deep, grief-stricken tears.

You see, to Phoebe, it was not the lion eating hay that was unimaginable; it was the fox eating chickens.

As adults, we have become accustomed to the world as it is. We learn to be realistic in our expectations, and so we avoid the cruelty of disappointment, the grief of loss. We don’t get our hopes up. But then we come face to face with a child. And we remember what hope is like. We remember, not how the world is, but how it should be.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Who is this child? Who is this child, so at home in this unfamiliar, longed-for world?

In some sense, this child is Phoebe — or any other child.  The child that ushers in this peaceable kingdom is every child. Because, when we come face to face with a child, any child, we remember what hope is like, and we remember who hope is for.

But this child also recalls to us one, particular child. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have seen in Isaiah’s prophecies a foreshadowing of the reign of Christ. When we read these scriptures, we see Jesus: not only in the ideal king, who will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity, but also in this little child, leading the calf and the lion home together.

And it strikes me, what an odd thing it is, that we so often picture the founder of our faith as a child. As often as we see Christ on the cross, still we see him as the baby in the manger. It’s a fairly distinctive feature of our faith. How often does one speak of the baby Mohamed, or the Buddha Child? Yet Christ is for us, somehow, always a child.

Now, some might dismiss this as sentimentality, and it is undoubtedly easy to love a baby who hasn’t yet spoken to us of things we would rather not hear. But I think there is also something deeper going on here.

These verses are part of our worship at this time of year, because they capture the spirit of Advent – that time of year when we become children again, and remember what hope is like. For Advent is not just a season of remembrance; it is a season of anticipation. We sometimes tell our children that on Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, but this isn’t quite right. For it is not Christ’s birthday that we await during Advent. It is Christ’s birth. Christ was not just born in Palestine, two thousand years ago. Christ is about to be born for us, right now, right here. Christ is our hoped-for child, who teaches us to hope again.

God is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

A child is coming, to bring us hope.

 

(sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ, 11.29.2015)

(photo: detail of The Peaceable Kingdom, painting by Edward Hicks)

Make Yourself at Home

Serve the city where God has placed you; for in its welfare, lies your own. — Jeremiah 29:7

Jeremiah was about thirty years old, when the armies of Babylon swept across Syria and Palestine. They left the capital city of Jerusalem standing, but at a price: a good portion of its population was deported – carried off to exile in Babylon. Jeremiah was one of those who remained in his native land.

The Israelite captives were hostages of the state. They were not exactly prisoners, but neither were they free. Living in the midst of strangers, they were exiles, not immigrants; their families, their homes, their hearts were elsewhere.

The mourned, for the old country. They dreamed of returning. They sang songs of lament. (You know the words: by the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept, when we remembered Zion…)

But then — rumors began to spread, and hope began to grow. There was political unrest in Babylon; the King was losing power. They’d be out of here any day now! They would return home – and their real lives could resume.

It was at this moment that Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles, in which he told them: Make yourself at home, because you’re not coming back.

Build houses; plant gardens; have children. Seek the welfare of the city in which you live. For in its welfare, lies your own.

Well, it turned out Jeremiah was right; King Nebuchadnezzar survived the attempted coup, and reigned another 32 years. It would be another 25 after that, before Babylon fell, and the Israelites were allowed to return home.

By then, two generations had been born on Babylonian soil. Did some of them decide to stay? Did they have a choice? When they finally got back to Jerusalem – did it feel like home?

Last August, I brought my kids to see my old neighborhood for the first time. I grew up in Greenwich Village, New York, in an 1840’s carriage house, which had been really barely renovated into faculty housing for NYU. The house was pretty much one enormous, two-story room, with a roof of leaky cross-beamed rafters; the bedrooms were tucked up in what had been the hayloft. The first and second stories were connected by this crazy, open metal staircase that had been put in by a couple of set designers who had lived there a decade earlier. This was the family home for over thirty years, until my Dad retired from NYU and moved out.

That was almost twenty years ago, but sure enough, as I turned the corner onto my block this summer, there was the familiar cobble stone street, looking almost exactly the same as it did during my childhood. There was my house, with its dark brick walls, its heavy wooden door, and the wisteria vine still climbing up the front.

As I stood there with my family, the door suddenly opened, and a couple of workmen came out, who had been doing some repairs inside. They let us peek in through the door.

Gone was the hanging staircase, replaced by a more conventional (and doubtless, safer) enclosed staircase. Gone was the open balcony, replaced by glassed-in second story. Gone was the raftered ceiling.

I told the kids, don’t look inside. That’s not the house I grew up in.

The inescapable truth is that my children are growing up in a different world than the one I think of as home. I don’t know about you, but my experience of aging is sometimes not so much a feeling that I am getting older, but a feeling that the world around me is somehow getting younger. It’s like that old trick with the tablecloth and the plates. I stay in one place, but somehow the ground beneath my feet changes.

Even those of us who stay put may find ourselves longing for the old country, for the way things used to be. It is not only the refugees who find themselves in a strange new world. Many of us live with a persistent sense of dislocation. The world around us changes so quickly.

How do we make ourselves at home, in this brave new world?

Serve the city where God has placed you; for in its welfare, lies your own.

After all, the exiles in Babylon weren’t the only ones who found themselves surrounded by strangers. What did their Babylonian neighbors feel about this influx of foreigners, I wonder? Did they say to these refugees, make yourself at home? Or did they, too, long for the day when the Israelites would finally leave, and their city could return to normal?

It is one thing to live alongside outsiders, but another to let them in – in to our homes, into our families, into our hearts. To seek their welfare, as our own.

In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, I hear an echo of a later letter, this one written by the apostle Paul to the newly converted Christians in Ephesus. Some of the other leaders of the early church had balked at the inclusion of Gentiles into what had previously been a monocultural, all-Jewish group of disciples. But in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul proclaimed Christ has torn down the barrier that divided us into two separate peoples. “You are no longer strangers and aliens,” he wrote, “but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

In other words: Make yourself at home.

Today, 26 centuries after Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles, there is again a mass deportation going on in the middle east. Armed conflict in Syria has driven over four million Syrians to seek refuge across the border in Turkey and beyond. Half of these refugees are children.

A friend recently shared with me another letter, this one written just last month. It was posted on facebook by a grassroots group in Iceland, called Syria is Calling. Earlier this year, the Icelandic government announced that it would accept just 50 Syrian refugees. In response, the group posted this letter, demanding that the government increase the quota:

Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People [to whom we will] never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.” Open the gates.

In other words: Make yourself at home.

So far, the group has generated individual pledges of housing and support for 10,000 refugees.

Jeremiah’s letter is not just for the exiles, but also for those who receive them; not just for the migrants, but also for those of who stay put; not just for his ancient audience, but also for us, right here, right now. Are we willing to echo Jeremiah’s words, and say to the newcomer: make yourself at home? And – just as important – are we willing to make ourselves at home, in this new city, with these new neighbors that God has given us?

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have children, and let your children have children. But seek the welfare of the city God has given you to live in, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare, you will find your own.

 

(10.18.2015, Belchertown United Church of Christ)

(Photo Wisance.com)

Bring Them Along

Come now, and worship, but do not come alone.

Bring with you all the ones that you have loved.
the hands that held yours, the shoulders that carried you,
the arms that embraced you, the eyes that watched over you.

Bring also the skinned knees that you bandaged,
and the tangled hair that you combed;
the heads that butted yours,
and the feet that kept step with yours.

Come now, and worship, and bring them all along:
for God knows them well,
and welcomes them here.

Lost in Translation

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages… — Acts 2:1-21

A friend once told me this story: When she was a teenager, her family took a vacation to Germany. They travelled from city to city, staying in little hotels along the way, but on one particular night they found themselves lost, driving around in the pouring rain looking for lodgings, while her father – the driver – became more and more frustrated. Frustrated with the rain, frustrated with the traffic, frustrated with his inability to understand the German street signs. Finally they somehow found their way to a little pension with a vacancy sign in the window, and so they went inside and her father stormed up to the desk and banged on the bell. When the night clerk appeared, her father said, slowly and loudly, “WE… ARE… AMERICANS.”

To which the night clerk replied, “Congratulations, sir.”

We live in a multilingual world, and in a multilingual world, if you want to travel beyond your borders, you have two choices: you can demand that the rest of the world speak your language; or you can learn theirs.

Anglo-Americans tend to choose the former. English, after all, is a dominant world language; pretty much anywhere you go in the world, you can count on finding someone who speaks some English. Which is lucky, because most of us speak only our own language. In Luxemburg, nearly every citizen speaks four languages. The same is true of Aruba. But here in the US, seventy-five percent of us are monolingual English speakers. Because why learn another language, when the whole world speaks yours?

Today is Pentecost Sunday. Each year on this Sunday we celebrate the birth of the church – the moment when the Holy Spirit first swept through Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit swept through like a great wind, like tongues of flame, bringing with it the gift of tongues. Not mystical tongues, not supernatural languages; but ordinary human languages. Peter and the other disciples – native Galileans, all of them – were somehow empowered to share the gospel with travelers from around the world, in their own languages. The Spirit’s first gift, was the gift of translation.

Let’s think about that.

I travelled to Ghana a couple of years ago, and while I was there I had the opportunity to stay with a local pastor, who brought me with him to his church on Sunday. This church met in a school classroom, the only room in the village large enough to hold the congregation. The service was conducted mostly in the native Ewe language. English is taught in school there, and many of the people I met spoke at least some English, but in these small village churches many of the older folks had not been formally educated. So I was sitting next to my host, enjoying the people, and the music, but understanding nothing of what was said. And then, about halfway through, the pastor leaned across to me and said,

“We have a bit of extra time today, why don’t you preach a sermon too?”

The next thing I knew I was standing in front of a group of friendly, welcoming, expectant people, none of whom could understand a word I was saying. The pastor stood next to me, and translated as I went. At least, I assume he did; I of course could not understand a word he was saying.

It was a slightly surreal experience. I had to let go of my sermon in way that I don’t normally have to, because I didn’t know, really, what my words would mean to the congregation — what they would sound like, in their language. And so I had to trust. Trust in my host, trust in my listeners, and trust in the Spirit’s gift of translation — the power of the Spirit to transcend boundaries that I could not cross on my own. So I stumbled along through my improvised sermon, and as I did, I watched the expression on Rev. Dzanku’s face, and on the faces of the people in the congregation.

And I had the distinct impression that his translated version of my sermon was way better than the one I was preaching.

When European Christian missionaries first travelled to Ghana, they too were confronted with the task of translating their faith into the local languages. And immediately they were faced with a theological dilemma: what was the Ghanaian word for God? There were, of course, many words for God in the Ewe language, but the missionaries were convinced that all of these native gods were at best idols and at worst demons. How could they use the existing native words, without validating the existing native gods? How could their one true faith be expressed in the language of a heathen race?

Or, as the psalmist once put it: How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land?

If you want to be a missionary, you have two choices: you can demand that everyone else speak your language, or you can learn theirs.

In the 1800’s, the British colonies of Australia and Canada had policies of removing aboriginal children from their families, to be raised in government boarding schools where they would learn both English and Christian religion. Here in the USA, tens of thousands of native children were removed from their homes for the same purpose, and sent to the government’s Indian boarding schools. While there, they were forbidden to speak their native languages, even to their own siblings. By the time they returned home, some of them had forgotten how.

In a multilingual, multicultural, multigenerational world, we still have two choices: we can demand that everyone else speak our language, or we can learn theirs.

The former may be the American Way; but as the book of Acts reminds us, it is not the Christian Way. Christianity has been a translating faith, from the very beginning. The story of Pentecost reflects a historical reality of the early church. Jesus himself most likely spoke Aramaic; the writers of the gospels translated his teachings into Greek; these Greek texts were quickly translated in Coptic, Syriac, and Latin. True, they got stuck there, for a while, but were eventually translated, again, and again, into every language of the world.

In Islam, the only true Koran, the only true scripture, is the one written in Arabic, the language of Mohammed. But Christianity has no such claim to linguistic purity. Jesus’ actual, original words were already lost by the time the gospels were recorded. For us, the Word of God is not the biblical text, but rather the One whose story it tells. And that One is still speaking.

I understand the concern for authenticity. There have been mistranslations that have sometimes resulted in misunderstandings of scripture. We’ve all played the game of telephone, where messages get garbled as they are repeated from person to person; and those of us raised in the pre-digital era of dittos and Xerox machines remember when a copy of a copy was never as clear as the original. Our sacred texts and traditions are so important to us, it is no wonder that we worry that something might get lost in translation. But what if there is something to be gained in translation?

So what did I tell that welcoming congregation in Ghana?

I told them what the missionaries eventually figured out; that anywhere we might travel in the world, God has been there already. That when we cross the border, we do not bring God with us, but we find God there.

Preaching a way better sermon, perhaps, than the one we had in mind.

(from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on May 24, 2015)