“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

21 June 2015: Tapestry Ministries Guest Sermon

Whose Armor? (1 Samuel 17:1-50)

Invocation, based on “Song” by Muriel Rukeyser 
(published in Poetry Magazine, October 1941 and The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, 2006)

The world is full of loss; bring, wind, (O God,)
our home is where we make our meeting-place, 
and love is whatever we shall touch and read
within that face. 

Lift, (O God,) the exile from our eyes; 
grant us peace to look, life to listen and confess, 
freedom to find to find to find
that nakedness. 

The poet Tony Hoagland wrote: “Some questions have no answer./Raised, they hang there in the mind/Like open mouths, full of something missing.”

Many have said and many more will say in the days ahead that what has taken place this week is unimaginable, inexplicable, unspeakable—some will even say it is a question with no answer. And it is true that we can ask many questions now to which we are not likely to get answers. The ones that I cannot shake are, “Where were you, God?” and “Is no place safe?” But there is much that can and must be said. The coming days will demand that we not shrink from explaining and proclaiming—from the seemingly endless work of disarming racist hatred, work that we can only hope to undertake together.

So I am grateful that we are here, together, even though we are most certainly, as Hoagland wrote, “full of something missing.” We are full of the something missing of a circle of prayer silenced in the midst of its uncompromising Christian being and witness. Nine families are full, achingly full, of something missing. Mother Emanuel is full of the something missing of safe harbor, of sanctuary from harm. We are full of the something missing of a sacrifice our God would never demand. We are full to choking with the something missing of black lives taken one after another, day after day.

Until Wednesday night, I had a different message to offer you today. I am gratified, I suppose you could say, that that message did not toy with the caricature of David and Goliath, the one that we use as casually to describe wars as football games and political contests. My heart never felt a rousing celebration of the conquering underdog. I never wanted to offer you a call to arms with God’s endorsement, on God’s behalf, against an imagined enemy. It was never about us and them.

But the message I wrote before Wednesday was also sorely inadequate, because it failed to tremble at this particular brutality. And a sermon that cannot be preached now honestly should not be preached. Rabbi Irving Greenberg once said that the systematic murders of Nazi Germany demanded an end to recreational theology. “No statement,” he wrote, “theological or otherwise, should be ever made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

And so I rededicate this time today in the certainty that we have no space to say anything that we would not say to those nine saints who opened wide their arms to a broken and dangerous soul desperately in need of God’s saving grace, and were killed for it. Any statement, theological or otherwise, that does not address the relentless assault on black humanity should not be made.

But I do want to tell you something about that other sermon along the way. I want to tell you because you were all in my heart and mind when I wrote it, and because it still rings true for me, though now more painfully so. I want to tell you about how, after rereading the David and Goliath epic, that punchline of a rock between the eyes and a giant’s fall, what stayed with me was how David refused Saul’s armor. How he walked into this impossible moment with just a simple tool, one that he knew well but that no one thought would be enough to protect him. 

I want you to know that I thought of this community, and how you each in your own way have refused to carry inherited burdens and deadening identities. How I see us all daring to be free and authentic in every way we can. I want you to know that I was moved to pray for all the ways that we still dress ourselves in prefabricated defenses, so much so that the tenderness of God and our human family has to fight to reach us. I want to tell you how this community is helping to undo my cultural inheritance of isolation, reaction, rage, addiction, and ignorance.

And I want to share with you that I meditated before I wrote that other sermon with the images of those courageous black women who this spring stood their beautiful bodies proudly, fiercely in the center of numbing consumption, power-building and brokering on Market Street, in a city intent on denying the existence of anyone who is not male, white, rich, young, and able- and thin-bodied. I want to tell you that I think that what they did—risking assault, arrest, and contempt—the truth they spoke with their bodies, is a glimpse of what can save us all.  

But there is some greater urgency now to make sense of this David and Goliath story as a whole. There are so many things this scripture tells us that I wish it didn’t. So much so that I struggled with whether we should really read it out loud into this loving place, on this day. I don’t know about you, but I find myself ambivalent about scripture that way a lot. There are conclusions here that are not only not true, but painful and harmful because of the way that they are not true right now. Like the underdog will always win. Like, if we are worthy, God will defend our vulnerable bodies against those intent on doing them harm.

So most importantly, I have to say, I have to insist, that the story of David and Goliath is a myth. It is a myth in the most literal and academic sense. It is a historical fiction that takes absolutes and categorical certainties that we wish were true and turns them into a story that we can carry along with us as if it were the eternal truth. Both the hero and the enemy are larger than life, superhuman, and arrayed with the clearly visible forces of good and evil. We want the Philistines to be undone, need them to be for the story of a chosen people to proceed according to plan. We want David to be the undeniable chosen king. The story delivers precisely what it sets out to deliver—a complete arc of a fantasy of conquest, packaged and ready for illustration in our children’s bibles.

What that shell of a young man walked into Mother Emanuel with was also a myth—caricatures of heroism and imagined enemies. His words were a robotic recitation of social indoctrination. He put on his predecessors’ armor, the shallow, fearful, reactionary script taught to him by a culture of chosen hatred, and he built a battle to justify wearing it. Of all the things that I think the David and Goliath story gets wrong, it gets this right: we do violence when we bear the armor of borrowed words and actions. And we are responsible for setting it down, everywhere and at every time.

The warmth and welcome and hope the family of Mother Emanuel showed was the opposite of armor. It was living scripture: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” the Book of Hebrews admonishes, “for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” We hear reports that the simple human truth of that worshipping community almost undid the myth, almost loosed its grip long enough to save them and him from what ended up taking place.

But of course the story of David and Goliath is not just about David and Goliath. It is more expansive and intractable. It is about two human communities, viewing each other as threats to limited resources, and to each others’ very identities and existence, set up for a battle they deem necessary and unavoidable. “The Philistines occupied one mountain,” the story reads, “and the Israelites another, with a great valley between them.”

The community of Mother Emanuel does not only reckon itself a sanctuary, though it is that and will unquestionably remain so. But Mother Emanuel is also a place set down deep in that valley between the Israelites and the Philistines, determined to make a way to peace in the midst of endless battle. Yesterday Rev. Michael Eric Dyson published an op-ed on Mother Emanuel’s place in the history of black church resistance to racist dehumanization: “In too many other places,” Dyson writes, “black self-worth is bludgeoned by bigotry or hijacked by self-hatred: that our culture is too dumb, our lives too worthless, to warrant the effort to combat our enemies. The black sanctuary breathes in black humanity while the pulpit exhales unapologetic black love. In a country where black death is normal, fiendishly familiar, black love is an unavoidably political gesture.”

Mother Emanuel Church opened her doors for worship this morning. I am at once stunned and unsurprised, given the community’s history of courage and determination. Our lives, the physical spaces we occupy, the communities we nurture, are in very real ways limited. There is no denying that our lives are fleeting and our efforts only a small piece of the vast work to be done. Particularly at times like this we can come to see ourselves and our efforts as hopelessly insignificant, we can begin to shrink under the weight of a destructive force that just won’t let up. So I suppose I understand the temptation to embrace myth, to set ourselves down in a larger-than-life story that rouses us to celebrate a final victory we secretly fear will never come and that we know will only come at someone else’s expense.

But I do not believe this is the kind of hope God intends for us. The dauntless example of Mother Emanuel teaches us that we do not have the luxury of mythologizing our greatest hopes, as if we are incapable of acting from the site of our pain. We must begin where we are. We cannot go around or over what has happened, only through it “like open mouths, full of something missing,” in clear view of the precious fragile life that is ours to protect.

That poem I read has an epigraph, a line quoted from the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. It says simply, “We are what is missing from the world.” The struggle to overcome racist fear and violence will most certainly take the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, if not theirs. But along the way we will love each other, and we will sing the joy, the true sanctuary, the true victory that that love is wherever it is.

Mother Emanuel Church was living freedom when they welcomed a stranger into their circle of prayer. There is a burning part of me that wishes they had not. But if we imagine that choice, we know that they could not have made it and had any hope of freedom. And neither can we. We cannot build freedom from inside armor. We have to build it with our doors, our bodies, and our hearts open to both the joy and the pain that will certainly come.

This work is ours. As we are in God’s hands, it is in our hands. May we belong to it and to each other, entirely, in spirit, mind and body.

Benediction, from "Let it Come Down to This,” by Hafiz of Shiraz

“…the right equation you need to solve the greatest dilemma is just too vast. So let it come down to this, let it often come down to this, when thoughts of the infinite can no longer delight you…pray to your hands.”

Our hands are made for work and for love. May God guide and bless your hands, in all that they do, and may they welcome, comfort, and challenge all those you meet.

20 June 2015

What To Do When Grief Has No Horizon 

"Pray to your hands,"
the ancient voice answered.

My father could not have fathomed
its meaning, nor his.

But my son finds the words in a dream,
already his inheritance.

Which means three things:

His hands make a sandwich, substantial,
to feed his own mythic hunger.

His hands write a story, illuminated,
where a monster becomes a beloved
(there are alternate endings)
and we get maps to unknown treasures,
to be revealed in the sequel.

And his hands, unmistakeable,
though larger than I remember,
leave traces of tenderness on my face.

That way sons don't do anymore,
after a certain age.