Thursday, July 26, 2018

Genesis 11:1-9 "Glorious Diversity"

         I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, a suburban bedroom community that was a half hour bus ride from New York City.  Geographically, Montclair was long and narrow.  Unofficially, it was divided into three parts. 
First, there was Upper Montclair, which did have its own zip code and was populated exclusively by WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). That was where my family lived.  In fact, the only person of color I remember growing up was the plump middle-aged African-American woman from Newark who once a week trudged the half mile up the hill from the bus terminus to the house across the street from me.  She was their family maid.
Second, there was Montclair (middle Montclair really – though it did not have any formal label that had stuck).  Most of the Italians and the handful of more affluent black families lived in that part of town.
Finally, there was what was commonly referred to as Lower Montclair.  It did not have its an exclusive zip code, and the vast majority of African-American families that called Montclair home lived there.
The Township of Montclair had a neighborhood school system when I was growing up. There were six elementary schools that were within walking or bike-riding distance from home, three junior highs (one in each of the unofficial segments of town), and one central high school smack in the middle between Upper and Lower Montclair.  Not surprisingly, the best schools were in Upper Montclair, and the worst in Lower Montclair.  There were not a lot of people who wanted to teach in rundown buildings with equally rundown fellow teachers, administrators, students, and families. 
When I was in eighth grade, Montclair began a busing program in which students from Lower Montclair were sent to schools in Upper Montclair while families in Upper Montclair protested loudly about the possibility of their children being sent to school in Lower Montclair.  Busing never really worked in our town, but it was the first time I had been in close contact with anyone of a different race. 
Years later, when I was in college during the hot summer between my first and second year, I could stand on our back porch in the evening and look to the east where the horizon seemed to glow yellow and orange, like a sunset in the wrong part of the sky or like firelight.  It was, of course, firelight because the City of Newark was in flames that summer with race riots.
Perhaps that childhood background is part of the reason why several times a year, I traveled from Maine to Montclair with our young children to visit their grandparents.  By that time, Montclair was somewhat – if not a lot - more racially diverse.  And yet, my parents always made an effort to take the kids into New York to places where they could learn about the glorious diversity that had long characterized our nation – or at least be exposed to people of color. 
We went to the Statue of Liberty, so they could read the proclamation carved at its base (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”).  We went to Ellis Island and learned about immigration and the hopes and dreams and gifts that so many ethnic groups had brought with them to America. 
I remember one time we were exiting a building in Manhattan, and a tall and imposing African-American man held open the door for us.  Our young daughter Heather looked up at him, eyes wide and mouth open, and continued to look up at him even as we passed him, her neck craned backward.  She had literally never seen a person of color before in her life. 
Perhaps like many of you, I grew up in an unofficially closed homogenous community, not unlike the community that the people who settled on that plain in Babylon sought to create in the story we just read about the Tower of Babel. This is, of course, a tightly constructed theological narrative that follows the story of Noah and the Flood, both of which are considered pre-history, that is, not to be taken literally but rather metaphorically. 
That being said, God’s direction to the Noah and his family as they left the ark when the flood waters receded – along with a blessing - was to spread out to the far corners of the earth.  It was not unlike the blessing and direction God had given humanity at the time of creation:  Go forth with my blessing – and multiply. 
So, like spokes in a wheel, Noah’s family split up.  One branch, the Hamites, came to Shinar, an alluvial plain lying between two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.  The ground was fertile, water was abundant, and the view was great.  Location, location, location:  So there they settled, and there our story for today begins.
         The Hamites had not been in Shinar very long before the community leaders decided to build a great urban center.  Because they were made in the image of the Creator, they were very inventive in going about it. 
Most importantly, they learned how to make bricks and so could build a strong structure. It would be something solid, permanent, fortress-like, something to keep out the riffraff, something that would outlast them all, something with   a hint of immortality. “Come, let us build ourselves a city (the community leaders agreed), and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall all be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”
         And so they banded together in their common cause and did just that. They built a walled city with a huge tower.  And it is at this point in the story that we tend to get it all wrong.  We focus on the pride of the Hamites and their desire to be equal to Yahweh/God by accomplishing the architectural feat of constructing a tower that would reach the very heavens.  We focus on God being furious at their inventiveness, desiring only to crush them.  We say that is why, in a fit of pique and as a form of punishment, the Holy One mixed them all up with different languages and broke up their homogenous unity. 
However, as Rabbi Shai Held wrote in an article in “Christian Century” magazine, this story of the Tower of Babel “is not a simple morality tale about a human attempt to storm the heavens and displace God.  Nor, conversely, is it a primitive allegory about an insecure deity who is so threatened by human achievement that God needs to wreak havoc on the best-laid human plans. The narrative is also not placed where it is in the Torah in order to explain the vast multiplicity of human languages. Nor is it a lament about some lost primeval unity. The story of Babel is, I would suggest, about something else: the importance of individuals” (and, I would add, the importance of the glorious diversity that God intended since creation itself).
         If you read the Scripture passage carefully, you will surely conclude that it was not just pride that caused the Hamites to build their fortress-like city and impenetrable tower.  In the end, it was fear that motivated them – fear of being scattered, fear of leaving the solid comfort of being with people just like them, fear of letting the outsiders in, fear of what the outsiders might do if they were let in. 
As one blogger I read this week noted, “They are experiencing that primal human fear of change and its inevitable loss. They’ve found the perfect spot and they don’t want to leave it. They need a tower to defend their turf, to let God and everyone else know this land is theirs. They need a tower to ensure everyone they love is held together in one place.
They need a tower to make sure they never have to leave this familiar ground.”  Their decisions and desires about the way life should be are grounded in fear of the outside world and fear of those who are different from them.
But is that not what people do when they are afraid?  Band together, circle the wagons, build protective walls, insist on travel bans, ratchet up visa regulations, split up families to discourage immigration and asylum-seeking, declare that Europe will lose its Caucasian Christian identity if too many of “them” are allowed in.  How do the Moors in Spain feel about that, I wonder?  When people are scared, they want to be with other people just like themselves – and they watch out for people who are different. After all, when you are trying to build an empire, you want no defectors.  You want homogenous unity.
         But was not one of God’s first commandments to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, to spread out, to relish the abundant diversity of creation, to extend original blessing to the four corners of the globe because everything – everything – in creation is good? God’s invitation is to spread out and revel in the goodness and abundance and diversity of that creation.
         This story of the Tower of Babel is not about architectural integrity.  It is not about human pride or God’s disapproval.  It is about, as Presbyterian pastor John Lentz wrote, “how fear cuts us off from the abundance of God’s power and mercy.  It is once again about God’s uncomfortable but gracious push outside the walls of narrow selfishness.” 
And so God “muddles” the Hamites because that is what the word “babel” means.  God muddles them and forces them to confront their fears, forces them to learn a second language, forces them to find the common ground between themselves and those they had for so long feared.  It may sound like a punishment, but it is really a course correction so that, at some time in the future, as Jesus proclaimed thousands of years later in the Gospel of John – sometime in the future, they may all be one.  There is power in unity – but only when it is unity achieved by a deep and abiding recognition and affirmation of the glorious diversity around us – in our churches, in our communities, in our world.
         As Lentz goes on to say, “the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, proclaims that we find our true selves not behind walls of self-made isolation or self-sufficiency or narrow identity, but in the risk of scattering, the risk of being sent forth into a diverse world.  And in realizing that we share, with all people, the stamp of divine production that we’re all made in the likeness and image of God.”
         Here in the Lakes Region of Maine, we live in an area that is about as homogenous as my childhood home of Montclair.  The two largest immigrant communities nearby are Portland and Lewiston, both a good 45 minutes away.  We are lily white with a patina of conservatism, and it is so easy to presume that, as individuals but more importantly as a church, we do not have to be concerned with diversity.  It is not our issue.  After all, we do not need to worry about a mosque being built three blocks away or even the likelihood of anyone who is significantly different from us walking through tour doors on a Sunday morning.
         However, I believe strongly that our circumstances here should never let us off the hook when it comes to affirming and embracing our individual, cultural, and religious differences.  In fact, because we are so lily white and homogeneous, and socially conservative out this way, perhaps we need to work harder than most communities to intentionally and authentically find common ground with those who are different from us.
        Our daughter, Heather, has come a long way since those days of not being able to take her eyes off a distinguished-looking black man who held open a door for her.  She is fluent in Spanish and has traveled extensively in Central and South America and Southern Africa.  She has worked with immigrant communities in Portland and with numerous high school aged students throughout the U.S. in the school she started, the Field Academy, whose focus is challenging students and teachers to find common ground between cultures and help them more fully appreciate their diversity.
         If the church – our church - is going to survive and thrive, we need to attract people like Heather, people who are part of a younger, more accepting, generation who find meaning, purpose, and authenticity in celebrating the glorious diversity that God intended from the very beginning.  If we as a congregation build walls in so many subtle ways, do not think that understanding religious and cultural differences is our issue, and do not intentionally seek opportunities to learn about those who are different from us, we will, well, we will be closing our doors for good in another decade or so. 
        After all, the church is built on the foundation of Christ who time and time again throughout his ministry affirmed inclusiveness and radical hospitality.  At its best, when it is thriving, the church embraces the glorious diversity set in motion at the beginning, intuitively understanding that when it comes to unity, the only form of unity that will ever work is when God – and God’s purposes – are the center of the life of the church. 
         We are called – as individuals and as the church - to live by faith and not by fear.  Additionally, we are called to demonstrate our faith by moving out of the familiar, by leaving the comfortable behind – the walls, the travel bans, the watching out fearfully for those who look different, act differently, worship differently. 

We are called to intentionally leave behind what is no longer relevant, what we have known and been comfortable with all these years, and instead put our trust in the Spirit who leads us to a new identity, one that honors who we have been but at the same time frees us from the limitations of that past.  Only then can we embrace God’s future and God’s dream for the world, a dream through which we will discover a powerful unity, a dream created way back when God proclaimed the world blessed – and good – all of it – in all its glorious diversity.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Isaiah 6:1-8 "Creative Call"

         In the years before King Uzziah died, the Hebrew tribes were relatively prosperous and quite content.  Though Yahweh/God had maintained from the earliest days following their flight from Egypt and eventual relocation to the Promised Land that a monarchy was not an appropriate form of governance for the Israelites (due to the inevitable possibility that any king would sooner or later figure that he deserved more and better worship than God did), this particular king had done all right. 
         Uzziah had ascended to the throne when he was a teenager and ruled for 52 years.  He was a mighty warrior and had led his people to a good many victories.  In the years of his reign, the harvests were adequate.  There had been no famines to speak of, and families did not want for relative comfort. 
         Unfortunately, King Uzziah eventually did cross the line with Yahweh/God and, as the story goes, God smote him with leprosy, leaving the longtime ruler bereft of his nerve endings, wrapped in bandages, and a pariah to boot until the day he died. However, because everything centered around the king in those days, upon Uzziah’s death, there might have been some sighs of relief, but a great and terrifying void also emerged.  
         In the year that King Uzziah died, it was 739 BCE, and the Assyrian Empire was on the move.  Westward ho! 
         In the year that King Uzziah died, a serious military threat that would eventually lead to the downfall of the Northern Kingdom, was beginning.  Over time, the capital city of Samaria would be destroyed.  Dozens of other towns and villages would be ransacked, looted, and burned to the ground. The less-than-fortunate segments of the population would experience mass deportations, splitting families and leaving terrified and innocent small children bereft of their parents. 
         In the year that King Uzziah died, the Assyrians were on the brink of establishing an empire that would dominate the ancient Near East for more than a hundred years.
         And so, not surprisingly, in the year that King Uzziah died, the people of Jerusalem were rightfully fearful. Their monarchy was in tatters.  A brutal enemy was on their doorstep.  The nation was hopelessly divided once again.  Whatever would they do?
         In the year that King Uzziah died, a small potatoes temple priest saw God.  His name was Isaiah, and he had a vision.  It was a sweeping and regal one. It was ever so God-like. 
         In that vision, six-winged seraphim fluttered and swarmed, their faces and feet covered, making them look all the more mysterious.  Yahweh/God figured into the vision as well.  In glorious and sacred splendor, the Holy One was seated on a throne, the heavenly robes flowing outward until their hem came to rest in the farthest reaches of the temple.
         Oh, it was a holy holy, holy moment – beyond the ultimate:  Smoke clouding the air, incense flooding Isaiah’s nostrils, the doorposts rattling as the seraphim sang their thunderous songs of sacred praise. 
         Isaiah, for his part, knew instantly that he was in way over his head.  “Woe to me!” he cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips – yet here I stand before the Holy One.”
                  “Not to worry!  Unclean lips?  Not a problem!” chortled the seraphim, one of which flew over to the priest who was by now cowering in the corner.  The seraph carried a red-hot coal and touched Isaiah’s lips with it, burning away any sin that still lay, un-confessed, in his heart.  Ouch!
         It was a scene of magnificence, majesty, and awe!  And yet, Episcopal priest Rick Morley noticed this oddity about it: “With all the power and wonder that is conjured up in this vision, the voice of the Lord calls out…wondering where He can get some help.
         I find it disorienting (Morley comments) that the Lord here doesn’t just send. He doesn’t just give commands. He asks for help. ”Who will go for me?”  I read this, and the tone that I hear is that of a plea. As if God expects no one to answer. As if (God) knows already that the only sound in response that He’s likely to hear, is the sound of his own echo.”
         However, the silence surrounding God’s question did not last through all eternity.  Perhaps to God’s surprise and most certainly to Isaiah’s, the young priest piped up and answered, “Here I am.  Send me.”
         We seldom read beyond this verse, you know, and so this passage stands alone, emerging as one of the most famous “call” stories in the entire Bible.  After all, it inspired Dan Schutte to write the Catholic hit melody that we sang as our opening hymn this morning (Here I Am, Lord).  Likewise, it has surely motivated boatloads of religious folk down through the ages as they head off on mission trips and Habitat for Humanity workdays. 
         However, if we read on a few more verses, we find that Isaiah, as time went by, probably wished he had not been quite so quick in responding.  If he had only said, “You talkin’ to me?” that would have bought him more time to better understand what he was getting into.  Or he might have taken a moment to look behind him to see who else was around and then forthrightly declare – as Moses (and most of the other prophets) before him had, “I think you’ve made a mistake.  I’m would be a terrible prophet and mouthpiece for you, O Holy One.”  Or he might simply have said, I have no time for anything like that.  Send someone else.”
        However, Isaiah spoke perhaps before he had really considered what he was volunteering for - and God took him at his word, illustrating once again that one does not have to be perfect in order to serve.  Though the call that Isaiah answered turned out to be quite difficult and demanding, in the end, it was well worth the effort.
         What I like about this story of Isaiah stepping up to the plate and courageously proclaiming that God can send him anywhere God wants is that it is incredibly inspiring.  It brings me – and I know others – to tears when we sing about Isaiah’s call as our Mission Team leaves each summer for Maine Seacoast Mission in Cherryfield.  Here I am, Lord. Send me!  Isaiah’s response is galvanizing, causing us to shed our anxieties and really believe we can do great things for God.  Send me!  It motivates us to put mission and outreach first – sometimes even before the building and property.  Send me!  It even makes us want to nudge Isaiah aside and raise our hand first.  Here I am, Lord.  Send me!
         However, what I do not like about this story of Isaiah stepping up to the plate and courageously proclaiming that God can send him anywhere God wants is that, well, is that it is incredibly inspiring.  What I mean is, in calling us to do great things for God, it makes us think that only great things are good enough for God.  Only saving the world – or a serious attempt at it - ultimately makes the cut. 
         So – where does that leave most of us?  We who may feel too old, too tired, too busy to change the world?  Not in a good place most of the time, I would assert: Leaving here each Sunday convinced that the preacher really must have been talking to someone else. 
         And such attitudes are sad – and destructive.  They diminish an important part of our humanity.  You see, I believe that each one of us has a creative calling that is unique.  After all, God has blessed us, we who are made in the image of Creativity itself!
         Our calling may not seem like a great thing, an earth-shattering thing, a calling that will save the world.  However, maybe we are not called to always do such great things.  Maybe we are called simply and intentionally to do some-thing.
         I know many of you have heard the story of the starfish.  But it does not hurt to be reminded of it every once in a while…..One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
         Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.
         The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
         The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
         Each one of us has the capacity to be creative and to be an agent for positive change.  As Meister Eckhart wrote, “We need to understand our creativity within a cosmic context in order to diffuse some of it and to discipline all of it toward goals of compassion, justice, and harmony. Creativity is the human giving birth as the whole cosmos does and as God does. It is our godly power at work. ‘What does God do all day long? God gives birth.’ (God creates.)  (Likewise), so does the universe, and so do its healthy citizens, among whom we humans can and ought to be included.” 
         There you have it – another aspect of Creation Spirituality, our worship theme this month.  Each one of us has a creative calling.  What is yours? What is – not so much the great thing, but the some-thing – that God is calling you to do, that some-thing that will positively impact someone beyond yourself? 
         Are you a relationship-builder?  In this day of so much divisiveness and polarization, the world could certainly benefit from having you around.  Are you a laugh-maker?  Lord knows: we could use you!  Are you a comforting arm around the shoulder healer? Are you a singer of songs, an active listener, a benevolent casserole maker?  Are you a bridge builder between cultures or families?  Are you a computer problem-solver? Are you a food pantry worker? Are you a prayer-shawl knitter? 
         What is your creative calling?  What is – not so much the great thing, but the some-thing – that God is calling you to do that will positively impact someone beyond yourself?  Even the simplest things are often the most impactful.  What is your creative calling?  That is the question for us this morning.
         In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah had a vision that rocked his world.  Here I am.  Send me.  And that changed everything.
         In nearly two years since Donald Trump was elected, on this 15th day of July, you  - maybe for the first time – articulated and affirmed your own creative calling.  You heard God’s plea whispered down through the ages, through all eternity.  “Whom shall I send – to knit, to heal, to bring laughter, to sing, to write, to do some-thing?” 
         In nearly two years since Donald Trump was elected, on this 15th day of July, you responded as Isaiah did (take, o take me as I am), maybe not giving a whole lot of thought to what it is you were volunteering for (summon out what I shall be), not sure if what you were offering was what God wanted (set your seal upon my heart), but trusting that your some-thing was enough (and live in me).
          In the year that Donald Trump was elected, on this 15th day of July, you declared, “Here I am, Lord.  Send me.”