this morning I served pulpit supply--was the guest preacher--at 2 ucc congregations in colby and athens, wi, where I was welcomed and treated well, but I don't expect I'll be asked by either of them to return. the sermon below is what I wrote for them. I was somewhat at a disadvantage since I only had to write a 5-6 page sermon but I didn't have time to do that so I wrote an 8 page sermon that I hacked and slashed down to 6 and a half. this is the result.
Psalms 133 Sermon
“Do the Best Things in the Worst Times”
A Sermon Delivered to The 1st United Church of Christ,
Colby and Athens, Wisconsin, August 14, 2011,
I looked it up and you folks weren't part of the recall election last Tuesday. You missed a great election. I live in the 10th district where there are particularly harsh feelings about our state senator and what she has and hasn’t done for the people of her district in the last decade. We’re gearing up for yet another in other districts next week. In this last election, as elections are wont to do, some people came away happy and many came away angry. That’s as it’s always been. From the perspective of an American voter in the early 21st century, it certainly looks like the country is as divided as it’s ever been, maybe more so than at any time in American history. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, these positions are miles apart, aren’t they, seemingly irreconcilable. It’s never been this divisive, we’ve never been as separate before, certainly not in our lifetimes.
Only if “our lifetimes” don’t include the protests against the war in Vietnam when it seemed not a week went by without some violent demonstration, counterdemonstration, the bombings at the University in Madison or the police responses at the Chicago Democratic National Convention and Kent State. We have yet to experience many political conflagrations, certainly not like Norway, for instance, has. And for some of us, “our lifetimes” include the Great Depression, during which them what had went to whatever lengths they felt necessary—up to and including hiring private police forces who infamously used clubs and revolvers and set fires at mines like Ludlow, Lattimer and Columbine—to keep them what hadn’t who were beginning to unionize. And while none of us can count it as happening in “our lifetimes,” certainly today’s divisions are as nothing compared with the period of 1840-1865 when slavery and freedom were such contentious issues the country took up arms against itself to settle the matter.
None of us is immune to the wish-fulfillment of blame. Just the other day I told my wife I’d been thinking that afternoon about leaving her and moving out into the middle of the woods with no phone and no car and no internet and spending my days standing at the end of my driveway and shaking my fist at everyone who passes. She reminded me that if I left her I’d need to take three of our animals and their upkeep would surely cut into my fist-shaking time so I might as well stay home.
Some people blame President Obama for the country’s divisiveness and some people blame Republicans as if somehow one side or the other wants to govern a divided, off-kilter nation. Some blame public religion or the lack of public religions as if churches and synagogues and mosques don’t all have their own schisms and issues going on. Something has left us feeling like there’s something between us, as if there’s, not a wall exactly, but a sense of disconnect. We’re missing one another, walking past each other, even though we’re saying “Hi” and shaking hands, as if the other person somehow isn’t quite there.
The Psalm we read this morning seems almost to comment on this disconnect. “How pleasant it is,” the psalmist writes, “when kindred live together in unity!” Had that been written today I’d suspect the author of sarcasm at the least, dismay at the worst.
Because we don’t live in unity, do we? I mean, well, we might here in this church and even here in this town, but as a state? As a nation? No, sir, not a bit of it. We’re constantly yelling at one another over the radio and the television and the internet—you always know someone doesn’t trust his words WHEN HE TYPES OUT HIS MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS—and sometimes at the family barbecue and at work. Some of us are frustrated because we’re working two and three jobs and some of us because we aren’t even working one. Sometimes it seems the single difference between the uprisings going on this year in some Arab nations or Great Britain and the US is that no one here has thought to start heaving bricks at cops. That may change. After all, this is America, where we have more handguns available than bricks.
But the psalmist isn’t being sarcastic. He or she isn’t being ironic. He or she is quite sincere. How can that be, since the psalmist was living in a wonderful age when everyone was closer to god and thought of god all the time, paid attention to god and followed god’s laws to the best of his or her ability, or at least wasn’t actively fighting god and religion the way some people seem to do now? I'm not a believer in a golden age but think on this. A mere 2 years ago we saw an incredible outpouring of relief and hope—I felt it and I’m certain many of you did too—when Barack Obama, whose campaign slogan was the positive "yes, we can," was elected. We've lost that hope somewhere between then and now. We have moved from the radical notion that "yes, we can" to a politics of "no, you can't."
This is not entirely unexpected but what makes it particularly galling is that, amid the national and local talk of economic feasibility, of cost benefit and entitlement and loss and "what it costs the taxpayers," there is no corresponding talk about human beings. Of sharing. Of helping one another. Of community. We have entered a time and political place when a majority of citizens seem to feel the motto of the US ought to be changed from e pluribus unum, "out of many, one," to meeum habeo, "I got mine."
Has it ever been any different? Well, sure, right there, Psalm 133. That’s certainly a golden moment when everyone was looking out for one another. If only we could resurrect that time, go back to everyone looking out for his neighbor and there wasn’t all this infighting and backstabbing and calling one another names.
As Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “It’s pretty to think so.” The truth is there’s never any golden time, never a silver or a bronze age as compared with our contemporary lead one when people had one another’s best interests at heart and truly loved their neighbors and had one another uppermost in their thoughts. Scholars don’t know when individual psalms were created or even written down but the book as it comes down to contemporary readers was probably anthologized during the 4th Century BCE, the period after the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persians whose king, Xerxes—you may remember him as the villain of the movie 300—allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland and helped in the restoration of the Second Temple. Some of them predate the Babylonian Exile and the destruction of the Temple. The transcriber of 133 is writing at a time when the people of Israel have come together out of a century—for the Jews of the northern kingdom, two centuries—of exile and second-class citizenship in a foreign land. To be sure, not everyone was moved out of what was once Israel and Judah, only the nobility and the most important citizens. Thousands of others were left essentially leaderless and without protection, victimized by anyone who might have happened along with a superior weapon and nothing to lose.
When we think about exile today we think of refugee camps, of malaria and stagnant water and death by diseases easily cured in less-crowded places, and it was like that in those times too. The book of Psalms is divided into several types, the most common of which, you might not be surprised to learn, is the individual lament, the crying out to god for help for oneself. There are also communal laments whose tragedies reflect contemporary experiences in the Sudan and Somalia:
"My days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin…All day long my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside. My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass."
There are also songs or psalms of trust, of individual and communal thanksgiving. “O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” There are paeans to divinity and creation, songs of celebration and liturgies, psalms of kingship and royalty and celebrating the lineage of David (many of these were written during the times when Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms, were kingdoms ruled by David’s descendants). There are psalms celebrating Zion and pilgrimage and there are songs about wisdom. There are songs of immense beauty and trust: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” And there are songs of great cruelty and vengeance: “Happy shall be they who pay [Babylon] back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your babies and dash their brains against the rock!” The Psalms are a repository for nearly every emotion, good and bad, a people in exile felt.
But in 133, subtitled a song of ascent, one which people sung as they made pilgrimage up the hills of Jerusalem, the people are coming together again after being apart for so long and they sing about the pleasure of being with one another as a community and as a people. You must understand, in this time and place, if you had no people and you had no land, and no way to make certain other people recognized those two things, then you were the equivalent of an unbranded steer in 1870s Abilene, Texas. Free to be owned and done with by anyone who took the trouble to acquire you and with no more access to redress than that steer had. It was a blessing to be with one another again. To be one people. To be a single, unified group.
Our Muslim friends and neighbors are currently celebrating Ramadan which takes as its initial offer that, like Gandhi said, we should be the change we want to see in the world—Surah 2: 183 and 185 of the Qur’an reads “O you who believe, fasting is decreed for you, as it was decreed for those before you, that you may attain salvation…Ramadan is the month during which the Quran was revealed, providing guidance for the people, clear teachings, and the statute book. Those of you who witness this month shall fast…GOD wishes for you convenience, not hardship, that you may fulfill your obligations, and to glorify GOD for guiding you, and to express your appreciation”—and adds to it the idea that we should all do it together. This is communal experience at its best, acknowledging the shared hunger for something outside oneself and then coming together to expunge that hunger as a community.
African culture reproaches us to remember, “I am because we are.” Annie Dillard in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek reminds us that we have an obligation “to keep the world from falling apart.” To do this we must come together to, as author Richard Gilbert puts it, “do the best things in the worst times.” We do this to bring about what my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, calls the Beloved Community and what Christians call the Kingdom of God.
What is this hard work we should do, what should this community look like? I don’t exactly know and for each of us it might be a little different. E.B. White, author of children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, admitted he woke each morning “torn between the desire to improve the world and the desire to enjoy the world. This,” he notes, “makes it hard to plan the day.”
But this I do know. Take a moment to look to the left of you, and then to the right. Take a moment to smile at the person you see. Take his or her hand. Feel the warmth of their hands, the pulse just fluttering beneath the surface, the strong life that is there. How good it is when we are together. These are the companions you are to do this work with. You will find no better.