Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"And on earth, peace..."

(from Suzanne)

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Luke 6: 27-28

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

As Love Would Have It

A modern-day Christmas story...

It was raining that night when she got the call from the hospital. She had fallen asleep on the couch listening to the radio. She didn’t know what time it was; she didn’t care. She just did as she was told—come and identify the body. Her son’s body.

As she rode on the subway she remembered the night he was born. It was a long difficult birth, and she had been alone through most of it. An old woman from next door had heard her cry out and came over and stayed until he was washed and clothed and asleep on her breast. He was beautiful, as all babies are. His eyes were warm and brown. He had her smile and his father’s high forehead. And he was big—over nine pounds. His body was perfect then. Now it was dead and cold, its beauty warped by some violent act. She stared out the black window looking for his face, trying to remember its features. Instead she saw her own reflection but the smile was not there, would not come again for a long time, and so she could not see him even in her own face.

It was hard raising the boy on her own. He had colic the first three months, soothed only by the rocking motions of her body as she carried him in a sling made of tattered red cloth. In the wee hours of the morning she would nurse him in the sling as she glided about the small living room that was also their bedroom.

Then there was the problem of money. She wrote stories for small magazines but they didn’t always pay enough. Her parents had disowned her when they found out she was pregnant. The father had run off before she had even missed her period. As Love would have it, she had started attending a storefront church nearby when her son had started to kick. The people opened their arms like a warm quilt and welcomed her in. They dropped by with food and clothing, things they had trouble getting themselves. She cleaned apartments and babysat children. She did whatever she could to keep the life within her.

And by some miracle her son grew healthy and strong. He wrestled his way out of the colic into a colorful streak of a toddler. Oh what a lovely boy, they all said at church. He would get restless through the service but someone would always seek him out and pull him onto their lap or give him crayons and paper. Now the smile rested weakly on her face but faded as she came back to the clacking of the train and the jostling motion that rocked her toward sleep but jarred her all the same.

She remembered another time she felt her heart rising in her throat, when she lost him in a department store. At Christmas they would always go to one of the big stores and look at all the displays. The boy loved to go from one beautiful display to another, looking for that one that meant Christmas to him. When he was little, the boy would sit on Santa’s lap, asking what Santa wanted for Christmas, for the boy knew not to hope for much. The year he was 12 he wandered off, not telling his mother first. She searched frantically for him, for her baby son almost a man, enlisting a police officer, the floor manager, and a sympathetic sales clerk.

She found him out in front of the store with a Salvation Army volunteer. The volunteer was enjoying a hot cup of coffee while her son was ringing the bell, smiling from ear to ear as people put money in the red bucket. It was hard to be mad at him then but she put on her mom face and said as sternly as she could, “Don’t you ever run off like that again!” His reply stunned her: “Oh, Momma, it’s gonna get a lot harder to love me.” She thought he was talking about being a teenager and all that comes with those tumultuous years. She had no idea. As she stepped off the train and walked toward the hospital, his words stabbed at her chest.

The past ten years or so he had been homeless. Every now and then he’d show up at her apartment for a meal or to wash his clothes. But he would never take any money from her. He said he was checking up on her to see how she was doing. Truly it was a gift to her so she could see him and make sure he was okay. Now she wished she had locked him in the apartment, made him stay with her, taken care of him, done anything to keep him alive as she had done when he was little.

She passed through the automatic doors of the emergency room and the antiseptic smell washed over her, as if to make her into someone else. She took the elevator to the basement and followed the signs to the morgue. A young woman greeted her and gestured for her to come to the table. The lab nurse pulled back the sheet and revealed her son lying on cold metal. Yes, it had gotten a lot harder to love him, but she still felt the same way she did as when she first saw his face. She kissed his brow, brushed back the hair from his face, and caressed his cheek.

“How did it happen?” she asked.

“The police report says he came upon a couple of punks arguing over a woman’s purse they had just taken,” the lab nurse replied. “Your son tried to break up the fight, but then one of them pulled a knife and stabbed him and the other thief.”

“Is he also…?” she choked.

“No, he’s gonna be okay,” she answered. She paused. “I’m sorry about your son. Would you like to be alone with him for a few minutes?”

“Yes, thank you,” his mother whispered.

She held his face in her hands as she wept over him, her tears falling on his cheeks, his lips, his eyes. She wiped them with her sleeve, cleaning the blood and dirt off his face. As she gently pulled his head to her breast, a mighty roar welled up within her and gushed out of her like liquid fire. The lab nurse did not come rushing back. She was not the first mother to lose her son nor the last. She carefully laid down his head on the table and took one last look before she pulled the sheet over his head.

As she stepped out into the cold and damp, she saw that it was almost dawn. The rain had stopped and the sun was just beginning to rise over the receding clouds. She looked up at the street lamps, saw the banners, colored lights, wreaths, and realized what day it was.


There was only one place to go. She got on the subway and headed back to her neighborhood, to the storefront church where there would be a free dinner and children and old friends. There she would see her son, running through peoples’ legs, reading comics with friends, serving a hot meal, warming frozen hands over the steam of good food, singing, praying, smiling, alive again in those who loved him. She ran to meet him, the life quickening inside her.

May the Christ be revealed in you this holiday season.
Peace be with you in the New Year.

(c) Cynthia E. Robinson

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Peace of Someone Else Be With You

The Kotel - Western Wall- Old City of Jerusalem

Psalm 122; Matthew 24: 36-44
First Congregational Church of ******, CT
December 2, 2007

Note: This was my last Sunday at a church I had worked at for six months as Interim Minister for Pastoral Care.

My friend and colleague, Suzanne, is spending a year in Jerusalem—a sort of self-imposed sabbatical and study year. In her blog she writes about her observations and experiences. In her strolls through her neighborhood, during the day or at night, she has witnessed a man on the third floor of an apartment building on his balcony, sitting at a small table with a book, presumably the Torah, facing the Old City of Jerusalem.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

She goes on to say that the apartment building adjacent to hers “is adding an outside elevator and refurbishing the front entrance with walkways and a patio out of golden Jerusalem stone. The men who are constructing the elevator start very early in the morning; often it’s a noisy wake up call. In the same vicinity of the worksite there can be found foam rubber pads that are used to stop and pray throughout the day as Muslims are called to do. The noise stops when the men pray.

Dome of the Rock

“A Christian congregation, who worships in the bottom of a building on Yaffo Road, also has offices on the 14th floor of that same building. Right next to the offices is a chapel with windows that overlook Jerusalem. They have a prayer watch wherein an individual or group takes a one hour watch and prays. There are twenty-four watches, seven days a week. Each one of the watches is filled.

“Jews come to the Kotel, the wailing wall, to offer prayers of the heart and written prayers in the holiest of holy places. Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer in unlikely places: outside of their cabs, in a small corner of a plaza. Nuns pray the rosary inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.” Suzanne writes that she is “confident that at any time of the day or night in Jerusalem, prayers of the people are being offered to the Holy One, God, the Beloved.”

And some, if not all, of those prayers I am sure are for peace: peace for their beloved city, Jerusalem, spiritual home to Jews, Christians and Muslims, ancestral home to Israelis and Palestinians. Its name contains the Hebrew root for ‘shalom’: Jerushalem. It means ‘possession of peace’ or ‘foundation of peace’.

This morning’s Psalm adjures those making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray for the peace of this holy city, which implies that it is far from peaceful. Not much has changed, has it? One scholar has calculated that from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the capture of Jerusalem by the Roman general Pompey in 63 CE, over 200 military campaigns were fought in and around Palestine, against or in the vicinity of Jerusalem. It has been, and continues to be, one of the most contested and conflicted cities in the world.

Yet for the Psalmist, Jerusalem is the beginning and the end, the desire and the fulfillment, the inspiration and the destination: it is the home of God and of God’s realm. It is the place of God’s judgment, justice and peace. Because of the way the city was designed and constructed, Jerusalem has the power to bring people together. To enter Jerusalem is to enter a new world, where humankind lives for God’s sake and for the sake of others, where past, present and future exist at once. Woven into the fabric of this ancient city, within its hotly contested present, are the threads of the New Jerusalem, the holy city of God, the righteous kingdom where justice and peace reign forever and ever.

The Puritans of the 17th century looked upon the New World as their New Jerusalem. New England was to be their ‘city on the hill’, the chosen land for the new Zion. A great and holy commonwealth would be founded. They saw themselves and their faith as a shining example. Whenever a people are persecuted, it is invariably assumed that the end of time is near. With tribulation comes redemption. The Puritans believed that the second coming of Jesus the Christ would occur in their lifetime.

Cotton Mather, the preacher of First Church of Boston from 1684 to 1723 tried to predict the ‘end times’ by interpreting current events through the Book of Revelation and the prophets. In fact, he attempted to calculate a precise date. First, he declared that Christ would come in the year 1697. When that date passed, he was sure that it would be 1736, but then recalculated to the year 1716.

Many in Boston were expectant and anxious that year, trusting in their beloved pastor and teacher, a man of more letters and learning than the common person. 1716 passed uneventfully. So, it was to be 1717. Still nothing.

Finally, in 1727, just before the death of the Rev. Mather, Boston suffered an earthquake. Mather declared that ‘this is it’.

Even Jesus says that he does not know. ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’. Will knowing make us any more ready to meet our maker? What is it that will make us ready, that will keep us awake?

The apocalyptic furor of the 17th century acquired an attitude of religiosity and moral fiber during the Great Awakening of the 18th century. Revivals sprang up throughout the colonies, attempting to recover the energy of the authentic religious experience. There was a sense of living in declining times, of not living up to the founding fathers and mothers who left family and home to find God in the wilderness.

Jonathan Edwards was one of the early New England ministers who was able to bring to his listeners a sense of their own sin, of being dead to Christ. In 1741 at Enfield, CT he preached his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, declaring the just wrath of God yet also God’s desire to bring humankind into the kingdom. Though Edwards and his contemporaries were rather fire-and-brimstone, they also saw the possibility of conversion, new birth and new life. They also reawakened the sense that the citizens of this New World would have a vital role in God’s last days, that we were still a privileged nation, God’s New Jerusalem.

As colonies became states, as states became a nation that declared its independence; as territories were acquired, frontiers explored, industry expanded, the mid-19th century brought us to division and civil war over the issue of slavery and the rights of states to determine themselves. In Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address he endeavored to placate the southern states, saying that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery in those states where it existed. He guaranteed the right of each state to govern itself and its domestic institutions exclusively. In effect, he attempted to keep the peace rather than make peace. And there was no making peace with slavery; despite his promises, war broke out a month after Lincoln was inaugurated.

The Civil War brought America up short. It shattered our idealized view of ourselves, as being a favored nation in the eyes of God, as having a redemptive role in history. This was not a war of revolution against tyranny. Though slaves were freed, it was through the bloodshed of brothers, citizens of one nation. New Jerusalem indeed. It seems that wherever Jerusalem is declared, even the Church itself, there are those who will fight over who will determine its future and who will make peace difficult to achieve.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln got it right. This time he preached how to make peace rather than just keeping it. He reminded his listeners that they read the same Bible, that they prayed to the same God. Those present were rapt in profound silence, their faces and eyes damp with tears, responding at times with applause and cheers.

A journalist present, Noah Brooks, witnessed that “chiefly memorable in the mind of those who saw that second inauguration must still remain the tall, pathetic, melancholy figure of the man who, then inducted into office in the midst of the glad acclaim of thousands of people, and illumined by the deceptive brilliance of a March sunburst, was already standing in the shadow of death”. In six weeks Lincoln would be assassinated at the Ford Theatre. Lincoln closed his address with these stirring words:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.

America as the New Jerusalem carries through today, as part of our civil religion, sometimes with the explicit apocalyptic language that passes for political rhetoric these days. It is true: the end may come at any time, for any of us and for all of us. We lull ourselves to sleep with our comforts. We seek refuge from our fears by reacting with our propensity toward conflict, individualism, and competition. How are these manifested in our daily lives, in our own little Jerusalems?

If we had known that war only leads to death, destruction, and disease among nations and that the death of an enemy is no different than the death of a loved one in the eyes of God, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with our adversaries, seeking what would make peace for them, caring for their widows and orphans?

If we had known that a child would grow into an adult in the wink of an eye, a spouse would change and grow over the years, a parent would get older and not as able, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with them until we found a way to keep our temper, give thanks for their love, accept them as they are, seeking their peace rather than competing with our own?

If we had known that we were only given so many years on this earth to give, to love, to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, to taste, to know, would we have stayed awake and kept watch, seeking the peace of each moment, ready for God to break in at any time? We would have known our life here is far too precious for conflict and competition.

To be ready, to be awake, is to seek the peace of the other, with acts of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness—to inculcate an inclination toward community and cooperation.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good. Psalm 122: 6-9

With the first advent of Christ the age of the last days began. It is long past time to get ready. It is time to be ready. We who confess that Christ has come into the world, continues to come into the world, that this Christ is Jesus, born of Mary, the Savior who is Christ the Lord—by this we declare that we have received revelation from God to know how to live and how to love in God’s light until the close of human history.

And we do this by seeking the good, the peace of someone else: the peace of a family member or neighbor or co-worker; the peace of sister or brother in Christ or the community of faith as a whole; the peace of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians; the peace of the earth, its water, its air, its trees, its soil, and its creatures; the peace of those with AIDS and HIV; the peace of the hungry, the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the migrant worker, the illegal immigrant, the battle-worn soldier, the widow and the orphan.

Christ was born. Christ lived and loved among us. Christ died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. The peace of someone else, which is the peace of Christ, be with you. Let us pray:

O God, who has come into the world and continues to come into this wild, wide-open world, surprise us once more. May this congregation be taken: taken with your Christ and your way of peace; taken with their pastors, with one another and with the poor, the lonely, the lowliest among them; taken with the Holy Spirit and her prophetic voice, her prodding, noodging ways, her sweet comfort. Continue to bless their days with the peace that seeks the good of the other. All these things I pray in the name of the One who was born to save, Amen.