Gathering the Fragments

images-1One of the things required of the author of a soon-to-be published book is to find people who will write blurbs. Blurbs are short comments about the book that appear on the back of the cover or sometime just inside. I had to get blurbs for my upcoming book (Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory and Faith) and I found one of these blurbs to be kind of insulting to us as a church.

The blurb included this phrase: “the misfits at her New York church.” Now the writer of the blurb also told me to edit what she wrote and that’s what I did. I changed the misfits at her NY church to read the eclectic mix at her NY church Or eclectic community at her church. To me, to call everyone here a misfit just sounded kind of insulting. I wasn’t sure everyone would want to be labeled that way.

On the other hand, I bet that in our heart of hearts, many of us HAVE felt like a misfit at one time or another. Or all the time. Even if we don’t want to be labeled that way. I know that I have.  And that’s what drew my attention to something in today’s gospel that I never really focused on before. It’s a story that some of you may be familiar with. Sometimes we call it the feeding of the 5000. In this story, a little boy shares his lunch of 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, and with them, Jesus feeds the multitude. Jesus turns scarcity into abundance, This is a great stewardship sermon, if we just offer what little we have, instead of hoarding for ourselves, God can take that and use that to do far more than we can ask or imagine. Some people think it was a miracle of multiplying. Others think it was a miracle of sharing. And I think that all of that is true. I’ve preached about it many a time. And I’m sure we all need to be reminded of that, I know that I do, reminded that when we look around and see too little, God sees differently. That when I think I might as well save what I have for me and mine since my own wants and needs exceed what I have, God sees differently. God shows us a child with a lunch of bread and fish and challenges us to push beyond the limits we place on our generosity.

But there’s an old rabbinic saying about studying the Torah, studying God’s word. It says… Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. I’ve been turning this text inside out for many years and I AM beginning to wax gray. I’ve been turning it and turning it again for everything that is in it and lo and behold, this time, something different turned up for me. He told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

Gather up the fragments, gather up the broken pieces, gather up the misfits, so that nothing may be lost. Maybe besides being a stewardship story about giving, this is an evangelism story, a story about gathering the fragments, gathering up those rejected and tossed aside, those who are marginalized for whatever reason, the misfits, gather them all up so that nothing may be lost. And maybe it’s a story about truth-telling and justice, gathering up the shattered fragments of truth so that nothing may be lost.

What really happened to Sandra Bland locked up and dead after a routine traffic stop, especially routine if you’re driving while Black? The story comes in bits and pieces. In fragments. And each little jagged piece of information matters. To her family. To her friends. To all who wonder. The fragments that are uncovered will be bloodied and stained with hate, but they matter to those who loved Sandra Bland. They matter to those who identify with her. They matter to those raising Black daughters and sons and moral children of any color. They matter because #Blacklivesmatter And according to today’s Gospel, they matter to Jesus. Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” Have some pieces of this story been buried? Have some pieces of this story been hidden? Have ALL the fragments been crushed into dust beyond recognition? It seems that way. It seems that we’ll never know the whole truth of what happened. Because the hammer of racism has pulverized that truth.

That should matter to all of us who have been marked with the cross of Christ in baptism. Just as the hunger of the multitude matters. This is a story about feeding the hungry AND gathering the fragments. It is our work as the body of Christ. Feeding and gathering. We will not find all the fragments but we are called to find as many as we can. In the days after 9/11, I remember being invited by a priest friend to join him down at Ground Zero to bless body parts. Fragments of lives once whole. Holy fragments. Because they mattered. Every small piece that was once part of a larger, beloved whole.

Some of us know this in less extreme ways. Many of you know that I’ve been on a journey to discover missing pieces of my own life. I’ve been able to travel in search of fragments of my own lost Jewish history. Every piece I’ve been able to uncover matters to me. Many pieces got edited out of my book which is how it goes, but every piece matters to me. And in searching for whatever fragments I can find, I’ve heard from many other people. People who come from families with secrets, with things that just don’t get talked about, because of fear or shame or guilt or whatever reason, but that leave some aching to know, longing for even fragments of information. One woman mentioned the father her mother has always refused to speak about, “It makes me feel like half of me is missing even at the age of seventy.” The missing pieces of the puzzle leave an empty space that can haunt us.

We also can feel fragmented in other ways. Having too much to do. Torn between demands at work and demands at home. Fragmented in terms of all we have to do and all we long to do. We can feel that we are losing part of who we are. Illness can do it. Alzheimer’s is one disease that cruelly fragments the brain and loved ones long for even fragments of the person who used to be there. We live in a dismembered community, city, nation and world. Even the church commemorating the spot where Jesus is thought to have fed the multitudes has recently been burned down by arson. What God created as a gorgeous whole is been torn apart by tribe and race, by economic forces that separate what God has joined. We are surrounded by the fragments. We are convicted by the fragments. We are summoned by the fragments. Our identity as followers of Jesus is to feed the hungry, to be generous in sharing even in the midst of scarcity and ALSO to gather the fragments, that none will be lost.

What does this mean for us? This means that we prioritize those who are tossed aside and value those who are rejected by others. Nothing and no one goes to waste in God’s economy. I love something written by Derek Walcott, a marvelous Caribbean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said: “Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

The love the reassembles the fragments is the love of God. The love the reassembles the fragments is the love that gathers us here to worship. A friend told me about a Domestic Violence agency that has a “mosaic” project. In workshops, survivors of violence break old dishes and pottery (cathartic activity in itself) and then use the shards to make beautiful mosaics. Out of brokenness comes beauty and strength. Then my friend said, “I have a large, pottery lamp that was knocked over. I pieced and glued it back together as best I could but its scars are obvious. I love it.”

When Jesus rose from the dead, in beauty and strength, we are told that his scars were obvious. His scars were a reminder that he came to gather the fragments, the misfits, those whose lives were pulverized under the hammer of Roman injustice. Those who lives were scarred by sin. We gather in his name. A strangely beautiful mosaic of broken pieces joined together. More often than not, we sit, and sing and pray among people of different ages and races and back-rounds. We come together. Imperfectly. Inexpertly. But we work at it week after week. On Sundays and in Dinner Church. Pastor Emily Scott, who began a Dinner Church several years ago, recently said: “To sit around the table is not comfortable, but it’s holy … a place where heaven and earth overlap… The gap is real. Building relationships with our neighbors takes hard work and a lot of time and it’s not glamorous.”

No, it’s not always comfortable or glamorous. But it’s who we are. It is recovering God’s image in our own souls. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

Twelve baskets. Numbers are important in John’s gospel and 12 is a key one. There were 12 disciples. Reflecting the fact that there were 12 tribes of Israel. To gather up 12 baskets of fragments is to gather up 12 tribes, 12 disciples. Which means that the leaders God gathers are a collection of fragments. Broken, scarred, yes, misfits like us. Beloved misfits.

Of course, our work as disciples of Jesus is always imperfect and incomplete, as are we and there are always more fragments to be found and gathered. More pieces of shattered truth to uncover. More misfits to embrace. But we can carry on with the sure promise of our scarred Lord and Savior, that in the end, every fragment WILL be gathered up and nothing and no one shall be lost. Amen.

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“And Riot Gear Will Collect Dust”

10846452_10205005538156557_3165016420734450036_nLast week our Advent gospel included the words of Jesus: KEEP AWAKE! I believe that many people woke up this week when Eric Garner’s murderers were not indicted. Many people shook off the weight of despair or apathy and found themselves on fire with moral outrage.

People shook off the weight of whyareyousurprisedwhatdidyouexpect and victimblaming and wedon’thaveallthefacts and picked up the mantle of #Blacklivesmatter which should not require the explanation that of course all lives matter but that black lives clearly do not matter to those sitting on many juries and grand juries in our country, at least not as much as white power and control matter, and so the lie which is perpetrated in our courts and prisons (not always not by everyone but by too many and too often and too systematically) needs to be contradicted by voices that say outloud and clearly and persistently that #Blacklivesmatter.

The numbers of people protesting here in NYC and in Ferguson and around the nation is a sign of people rousing themselves from business as usual. Of waking up. But waking up is one thing, keeping awake, as Jesus calls us to do, is another. We wake up. Then what? What does it mean to keep awake? To sustain wakefulness?

Isaiah has come to church to help us this morning. Let’s listen to his voice anew.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Cleveland, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, and cry to them that they have not been forgotten, they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.

A megaphone cries out: “In the streets prepare the way of justice, make straight in city parks a highway for our God. Every empty lot shall be a home, and every Trump tower – rent controlled apartments; unfair minimum wages shall be living wages, and riot gear will collect dust. Then the presence of God shall be unveiled and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry out? Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice? Or the giant gap in economic inequality? All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of God blows upon it. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. But the breathe of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated.

Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world; Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear; say to the police departments across America, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!” See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly; her comforting presence ushers in change. She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore; she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore, and she will carry all in her bosom, and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth, one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.” (re-told by Timothy Wotring)

Isaiah first wrote to a group of Jews who had been uprooted from their homeland and taken away to Babylon where they are forced to live under an alien regime and to accept it’s notions of reality as if their own reality is not real. But Isaiah also wrote for us. His words will sound familiar to many people, particularly those who live under authorities that do not see reality in a way that corresponds to their reality.

Many of those who benefit from the unjust systems in place may mean well and be in fact, quite nice. Listen to the anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise: Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice white folks on that grand juryfor instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold blooded murder on videoand still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve.

Isaiah’s people lived in the midst of this insanity too and so did he. The exiled Jews he lived among had given up hope. Isaiah cites their pain: The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. (Is.49:14) My way is hid from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God. (Is.40: 27) These are the cries of people who feel that no one has their back. Not even God.

Isaiah’s word begins with God calling a heavenly court, a heavenly grand jury, to overturn the perverse decisions that have come down. “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her sentence of injustice is upended. Undone. Liberation is at hand.”

Then Isaiah gives us a poetic image for the way forward. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah speaks of a divine highway construction program that will level mountains and raise up valleys. Uneven ground will be made even. Rough places will be smoothed out. In other words, for this new exodus through the wilderness, major structural changes are required. The dismantling of uneven structures, which all racist structures are, is required.

Some of us want to call for the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to automatically appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute all excessive force and wrongful death cases by police officers, and in particular, to immediately appoint a Special Prosecutor in the wrongful death of Eric Garner. Some say this is impossible.

Is it written in stone that this cannot be? Not according to Isaiah. Not for a God who moves mountains.

+Some of us are demanding that the City and State of New York draft legislation making the chokehold illegal (not just banned as protocol) with significant penalties for any officer who uses it.

+Some are demanding NYC create an NYPD Training Program – modeled on San Antonio’s successful Crisis Intervention Training- to eliminate racial disparity and police brutality.

+Some are demanding a Civilian Review Board to provide oversight and recommendations in cases of racial-profiling and police brutality; and a Borough Task Force, that trains community policing groups in the five boroughs.

Are these things impossible? Not according to Isaiah! Not for a God brings down mountains and lifts the valleys and smoothes over the rough places and levels the playing field so that the words liberty and justice for all are for real.

Then says Isaiah the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. And ALL people shall see it together. The optic nerve and the part of the brain that makes judgments will be reconnected. All people will see the truth and the truth will set us free. Even though, in the words of Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off”

The truth always pisses off those who will find themselves divinely leveled because of it. Those who stand on the mountain top and don’t want to be brought down. When Isaiah says that All people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades but the word of God will stand forever. Those are fighting words, insulting words for those who wield their privilege like a baton and use their power like a chokehold, but for others, those words bring sweet relief. The baton will wither, the power to choke and crush will fade away. But the Word of God, the Word that breathes life into crushed lungs and broken hearts, that Word will never fade.

Where does all this leave us? After telling us that God’s word endures forever, Isaiah says that WE are the ones who are called to lift our voices with strength, without fear, and to show our bloodied cities with their cavernous divides between races and classes that God is here and will lead us forward. God IS here.

Here, where young people of many races are leading the way in the streets. Here, where elders are cheering them on and joining them to the extent that aging, aching joints allow. Here where teachers and parents continue to bless and love their children, showing them that all colors are beloved by God. Here where people of every shade and hue sing and pray and listen and work together. Here is your God! Here where Jews on the Upper West Side march and sing Shiva for a murdered black brother. Here where 150 Union Seminary students rallied in protest at Foley Square and many were arrested. Here in law offices working to overturn lethal legal fictions. Here is your God. Right where you thought was only unbearable loss, right where you thought was only injustice, here is your God! Here, in the midst of a chokehold, here is your God choking on a cross. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

All flesh is grass, says Isaiah. The grass withers, the flower fades, yet here in the withered grass, in the straw of a manger, here is your God! Not in flexed muscles that choke life but in the tiny arms of a newborn babe, here is your God! … where our deepest human question tears through the flesh of Jesus himself: My God my God why have you abandoned me? Here is your God!…where the shoot of Jesse was uprooted and the Rose of Sharon withered and the flower of glory in the eyes of a mother’s son faded.. the Word of our God will stand forever.

Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written… the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim God’s jubilee.

This Advent jubilee journey we find ourselves on is a long one that includes loud, relentless shouts in the streets, and soft whispers of faithful love. Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God. The word comfort comes from con forte or strength together. Only together we can be strong. Only together we can remain vigilant and awake. Only together we can find hope for the way forward.

Together does not mean that we all do the same thing. Some will protest. Some will care for the protestors. Some will teach. Some will write. Some will pray ferocious prayers. Some will listen to the pain of others. Listen and learn with humility. Some will organize. Some will nurse and nurture children for a new day. Some will simply use every bit of energy they have to keep on keeping on in a world that doesn’t care. And that itself is a powerful a testimony to the power of God who raises up the valleys and cares for every single blade of grass.

But each of us is called be awake, to be vigilant, to do nothing that calls into question the essential belovedness of the other, especially the essential belovedness of those who experience a daily barrage of indications that they do not really matter. That their dear children can be murdered with impunity. Keep awake. What you do with the dear life you still have matters.

 We’ve come this far by faith, 

   leaning on the Lord;

   trusting in God’s holy word,

 God’s never failed us yet…