Devil Worship and The Elect

October 18, 2015

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood


Opening Words: from the 13th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart

God is at home; it is we who have gone out for a walk.


Reading – from The Unwinding, by George Packer pp232-233


Kirk Noden, trying to recruit Tammy Thomas to work as a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, asked her about her childhood, the neighborhood, did she remember the mills, what was it like to work in the factory… she wasn’t used to talking about herself this way…. Then Kirk asked what made her angry.

Well, people liked to say that the east side looked like Beirut, and she’d think without saying, “What do you mean? This is where I am FROM!” Tammy told him, I am angry that I have to raise my kids, get them educated, and get them out of here because there is no opportunity. Her two older children had already moved, and now youngest wanted to go live with her sister. They were trying to get their mother to move, too. “I have to get on a plane to see my kids,” Tammy said. “It shouldn’t be like that. They should be able to grow up and buy a home in this community. My grandmother worked too hard for my neighborhood to look the way it does”…

Tammy’s interview took place at the Unitarian Church. She had never heard of that kind of church, so she asked about the Unitarians.

“They accept all religions and all beliefs,” her cousin said.

“What does that mean?” she asked

“That means you could be a Satanist and still be welcomed into the Unitarian church.”

“No way.”

“Just be careful,” her cousin said. “I am going to be praying for you.”

…Waiting, Tammy glanced around the sanctuary. There were no crosses anywhere. She was thinking how black she would seem to any interviewer, and how she had never been in a church without a cross. On top of everything else, this was her first interview in twenty years, and the last one had been for an auto parts assembly line –so to calm herself, she picked up a hymnbook and leafed through. Her eyes fell on a song about the summer solstice. She WAS in a devil-worship church!

Just then, Noden came for her, and led her to the office. She was so shaken up, that she let instinct take over and went around the room introducing herself, saying “how you doing? I’m great!” And all through the interview, she thought, if she ever got the job, her new colleagues would wonder why the doorknobs were always greasy, because she was going to be anointing them every day.

Devil Worship and the Elect

Not long ago I met a Methodist minister who had set a life goal of being in the same church for six years. He said it with a lovely sense of wonder, and longing – what would it be like to experience that? The norm in his denomination is to move on after five years, and so he set his sight on this impossible dream of stability. But, he revealed, he had achieved this goal – year number six in the same church – only to feel that he was starting all over again, in something completely new. So many other things had changed that he had no sense of continuity even though he hadn’t moved at all. The next thing he said stunned me. We were just having a brief check-in before a meeting, and this 52 year old reported that over the summer he had gone home for the first time. Home was North Korea. Until he became an American citizen, he had never been allowed to visit the land of his birth. Another minister in the group had a similar tale. Over the summer, he had been to the holy land for the first time, because now that he is an American, he is invited in. When he held a Syrian passport, he could not go to Jerusalem.

The local clergy group used to be 13 priests — Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, Episcopalian – and me. These men had pretty codified belief systems, and among those was determination that I should not exist. If they could have anointed our doorknobs, they might have come in, but instead we met in other churches. Generally, I felt like a freak and occasionally like the enemy. But suddenly, last month, I grasped the extent of my privilege. No law has ever been aimed at keeping me out. I have always been free. Even the old priests who yelled and accused me of being the problem in today’s world – they didn’t have any actual power over me. I have always been able to go home, and to call any place home.

Last June, Carole Berney asked wistfully why everyone has to live so far away. To snuggle with grandsons, to read them a story, or dig a hole in the back yard or to witness anything they do firsthand; to just spend time with her family means lots of planning, a long flight to the other side of the continent, and a crowded, vaguely stressed house with its normal routines interrupted. It isn’t easy, and of course every special thing you do is a reminder that the regular life does not include sharing time with one another.   Tammy Thomas also spoke of her children living so far away that she had to fly to see them; and then she invoked her grandmother, and the neighborhood. There was no separation between the people and the idea of home. This is where I am FROM, she said. It was a space that extended backwards in time, and that she envisioned as an inheritance. How could her children not be there to receive it?

Sometimes it seems as if we are living in exile, despite the fact that so many of us here, in this sanctuary, have lives that grant us choices and opportunities. There is still something vaguely unsettled for many; a sense of not knowing what’s next, of not quite belonging; of not daring to dig in completely, because who knows what’s next; this might not be the place. Even when we stay, the neighborhood itself gets up and walks away. Sometimes it crumbles before our eyes; other times it suddenly gets spiffed up and redone and becomes home to people who seem not to like the people who have always lived here. The twentieth century was defined by uprootedness, and it seems as though this one is no different. Since the collapse of the Ottoman empire and all that followed, fewer and fewer people live out their lives where they were born, either because of war, natural disaster, or economic opportunity. We may be purpose-driven – moving for a new job, a bigger house or one with less maintenance; we may be running from disaster or trying desperately to find a safe haven – but there is still often a sense of lostness behind all the purpose. How do we bloom if we are never fully planted? Have you seen that television ad that starts with a focus group of 20-somethings handing over their phones, which are then put through a shredder while they look on in stunned horror. They are each stranded, completely. Then the product being sold is revealed: a car that keeps you connected. In a vehicle that seats four at most, the built in wifi allows seven devices to link to the internet at all times.   Constant mobility without ever being alone is our perfect state.

Of course this is not only a problem of the modern world. The Biblical narrative is all about wandering; being a homeless body. Very early in the story, God gives Abraham the land of Canaan – a “permanent homeland as far as they could see, and lasting into eternity.” (That’s in Genesis) But the promised land never does feel like home. In Hebrews, a book written five or six centuries later, Abraham is described as moving about the land of Canaan as through a strange country.   The road DOES come to own him – he is only at home when roaming freely, despite the invocation of a permanent home. He and Sarah have had Isaac, and Isaac gives them Jacob, but it seems the closer Abraham’s family gets to the promised land, the more they splinter, and are dispersed. Jacob is the father of the twelve tribes, and it is three more generations from there before we get to Moses, who is famously told that although he will see the promised land, he will not enter it. Always, always, these people are nomads. Peace and rest are never granted; the comfort is in knowing that their descendents have been promised a home.   In some ways, then, what we are being told is that being in the wilderness is precisely the source of our security. Not knowing what to do, not being too settled, not believing that the way we are doing things is exactly the way we should be – this is what will make a better future.

The usual religious thing is to have a home in heaven, an eternal home. But there is something very different about putting the consolation of home off into another realm than simply making it be about the future; something that we actively work towards, like Martin Luther King Jr becoming Moses for a moment, and saying “I’ve been to the mountain top, and I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get there.”   Making heaven into home removes the idea of struggling toward justice and it deprives us of community – of being tethered to one another in ways that transcend time.

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila, there is a wonderful passage that indirectly addresses this. Lila had undergone a baptism, believing that it offered her a kind of safety; that once resurrected, she would be able to see Doll – the woman who had rescued and raised her. “The idea was precious to her. Doll just the way she used to be, but with death behind her, and all the peace that would come with that. Nothing could ever hurt her again.” But later, “as she listened to the preachers talk, she understood that Doll was not among the elect. She did not believe and wasn’t baptized. None of Lila’s people was, so far as she knew – except herself now. ….

So she asked the minister. “What about all the people who are not elect? Practically everybody I ever knew. Some of them been kind to me. But they never gave one thought to the Sabbath. They cussed and coveted and stole sometimes. Them women in St Louis, I believe adultery was about the only thing they was ever up to. And there was no one to help them with any of it… So I guess they are all just lost? What happens to you if you are lost?

“Lila, you do ask the hardest questions.”

This, by the way, is where we triumphantly insert our Universalist heritage, and get rid of the idea of heaven as an exclusive club that extends the judgments and rules of this life into eternity. If any one is going to heaven, then everyone is. And if we are all going to be in heaven together, perhaps we might begin to work on being at home together while we are alive. As Lila points out, it would be better for Doll to just lie in her grave than to be brought up to some front gate only to have her whole sorry and painful life laid out before her with some explanation demanded.

The way we define home may actually be what defines us. It is a metaphor for the way we relate most deeply to others; how that little part of us that we think of as our core self is nourished. We are talking about our sense of balance between closure and openness; individualism and community; acting and being acted upon; acquiescing and choosing our own fate.   This sounds like a deeply personal issue – and it is – but it is also inherently a very political one, too. Just say the word “Jerusalem” to be reminded of that. But the drama and tragedy of that city shouldn’t blind us to all of the injustices and inequity all around us. We live in a world where not just homelessness, but statelessness has become relatively common, and the number of people seeking refuge is growing rapidly, and affecting more and more children. What happens to cultures that are put into exile; to people who are dispossessed? What doors are open, or what gates can they walk through?

In Youngstown, Ohio, Tammy Thomas was really terrified that we – meaning the Unitarian Church – were in league with the devil. There was absolutely nothing familiar to her in our building or our hymnal, and when she asked about us, the answer she got was about us being open – To me, that sounded like a good thing, until I got to the next sentence. To her, being open meant a lack of safety. There were no standards, no protection in a world where she had been hurt in hundreds of ways already. The church borders a large park, and probably signifies peace to many people, but it is also a foreign territory — removed from Tammy’s neighborhood by several highways and a big river. The whole thing was legitimately disorienting, a land on the far side of every kind of divide. And yet Thomas went in, and stayed, and it changed her life but also gave her back her old one. She said the people working from that church were the only ones who wanted to help her keep her neighborhood; to make it stop looking like a war zone. Later in the book, Thomas talks about how community work opened her up to different people and experiences and foods… “Nothing fazed her anymore, not even the peculiarities of the Unitarian Church…. There was so much more to life than she had known! And she jumped to the defense any time someone in her old neighborhood tried to say that Kirk was trying to take advantage of black folks, or that he was racist. Are you kidding me? Do you KNOW what he has done for me and my family? I had no experience, no degree, he didn’t have to hire me. He just saw something that needed to be done, and started working. He is the first person I ever met since my grandmother who cared that this neighborhood is my home. We could use some help. What are you waiting for?”

This is not really where I had planned to go this morning. Carole’s concern about her children and grandchildren being so far away felt personal to me, and I resonate with that desire to just be able to spend time together; to not have relationships built out of visits and occasions. So I expected to try to make us all feel better while also saying that this is the way of the world. Instead I find myself saying that we are bearing the symptoms of a flawed system; that rootlessness has infected us so that we think we have to choose it; that it is the only path forward; the only thing that makes sense; the only way to get ahead. But it isn’t. It is disrupting to feel that your children are not settled, or that you are cut off from the support of your family, or from the place that nurtured your forebears. The other day, a conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson, the author of Lila, was published, and one of the themes was questioning whether we as a people are always moving because we are dissatisfied with what we have right here, or because we believe we are supposed to be striving. What they didn’t mention was that maybe it is the striving and all that means on the world stage that leads to dissatisfaction. Organized selfishness dominates, and we adapt.

There is a famous line of TS Eliot’s, which speaks about arriving at the place where we started, and knowing it for the first time.

Earlier, the poem reads: “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Between the dead and the living. Not the intense moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment –

And not the lifetime of one, only

But of” — all. Everything that rises and falls, is destroyed, restored, lost and found again.

The pattern is more complicated, between the past and the present, and we do so want to be at home. But we know we will never truly feel settled until we cane believe that our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren, that everyone else is settled, too. We crave life in a world where compassion is valued, and in which we are willing to take the steps to make it so. We may be in the wilderness, but we have to be walking towards home together.


Closing Words   Warsan Shire – a poet born in Kenya to Somali parents, now living in London

“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”