Saturday, December 24, 2016

Batshit Crazy Christmas 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7 

Here’s my hand.  Take it or chop it off.

I’ll get back to that.

Salvation – that’s our business here in this place, isn’t it?  How do we do it?  We tell stories.  No, really, Sunday after Sunday, and tonight especially, that’s what we do.  We become the stories we hear.  We become the stories we tell.  So let’s start with a story about salvation.

It was the mid 1960s, south side of Chicago.  There’s this neighborhood called Pilsen, south of the viaduct.  It had been a port of entry for Polish and Bohemian immigrants at the turn of the century.  Now it was a port of entry for Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.  That’s when the real estate people figured out the power of fear.  They figured out how to cash in on fear of immigrants.

So the real estate people told the Polish people, children of immigrants themselves, that with this change of ethnicity in the neighborhood, their property values would go down.  What they had to do was sell out of Pilsen, where Mexicans were moving in, and buy new houses in a new suburb called Cicero.  And gosh, the real estate people made a killing on urban flight.  For each frightened Polish family, the realtors earned, not one but two commissions, one on the sale in Pilsen and another on the purchase in Cicero.

Meanwhile, after the death of Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement was heating up.  The black neighborhood was north of Pilsen, just across the viaduct.  It’s called University Village.  It used to be Little Italy, before, well, the same thing that happened to Pilsen.  Each neighborhood had its own gang to protect the neighborhood from the gang to the south, or the north, depending on which gang.  Because those people are dangerous, you know, those Mexicans, or blacks, whichever.

However, smack in the middle of racial tension, white flight, and new gangs, there on 18th and Racine sat Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, Emmanuel -- God is with us.  So Howard Rice, the pastor of Emmanuel started a youth group.  It was in many ways a typical church youth group, bible studies, field trips to places and discussions of topics that would have made the parents uncomfortable, if the parents were paying attention.  But why would they need to?  It was a church youth group, just like any other youth group.

There were a few less typical things about this youth group.  The biggest was the first rule.  When the kids came to the church, they had to turn over their weapons.  Seriously, the Blackstone Rangers had this huge stash of firearms in the pastor’s safe, turned over so they could participate in the youth group.

I know somebody who attended the group.  He told me his high school never held class reunions, because all his classmates were either in jail or dead.  All of them, except the handful who had been part of the youth group.  Howard Rice got a scholarship for one gang member to go to art school at UC Berkeley.  He became a professional photographer.  My friend said, That was what he meant by salvation.

It's not how I grew up thinking about it.  I grew up Catholic.  Every Saturday, go to confession, Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, I fought with my brother three times and I told a lie.  Father would absolve me, so God would not punish me.

That was the Roman understanding of salvation.  And if you skip the priest's absolution, it was the Protestant version, too.  Jesus took the hit for me.

But then I grew up.  Now I have grown up sins.  Like the adult children of those Polish immigrants, I fear my brother.  North side of the viaduct or south side, it doesn't matter.  I believe a lie.  

But I don't want to fear my brother, my brother with the dark skin, my sister with the head scarf.  Honestly, I don't worry about being punished anymore.  It's the sins themselves from which I want to be saved.  I don't want to believe a lie -- if for no other reason, I don’t want to be a sap, my fears manipulated for somebody else’s gain.  But how can I not?  Where is the power to save me from that?

When I became an Episcopalian, I learned the spiritual heritage of the Celts, the first Christians in Ireland, Scotland, Britain.  The Celts were closer to the earth than the Romans.  The Romans were city dwellers.  Maybe that’s the difference.  The Celts lived in a sacred landscape.  The Holy was all around, just outside the door.  Salvation for the Celts begins in a barn.

At the Easter Vigil, the Romans sing about atonement, making one of what had been broken in two.  After the crucifixion, which is where the saving action is, to celebrate the resurrection, they light the sacred fire and they sing, This the night when earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God.

Episcopalians, the Celts, we back up in the story line.  Salvation begins with the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us.

          O holy night!
          The stars are brightly shining
          It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
          Long lay the world in sin and error pining
          Till he appear'd, and the soul felt its worth.

This is the story to save us from our sins.

This is the night of power when God steps across the breach, not with an earthquake, no Temple curtain torn in two, no eclipse of the sun or rolling stone.  Salvation begins with a baby, a quiet wail, a starry night, his proud and weary parents, and to witness it all, a couple of guys who smell like sheep.

When the earth, the good, good earth, God made it and God proclaimed it good, every field and fountain, every moor and mountain, every neighborhood, when it had gotten so screwed up, so filled with violence and fear, so convinced that the heart of man is evil, and my neighbor is out to get me, God stepped across the viaduct.  Enough of this nonsense.  God is with us, God moves into our neighborhood, comes among us disarmed, as a baby, a homeless child.

Here is a story with the power to save me, me who fears my brother and believes a lie.

One more story about salvation, about reaching across the breach.

15th century Ireland, there were two gangs, they were called clans in those days.  The Butlers of Ormond and the FitzGeralds of Kildare were perpetually at each other’s throats.  The Jets and the Sharks, Crips and Bloods, same difference, each side defending its territory, guarding its place.
Push came to shove between the Butlers and FitzGeralds at the end of the century.  1492 it erupted into full blown warfare over who would be Lord Deputy, a political battle turned bloody.  The FitzGeralds got the upper hand, and chased the Butlers into Dublin.  The Butlers took refuge in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and barred the red door that marked sanctuary.  While they feared, and you can imagine the talk among themselves of what would happen to them if they left their safe place, and whether they would die in there anyway of starvation, while the Butlers feared, Gerald Fitzgerald calmed down.  He decided to negotiate.  No, they would not wipe out the Butlers.  Why not live in peace?

James Butler was not persuaded.  There had been bad blood between them for decades.  What kind of fool did Gerald Fitzgerald take him for?

On and on it went into the night, until Gerald lost his patience.  I mean, yes, it was the door to the Cathedral that stood between them.  But it was only wood.  So he ordered his men to chop a hole.  Imagine the hearts of those few young men who stood on the other side, hearing that axe invade their sanctuary.

When the hole was about this big, about five by fourteen inches, the chopping stopped.  And Gerald Fitzgerald reached his hand through it.

Take it, James Butler, or chop it off.

This is the night that God reaches a hand through the Door.

And of course, the power in the story is that indeed, on the other side, they could chop it off.  Sometimes they do chop it off.  Sometimes you hand over your weapon to the pastor who puts it in the safe, and it turns out some kid from across the viaduct snuck in a knife.

But nobody ever did do that at Emmanuel Church’s youth group.  That youth group saved them.  And James Butler of Ormond reached his hand back to Gerald FitzGerald of Kildare.  The feud ended that day. 

That door is still in the Cathedral.  They call it the Door of Reconciliation.  On this sad, sorry planet, filled with fear and lie, it is the only shot we’ve got, reconciliation.

          Truly He taught us to love one another
          His law is love and His gospel is peace
          Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
          And in His name all oppression shall cease
          Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
          Let all within us praise His holy name.

          Fall on your knees
          Oh hear the angel voices
          Oh night divine
          Oh night when Christ was born.

photo of Door of Reconciliation in public domain
photos of Pilsen neighborhood by Adam Jones, used under Creative Commons license
photo of  County Clare, Tobar Chrónáin Offerings by Andreas F. Borchert, used under Creative Commons license
Starry Night by Edvard Munch in public domain

No comments:

Post a Comment