Monday, January 17, 2011

The Deliberate Cultivation of Beauty

I refer you to my last sermon for the caveats about my sermons. Especially in these next few months, my sermons are focused intently on our tiny community and the discernment process we are undertaking. I am delighted to say that as of this Sunday we have gathered enough committed individuals to form our discernment group. If you are a praying sort, please keep us in your thoughts as we consider how our church will serve the community in the coming years.

Love to you all!

Sermon, Sunday, January 16, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1 and 2 Peter 1:1-12  

Tomorrow is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He was born January 15, 1929 and was assassinated April 4, 1968 at the young age of 39 years old. Were he alive today, he would be 82; he would be a contemporary of many of the people who attend this church. 

There is so much to be said about this man who provided leadership to civil rights movements in the 50’s and 60’s. This book, Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, is part one of a series of books on the U.S. and Martin Luther King, Jr.; it is the first of 3 books on this time period and by itself numbers 1064 pages. Dr. King won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and was joined by hundreds and thousands of other activists in the U.S. and abroad. He was a preacher who preached almost every Sunday, despite his other commitments. He was an advocate of non-violent solutions, but an advocate who was becoming increasingly frustrated with the incalcitrance* of racism in the U.S. and the pain of our wars abroad. It is not easy to paint an accurate picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., because he was also a human being—endlessly flawed and endlessly beautiful. So today I honor him as a gardener: a deliberate cultivator of beauty.

Our reading from 2 Peter today gives us a taste of what a virtuous Christian life might look like: for the sake of the one who gave us everything (Jesus), including his life, we are to support our faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. So goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Goodness without knowledge leads to trouble as surely as knowledge without love. There is something in this picture of lasting intent—the careful intent of a gardener who contemplates where and how and when to plant and trim, deliberately creating beauty over long periods of time. Our lives as Christians, like Dr. King’s life as a preacher and activist, are lived out as a long term project—justice, beauty, love, and kindness are not one time accomplishments, they take constant attention.

2 Peter was written as a farewell letter from the Apostle Peter (a somewhat doubtful claim, but we can let that rest for now), to a community deeply divided. Among the community were false teachers and those who questioned the gospels and traditions. The author could easily be addressing our little community today, or the larger church community, or the U.S. at large. We are deeply divided amongst ourselves. We tear each other apart over theology, politics, education, and morality. We bicker over who honors our traditions and leaders best or most accurately. We quarrel over how the gospel is to be lived out--what it even means to love. We forget that justice requires deliberate, constant attention to the balance between goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Like a gardener, there is always work to be done, even in the winter.

Last week I went to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (pictures here because blogger is being stubborn). I hadn’t been there in years, but my mother used to take me there. My grandma lived in San Francisco for 40 years running her own CPA business, and when we visited I’m sure I was a menace in her tiny apartment. So we’d go to the park and visit the Planetarium and the Tea Garden. In my child’s memory the garden was a stupendously large place of beauty—if faeries lived in San Francisco, I was sure they would live here. It was a beautiful space full of shades of green, rivulets of water, and beautiful architectural structures I had never seen before. When I returned last week, I knew that it is really just a small garden in a much bigger park. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got there I took my time. I walked through the garden slowly; here and there I crouched down low to remember what it had looked like when I wasn’t so tall.

It was a foggy day, but the lighting was beautiful with the shades of green in the garden. I took an hour to walk through the space, even though it was a tiny garden—a five minute’s stroll from end to end. I climbed the drum bridge, and managed to get down again. I talked to myself as I wandered through. I took pictures—I tweeted the whole journey.

When I got to the end of the garden, I walked by the tea house, but it was under construction. A lot of the ponds had been drained for the winter for cleaning. Next spring, when the house is rebuilt and the ponds are refilled, the Tea Garden will be a lovely place to visit—warm, breezy, perhaps a little less foggy. But in order to get to that time and place, there is work to be done this winter. In the spring there will be planting and pruning to be done. As the summer fades into fall the garden employees will clear out dead branches and dried brush. They will repair the damage done by a heavier tourist season. And then it will be winter again, and time to work on bigger, more unsightly projects.

The garden is a never ending project—a deliberate, creative act to bring beauty into this world. It takes a lot of effort by a lot of people to keep up even such a small space. It took effort on my part to properly enjoy that space. Gardening, cultivating, bringing beauty into this world—that is what we are charged with, both in our Genesis passage and in the letter from Peter. I say this as a Christian to other Christians—many people’s have their own religious traditions and metaphors to understand their place in this world. But we have this one: that for the sake of a God who became human to be fully present with us, we bring beauty and justice into the world any way that we can, no matter how small.

I bring to you today a small piece of one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. In 1967, Dr. King began to plan a Poor People’s Campaign. In preparation, he gave a series of speeches which are gathered under the title The Trumpet of Conscience. This particular piece came from “Nonviolence and Social Change.” It goes on for a bit—the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. were not meant to be reduced to a sound bite.
I intend to show that nonviolence will be effective, but not until it has achieved the massive dimensions, the disciplined planning, and the intense commitment of a sustained, direct-action movement of civil disobedience on the national scale.

The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.

The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life. Beginning in the New Year, we will be recruiting three thousand of the poorest citizens from ten different urban and rural areas to initiate and lead a sustained, massive, direct-action movement in Washington. Those who choose to join this initial three thousand, this nonviolent army, this “freedom church” of the poor, will work with us for three months to develop nonviolent action skills. Then we will move on Washington, determined to stay there until the legislative and executive branches of the government take serious and adequate action on jobs and income. A delegation of poor people can walk into a high official’s office with a carefully prepared list of demands. (If you’re poor, if you’re unemployed anyway, you can choose to stay in Washington as long as the struggle needs you.) And if that official says, “But Congress would have to approve this,” or “But the President would have to be consulted on that,” you can say, “All right, we’ll wait.” And you can settle down in his office for as long a stay as necessary. If you are, let’s say, from rural Mississippi, and have never had medical attention, and your children are undernourished and unhealthy, you can take those little children into the Washington hospitals and stay with them there until the medical workers cope with their needs, and in showing it your chidlren you will have shown this country a sight that will make it stop in its busy tracks and think hard about what it has done. The many people who will come and join this three thousand, from all groups in this country’s life, will play a supportive role, deciding to be poor for a time along with the dispossessed who are aksing for their right to jobs or income—jobs, income, the demolition of slums, and the rebuilding by the people who live there of new communities in their place; in fact, a new economic deal for the poor.
Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign included an Economic Bill of Rights, this new deal for the poor. He was calling for jobs, education, medical care—he was raising up those who had nothing to lose and offering them a chance to make their needs glaringly obvious to those who could do something about it. He was assassinated before he could see those plans come to fruition, but people came to Washington anyway—the campaign went on. It wasn’t successful; the Economic Bill of Rights was not adopted. I think we can see that 42 years later there is still a lot of work to be done. Job discrimination, poverty, incarceration rates, and substandard education all fall disproportionately on people of color in this country. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a one man justice squad—he was one gardner of many, meticulously and relentlessly working toward justice. He was a practitioner of the deliberate cultivation of beauty, and his work did not die with him. Civil rights movements did not die with him. Even if he had accomplished all he had ever dreamed of in his lifetime, there would still be work to do. For justice is not a one time accomplishment—it is the relentless and seasonal work of gardening.  

This leads me to think about this tiny church of 25 people. Few of us here will make it out of New Jersey much this year—this is not a sermon calling on you to march to Washington, although I, for one, will support you whole-heartedly if you do so. This is not even a call for us to wander over to Camden and see what we might do there, although I know Pastor Floyd would welcome us with open arms.  

I occasionally walk through this neighborhood near our tiny little church. I start at that park next to Rte 295—you know, the place that’s used mostly as a park and ride these days? At some point that park was meant for kids to play in—the equipment is all still there. But it’s rusted out. The tennis courts have weeds growing up through the cracks. It’s a run down, tired place—I never see kids there. And then I walk on down the road and come by our little church—our tiny little building that nobody knows is here. We have 7 acres of land, and most of it is growing wild. Our tiny building is in a bit of disrepair. I know you feel it, how tired we are. And then I keep walking down the street to that strip of business that once thrived. It’s an odd little log cabin community that once served as a town center. These days half the stores are vacant or only open very limited hours. I always wonder how the book store guy stays open—probably through internet sales. 

We don’t have to go far to know that our community is in trouble. Next door in Mt. Holly there are people losing their homes to imminent domain. However you feel about that project, it still leaves people homeless, more vulnerable, living with fewer resources at an old age. Surely we live that fear, being a church of 25 mostly older folks, living on limited incomes. Our call may not be to large, national arcs of justice movements, but like the Tea Garden, we have been entrusted with a small space within which to deliberately cultivate beauty. So I wonder what we will do with that? We are tired and dispirited because on average this group has lived a rather full and long life. And yet the seasons keep turning and the garden needs tending. There is work to be done to bring love to our community. There won’t ever be a time when we can stop and say, “It is done.” There isn’t any one pastor or elder we can point to and say, “It’s her job.” The deliberate cultivation of beauty, love, and justice requires constant, seasonal work by our community. The only question is, what part of the garden are you going to work on?

*If, like me, you are wondering why the word "incalcitrant" does not appear in the dictionary, here is an excellent explanation about how the word came into usage. Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. I once belonged to a small church such as yours. I think your sermon not only recognizes and honors Martin Luther King, but honors your small church and what it can do. I will pray for you and all your congregation, that you are able to nurture your small part of creation and create beauty. I think you create beauty with your sermons and love of your tiny church already.