Sermon Reflection - Dottie Baumgarten, August 16, 2020
It’s a privilege to be able to talk to you here in a sermon format. I’ve been thinking for about a year that “there’s a sermon in me”.
As many of you know, the process of focusing on exactly what to say is much different than imagining it. Since I told Tina that I would talk, I’ve mulled over about eight different versions of a talk, and tossed them completely aside.
The challenges of our world loom large right now, and I want to strike a tone that is not so heavy that we mire in it and are weighted down, but neither do I want a tone that is flip and too light.
In the midst of society’s challenges of COVID- 19 isolation, and the visible reality that our dominant culture is white centered, which is harming black and brown people, and in the midst of personal challenges that each of us may have in addition to those societal challenges, what do we do? What can I say? I want to find hope.
So I settled on talking about a dream that I’ve been sitting with. It’s not exactly a dream, it’s more like a day-dream or a meditation.
A couple of years back, in a sermon here at Germantown Mennonite, a speaker, who was going through multiple challenges, spoke of being in the desert without a map. I think she was going through a divorce, and serious health issues, and maybe job loss, but I don’t remember for sure. But the image of being in the desert without a map, and just sitting with that stuck with me.
The desert image has morphed into my own image of being lost in a swamp. Maybe the swamp image comes from the children’s book Wild and Swampy by Jim Arnosky. In any case, I’m in a swamp, and I’m lost, and I’m listening, and I’m poised to take the next step.
Now stay there, in that moment. I’m aware of being lost. I’m attentive to the moist air, the insect noises. I”m aware of danger. I”m not attentive to the threat of an alligator or the threat of drowning. The threats I’m attentive to are the smaller ones: ticks, mosquitoes, green flies, maybe a snake, but it isn’t a poisonous one. There’s the possibility of being tripped up by hidden snags, and I’m slowed by vines, with the possibility of prickly brambles or hidden spiders.
I have a small backpack, with half a sandwich, and a water bottle that is a third full. I’m up to my calves in the water, but not up to my knees. The floor of the swamp is firm enough to walk on, but there’s mud and muck, and plant growth that resists the forward motion of my feet.
The air is heavy and warm, but not hot. The light is low. It’s not nighttime, but the trees are thick, and the mist from the water blocks visibility. I’m aware that I’m lost, and I don’t know which way to go. All senses are open. I’m paying attention.
Some of you know me well- I could take this dream into the direction of “ooh, what cool life is going on here, what fertile habitat this is” but no. Not in this moment. In this moment, I’m listening, I’m lost, and I have to find my way out.
So keep this image in mind. We’ll come back to it.
One of the sermons that I started, focused on Joseph and the interpretation of Pharaoh's dream. Remember Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fatted cows followed by the seven skinny cows? Joseph’s interpretation was there would be seven years of security and plenty, followed by seven years of hardship: so prepare for them. In this image of years of plenty followed by years of famine, I see our current situation of climate disruption. If we have time to prepare, prepare.
We are already in the hard reality of the beginnings of the consequences of climate disruption. There’s a root of climate disruption in many of the challenges in today’s world. Immigration, polarization of society, xenophobia. Climate injustice exacerbates the harm done to marginalized groups, disproportionately, people of color.
But I couldn’t give this bleak message. And I turned away from the story.
Then I looked at the bible passages assigned for today, August 16, and there’s Joseph… with a different focus.
No, I am not giving the message that all things work together for good. That sounds like a person in power giving false hope to a person oppressed. There are times when I accept that message from the person who is hurting. But let’s look at this story with a different light.
In the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, the focus is on Joseph choosing to help his brothers. The focus is on the brothers facing their actions. The focus is on choosing to forgive. Accepting responsibility. Accepting forgiveness and moving forward.
Imagine being the brothers. They sold Joseph into slavery. And here he was, the leader, their potential savior, providing food for them to survive the famine. Providing food for society to survive the famine.
Imagine being Joseph. His brothers chose to kill him. Well, they sold him to slavery, but it was the same thing. This is a story of society turned upside down. It is a story of the person who was thrown away becoming the one person who saved them all.
Sit with this a moment, and consider the white dominant culture that is harming black and brown people. Maybe our world is turned upside down. Maybe we who are white are opening our eyes to a new reality. One that has been here all along. Maybe by seeing the harm done by white centered culture we are refocusing the story to see the need we all have of leadership from those whom white culture hasn’t attended to before. Whom white people haven’t really seen before.
Let’s take this to the swamp. Be in the swamp with me. Or an image that works for you. Just breathe. Pause. Consider. Don’t make a move yet. One of the things that many people do is to be decisive, move forward, or have a clear plan. Perhaps it’s time to mull over. To listen. Perhaps there’s room for a different leader in this moment. Perhaps there are many voices whom we all could pay attention to.
A couple of weeks ago, John Lewis died, and we watched his funeral. He has had a long life of leading, and he arranged for his last message to be published in the New York Times the day of his memorial service. His message to us is a message of hope, and a message of determination. Be the change.
John Lewis said “ Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” and he said “You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society.”
John Lewis sees hope. I can follow his lead and choose to see hope too.
One of the places I find hope, every week, is in you. I see some of the selfless giving you do. I see many of the organizations you are involved in. But I don’t see them all.
Some of you, in these times of challenges, need and deserve, to take time to take care of yourself. Take the time.
Let’s go to the swamp.
Be in this image with me, or choose another. Breathe. Feel the moist air. Smell the dampness of life. Wait; pause; notice.
Notice that there’s life here. The murky water is the perfect, necessary, place for minnows to hide and be safe. The circle of life is here: mosquitos are the perfect food for the beautiful dragonflies, and the dragonflies are perfect food for kingfishers and flycatchers. There is balance. Nature grows, has life, dies, and is reborn.
Valerie Kaur brings me hope. She is a leader, along with Reverend Dr. William Barber in the Poor People’s Campaign. Some of you know of her. She’s a woman of the Sikh faith, and her message is revolutionary love.
I want to close my talk with Valerie Kaur’s image of hope. You probably heard it before. I think of it a lot. Society is in a dark place right now, or maybe you are in a dark place. We might see that we are in a tomb of death. But let’s change that image. Instead consider the darkness of the womb. The changes around us are potentially a new world emerging.
As Valerie says: What is a woman told to do in childbirth? Breathe. Push.
Breathe with me. There’s time to breathe, to wait, to allow the changes that must happen to happen while maybe we aren’t in control. And there is a time to push. To bring all our muscles together, to focus and to push. Both.