I had a tough Sunday last week. I don’t really know why.
I was freaking out about all the small things that happen before the service starts…the things I usually take in stride. Christmas vacation had just ended, and I hadn’t been back in the office yet. In what must have been some sort of conspiracy by Apple to ruin my life: my ipad had been left at the church and the battery had died, my phone ran out of juice, and then my computer’s battery died, too. I was printing things out 5 minutes before the church service, and I was fiddling with the sound system to get it to work, and the soloist called out sick. We couldn’t manage to figure out when to stop singing “Bring me a higher love” by Steve Winwood. Would we just fade to nothing the way all studio albums ended songs in the eighties? Or will we just keep repeating the chorus with gusto until 11:00?
I said to Megan right before we came out, “everything just seems completely unmanageable to me this morning.” I was near tears. I forgot to pray.
They say that the preacher preaches what she most needs to hear. I was preaching that day that small things have all the power: like God’s word made flesh in a baby…God’s word made flesh in all of us.
But I didn’t believe my own words. (Lord help my unbelief.)
Sometimes it just hits me that my job is ludicrous: to climb up here in this big old pulpit and pretend like I know what God would say about war and climate change and the sinful division in this country, and any number of other things like hell or heaven. I am only human. A very small thing. A tiny speck in God’s infinity.
All it takes is my apple products failing and a lack of coffee, and I am lost at sea.
Psychologists say that the United States is experiencing “collective trauma” as a nation, meaning that wars, rumors of wars, fear of climate devastation, fake news, unprecedented division and unpredictable leadership is taking its toll on our collective psyche.
If you’ve experienced trauma, you know that it is easy to become obsessed with the struggle for your own survival. It is common to “circle the wagons,” to concentrate only on me, my family, and my people at the cost of the other. We are, after all, built for survival. We are built to keep ourselves safe at all costs. We are built for fight or flight. This wagon circling can happen on a small scale, like in a family after a divorce. It can also happen on a large scale, like the United States going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Hurt people hurt people.
I want us to think about collective trauma through the eyes of the prophet Isaiah this morning. I want to imagine we are Jews in the time of Babylonian exile and captivity following the siege of Jerusalem in the ancient kingdom of Judah in 605 BCE.
Imagine for a moment that you live in a city that is besieged by a three month battle so large it destroys everything you love and hold dear. All of the cultural markers—like the statue of Paul Revere and the historic gold dome of the Massachusetts state house, and the make way for ducklings statues in the public garden—are in ruins. All of the world class universities like Harvard and MIT, the art museums, the theaters, the schools, and the First Church in Sterling are burned to the ground. Imagine that the Mayor or the Selectmen, and the Governor, and your religious leader are killed in the battle, and not only is your city destroyed, you don’t know who to follow anymore. There is no one left to preach a word of hope, or to bring people together to rebuild. Your business is destroyed, and everything you worked for. Most of your friends and your family are dead, and you watched the bomb blasts that killed them.
Imagine in the midst of this chaos, you have to gather up your lone surviving family members and children and what belongings you can quickly grab, and move to a place where the customs and language are foreign, your religion isn’t practiced, you are separated from your family, and you are forced to live in captivity.
I imagine that it might feel as though God himself has abandoned you. In addition to grieving all that you have lost, I imagine you might have many of the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder:
You are hopeless, alone, terrified. You can’t concentrate or connect with others meaningfully except to lash out in anger. The rest of the time, you are numb.
This state you are in delights the rulers of nations. They know that a traumatized populace is one that doesn’t realize how much power they have. They know that a traumatized populace is bound to turn against one another instead of the people who subjugate them. They know that a traumatized populace is one that won’t rise up.
This is when God enters the story to show us our worth.
In our scripture, the prophet Isaiah introduces us to the suffering servant. He is not depicted as a great warrior, or a strong and powerful conquerer. He is compared instead to a bruised reed; a dimly burning wick.
But the servant will not be broken or quenched, for he is to establish justice on the earth. He is to be a light for all nations. Not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He is connected to all the suffering in the world because he suffers. Instead of circling the wagons, he knows he is claimed by God, so the whole world and everything in it is his.
Despite his banged up heart, his traumatized brain, and his imprisoned body, God has called him to be light for the world.
He is capable of opening the eyes of those who do not see.
He is to bring the prisoners out from the dungeon, because he is still a prisoner himself.
Leonard Cohen sings “Ring out the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”
That’s how God works. God takes vulnerable, traumatized people and uses them as light for the world. We are bruised, not broken. Dimly lit, not quenched.
We are extravagantly loved by a God whose love for us knows no bounds, and so we can love others.
Ross Gay says that “in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped. Pulling someone back to their feet. Stopping at the car wreck, at the struck dog. The alternating merge, also known as the zipper (in traffic). This caretaking is our default mode and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.”
Don’t let the rulers of nations tell you that your default mode is war, or division, or separation, or alienation. That is the lie of those who try to traumatize you into submission. Get thee behind me, Satan! You may feel small, scared, numb, angry and powerless, but you are God’s beloved. Your default mode is caretaking.
Loved people love people.
Last Sunday was hard because I was was a bruised reed; a dimly burning wick. But when it was time to come back down and serve Jesus’ holy remembrance meal, I remembered once again what we are all here for, which has nothing at all to do with me. I looked you each in the eye, and I said your names, “This is the bread of life, broken for you.” I placed bread into your outstretched hands.
And Joel sang:
At this table, everyone is welcome
At this table, everyone is seen
At this table, everybody matters
No one falls between
At this table, you can say whatever
At this table, you can speak your mind
At this table, everything's forgiven
There's enough for everyone
So come as you are
Remember that the door is always open
Yes, come as you are
The perfect gift that you can bring is your heart
So, come, come as you are
At this table, there will be no judgement
At this table, mercy has a seat
At this table, we're all sons and daughters
There's no place I'd rather be
There’s no place I’d rather be than with God’s banged up but unbeatable, bruised but unbreakable, dimly lit, but unquenchable people. You are God’s son, God’s daughter, the Beloved. In YOU God is well pleased. And so you will be light for all nations. The perfect gift that you can bring is your heart.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org