Places of Joy
Rev. K Karpen
June 29, 2008
Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, New York, NY
I remember my first Gay Pride March, maybe 15 years ago. I hadn’t thought very much about going. This church had just become a reconciling congregation, so it was a natural thing to join what at the time was a small group of us heading down there to join the fun.
Back then, religious groups were still sort of a novelty. The parade organizers thought we were cute, but they were glad to see us. We waited our turn to step out, after the Dykes on Bikes and before the Gay Mormons. I watched as folks went by wearing what seemed like too much leather for a hot day, or maybe too little. . .
Despite the fact that we were walking on streets I’d walked for decades, the city looked strange and different. But I often get that feeling, walking around New York. Rarely does it seem like the same city two days in a row.
It was a noisy parade, but at 2 pm we stopped for the time of silence in memory of those who died of AIDS. I remember I was next to Bill Phillips, who had lost his brother Art. When the silence ended with loud whoops all around us, our group stayed quiet, and as we passed the closed doors to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we began singing, very softly, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me…”
Back then there were protestors on some of the side streets, religious people holding up signs warning us of – something. We smiled and waved. They called to us, telling us we’d never see heaven, assuming that we were gay by association. We decided that was amusing at worst, and maybe flattering at best. But as we passed one church, there were people coming through the side barricades, coming right at us. I thought, oh, my goodness; what’s this?
But they were coming with cups of cold water for each of us. That made me think of two things. The first was the song we sang a few minutes back, written by that great progressive Methodist leader Frank Mason North, as he looked out the window of his office at 150 Fifth Avenue, a building we were about to walk by. He wrote it as he watched the thousands of people passing below, as he started praying for them
Where cross the crowded ways of life…
The cup of water given for you, still, holds the freshness of your grace; yet long these multitudes to view the sweet compassion of your face.
The second thing I thought of was today’s Gospel lesson. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me….And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of one of my followers—in the name of any of you—will never lose their reward.”
What an incredible slice of scripture that is! The things we do out of compassion and mercy, the random acts of kindness and grace, even so little a thing as a cup of water, those things link the people you touch to the followers of Jesus, and through the followers of Jesus to Jesus himself, and through Jesus to God.
You’ve heard of guilt by association? Well, today we’re talking about grace, grace by association. Look at each other! You’re looking at the followers of Jesus, or if you’re not quite there yet, the followers of the followers of Jesus. Jesus says it doesn’t matter. You’re still connected to Jesus. You’re still connected to God. And so is anyone you know. It’s grace by association!
That’s what we’re called to be, a church full of grace by association. A church that connects people together and connects us all with God. A church that’s so busy with the business of connecting, that people who’ve never heard of this church, and may never hear of this church, will somehow find their lives profoundly touched and amazingly changed. Connected by grace. Connected by six degrees of association. Grace by association.
New York is a strange place. No matter how long I live here, it still feels strange. The first day I arrived here, I felt like I was home, but every day since, I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land. But where could the need for connecting people with each other and helping people connect with God, where could that need be stronger, than in a place like New York? A place where everyone is a stranger in a strange land.
My brother lives in the middle of Pennsylvania. He’s been there for decades. People are friendly enough, but he still gets that, “oh, that’s right, you’re not from here,” even after all that time. Here’s the thing about New York, with all its faults. You moved here yesterday? Last week? Ok, you’re from here. You grew up in Kansas? Texas? Puerto Rico? Tallahassee? Tibet? South America? South Dakota? South Carolina? Great! Now you’re from here. Now you’re a New Yorker.
Welcome to this strange land, where we’re all strangers, and we’re all just a little strange. You belong here, in this city. You belong here, in this country. You belong here, in this Church. You belong here, in this denomination. God says so. I say so. Don’t let anyone get away with the sin of convincing you otherwise.
Our theme this summer for everything we do together is Places of Joy. We’re looking at the Psalm that Dorcas read, Psalm 137: “How can we sing God’s song in this strange land?” Psalm 137 is a song of exile, written by some Jewish songwriter far from home, sitting and singing by the canals bringing water through the city and suburbs of Babylon.
Babylon was another town where nobody much was from. Everyone was an immigrant or an emigrant. In the case of the people of Judah, they had been taken there to Babylon by force, and were held in detention centers against their will. Many of the Psalms were written during that long period of exile. So, many of them begin as laments. But like this one, they often come around at some point to a theme of joy.
The Psalms are amazing. They carry the full range of emotion and spirit, mostly in the same song. Where else in scripture can you go from despair to ecstasy in sixteen verses? And where else do you have such vivid examples of the ongoing conversations between Israel and Israel’s God: praiseful, angry, frustrated, and ecstatic. Often in the same song.
One word comes back again and again as I read the Psalms: Joy. Simcha, in Hebrew. For all the despair and confusion and frustrations, so many Psalms come back to simcha, come back to joy. Even the Psalms of exile.
The Psalms of exile long for Zion, for the idealized homeland. But they uncover a greater truth. The answer to the question, “How can we sing God’s songs in a strange place?” is that no matter how strange the place, God is there.
At first, the exiles assumed that in leaving behind the temple of God, the home of God, the house of God, they were leaving God behind. And in allowing the exile to happen, God was leaving them behind as well. But they found a strange thing. They found that God had followed them into the strange land, and they knew that God would lead them home. Even in this strange, harsh city of Babylon, full of strangers, they could find places of joy. Why? Because the place of joy that counts is the one you find in yourself. That’s why so many of the Psalms of despair become Psalms of ecstasy.
Somebody said to me recently, “Wherever you go, there you are. Anywhere you go, you’re still there.” With the emphasis on you. That was spoken as a lament: if we think we’re going to go someplace, do something, be something and leave ourselves behind, good luck. You always follow you there.
I think that’s a good thing. Sure you’re going to be yourself: who else did you think you’d be? Be yourself. Remember what St. Hildegaard of Bingen once said, who was herself pretty strange, “The greatest sin of all is not be juicy and green.”
I don’t mean to be glib. Not everywhere we go is ok. Not every place is safe. Not every situation is good. The people of Judah knew that. But can you find those places of joy? Yes, say the Psalms. Because those places of joy depend not on situations, but on decisions. Joy is a decision and not a reaction. Those places of joy are in you.
“I sink in the mud,” says Psalm 69, “I am in deep waters and the flood sweeps over me…yet I will praise you; you hear the oppressed, you hear the needy; God will rebuild the walls of Zion and save the cities of Judah.”
Yes, the world is broken, but God is still God. That’s the point of the Psalms. It’s something to remember as we wander sometimes as strangers in a strange land. Feeling alone in a crowded city. Feeling like aliens in a country we don’t always recognize as ours. Feeling like outcasts in a church that doesn’t treat all of us as though we belong here.
God is still God and you are still you: the image and likeness of God. Thanks be to God.