Sermon: Finding Our Why: Something Worth Sharing

“Finding Our Why: Something Worth Sharing”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
March 4, 2018

Genesis 2:18-23a
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what he would call them; and whatever the human called each living creature, that was its name. The human gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the human there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human, and he slept; then God took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken, God made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.’

Acts 2:42-47
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” – or, as the Greek word for “saved” is better translated – “those who were being rescued from destruction and brought into divine safety, into wholeness.”

Last week after worship, Dave Morrisette came up to me and said that what struck him in the debate about school shootings is that while both gun violence and mental health are part of the issue, something is missing. “I see it in the news everyday – school shootings, human trafficking, the homeless, the opioid epidemic. [but] Something is missing. I don’t hear anyone talking about a spiritual emptiness in our society.”

I agree with Dave. We’re not capturing the full picture; all the violent, tragic events that make us sick at heart are symptoms of a much bigger, underlying problem. Why are so many people so wounded, and why are some of those people so spiritually toxified that they would contemplate wounding others in such horrendous ways? Why do so many of us who would never become violent still suffer from depression, panic attacks, stress and anxiety? Most important of all, what can we do about it?

I’ll admit; even tackling the symptoms can seem like an insurmountable challenge. No wonder we all want to turn off the TV and shut out the news. But thanks to a recommendation from Kathy Fink, I’ve been reading a book this past week that has given me some hope.

Lost Connections, by journalist Johann Hari, uses our culture’s epidemic of depression and anxiety as a lens for exploring what human beings need to thrive – and how we have increasingly failed at meeting those needs over the last century.

Many of us know about the biological and psychological components of depression and anxiety, but it turns out that there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that the social/cultural elements may be the most widespread, and also the most fixable, causes of all.

The research Hari has gathered suggests that as a species we’ve evolved to survive as part of close-knit social groups where everyone’s contribution helped the group thrive, yet we’ve never lived more isolated, fractured, and purpose-less lives.

When we work unfulfilling jobs with little sense of purpose or autonomy; when we spend most of our lives isolated in our cubicles, our iPhones, our houses; when we’re fed a barrage of advertising messages telling us we’re not good enough but that buying something will fix us; when we can’t imagine a future that looks different from our painful present; when we don’t have the tools or the space to process abuse and trauma; when we lack the financial security to know our family will make it through the month; when we can’t connect with nature or form meaningful relationships with those around us – no wonder we feel a spiritual malaise manifesting itself in mental illness and, increasingly, violence. There is something deeply wrong with the way we live, Hari argues; and feeling depressed or anxious about it isn’t a diseased, irrational reaction, but actually a sane response to our society’s brokenness.

Whew. I did say this book had given me hope, right? Let me tell you one of the stories from it. It’s a bit long, but it’s good.

“In the summer of 2011, in a concrete housing project in Berlin, a sixty-three-year-old woman in a [hijab] forced herself to climb up from her wheelchair to stick a notice in her window. It explained that she was being evicted from her home for being behind on her rent, and so, before the bailiffs came, in exactly one week’s time, she was going to kill herself. She wasn’t asking for help, because she knew it wouldn’t come. She just didn’t want her death to happen without people knowing why. …‘I could feel I was at the end,’” she said.

Nuriye Cengiz barely knew her neighbors, and they barely knew her. The housing project where she lived was in a [notorious] neighborhood [known as] Kotti…a big, anonymous place” where crime ran rampant and “people hurried to their doors and triple-locked them. Nuriye’s despair was just one signal, out of many, that this was no place to live.”

When the line for the Berlin Wall was drawn up, Kotti was surrounded on three sides by the wall, an outpost of Western Berlin jutting into the Eastern Bloc. Because of this bureaucratic accident, Kotti was seen as particularly vulnerable to invasion by communist forces; no one with any means wanted to live there amidst the rubble left over from World War II. It eventually became home to a mix of Turkish immigrants, leftist squatters, and gay people shunned by the city’s more well-off neighborhoods. The Turkish workers manually rebuilt Kotti while the squatters and LGBTQ folks worked to stop authorities from demolishing it.

Despite their common home, though, “these groups had been glaring at each other…for years. They may have been united in their poverty, but they were divided every other way” – politically, ideologically, morally, ethnically. Then the wall came down – and suddenly Kotti…was prime real estate” in the center of reunified Berlin. Rent skyrocketed; “Most people living [in] this housing project were spending more than half their income on rent” while “many people were being forced to move out…of the only neighborhood they’d ever known.”  Kotti was plagued by isolation, instability, fear, hopelessness, poverty; in other words, people like Nuriye had some pretty decent reasons for fearing the end was near.

But a curious thing happened when Nuriye posted her notice in the window. People who had never before spoken to her started to check on her, to see if they could help. At first “I thought it was just fleeting interest,” she said. “I thought they saw me as a stupid woman in a [hijab].” But “[t]hey seemed to like me, I don’t really know why. …They always came and spent time with me.” It turned out that Nuriye’s openness about her suffering named what they all felt, and they began to wonder what was possible if they banded together.

They decided to make the major thoroughfare outside the housing project the site of a protest against rising rents, staffed by a round-the-clock rotation of volunteers from the projects who had never before dared to look each other in the eye. Their months-long protest eventually resulted in the city granting a rent freeze and other concessions to the community that had literally rebuilt Kotti from the ground up; but the real change was in the relationships formed during those long night shifts manning the protest site.

“Nuriye was paired…with Taina, a forty-six-year-old single mother with peroxide [blonde] hair, [a slew of] tattoos, and a miniskirt… Standing next to each other, they looked like a comedy duo…the religious Turkish immigrant and the [Berlin] hipster. …[But] as the nights went on, they began to talk haltingly about their lives” and to discover what they shared: “They had both come to Kotti as very young women,” isolated from their families and desperate to provide for themselves and their children. As Nuriye listened to Taina’s devotion to her child and her generous impulses, she thought with appreciation, “It’s another crazy one like me!”

Then there was 17-year-old Mehmet Kavlak, a Turkish German kid who loved hip-hop and was in danger of being kicked out of high school. He was paired for night shifts with a retired white teacher named Detlev, an old-fashioned communist who thought peaceful protest was a distraction from the real revolution. But Mehmet started sharing his school troubles, and Detlev started helping him with his homework. “As the months passed, ‘[Detlev] became like a grandfather to me,’” Mehmet said. The teenager’s grades improved and “the school stopped threatening to expel him.”

Did I mention there was a gay club across the street from the protest site? They provided a cafe umbrella for shelter, and food and bathroom access in the cold Berlin winter. Then they offered their space for planning meetings; despite some initial misgivings on both sides, people showed up. “[T]here they were – all these old women in headscarves, these religious men, sitting with people in miniskirts, in a gay club.”

Then Turkish construction workers turned the makeshift protest stie into a permanent structure with walls and a roof; someone donated a “beautiful old samovar” to make tea.

And then Tuncai, a homeless Turkish immigrant with psychiatric problems, showed up. “He started – without anyone’s asking – to tidy up…[and] asked if there was anything else he could do.” He did odd jobs and Mehmet invited him to sleep in the site overnight, since he had nowhere else to go. “Over the next few weeks, Tuncai got talking to some of the most conservative Turkish residents, who had been staying away from the protest. They brought him clothes, and food, and they started to stick around. Before long, the camp was being run during the day by Turkish women – who had often been confined to their homes, alone, for most of the time. They adored Tuncai. ‘We need you permanently,’ Mehmet told Tuncai one day.” The made him a bed and Sudblock, the gay club across the street, gave him a paid job. “He became a key part of the camp: whenever people were down, he would hug them. When they led marches, he would be out in front, blowing a whistle.” But one day the police showed up and took Tuncai into custody; it turned out that he had escaped, multiple times, from a psychiatric facility “where he had been detained for almost his entire adult life.” This man who thrived in community was sent to an isolated cell on the opposite side of the city.

The Kotti protest site was not about to abandon this beloved man. Big groups of them repeatedly showed up at the psychiatric hospital demanding Tuncai’s release: “We all know him as he is, and we love him. …What he needed was a sense of community” where he belongs and is useful.’ ‘He needed sense – a [purpose] he liked and shared.”

“They gave me so much,” Tuncai said. “When I was in the hospital they made a petition…it was incredible. I am incredibly happy, [here] with my family…all the people who stand behind me.” “He was fifty-three years old,” another protester observed, treated like a psychiatric case most of his life, and now, for the first time, “he found his home.”

“It is not good that the human should be alone,” God says.

And “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” – or, as the Greek word for “saved” is better translated – “those who were being rescued from destruction and brought into divine safety, into wholeness.”

A few weeks ago at our Lenten study series, Claire Gibbons shared the moments that helped her form her Why statement: listening to Leanne Marden share during our prayer time that it was the 10th anniversary of surviving a brain aneurysm and how grateful she was to God to be here; and listening to Joan Amon share that for the first time Joey had finally been able to buy the red shoes he wanted after years of wearing only black or white orthotics. Claire – and many others at the table – said they teared up in mutual joy, that there was a visible wave of celebration converging on the people who had shared these sacred moments with others, others who love them.

Listening to her stories, and the stories you all shared last week about how this community is so powerfully here for each other in loss, in dying, in new life and in celebration, in questioning, in desperate struggle and wonderful joy, and across some profound differences, it occurs to me that we, like Kotti – like the early church – have something all too rare and almost achingly precious: a community where our profoundly human needs to belong, to matter, to make meaning, to be valued, to be together, to be loved, are met.

I wonder. I wonder if communities like ours are part of the solution.

The world is hungry for the Whys we came up with last week; and I think that the world is desperately hungry, too, for the kind of community God has created in and through us.

Many of us are here because a friend, a neighbor, a colleague invited us to be part of this community – to share in the awe of life lived together. What I want to know is, do we dare to pray – to ask God who in our lives might be longing for exactly what we already have? And do we dare to invite them to share in it, too?

Because oh, my friends, what we have is, indeed, something worth sharing.  Thanks be to God.