I was away from the pulpit for two weeks. On Sunday, March 12, 2017, the following was preached by Ruling Elder Mary Lee Miller.
Waya got up before sunrise. The evenings had become very chilly these early weeks of November. He got a good fire going so his wife and children would be comfortable when they arose. After breakfast, he grabbed his coat to go out and chop wood to stack for the winter ahead. Suddenly there was a hard knock on the door. He opened it and stood face to face with three soldiers, bayonets drawn. They summarily commanded him to gather up his family and whatever they could carry on their backs and get out by the next day. Why? Because the newest settlers wanted to grow cotton on their fertile soil.
And so it began, that cold day in 1838, one of the most shameful chapters in US history. Waya and some 15,000 Cherokees were forced to WALK some 1,200 miles, leaving the land that was theirs to a land they had never seen. When the forced eviction was over, about 5,000 had died from hunger, disease, exhaustion, and despair. They call it today the Trail of Tears. And, indeed, it was just that: tears over loss of their land that generations of Cherokees had farmed before them; tears of fear of the unknown; tears of grief over the death of loved ones.
As they were prodded on their way, very little gave them solace, except the Baptist missionaries who accompanied them. The song of Amazing Grace lifted their spirits with each forward step. Amazing grace has become one of their cherished songs. Woven into their own language, it is the Morning Song. Wend ya ho means “Prayer to the Great Spirit.” Listen.
The Cherokees were truly refugees in their own country. Today the number of refugees world-wide number about 65,000,000. That is sufficient fuel for many sermons to come, but not today. Maybe Pastor Deb will take it up.
I have thought about this for some time. My conclusion is that we are all refugees at least once and maybe often during our lifetimes. Sound extreme? Then let me explain with a personal story.
I had left Wisconsin of necessity. The evening of August 27, 1965, we were approaching a landing at the Monroe County Airport. The lights below were dazzling but I knew with dread that on the streets they illuminated I did not know one single person. All those I held dear had seen me off in Milwaukee.
Hours later, I ended up in Midtown on a bench under the Clock of Many Nations crying my eyes out. (I do not transplant at all well!) I heard footsteps approaching. There in front of me stood an elderly woman, dressed all in black (mourning?). She said, “What’s the matter, honey?” I told her. She said, “Come with me.” She took me to a diner on North Clinton and bought me a hamburger and a cup of coffee. She ate nothing. (a matter of money?). She then walked me back to the Manger Hotel. A couple of years later I saw her at a senior gathering. I went up to her to thank her. She did not remember me. But HER I shall never forget. Her touch of amazing grace welcomed me to Rochester. I was a refugee in search of a new home and grace had brought me thus far.
I have suggested that we all might be considered refugees. That is whenever we are forced to make significant transitions: to leave our family home of many years; to downsize and move into a brand new community; to live without a life partner; to endure declining health. Many life challenges can be painfully difficult when “home” as we once knew it has to be dramatically redefined. Would that we were like a lobster who, in order to grow, sheds its shell in less than one half hour and seems to do so without much effort. Sometime, to our disadvantage, the pain of our struggle stays hidden, so conditioned are we to “keep a stiff upper lip.”
I am thinking now about the scriptures that Laura read.
In the psalm of lament, the Jews are lamenting their generations long Captivity in Babylon wrenched from their beloved Jerusalem of Judea. So deep is their grief that even their songs of praise to Zion are frozen in their hearts. They dream nightly of the land they loved, the one land they knew “by heart.”
In Isiah, their lament is heard by God and a salvation answered. By the grace of God, and with the help of loved ones who decided to stay on and equip them for the journey, they did indeed return home and the wilderness and the desert did indeed rejoice and blossom.
But here’s the ringer, my friends. It turned out that their homeland was no longer the homeland of their deep longing. Everything was destroyed, even the temple of their Lord. They had no choice but to build a new life in what seemed to them a strange land. They needed to form a new community and they needed each other to do it.
Some of us may well be in the midst of a transition even as I speak. Traveling from what was known and loved to what is yet to be known and loved. From where does the grace come that we may need at this time? You would have me run out of Chestnut Court if I did not say, “Why, from God, of course.” And so I will say it and believe it with all of my heart. But there is more that has to be said.
We have been commanded to take care of the “least of these, my brothers and sisters.” Exactly who are the “least of these”? I confess I was one of them under the Clock of Many Nations. Most anyone who finds himself/herself in a truly rough transition needs grace to step forward in human form.
This past Thursday I was at my “office” in Starbucks. Still waiting for them to put up the stained glass windows and offer an additional shot of the spirit for a quarter, I was trying to come up with an example of grace in human form. And there it was! A young man named Matthew came to the rescue. He was waiting for his beverage right next to a person whose name I soon learned was Zakira.
Matthew: Good morning.
Zakari: Hello to you, sir.
Matthew: I come here a lot but don’t think I have seen you before.
Zakari: I am here just two month.
Matthew: And where is your home?
Zakari: I am Libyan but I am now here in America.
Matthew: Do you have family with you in Rochester?
Zakari: No. My family is still to come, God willing.
Matthew: It must be difficult for you now.
Zakari: Yes, but I drive taxi cab and I do my best.
Matthew: My name is Matthew (hand extended)
Zakari: And I am Zakari. (hand extended)
Matthew: Perhaps we will see each other here again.
Zakari: Thank you. It would be good for me.
It was that single touch grace that welcomed me to my home in Rochester, and there have been many graces that have followed in the past 57 years.
And you? Think about it. Who has given you the handshake of welcome and to whom have you shared that important grace?
May our God who first blessed us with his love, lead us to reach out in his name to others. Grace in holy abundance. Grace in human form.
‘Tis grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.
So may it be.