• Aaron Shanks

"Beyond Isolation," the first service and sermon in our Seize Hope series

Roberta Rominger, May 5, 2019 Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) on Mercer Island


Isaiah 42:5-9 “Boy at the Window” by Richard Wilbur (www.poemhunter.com/poem/boy-at-the-window)

Matthew 18:20


Sometimes you don’t know how isolated you’ve been until suddenly someone else is there for you. This hit me with the force of revelation when I was in my early 40’s. I was in transition into a new job, out of ordinaryparish ministry into high profile regional responsibility. It was very exciting; my ego liked it a lot. Part of me realized that I was walking into a new arena where things would probably be a lot more intense and where I basically wouldn’t have a clue what I was doing. The other part of me was saying, “Bring it on.” I was itching for anew challenge.

I gave no particular thought to where my support would come from. That’s not a thing I’ve ever worried about. There are good people everywhere. Or, to be honest, my normal choice is to muddle through alone, preferably without anybody else noticing that I need help.

A preparation program was laid on for me over the course of several months, and then, toward the end, they invited me to attend the monthly meeting of the team.

It blew me away. Their agenda was long, but before they got started on business, one member led a Bible study, the kind that sets the room on fire. And then they checked in with one another. The woman I was going to be replacing spoke first – when she started in the job, she was the only woman out of twelve of themaround the table. “I really screwed up last week,” she said, and went on to describe a situation where she’dbeen called in to help but had ended up making everything worse. Wow, I thought. We clergy do not admit our failures to each other. When you’re ordained, they issue you with a mask of competence and confidence, always cheerful and strong and sure, and you’re supposed to wear it 24-7, especially in the company of other ministers. But lo and behold, they didn’t freeze her out. They smiled sympathetically and did the righteous indignation thing about the issue at the root of the problem and helped her brainstorm what she should do next. Remarkable.

Next was the man sitting next to her. He was on the verge of retirement with just a couple of meetings to go. He told us how his churches had organized a farewell party for him with thank-you speeches expressing allthe things you’d expect for someone at the end of a long career marked by every kind of “success” the churchhas to offer. “You know,” he said, “For years I’d leave the house at 8 in the morning and not get home till after 10 at night, pretty much every day. I worked hard. But those were the years my kids were growing up. And I missed it. I totally missed it. And now it’s too late. I’d do anything to be able to go back and do it over.”

On they went around the circle, and then they prayed for each other and for various individuals and churches going through tough times. Then they tackled the business.

I was part of that monthly meeting for the next ten years, and it was like that the whole time. Granted, the membership of the meeting was constantly changing, and every time somebody left or a new person came, the spirit of the meeting changed. I know that other people in the job have felt lonely and isolated and unsupported. But my experience was of belonging to a community of soul mates. Laughter – lots and lots of laughter – and tears and arguments and passion and discoveries, and every month that incredible opening of the scriptures, and colleagues whom I knew I could call in the middle of the night if I needed to, which once or twice I did, as from time to time they called me.

The question I bring this morning is whether there’s any chance we could be that kind of community forone another in this church as the reality of climate change presses in on us.

My experience with those regional ministers was like being in the trenches together. We were all facing the same kinds of challenges and problems, and we solved a few of them. But mostly we were just there for each other as people who knew and understood.

Climate change puts us all in the trenches together. Jim Antal, whose book we are reading in our book group, says that the whole human race now lives at the same address. 407, he says. Four hundred and seven parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.1 Actually, the number is 414 now. We weren’t supposedto let it rise over 350. That’s dire.

But you live here in the Pacific Northwest and you look out the window at the glorious sunshine and those trees so beautiful they make your spirit sing, and the numbers just seem abstract and unlikely and nothingto do with us. Chances are this summer we’ll have another spell of smoky air from other people’s fires andhigher temperatures than we’re used to, and maybe a few more mosquitoes – that’s the part I dread – but it’sgorgeous here. Pretty near perfect.

Only our planet is in trouble. Cyclone Kenneth hit Mozambique on April 25th, ten days ago, the strongest tropical storm they’ve experienced since modern records began. One hundred forty mile per hour winds at landfall, 6 1⁄2 feet of rain, 41 people killed and 30,000 evacuated, over 60% of crops destroyed. That’s afterCyclone Idai hit in mid-March, killing 600 and leaving the whole interior of the country flooded. Now there’scholera.

The day before yesterday, Cyclone Fani hit the state of Odisha on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India. A million people evacuated. How do you evacuate a million people? Bangladesh mobilized an evacuation of two million people in preparation; today, 1,000 villages are submerged. I can’t imagine it. And that’s just thecyclones. In other places, it’s drought. Unprecedented summer temperatures. Polar ice melting and sea levels rising and sea acidity too, and methane from melting permafrost. Disaster damages in the billions of dollars. Political consequences. Refugees – the UN predicts hundreds of millions of them by the end of the century.

Here’s the thing. We know all this. And I want to assure you that I am absolutely not in the business of hammering you for the next six weeks with these unbearable stories and statistics and lists. It isn’t my job to give you science lessons or to talk politics, or psychology, or weather reports. There are plenty of other places to go for all those kinds of things. My thing is church. So here’s what I want to say.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine that the human race is going to make it through. I don’t wantto whitewash that. It will take radical commitment of the sort we have never had to mobilize before. Politics, economics, agriculture, energy – you name it. And that’s a spiritual challenge. They say we have everything we need to turn the situation around, including stories of phenomenal achievements we’ve managed before. Weonly need the will to do it. I promise that the outcome of the six weeks is going to be hope. But it won’t be cheap hope. It won’t be the kind of hope that’s just another name for denial. We need something better than that.

Climate reality is so massive, so completely outside our experience, that we shy away from it, all the statistics and the science and the frightening news. What if we didn’t run away? What if we faced it? And my thing: what if we reinvented church for this new day? If we worked together, do you think we could create a safe enough and relevant enough space here that we could know what we know and offer each other the kind of loving, robust, in-the-trenches kind of support that I experienced with those regional ministers back in the UK? By myself, I’m not strong enough for what’s required. By myself, all I can really do is continue to keep thehorror and the fear and the grief locked out, which actually isn’t all that hard, since there are always moreemails to answer and more sermons to write. It is totally possible to bury our heads in the sand for a while longer. But what if we agreed to risk something else?

We Christians don’t have any monopoly on mutual support. Support is a human thing; it happens in all kinds of ways, and it doesn’t require religion.

But draw on the resources of religion, and the whole enterprise expands. That promise of Jesus, that he would be with us whenever two or three of us were together in his name, do you hear it? The comfort and the healing he’s offering, the unshakable hope and power that people experience when they’re with him? God’sown care for our souls? Why in heaven’s name would we settle for anything less?

And if God, the Lord, who stretched out the heavens and spread the earth, who breathes life into human beings and spirit for the road they walk, is reaching a hand out to us, because we’re supposed to be a light forthe nations – well, I’d be satisfied if we could just shine a little light here on Mercer Island, but who knows?Respond to an invitation from this God, offer some tiny thing, and next thing you know, it’s been multiplied athousand-fold. God is like that. We know it.

That’s actually where I’m coming from. These worship services were my idea, or so I thought, but fromthe moment I committed myself to doing them, there’s been a hurricane winding up in my soul. What if we could unite our energies and create a church like that for the Holy Spirit to work through? Break a few molds, reimagine it? This is the sort of thing that needs to happen if we human beings are going to survive this crisis. Spiritual grounding and refueling so that we send each other out strong for all the other things we’re going to need to do.

The church has got great stories to tell. We’ve got wisdom from an inexhaustible source. We’ve got centuries’ worth of testimony for encouragement about how the Spirit transforms people’s lives. There arespiritual resources to see us through the personal changes that lie ahead, and there are community resources to help us sustain one another in hope and determination. It’s great stuff.

First on the list of those resources today is community. Separately, the magnitude of the situation will overwhelm us. Together we’re strong. Together we can remind ourselves that it’s all about love, God’s love forcreation, and ours, and God’s love for us, and our love for each other. Take it out of abstract, pretty words into the concrete and what I mean is singing and stories and prayer and food and friendship. All those familiar things. The hurricane in me is for them to be filled with the Spirit of God healing and inviting and empowering us.

This church has done it once before in recent memory. We were the first ones on the Island to declare ourselves open and affirming, by which we meant an explicit welcome to people who are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender or gender queer. Practically all the churches have said it now, but we were first. Maybe we could lead on this too. Come here to know what you know and feel what you feel. We believe that when even two or three of us gather, sharing the truth we’ve been carrying alone, then Christ is present in the power of the HolySpirit, which is to say that God shows up, and fear turns into hope and grief turns into determination. What do you think?

In a few moments, we will all be invited to share in Communion. It is totally up to you whether you want to take the bread and wine. But if you’re not sure, or you normally don’t, I’d like to say, please consider joining in. See what happens. I have a real sense that God wants to move among us. Communion is one place it happens.

And then stay for coffee. Reach out to somebody. Don’t be too friendly to the visitors – we don’t wantto scare anybody. But if there’s a real conversation to be had, have it. If there’s a story to tell, tell it. If something is stirring in you, share it. Let’s be real. Because that’s where God meets us. And that’s what needs to happen. Amen.

1 Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, p. 56.