Sermon 05/19/2019

Stephen Bartlett

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

May 19, 2019

“Keep Louisville Weird!”  Y’all have heard that marketing slogan?  For those of us who feel like part of a counter culture, or maybe bit players in a drama we might call revenge of the nerds, this is a very charming phrase:  Keep Louisville Weird!    Because on thinking about the concept of weird a little, maybe you agree in the conclusion that weird could be a good thing, mainly because it implies the idea of “non conformity.”  “Not conforming to expectations.” “Outside the norm,”  certainly outside the “in group” expectations of conventional behavior or identity.   And in today’s middle class Midwest Mid-south US world as portrayed by advertising and television series and the hype around sporting events, what is the “norm” either hides a lot of horrific things, or it harbors them.  Let me repeat that:  What is considered “normal” either hides horrific things, or it harbors them.    Because what lies below the surface of “the norm” is often a very very dark shadow, just remember how normal conquest and slavery was!  And today as the #MeToo movement has highlighted all manner of sexual violence and molestation against women, and as Pedophilia and Sexual Molestation scandals come to the light of day, or the gruesome realities revealed by Wikileaks videos of helicopter gunship aerial murder of Iraqi civilians or the everyday Mainstream Corporate Media Outlets propaganda or murderous Homophobia or Racism, all of that used to be and in a perverse way IS a kind of “normal.”

In John’s version of Peter with his bizarre dream of being commanded by God to eat traditionally forbidden foods, and having spiritual fellowship with people of the “outside” group, identified by their being from ethnicities that did not practice Jewish circumcision, we see a version of the notion of weird, or “inside”  and “outside”  groups.  Jesus and the disciples of that time, were involved in some pretty weird stuff, consorting with diverse underclasses and ethnicities, miraculously feeding  multitudes, healing people possessed by demons, violating formal rules about Sabbath, and then for a while sharing all their worldly goods in communal style living.  Jesus himself and then the disciples and followers such as Peter as portrayed in Acts went about spending their healing powers on those on the fringes of respectable society, to the scandal of establishment Jews of the day. 

I ‘d like to show you all something weird and wonderful (display the multicolored maize) I have been marveling at for decades now.   I think you will probably agree if you ever had a good read in geography or anthropology that cultural or ethnic diversity derives from biological diversity.  There is a merry band of us who have a habit of sowing seeds each year in fertile soil.  We have become the guardians of an amazing maize we call Rhodelia Triple Rainbow, or as tongue in cheek we call it R3R to pretend we are scientists with tenure.  We first started planting an heirloom ancestor of Triple Rainbow called Hickory King, about 25 years ago.  We always plant our corn as a Three Sisters Intercrop, growing climbing beans on the corn stalks and winter squashes as a blanket on the ground around the corn and beans.  These are three sisters who know how to get along really well, and it turns out have been part of a happy family for thousands of years.   This Rhodelia Triple Rainbow corn that we hold as a sacred genetic trust.  It has fed us ever since, and even survived years of drought, when none of the neighbors corn bore at all.  And it has been the basis of Corn and Tamal Festivals, the first of which spawned our organization in September of 2001, the month when the Twin Towers Fell and we tried to rise from the ashes with a Tamal Festival that honors everything that is NOT TERRORISM, that our Mayan Forebears who cultivated corn as a sacred trust, and all those who seek to be peacemakers.   About 8 years ago we introduced a second heirloom variety called Bloody Butcher (a really Biblical name, I’d say).  We sowed the Hickory King on one half of the field and Bloody Butcher on the other half and guess what, we got the colors of the rainbow as a result, creating so-called Indian corn.  The second year combining these two heirlooms, when the corn we shin high, a triple rainbow was seen over the field out in Rhodelia, hence the name Rhodelia Triple Rainbow.  I am repeating that name numerous times, friends, in the hope that you will remember it.  Rhodelia Triple Rainbow.  If you join us next Sunday for Planting Day for our Three Sisters out in Rhodelia on Barr farms with Adam and Rae, or grow some of it out one day in your garden, as Bruce Whearty is going to be doing, you too can join this merry band and become one of the guardians and sharers of this sacred multiracial maize. 

Now what does this heirloom corn have to do with the controversial boundary- bending practiced and preached by Jesus and Peter?  Well, for starters, I believe that if Jesus walked among us today on this continent, he might speak Spanish or an Iroquois, Inuit, Mayan, Aztec, Incan, Guarani or Mapuche language, and he might consider corn to be his Sacred Food, maybe not wheat.   He certainly would be considered weird or dramatically different from the prevailing “norms” or “conventions of our time.    He would tell parables that involve theories about the Big Bang and the expanding universe, on Black Holes and Global Warming, Regenerative Agriculture and Quantum Physics.   And one thing is for sure.  He would revel in the multilingual diverse ethnicities present in our world, and see beauty in all that diversity, just as he gloried in the wondrous diversity of the land and agriculture of his native Eastern Mediterranean world.

I grew up the eldest son of Katharine Griswold whom you all know and a Presbyterian pastor by the name of Douglas Bartlett.  He was a weird one, perhaps, known in the church where I grew up on Long Island, NY for his shiny forehead, good tenor singing voice, sometimes politically incorrect jokes, and his radical, active stances on issues of justice, inclusion and peace. My father was born and grew up in New Orleans, the youngest of six of parents Mary and William who were both officers of the Salvation Army sent to New Orleans from Canada to minister to the “unsaved heathen” of New Orleans.  Mary rebelled against the Salvation Army scene and prevailing white mores of the Deep South.  She professed an admiration for the then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and eventually divorced her old-school husband, and was politically open minded and instilled in my father a generosity of spirit that propelled him to go to Seminary in Princeton after they moved north.  Having grown up in close proximity to African Americans in Louisiana, and inspired and energized by the rise of the civil rights movement, my father in his faithfulness and following the example of Jesus, became a  movement ally and civil rights worker, and following the call of SNYC in freedom summer traveled to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to help register African American voters during that period of struggle and historic change, living in multiracial community of civil rights workers and one day almost being run over by a racist woman at the wheel of her car.  As a family we all marched for equal housing in Huntington, New York when I was 7 years old, to my boyish shock confronted by hateful bigots throwing tomatoes and screaming epithets.  A teacher from Ghana, West Africa, James Ocansey, came to our community and became our houseguest for a year, I want to say, and I had to give up my single bedroom for him and move back in with my brother Andrew.   My father marched on numerous occasions with those who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr, and my father was publically attacked and vilified by fearful bigots for loving African Americans (they used the “n” word) when he ran for school board in Commack Long Island where we were living.   His opponents suggested he might bus in African American students into our public schools from the nearby African American community of Brentwood to which my father replied: I hadn’t thought of that:  that sounds like a good idea.  When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, myself and my sibling were the only children in school wearing black arm bands as we mourned his death.

This leads me to a big question for you all.  Who is your Tribe?  Who is your tribe?   Are you a member of a tribe of Liberal minded, mostly white, mostly middle-class Presbyterians who speak English and feel the need to try to learn Spanish? Or is your tribe one of people of color outside the mainstream wishing for a radical reform of the white tribe and their white ways of thinking, in that hope that someday life will be less oppressive?   Is our notion of our tribe expanding or shrinking at the moment?  Do we all consider our tribe to be “fellow Americans” or has this become too difficult to swallow following incidents such as the murderous march of the Nazis in Charlottesville and how our hate-mongering president spoke of that, or following the recent white nationalist killing sprees that have taken place?  When traveling abroad, it is sometimes a psychological relief to run into someone from the States, but not always.   In terms of a tribe I identify with, I admit that, despite growing up in suburbs of middle class USA, today I identify strongly with country people or people who work the land, no matter where they come from or what language they speak.  My experience of scraping a living farming with machete and pickaxe for years in the Dominican Republic have formed in me a sense of identity with others who know this work and this sensibility.  This is a natural part of being human, identifying with and then when needed supporting and defending others with similar experiences or circumstances.  As strongly social beings, primate family humans, or two-leggeds as the trickster Coyote story tellers call us, us two-leggeds feel comfortable in community.  We need each other for survival, since we are fairly defenseless against predators in terms of long vulnerable infancies and lack of large teeth or horns or claws, and we have a long learning curve from the moment of birth before we can defend ourselves.  In short we are an extraordinary maybe even bizarre evolutionary creature on the planet, and our oddity is a challenge and also, as we see today, a danger if left unchecked by religious or spiritual understandings.  After all, we invented the atomic bomb and used Agent Orange and aerial bombing in war, those who have European ancestors we were northerners from cold climates who warred for centuries amongst ourselves and then adapted gunpowder for use in war, created such hierarchies and power and economic inequalities in Europe that we suddenly ventured out on the high seas and conquered militarily and colonized much of the world and developed an economic system based on slavery, theft and racism, and then industrial exploitation.  We even had world wars where industrial technology and capacity was harnessed for mass violence and slaughter based on territorial conquest.   And now our agricultural and industrial capacity threatens the stability of planet for most living species.  Jesus may not have foreseen all this, but much of the same dangerous and violent dynamics were present under the Roman Empire.   And Jesus’ message was clear.  We must lay down our weapons and our hubris and arrogance and embrace the humanity of all, and try to love our enemies.  We must reject the establishment, the status quo! 

  In considering how wide we view our tribe or people, I think we see just what a radical lesson Jesus and his disciples were grappling with.   Why was Jesus compelled to rip asunder the notion of the Jewish tribe?   When you embrace “the other” as part of the beloved community, this breaks down all manner of concepts related to your identity and for many, this is a fearful undertaking best not taken.  And that fear can cloud our perceptions, without guidance and mature counsel and expansive fearless love, the proposition to embrace the other can threaten our limited and limiting sense of self.  We can see so clearly today how demonizing the other can be used as a psychological devise to fortify a kind of social tribalism, under conditions of perceived artificial scarcity or dis empowerment, and a distorted sense of reality and history is imposed to justify the unjustifiable.   This is our legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and politically the so-called “Southern Strategy” that began under Nixon and put into overdrive by Trump, where the poor white voters can be pitted against peoples of other colors to hide the greedy schemes of exploitation by the country club whites.  This is the tribal xenophobia that has led to war again and again in human history.  This is the antithesis of what Jesus came to Earth to grapple with. 

Going back to my Dad.  My Dad loved maps and the idea of world travel, which he eventually did in his later years with my mother.  I caught that contagion as a youngster and to this day can hand draw a map of Africa from memory, with most of the 59 countries and capitals.  In college in Wooster, Ohio I chose to major in French so I could spend a junior year abroad in Dakar, Senegal.  That experience of linguistic and cultural immersion, of being 1 of 3 students among the only white persons in a country of more than six million Senegalese people, a few of who became friends, was the beginning of a life of ever expanding horizons and adventure in many countries and cultures and a vocation of ever revising my idea of who my tribe is and can be.   During that year in Senegal, I may have suffered from loneliness, dysentery and malaria yet what I gained was a sure knowledge that I could have a meaningful life anywhere on the planet, that all of humanity was potentially my tribe.  Some of you here in this congregation have had similar experiences perhaps as mission workers, living abroad, or simply throwing in your lot with people normally considered outside your “in group”.  The community outreach programs of this church such as our Ministry of English language learning, our Guatemala partnership, work of justice for and accompaniment with immigrants with or without papers, all these things expand our sense of the beloved people.    

Friends, Jesus and his disciples and followers led the way to this understanding, more than two millenia ago.  Jesus was the radical, the social rebel, the feminist who respected women, the Teacher who broke apart narrow tribal identity and sectarian divisions.  He pointed us all toward radical inclusion!  He preached a kind of universality that was then and continues now to be absolutely essential if the human species has the chance of maturing and, indeed, of surviving at all past the 21st century.   As the world now faces existential crises that combine ecological and climate catastrophe, species collapse, the intensified rise of territorial and resource competition that increases the possibility of hateful sectarianism and war, and the extreme concentration of wealth by artificially constituted entities we call corporations, some call “persons” though they cannot get sick or die,  whose control over governments and systems of governance is alarmingly consolidated despite being driven by less than 1% of the populace, whose short sighted pursuit of profit threaten us all, defended by the destructive powers of extreme militarization and threats of mass killing, we absolutely need the radical inclusion and inherent democratization that Jesus’ embrace of the other shows us the path toward. Do I hear an Amen?  Do we need radical inclusion?  Do we need democratization?  Did Jesus not show us the way?

I am heartened and motivated by my rich and deep friendships and working relationships with social movement and community organizers and the common farmers, foresters, food preparers, healers and workers with whom I have had the great privilege and joy to work these past decades.  Thank you Mother Earth and Teacher Jesus for cautioning the two-legged creature with the opposing thumbs and the penchant toward egoism and selfishness, to learn restraint and humility, to serve rather than self serve,  for helping show us the way to the beloved community that includes all, from tribes of unfortunate consumers of Fox news to those who recite Maya  Angelou or read Toni Morrison or Howard Zinn and sing songs by Pete Seeger, from the invisible life enhancing microorganisms in our intestines helping us digest our food and in the soils of our community gardens and farms nourishing our kale and habaneros to the blue whales singing to each other at increasing distances in the warming oceans, to the Gorillas in the Louisville zoo dreaming of the myth of their lost cousins in Asia and Africa.    May we continue to expand our tribe to include all of these as well.   Only together can we transform our economy to cool and preserve this planet from becoming inhabitable for most Mammals including us.   Keep Mother Earth Weird and May our tribe be as large as Mother God’s love.    May it be so through us.  Amen.