Chicago Children's Choir
I had the privilege of preaching the sermon at the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council‘s Annual Thanksgiving Service at the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. This is the centenary year of the Interfaith Council.The Chicago Children’s Choir sang and Oba King, storyteller and drummer performed. The service featured a new hymn written by Rabbi Elliot Gertel a long time religious leader in Hyde Park.
Good morning, friends and neighbors, and happy thanksgiving! I am very grateful to be here with you on this centenary year of the Interfaith Council, not only because of my long history with this organization, but as a long term resident of Hyde Park, I am proud and grateful that the religious institutions of my community have come together and worked in cooperation for a century now, as what is perhaps the longest running interfaith council in the country. For all those who have for years carried the burdens of responsibility for the hunger programs, for the social services, for the interfaith dialogues and for the many ways you have been the conscience of our community, on behalf of all of us, my heartfelt thanks.
I have a friend who loves to read mystery novels. There was something unique about the way he read them, though. The first thing he does is to turn to the last chapter and find out what happened and who had done it. Then he would go back and read the rest of the book. What a crazy way to read a mystery, you say. You take the mystery right out of the novel, because now you know the answer to the question, “who done it!” My friend insists that it is better to read the book that way. Because, he says, that’s how the novel got conceived in the author’s mind, in the first place. Before the author sat down to write one word, she knew that the butler did it. When you know that, and then you start reading the book from the beginning, and you come to the place where on a dark and stormy night, the telephone is ringing, you know where that fits into the entire scheme of things, which ends by saying the butler did it.
So you know what I did? I went and looked at the last chapter of the book that is authoritative to my faith, and discovered that it paints a picture of the author’s vision of the end. John, who wrote the book of Revelation writes: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” What a fascinating picture — a river of life that flows through the middle of the city! Can you imagine a refreshing river of life flowing down 53rd Street, Cottage Grove or Garfield Blvd where on either side of it are trees of abundance, with 12 kinds of fruit — that is to say the full complement of fruits, being produced every month, meaning with dependable regularity? Can you imagine healthy and vibrant communities, with children playing with great delight in the parks, without any fear of random violence, learning in state-of-the-art schools, and families are happy, safe and content? And can you imagine religious congregations, like the healing leaves offering opportunities for the reconciliation of relationships, and the building community?
This is “Seeing the City with Prophetic Imagination,” a slogan we use at my present organization, SCUPE, a consortium of seminaries that focuses on grassroots-based urban theology and ministry. In this, we stand in the tradition of the prophets and sages of all traditions who challenge us to imagine the new reality. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah, for example, also spoke about such a city. It’s a city in which children do not die, — perhaps, I might add, by hunger or even by stray bullets — rather everyone lives their lives to the full length. Earlier this month when Hyde Park Union Church under the leadership of Rev. Susan Johnson organized the Urban Dolorosa events, it was a powerful reminder that violence against children continues to be a scourge on our communities. 263 children and youth were killed by violence in the city of Chicago in the past three years. The events helped us to remember the children, dignify the grief of their families and to commit together to end this violence. This was Isaiah’s vision – that children will be born into an environment that gives them a chance to live out their lives with dignity, self respect and opportunity. Listen to this promise: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” says the Lord.’
Dr. Martin Luther King stood squarely in that tradition when he articulated his own dream. Back in 1963, to some it may have felt as impossible and utopian as “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” or the river of life that runs through the city. This is not just Isaiah’s dream, John’s dream or Martin’s dream. This is God’s dream. But if Martin Luther King only preached about his dream, his legacy would be one of a dreamer and nothing more. The reason why Dr. King is such great hero for all of us is because he did not stay a dreamer. He could no longer put up with reality as it is, he allowed the dream to catch hold, put feet on it, and organized towards it.
So, on this centenary year thanksgiving let me suggest three things for us:
First, in our personal and family lives, let us remember God’s vision is that all of us – all sentient beings, as our Buddhist friends call all living things — live in abundance. Thanksgiving is our collective confession that God provides in abundance and is benevolent and merciful. Therefore all of us can affirm with our Muslim sisters and brothers, when they say Bismillah ir rahman ir Rahim. Indeed, if we believe that God is benevolent and merciful, then we don’t need to be anxious. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing,” said Jesus who embodied the paradigm of God’s abundance. “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” This is also the message of the Sabbath keeping which is the sacred practice of our Jewish sisters and brothers. In doing so, they affirm that God is faithful to provide seven days of abundance for six days of work. We can take a day to rest, confident that God is faithful to provide. And if we don’t have to be anxious about tomorrow, we don’t have to be tight-fisted, and we don’t have to accumulate. Instead, thanksgiving is our confession that we too can be generous like the benevolent and merciful one. But our problem is that our society runs on the accumulation paradigm. We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that unless we buy this or that widget, and that unless we go shopping starting at 4 am tomorrow, there is something wrong with us, that unless we accumulate, we might be lose the race. Giving thanks re-orients us from this anxiety-ridden accumulation paradigm and towards the generosity of the abundance paradigm. We need to make this our spiritual practice, not just once a year, but every day. If giving thanks at meals can become not just as a perfunctory ritual but one that truly confesses our faith in the benevolent one, it will be a regular reminder to re-orient our lives towards the God of abundance.
Second, in our community life, it is good to remember that God has created us in incredible diversity. Hyde Park as a community and the Interfaith council by its very existence celebrates that diversity. One hundred years ago when ecumenically minded protestants came together to form this organization, they were surely aware of the incredible religious diversity in the world. Just 18 years before that in 1893, the Parliament of the World’s Religions first met in Chicago, bringing in religious leaders from around the world. They may not have imagined that people from all these religious communities would find a home in Hyde Park 100 years later, or that the United States would be the most religiously diverse country in the world.
Indeed, today, all of us have the opportunity to so engage with that rich diversity. People of other faiths are all around us. We can relate to them not only through their religious institutions and the interfaith council, but also in our day to day lives, because they are our neighbors and colleagues today. So, energized by that interaction in Hyde Park and the Interfaith Council, I went away to the Christian ecumenical world to help them understand why and how Christians should engage with other religious communities in dialogue and cooperation. There’s a lot to say about why and how we must engage with others, and the many lessons that we as religious communities have learned along the way. Another day, we can talk about that. It is enough for now to say that the one thing it has done for me is to greatly deepen my own faith, and expand its horizons, which is the common testimony of those who engage in this exciting adventure we call interreligious dialogue.
Third, brings me to what might be the more difficult question, of what we need to be doing next. Let me approach that question through food, since that’s what you are thinking about right now! These days at SCUPE we are engaging our prophetic imaginations towards a time when there will be no Food Deserts — areas in our communities where there is no easy access to healthy food. Where I live in Hyde Park, this is not a problem. But what if I lived west of MLK blvd. in the Washington Park neighborhood? It was only this March that a Sav-a-Lot store was opened on 63rd st, one where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. But even today, if I needed to exchange food stamps, my best bet would be a liquor store. Did you know that of the grocery or convenience stores that are licensed as food stamp retailers in the city of Chicago, 9% are primarily liquor stores, and 44 of them are in those communities designated as food deserts? There are 8 such convenience stores in the Washington Park community and 4 are liquor stores. Also the next time you drive down Garfield Blvd, observe the number of fast food restaurants, where you can sometimes buy a burger for a dollar. So, what’s a single mother to do — go to the liquor store, or go to McDonald’s? Are you surprised that there is a disproportionate number of poor people who die 6 years too early because of diabetes related illnesses? And this is the community that’s just about 5 blocks from where we are right now.
Let us be clear. Interreligious dialogue does not only happen when we religious leaders come together for conversation on deep theological questions. There is a robust conversation going on between people whose loved ones are cut down by violence, those who have to live in food deserts, those who have lost their jobs, those whose homes have been foreclosed on, those who are sinking in debt. They’ve been talking for a long time about faith, hope, the meaning of life, about why bad things happen to good people, and how to we must survive together. I know, because for a good long time I’ve been visiting people and holding home Bible Studies in people’s apartments in Englewood and other south side communities. But many of us don’t have access to that conversation.
That is, until now. Now, a part of that conversation, and only a part, has manifested itself in the occupy movement. It is, of course, about protesting a massive injustice, of a government that is taken hostage by the 1%, but it is a lot more than that. It is people clamoring for faith and hope, when anxiety and worry so threaten to overcome them. It is people of faith struggling to imagine a new world, and trying to put feet on it. Afraid that if they wait too long it will be too late, and encouraged by similar uprisings that are happening elsewhere in the world, these our sisters and brothers are stepping out in faith. I’ve talked to them in Chicago, and last weekend in San Francisco. I find most of them to be people of faith, some of them even Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. But they don’t have to belong to a particular religious community to be people of faith. They only need to be motivated by faith to know that a new and different future is possible and by a determined hope that puts feet on it.
So, what’s the religious community to do? Those who stand up for justice will always be on the right side of history, said Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, my religious tradition teaches me that God goes before me to the place I would rather not go, and sometimes pushes and prods me to engage in things I would rather not engage. When someone stands for justice, my tradition teaches me, that is where I can find God. So, I want to recognize that just as much as interreligious dialogue has deepened my faith my dialogue with those who live in disinvested communities, those who are vulnerable in our midst, those who are engaged in the occupy movement, will also contribute to my religious well-being. This is the next stage of our dialogue.
Let’s start with the last chapter, God’s dream for our community. That’s how the author conceived the story. On a dark and stormy night, the telephone is ringing. Do you know where that fits in the story which ends saying the butler did it? It is 2011, 100 years after we came together as an organization. Where are we in the story that ends with the river that flows in the middle of the street of the city? I don’t know about you. But I’ve waited long enough. The southside has waited long enough. The devastated places of this God’s earth have waited long enough. I am prepared to say today with you, with Isaiah, John, and Martin Luther King, this is the day we must again commit to a new future of putting feet on our prophetic imagination.