This blog is a transcript of my sermon delivered on December 18, 2016 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. Video and audio of the sermon can be accessed here.
The title of my sermon is “a star is born.” Now some of you may be worried that I am trying to do a mash-up of the 1970’s movie and Christmas. I am not. That would be just too creepy. Barbara Streisand as Mary? Kris Kristofferson as Joseph? And the baby Jesus played by a young Gary Busey? That’s just wrong.
No, the title of my sermon is “a star is born” because I’m preaching about real stars. The kind that shine from the sky, not the stage.
Obviously with Christmas a week away, we think about the star of Bethlehem rising in the East to mark Jesus’ birth. And this week, I couldn’t stop thinking about that star.
For thousands of years, humanity has been drawn to the light of the stars. Watching the constellations, tracking the paths of the planets, studying the cycle of the sun all in an attempt to understand the great mysteries of life. NASA does it, Galileo did it, and 2000 years ago three Wise Men did it – tracked the stars – in an attempt to find the Messiah.
But the human draw to the heavens is more than just imagination and exploration. It is organic, even hereditary. The stars are our old ones, our wise ones, for we as human beings actually carry their genetic imprint.
Joni Mitchell sang the famous lyrics “we are stardust.” And it turns out she’s right. Literally.
In a recent article, National Geographic news explained that our human bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. Carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, iron and sulfur—most of the material that we’re made of — comes out of the star dust scattered across the universe kicked off by those explosions. As the article explained, “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.”
Given that we are stardust, we should ask what can we learn from these heavenly bodies. I did a little research this week and let me share with you what I found:
There is a striking parallel between the life cycle of a star and the spiritual life cycle of human beings.
There are basically two stages to the life of a star. The first stage is when a star is born. Gravity begins to pull gases towards a center core. The temperature begins to rise, and eventually the density of the gases causes a nuclear reaction. It’s then that the star begins to shine, drawing energy toward the light, to its core, then radiating that light back out into the galaxy.
This can go on for billions of years, until we come to the the second stage where the star’s center can’t hold anymore. The star has too little fuel left to maintain its core temperature, so it’s light goes out and it collapses under its own weight, drawing everything around it into a dark abyss.
Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar.
We’ve all been there.
Sometimes we are in a place in life where we draw our energy toward the light and reflect it warmth and back to all around us. And sometimes we have lost all fuel, our light goes out, and we collapse, emotionally or otherwise, into a dark abyss.
These days it’s easy to find ourselves in that abyss. The holidays can do that. Between crazy schedules, and job stress, money worries, health issues, worries for our country, worries for our world, not to mention the fact that it’s dark all the time … it’s easy to find ourselves drawn to the darkness.
And just like the stars, the only thing between a heart that draws in the light and a heart that collapses into a black hole is a strong center. A center that can hold.
William Butler Yeats wrote a poem entitled, “The Second Coming”, and it begins with these words:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Well that’s a lovely upbeat holiday message. Yet we all know that sometimes life can be like that poem. Chaotic, scary, unpredictable, ominous. Kind of like the explosive chaotic energy of a star. And in the midst of the chaos, like that star, we try desperately to hold onto some semblance of a core. Unfortunately, the centers we tend to create won’t hold.
There are all kinds of crazy things that we choose to put in our center that weaken our core. We put titles, and bank accounts, and status and stuff at the center of things. We look to other people—our spouses, partners, friends and family to fill our core. We put ego, anger, resentment and fear at the center.
And we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Just look at our scripture today from Ecclesiastes 2 that lists the types of things King Solomon puts at the center of his life to hold it together:
“I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces . . . So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.”
But then, in verse 11, Solomon realizes that this earthly center cannot hold. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Inevitably, there comes a point in life where the things we have put in the center can’t hold anymore. The job won’t last forever, money gets spent, Botox only lasts for three months, the latch on the designer purse will eventually break, marriages falls apart. Like a dying star, when our center can’t hold, the light goes out, and we begin to collapse into the darkness.
We simply must find a center that will hold. And we need look no further than the scriptures to find that center. Consider:
Psalm 55:22 “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.”
Isaiah 40:31 “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
Matthew 7:24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and DOES them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”
There is the center that will hold, there is a center that will not fall, there is a center that will never collapse. And that center is God.
Our message today reminds me of the 12 step program. The first three steps cut right to what we are talking about — finding a center that will hold.
STEP ONE: We admit we are powerless over ________. Here we fill in our addictions, our weaknesses (alcohol, drugs, anger, food, relationships).
STEP TWO: We believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity – is a center that can hold.
STEP THREE: We turn our will and our lives over to the care of that power.
What do you have in the center of your life? Is it strong enough to hold you through the good times and the bad? If your center is not holding, if your light is starting to go out, go outside and find a place where you can look up into the heavens and remember the stars. Remember how the stars take chaos and turmoil and transform them into light. Remember how their warmth and power is radiated far out into the universe. And most importantly, remember that it was a star that pulled the wise men towards the light – the true light of world.
We have the power to shine as brightly as the stars. In fact, our highest and greatest calling is to be like the stars, to draw our energy toward the light, towards God’s great power in our core, and then send that light back out bringing light and warmth throughout the world.
All we have to do is find a center that will hold.
All we have to do is find a place in our hearts . . . where a star is born.
Please enjoy this recent newspaper article from Great Bend, Kansas in which I talk about “Why We Need a Little Christmas.” Here’s a preview:
“Christmas delivers hope in the form of a baby, and it reminds us not only of that baby’s potential, but our own,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.
“For 364 days of the year, we are bombarded by news of the inhumanity of the world: the violence, racism, hatred and callous disregard. On this one day, we are reminded that in addition to the inhumanity, we as a people carry a spark of hope and joy,” she said.
“These are gifts bestowed at birth, but often forgotten as life attempts to beat them out of us. Like the balsam tree needles we find six months later behind the couch, Christmas drops a hint of hope on our hearts — a hint that is hard to brush away.”
(This piece was delivered as a post-election sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Nov. 13, 2016)
Recently, my husband and I were out in Arizona and Utah. We love that area of the country – red deserts, fantastical rock formations, and, of course, the canyons. Usually, when we think of a canyon, we think of something like the Grand Canyon where there is a gigantic hole in the earth. But there is another type of canyon that is my favorite, and those are called slot canyons.
What makes a slot canyon different is that the top of it is just a small crack – a slot – sometimes only a few feet wide. But hidden below that modest crack is a vast canyon carved over thousands of years by water and floods carrying sharp, abrasive sand, rocks, and debris in its torrents. It forms that way because the rock on the surface is harder than the soft sandstone underneath.
I couldn’t help but think of those canyons when we finally ended what seemed like seven lifetimes of an election cycle. That canyon represented exactly how I felt. The years of sharp, abrasive language, the torrent of accusations, the flood of racist, sexist, xenophobic debris had cracked my otherwise hard surface and begun to erode my core.
I know I’m not alone. This was an election like no other. When is the last time you can remember that the day after an election, the Canadian immigration site crashed?
There was such desperation in the air that the satirist, Andy Borowitz, crafted this headline for the New Yorker Magazine: “Queen offers to restore British rule over United States.”
The impact of the result was exponentially boosted because it felt personal. It certainly did to me as a woman with the sexist, abusive language thrown about like it was everyday dialogue. It clearly felt like that for people of color, for Muslims, for Mexicans, for all minorities as well. It was like no one cared, that no one heard us, that the hate-filled language we had endured for months – years even – didn’t matter, that we didn’t matter.
It’s a bad sensation to feel you don’t matter, to feel you’re not heard. It can produce a corrosive rage that can carve up your insides . . . like a slot canyon in the deserts of Arizona.
There’s another thing, though, about those slot canyons that makes them different from all others. And that is the light. Since the opening on the surface is so narrow, there is very little light that gets in. Everything looks dark, dank, and foreboding until . . . until the sun rises just high enough for a beam to pierce through the opening and the entire place lights up. You can finally see the canyon for what it truly is. Good and bad.
First you see the bad part: scorpions lurking in the shadows, a few lizards, and slithery snake trails in the sand. But you quickly move past those to the good. When the light breaks through, you see the wondrous diversity of colors and layers and strata; beauty that photographers and artists flock to see from all over the globe; things you don’t appreciate until the light breaks through the crack.
This election has cracked us as a people and as a nation. And like that slot canyon, cracks allow in the light. We see things we didn’t necessarily see before. Good and bad.
We see the scorpions, the slithery snakes, the haters, the underbelly of America that we have hoped and prayed never really existed. But the crack lets in the light and shows us they are there.
But there’s something else we see in that light. For through the cracks and brokenness, we also see straight through our core. We are reminded who we truly are as a nation and as a people.
For example, we are Americans. We may not be proud of it at the moment, but we’re still Americans. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote a letter consoling his daughter about the election this week: “America didn’t stop being America last night and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always – always – been followed by our finest hours.”
I was reminded of that fact watching the New York City Veterans Day parade. Here we were, just a couple of days after a vicious election cycle that literally tore our country apart, and yet up and down 5th Avenue were waves of soldiers – fellow Americans – people from every race, gender, ethnicity, language, and religion marching in solidarity, commitment, and sacrifice for this nation.
America didn’t stop being America this week because of the politicians and the pundits. These messages of separation and hate are not what this country was built on. It was built on the ideals of freedom and opportunity; it was built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That never left. And when we look through the cracks and brokenness, we are reminded that it is still at our core.
We are also reminded that at our core we are Christians, which means we fight for justice and equality, shining the light of hope and truth into every crack in the rock of bigotry and hatred we can find. It also means we follow the greatest commandment of all: love thy neighbor.
Of course, Jesus didn’t qualify that commandment along party lines. Everyone (Democrat, Republican, Independent, etc.) is our neighbor. Tragically, an aftermath from this election was a sense that we as Americans aren’t neighbors anymore. Many have said, “We don’t even know our fellow Americans.” Polarized by the media and the politicians into a mentality of us versus them, trampled by the racist, sexist, and bigoted language, it is easy to believe that all those who do not see the election as we do are haters.
Yes, there are racists and misogynists and scorpions in this country. They exist and they are vocal and many are powerful. They were part of this vote. Too much of it, in fact. But in my deepest heart, I don’t believe hate is what drives the majority of Americans. I can’t – for to believe that is to give up all hope.
Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times, explained it this way: “Donald Trump’s victory . . . does not mean that a majority of Americans are irredeemable bigots (though too many indeed are). Plenty of Trump voters chose him, reluctantly, to be an agent of disruption, which they craved keenly enough to overlook the rest of him.”
We may abhor that willingness to overlook, we may not agree with the vote, but when the light breaks through the cracks, we start to see that we aren’t the only ones who feel rage. We start to see, perhaps, that many cast their votes out of a familiar place: the personal pain and anger from feeling unheard and unimportant – not hatred of the other. And in order to rebuild, we have to start with what we have in common. As the book of Ephesians tells us, “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25)
When we look through the cracks and brokenness to our core, we are reminded that we are Americans, that we are Christians, and that we are also Baptist. We are a people whose forbears came together in response to intolerance. Manifestations of that ideal include supporting separation of church and state, advocating for worship free from discrimination, and lifting up respectful dialog as a healthy means to understanding.
One of the most important ideals of the Baptist is soul freedom: the idea that humankind was created by God to be free, to make decisions on their own – even if the decisions turn out to be wrong. This means we can disagree as individuals, but we stay together as family and as a people.
We stay together.
Brothers and sisters, we have two choices going forward: we can allow the corrosive anger to take us down, or we can use it to rebuild a new world. The book of Ephesians also tells us “to be angry, but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Instead of giving up, I say we gear up and use our anger for good.
We have come through a battle, and we are cracked to our core. But while painful, a crack is also how the light gets in.
Let the light remind us of who we are.
Let the light remind us of what we have to do.
And let the light remind us of our most treasured gift: the wondrous diversity of colors and layers and strata of this great nation, beauty we can too easily forget when the sun goes down.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
-Anthem, Leonard Cohen (9/21/34–11/7/16)
(This blog, also featured by the Huffington Post, is the text of a sermon I gave on Sunday, October 16, 2016 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.)
Recently, I discovered a few things about my history here at Madison Avenue Baptist Church. Some things I’m proud of and some I’m not so proud of . . .
Here is the thing I’m most proud of: I’ve been a minister of this church for 16 years – 10 as the senior pastor. And in that 16 years, I’ve preached a lot. In fact, I went back to my hard drive and realized I have preached over 1,100 sermons from this ol’ pulpit. If you multiply that by an average of 15 minutes a sermon, that’s around 16,500 minutes or 12 days-worth of non-stop talking.
That said, I also discovered something that I’m not so proud of . . . In my 16,500 minutes of talking, I have never once preached a sermon on domestic violence. I was stunned when I realized it this week. It’s not like I don’t talk about difficult topics – we’ve hit some big ones on this pulpit. But not the topic of domestic violence.
Which tees up the question . . . why now?
First of all, October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But that doesn’t fully answer the question. There have been many Octobers and many opportunities to talk about this.
And it’s not like we’ve never heard of domestic violence or abuse towards women. Just look at this election cycle – we’ve heard all kinds of outrageous attacks on women. And people were upset, but not necessarily outraged.
For example, Rosie O’Donnell, a lesbian , was described as “disgusting” and “a slob.” And people were upset, but not outraged.
Then there was Ms. Universe, Alicia Machado, of Hispanic descent, who was called everything from “Ms. Piggy” to “Miss Housekeeping.” And people were upset, but not totally outraged.
But then tapes were released showing a candidate bragging about sexual assault pertaining to straight white women. And the world exploded. That is a sermon in and of itself – the fact that it took violent comments about a straight white woman’s body to outrage us, to move us to action.
Shame on us, shame on me for taking 16 years to preach this sermon. But here we are and here we go . . .
Let’s start with educating ourselves about the extent and nature of the problem. It’s so easy to get caught up in the cliché that domestic violence involves four things: a man, a case of beer, a mobile home in the South, and a bruised and battered woman who won’t leave. And, yes, that is one scenario, but it is a miniscule statistic in a world of pain.
Studies show that occupation, income level, and an urban or suburban environment are not indicators of domestic abuse. When it comes to the racial divide, there is still no difference. According to the Domestic Violence Intervention Center, “White, Black and Hispanic women all incur about the same rates of violence committed by an intimate partner.”
Let me share some sobering statistics:
–1 in 3 women have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
-On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone callsplaced to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
The American Medical Association and the FBI estimate that 3–4 million women are battered each year in the US.
Hard to imagine the scope we’re talking about? Consider this: According to the Huffington Post, the number of women killed by a current or former male partner added up to nearly double the number of soldiers’ lives lost in war in Afghanistan and Iraq during the same 11-year timeframe.
And here’s the real kicker – according to the Department of Justice, only a little over half of all cases are reported to the authorities. Of course only half of all cases are reported. We tend to shame the victims. Women are terrified to share their stories out of fear of repercussions, stigma, or simply having to relive it in the telling. It is only within safe spaces, spaces of no judgment or shame, when the stories truly come out.
Like what happened on Twitter a few weeks ago. Author Kelly Oxford asked women on Twitter to share their experiences with sexual assault. She started by sharing her own. After that, for 14 hours straight, 50 tweets a minute came in from women sharing their stories – stories of assault, rape, battery, intimidation, financial abuse, and shame – many of which had never been shared before. Over one million stories came in that night.
We should also recognize that victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse certainly aren’t limited to women. 1 in 4 men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. Abuse crosses all ages from elders to children, and it is not restricted to the straight community. Studies show that same-sex partners report significantly higher intimate partner violence than opposite-sex partners. It crosses nationality, ethnicity, and religion. It is everywhere and it is rampant.
Sadly, this is one of the times that much of the Bible doesn’t help. In fact, in many cases, it makes things worse. For example, the words of the Apostle Paul which demand that women submit and remain silent (1 Corinthians 14:33-36). These are demeaning, dismissive words which easily stoke the fires of the cycle of violence.
In the ancient scriptures, we also see women abused, attacked, and even raped. The problem is that some modern readers ignore the heavily patriarchal, ancient lens through which these scriptures must be read. They insist, thousands of years later, on taking the easy way out by just reading these words literally, rather than doing the work to understand them in the context of their times. The tragic result is that the Bible can then easily go from being a source of wisdom and strength to an instigator of evil. This has happened for centuries, with scripture being used to justify every imaginable evil – from slavery to domestic violence.
Here’s one example. Who could forget the horrible story in Judges 19 where a father offers his daughter up for rape? I quote:
“As they were enjoying themselves, suddenly certain men of the city, perverted men, surrounded the house and beat on the door. They spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, ‘Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him carnally!’ But the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, ‘No, my brethren! I beg you, do not act so wickedly! Seeing this man has come into my house, do not commit this outrage. Look, here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them, and do with them as you please; but to this man do not do such a vile thing!’” (Judges 19:22-24).
The concubine is then brought out and gang raped by the men. The next day, when the “owner” of the concubine finds her prostrate on the ground, he takes her away, cuts her up into twelve pieces, and sends them “to all the coasts of Israel” (Judges 19:29).
Definitely a scripture we do not want to read literally.
The perspective in ancient times was so skewed against women that in some instances even God was portrayed as an abuser. For example, Hosea 2 talks about God’s faithfulness versus Israel’s infidelity. There God takes Israel, who is described as a harlot, into the wilderness, strips her bare, blocks her way (“I will wall her in so she cannot find her path”), then eventually seeks to woo her back.
The classic cycle of violence.
We have to remember that these scriptures were written in a time when women were dismissed and devalued. It is a story, like many in the Hebrew Bible, offered through the lens of its time. But there are also stories in these ancient scriptures that tell tales of great women warriors. Strong women who fought and won freedom for their people. One such woman was Esther.
There, a young Jewish woman named Esther is forced to marry King Xerxes and become the Queen of Persia. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, refuses to bow down and pay homage to Haman, a high official of the king. Haman becomes infuriated and plots to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai hears of the plot, reports it to Esther, and, in encouraging her to fight for the people, says, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther takes on the fight, outwits Haman, and through her courage, saves her people.
That phrase is so powerful. When we think about the problems in the world, when we think about all those in harms’ way, and then we think about our own lives and what we are called to do, “Who knows whether we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Such a time as this — such a times as this! A time where we see our world groaning under the impact and cost of this epidemic of violence.
We start with the cost of life for the approximately 4,000 women who die every year from domestic violence.
Then we turn to the $8.3 billion in medical care that is incurred because of domestic violence.
Then we turn to work production. Intimate partner violence causes women to lose about 8 million days of paid workeach year.
But these are market costs and while significant, the more important costs to focus on are the ones we can’t quantify. Like the spiritual and ethical corrosion of our society when physical and mental violence is overlooked. Or perhaps the worst unquantifiable cost of all – the impact on our next generation.
Each year, 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence. And of the 1 in 15 kids exposed to it, a heartbreaking 90% are eyewitnesses who will feel its effects for their entire lives.
We have to realize the impact this has on our kids. What it teaches them about how to treat each other; what it teaches them about what is okay.
First Lady Michele Obama gave a riveting speech about this last week. She began by describing her celebration of the International Day of the Girl, an event to celebrate young women from all over the world. Reminding these young women how valuable and precious they are, she said, “I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. And I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world. And I walked away feeling so inspired.”
She went on to talk about the raw juxtaposition of two scenarios – the International Day of the Girl Celebration and the horrible language we all heard spewed through the press this week by a presidential candidate bragging about sexual assault.
“We won’t just be setting a bad example for our kids,” she warned, “but for our entire world . . . This isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong and we simply cannot endure this or expose our children to this any longer. Not for another minute, let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.’”
Brothers and sisters, now is the time for us to stand up, for this is all our problem. More importantly, it is a problem for all our children and our children’s children.
We must be willing to talk about it, to preach about it, and to bear witness to the stories.
We must work to find ways to offer shelter and safety to those in harms’ way.
We must constantly remind victims that they are not to blame.
And we must stand firm and bring the perpetrators to account.
This is the only way change will happen. If you and I take a stand. It’s what we were put here on this Earth to do: to care for one another, to love one another, to protect the least of these.
It’s what we were put here to do.
And we have to start today.
For truly we were brought into the kingdom for such a time as this.
In honor of breast cancer awareness during October please check out this interview I did about my journey through cancer. “Let us Laugh! Finding Joy in the Face of Cancer.”