Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Two weeks ago, as part of our “Glad You Asked” sermon series, I addressed questions I’d received from the congregation about people you know and love who are suffering. We talked about how frustrating it is not to be equipped with magic wands or otherwise able to fix many of the problems and struggles we see around us. Sometimes it’s impossible for us to fix a given situation, so that all we really can do is show up for people who are hurting, let them know we see them, they matter, we care. And perhaps to help them express prayers of lament to the God who holds them and loves them, through it all.
At the same time, we know that to lift up prayers of lament to God, and to weep with those who weep, is just one piece of the puzzle in terms of a faithful response to suffering in our world. Because while it’s true enough there are situations we cannot fix, there are also an awful lot of situations in which we can make a difference.
If you were here last Sunday, you enjoyed a wonderful example of this, in Laurie Trettel’s report on her mission trip to Houston to help with hurricane recovery efforts there. Certainly the massive scale of the flooding there has created problems far beyond the ability of any single mission team or congregation to solve. But walking into the Gupta family’s home, torn apart down to the studs, and putting up fresh new insulation and drywall? That’s something a dozen church folks from Seattle could do. People show up and roll up their sleeves. A new all goes up. And things gradually start falling back into place for a family that has been out of their home since August. A talented chef with a huge heart devotes a week to providing wonderful meals so that bread can be broken together and new friendships formed. Only a piece of solving the problems plaguing Houston right now, certainly, but such an important piece. And for that one family, of course, it’s everything.
Seeing those slides of actual physical repairs on a home last week reminded me of something that’s been coming up in conversation with my rabbi friends recently - the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which in English simply means “repairing [or mending] the world.” (This is the Hebrew phrase you see on your bulletin cover this morning, at the bottom of the illustration.) The verb for “repair” there is the same verb used in modern Hebrew for fixing a broken bicycle or a broken table, repairing a computer that’s stopped functioning, or mending a torn shirt. So while the concept of a whole world in need of repair is a broad one, with far reaching implications, it brings with it this down to earth image, and a verb we often use to talk about fixable problems. What might it mean to understand repairing the world in that sense?
Some of you will remember an old folk song written by Pete Seeger, “If I Had a Hammer”? It’s a similar idea. The lyrics speak about things like warning of danger and spreading love. But all using that metaphor of a physical tool, a hammer. Again it’s about our calling to repair the world. To mend the world.
That every one of us is invited to find our place in that project is an idea at least as old as the biblical prophets. We heard this morning first from the prophet Isaiah: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house… [and to clothe] the naked?” “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness… the Lord will guide you continually … you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:6-12)
And then from Micah, in a passage I know is a favorite for a number of you: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? … He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)
At my interfaith clergy group last weekend we puzzled together over what to do when we want to support an incredible range of worthy causes all at once. When we feel we should be simultaneously working and marching and speaking out about dozens of critically important issues - where do we start? How much of ourselves do we pour into this work? And to what extent do we have to pick our battles, just to keep ourselves sane and healthy? It can be hard to make these kinds of choices. Presumably it comes down to listening in whatever ways we can for God’s invitation to take up our own particular set of tools. And trusting God’s got lots of other good folks on the job too, playing their respective parts.
We may very well need to express our lament, to cry out, brokenhearted, that our world is in the shape it’s in. But we can’t stop with lament. Not when we could pick up a hammer, or a needle and thread, and find a piece of the repair work that can be our piece. Even if all we can do is pound a few nails back into place or stitch a handful of stitches. Because even in this, we can be “repairers of the breach,” to borrow Isaiah’s words. Granted, some situations are so messed up, so tangled that it takes effort even to begin tugging a single thread out of a giant knot, in order to make headway. But surely pulling that single thread loose or giving the knot around it some loving attention is a way of repairing the world too.
Again, we’re not doing it alone. Sitting here in this room today are quite a number of you already doing your part to repair the world. I think, too, about the difference our ecumenical community here in Magnolia has made to the residents of Tent City 5. About the difference so many communities of faith in our city have made to Treehouse for Kids and to Operation Nightwatch and to Mary’s Place. And of course there are people of faith working together across our country and around the world.
Remember that we do this important work with God’s help too. There’s a marvelous scene in the movie “Bruce Almighty” where – after all kinds of chaos breaks loose in the city of Buffalo – Morgan Freeman as God invites Bruce (Jim Carrey) to pick up a mop and join him in mopping up the mess. Each slap and slosh of their big old-fashioned string mops across the floor, back and forth, back and forth, symbolically restoring order and cleaning up the mess. Repairing the world together.
That idea of being in partnership with God is very much in keeping with the Jewish notion of tikkun olam. As I started reading around online this week, to learn more about this important teaching in Judaism, I stumbled across that same Hebrew phrase accompanied by a beautiful black and white sketch of the planet earth being held by enormous hands – God’s hands – and then all over the planet were these tiny silhouettes of human figures, carrying ladders, wielding tools, unfolding blueprints. If your personal tools tend more toward needle and thread, you might picture your particular piece of the world-mending business using that imagery instead. Or maybe the mop metaphor from “Bruce Almighty” is one that resonates for you. The tools are many; the task is the same.
For surely there are as many ways to repair the world, with God’s help, as there are people in it. Agonizing health problems are tackled everyday not only by doctors and nurses but by researchers and pharmacists making great strides against cancer and AIDS and malaria. Others are doing their piece to repair the world through political activism, and through development work for nonprofit organizations, and through engineering solutions to the lack of adequate sanitation around the world. Others through welcoming refugees, and providing meals to those who are hungry, and teaching kids from impoverished neighborhoods how to read, to give them a chance at a better life.
Tikkun olam - repairing the world – this isn’t the kind of project we can check off our to do list, as if it could ever be done to our satisfaction. At the same time, what an interesting sort of blessing to have before us a lifetime of meaningful work to do. We’re not in any danger of running out of invitations to make a difference! And I wonder how many situations in which we currently feel overwhelmed could actually be reconsidered from the perspective of: “OK, but where is my part? What could I fix here? What’s mine to repair?”
It can happen in a thousand little ways. For instance, I may not be able to prevent bullies from treating people with contempt, whether those bullies operate from a playground or a penthouse or the White House. But I can certainly do my part to treat people with respect and kindness, compassion and understanding, myself. So while I couldn’t prevent that angry customer from disrespecting the lovely woman who cuts my hair a couple weeks ago, I sure tried my best to be the kindest customer she’d had all day. In the grand scheme of all of the world’s gaping wounds, that may seem the tiniest of band-aids. But in that moment, for that one person, it could still be a pretty big deal.
As another example, I can’t prevent powerful people from speaking, preaching, or tweeting horrible things about people of color, immigrants and refugees, Muslim Americans. Because boy, would I make them stop, if I could! What I can do is get myself and anyone else who’s interested to another incredibly hospitable open house over at that Redmond mosque a few of us visited last month. I can introduce you to some of my new friends there. And I can stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer with a congregation there that is incredibly diverse, both racially and in terms of countries of origin. A small step, certainly, but a small piece of a terribly important project. Mending the world. Repairing the world, one individual action at a time.
It also seems to me that tikkun olam, repairing the world, is an excellent response to fear. As part of this same “Glad You Asked” sermon series I was also asked how to cope with the regular blows to our psyche that pound away at us, with so many frightening news stories each week. I know I’ve lamented with plenty of you, and also felt pretty stuck at times, simply wondering: How can this be possible? Why are such awful things happening? We can feel helpless in the face of problems of worldwide magnitude.
But you may also remember that on one of last week’s slides, Laurie showed us that wonderful quote about faith – that it’s taking the next step when you can’t see the rest of the staircase? I’m challenging myself to take that next step. To choose faith over fear, action over inaction. I’m not sure it’s within our power not to feel afraid – fear can be a perfectly understandable reaction - so perhaps the key is to notice our fear …and then to take that next step anyway. To focus on what I can do something about, and to start there. To be one of those little silhouetted human figures with a ladder or a hammer, tackling one small project on that great big planet God’s holding in God’s hands. And always to remember there are a whole lot of other people around me picking up their own tools and getting to work too.
I don’t know if any of you have heard a song called “Do Something” by Matthew West? It begins this way:
I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble … thought
How’d we ever get so far down, and
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did … I created you”
The chorus goes on to ask:
If not us, then who?
If not me and you?
… it’s not enough to do nothing
It’s time for us to do something.
I’m challenging myself this year to move beyond that feeling of fear and helplessness, and to pick up my particular tool kit and get to work.
We’ll be talking at our church officers retreat in a few weeks about ways for us to do this as a congregation too. A lot of work over the past year has gone into repairing our own church home, this beautiful building in which we’re privileged to gather. Once that’s behind us, how might we redirect energy to repairing the world outside these walls, or even to repairing the world by inviting others into this beautiful home of ours? And given the vast number of ways we could proceed, are there specific areas in which we could all come together to help? Might there be a single focus within that broader project of tikkun olam that could unite us as a church family? How might we ensure the children of the congregation play an important part in that effort? For surely we want them to believe the world can be better off than it is right now, and that they have an important part to play in making it better. Let’s equip them with kid-sized hammers, if you will, so they know they don’t need to wait until they are older to help repair the world; they can make a difference right now. While we’re at it, we have plenty of adults here whose work schedules or family responsibilities, or whose age or illness prevents them from participating in certain kinds of projects - can we find ways for you, too, to play an important role? In other words, in addition to each one of us putting our individual tool kits to work here and there, might there be a piece of world repair that belongs to us all here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church?
Both of this morning’s Scripture texts remind us that tikkun olam, repairing the world, is a form of worship, and that more than any type of song or prayer, more than any religious ritual, God longs to see us fighting oppression, doing justice, exhibiting kindness, welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted.
Let’s find ways to pick up our respective tool kits and get to work, repairing the world one small break, tear, knot, or scrape at a time.