Saturday, March 13, 2010

the araboolies of liberty street - a sermon

Sam Swope is one of my favorite writers. His book, "I Am A Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories," is my textbook on how to be a committed, compassionate, and creative writing teacher to the 4th graders I work with each day at my inner-city school. If you want to read a book that is a window into the lives of school children, teachers, and schools, if you want to read a book that is a window into the human heart, then read, "I Am A Pencil." It is wonderful.

Swope also wrote my favorite children's book, "The Araboolies of Liberty Street." Published in 1989, it became an underground classic and is treasured by people who live and move and have their being outside of the establishment.

It is a story about Liberty Street, where all the houses and all the people are exactly the same and where General Pinch and his wife are in charge. 'Liberty' means "freedom from arbitrary or despotic control," so Liberty Street wasn't a good name for that street because General Pinch and his wife were nothing but arbitrary and despotic. They order the children to stay inside and to cease and desist from any and all fun OVER THE SUMMER!

One day, the Araboolies move onto the street. They ARE a joyful, noisy, multihued family and ARE NOT like anyone else on the street, especially not like General Pinch and his wife. They paint their house with bright colors and zigzags, camp out on their front lawn, and invite the neighborhood children over to play wild and joyful games.

Of course, the General and his wife are horrified. "I'LL CALL IN THE ARMY," the General screams. After he gets bopped in the head with a balloonaloona ball, and after he gives as much hell as he can to the Araboolies to no avail,  he does. He commands the Army to find the house that is different and take it away.

The children on Liberty Street stay up all night and use paints, banners, and balloons to decorate every house on the street to make them look like the Araboolie's house. Every house, that is, except the General's house. After this creative act of nonviolence, the Pinch's house is left as the weird one on the street.

Following the General's orders, the Army ties up the house that is different, THE PINCH'S HOUSE, and drags it away!

Acts 2:43-47

The first "company of believers" (as Clarence Jordan calls the followers of Jesus in the Cotton Patch Version of Acts 2) must have seemed like Araboolies to their neighbors. In my study of the world of the first years of the church, I find that many of those neighbors THOUGHT and FELT that God was arbitrary and despotic and always ready to CALL IN THE ARMY if they didn't fulfill God's every perceived whim. According to Clarence (who, along with his interracial community at Koinonia Farms in south Georgia during the times of legalized segregation in the South, were Araboolies themselves), that "company of believers" STUCK TOGETHER in a world where people were tearing apart, HELD ALL THINGS IN COMMON - SELLING THEIR GOODS AND BELONGINGS, AND DIVIDING THEM AMONG THE GROUP ON THE BASIS OF ONE'S NEED in a world where people were taking and taking until there was a wide gap between the few who were rich and the many who were poor and were building a system where the rich got richer at the expense of the poor who grew desperately poor, were KNIT TOGETHER WITH SINGLENESS OF PURPOSE, GATHERING AT THE CHURCH EVERY DAY AND EATING THE COMMON MEAL FROM HOUSE TO HOUSE WITH JOY AND HUMILITY in a world where individual good proudly trumped the common good and sowed despair, and were PRAISING GOD AND SHOWING OVER-FLOWING KINDNESS TOWARD EVERYBODY in a world where people praised the powerful and showed kindness only to those who could do something for them. The purpose of this “company of believers” wasn't to SURVIVE but to SERVE. They lived and taught that God is love. They may as well have painted their houses in bright colors and zigzags, camped out on their front lawns, and invited the neighborhood children over to play wild and joyful games! They were Araboolies!

Gustavo Gutierrez

Gustavo Gutierrez is my favorite theologian. His understanding of God, in his LIFE and WORK, is like the Araboolies - joyful, noisy, and multihued. He was born in Peru to poor, indigenous parents. A struggle with osteomyelitis as a child left his body crippled but his mind strong for learning and his heart sensitive to the suffering of those around him. He studied theology in Europe, was ordained to the priesthood, and returned to Peru to share the good news of Jesus with the poor of Lima. God turned his life UPSIDE DOWN when he discovered that Jesus was alive in the lives of those poor people and in the lives of those who lived in solidarity with them and that Jesus through them were SHARING THE GOOD NEWS WITH HIM. He became a "pencil" for the poor and wrote down in his monumental work, "A Theology of Liberation," their understanding of God and their hopes for building a more human world FOR ALL PEOPLE. His essential question for us is, "HOW CAN WE TELL THE POOR PEOPLE OF THE WORLD THAT GOD LOVES THEM WHEN THEY LIVE IN THE MIDST OF LIFE CRUSHING POVERTY?" He is helping me work on a theology of the neighbor, which is so deeply needed in our un-neighborly world today. He helps us think about his question by reminding us that THE CHURCH IS A SACRAMENT FOR THE WORLD and that THE PLACE OF IT'S MISSION IS WHERE THE CELEBRATION OF THE LORD'S SUPPER AND THE CREATION OF HUMAN FELLOWSHIP ARE INDISSOLUBLY JOINED. He is an Araboolie if ever there was one and he wonders, "How can we be Araboolies?" 

From Africa To Jefferson Street To Washington, D.C.

I understand liberation theology with the help of three small stories from my life that I hold in my heart and now share with you.

The first two stories help me understand the CELEBRATION OF THE LORD'S SUPPER. We find the institution of the Lord's Supper in the last night of Jesus’ life in the first three Gospels of the New Testament. Surprisingly, though, we do not find it in John's Gospel. Instead we find in it's place the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. If the Lord's Supper is indeed a remembrance of Jesus, John helps us understand what we are remembering, that Jesus calls us to GIVE OURSELVES TO OTHERS.

 When I lived in Mali, West Africa, I woke early one morning to go to a village down the main road from our town. I walked to Momadu's courtyard, one of my best friends in the world and a subsistence farmer/cook/parson/saint. I wondered if we could celebrate the Lord's Supper with our friends in the village. "It's good idea!" he exclaimed with a broken toothed smile in his broken English that always made my heart smile, made my heart whole.

On the way to the village, we stopped and bought a loaf of bread baked in a rock oven and the dried leaves of a flower used to make a traditional African red tea. These would be the simple elements we would use in the celebration with our friends.

We arrived at the village and began our time together in a small clearing beneath towering baobab trees under a soft, dry season, morning sky. Drums pounded out traditional beats and we sang songs together.

 The small company of believers sat in chairs in a circle. Many curious people from the village stood around the circle and watched us. The time came to share the Lord's Supper. Momadu whispered, "I think it would mean a lot to the people if you gave them the bread and juice." He prayed a prayer and I broke the bread and placed it in the expectant, open hands of my friends. I looked at them and said, "Xa taa ani domolo xe," which means, "Take it and eat," in English. 

I noticed that a woman holding a small, frail child in her lap didn't eat the bread. The child was so small and so frail that she was almost unrecognizable, almost unseen. I wondered why the woman didn't eat the bread. "Do you think she understood my broken Malinke?" I whispered to Momadu. He leaned close to me. "Her daughter has been very sick and she is saving the bread for her."
 And there it was, in the life of an African woman and her child in a small, forgotten place in the world - an example of what it means to remember Jesus, to give ourselves to others, to be an Araboolie.

When I lived in Louisville, KY, my home was at the Jeff Street Baptist Center across the street from the Clarksdale Housing Projects. I was a member of a company of believers called the Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty and a part of the neighborhood, too. One morning I walked out the front doors of the center and turned down Jefferson Street toward the Ohio River. There, huddled in a circle beside the wall of our building, was a group of worn, ragged homeless men. I knelt down with them and said, "Hello." One of the men smiled a toothless smile at me, reached into his coat, pulled out a bottle of Wild Irish Rose, took a swig, and passed it to me. "Here," he said. "Have a drink."

What an Araboolie moment! Here I was offering my alcoholic friend a, "Hello," and he offering me the thing that was most important to him. And there it was again, in the life of small, forgotten, homeless alcoholic - an example of what it means to remember Jesus, to give ourselves to others, to be an Araboolie.

The last story helps me understand the CREATION OF HUMAN FELLOWSHIP. 
When I was in college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I spent one of my spring break weeks serving at the Johenning Baptist Center in inner-city Washington, D.C. One night, my friends and I visited a small, Episcopal Church. There was a sign on the tiny lawn in front of the traditional red front doors of the church. "Free South Africa!" it said. I was intrigued. Were churches supposed to take sides in political matters? 

During the service, I waited for the moment we would celebrate the Eucharist. I wondered what it would be like to drink wine, real wine and not the Welch’s grape juice we took in Baptist churches (where no hands were to be found on another's hips and no wine was to be found on anyone's lips!). The ruffled, kindly priest called us to the altar. I looked around for the first time and noticed that the congregation was unlike any congregation I had ever worshipped with before. There were homeless people among us. Gay couples were there. There were black people, brown people, and white people. We were young and old. I will always remember the priest holding the cup before us and instructing, "Tonight we are going to drink from the same cup...this cup reminds us that we are brothers and sisters...we don't have to be afraid of each other...Jesus gave himself for us and so we should give ourselves to each other..." 
And there it was, in the life of a small, forgotten congregation in the heart of America's capital - an example of what it means to create human fellowship, to be an Araboolie.

Wouldn’t We Like To Be Araboolies, Too?

Now we know how to be Araboolies. WHY DOES THE WOARLD NEED ARABOOLIES?

 WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD that is tearing apart, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who will stick together and work to stitch it together again.

 WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD where people are taking and taking until there is a wide gap between the few who are rich and the many who are poor and are maintaining a system where the rich get richer at the expense of the poor who grow desperately poor, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who will hold all things in common - selling our goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of one’s need.

 WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD where individual good proudly trumps the common good and sows despair, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who are knit together with singleness of purpose, gathering at the church every day and eating the common meal from house to house with joy and humility.

WE STILL LIVE IN A WORLD where people praise the powerful and show kindness only to those who can do something for them, A WORLD IN NEED OF ARABOOLIES who will praise God and show over-flowing kindness toward everybody.

 The kind, ruffled Episcopal priest – the homeless alcoholic – the African mother – Momadu – Gustavo Gutierrez – Clarence Jordan – Sam Swope – are all Araboolies who are VISIBLE SIGNS OF THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD WITHIN THE ASPIRATION FOR LIBERATION AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A MORE HUMAN AND JUST SOCIETY.

The question I leave for us is – WOULDN’T WE LIKE TO BE ARABOOLIES, TOO?

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