I drove to church in the rain this morning.
Somehow the weather reads the calendar: as soon as September comes there is a marked change. Of course, this year even August cooled off, but we have always been able to count on Labor Day Weekend giving us tangible proof of the end of summer as things cool off. This year it seems the sun will not make much of an appearance either. More folks than I expected made showed up for worship on a wet holiday Sunday and it was a Communion Sunday, which always helps me.
After church and a cup of coffee with Don, my senior pastor; from there I headed to the gym for some treadmill time, where I would meet Ginger, before my well deserved Sunday afternoon nap. Don and I talked about using the September Sundays to preach on different metaphors for the church as a way of trying to engage more of the congregation in the conversation on who our church is and feels God wants us to become. I realized the challenge with such a sermon is to articulate meaningful metaphors without getting caught up in shooting down the ones we don’t find helpful. When I was teaching English, we approached metaphors by starting with an odd comparison and seeing what we could find there, sort of like Forrest Gump: “Life is box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find.”
I left Dunkin’ Donuts and turned on to the street toward the gym (part of a commercial/industrial park) to find a red Ford truck with its flashers on and a man standing beside it. I pulled over to see if I could help, thinking I could at least offer my cell phone. Abel, the man standing there, didn’t speak much English, but I did learn he had a bad flat, no spare, no phone, and no one to call for help. I offered to drive him to a nearby service station where I knew they had a mechanic. About that time we were joined by Santiago, his friend who had gone looking for help and who also spoke English. We drove to the service station; they had no one on duty that could help us but told us Sears at the mall had an auto shop open on Sunday.
On the way to the mall, I got to learn a bit about my fellow travelers. They were Mexican immigrants who had come up here from North Carolina. Santiago worked as an electrician and Abel helped him. When I told them I was a cook in a restaurant, our talk turned to food, then to the dearth of good Mexican food in our area, and then to a rather wistful conversation about tamales. I do love me some tamales.
When we got to Sears, I realized I needed to hang around because they had no way to get back to their truck. As we got in line at customer service, I also realized my two companions were the only non-Anglos in the place. I was painfully aware of how what seems simple to me is a difficult if not daunting task for those who are new here. There were no signs directing us where to stand in line, nothing that offered much help at all. The salesperson was a bit curt at first, though he warmed up, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that had to do with my running interference for Santiago and Abel. Regardless of what the Statue of Liberty says, we are not set up to be kind to immigrants.
We got the tire and I got them back to their truck. I left them to mount the tire and I went on to the gym, though I was tempted to reward my kindness by skipping the time on the treadmill. (Run, Milty, run.) Hey, no good deed goes unpunished. I worked up a sweat in yet another room of white people, watched a little beach volleyball to distract me, and then came home. When I passed the place I had seen Abel, the truck was gone. They had to get to work, Santiago told me: “We work seven days.”
Most of the Brazilians I work with at the restaurant also work at least one other job. Pedro, our head dishwasher and all around handyman, works construction all day before he comes and washes dishes from six to midnight. He just got a new construction job las t week. When I asked if he liked it, he said, “It’s good job. Dishwashing is good job. I like work. I feel good to work.”
In our church, as in many UCC churches, we invite people to Communion by saying, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” I know we mean it and I know we have a lot to come to terms with to incarnate our words well. I’ve been thinking about the name of the guy I first met this afternoon when I stopped to help: Abel because of this verse:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I supposed to look after my brother?”
(Genesis 4:9, NIRV)
If church is a family — the Family of God, then the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. Look after your brother, your sister, your cousins, your uncle in prison, and your crazy aunt with all the cats. If church is a meal, then there are seats for everyone and all the seats are the same. There is plenty of food to go around and lots of people working hard to make sure everyone gets to eat. There is also chocolate, ice cream, chicken fried steak, and Guinness. And fried catfish. And hushpuppies. Oh – and tamales.
If church is a nation, then the borders are open and citizenship is universal. The debate over who’s in and who’s out is old business. Living in Promised Land has less to do with milk and honey than it does with keeping our promises to love God with all of our beings and our neighbors as ourselves. Homeland security gives way to “ally, ally, oxen free.” The legacy of any civilization is not in conquest but in how it cares for its citizens. We will be remembered for how well we loved one another.
It seems like a no-brainer to me that everyone would want to be a part of a group that is determined to love one another, regardless of the metaphor. Instead we opt for church as business, or fortress, or battlefield, or courtroom. I’m not sure it’s because we don’t want to be loved and to love as much as it is we don’t believe that love is stronger than fear, or power, or insecurity, or even death. We have a hard time trusting God and each other.
If church is a guy with a flat tire on a rainy afternoon, then we stop to help. I know — I went to that church today.