July 10 sermon by the Rev. Winnie Varghese, Trinity Wall Street, Episcopal Diocese of New York

79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church

Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs
Posted Jul 12, 2018

The following is the text of the sermon that the Rev. Winnie Varghese, Trinity Wall Street, Episcopal Diocese of New York, preached at the General Convention Eucharist on July 10, 2018.

Please be seated.

If you’re from the Diocese of New York, you’ll know that our Bishop has a snake-handling story, but since I only have a Michael Curry eight minutes I can’t tell it to you right now.

It is an honor to be here.

The end of Mark is a response to a dilemma. Scholars say this section is probably a later addition, you all know that in this room. The older part of this text ends abruptly, the tomb is empty — exclamation point or dot, dot, dot, period.

These final verses that wrap up quite neatly are probably later but consistent with the themes in Mark: unbelieving disciples; Jesus comes to them while they are at a table; we are to proclaim the good news, we will receive gifts of the Spirit, and when we do so, God will work in us.

So maybe we need that reminder that salvation is for the whole creation, and we have a part in it. No confusion here that we too have a role to play in the inbreaking of this reign of God. And that when we proclaim this Good News, the Spirit working in us brings about the restoration of all. And that is some very serious business, so let’s get to it.

So, first it’s good to be in Texas. I was born and raised in Dallas, and I forget sometimes how much this state is my home, until I’m here. So, it’s very good to be here.

For those of you who are not from here, we are in the land of the Comanche and the Kiowa. It was complicated as there were over 100 tribes in what is now Texas, and the Comanche were a large and dominant tribe, very strong, at the time of Spanish settlement. And unlike most of the United States, Spain colonized what is now Texas, and it was a violent, enslaving, mission-based colonizing. The Texas Indian Wars did not end until 1875 that is after the Civil War, and they ended brutally and they were all brutal.

The Comanche trail, a road, actually a highway, a beaten path, said to be a mile wide in some areas. Can you even imagine a road a mile wide? Were like our roads today, and like Roman roads, these were the routes for the movement of peoples and goods, and also for use in times of war.

The Comanche Trail begins in what is now Mexico and goes into the Texas panhandle. If you’re driving from Austin to Dallas, there are markers at strip malls, literally, one I’ve seen outside of a Starbucks.  Or if you’re in Big Bend National park, you can hike along sections of it surrounded by fields of wildflowers. We are in a beautiful, ancient, and historic part of the country.

From Northern Mexico south there are other highways that have connected the migrations of ancient peoples and contemporary peoples for as long as people have lived in this hemisphere, the mythic highways the Spanish had heard about, arteries of commerce, and power, and people. I once read of a scholar looking for these trails into the Amazon jungles. Where the heat, humidity, and density of the forest kept stopping him in his quest. He would hit the end of these old roads. So he gives up and starts to believe that it would not be possible for these non-populated places to have had such systems of roads, and then once while flying over a section of the Amazon to some other area, he notices a shift in the landscape. And he looks more closely, he sees a landscape which is the tops of trees, and begins to see among the trees and their growth patterns long paths, the proof that there used to be something like highways there, roads, seeing with his own eyes that clearly, there had been arteries of travel through what is now jungle. The Americas had indeed been connected by roads in ancient times. And people today still walk those trails to our southern border.  You can see this also in upstate New York where we now have forest, forest that looks ancient, in which you will find decaying stone walls, proof that they were once settled farmlands before those farmers moved west in their quest for more free land as the Indian Wars continued in that part of the country.

We live in this land, most of us immigrants, not all, but most.  Third, fourth, fifth, sixth generations, some of us first and second like me. Some of us are descendants of the enslaved. Some of us are descendants of Native Americans. We are an odd country that way. In almost all of the rest of the world, people can tell the stories of their families for 20, 30, 60 generations.  Stories that tell us who we are on the pieces of earth we have always inhabited.

We in this hemisphere have shorter stories that almost always start with some kind of disruption, often one that is defining. We know how we got here, most of us, and it’s often where our story starts. And it’s created a complicated relationship with this land:

It is not ours;

or is it ours to subdue;

or we do not understand it.

–It is frightening, or we are only passing through.

I was for a while the rector of St. Mark’s in the Bowery, which is a church in New York City. Bowery, it turns out, I didn’t know this, is the Dutch word for an estate or a large farm. You’d never believe that part of Manhattan was a farm.  St. Mark’s is on the site of Peter Stuyvesant’s grave. Peter Stuyvesant was the last Dutch Governor General of what was then New Amsterdam, now New York.

And he was buried on his farm, on his bowery, on the site of his chapel, which makes that church, St. Mark’s, the oldest site of continuous worship in New York. And it would have been a little chapel on a farm carved out of the forests of Manhattan in the far Northern reaches of the settlement a good mile or two north of the Wall, the fortification at the bottom of Manhattan, that secured the tiny settled, secured colony of New York from the local people to the north. That wall is now Wall Street.

When I went to St. Mark’s there were great people and great things happening there, and there were some challenges like all churches.

And among the stranger things that I found was this enormous yard, on 2nd Avenue, a full city block between 10th St. and 11th St. with a wrought iron fence around it.

You could see right through it from the sidewalk or the road.

A “no man’s land” I was told.

I was told not to go there, even though the church sat in it, not to sit down, definitely not to put my hands in it. People threw all kinds of things over the fence, I was told, and did some unspeakable things in that yard, I was told.  And there were rats, I saw those, really big ones. And there was this strange dusty quality. It was parched and rocky, full of red brick. And weeds grew in it. New York City gets a lot of rain.  It is a well landscaped city. The state of this really quite large piece of real estate in the middle of Manhattan was really bizarre. Remember this site was a forest, and forests insist on growing, is my experience, and then a farm with orchards.

So as I got to know the church, I learned that they were a small community. Figuring out how to make ends meet by renting out their spaces. Then quite consumed with managing those rentals and those relationships, which you can imagine were so complicated. Everyone was stressed. There wasn’t much energy left, I know you don’t know anything about things like that.

So the parts of the church that faced the neighborhood that you could see: the exterior of the building, the fences, and that big open yard, had become strangely visual symbols, and deterrents, to the community of the reality of the place — a big parched yard on a formerly grand estate.

So, we started to weed it.

We were told it was an act of futility.

Weeds return, we were told.

Jimmy the sexton, courageous and mighty, took down a trash corral with a sledge hammer, and I looked out the windows to see him jumping around, as he let out a series of the most high-pitched screams I have ever heard, as families of rats came running out, evicted from what must have been their home for decades.

So that was where they were coming from . . .

We tilled and removed rocks and needles and even spoons, remember Crack.

We wore heavy gloves.

Young adults did the work with us, and we all got to know each other in the way you do when you work together.

God help you if you came to church on Sunday, we’d have you out in that yard.

We planted grass and laid a labyrinth and planted grass and laid a labyrinth

it didn’t take perfectly, we planted roses and thyme, and sage — birds came, but that took a couple of years.

And as we worked together we heard our stories. We learned that workers had thrown the construction debris from the renovation of the church, after a large fire, into the yard — it was and is after all a graveyard.

The idea of grass growing or a yard mattering in the East Village in the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s was a folly, we were told, but now, as at that time, it seemed as though the earth was crying out for redemption, an end to the abuse. And frankly, if we look around that neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, that was the heart of the urban garden movement on the East Coast, that neighborhood of immigrants was crying out for a connection to the earth, like the lives they had left behind:  to grow some food and flowers; to take care in that way that the earth requires. A tending, but really a mysterious tending that with the power of the Spirit produces sustenance and beauty. An opening up of a way, because as you know in your garden, it is the life itself that makes the new life.

So, I had never been a part of a project like that. And we couldn’t afford to just give it to someone else to do. I think a professional would have said, probably wisely, we should dredge that whole yard and start with fresh soil, it is dead.  Kinda like a church plant, right?  You start over. But we couldn’t afford it. We had a historic site to manage. So, we did it section by section with rented tools, like a church restart, I guess, as opposed to a plant.

And as we mulched in compost and threw down seed, literally the birds of the air came to eat, immediately. And we learned a new prayer that they would choose to poop it right back in the same yard.

Yes, we literally scattered seed and watched it fall on brick and rocky places and on good soil. And gently tamped it down and hoped it would remain. But we did not know what was below it, or if the rats liked to eat seeds. And we did it over and over and over again, and the lawn when I left it was pretty scraggly. But it is a lawn with deep roots, we picked our grass very strategically that will eventually bring back health to the soil. And there are flowers, and on the other side there is food. Now it is not a flawless Texas style Monsanto green lawn like I grew up with, rather the landscape tells the story of that community.  One in which it will take time to undo old wounds and keep from repeating the injuries, and while we do it, we must care well for what is ours to tend in this time.

My parents have always had a garden. When I was a kid in Dallas, I thought everyone had trellises of their favorite vegetables in the backyard, for us it was some fairly obscure Indian vegetables, growing in a very well-organized rectangle plot in our backyard. My father grew up on a farm so he planted meticulously and in a straight line and watched the plants every day, and I wonder if it kept him sane in the crazy environment we lived in. My mother, as always, had a more creative approach, she literally liked to scatter things and let them grow where they needed to grow, among some weeds, free, and maybe offer a few plant steroids every once in a while, like vitamins, if something needed help growing. And I wonder if it helped them to make sense of the place that they had come to live.

I learned at St. Mark’s that putting our hands in the soil heals and grounds our hurting and our hearts. Some say that our primary broken heartedness in this era is that we do not tend the soil any longer — that we human beings require that connection for our wholeness. I can believe that. That is my experience. You might even say the spirit can be found in the things of the earth, that we can reconnect to what is literally life giving and sustaining in the soil — we do seem to return to the land in every generation, those of us that can, because we seek to heal as individuals and as a people.

Here in this land where the wisdom of the earth has been wiped out like its oldest peoples. We struggle to reconnect. The earth buckles under the weight of our waste. The waters cease to flow; or they overwhelm; or they themselves are poisoned. Some of us wait anxiously for news of fire close to home.

Or as we heard this morning, extractive technologies, drilling for oil in Alaska, things like that devastate our fragile environments, the ones that make life possible.  Those companies from which we earn our pensions, our government-permitted projects, we are complicit.

As the prayer says we have violated creation and abused one another.

We have failed to honor God’s image among us.

And so we must repent and turn,

And as we repent the filth and toxins buried deep (like all those rats) will emerge.

We will be disgusted (feel free to scream and jump around).

We are not innocent or immune in this catastrophe.

But we will be better when it is gone.

Scarred (and maybe scraggly) but better.

We can live again, but it will take a tilling and clearing and planting and sustaining,

It will take resisting (and fighting) and changing,

again, and again, and again.

The earth asks for our help. We are her protectors the Bible says, but if we fail, let’s be clear, this earth will keep spinning, without us.

If we do this work, as we labor, as we hear and tell the stories of our ancient heritages, this land, and our dreams, at this table the resurrected One appears. The one who has gone into the earth itself and returned to tell us that new life is possible.

One way to find that life is in the things of this earth,

and when you place your hands in it:

You too can cast out the demons of desolation.

You will hear the stories of those who have come before us

You will hold the wild things in your hands.

You will find in yourself the power to heal.

May God make you brave and creative in the work of love.

May God bless you and the work of your hands.