|Fire Ant Raft, by Maggie|
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at Ewing Presbyterian Church, Ewing, NJ
For our children's sermon today, we read Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein. When you see injustice, when you see pain, may you be an Interrupting Chicken and intervene with yes, even God, like Abraham, like the persistent widow. We are a people of disruption, thanks be to God!
L.O.G. (as we call it) stands for Love of God, and for 3 days we try to create with God’s help a little peace of a new heaven and a new earth. We invite friends to join us and then we spend the weekend loving them. For 48 hours we spoil our friends rotten—we ruin them, as they say. We have piles of food, unending music and singing, games, laughter, an abundant, overflowing of love: God’s love. From Friday until Sunday we do our best to set aside the drama of everyday life, the stress of school and work and family, the trauma of worrying about the future. We do our best to celebrate (not ignore) our differences, cling fiercely to our similarities, and offer to one another a safe place to tell the stories of our lives. For two weekends a year, our students worship, laugh and love with one another, giving thanks to God for these moments of joy gifted to us.
Last weekend we had a team of 15 students. Some of the students you may recognize: Pierce served as a co-leader. Nadine, Riely, Amber. Eugene and Nazir were there—you’ve met them on Sundays sometimes. Tyana, Taniya and Maniya came as participants—you’ve met them too. They know your church and like it here. Ewing church is always kind to them. Miriam is here today with her father, visiting from the other church. Her mother, Audrey always cooks for us.
Our young adults included Devon and Emma. Oh, the Fletchers go way back here, but then this is a church that GOES way back—you last saw Emma as a little girl, but she’s a sophomore in college now. She’s grown all the way up. Her mother, Pat, was with us most of the weekend. Our other Patricia cooked Saturday to Sunday, tirelessly putting out trays of food for our hungry horde of teenagers. Leslie stopped by to help a while—she is Roberto's best friend--you saw him grow up too. He has a job now, working all the time. They’re all grown up now. And there are others who know this church and are a part of the Ewing community: Kayla, Mandy, Brian, Jack, JoAnn. Extending the love of this congregation, our Ewing community folks reach out beyond themselves to students at Lawrence Road and beyond that to other communities, and through this program, which you help sponsor, they share the love you have as a congregation for youth.
It is not a small thing that we do, this L.O.G. retreat. And Ewing’s part in it is not small either. We are a rarely visible part of the church, sneaking in after hours to use the rooms and eat food and leave our crumbs. Church mice, I have called them. And like church mice, they know your church well, the nooks and crannies, where to hide, where to find a smidgeon of ice cream or chips and whatnot. It would be so easy to think they do not exist. Or that you are not important to the L.O.G. students. But you would be wrong. So very wrong.
I come this morning to tell you that Ewing Presbyterian Church is integral to the survival of the 25 students we worked with last weekend. You matter, Church. Your support matters. You are, in fact, essential to these teenagers.
We are reading through Brian MacLaren’s We Make the Road By Walking. Week by week there is a chapter to read, scriptures to consider, conversations to be had. This week the chapter title is “It’s Not Too Late”, and for our consideration we were offered four scriptures: the lead up to Sodom and Gomorrah and the back story to Lot’s wife turning to salt; the almost sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son; Micah chapter 6—which you will know as “He has shown thee, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God; and finally a passage from Acts that talks about the coming judgment day. We are told by MacLaren: “It’s not too late!” And I ask myself as I read, not too late for what?
As I read through the scriptures, I landed on this passage from Genesis in which Abraham was badgering God for a second chance for the city of Sodom. For God had decided to destroy the city and all her inhabitants. “For why?” you might ask. And of course you have heard the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and about how angels came in the form of men, strangers. They had planned to sleep out in the square, and if Sodom had been a righteous city, they would have been safe sleeping outside. But Lot, who was family with Abraham, knew how the people of the city were, and insisted that the angels stay inside with his family. And sure enough, the men of the city came to Lot’s door and demanded that Lot hand his guests over to be raped. Lot, a righteous man, refused and kept the angels safe. And in return, the angels made sure Lot and his family were outside the city in the morning, when the city was to be destroyed by fire.
But let us go back. For what the angels experienced that night was simply confirmation. The LORD had made up his mind to destroy Sodom before the angels arrived. The men of the city, with their violent behavior, simply confirmed for the LORD that the city was unrighteous. The guilt of Sodom was not a night of threatened rape. No, the guilt of Sodom, we are told in Ezekiel, was this: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. She was haughty, Sodom was.
And still, troubled, Abraham bargained with the LORD. It’s not too late! He cried. Surely there are fifty righteous men in Sodom. Would you destroy an entire city, even though fifty righteous men resided there? Would the righteous perish alongside the wicked? Surely, not you, Lord, would be so cruel! And the LORD acquiesced, graciously even. If I find fifty righteous men, then Sodom will be spared. How about 45, asked Abraham slyly. For his nephew, Lot, lived in the city he knew. Would you set fire to the city if we are 5 short of 50? 40? 30? 20? And each time the LORD said, “ok, fine. 40, 30, 20. I won’t destroy the city.” And a final time Abraham spoke and said, “10. How about 10. If there are 10 righteous men in the city, surely you are a just God and will spare her.” And God, perhaps out of affection for Abraham—this sometimes childish man who trusted God with his whole life—God said, “Ok. 10 men. I will spare the city for 10 righteous men.”
Did Abraham trust that Lot’s family would be enough? Did he pray that night when he went home? Did he share with Sarah in the quiet of their tent his hopes and fears of what would come? Did he regret not bargaining for one—one righteous man? For surely his nephew, Lot, would prove worthy.
It’s not too late! There is time! The LORD will spare our city for 10 righteous ones! It’s not too late! We can still pester our God to be merciful! It’s not too late! We can change our ways! It’s not too late!
I want to say this to you about Trenton. About Ewing. About Lawrence. It’s not too late! 41% of children in Trenton live in poverty. It’s not too late! We have a city of relative ease and wealth in the township of Ewing—it’s not too late! There is much than can be done—there is much we are already doing—it’s not too late!
Like the persistent widow in our Luke scripture, like Abraham for the sake of Sodom and his cousing Lot, we are entitled to badger our God in prayer and supplication. Like the persistent widow, like Abraham, the children of Trenton are entitled to cry out for relief, for justice, for an easing of their pain and crisis. It’s not too late! We are children of a Most High God who affectionately hears our petitions and prayers, who longs for justice, who appreciates generous and abundant hospitality—it’s not too late! We know how to do this!
The students this weekend, at L.O.G., they shared so deeply of themselves. They always do. On Saturday afternoon there is space for them to talk of their deepest concerns in this life. The young ones seem so young to us, don’t they? But their stresses, their concerns, their worries mirror those of adults. Already at 13, 14, 15, 16, their lives are full of deep pain. They speak of depression and anxiety, suicide and rage. They speak of pregnancy and abortion and lost children. They tell their tales of drug abuse, drinking, and addiction. They talk of failing at school and living without money, of days without food and sometimes electricity. They speak of broken families, of parents whose best falls short, of grandparents who died. They tell us the stories of breakups and heartaches and crushes who crushed their spirits. They tell us their worries about the future, about college, about working, about getting out of this place before it eats them alive. These teenagers run deep underneath those glib shrugs and sly silence.
They are so very alive, these teenagers—and so it’s not too late! We draw breath and rise every morning, and therefore it’s not too late!
This week there was catastrophic flooding in South Carolina, and in the midst of the tragedy of lost homes and lost lives, I saw a story about fire ants. It seems that fire ants build their tunnels underground, and when the flood waters come, their tunnels are destroyed. With nowhere to go, the fire ants band together and form a raft with their bodies. Hundreds and thousands of ants quickly weave together, using pincers and mandibles and whatever they can to hold on to one another. With a strength of 400 times their body weight, the ants cling to one another. Their exoskeletons repel water, and woven together they form a waterproof fabric that can float for weeks, if necessary. The queen and the larvae are thrown on top, out of harm’s way. The hardier adults form the bottom layer, protecting the rest of the colony. As needed, the ants on the bottom of the raft trade places with ants on top. The communal movement of the ant raft functions as a superorganism, allowing the entire colony to relocate in times of disaster, saving their leader and the babies. For weeks they can float this way until they reach dry land.
And of course they are fire ants, so when they reach dry land, they disperse, rebuild, and devour every living organism they can find. Fire ants are fire ants, not humans. They have a strength we do not have. They have instincts we do not share. But we humans have the capacity for learning from metaphor, and perhaps we might take something from the raft of the fire ants.
In so many ways we humans have lost our ability to move as a colony. Many of us function as nuclear families without a lot of support or networks to hold us up in times of crisis. For fear that we too might drown, we do not always band together with the rest of our people during the flood times. Individual ants, while somewhat water resistant on their own, will drown quickly in a flood. But the colony together, using all of their smarts and strength and natural abilities, can save each other. We might do that too.
What would it look like as a community of Ewing, Lawrence, and Trenton to hold on to one another in the middle of the flood? We’d have to expand our understanding of who is in our tribe—are you ready for that? I’ve been thinking about the interaction between individual ants as they form the raft.
As the waters flood their homes, the ants grab on to one another. Quickly, oh so quickly they form a blob that floats, and they do it by pinching and biting and squeezing and grabbing. It’s surely not a pleasant process! Can you imagine the conversation that might occur?
“Hey Bob! Get over here! The water is coming!”
“Must I? Really? Last time you grabbed on so hard I was bruised for weeks!”
“Ow! Susana, are you even kidding me? Did you just bite my ear? I told you to grab my hand!”
“Dangit Davonne! You’re too close. Why are you up in my business like that! Take a step back!”
“Hold my hand, little one, don’t let go. No matter what, don’t let go!”
“Mother! Father! I’m frightened! Where are you! The water is so cold!”
“I’m DYING! You must help me! You must help me, even though it endangers you!”
Oh, can you imagine it? It is not our nature, here in the U.S. We treasure our individual success and security with a fierceness that borders on idolatry. We pay lip service to community, but few of us want to rely on the community for our lives. How many of us truly open our homes to strangers? How many of us truly rely on someone else for our needs? No, we do not have the instincts and talents of the fire ants. But we have a capacity for metaphor and learning.
The ant colonies rely on short-lived generations that are constantly dying and regenerating, learning over long periods of time through the death and rebirth of the colony. But we humans live long, and we cannot wait for our children to learn what is needed. We must learn it ourselves and lift up our children. It is not too late!
What will this look like here at Ewing? Oh I don’t know—how could I know? I cannot see the future. But I do know that we have time, that we have been granted the gift of one more day, one more breath, one more chance to say I love you to those around us. And we should take advantage of every one of those chances. For we do not know how many more chances we will have.
We do not know when it is God’s angels at our doorstep and when it is merely mortals. We do not know when we might be one of the ten righteous ones who can save the city. We do not know when the floods will come. But we can do what is necessary to keep the colony safe. We can latch on to one another, trust each other to stay connected, and lift up our children, the elderly, the vulnerable ones to keep them safe and dry in the flood. We can surround our leaders with prayer and love. We can offer up our talents and time and money and love for the betterment and security of our entire community—it is not too late!
How do we do this? I don’t have all the answers. But probably it starts with the people knocking on your door. Or the people down the street. Or the children who come to church. Or the children who come to church when you aren’t looking. Or the neighbors’ kids in need. Or the mother struggling to make it. Or the father in jail. Or the young adult who needs a job. Or the person on the street who needs a bed. Grab on and hold tight. Don’t let go until the flood subsides. It’s no too late!
There is an urgency to love, to life. Christ calls us to abundant life through service and care for one another. If, when there is a knock on your door, a pull on your heart strings, a request to share what you have, if in that moment you believe the person in front of you is indeed Christ, what will you do? How will you serve?
A last story, then, a small story. Sometimes we need small stories to remind us that even in our own pain, our old age, our vulnerability, we still have something to share.
My son went to an AA meeting last week. He was in a rotten mood, and on the way to the meeting we argued. I dropped him off and he left me with all the teenage disdain that only a teenager can muster.
An old woman at the meeting asked him why he was in his rotten mood. And he said, “I got in a fight with my mom.” She sized him up and said to him, “You better apologize to your mom, or I’ll bash you with my oxygen tank.”
And in that moment the sheer absurdity of her words go through to him, and he texted me an apology. I texted back that I loved him. And when I picked him up, things were better.
It was a small, small thing. But that old woman gave us a little breathing room. Through humor and persistence, she got through to him in a way I couldn’t. I’m sure it took a lot for her to get to that meeting with the oxygen tank in tow. But there she was, in faithful attendance. And her presence MATTERED. She grabbed on to my son, and my son grabbed back. And then he bit into me by text message and I held on for dear life.
And it is in this way, moment by moment, small thing by small thing, words here and there, that love will overwhelm the floodwaters and we will LIVE. It is not too late!