Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Trickster Community of Riverdale: A Sermon for Pentecost

The Rev. Leah Schade
Text: Acts 2:1-21

Click to view sermon: 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That quote, one of my favorites, is attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Meade.  And our passage from Acts about Pentecost is a great example of this quote. 
They were just a handful of bedraggled disciples of a rabbi who had been crucified as an enemy of the state.  But after encountering the risen Christ, that “trickster” we talked about on Holy Humor Sunday, and seeing him ascended into heaven, the disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. As they waited in that upper room, the Trickster Christ had yet another surprise for them.  The wind from God swept across them, dropping little flames of fire over each of them.  They were whipped into such a frenzy of laughter and joy, people thought they were either drunk or crazy.  That’s what the Holy Spirit does – lights a fire in people’s souls.
And when those little sparks get out into the world, watch out!  The fire of justice and God’s love through Jesus Christ swept across the land and burned in the hearts of hundreds, thousands who longed for God’s power to do something in their lives, in their world, to make a difference, and start a world-changing revolution.  
So what surprises is God doing among us today?  And what does it look like when the Holy Spirit shows up and creates new hope, new community, and new joy with a small group of citizens? Let me tell you a story about where I saw the Trickster Jesus surprise me and a whole community of people with Pentecost joy.
Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past there was a little village nestled snug along a wide and winding river.  
The villagers shared their land with deer and foxes, bear and geese, and, of course, the creatures that dwelled in the waters of the river.  Children rode their bikes down the lanes that ran between the grassy lots of the houses.
Neighbors visited each other in the evenings and had barbeques and picnics in the warm summer evenings.  The villagers were humble, hard-working people, but they did not have much money.  Their houses were not-so-very-big and made of metal.  But many of them decorated their porches with flowers and flags, and everyone trimmed their small, rectangular houses with colorful lights every Christmas.  The neighbors felt safe in their little village.  Everyone looked after each other’s children. And there was always someone looking in on the elderly neighbors, who always knew there would be a family to welcome them to their Thanksgiving table.
The villagers were not perfect people.  But for thirty years, the families lived in the village in peace, grateful for the beauty of God’s creation around them and good friends and neighbors they could count on if there was ever a need.  No matter how hard life would be at their jobs or at school, they always knew they could look forward to coming home to their little village nestled snug along the wide and winding river. 
Until one day they came home to find letters posted on all their doors.  The letters told them that the land underneath their homes had been sold, and they had to move away.  A large company was going to tear down their houses and put in big buildings with big pipes going down to the river.  The pipes would suck out the water, take it up to the mountains, and shoot it down into the ground to break the rocks deep below.
The villagers were very upset.  They could not understand why their village was the place where the big buildings and pipes had to go. “It’s not fair,” they said.  “What will happen to the deer and foxes, the bears and geese?  What will happen to the river?  What will happen to us?”
Some of the villagers moved out right away, stripping the metal from their houses to sell for a little bit of money. 
 In just a few weeks, the village was like a ghost town. 

The families scattered to the surrounding countryside, leaving the village scattered with broken furniture, broken toys, and broken houses.  
Some of the families took their homes with them, leaving behind  porch steps leading to nowhere. 
The old men no longer walked the lanes waving to their neighbors.  The few children still left were too sad to ride their bikes any longer.
But some of the villagers remained.  They did not want to move.  They wanted to stay and protect their homes and the river.  They sent word far and wide asking for help, for people to stand with them as they stood up to the company.  On the day before the bulldozers were to come, people arrived from all over the land, answering the call of the villagers.  
I was with them.  You should have seen their faces when we arrived.  They were so happy that we had come to be with them. We set a little table with thirty-two candles – one for each of the families who had lived in the village.  
We read words from the Bible and other holy books about God’s love for the people and the land and water.  
We prayed for justice and hope.  
We cried with the villagers. 

We filled bowls with water from the river and blessed them.  
And then we held hands and promised to help the villagers.  
As the sun set and the summer air cooled with the mist from the river, I said good-night to the villagers.
But the next day when I came back I got a big surprise!  The helpers had taken all the broken pieces left in the village and made big walls across the road to block the bulldozers from coming in.  
They created huge signs from old boards and bed sheets that said:  “This is our community!” and “We are Americans!”  and “This is a beautiful place!  People live here!”  

The porch steps had been moved to the center of the wall and the villagers stood on top, holding signs for all the cars and trucks passing by on the highway to see.  
“Save our homes,” the signs read. 
People driving by waved and beeped their horns.  Even truck drivers who fractured the rocks honked their horns and waved.
For twelve days the villagers and their helpers kept the bulldozers away. They pitched tents and ate meals around campfires.  
When it rained, they huddled in the abandoned homes to stay dry.  They held circle meetings on the grass by the river to decide how to share chores and help the villagers. 
They played with the children, brought instruments and sang songs, and created a whole new village out of the old one.  
People from across the land sent food to the helpers.   Even our church sent supplies – paper towels and cleaning supplies, food and drinks.  

The villagers were so happy and grateful that we were helping them.  
They were filled with joy, even though they were surrounded by so many broken things.
One of the villagers who had moved away even came back and took the roof off of his old home to make a big, colorful mural. 
They got some paint, dipped their hands into the cans to make handprints across the mural and wrote words to describe who the villagers were:  mother, truck driver, school bus driver, veteran, all painted in colors of the sky, purple and yellow flowers and green grass. 
The village was called Riverdale.  And it was exactly one year ago in that little mobile home park, surrounded by the remnants of a crucified community, that I began to see what resurrection looks like, and what happens when the Holy Spirit fills people with new hope.  I saw a gathering of people around the foot of the cross, with nothing but death and destruction around them, proclaiming that hope is not dead.  They were not all Christians.  Most of them did not go to church.  Most of the activists had no religious affiliation at all.  But what I saw at Riverdale was a resurrection community, a Pentecost community, filled with the Holy Spirit.  I saw the risen Christ, like the trickster he is, jumping out of the tomb yelling:  Surprise!  You can’t keep hope down.  You can’t kill the love of God. 
When I stood with those villagers in that decimated mobile home park, I knew what most people saw was just a bunch of low-class “trailer trash,” as they were called on the blog sites in Williamsport.  I knew many people either pitied the residents for being caught in circumstances they couldn’t control, or thought of them as rabble-rousers, troublemakers, and trespassers.  Some thought the villagers should just get out of the way and stop making such a scene.
Funny, that’s the kinds of things they used to say about Jesus and his disciples.  That low-class carpenter’s son and his low-life fishermen rabble rousers, troublemakers and trespassers.  The religious authorities and the military police just wanted them out of the way.  Stop making such a scene!  So they crucified Jesus and figured the disciples would just scatter and fade away.
That’s what eventually happened at Riverdale.  On the twelfth day, men in uniforms came and put up plastic orange fences.  
Police came and told the helpers that if they did not leave, they would be arrested.
The villagers told the helpers they did not want them to go to jail.  So the helpers, with tears in their eyes and lots of hugs for the villagers, packed up their tents.
Today, the water withdrawal plant is being built, and the village of Riverdale is nothing but a memory.  
But it is the memory that invokes the Trickster Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  The Pentecost community of Riverdale that came from far and wide, just like all those people gathered in Jerusalem so long ago, they came to the site of the trashed park and planted themselves there for nearly two weeks. They were a sign to the world that God is alive and working for justice. 
What I saw was not a trailer park in Jersey Shore.  I saw the upper room in Jerusalem with the Trickster Jesus and the Holy Spirit moving among those gathered, breathing upon them, anointing them with tongues of fire  - laughing them into new life that can come only from the resurrected Christ.
A theologian named Sallie McFague puts it best:  “We must believe  . . . that life, not death, is the last word; that against all evidence to the contrary (and most evidence is to the contrary), all our efforts on behalf of the well-being of our planet and especially of its most vulnerable creatures, including human ones, will not be defeated.  It is the belief that the source and power of the universe is on the side of life and its fulfillment.  The 'risen Christ' is the Christian way of speaking of this faith and hope:  Christ is the firstborn of the new creation, to be followed by the rest of creation, including the last and the least. (Sallie McFague, The Body of God : An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 191.)
Of course, nearly a year later, some will say, you were fools. A table full of candles is nothing against the glaring lights of industrialization.  
Barriers erected from trailer home refuse is nothing against the bulldozers.  Mobile home park residents chanting alongside protesters is nothing against the powers of the police.  What difference did it make?  You accomplished nothing.  You were fools.
And don’t they say that about us in the church?  You Christians are fools.  Jesus’ light is nothing against the darkness of evil.  So what if he was resurrected – what difference did it make?  The world is still much like an abandoned mobile home park with the waters of creation being sold to pad the pockets of the wealthy.  Hunger, poverty, disease, injustice, violence, war and death – those powers still surround us on all sides. 
And they would be right!  But you see the church with a Pentecost Spirit is not afraid of those powers.  Christians singing songs of joy, using water for baptism, 
gathering around a simple meal of bread and wine, being generous and offering compassion to our neighbors, standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed . . . these are what sustain us, surprise us with God’s grace blowing over us like the breath of the Holy Spirit, giving us the courage to stand against the authorities in protection of lives and homes and God’s creation.
So go ahead and breathe deeply of that Holy Spirit.  Dip your hands in paint and draw colorful murals.  Giggle at the stuffy big shots who think they can have control over God’s world and God’s water.  Smile when they come huffing and puffing with their big guns and bulldozers.
Because you know something that they don’t know.  The world may call us crazy, but that’s okay.  Because the Pentecost community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will endure. And those little flames of justice dancing in cups by the riverside are just the beginning of God’s holy fire.  Amen.  
Riverdale Mobile Home Park directly under the rainbow, across Route 220. June 3, 2012. Photo by Kelly Finan

Thanks to Lynn Johnson (black and white photos) and Wendy Lynn Lee (most of the color photos), and all those who photodocumented the saga of Riverdale.

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