Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Good evening, and welcome; I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, we are glad that you are here to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.
Let me announce some changes in the program. Our sixth lesson will not be read by Mark Wingerson but by Jenny Burrill. Another soprano soloist tonight is Merrill Grant. Michael Daves will be singing the traditional number, Star of Bethlehem, with Eva Lawitz on bass.
Tonight you do not get your own candle, and we’re sorry to disappoint you. But with the difficult means of exit up here we need to keep you safe. You will get your own candle when we return to our main sanctuary, which is a reason to look forward to it. We long to hear again someday the glory of our pipe organ, but we also love to have Aleeza Meir directing her chamber orchestra up here, so God is good.
Meanwhile, it was right for you to come here tonight, whatever your reasons, whether you worship Christ or simply admire him, your complex reasons and your overlapping reasons. One very deep reason you all share, so allow me to bring it out of you and elucidate it for you.
You came for the light. You came to choose for the light and choose against the darkness. Yes, because it is dark out there right now, and the darkness threatens all the other points of light. You came tonight to listen again to those words from our ninth and final lesson: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. It’s dark out there, but you came tonight because, against that darkness, you are choosing for the light.
Of course there is a darkness which is good, the loveliness of night-time, the time for rest and silence. Darkness has its place. But there’s also a darkness out of place, a resistance to the light, a darkness chosen, a cover, a cloaking, a willful obfuscation. It is powerful, and it overpowers you even when it’s you who have chosen it.
It is compelling. It tells you it’s the true state of affairs, and that the universe is vast and cold and dark, and that existence in it is a struggle to survive – the survival of the fittest, the strong against the weak, the wolf against the lamb, the lion against the ox, the poison asp against the infant child, the cold hard facts against the vision of Isaiah in our fourth lesson, the law of club and fang – and that finally there is no peace except by self-defense and no justice but by retaliation.
The darkness tempts you to choose it because it offers you cover and relief. It covers your guilt and shame. It lets you keep your secrets. It lets you maintain your ignorance. You can hide your prejudice and your resentments, you can cover your fear and cloak your anger.
You can choose it but you can’t control it, because it also gives cover to the evil spirits, and I don’t mean ghosts and goblins, I mean the cultural spirits of greed and corruption, of exploitation, and of hatred and fear, which, once you let them loose, will grow on you. The darkness gives cover to the spirit of violence which is loose in our land, violence taking on a life of its own and breeding itself in us, violence feeding on our anger and our fear, violence feeding itself on murder and suicide and tempting us to turn our backs against each other. The voice that calls you to do that is calling you to choose for darkness. But you want to choose against that, which is why you came here tonight.
They know not what they do. Darkness does not comprehend itself, because it does not comprehend the light, and it’s only because of the light that you can identify the darkness. By choosing the light you can see that spirit of violence and reject it, you can see that the stronghold of hostility is a prison, and that you don’t have to turn your back on any other child of God. You can comprehend the light, and you get help for that from the music and the lessons, which is why you are here tonight.
Let the story told by the the lessons encourage you, because the darkness seems to be constant. The lessons tell you what so many of the world’s religions agree on, that the truer constant is the light, and science agrees with this as well, that light is the constant, not darkness. There’s your hope, there is your encouragement.
Tonight it is a tiny light, a little baby. You can choose his light. In the fifth and sixth lessons you will hear again how Mary and Joseph made their choices for his light.
You choose it if you admire him and find in him an inspiration and example. You choose it if you worship him as Lord and God and find in him the living source of light. And if you came only to consider him, you may choose for light as well. No matter what else you came here for, you did come here for this, and you did well.
There is a glimmer in the shadows of the barn; it is tiny but it will not go out, the darkness does not overwhelm it. This little light is a miracle, a wonder, for in this light you see light, you can see all the other lights in the world that the darkness tried to hide, all the other deeds of love around the world, irrespective of religion, all the other acts of courage and generosity by individuals of every tribe and nation. Peace on earth, good will towards humankind.
Sometimes the light surprises you when you sing, and it rekindles and strengthens your own little light inside you, and it breaks forth beauteous, and the greater light surrounds you like it did the shepherds, and you see the glory beyond a glimmer and you hear the music in the air.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Magnificat, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38
In 1889 our consistory relocated our church from downtown to this location. They decided to build a great Gothic edifice with the tallest steeple in Brooklyn and lavish decoration and costly stained glass windows and the fanciest pipe organ available. Not because they thought God needed it, but to make an impression in our new location: “We are not just another new church, we are the powerful, wealthy, and eminently respectable Old First church.”
Had they built a typical Calvinist church, like their former one, with simple classic lines and big clear windows and a normal pipe organ, less impressive and cheaper to maintain, we might be spared the costly building problems we have now.
When I came here thirteen years ago one of my colleague pastors told me that my first job was to get rid of our building, so that we could start doing some real ministry. Two years later a couple of consultants from the denomination came here and told me that our building was an obstacle to our mission and our growth. Our sanctuary was a turn-off and it was keeping people away. Better to rent space in a public school. The church is not a building anyway, the church is a people.
This could be the take-home from Second Samuel. King David wants to build a temple for the Lord, and the Lord says, “Nah. I am quite content to live in a tent. I don’t need a temple, I don’t want it.” We know why David wants it. As much as the Bible loves David, the text always hints at his political ambition and how every good thing that he does he also calculates for his own success. He wants a temple to solidify his claim on God’s endorsement of his rule and to sanctify his dynasty.
But God will work with him. This is John Calvin’s doctrine of Accommodation, that God will adjust to accommodate our weakness — not to our sin but to our weakness. So God accommodates David, and God will sanctify his dynasty anyway. God promises that someone from the house and lineage of David will ever after occupy the throne, no matter what.
This is despite God originally having not allowed a king for Israel. In the Torah, the only king of Israel was God. God warned the Israelites that having a king like other nations was a bad idea. But they begged for a king and God accommodated them, and after the disaster of King Saul, God provided them with David. And later, God even let them have a temple, despite what the prophet Nathan said to David here. God even adopted the temple, God’s glory overshadowed it and God’s spirit entered into it. How humble of God, to adjust to them like this; how generous of God, to accommodate our weaknesses.
These two innovations, which Moses would have opposed, became central symbols of Jewish identity, the house and lineage of David, and the temple in Jerusalem. But this became a problem. Four hundred years after David his dynasty was dethroned and the temple destroyed. What about God’s promises? The house and lineage of David would never sit on any throne again. A second temple was built, but God’s spirit and glory never came back to it, and a generation after Jesus, the temple was destroyed forever. The promises of God to David were problems that were unsolved, and they remain unsolved in Judaism till today.
But for Christians, God solved the problem in the Virgin Mary. That’s what St. Paul implicitly claims in Romans. The problems hid a mystery which was the long-term plan of God, and the promises were fulfilled in a way that no one was expecting. In the pregnancy of Mary the great mystery which God had keep secret for centuries is now wonderfully revealed.
She, by her genealogy, is of the house and lineage of David, and her body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is specific temple language which Gabriel speaks to her, that the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Her womb becomes the Holy of Holies. The gospel claims that this was God’s goal all along. So the temple in Jerusalem the and royal lineage of David were both expedient accommodations which God used to get us to Mary.
Our translation is weak. “Greetings, favored one.” Sounds like aliens on Star Trek. “Hail, you have been graced, Hail, full of grace, Hail, your grace.” Picture the angel bending down before her, reverencing her, the most exalted creature in God’s universe bending before this ordinary girl.
Why her? That remains a mystery. There is nothing in the Bible about her being without sin, but she is pure in that unlike her ancestor David she has no political ambition, and God’s gift to her will disadvantage her in so many ways, and she will suffer so much more trouble than if she had said No.
This event is called the Annunciation. But we might better call it the Invitation. Because it was not forced on her. The angel waits for her decision and her answer. She is not given time to calculate the consequences. It’s not a choice between a and b, but a choice between a and not a, it’s one of those choices you have to make immediately, to choose for the right thing in itself, no matter what may follow.
She chooses, she answers, and I’ve become convinced, after a life of Bible study, that it’s her answer that causes the conception of the life within her, her decision in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord, let it be with me as you have said.” Her "let it be" is when the miracle comes to be.
Here I am. In Hebrew, that’s Hineini, the same thing Abraham says to God, and what Isaiah says, what Jeremiah says. Who is this girl, talking like she’s among the prophets? Hineini, here I am, I am present to you God, I present myself to you, I am open to you God. I know who you are, and I know who I am.
That’s what St. Paul calls the obedience of faith. Not an obedience of action or good works, but the obedience of being. She is the mother of the faithful, she is the Eve of the new humanity, and we bless her through all generations, and we see in her what God wants from us, this same obedience of faith, that you say, Here I am.
Say it, Here I am (here I am), the handmaid of the Lord (the handmaid of the Lord). You are now God’s chosen temple. You are now God’s royalty. Each one of you. Your status is what God intended all along, the secret that was hidden in God’s expedient accommodations in Hebrew history, the secret now revealed in Mary. Now God accommodates to you. Now God submits to you, and you in turn submit to God. This mutual submission, you may understand as love.
What’s the take-home for today? On the one hand, none. Rather than take something home you are to make yourself fully present. Here you are. You are to love this story and admire it. Put yourself into this story, paint the scene with your imagination. How do you imagine this young girl, how young, how old, how rich, how poor, how beautiful, how plain, and how do you imagine the angel, and how do you show the interaction between them, the energy, the closeness, the distance, and at what moment do you freeze the frame, and what emotions do you show in her? Here you are.
On the other hand, you can take home the picture of how God does God’s mission and how you have a part in it, a vision of how God comes to you, at home, when you are alone, when you say, “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.”
You might want God to fully come and intervene and fix the world, and end all the misery and suffering, and stop the genocides, stop the violence, stop the hatred and the fear, stop us from ruining the planet. That would be the greatest accommodation of them all, and maybe the worst, that God would intervene and invade and rescue us from what we are responsible for.
That’s what the promises seem to promise, that God will ultimately do this, but in the meantime God accommodates a different way, and that is to your individual belief. God comes not by invasion or intervention but by invitation. God waits for your acceptance. God submits to your personal faith, or lack of it. God comes into you if you will have him – if it’s Jesus, or if you will have her – if it’s the Spirit. How patient of God, how generous, indeed, how humble. How gracious.
God gives you that much discretion. And God does it also with congregations. God gives us that much discretion. If we house our church within a tent or if we build ourselves a cathedral, God will work with us, as much as we see our church not in service to ourselves but as God’s handmaiden for God’s mission.
And that is what you want to be. You came here today to say, "Here we are, the handmaidens of the Lord, let it be with us as you have said."
It was not out of normal human lovemaking that the Lord Jesus was conceived, but it is a greater love, that God should wait on you like this.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
My topic today is the convergence of God’s great mission with your personal religious needs, how God’s divine and sovereign purposes in the world converge with your own purposes to come to church. These two things are not the same, God’s mission on the one hand and your religious needs on the other, but their convergence is a happy one, a joyful one, although of course a challenging one. You come here for your reasons, and you want to leave here with God’s reasons.
Why are you here today? What are your reasons for practicing religion, your personal motivation, your consumer purposes for going to church?
You want some God in your life, you want to be close to God, you want to find some greater meaning than you can generate on your own, you want that greater perspective to help you make sense of the world and where it’s going, or how to rescue the world from the human effects of violence and destruction, or to help you with the facts in your own life, your own disease or disappointments, your own desires and delights.
You believe there is a God, and you want to have a positive relationship with God, and the Christian religion is the most familiar and available.
Maybe you’re not sure there is a God but you want to explore the possibility.
You want some religious instruction for your kids. You want some company, some community, to help you maintain your spiritual life.
You want to confess your sins and get told you are forgiven.
You want to pray, and pray along with other people.
You want to praise God with music, and it’s not right to do that all alone.
You want to practice love, and love in the larger sense, a love beyond what is available in humanism.
You want some recharging of your morality, some inspiration for your ethics.
You come for inspiration and information in some combination with reconciliation.
If these are your reasons they are good and right, these are your positive consumer purposes.
So you come here today, and you hear me telling you that God is on a mission distinct from your own needs and purposes. God is on a mission to reclaim the world from our rebellion, and to repair the world from our damage and our violence, and to restore the world to God’s original intention, only this time better. God is on a mission to make the world fit for God finally to come into the world, that the world itself may be God’s temple, God’s mansion, God’s city, God’s kingdom, as completely as heaven is already.
God is on a mission to come into the world right now, if partially, in order to include you in God’s mission, to pardon you and save you and reclaim you and repair you and restore you and make you fit to share in the great life of that kingdom when it full comes, that city when it opens up, that mansion, that temple, so that you share in it when God comes into it, so that God’s final coming will be your own coming into it as well.
God’s great mission in the world is far greater than your personal consumer motivation for religion. But they are not opposed. The greater may satisfy the lesser without the lesser constraining the greater. So do come with your consumer motivations, do come with your demands, but then also welcome the transformation of your demands the great demands of God, which are for your good. You get that. You can see that. That’s why you keep coming back.
You get it that this relationship of God’s mission and your religious needs is unequal. It is not an equal partnership, it’s not like a marriage. But it is like the Incarnation, that special convergence of God and humanity that came true in the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, when God Almighty poured God’s self into an infant boy — not that God’s nature be reduced, but that human nature be taken up into God — two natures, and yet one person, one heart, one soul, one Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, the mystery of the Incarnation. In Jesus we have seen God’s way.
Just so, you have one heart, one soul, and one experience, but in your single experience the Holy Spirit converges God’s great, high mission with your personal consumer interest in religion. God’s way is to invest God’s great universal work of salvation in the present reality of your personal need, although of course, the Holy Spirit uses that convergence to transform your personal interest to fit God’s greater plan. And because Jesus was a little boy who looked and smelled like any other little boy while God was fully in him, just so your consumer agenda for religion can look anybody else’s in Brooklyn and yet be full of God’s mission, without limiting God’s mission or restricting it.
This is God’s way. You can see God’s way in the metaphors of Isaiah’s prophecy: the God who liberates captives and releases prisoners, the God who builds up ancient ruins and raises up the former devastations, the God who repairs the ruined cities and replants the devastated forests, that God also decks you out, puts new clothes on you, and jewelry, and puts a robe of righteousness on you.
The reason you are here today is because you want to believe that it is real in your own life, although you know there must be more to come. You want to believe that the Kingdom of God has truly come into the world, but you know from the agony of the world that it has not come yet as it is in heaven, and you find ourselves impatient for its coming. This impatience is the message of the Advent season, that you must wait for it, but in your waiting also to prepare for it.
The metaphors from Isaiah give you hope but also give you discontent. When we who live in New York City hear of proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, how can we not think of Rikers Island and all the penitentiaries upstate? How can we not think of the mass incarceration of a whole generation of young black men, which we have allowed ourselves to pay no attention to, which we should have known about, the alienation and the deep frustration that finally is breaking out?
You cannot separate the larger issues of this city from your personal need of being set free from your own inner bondages and liberated from your sins and miseries. God addresses with a single promise both your personal spiritual health and welfare and the health and welfare of this nation, especially those people who do not share it. All those lovely metaphors will become literally true in our vision for God’s great mission in the world.
Between God’s great mission in the world and your need for religion is the church, and this church in particular. This church is a religious corporation registered in the State of New York in order to serve your spiritual needs. First you came here first as a religious consumer to receive its services, and then you enter the community of Jesus, and then you begin to see the larger mission which takes up into it your own religious needs, and you are challenged to join in the larger mission of the church, and then you discover that the challenge is fulfilling because your religious needs are more than you knew, your religious need is to give as much as to be given to, to forgive as much as to be forgiven, and to love as much as to be loved. You begin to experience this church as your church, and then you go further, and you begin to experience your church as God’s church.
This building is our building according to the laws of New York but this building is really God’s building for God’s mission. That sanctuary out there is God’s sanctuary for God’s mission. That pipe organ out there is God’s pipe organ for God’s glory. And if you rebuild that ancient ruin on the other side of that wall you’re doing an incarnation of God rebuilding ancient ruins and building up the former devastations, and there is no separation between God’s mission and your fulfillment.
We end with the Thessalonians. We can hardly imagine their personal religious needs. Why would these people want to meet those needs by signing up with this impossible new religion, which will bring them persecution just for signing up? Yet St. Paul tells them to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances. How in the world shall they do that?
You can rejoice in the vision of God’s promise for the whole known world. You keep your mind upon that promise by praying without ceasing. You can give thanks for the small and passing but also real and quietly powerful incarnations of that promise in your own lives right now. And you can rejoice with the angels and the shepherds who have seen God’s way, that God has come into the world as one of us, Immanuel, God with us.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, December 05, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
I do like opera, but Wagner is not my favorite, especially not his later operas with the characters just posing there singing their interminable arias. The soprano Birgit Nilsson used to sing those arias magnificently, and once she was asked what was the secret of her great success, and she famously answered, “Comfortable shoes. If you’re singing Isolde you have to have comfortable shoes.”
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” That’s the first voice you hear in Handel’s Messiah, the tenor plaintively singing it, and you will hear it sung this Thursday night. And then the aria, “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” Road-building and comfort. A strange combination.
John the Baptist is a strange one for comfort. He’s wearing scratchy clothes and he sleeps on the ground and he doesn’t eat comfort food. His message is a rough one too. He’s comes at you like a bulldozer, he scrapes you level like an excavator. He is a wire-brush, he roughs you up to smooth you down. And this is for comfort? Only if comfort comes through penitence.
Comfort is a big deal in Reformed theology. Our tradition is the only one which raises comfort to a doctrine, as in the opening question of our Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”
What does comfort suggest to you? Something comfy and soft, like cushions or your slippers, or a comfortable income, or a mother comforting her crying child. But sometimes a hard chair is more comfortable, and if you’re working on your feet all day your comfortable shoes will not be slippers. Comfort can have firmness and strength in it. The second syllable is “fort” as in “fortress” and “force.” To “aid and comfort to the enemy” is to enhance the power of the enemy.
You know it is a military metaphor, the building of a road. That was done back then by armies, great imperial armies, for invasion, and then for the occupation by connecting the forts. Military force. Com-fort. The comfort of Isaiah has some judgment in it. You cannot separate the comfort from the judgment. On the highway comes the emperor, who clears away rebellion and resistance and orders all things and sets all things to rights. This comfort is not very cushy.
In the epistle you get metaphysical metaphors, which are no less imperial. These metaphors are notoriously difficult to translate, because we see the natural world so differently than they did back then. For example, the word “elements” does not mean oxygen and iron and lead, as in the periodic table of the elements, but rather the fundamental powers of the world as celebrated in Greek mythology and as delineated in the Hellenistic philosophy, both of them supporting the Roman Empire in its power and its culture and its way of life. That’s the society that this epistle was written into.
The epistle is difficult because it mixes Hellenistic metaphysical metaphors with Hebrew prophetic metaphors. In the prophets, fire is a metaphor of the personal wrath of God, the heat of God’s personality and the blaze of God’s judgment. This fire is never for torture, or roasting, but for burning things off and burning things away and for purgation and purification.
If you blend these metaphors you get God coming in judgment, excavating, blasting, breaking, burning, clearing things away, exposing what was closed, revealing what was hidden, making things transparent. The systems in place and the powers in control cannot resist the judgment of our God, and this for you is comfort. Not for just the end of time, but for now, as the Word of God comes in to challenge our systems and to judge our cultures and our cultural assumptions, and to free us from the iron laws of our presuppositions and all that we have to take as self-evident and elementary.
For now, God’s coming is powerful but partial. We acknowledge this in prayer, especially in the Lord’s Prayer. We know that God’s will is done on earth, but not as it is done in heaven. We believe that God’s kingdom has come on earth, but not yet as it in heaven, not without resistance and rebellion. We pray that it will fully come; and that Our Lord will come and stay for good.
We confess the mystery of the faith that "Christ will come again," and I am telling you that the gospel promise is he will come and stay for good. The metaphors mean that God is clearing out things and opening up things in the world in order fully and peacefully to inhabit it.
It may take another few thousand years, or in God’s time, another few days, but right now this is the Day of the Lord, and the Lord, by means of his word, is judging and ordering and clarifying things. God is on a mission to reclaim the world and fully to inhabit it, and to share it with us, God’s people.
But God comes in stages, not all at once. First the preparation, and then the full arrival. As John the Baptist was for the Messiah at his first coming, so the church is now for Our Lord before his second coming, with a similar mission of preparing by proclaiming and baptizing.
Not that you yourselves as individuals proclaim. In Isaiah 40 the proclamation is a conversation among several voices, and it includes their questions.
The church proclaims by the collective sound of your thick and complex conversation with this God you are daring to believe in.
The church proclaims by acting out what you believe in, and by how you typically participate in the ordinary world which God is coming into.
The church proclaims by the sum total of your lives of testimony and confession.
The church proclaims by how you confess your own sins without judging others, and by how you share your real experience of reconciliation and acceptance and inclusion. And the church baptizes when you welcome others into this acceptance and reconciliation.
This is how God has seen fit for us to prepare for that full and final coming. “Okay, God, if that’s how you want it, we can do that.” Now maybe if you were God you might have designed it differently, and you might have decided not to wait, but apparently God has determined that it’s important for us to get used to God’s patience, and even to see that patience as salvation.
t would seem that God wants a very, very large population to share the world with, and that this population shall not be naively innocent like the angels, or Adam and Eve at first, but shall have been through fire and water and have had first-hand experience of the deeper love of grief and reconciliation.
One of my personal campaigns has been to counter the conventional belief that when Jesus comes again, it will be for just one short last visit, and then he’ll go back to heaven for good and abandon the created earth forever, and he’ll take us all with him to heaven for eternity.
If this is so, then Satan wins, even despite his own destruction. I get it why this is actually easier to believe, because right now Satan does not seem to be losing. Yes, there has been great progress in the world on account of the gospel—just ask any woman who can vote—but the progress in good seems to be at least matched by progress in evil.
So let me return to the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray, “deliver us from evil,” we do not mean deliver us from the world God created us for life in. When we pray, “lead us not into temptation,” we include the temptation to despair over how slow and ineffective God seems in putting the world to rights, and the temptation to conclude that Satan is not losing, and to surrender to no greater hope than a cushy forever in heaven.
But for us to keep believing in this impossible promise that God’s kingdom will come for good on earth in fullness as it is in heaven, we need some comfort. Not just some soothing consolation, but some fortifying and strengthening.
The comfort I offer you today is your own awareness of your forgiveness and reconciliation, that when you confess your sins, you are aware that you really are forgiven. You can believe in the truth and reality of your own experience of the love of God towards you.
When you do this what you are believing in is the work of the Holy Spirit within you. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. God really has come into your life. That’s a fact that does not depend upon your inner verification. You believe it first, and then you begin to sense it and verify it after the fact. God’s present coming into you is the comfort to keep you hoping for God’s ultimate coming into the world. God is patient with the world as much as God is patient with you. And this patience of God with you is not of endurance but of love. Finally it’s not even patience. God just plain loves to hang out in you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
At about 5:00 pm on Thursday, November 20, 2014, fourteen-year-old Mohammad Uddin was struck by a car while crossing the street.
It was at the corner of Caton Ave. and East 7th Street in Kensington, Brooklyn. He was rushed to Maimonides Hospital, where he died of trauma to the head and body. The driver, a 78- year old woman, was found and arrested that evening for leaving the scene of an accident.
According to an NBC interview of the boy’s uncle, “Uddin, a ninth-grader at Brooklyn Tech, one of the nation’s top high schools, moved to the U.S. with his family 10 years ago from Bangladesh and dreamed of becoming a medical specialist.” Mohammed’s uncle described him as a very, very gentle boy.
I got the news moments after the accident occurred. I was running errands on the same corner as the accident. As I was stepping out of my building, my neighbors, a young expecting couple, told me that something terrible had happened outside. My neighbors were troubled that this tragedy may have involved a child.
Just minutes after the accident, the police had closed off the corner in both directions. The news reporters were right there. One reporter confirmed for me what had happened. Other neighbors were now outside, and there was a general sense of disbelief and grief. I think we all felt contempt for that oddly-angled street corner. Drivers seem to be in such hurry all the time, even when the pedestrians have the “right of way” in the crosswalk.
There is a garden center on that corner, with beautiful seasonal decorations. I know I have been guilty of crossing the street and letting my eyes focus on the fall-colored potted-flowers, pumpkins, and lovely things outside. I know my 10-year old step-daughter finds these things attractive too. I think the whole neighborhood felt appalled that something like this should have happened there.
A neighborhood is sad. A neighborhood was suddenly taking form and becoming a body, something real, a community where people know each other, maybe like in a small town, with a feeling that’s almost impossible in dynamic and overcrowded New York City. I didn't know Mohammed personally, but my heart went out to him and his family. I wondered if I had met him or his family before. They live only a few houses down. I am often outside walking my dog, and passed in front of his home many times on my way to the Park or to the hardware store. I was hit with a sense of finality that death brings, but also of longing. I began to think of the family. Could his mother be one of the women I often overhear greeting one another with “As-salamu alaykum” (peace be with you). Maybe we were not strangers.
The depths of despair. I cannot imagine what that family is going through, but I wanted them to know that they are part of me, of the community, and that they are not forgotten. After reaching out to Pastor Meeter for prayer, it turns out other people had reached out to him also. There was a lot going on in the community in remembrance of Mohammad, but I was unable to make it to the wake or funeral. I was torn by this, so Pastor Meeter advised me on how to approach the family in this time of need.
I was meaning to write a letter, but before I knew it was Thanksgiving. So I posted a sympathy card in our lobby with a letter and a pen, encouraging the tenants of my building to write words of comfort, as Thanksgiving Day mark a week since Mohammad’s death. I was moved by how many people cared.
The next day, I went to deliver the card with my step-daughter. I had intended to leave it in the mailbox or hand it to someone if anyone was home. There was plenty of movement in the house, so we knocked. Young people opened the door. I explained why we were there, and tried to hand them the card, but they invited us upstairs to meet the Uddins and give them the card directly. We went up.
I was worried I would not know what to say and that I might not know the proper protocol and do something offensive. But I needn’t have worried, for when I met Mr. and Mrs. Uddin, their warmth, graciousness, and gratitude for our visit was so sincere, even in their grief. I felt a deep desire to comfort them, to take away their pain. We were simply fellow people, communicating words and feelings from the heart. They invited us to sit and visit. I shyly leaned on the sofa, but Mr. Uddin gently insisted I sit down. My step-daughter shyly sat down too. The family served us grapes and sliced apples and made us feel at home. The family worried about us and our comfort. I looked in Mrs. Uddin’s eyes, as she sat right across from me, and tears began to stream down her face. I hugged her and I did not let her go. Then we all sat again.
We spoke of the impact this has had on the entire community, that Mohammad will always be remembered and that we all feel his loss, the loss of one of our children of our community. I spoke of being a Christian, and that Kailey and I pray to God –to Allah – and that we pray for their healing and peace and for Mohammad. One of the family said, "Yes, God — Allah. He hears all our prayers,” in response to my mentioning Christianity. We nodded in agreement.
It was a beautiful moment; we understood each other and our shared human experience; we are all God’s children. It felt real, and life-changing to have experienced something so intimate and raw with this family. They were welcoming to us and open to what we had to say. I was moved that we could mention Christ and Allah and it felt natural and comforting and safe to say. Our hearts were open to one another. I won’t forget it.
There were moments of silence, as we sat together in sadness. The children sparked conversation with my step-daughter, asking her what school she goes to and what grade she is in. I am still astounded by the loveliness and grace of these children and young people, looking carefully after their guests. I met Mohammad's 5-year old brother, a happy child who smiled at us often from behind his mom and sister’s dresses. I also met Mohammad's older sister. We stayed a few more minutes. On our way out, they invited us to a walk and vigil to be held Monday, December 1st.
The walk and vigil began at PS 130, and we walked to the Uddin's home. We paused, in silence, where the accident occurred. It was cold and raining, which felt appropriate. The turnout was great. At the end of the vigil, Mohammad’s sister spoke from the home, and she tearfully expressed her gratitude on behalf of herself and Mrs. Uddin, who was overcome by emotion. She thanked us for showing her family that "Our community has lost one of our own children, and you are helping us to get through this by showing us that we are not alone."
In retrospect, I can see how a small gesture, like purchasing a card at the store, and posting it by the lobby elevator with a simple message, became empowered by the heart of community. The gesture helped moved grief beyond desolation. It gave me the courage to approach the family and let them know we cared—despite my timidity and my fear of saying the wrong thing. I saw our common humanity, and my timidity evaporated. I saw how we are interconnected, and I could see that we are not alone or independent of one another. We really are a family meant to care for and lift up one another, and share with each other those things that make us human.