Long before that Mel Gibson movie called Signs, back in the olden days when I was a teenager, and there was no such thing as a smart phone, or tweeting, or texting or …
One would go to a party, in a basement with blue lights and R & B music that had lyrics. And if you were this particular one, you were built like a tall, brown Gumby with a big Afro; you’d be totally awkward and wish you had breasts—even little ones—and you’d make your mother buy you a training bra by begging her and getting on her last nerve. You’d wear it under some V-neck ribbed sweater to that party, where any piece of lint in your Afro pulsed with an eerie, neon, nuclear waste-type glow. Some boy, also linty and glowy, would sidle up to you and—rather than ask your name—he’d say, “What’s your sign?” And you’d say, with your clarinet-playing overbite, and your big afro, and your limited astrological knowledge, “I’m a Gemini.” Then he’d say—straight out of some R & B song—“Cool, Gemini. I’m a Capricorn.” And because you had no idea what that meant, you’d say, “Let’s go get some punch.”
Fast forward to that movie, Signs. I can watch it over and over again and see something new. Mel Gibson is an Episcopal priest, a father to a boy and a girl, and big brother to Joaquin Phoenix—a washed-up baseball player. Father Mel’s wife is killed in a car accident, pinned against a tree by a car (a driver fell asleep, so tragic). Mel rushes to the scene of the accident, where his wife is saying things, good-bye type things, and her husband is just hanging onto every word. Telling him to swing away, aim high, things like that. When she dies, her husband’s faith dies.
He thinks her death is a sign of the profound absence of God.
At those special times I had with Mom, while she was dying and leaving us, she’d wake up from a dream, and say some pretty fascinating things. “Where is my dress?” “Put it between the wall and the picture frame, no between the door frame and the wall.” And then, clear as a bell, “Trials and tribulations will come, but everything’s going to be alright.” “Don’t cry, it’s going to be alright.” That last one—oof—that one really got me. Once she was staring at me when I thought she was sleeping. I said, “What are you doing, are you watching me?” and I stood up to go and sit near her. She said, “Don’t come over here,” in this mischievous way. Mom was in so much pain, her medication made her charmingly loopy. But she was right there, in what Black folks call her “right mind” until the end. This was a sign of her resilience and bad-ass strength.
Back to Mel and the signs in that movie. Some aliens—pretty ugly, really—have made signs in cornfields to help each other land. These are not cute ET types. They have an agenda that is not about harmony with humankind. I don’t want to give it all away, but suffice it to say that everything the lovely dying wife says—all the things—end up being the things that save the family. The things she says are the things that save Mel from his devastating break-up with God.
In the end, he recognizes the signs of God’s presence. Even in the unbelievable, almost unbearable sorrow at the loss of his wife, Father Mel is reminded God is there.
As I write, a man has set off a body-bomb in a concert venue in Manchester in England; 22 are dead, dozens are injured. The sense of security and safety of hundreds of young people, a city, and a country has been murdered. POTUS 45 has fired a man investigating him and is systematically dismantling health care, education, voting rights, environmental justice, and the hope imbedded in the so-called American Dream.
Sometimes I feel like we are in a sci-fi movie, and there are malevolent aliens all about; I feel sometimes like a stranger in a strange land, don’t you? Still, I am collecting signs, every day. Though trials and tribulations come, it’s going to be alright. That, from Mom, is a sign.
People help people get out of a stampede in a stadium—a sign. Justice Sally Quillian Yates stands up against the Muslim ban; Palestinian-American Feminist Linda Sarsour speaks out for the rights of Muslims, and Rabbi Sharon Brous speaks out for Linda’s freedom to speak—a sign.
People gathered in our sanctuary, and outside our doors at the Street Fair. A church full of African American and Latinx justices and court officers worshiping with us, saying in a chorus, “This is what love looks like”—a sign. When we march down Fifth Avenue on June 25—that is a sign. Butterfly sandwiches delivered with love are a sign of God at work in the world.
Our interfaith play dates are a sign that indeed little children will lead us to a future of love, peace, and justice.
Whenever you take communion at Middle Church, or you break bread and share a cup at home, at a bar, or in a restaurant, you enact a sign of the presence of God, who is with you in that essential life-giving moment of nourishment and community.
When you are baptized, or when you bathe or shower or jump in the ocean, you enact a sign of the presence of the Holy. God is present in our joy, and in our pain; in our celebrations and in our sorrow; in our grief, and in our working for justice. God is here, God is Love. Period. The pictures gathered in every monthly newsletter are signs of God at work, in and through us.
What’s your sign?
We’d love to hear of the ways you are experiencing the presence of the Holy in your life in the world and at Middle Church.
You, Middle family, are a sign, for me, that love is power, that multi-everything communities can thrive.
I lost my Mom on April 25, just two weeks after her 80th birthday, and five days after she and Dad celebrated 58 years of marriage. Mom was a fighter who gave stage four metastatic lung cancer an amazing fight for seven years. Whenever we told her we love her she replied joyfully, “I love you more!”
On Good Friday, my mom was hospitalized with pneumonia and the doctors confirmed that her cancer had spread throughout her body. She is in hospice now. I flew to Chicago that day and flew back to New York for Easter morning. As I wrote this year’s Easter sermon, my Good Friday and Easter Sunday theologies took on even more poignant meaning. I love Mom SO much. Even in the midst of grief, she resists her cancer and its power to end her life. She is the most resilient person I know. Even in these twilight times, Mom just keeps rising! After you listen to the sermon, let me know how you experience resistance and resilience in the face of your Good Friday moments and how the rising of Easter is real in your life. I’d love to hear from you!!
Today, The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Trump Ryan Take Care Away Death Bill. If passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, this bill will lead to more death, more hurt, and more pain for millions of people and families across this nation.
Tweet your reactions to my sermon "Feeling Sheepish" and I'll add it here! I'd love to know what you think.
Where are we now, and where is the white church now? I'm so happy to see my husband, The Rev. John Janka, raising important questions like these in his new article, "We Need More White Churches To Stand Up For Black People" in HuffPost. Take a moment and give John's article a read—I'd love to know what you think.