The Sacrament of Remembering or Business Unusual

May 29, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


You may or may not have seen. Calatrava’s “Oculus,” in the World Trade Center’s Transportation Hub. It is a memorial for Memorial Day. It claims to memorialize those killed on 9 – 11. Like any memorial – even the one you had for your grandmother – it collects some of what it intends to collect and leaves out other parts. As critic Michael Sworkin puts it in our modern testimony, “Calatrava madly multiplies structural members and coyly conceals and reveals which ones are actually bearing the load.” The “Oculus” looks different during the day, when it is very hard to find the elevators. By the way a good way to judge a building is just that simple. How do you get in and how do you get out? Especially if you are just getting over a war injury or a football injury or live permanently in a chair? At night, the Oculus is stunning, with all its great interior whiteness dwarfed by the massive amount of light it throws off. Before you decide whether you like the Oculus or not, do three things. Look at it at night. Use it during the day, if you can, and wonder with me, why accessibility is so invisible.

I taught a course this week at Union Seminary on Real Estate and Sacred Sites. As many of you know, Union, a Protestant sister of ours up town, is going through a new version of hell about its ailing buildings. They are also inaccessible, as is our great Judson and our other uptown sister, Riverside. Riverside is more accessible than either Union or Judson but again you have to know how to find the elevators. As one of my students, Carolyn Bratnober put it, “there are many ways in which memorials to the dead illustrate beautiful and poignant principles for the living, but the World Trade Center Transportation Hub's architectural centerpiece, the “Oculus” designed by Santiago Calatrava, can only be described as an unsightly and disturbingly inappropriate monument. Carolyn names three ways it goes wrong. It uses a mall to represent America. Like the buildings that went down at 9 – 11 it is a cathedral celebrating finance. It is inaccessible. And it is, to her, ugly. Now to me it is spectacularly beautiful. But that is another thing memorials do: they elicit different responses,

Rather than direct us to New Yorker’s favorite sport, that of critiquing public spaces, I’d like to talk about what makes a good memorial. A good memorial service or a good memorial church, Judson Memorial, for example, or Union Seminary or the Vietnam War Memorial or whatever memorial. What makes a good memorial? A good memorial collects the death and remembers it. A good memorial remembers that a really dead person is really dead. A good memorial has an every beauty to it and never knows all that it is saying. Anna Lou Pickett who will be memorialized here June 24th will have 11 speakers at her memorial service. She was a great politician, the first woman moderator of this congregation and always made Easter breakfast for the congregation. This will be a good memorial --- and as I just demonstrated, what is left out will be as important as what is put in.

When the memorial for Donald Trump happens, as it will someday, people will remember that he surprised everybody in going neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. They will remind when conversation was dominated by strange phrases. Is he an early Fascist? Does he really mean what he is saying? What is an early Fascist? Is it the kind of German who didn’t loo up in 1935 or 1937 or 1939?

People will also say that leaving out his beautifully design golf course in the British Isles was a mistake.

Garrison Keillor said last night that only the United States could take the deaths of so many Americans in war and turn it into an excuse to go on a picnic. I think that was harsh. But also a perfect way to talk about Memorial Day. How can we remember war or 9 – 11, without going crazy? Who has the stomach for even death by drone, much less death by bomb, or death by the moral injury or post-traumatic stress disorder or the dozens of signs you can see around the neck of homeless veterans any week in this great city? Vietnam Vet, he says. Homeless. Looking for Job. Disabled marine, looking for job. No one memorial can get its eyes around collective memorializing, much less individual memorializing.

I made a rule for my own eulogies a while back. Three good points about the person who is gone. Two not so good, the ones that flirt with the person’s humanity. Why? Just to make the rest of us feel good when we leave a memorial service. There is no need to be oppressed by how perfect Anna Lou was or was not.

The biggest thing I learned in the conversation at Union all week is here. Union joins Judson and Riverside and most of us late great American Protestantism in being anti- gentrification. We are in favor of as equal distribution of goods as possible. Union is selling its air rights and building a luxury high rise on its campus. Why? To stay alive. It is doing so in Harlem, a place that used to be less gentrified than it is. Many people at Union understand that they are contributing to gentrification while going against a core of their mission. They are torn. But when you look at most of the monuments of American Protestantism, you will discover that they began in money and power. Yes, Judson came by matching gifts from a certain Mr. Rockefeller. It is not just money or the gentry, which founded us or Union or Riverside or whoever. But often we source in a generosity by the rich. We wouldn’t even mind if somebody who was rich right now helped us out. Or would we? How do we want to be remembered? As the people who paid our own way? Or as the people who got lucky and found a big donor or three? Are you feeling the campaign burn? Or if you went to war and came home wounded and beat your wife or children because you couldn’t find your way any more, which story do you want collected at your funeral? The one where you saved three friends from being killed or the ones where your fear went nuts on you? Or are you prepared for both?

According to the Rev. Cindy Carr from Connecticut, Lydia’s story begins long before her time, with the god Heracles. The story goes that Heracles was walking along the beach near the Phoenician city of Tyre with the nymph named Tyrus whom he loved greatly. As they were busy with each other, Heracles’s dog was playing on the beach and bit into the shell of a rotting snail he found, and it stained his mouth a brilliant crimson purple. Tyrus loved the color and told Heracles he could have her hand if he would make her a robe of that same brilliant purple. And because Heracles had the resources to gather enough of the mollusks to produce the dye, Tyrian purple was born.

The real origins of Tyrian purple began in the eastern Mediterranean where the city of Tyre is located. This is where the murex snail grows---or at least used to.

What people discovered is that when the snail dies, it releases this purple secretion which stains anything it touches.

The problem is it takes about ¼ million of these snails to make about 1 ounce of dye---and that doesn’t make many yards of fabric. The brilliant purple red cloth, whether silk or velvet or linen, was valued more than gold or silver, and was used in garments for priests, politicians and royalty alone. If you were caught wearing it and you weren’t of that stature, you could be executed.

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora are shown here in robes of Tyrian purple---it’s a reddish purple.

Now, making the dye and working in the business was highly specialized work. For some, dying fabrics of all colors was their work. In fact, today, as in ancient times, you can find fabric dyers who sell a wide range of colors in their wares. But purple has always been difficult and expensive. And Syrian purple was the most difficult and most expensive.

First, the murex snails weren’t found in shallow waters, but in depths up to 25 meters. And so many were needed to make the dye. Then, while the snails could be milked for their secretions, it was more cost effective to crush them and let them rot for several days in lead lined cauldrons out in the open air.

As you can imagine, the stench was horrific. And the workers smelled of rotten shellfish---it was in their skin and on them permanently. A woman was allowed to divorce her husband if he was stained purple and smelled of rotting fish for having worked with Syrian purple. The fact that no man is mentioned with her and that she owned a home and was free to offer hospitality to others, including men, indicates she was probably a well-to-do widow with the freedom to do as she pleased. It does not appear she was a slave/servant, or a married or single woman.

Scripture says Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. We can infer she was probably the owner of the business, which dyed and sold the cloth rather than the one who dyed it herself. The cloth dyed Tyrian purple was worth more than gold---hence Lydia’s ability to own a home and have influence in the community.

So we read in scripture that on the Sabbath, Paul and his colleagues were looking for a place to pray, but apparently in Philippi there was no synagogue. It was the custom that in this case, faithful Jews and “Godfearers” or those Gentiles like Lydia who believed but had not yet converted to Judaism, would go down to the river to pray. And this is where Paul and Lydia, already there with other women, met.

But Lydia went one step further. She was a woman of influence and some power in her community. She insisted that Paul and his company come and stay with her for the rest of his time in the area---he would be fed, have safe lodging, and be under her protection in the community.

In the spoken version of this sermon, I refer extensively to Cynthia’s research. For now, in conclusion, remember in these ways.

Business people have always been a part of our churches. They have made extraordinary contributions. There is no need to demonize them or over do them. In your collected thoughts about business, think of what Lydia overcame technologically to get her cloth to market. Or what the workers at the Oculus did to make that space so beautiful. Or just to make that space. Don’t get involved in the pros and cons of business so much as the pros and cons of beauty.

When it comes to your memorial, look at yourself in the daylight. Look at yourself at night. Look. When it comes to other memorials, look at them in the daylight, and in the night, and notice what’s missing as well as what is said. Amen

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