Just Me and My Shadow

lenten altar

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-7

Some here have been attending a Lenten study series that I have been leading with my colleague Rev. Rebekah Hatch from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church down the road.

We are discussing the book, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by the well know Franciscan priest, author, and spiritual teacher Richard Rohr. Rohr makes a number of provocative assertions in his book, first, that the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous serve as a rich source of spiritual wisdom; second, that the twelve steps are consistent with the teachings of Jesus; and third, that we are all addicted to something. Rohr suggests that at the very least we are all addicted to our own way of thinking. What does that mean? Rohr writes, “We all take our own pattern of thinking as the norm, logical, and surely true, even when it does not fully compute. We keep doing the same thing over again, even if it is not working for us.” In the same way an alcoholic organizes his or her life in order to support their drinking, so we all organize our own lives and relationships in ways that won’t fundamentally challenge our beliefs and opinions.

I find Rohr’s perspective compelling, and would love to preach a whole sermon series on the twelve steps at some point.

But this morning’s story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind resonates with Rohr’s interpretation of the Fourth Step. I’ll introduce that Fourth Step in a moment, but first let’s take a look at this text.

In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, noted scholar and author John Shelby Spong makes a persuasive case that the Gospel of John was not written to be taken literally. Instead, John’s Gospel, uses stories of Jesus symbolically to inform our relationship with God. Blindness and sight, like darkness and light, are to be understood as symbols. Keep that in mind in hearing these first five verses.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Blindness and sight. Darkness and light. If these are symbols as Spong suggests, what are they symbols of? Let’s return to Rohr and the Fourth Step. It reads, “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Step Four asks the alcoholic to review their entire life and account for every moral failure. As a counselor and pastor I have known a number of people who have completed the Fourth Step; it is both exhaustive and exhausting. They begin in childhood and work forward, filling page after page in spiral notebooks with confessions of their failures. As awful as this sounds, the Fourth step is meant to break through the denial that allows the alcoholic to justify hurtful and self-destructive behavior.

And here we find the meaning of the blindness symbol in this morning’s text, an inability to see the error of our own way. Rohr uses the language of “shadow” to describe these parts of ourselves that we deny, the things we would rather leave in the dark, traits, beliefs and behaviors that we are blind to.

He writes, “Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see, your unacceptable self by reason of nature, nurture, and choice. That bit of blindness, what AA calls denial, is what allows us to do evil and cruel things – without recognizing them as evil or cruel”

(singing)

Me and my shadow
Walking down the avenue
Me and my shadow
Not a soul to tell my troubles to
And when it’s twelve o’clock
We climb the stair
We never knock
Cause there’s nobody there
Just me and my shadow
All alone and feeling blue

This old song reminds us, living with our shadow can be a rather lonely existence. Keeping our shadow hidden from the world, means that nobody really know us as we are.

The man born blind is all of us, unable to see or acknowledge our shadow.

When Jesus says that neither the man nor his parents sinned, He means that such blindness is not evidence of judgment, but an opportunity to open our eyes to experience God’s grace. Jesus invites us to bring our shadow out of the darkness, into his light; to be fully known as we are. Rohr calls this acknowledgment of and engagement with our shadow, “shadow boxing,” I might prefer the image of dancing with our shadows. Rohr writes, “Shadow boxing is necessary because we all have a well-denied shadow self. We all have that which we cannot see, will not see, dare not see. To do so would destroy our carefully crafted and preserved public and personal self-image.”

I heard a fascinating story on the radio yesterday about self-image, the story of the three Christs. In 1959, psychiatrist Milton Rokeach brought together three schizophrenic men who believed they were Jesus Christ hoping to cure them of their delusions.

When he learned of these three men Rokeach became curious about how we construct our own identities or self-image. Who do we think we are?

He brought the three men to the state psychiatric hospital in Ypsalanti, Michigan. He thought that bringing the three into relationship with one another would reveal the incongruence of their delusions and cure them. At first they did not get along, they spat, they argued, and they fought to assert their role as the king. But in time they became friends after a fashion, sitting together, sharing rolling paper, and most importantly, humoring each other’s delusion. Though each believed that they were the true God, they turned the other cheek and let the others believe that they were god too.

As the study went on, Rokeach began using morally questionable methods, pitting the men against each other, and hiring a woman to see if one of the men would fall in love. In the end, the man figured out that the woman didn’t love him and never would, and concluded, “Truth is my friend, I have no other.”

In the end, none of the three Christ’s was cured of their delusions. They were unable to overcome their blindness, unable to see their shadow.

Now I recognize that alcoholism and severe mental illness may not be easily relatable to many of you. But Rokeach’s study is instructive for all of us. We too aspire to be like Christ. We carefully construct a self-image that appears Christ-like, hiding our shadow, even from ourselves. This self-image becomes our truth, and that truth becomes our friend, sometimes our most important friend, more important than relationships and even love. And this life with just our shadow can leave us all alone and feeling blue.

In time, Rokeach came to recognize this. Twenty years after he published his study in his book The Three Christs of Ypsalanti he wrote an Epilogue, “Though I failed to cure the three Christs’ delusions, they succeeded in curing me of mine. My God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently arranging and rearranging their daily lives.”

You see, all the while Rokeach was trying to cure the three Christ’s of their blindness, he was blind to and in denial about his own moral failings.

Like the three Christ’s we often humor each other’s contradictions and inconsistencies, not challenging incongruities.

Rohr writes, “The kind of moral scrutiny required by the Fourth Step is not to discover how good or bad we are and regain some moral high ground, but it is to begin some honest shadow boxing. In other words, the goal is not the perfect avoidance of sin, which is not possible anyway, but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes with it.”

Jesus understands that if we see rightly, the actions and behaviors will eventually take care of themselves.

Let me close with this reflection on what this might all have to do with church. I had a wonderful conversation with a member recently. This was one of our older members, a very devout woman serious about her faith. She was remembering a day when worship on Sunday mornings was set apart as a sacred time, the sanctuary set apart as a holy place. This sacredness brought with it certain expectations. Children sat quietly and upright. Members dressed up, the men in suits, the women in nice dresses, no pants and certainly no jeans. “There was a time we even wore white gloves,” she reminisced fondly. Church has changed, she said.

Hers is a view in which we bring our very best selves to church. We aspire to be as much like Christ as humanly possible. Our dress and behavior give evidence of our intent, our desire to be good, and moral people. There is not a thing wrong with this. In fact, I think she is right, we have lost some of this sacred understanding of church.

But this is not all church can be. Church can also be a place where we can bring our whole self, a place that invites not just our best but our worst, a place that welcomes us and our shadows. This is a bit of a challenge. How do we be church in a way that encourages even expects the best from all of us while genuinely welcoming each of us just as we are, shadows and all?

How do we the church encourage shadow dancing?

Part of the answer lies in the Fourth Step. We don’t all need to fill notebooks with our moral failings, thank goodness, but we can all make a personal commitment to recognizing and, when safe to do so, share our shadow. Rohr writes, “People who are more transparent and admitting of their blind spots and personality flaws are actually quite easy to love and be with.” When we take off our white gloves, individually and collectively as a church, we just might find that we and our shadows are not so lonely after all.

 

The Samaritan Woman at the Well: Two Preachers, Two Perspectives

On March 19, 2017, Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker and Rev. George Harris participated in a pulpit exchange. Rev. Dr. Whittaker preached at First Church Simsbury while Rev. Harris preached at Center Church Hartford. Both preached on Chapter Four of the Gospel of John, the story of a Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at a well.

Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker

Senior Minister, Center Church, Hartford

Sermon preached at First Church, Simsbury, on March 19, 2017 (Pulpit Exchange)

Holy Conversations

John 4:5-42, Psalm 71

Friends, this morning it is, indeed, an honor to be here at the First Church of Christ in Simsbury as part of a pulpit exchange. Your Senior Minister, Rev. George Harris, is at Center Church in Hartford.

I am grateful for the work our two congregations have committed to doing together. As you know, we recently joined in anUrban Immersion during which about twenty-five of us, inserted ourselves in the realities of the City by visiting various organizations, which are doing great work, and learning about their successes and their challenges.

We came together, as two churches, in two very different locations to hold “Holy Conversations” about justice and peace in our corner of the world. Of course when our outreach leaders, from both congregations, organized the immersion, perhaps that was not an overt goal or objective, but like many conversations go, we do not know what we will discover until we are engaged in them.

***

In the Gospel lesson this morning we heard the story of the Samaritan woman. A story that is very dear to my heart.

A woman who is in the margins, is approached by Jesus in the most public, inconvenient and unexpected place. She is considered to be “the other” “less than” different.

Both of them from different backgrounds—divided by social conventions around race, gender and religion.

First, I want to name that one of the most difficult parts of this text for me is that we do not know the woman’s name. She is faceless to the writers of the text. The Samaritan Woman they called her, she is nameless.

Second, when approaching this text many commentaries focus on the part of the story when, Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (vs. 17-18)

This line has robbed the attention of so many scholars and commentaries, leading them to deduce that this woman was promiscuous and a prostitute. Hence, they have missed the transformational power contained in this story–for it is a story of freedom and not immorality.

It is important that we know that in the times of Jesus, divorce was not uncommon. Also, a woman could have widowed several times during her life.

Further, the fact that “her husband was not hers” could have been for various reasons. For instance, one of her husbands could have died and now she could have been living with his brother, as it was the law.

It is easy to look at this story and feel terribly sad for the Samaritan Woman–to victimize her for her situation—to see her as being the fortunate one because, after all, she got to have a conversation with Jesus.

But it is important to remember, that in this conversation, Jesus was at a deficit, he was thirsty and she had the bucket.

Their conversation, in many respects, go to the heart of the matter. It is a courageous conversation because, it breaks the social conventions but– also it addresses one of the core the issues that divided the Samaritans form the Jews;  and,  May I state the obvious? who brings it up is not Jesus, but rather, the woman.

The fundamental question that divided the Jews and the Samaritans, was: “Where should we worship?”

The Samaritans, had erected a place of worship on the mountain.

While the Jews believed worship should take place in Jerusalem.

Jesus response is one that inspires and leads us in re-thinking our postures about our differences. It leads us to reconsider what we are willing to hold on to versus what we can let go for the sake of the love we need to have for each other.

It is a response that makes us reflect about creating sacred spaces where we could co-exist; where we depart from the objective of “winning” and being right, and include the excluded. Jesus changes the rules the game, he says:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as    these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (vs. 23-24)

What Jesus does here is what Mujerista Theologians (a liberation theology from the perspective of Hispanic women in the United States) call “relocating the sacred.”

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, suggests that:

Mujerista liturgies, specifically, relocate the Sacred. “They locate the sacred in the midst of the marginalized, of the poor and the oppressed, instead of in an [institution].” Institutions that do little or nothing to be in solidarity with the oppressed. In doing so, she states, that authority is claimed by women in the margins to “make contact with the divine in [their] own way, according to [their own] experience.”[1]

And, there they were Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, relocating the sacred. Openly, in bright day light, in front of a cloud of witnesses that could not believe what they were seeing—conflicted on how to react at this scandalous scene.

There, in front of their own eyes, unbeknownst to them, they were being witnesses to a holy conversation.

A conversation that dismantled oppression.

A conversation that overcame exclusiveness and built community through inclusiveness.

Arguably, the longest conversation recorded, were are told, in Jesus ministry.

***

Friends, this is Women’s History month. There is not enough time, during this sermon to effectively present the many obstacles women have overcome, and still face, today.

I often feel privileged to be serving in a denomination where approximately, forty-seven percent of the authorized ministers are women.

But, it is not lost on me, that that number does not mean that we are treated equally and we have equal opportunities. There are still historic churches that have yet to call a woman as Senior Minister.

I am the first woman to lead Center Church and was called five years ago on its 380th anniversary year. I took almost 400 years for a people to say, I think a woman can do this job!”

Still, in this country, the wage gap between men and women is wide. The statistics on women trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to show that women are still being victimized and oppressed.

Nonetheless, we also have countless examples of women who persisted. Women whose actions embodied resistance and courage. Women who met at the well in their own terms.

Women like Harriett Tubman who “herself believed her success in single-handedly liberating over three hundred slaves was superintended by God, who had pre-ordained her political action”[2]

This morning, I invite all of us to say to one another, what the woman said to Jesus, “I see you.” She said “I see that you are a prophet.”

She saw him for who he was. I invite you to see one another for who you really are.

And perhaps, my call to action for all of us is, in order for us to see one another for who we are, we need to be able—have the courage to have holy or sacred conversations.

Conversations that lead us to being vulnerable;

Conversations that lead us to ask Questions;

Conversations that lead us to “see” each other, allowing us to take time to enter a sincere and perhaps difficult dialogue;

Conversations that lead us to being opened–to being surprised;

Conversations that lead us to being changed;

and, finally,

Conversations that can happen when we relocate the sacred.

In the current climate in our country, may God lead us to the well, where the stranger we might meet the stranger that will transform our lives. Amen.

[1] Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, New York: Maryknoll, 1996.

[2] Wiliams, Delores S., Sisters in the Wilderness: the challenge of womanist God-talk. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2013.

 _____________________

Rev. George Harris

Senior Minister, First Church, Simsbury

Sermon preached at Center Church, Hartford, on March 19, 2017 (Pulpit Exchange)

Nevertheless, She Persisted

John 4:5-42

Well, good morning! I am beginning to feel right at home here at Center Church. I think this is at least the third time that I have had the privilege to speak from this pulpit. Rev. Whittaker and I did a pulpit exchange a few years ago when I was serving South Church in New Britain. And I offered the Call to Worship at her installation not so long ago. Since I saw you last I accepted a call to First Church in Simsbury. Just a few months ago First Church Simsbury and Center Church participated in an urban immersion together. All of this combined means that I feel a meaningful connection here. And I am thrilled to be back this morning!

That said, there are both unique challenges and particular opportunities in preaching to a congregation that is not my own. I don’t have the established relationship with you that I have with First Church which can be both liberating and confining.

One of the things us pastors are discouraged from doing with our own church is to talk too much about ourselves. A sermon illustration from our life is OK, as long as we don’t reveal too much. We certainly shouldn’t use a sermon as an opportunity to unburden ourselves of some issue or problem of our own. And we should most definitely never air our dirty laundry from the pulpit of our church.

Well, this is not my church… and you are not my flock! So, I thought, what a perfect chance to vent a little about my wife Lourdes. Lourdes and I have been married for almost sixteen years, and we have a most extraordinary fourteen year-old daughter Abby. Lourdes was born on a sugar plantation in the Philippines, and we were both living in Hawaii when we met. My parents were visiting me, and Lourdes was the hostess that seated us in a restaurant we visited. One thing led to another and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lourdes is one of the strongest women I have ever met! She successfully rose above the poverty she was raised in to make a life for herself in the United States, and she did this by sheer determination, the force of her will. If I do say so myself, I am pretty bright, skilled in the use of words to articulate and defend my point of view.  Lourdes is also plenty smart, but has no interest in besting me in clever repartee. Instead, when there are disagreements between us, she simply asserts her will, she is right and we will do things her way. To this day, I have never experienced anything quite like it!

When I do pre-marital counseling with couples, I sometimes tell them that the very thing that attracts them to one another can become the greatest challenge in their marriage. Well that is certainly the case with me and Lourdes. I was immediately drawn to this remarkably assertive and disarmingly strong woman. And, over the years we have butted heads many times as I make some very logical, tightly argued case, and she rejects it out of hand. Do you hear me? Can you feel me? She just doesn’t follow the rules. How can you have a marriage without mutually accepted rules? I’m right, right?

OK, I should put your mind at ease. I am just joking about airing my dirty laundry from the pulpit. I love and respect Lourdes more today than when I fell in love with her all those years ago. It is true that our marriage is never boring, and it is also true that there can be occasional fireworks when we disagree. But I am sharing this not seeking sympathy, not that you take my side, but as a way of introducing this morning’s story from the Gospel of John. Because this woman at the well is also a remarkably strong, assertive woman.

Some are likely familiar with the basic outline of this story. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee and stops at a well were he meets a Samaritan woman. He asks her for a drink of water. She is surprised to be addressed by this stranger and says so, “Why are you talking to me, a woman and a Samaritan?” Jesus responds with an invitation to drink “living water.” Drink this living water, Jesus says, and you will never be thirsty. In fact, Jesus says, drink of his living water and it will become in you a spring that gushes up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman concludes, “Sir, give me this water.”

The most common interpretation of this story goes something like this. The woman had three strikes against her. She was a woman. She was a Samaritan, part of a despised ethnic and religious group. And she was a sinner, having been married five times and now living with a man who is not her husband. Nevertheless, Jesus offers her the living water of eternal life, revealing God’s unconditional grace, forgiveness and love. This is a hopeful message for all who worry that they are somehow beyond the love of God either because of who they are or what they have done. While not rejecting this message, I suggest that there is much more to this story.

To grasp the full meaning of the encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus we need some additional context. Wells, in Hebrew scripture, are firmly established as places for men to meet women. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all met their wives at wells. This kind of makes sense. In a world where women didn’t get out on their own much, their trips to the well to fetch water were one of the few times men might approach them without the watchful eye of parents or the community. We might think of wells as ancient pickup spots, “Hey beautiful, nice bucket. Can I get you a drink?”

So, when Jesus’ early followers heard the beginning of this story they would have assumed that romance was in the air and cast the woman in the role of Jesus’ future wife. That said, the role of women in these boy meets girl stories was largely passive with the men doing all the talking.

As I said, Samaritans were harshly judged by Jews. They practiced what was considered to be a corrupted form of Judaism that didn’t recognize God’s presence in the temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans had also intermarried with conquering Assyrians and therefore were not considered to be ethnically pure.  In these ways Gospel stories about Samaritans can inform present day experiences of racism and religious intolerance.

Noted Episcopal Bishop and author John Shelby Spong makes some important observations about this text. He is clear that the entire story is a parable, meant to be read for its symbolic value. He points out that the reference to the woman’s five husbands is a metaphor. In the Second book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, the ruler of Assyria, having conquered Samaria, brings people from five countries and places them in cities in Samaria. He sends a Jewish priest to instruct them in appropriate worship practices, but they disregard their instruction and continue to offer sacrifices to their own gods. The Samaritan woman’s “five husbands” represent settlers from these five countries. So, far from a judgment of the woman’s sexual immorality, Jesus’ critique is a reference to Samaria’s history of faithlessness, and a symbol of how divisions within the human family might be overcome through him.

Rather than responding from her limited role as religious and ethnic minority and prospective wife, the Samaritan woman first breaks out of societal norms and accepted practices to challenge Jesus. Then, satisfied with his response, she claims her power by embracing the vision of unity he proclaims.

At this point in the story the disciples return and completely miss the point, questioning why Jesus is even talking to a woman. Jesus’ is a clear message of inclusion and equality. The Samaritan woman recognizes this, claims it, and proclaims it. The disciples reject it. This story casts the woman, not as a bride to be, but as Jesus’ true disciple.

It is at this point in the story that I found myself convicted, seeing myself in the disciples. I realized that there is more to my relationship with Lourdes than butting heads with a strong woman. With some regularity, she will state an opinion and I will immediately contradict it in some way. Many of these issues are inconsequential, for example she will share plans that don’t involve me. Still, I find myself casting doubt on her idea and suggesting an alternative. When she calls me on this, I usually explain my response away as just sharing my opinion. But I realize that I am making an assumption in these interactions that I know best. I sometimes claim that I am making a necessary correction to her thought process, but truth be told, I am really reacting against a strong woman asserting herself to me. And despite my protests to the contrary, these interactions cast Lourdes in the proscribed role of wife.

Nevertheless, she persists!

I know you recognize this phrase that quickly spread across the internet a month and a half ago. Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor when reading a letter by Coretta Scott King. Attempting to explain his action, Senator Mitch McConnell said, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Far from successfully putting Senator Warren in her place, “Nevertheless, she persisted!” became a rallying cry for women everywhere to speak boldly for equality.

The Samaritan woman understands Jesus’ message of inclusion. Claiming her gender, ethnicity and religion, she responds boldly to Jesus, then fearlessly returns to her community to deliver this message to the Samaritans. She persists!

This story speaks to us on many levels. As I did, many of us can learn a lesson from the Samaritan woman. For over sixteen years I have been celebrating Lourdes’ strength, while reacting poorly when it is directed toward me. For her whole life Lourdes has had to persist in response to being dismissed and diminished, even by me. So men, are there ways you are making women in your life persist in response to you?

I dare say this message should also speak to us in our churches. When I first arrived at First Church last January there were no women on our Board of Trustees. There were reasonable explanations about why this was the case, but a certain amount of persistence was required to have two strong, well-qualified women nominated to the board. And Center Church, you are blessed to be led by an extraordinarily strong woman. You might reflect upon the story of the Samaritan woman as well as my testimony and ask whether there are any lessons for you there. Are there ways that Rev. Whittaker is being required to persist here?

And like the Samaritan woman, women throughout the country are being asked to persist in the face of misogyny, racism, and religious intolerance. Like my response to Lourdes, much of this may be framed as perfectly reasonable, well-argued differences of opinion, simple requests to follow the rules. This is what Mitch McConnell asked of Senator Warren, that she “follow the rules.” This was the disciples’ expectation of the Samaritan woman, that she “follow the rules.”

She didn’t and we shouldn’t. Not these rules. As people of faith we are called instead to follow the example of the Samaritan woman, to identify, name and challenge the inequalities of gender, race and religion, to claim the power of Jesus’ vision of inclusion, then become that spring of living water that gushes up for all people in our lives, in our church, and in our world. Amen.

Same But Different: What It Means to Believe in Jesus

lenten altar

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017.

John 3:1-17

There’s a ton squeezed into these seventeen verses from the Gospel of John. It’s hard to know what to make of it all, and I won’t attempt to unpack the entire text in our brief time together. But I expect a couple phrases caught your attention.

First, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus that one must be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God. These words, popularized by American Evangelicalism, have come to be associated with the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart. And unfortunately, these words have too often been applied as a litmus test in an attempt to separate so-called “Born Again” Christians from other faithful.

The other verse that no doubt jumped out was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” and it has served as that for many, signaling God’s profound love for us and indicating the depths to which God will go to convey that love. It too, however, has sometimes served as a wedge between those who “believe” and are “saved” and those who, some say, are not.

It is ironic and unfortunate that two verses that are so central to the faith of many, just as surely divide good people from one another.

I admit that these verses were stumbling blocks for me when I was first finding my way back to the church in my mid-twenties. Thomas Jefferson famously used a pen knife to cut out passages in the Bible that he found troublesome. I have never been willing to entirely reject difficult passages, but rather have sought to interpret them in ways that have meaning and integrity for me.

In this spirit, I will share some reflections on John 3:16, not to say that this is what the author meant when he wrote this verse, but as an example of a kind of interpretation that is available to any of you who wrestle with particular passages in the Bible.

First, the term eternal life is one that has not always been accessible to me. Over time I have come to interpret this for myself to mean “perfect and timeless union with the divine.”

God sent Jesus so that everyone who believes in him may experience perfect and timeless union with the divine.

But the most significant issue for me when I was first exploring my faith was what it means to believe. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Maybe that sounds like an odd question. For some the answer will be self-evident. For some, to believe in Jesus means to believe that the biblical claims about him are factual, that he was born of a virgin, and that he was bodily resurrected after his death on the cross, and most importantly that he that he is the Messiah, our Savior. Those thirty years ago when I was first taking passages like this one seriously this answer was not apparent to me.

But there are other ways to understand what it means to believe, aren’t there?

The Greek word translated as believe is pisteuo (pist-yoo’-o) which means to put faith in, to trust in, place confidence in, and have fidelity to. Think of what we mean when we affirm a child, spouse or friend by saying, “I believe in you.” This means that we have full confidence in that one, even to the point, perhaps, where we would put our life in their hands.

What would it mean to apply this understanding of belief to Jesus? To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of Jesus?

To answer this, we need to understand who Jesus is, what he represents.

In the gospels, Jesus is referred to as both the Son of Man and the Son of God.

Son of Man emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. In this persona we find something familiar, one that is always like us.

Son of God emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. In this persona we encounter difference, one that is forever other.

In Jesus we encounter both ourselves and the other, friend and stranger.

So, what does it look like to believe in this Jesus, familiar yet foreign, to trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one that is the same but different?

Listen for these themes of belief in self and other in this story from the Washington Post.

When the Nazis ripped his family from their home in Poland, Ben Stern survived life in the Warsaw Ghetto, nine concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the death march from Buchenwald by never losing faith in human kindness.

Following the war, Stern and his wife immigrated to America with no education, no trade, and no money, and could not speak English. But he had his life.

“I was reborn,” Stern says (note the language he chooses). “I did not forget what happened to me, but I was determined to rebuild the family that I lost and speak out about the pain and losses that so many people suffered, because they were hated because of their particular religion. In America we found a mixture of religions being accepted and that was opening the door for a free life that was a gift; until today I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to build the beautiful family that I have.”

So now, at the end of his life, the 95-year-old has found an almost perfect antidote to how he was treated by the Nazis: Opening his California home to one of their descendants.

His roommate, Lea Heitfeld, is a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, whose grandparents were active and unrepentant members of the Nazi Party. Rather than shy away from her family’s history, it has inspired her to learn about Jewish people and educate others about their religion and what they endured during the Holocaust. She’s even getting her Master’s Degree in Jewish studies.

Welcoming Heitfeld, the kin of the very people who brutally forced him from his childhood home, to live as his roommate while she finishes her degree feels like “an act of justice,” Stern said in an interview. “It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.”

There is much about their living situation that defies norms: the sizable generation gap, the gender divide and, of course, the fact that they’re a Holocaust survivor and the granddaughter of Nazis. And yet they’ve both found they have so much to give each other.

In the evenings, the unlikely pair watch TV together, usually the news. They have dinner together almost every night, and snack on herring salad and crackers before their meal — a mutual favorite. They have long conversations about history and current events and he tells her stories of his life in Poland before the war. Last semester, Stern, who never went to high school or college, audited a graduate class with her, and they walked together to campus every Thursday night.

For Heitfeld, Stern’s friendship is the rarest of gifts — an insight into human resiliency and compassion.

“This act of opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me,” she said. “That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”

To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one another. Is this what it looks like to believe? Could this be what it means to believe in Jesus?

I sometimes think of the sermons I preach as either having a social justice focus or a pastoral focus, the one looking outward into the world, making an appeal to respond to the needs of others, the other focusing within, seeking to minister to your needs. I’m reminded this morning that this way of thinking sets up a false dichotomy. It seems fair to say that Lea and Ben care for one another personally or pastorally through their shared commitment to each other; while their relationship is also, as Stern says, an act of justice, witnessing to necessary reconciliation in a divided world.

The rise of anti-Semitic-fueled acts in the United States — bomb threats at Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries — has been weighing heavily on Stern and Heitfeld. The vitriol directed at minority groups, not just Jews, is all too reminiscent. “I walk with a fresh injection of pain and hurt,” Stern said. Heitfeld feels it, too. “I’ve been in more pain that I’m living with a man who went through this and now has to be confronted with this on the news,” she said.

Entrusting our lives to one another requires sharing pain. This is one meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, an act of divine empathy and commitment, a willingness to share pain with us. We might even say that the cross represents the place that God and humanity entrust their lives to each other, affirm their belief in one another. It is by believing in the other that Lea and Ben have come to be most fully themselves.

Lea and Ben model for me what it means to live out a belief in Jesus who embodies for me both friend and stranger. Note, neither Lea nor Ben are Christian, but their example informs what it means for me to believe.

Ben Stern concludes, “I feel like it’s important for the reason I survived to tell the world, to tell the next generation what to look out for to have a better, secure, free life,” he said. “It’s important for them to learn how to behave with other people, with other nations, and religions. We’re different, but we’re all human and there is room for each and every one of us in this world. It should be in harmony instead of hatred, racism. … We are all born; we’re all going to go. While we’re here, we should try to improve the world.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I can now say that I believe in Jesus. I trust in, have confidence in, the one who represents for me both friend and stranger, pastor and prophet. And by entrusting my life to this Jesus, I glimpse that promised perfect and timeless union with the divine.

During this Lenten season, I invite you to return to the passages in the Bible that are a stumbling block for you and see if you might find there something to believe in, an opportunity to be born again, an entry, perhaps, into eternal life.

Temptation: Just One Bite

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on March 5, 2017, the first Sunday in Lent.

 

lenten altar

Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Temptation.

A young couple are to be married soon. A few days before the wedding the bride’s attractive sister asks the groom to come over to help her with her tax return as he is an accountant. He obliges and is met at the door by the sister in some revealing clothes. He tries to ignore this and carry on as a professional. But as they work through the taxes she gets more and more suggestive, finally getting up, bending over, and whispering in his ear, “Meet me upstairs.” She winks and slinks up the stairs. He sits for quite a few moments before getting up and walking quickly to the front door.

As he steps outside he is met by his soon to be wife and her parents. ”Surprise!” they say. It turns out they wanted to make sure that he was the right man for her, and that he would remain faithful no matter what. He passed the test! Thrilled, they invite him back inside to open a bottle of champagne in celebration.

As the groom turns to follow them back in the door, his heart pounding, he can be seen to silently mouth the words, “Thank goodness I left my condoms in the car.”

Temptation. It’s real. The consequences of giving in can be profound. And yet, like the groom in the story, we succumb all the time.

Temptation to engage in forbidden sex makes for the most titillating stories and best jokes, and indeed such temptation is real. But there are many, much more subtle forms of temptation that we confront every day, and these are revealed in today’s passage from Matthew.

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan, God pronouncing, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by the Devil. We read that Jesus fasted for 40 days and forty nights. 40 is a significant number in the history of Judaism. God brought 40 days of rain upon Noah. Both Moses and Elijah spent 40 days on mountaintops with God. And the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. So Jesus’ 40 days in the desert invoke themes of both trial and deliverance.

Jesus is famished when the Devil appears, challenging him to change stones into bread so he can satisfy his hunger. We might understand this as the temptation to put our own needs, our own security first, by amassing more than we need.

Jesus responds by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy. The full passage that he references reads:

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Next, the Devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, inviting him to throw himself off that Jesus might be saved by angels, thereby demonstrating his special relationship with God. We too know this temptation, pride, or the assertion that we are somehow uniquely deserving.

Here again, Jesus quotes scripture and refuses the Devils’ offer.

Finally, the Devil takes Jesus to a mountaintop and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. All this will be yours, if only you worship me, says the Devil. Here the temptation is to claim earthly power over others, and that temptation is as real for us today as it was for Jesus.

One last time, Jesus refuses, again quoting Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

At this, the Devil departs and, we are told, angels come to wait upon Jesus.

Note, that none of these three invitations from the Devil are sinful in themselves. In the course of his ministry, Jesus will claim each of these powers in service to others. He will perform a miracle that transforms and multiplies bread to serve thousands of hungry. He will trust the power of God, not to save his own life but to carry him beyond death that all may have new life. And instead of claiming earthly leadership for himself, Jesus will instead offer the realm of God to all those who follow him.

The sin in all three of these invitations is that they tempt Jesus to benefit, exalt and empower himself instead of serving God and others. I would suggest that every temptation we face does the same, tempting us to put ourselves before God and others. Such was the case with the groom in the joke who was prepared to put his own pleasure before his commitment to his bride.

Temptation does not typically come to us as it did to Jesus, boldly and clearly stated by the Devil, a clear and obvious choice to be made. Temptation most often begins with something seemingly innocuous. The groom in the joke no doubt thought, what could be the harm in helping sis with her taxes? Temptation is often present before we even identify it as temptation. The internet is a special kind of wilderness where sin is just one click away. What could be the harm, we think, as our finger clicks away on the mouse.

We are really hard on Adam and Eve. But put yourself in their shoes (well, they had no shoes), but imagine being in that garden. They must have thought, one bite of an apple, what could be the harm? And just as the Devil was in the wilderness to tempt Jesus, the serpent was there with Adam and Eve to sow doubt. What could be the harm?

The serpent is always there with us in the form of self-justification. We can talk ourselves into anything. The Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and,” he concludes, “you are the easiest person to fool.”

As in quantum physics, temptation begins with small things.

My Gramp used to recite this old proverb at the dinner table:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the war was lost. For want of a war, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Temptation begins with the excusable and seemingly insignificant, but like the horseshoe nail, can take down kingdoms.

In the passage I read from Romans, Paul writes, “Sin came into world through one man, death through sin, so death spread to all who sinned.” That sin was taking just one bite of an apple, just one bite, what could be the harm. Small concessions and compromises ripple outward, leading to a world of hurt.

A therapist once told me that the time to resist temptation is at the very beginning. Because after giving in to one little temptation after another, after another, after another, the larger temptation that follows becomes all but impossible to resist. So the time for the groom to have acted would have been as soon as he walked in the door, saw sis and felt his heart go pitter patter. By the time she propositioned him and headed up the stairs, it was too late. He was headed to the car for condoms.

But how do we do this? Because they are so small, these little temptations can be hard to identify and easy to excuse. The answer, says Bible scholar David Lose, lies in living into our identity as God’s beloved. Remember the words Jesus heard just before being led into the wilderness to face temptation, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” This affirmation, says Lose, is critical to understanding how Jesus successfully navigates temptation.

“Because,” Lose continues, “when push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem from the primary temptation to forget whose we are and therefore to forget who we are. Because once we fail to remember that we are God’s beloved, we will do all kinds of things to dispel the insecurity that is part of every human life, and to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to being happy.”

I find this fascinating, that giving in to temptation follows from insecurity. The serpent played on Adam and Eve’s insecurity, sowing mistrust of God, and they give in. We are not so much victims of original sin as original insecurity. It kind of makes sense. Whether infidelity, greed, pride or envy, it is easy to recognize these as responses to insecurity, attempts to secure our identity on our own rather than simply claiming our identity as beloved children of God

Jesus refutes the Devil’s attempts to sow mistrust by repeatedly affirming his relationship with God, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

There are so many temptations in this world, most of them coming not as apples hanging from a tree but rather subtle messages that seek to undermine our identity and invite us to forget whose we are. So many commercials suggest we are inadequate. So many headlines suggest that there is not enough to go around. And so many politicians – of all parties – contend that we have a great deal to fear. In the face of these identity-obscuring messages, we have the opportunity to root ourselves in the same baptismal promise that safe-guarded and empowered Jesus. This is the baptismal promise that reminds us that we are so totally enough in God’s eyes, that there is plenty to go around, and that we need not live in fear.

So, brothers and sisters, I invite you to repeat after me:

I am God’s precious child…

Chosen and marked by God’s love…

Delight of God’s life…

Just as I am…

And that’s enough.

Amen.

Shaving through Lent: A Practice of Everyday Mindfulness

This is the column I wrote for the March 2017 of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

shave

Lent is the season in the church year that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends forty days later (not counting Sundays) on the Saturday before Easter. The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. We can think of Lent as a time for us to cultivate an awareness of and be present with the desert experiences of our lives, those places that are, metaphorically speaking, dry, harsh, rocky and inhospitable. During Lent we are invited to attend to our soul through spiritual practices such as fasting (giving something up), praying, or meditating. Meditation, sometimes called mindfulness, is a method to quiet our heart’s yearning and mind’s churning. By meditating, we learn that we can simply “be” in life’s desert places without restlessness, anxiety or fear.

Meditation might bring to mind a Buddhist monk, sitting perfectly still on a cushion, a picture of peace and enlightenment. I have meditated in this way periodically over the years, sitting quietly, watching my breath, in… and out… in… and out. And though this practice has been, at times, richly rewarding, I have found it difficult to maintain for more than a few months. But sitting quietly isn’t the only way to cultivate mindfulness; there are everyday practices that can function in the same way.

I share one such everyday practice that centers me, with the hope that you might also find a day-to-day activity that can help ground you in the dry, rocky, desert times of your life.

One day last fall I was complaining to Rev. Kev about the exorbitant price of cartridge razors. In response he revealed that he shaves with an old-fashioned, double-edged safety razor. I was intrigued, so around Thanksgiving off I went to Target where such a razor can be had for less than $20. Upon using it the next morning, I was hooked! Not only am I saving a boatload of money (each blade costs ten cents!), I love the ritual of using a shaving brush and soap, and the old-timey feel of the razor in my hand.

At first I didn’t recognize shaving as a mindfulness practice. But over the past few months I have realized that shaving with a double-edged razor requires the same gentle attention as watching my breath. Like meditating, it requires one to slow down and gently let go of thoughts as they arise. Hurrying, using too heavy a hand, or letting my mind wander while shaving will result in nicks and cuts, not to mention a poor shave.

And shaving, like meditating, is a sensory rich experience. When I quiet my mind in meditation I notice the chill in the air and hear the birds singing. Similarly, when I shave there is the smell of the shaving soap, the feel of the warm lather and soft brush, even the sound the razor makes when I pull it across my face. Giving attention to these helps quiet my mind; and should my thoughts again begin to wander, I gently return my attention to the movement of the razor across my face. I experience that same calm, centered, contented feeling after my morning shave that I would feel after meditating.

Though there are still things that make me feel anxious, my morning shave grounds me in a way that makes me better able to respond to the day’s challenges.

So, this is my invitation to you. During this season of Lent, identify an everyday activity that may function as a spiritual practice for you. It could be walking, taking a bath or shower, doing the laundry, or cooking. Slow down, cultivate an awareness of the sights, sounds, and feel in each moment. Any of these, and many other activities, when done with intention and attention, can quiet heart and mind and allow us to simply be present with God, even in those barren, rocky, wilderness places in our lives.

The Secret of Joy

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at First Church Simsbury. We celebrated this Sunday both as Transfiguration Sunday and Mardi Gras Sunday.

Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9

Some of you know that I attended Tulane University in New Orleans. After my freshmen year in the dorms, I rented an apartment, the first floor of an uptown home, with a couple friends. One Saturday morning, no doubt after a late night of dancing to the Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s, I was awakened by the sound of horns outside my window. Not car horns mind you, these were trumpets and trombones and tubas. None too pleased, and with my head pounding, I rolled out of bed to see a jazz funeral processing by my front door. We lived just half-a-block from an old, over-grown cemetery. The mourners walked slowly and somberly down the street, accompanying the casket as the brass band slowly played (I slowly sing), “Just a closer walk with thee; grant it Jesus is my plea…”

In spite of my headache I thought this was pretty cool. After the procession had passed and the music faded I went back in to make myself a cup of coffee. But not much time had passed before the sound of horns returned, this time playing a spirited rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. I again sat on my stoop as the funeral party strutted and danced down the street, laughing, shouting, some waving handkerchiefs, others twirling colorful umbrellas.

At the time I didn’t conduct a theological analysis of what I had just witnessed, but tucked the experience away as one more great thing about New Orleans.

But I recalled that jazz funeral and its expression of joy in response to suffering and death when I read this morning’s story of the Transfiguration.

Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up to the top of a mountain with him where he is “transfigured.” Transfiguration means a complete change of appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. Indeed, we are told that Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white!

It is easy to get distracted by the supernatural nature of this story, wanting to know what exactly happened and how. But for our purposes, it will be more interesting and fruitful to explore what the story means.

This story is traditionally interpreted as a revelation of Jesus’ divinity, his embodiment of God’s glory, an incarnation of joy. This has translated into our popular culture into the idea of a “mountaintop experience,” an ecstatic spiritual experience of becoming one with God. Love, music and nature are sometimes said to facilitate such “mountaintop experiences.”

But there is more to this story than just an individual experience of joy. And to get at that we need to further explore the context of Jesus’ trip up the mountain with his disciples.

After Jesus was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. Both Moses and Elijah had also encountered God on a mountain top, this morning’s passage from Exodus chronicles one of these encounters. And both also responded to God’s call to confront evil and dangerous kings who were oppressing the Jews; Moses confronted Pharaoh and Elijah challenged Ahab.

Following Moses and Elijah’s appearance, God speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Now, before Jesus came along the term “son of God” was used to refer to Roman emperors, including Tiberius who ruled during Jesus’s lifetime. The title communicated the emperor’s divinity, putting them above any challenge to their rule. Having God himself claim Jesus as his son here represents a direct threat to the Roman Empire.

Within this context, Jesus’ transfiguration is understood to be much more than a parlor trick to reveal God’s glory. Rather, Jesus is transfigured to invoke and emphasize his connections to Moses and Elijah, thereby confronting Rome’s oppressive rule, revealing God’s will, and anticipating Jesus’ rejection and ultimate vindication by God. In fact, Jesus spells this out for the disciples.

Just before heading up the mountain with the three disciples, in Chapter 16 of Matthew we read, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And, shortly after the transfiguration, still in Chapter 17 of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”

So yes, through the transfiguration Jesus reveals his divinity and shares an experience of divine joy with his disciples, but this is no individual, spiritualized, mountain top experience. This is a joy which emerges from and refuses to be conquered by suffering and death. This is a joy that challenges empire.

It can be tempting to think of mountaintop experiences as an escape from the world’s troubles. Indeed, we might hope that we could seal ourselves off from life’s ugliness, and that God will somehow carry us above and beyond all earthly suffering. This may well be what the disciples were hoping when they suggested building structures on the mountaintop to contain and preserve that moment for themselves.

But what does Jesus do? Fueled by a joy that resists suffering and death, Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain to confront the violence and struggle that await in Jerusalem.

The quote that opens Alice Walker’s book, Possessing the Secret of Joy, is from the book African Saga by a white author, Mirella Ricciardi, and reads “Black people are natural, they possess the secret of joy.” Walker uses Ricciardi’s words with bitter irony, because the African protagonist of Walker’s book, Tashi, knows no such “natural” joy. After escaping a traditional female circumcision procedure as an infant thanks to the intervention of missionaries, Tashi voluntarily submits herself to the procedure as a teenager as way to identify with the struggles of her African kin. But the humiliation and brutality of “receiving the mark” almost destroys Tashi physically and emotionally. The novel catalogues her descent into madness, her long fight to salvage and reconstruct a self, her return to Africa, her final costly liberation, and her discovery that… “resistance is the secret of joy.”

Here again, we find the two contrasting perspectives on joy. The one communicated by Ricciardi’s quote, we could call this the “don’t worry, be happy” perspective, suggests a denial of or escape from suffering. The other, discovered by Tashi, confronts, challenges and overcomes suffering and death.

I think this latter understanding is the joy that I witnessed in the jazz funeral procession that I watched pass by my door on Lowerline Street in New Orleans. Those who strutted and twirled were not denying the reality of the death they still mourned; rather theirs was a fierce, even a defiant joy that laid claim to a light that can never be extinguished. Theirs was an act of resistance, and resistance is the secret of joy.

I read a review of Possessing the Secret of Joy in which the writer points out that Tashi is an archetype of Everywoman and Everyman who is violated and in crisis. Well, there are a lot of women and men who are violated and in crisis today, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and transgender teens, to name a few.  Violated and in crisis.

And it is so darn hard to see it, sit with it, and feel it all. I would love to escape to a mountaintop with Jesus, set up Camp Joy, and bask every day in the reflected light of God. But this is not the joy that God calls us to. God fuels us with a fierce and defiant joy that we might again turn to confront empire through the cross.

(Piano begins to softly play, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.)

Tuesday is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. In my years in New Orleans I knew this as a feast day before beginning the fasting season of Lent. And it is that. But having reflected anew on the transfiguration I have a deeper appreciation of Mardi Gras, I find here a fierce and defiant joy that will equip and sustain us as we set our face to Jerusalem to resist oppression, suffering and death in all its guises. Because as Jesus knew, and Tashi learned, resistance is the secret of joy.

Please stand and sing, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

That Muttering Man in a Bathrobe

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 12, 2017. The original title was “The Fine Print,” but “That Muttering Man in a Bathrobe,” if not more appropriate, is certainly more fun!

Matthew 5:21-30

It is three in the morning. In a room lit only by the glow of a television a solitary figure shuffles back and forth in his bathrobe, brooding, seething. Absolutely convinced that he is right, the arguments against his opponents ricocheting through his mind, he mutters under his breath and gestures forcefully. He is in a position of power; how dare anyone question him. How could they not see how wonderful he is?

We know this shadowy figure, susceptible to fits of anger and lustful passions, all too well, and we will return to this scene in a moment. But first let’s turn back to the text from Matthew in which Jesus interprets and expands upon the Ten Commandments.

Here, in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues teaching his disciples.

Responding to those who believed that Jesus represented a break from Judaism, Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to abolish Jewish law but to fulfill it. He then forcefully emphasizes the importance of following and teaching the law. Those who break even one little commandment will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

As if this isn’t scary enough, Jesus then explains the “fine print” of this contract with God.

Beginning with the commandment, “You shall not murder,” Jesus then lowers the bar saying, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” even going so far as to say that anyone who says, “’you fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

So, in case that’s not clear, Jesus is saying that we don’t have to literally murder someone to break God’s commandment not to kill. Simply being angry at or insulting someone is enough to break the covenant with God and experience harsh and eternal consequences.

And in case you’re not already freaking out, I’ll share just one more example of this “fine print” from our contract with God. Jesus next interprets and expands upon the commandment against adultery, saying that anyone who has looked at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart. Some will remember that 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Playboy magazine, famously admitted, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Carter, then and still a Sunday school teacher in his church in Plains, Georgia, knew his Bible and was referencing this passage from Matthew.

And, lest any of you still not find yourselves convicted by Jesus’ apparent condemnation of anger and lust, he concludes this teaching with these words:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

I’ve always wanted to end a sermon right there. Just drop the mic and walk out of the pulpit.

But, the story of Jesus’ life doesn’t end there nor should any sermon we preach or lesson we teach about Jesus.

One of the phrases that was coined during this past election season was “some things are meant to be taken seriously but not literally.” I don’t care to revisit that phrase in its political context, but it seems relevant here. Jesus admonishment to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand when they cause us to sin are hyperbole, a literary device that uses obvious exaggeration to make a point, to grab our attention and say, “take this seriously, not literally but take it seriously.”

And what is the serious point that Jesus is making? The commandments matter. Morality matters. Accountability to our relationships matters.

This may sound obvious, but I sometimes wonder if mainline, progressive Christians can emphasize God’s grace, forgiveness and love so much that we can overlook and excuse bad and hurtful behavior, our own or other’s. We can justify our anger because of our belief that we are right. And we can shrug off lust and even excuse adultery with an appeal to love. After all, in a pinch we can always fall back upon God’s love and forgiveness.

So here, using the strongest possible language, Jesus is emphasizing for his disciples and for us that morality matters. Though he embodies God’s grace, forgiveness and love, this grace, forgiveness and love is meant to be lived out by us in our relationships with one another by following God’s laws and then some.

Which brings us back to that agitated, shadowy figure pacing up and down in his bathrobe at 3 in the morning. Some of you who have been paying attention to the news this week may think you recognize this scene and have an idea where this is going. There was an article in the New York Times. Well, you would be wrong.

That muttering maniac was me, at 3 o’clock Saturday morning. I woke up with my mind churning away on conversations I had had on Friday afternoon. On the surface it was nothing, not a matter of national security or human rights. The conversations had been about how to organize this service, in particular how to fit in both the blessing of our service members and the baptism of Thomas Smith in a way that was meaningful, accommodated other commitments, and didn’t disrupt the flow of worship. I realize that to almost all of you this sounds ridiculous. But I can tell you that people shared a number of different perspectives on this topic in these Friday conversations. So, I made a decision. As Senior Minister, I certainly have the power to make such decisions, and I thought I was making a decision that was good and right. I was convinced of it. That decision is reflected in your bulletins.

But not everyone agreed with me. I won’t name any names (Rev. Kev), because the who and what and why are not important. Everyone had perfectly understandable reasons for their opinions, all had good intentions. But what is important is that I got pretty knotted up about it. Knotted up enough to be up at 3 in the morning pacing, arguing my case to no one.

And that’s when Jesus spoke to me, “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with them.”

Darn you Jesus!

In an instant, I realized that the issue wasn’t other peoples’ problems, it was my own righteous indignation. And that certainty that I was right caused me to judge other perspectives and closed me off to other options. It wasn’t “them” it was me!

And as soon as I realized that and let go of my own way, I recognized that there were indeed other options, options that hadn’t even been considered. And will you look at that, we blessed service members and baptized a baby and are worshipping God with gladness. God is good.

I share confessionally, what, in the greater scheme of things, is pretty insignificant, because this example demonstrates some things that are likely true for many of us.

First, we are all convinced that we are in the right from time to time. We all get self-righteous, indignant and even angry, even pastors. Thankfully, there isn’t time to make a confession about lustfulness, but as Jimmy Carter showed, many of us experience that too, pastors included.

Jesus is telling us to take these things seriously. Morality matters, not to please God, but that we might live together in loving communion with each other.

So that is one important message in this morning’s lesson. And the other is this. We are all implicated, right? Who among us has not been angry at someone or felt lust toward another? I won’t ask for a show of hands. These feelings are part of being human. Try as we might, despite our commitment to live moral lives, we will come up short, just as I did.

And when we do, Jesus will fulfill the law in our stead. When we come humbly before God acknowledging our failings and limitations, we will be met by God’s grace, forgiveness and love in the person of Jesus Christ.

Blessed Are the Refugees

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, January 29.

Matthew 5:1-12, Luke 6:20-26

On Friday, First Church staff and our spouses gathered in my home for a post-Christmas party. As you know, the holiday season is especially busy for our staff so there is no real opportunity for us to relax and celebrate the season with each other. By coming together in January, we are able to enjoy a potluck meal and some less businesslike interactions with one another. We ended the evening with a Yankee swap. Many will be familiar with the tradition. Everyone brings an inexpensive wrapped gift, then we take turns either picking a wrapped gift from the pile or taking, basically stealing, a gift that someone has already chosen and unwrapped. Yankee swaps always lead to lots of laughter as someone opens a gag gift, or as a coveted gift is snatched away; and I find that Yankee swaps are especially fun with church staff. For good reason, we are required to be pretty buttoned up during the week and on Sunday mornings. But once a year we can let our hair down, be silly, and laugh at things that might raise eyebrows within the church walls.

Uh-oh, I think I’ve said too much. Your imaginations are probably running wild. OK, I’ll share one story. One of the Yankee swap gifts was a small picture book called Hot Guys and Baby Animals. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Each page contains a picture of a gorgeous, shirtless man holding a cute little baby animal. On one page you might find Ty, a muscular young man with a seductive smile, holding an adorable little puppy named Jasper. Ty, we read, is proud of having served in the military. While Jasper is proud of his ability to chase his own tail. And so on. As you might imagine, there was much uproarious laughter every time the book changed hands!

Oh, and if you want to sneak a peek at those “cute animals,” see our Church Administrator Shannon Lindsay; she went home with the book.

So, my reason for beginning with this story are two-fold. First, I want you to know that members of your staff like each other; we enjoy each others company. Second, it illustrates, albeit in a silly, clumsy way, that what we say and the way we say it changes depending on our setting and audience. I will express myself one way when speaking to Nancy Crouch about the church’s clinic in Uganda, and another when I open a nose-hair trimmer at the staff post-Christmas party (Mark Mercier and I battled over that nose-hair  trimmer!). Context matters.

Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Matthew, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. The beatitudes are a series of proverb-like blessings, each consisting of two phrases, a condition and a result. Blessed are the poor in spirit (the condition), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (the result). The Beatitudes can be read as moral instruction; God will bless you when you act in this way, and many find comfort in these blessings, an assurance of God’s loving response to hardship.

Not one to mince words, Pope Francis recently said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian; you cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes.”

Some of you may know that there is a version of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Luke. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s telling of this story is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. While it is possible that Jesus preached two different versions of the same sermon, it is more likely that Matthew and Luke take the same story and interpret it differently for their respective readers.

Just as is makes sense for our church staff to present ourselves one way in the more formal professional setting of the church and another way in a more relaxed social setting, so it makes sense that the two gospel writers recount Jesus’ sermon about God’s blessings differently, depending on their setting and audience. What is said and the way it is said changes depending on the context.

I will spend a little time unpacking the difference between these two versions of the Beatitudes as this will help us understand what Jesus is saying to us today. First, let’s look at the setting and audience for each.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, near Jerusalem, while Luke is writing to a community of gentile or Greek followers somewhere in Asia Minor.

Matthew introduces the Beatitudes by saying: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them. So in Matthew, Jesus goes up the mountain to escape the crowd and teach the disciples.

Luke, on the other hand, writes that Jesus came down from the mountain with his disciples and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and cured of unclean spirits. Here, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the people in the crowd.

Let’s compare two verses from the each gospel and see how this knowledge influences our understanding.

While Luke writes, “blessed are you who are poor,” Matthew writes, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” You hear the difference. In Luke, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the impoverished people in the crowd. While these poor had been treated by the religious elites as if they were unloved by God and deserving of their lot in life, Jesus specifically affirms God’s love for them, for “you, who are poor.”

In Matthew however we find Jesus speaking privately to his disciples, teaching that if they want to experience God’s blessing they need to be “poor in spirit,” emptying themselves, letting go of their own way to let God in.

Similarly, in Luke, Jesus speaks to those in the crowd saying, “blessed are you who are hungry now,” while Matthew’s Jesus teaches the disciples, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s treatment of Jesus’ teachings is consistent with the whole tone of his gospel which consistently affirms God’s love and justice for the outcast and challenges the rich and powerful. Jesus’ blessing of the poor and hungry on the plain echoes the words Mary sings when pregnant with Jesus, “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Matthew, on the other hand, seems to spiritualize Jesus’ teachings, taking the focus off the poor, but is this really his intent? Notice that Matthew does not say that those who are righteous are blessed, but that God blesses those who hunger for righteousness, here meaning justice.

What does it look like to be poor in spirit and to hunger for justice?

Some of you know that with leadership from First Church members, a group named HANA has been formed to sponsor a refugee family in Connecticut. Some fifty excited, gifted and committed volunteers from area churches and organizations now comprise this group, Hartford Area Neighbors’ Alliance or HANA; they have been trained by a refugee resettlement agency called IRIS in New Haven and are now ready to receive a family.

Refugees are poor and hungry, right? Fleeing political or religious persecution, often leaving everything they own behind in their war-torn homelands. In Luke version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says of these poor, hungry refugees, God sees you, knows your suffering, and has something better in store for you.

Poor in spirit and hungering for what is right, “disciples” from HANA are responding to the plight of these beloved of God, emptying themselves of their own interest, putting love of God and stranger first.

Taken together, Luke and Matthew reconcile those who are poor and hungry in fact, with those poor in spirit disciples who hunger and thirst for justice. We need to hear the sermon in both ways if we are to come together and respond to the world’s poverty and hunger.

As many of you know, as of Friday, an executive order halted the entry of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. These countries would be the most likely homes of refugee families we would sponsor. I am heartbroken about this decision as I know the abject suffering these refugees are experiencing. For some, this decision to refuse entry to the United States could be a matter of life and death.

In the same speech in which he referred to practicing the Beatitudes, Pope Francis rebuked “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand are against refugees and other religions. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he says.

The two gospels offer other blessings, and here Matthew and Luke agree.

Jesus, in both accounts, says, blessed are those who mourn and weep. So together poor and poor in spirit, refugees and those who see and know their suffering, will mourn; and the hungry and those hungry for justice will weep together until we all experience God’s blessing.

And in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus preaches, blessed are you when people hate, exclude, revile, defame and persecute you.

Those in the crowd that gathered on the plain with Jesus that day knew such condemnation, and so do Muslim refugees today. Through no fault of their own, they have faced persecution in their own countries that has required them to run for their lives, and they now confront hate and exclusion anew as they seek new homes around the world.

And Jesus gives the same message to the disciples on the mountain top. And guess what, that’s us. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to lift our voices in defense of Jesus’ teachings, even as we face the real possibility that we may be reviled for it.

In addition to supporting the ongoing work of HANA to sponsor a refugee family, I have reached out to friend of the church, Imam Sami Aziz of the Bloomfield Muslim Community Center and let him know that he and his congregation have the support of First Church. He urged me, urges us, to publicly refute the false narrative about Islam that is being promoted by some evangelical Christians and used by politicians to exclude and persecute Muslim immigrants and refugees in the United States.

This is just one of the ways Jesus is calling to us in these times, called from this Sunday morning mountaintop to go among the poor and hungry. You poor in spirit, God’s realm is crying out to us. You who mourn, God will meet us here, now, that we might be encouraged and respond. You who hunger and thirst for justice, go. Go. Go knowing that God blesses and accompanies us always. Amen.

 

An Angel Remembered: Rick Lamb

rick-lamb

 

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

                                                                                                                                    Hebrews 13:2

 

I met Rick in a beach park in Honolulu. With Central Union Church, I founded a homeless ministry there, setting up a canopy and about 30 chairs for a worship service and shared meal each Thursday evening. Rick walked up as I arrived in the church van one day and offered to help set up for the service. Fifty something, Rick was ruggedly handsome, but the lines on his face betrayed years of hard living. He spoke proudly of his accomplishments including having owned an HVAC company and becoming a licensed pilot. And he also lay claim to more colorful chapters in his life including riding with a motorcycle gang; he carried a picture of his Harley with a holstered gun strapped to the handlebars.

And, I quickly learned, Rick was a serious alcoholic and lived in that beach park; he was homeless. I worked very closely with Rick for about four years. He made repeated efforts to get back on his feet, recommitting himself to sobriety and seeking employment. But there were many other times when he would call me, very, very drunk and in no shape to help himself.

Rick was the first person to call me pastor, though he would also sometimes call me “Pastor Pagan,” a rather questionable term of endearment that I never quite understood. He would also sometimes attend worship at Central Union Church, wearing his pilot’s uniform of black pants, a white shirt with military-style shoulder boards, and aviator sunglasses. The church loved him through all his ups and downs, and so did I. He attended my wedding.

One day, Rick got the news that his mother had died. He loved his mother, and she loved him. He had lived with her for a time, though I imagine that his drinking caused her much heartache. She left him a modest amount of money, enough to buy a cabin cruiser which he named Tailspin (a humorous nod to his love of flying, but also, perhaps, a darkly ironic premonition of things to come).

Living aboard his boat was going to be Rick’s ticket to a better life, he was sure of it. Indeed, he stayed sober for a few months but, sadly, again succumbed to his addiction. One night I got a call that Rick had gotten into a drunken fight on the waterfront. He was beaten badly and, after several days on life support, died.

Unbeknownst to me, Rick had made me, his Pastor Pagan, a beneficiary of his estate. There wasn’t a lot of money left after his debts were paid, but there was enough to cover some of the expenses of my seminary education.

Rick’s picture sits beside my computer in my office to remind me of the ways God worked through him to call and equip me for ministry, a ministry that has happily led me here to First Church Simsbury, another assembly of angels unaware.

Sunday, February 12, will be the fifteenth anniversary of Rick’s death, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination.

Thank you Rick. Soar with the angels.

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

Published in: on January 26, 2017 at 11:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Called from Occupied Territory

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on January 22, 2017 after members of First Church and Center Church in Hartford joined together to participate in a “Signs of Hope Urban Immersion Experience.” After drawing parallels between Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood and ancient Israel’s occupied territories of Zebulun and Naphtali I ask, what would it mean for us to travel back to our occupied territory, those parts of our lives that are occupied by disappointment, loss, betrayal or condemnation? And what would it mean to hear Jesus calling us to ministry from that very darkness?

Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

Did you hear that?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching…and proclaiming the good news…and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Sounds great doesn’t it? In preparing this sermon, I thought, I want some of that. I want some of that for our troubled world, I want some of that for each of you, and quite frankly, I want some of that for myself. So, we’ll circle back to that vision of a cure for what ails us, but first, I want to share a story about Signs of Hope.

This past Thursday, a group of our members joined with members of Center Church in Hartford for the Signs of Hope Immersion Experience. Meant to give us first-hand exposure to some of the people, places, issues and challenges of inner-city Hartford, the day was planned by our Mission Board member Debi Ackels and her counterpart Bill from Center Church. With Rev Kev behind the wheel of the Jesus Bus, our first stop was at Center Church where we learned about the assistance they provide through their Warburton Resource Center. Next we stopped at the ImmaCare emergency, no-freeze shelter, housed in the sanctuary of what was once Immaculate Conception Church, then on to the Frog Hollow branch of the Hartford Public Library. We finished with lunch at Hands on Hartford, and a presentation by the Christian Activities Council.

This was an eye-opening experience for all of us who participated, and I extend a big thank you to Debi and Bill who pulled it all together so beautifully.

I was especially moved by our visit to the Frog Hollow library. For those who don’t know, Frog Hollow is the poorest neighborhood in Hartford, with a median household income of just over $25,000 per year. We were told that Frog Hollow was named for the French Canadian immigrants who settled there in the mid-1800’s. Frog, of course, being a racial slur for these immigrants. Today, this neighborhood of about 10,000 is populated mostly by immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Guatemala.

Many identified our visit to the library as the most memorable stop. With one room, just big enough to hold the twenty-five of us, the library functions as a place for school children to get tutoring and use the half-dozen computers, while also serving as a community gathering place. The Head Librarian, Leticia Cotto, and her two assistants gave eloquent and powerful testimony about the invaluable role the little library fills. We learned that the City of Hartford approved a bond for a larger and better equipped library many years ago, but that each year the legislature reapportions those funds somewhere else, most recently for the Duncan Donuts Yard Goat Stadium.

Our visit was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to reflect on this morning’s passage from Matthew.

Over the years, I have read these words dozens of times and preached any number of sermons on the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. But I must have skimmed right over the first five verses.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

 

Other than trying not to stumble over the names, I never gave much thought to Zebulun and Naphtali.

But my experience in Frog Hollow drew my attention to the importance of geography and history, so I became curious about these places. Who were these territories named after? Who lived there? What was their history? Was it a history of triumph or struggle?

Matthew doesn’t leave us to wonder, pointing us to an important chapter in the history of Israel as told by the prophet Isaiah some 700 years before Jesus lived.

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’ 

Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Territories where these family groups settled carried their names. When Isaiah is writing, these territories are occupied by the Assyrian Empire. Those who have some familiarity with the Old Testament will know that the Assyrian Empire to the north invaded Israel and took leading citizens into captivity in Assyria while occupying the territory of those who remained behind.

So in Isaiah’s day, Zebulun and Naphtali were occupied territory. That means that the people of Israel who lived there suffered daily under an oppressive regime that siphoned off resources in support of the empire.

700 years later, it is significant that Jesus begins his public ministry in this very same territory. And this region is again occupied, now by the Roman Empire.

It can be challenging to wrap our mind around just how thoroughly this impacted daily life. As in Isaiah’s day, resources were siphoned off, this time in support of Roman elites.

Just as my visit to Frog Hollow informed my understanding of this scripture passage, causing me to consider the importance of place names and geography; so this scripture passage in turn informs my understanding of Frog Hollow.

Though Frog Hollow is not occupied territory in any literal sense, like Zebulun and Naphtali, resources are siphoned off from the poor of Frog Hollow to support the lifestyle and interests of the powerful. This is why, year after year, funds to upgrade the small, one-room, store front library get diverted to support wealthier districts.

It is no accident that this these regions in Galilee are where Jesus chooses to begin his ministry. Matthew’s audience would have understood the significance of this immediately.

When Jesus says, repent, for the kingdom of God has come near, he isn’t telling the Jewish residents of this place to repent from their sins – telling lies, gossiping, jealousy – no Jesus is confronting empire, demanding that the occupying Romans and their Jewish collaborators, the Pharisees, repent for oppressing the poor and most vulnerable.

In the previous chapter, John the Baptist had called out the Pharisees and Sadducees for this same behavior. Matthew writes, “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, John said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And as revealed in the first verse of this morning’s passage, John was arrested for daring to confront the political and religious power of empire.

But while knowing the danger, instead of fleeing in the other direction, Jesus goes to the very symbolic heart of empire, and takes up John’s demand, “Repent!”

Jesus then calls his first disciples from among those whom had felt the bite of Roman rule, four fishermen. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was not a way to get rich; fisherman made just enough to get by. After Rome takes its cut, and the Jewish tax collectors squeeze some extra for themselves, you can bet Peter, Andrew, James and John found it impossible to get ahead.

At the end of our day in Hartford, a woman who had joined us from the Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation asked exasperated, how can people who face all these daily challenges possibly escape this cycle? Like these fishermen, those trapped in poverty in Frog Hollow find it next to impossible to break the cycle of poverty.

Yet these are the very people Jesus calls as his disciples. And with Peter, Andrew, James and John in tow, Jesus then sets out restoring people to health and wholeness.

To review, Jesus intentionally begins his ministry in a place that had been under the thumb of empire for 700 years. He begins by demanding that those in power repent, change their ways, because the reign of God is upon them. He calls his first disciples from among those who live with this reality day in and day out, then sets about restoring people to health and wholeness.

Restoring people to health and wholeness. That’s where this morning’s passage ends, and it’s where I began. So I ask again, doesn’t that sound great? Don’t we all want that healing for ourselves and our world?

What would it mean for us to travel back to the occupied territories of our life? Now of course I don’t mean literally occupied by empire, but I am talking about those experiences that continue to occupy our hearts and minds, burden us, hold us back. These may be experiences of hurt, betrayal, trauma, disappointment, regret, or condemnation. Or we may be occupied by anxiety, fear or anger. Where do we sit in darkness, where does the shadow of death fall upon us?

Maybe you have had an experience of being bullied. Been in an abusive relationship. Had a parent from whom you never felt love. Been subject to sexual harassment. Experienced betrayal in a marriage, or a broken relationship with a child. Maybe you just feel like your life has never amounted to much.

These are the occupied territories we are invited to travel to within ourselves knowing that Jesus will meet us there. Jesus will meet us there and demand that the forces of darkness that occupy and oppress us repent, let go, set us free!

And these are the places in which we will find fellow disciples, those who also know what it means to be occupied, to suffer, to be squeezed.

And these are the places from which we will then be called to ministry.

Which brings us back to places like Frog Hollow.

Jesus calls us from our own pre-occupation to minister in the occupied territories of the world today. Whether in Frog Hollow, among Syrian refugees, in support of equal rights for women and gays and lesbians, to children with special needs, or with lonely seniors in nearby nursing facilities, Jesus meets us in our dark and shadowed places and says “Follow me,” leading us and the world to health and wholeness. And that is a sign of hope.

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