At Our Church, We…

giant slayers

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 10, 2018.

John 5:1-9, Psalm 98

Just over a year ago, a panicked young mother, Julissa, called her pastor, AJ Johnson, from the Saint Francis Hospital Emergency Room. Through tears she explained that her infant daughter had been bitten by mice as she slept in their apartment in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford. As if the horror of mice biting her baby wasn’t overwhelming enough, the Department of Children and Families had been called and was now refusing to release her baby to return home with her. Pastor AJ arrived within minutes, and so begins a most remarkable, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring story.

In addition to leading the Urban Hope Refuge Church in Hartford’s North End, Pastor AJ is a neighborhood organizer on the staff of the Christian Activities Council, a Hartford faith-based social justice organization. As he inquired more about the circumstances that led to Julissa’s emergency room visit, he learned that the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments (CARA) where she lived had an uncontrolled infestation of mice living within its walls, beyond the reach of tenants’ traps or poison. In addition to mice and rats, the 300-plus tenants of these CARA apartments dealt with leaks, water damage and mold, broken windows, and no heat; and despite being cited more than 2,300 times for violations, the landlord Emmanuel Ku, failed to remedy these deplorable, inhumane conditions.

Pastor AJ and the Christian Activities Council began to organize the CARA tenants in what would become a year-long effort to hold Ku accountable for providing safe housing. Community organizing campaigns like this one depend on the leadership of the tenants. The Christian Activities Council remains in the background, training, equipping, and supporting the tenants to do the necessary research, meet with public officials, and publicize their cause. The tenants soon learned that Ku is one of the most notorious slumlords in America. Every year he received over a million dollars in subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and 260,000 dollars in tax abatement from the City of Hartford.

Holding Ku accountable would require holding HUD and the city accountable. Mayor Bronin of Hartford quickly agreed to support the tenants; not surprisingly, HUD moved more slowly. But on May 31st, HUD notified Ku that they would be removing his subsidy, effectively ending his management of the CARA apartments. Tenants will now be given a voucher from HUD to relocate, and the Christian Activities Council is working with them to make sure they secure appropriate housing.

In the words of Psalm 98:

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

Just a year after a young mother’s desperate phone call, she and her fellow tenants came together to stand up to forces of evil and achieve justice for themselves. This is the promise of community organizing.

First Church has had a number of meaningful connections to this campaign, most significantly through our intern, Anastasia, who has been working on the front lines with the Christian Activities Council since September. And I have been meeting with a group of over 40 Hartford Area clergy organized by the Christian Activities Council to provide a faith-based witness for righteousness and justice. In May, I had the privilege of sitting in on a large meeting between all the players. The city was represented by Mayor Bronin and the Fire Chief; HUD executives in Boston appeared via a large video screen; Emmanuel Ku’s people were at the table, CARA tenants set the tone for the meeting; and a couple dozen of us clergy sat in rows along one wall, now that I think of it, like a kind of holy jury. I was deeply moved by the skill, strength and resolve of the tenant leadership of that meeting.

First Church has now formed a Core Team of six volunteers that will develop relationships within our church to inform future organizing efforts. Ten of us from First Church were present at an organizing training on Tuesday evening, when the tenant leaders of the CARA apartments were invited to come forward. The room, over a hundred representatives of some thirty-five churches, erupted in a spontaneous and raucous standing ovation for this remarkable, if unlikely, group of giant slayers.

From our psalm, The Lord has made known her victory; she has revealed her vindication in the sight of all people.

With the time I have left I want to address a couple questions.

First, is it consistent with our faith for churches like ours to participate in community organizing efforts like the one in support of the Clay Arsenal tenants?

And, if this is indeed the work of the church, where do each of us find ourselves in stories like this?

In the story I shared from the Gospel of John, a crowd of people with various disabilities gathers at the edge of a pool of healing water. From time to time the water is agitated, activating its healing properties, and those waiting to be healed clamor to be the first into the water. The King James Version of the Bible describes this scene more colorfully. “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

It seems that some people were closer to the edge of the pool than others, some may have been less debilitated than the man Jesus is talking to, and others may have had someone to help them down into the water. But this man who has been ill for thirty-eight years can never reach the pool in time to be healed. Others have more access, ability and resources. Jesus instructs this man, stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up and walks!

Likewise, by themselves, the tenants of CARA did not have the access, ability, or resources necessary to remedy their situation. Like Jesus, the Christian Activities Council prepared and supported the tenants to stand up and walk on their own.

The psalm continues, God has remembered her steadfast love and faithfulness to her children. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Yes, this equipping and enabling of those without access and means is work we are called to as the body of Christ, the church.

Though this work of organizing for justice and equity is clearly the work of the church, as a pastor I know well that not every individual feels called to such ministries. So, where might you fit in to stories like the one about the CARA residents’ victory over Emmanuel Ku?

Well, this is choir Sunday, and Psalm 98 instructs us, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

I think our music ministry provides a perfect model for ways we might all claim our place in the social justice “choir.”

At First Church, those who feel called and have a gift for music are invited to sing in one of our choirs. But not everyone feels so called, and not everyone has been so gifted. But the music ministry of this church, with all its choirs and musicians, clearly inspires us all and enriches our faith. And called or not, and gifted or not, each of us is regularly invited to participate in the music of the church through the singing of hymns in worship. And though we might not like every hymn sung or piece of music performed, I think we would all agree that we have an extraordinary music ministry here at First Church, especially unique and successful in my mind, because of the diverse music Mark Mercier brings to us. I would like to think that all of us, whether or not we sing or play an instrument, claim the music ministry as our own, “At our church, we have the most amazing music ministry!”

In fact, I would like to think we could come up with a whole string of “At our church, we…” statements. At our church, we have an extraordinary youth group. At our church we have a great church school. And that each of us feels empowered and equipped to tell stories about these, our ministries.

Like the music ministry, those who are gifted or called are invited to enter into particular roles in our fledgling community organizing ministry. You might attend a training to be a member of the Core Team. Or you might agree to host a house meeting in the fall. Or down the road, you might fill a specific need in a particular campaign. But whether or not you participate at this level, like the music ministry, this organizing ministry will inspire us all and enrich our faith. And called or not, gifted or not, there will be opportunities for everyone to participate. Instead of Sunday morning worship, you will be invited to attend gatherings called actions in support of particular issues. Instead of hymns to sing, you will be given stories to tell. And I would like to think that all of us will become comfortable saying, “At our church, we have a thriving community organizing ministry. Let me tell you the story of Julissa and how, with Pastor AJ, she sparked a campaign that brought down one of the most notorious slum lords in the United States! Yes, at our church, we stood alongside the tenants as witnesses to righteousness and equity!”

Tell these stories, and…

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,

for God is coming to judge the earth.

And God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.






Merciful and Mighty

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 27, 2018.

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17

Isaiah and Paul present two very different images of God.

In Isaiah’s vision God is powerful, awe inspiring, even frightening. God sits high on a throne, so massive that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Six-winged creatures called seraphs fill the temple with smoke and shake its foundation with their cries of Holy, Holy, Holy! This is God strong, glorious and transcendent, sitting above and apart from humanity.

Paul, on the other hand, invites us to imagine ourselves as children adopted by a loving parent, in a relationship so intimate that we call God, Abba, or Papa.

In my experience as a pastor, many people today are drawn more to Paul’s tender Abba, while some flatly reject the fearsome God portrayed by Isaiah.

But there are days that I’m just not in the mood to cozy up to Abba; Some days I need some of that temple-shaking power of God! Yesterday was one of those days.

For decades, I have had a strong dislike for McDonald’s hamburgers. Hear me out. They’re awful. Cooked frozen, these small, gray, chewy discs taste more like shoe leather than the 100% beef they claim to be. I dislike them so much, that they make me angry at McDonald’s. I went years without ever setting foot in McDonald’s until, in 2001, when I saw a commercial with the Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant biting into a brand new, delicious looking, McDonald’s hamburger called the Big and Tasty! Finally, I thought, McDonald’s has seen the light and made a proper burger! I wasted no time going to the closest McDonald’s and ordering a Big and Tasty! Imagine my disappointment when I took my first bite, not into the big, juicy burger that Kobe Bryant had, but into the same gray, chewy, hockey puck McDonald’s had always served, this one with lettuce and tomato! I was so mad at being duped that I went right home and wrote a letter to McDonald’s telling them that instead of a Big and Tasty, they should call their burger a Small and Nasty.

I stayed away from McDonald’s for another ten years until I was again drawn in by an ad for new “gourmet burgers,” but was again left feeling betrayed and angry.

So, did you hear? McDonalds now says that they have seen the light. They have replaced the patty on their Quarter Pounder with fresh, never frozen, ground beef. I saw the commercial, this one with retired basketball star Charles Barkley. It looked delicious! So, yesterday, in the drive through to get Abby her favorite Chicken McNuggets, I saw the picture of the new improved Quarter Pounder and thought, “What the heck?”

But I didn’t even finish giving my order before I knew this wasn’t going to end well. After I said that I didn’t want mustard or onions, the voice in the speaker said, “Well, that will only leave pickles and ketchup.” “What about lettuce and tomato?” I asked, knowing the answer. There is no lettuce and tomato on a Quarter Pounder, not even on the new improved Quarter Pounder. To add insult to injury, after I paid, I had to go park and wait more than ten minutes until the burger was delivered to my car, “because it was cooked fresh,” the attendant explained.

And the final verdict? Not good. I learned that just because a burger is made with fresh ground beef doesn’t mean it tastes good. But this is about more than bad burgers. I am outraged that that one of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world can’t care for and respect their customers enough to make a decent hamburger! And that they manipulate the appetite of their customers by misrepresenting their product, making it look like it’s big and tasty when it continues to be small and nasty. It’s more than a bad burger, it’s an injustice!

Which brings us to Isaiah.

Isaiah speaks to the injustices of his time.

In the first five chapters he lays bare the corruption and greed of the wealthy and powerful of Judah and the injustice they perpetrate:

Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Called to respond to the rampant injustices perpetrated by Judean leaders, Isaiah has this vision of God sitting high on a throne, more powerful than any human evil. For his part, Isaiah confesses. I have unclean lips,” meaning, “How can I confront injustice if I am also a sinner?”

Reading this yesterday, I felt convicted. I realized that in my years-long battle with McDonald’s over its lousy hamburgers I also have unclean lips and need to confess. You see, I haven’t been completely honest. In spite of genuinely loathing McDonald’s hamburgers, I am sometimes overcome by a forbidden craving, for a Big Mac. Yes, hypocritical as it may be, every year or so I will sneak to McD’s for two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. It’s the special sauce that gets me. I also have unclean lips.

In response to his confession, God blots out Isaiah’s transgressions, and Isaiah says, “Here I am, Lord, Send me,” then goes on to confront Judah’s injustice.

My McDonald’s example is admittedly a little silly. But this is my point.

There are certainly times when we need the love and acceptance only Abba can provide. And there are other times when we need God to be bigger and stronger than any human injustice; we need a vision of a God who transcends human sin.

Today we honor those who have been members of First Church for fifty or more years. Think about that! I asked Ken Poppe, a member of our Heritage Committee, what was happening in the church and in the world fifty years ago, when these folks joined the church.

Not unlike Judah in Isaiah’s day, 1968 America was a time rife with injustice and electric with opposition to that injustice, including:

  • The Viet Nam War and anti-war protests
  • Riots at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
  • Urban disturbances in Newark, Detroit, and LA
  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s Rights demonstrations
  • and The Cold War versus the USSR

For all I know, Class of 1968, some of you may have been seeking refuge here from a mad, mad, world. But the seraphs cried, Holy, Holy, Holy, the foundation shook, and as a member of First Church you were sent back into the world changed, to represent all that is good and just.

Its sobering how much the events of 1968 look like a list we could make today, isn’t it?

  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s rights demonstrations
  • Cold War-like tensions with Russia and North Korea

Add to the list:

  • Terrorism
  • Mass shootings and gun violence
  • Economic inequality
  • And a politically divided nation

Truth be told, whether a member for fifty years or a first time visitor, many of us came here this morning seeking a little love and validation from a loving, parent God, our Abba. But hear the seraphs’ cry, Holy, Holy, Holy; feel the foundation shake, and listen as a mighty God, greater than any human failing and injustice asks, “Whom shall I send?”

None of us is innocent; if we are honest, we all have unclean lips.

But here’s the thing. When we confess, and step forward in response to an awesome God, God blots out our transgressions, and we are led forth by the Spirt of God as children of God. For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

And it is as children of God that we say with confidence, “Send me, Lord. Send me.”


Letting Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Mother’s Day, May 13, 2018.

John 17:6-19

Acts 1:1-11

It seems like just yesterday that my daughter Abby would, upon getting out of the car in a parking lot, reach up to grasp my index finger with her tiny hand, so I could lead her safely to our destination. Even though Abby stopped looking for my finger to hold onto over a decade ago, I somehow still imagined that I could always offer her something to hold on to that would assure her safety.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I would not and could not always be there to protect Abby from harm until two years ago. That illusion evaporated before my eyes right here in the parking lot of this church.

Abby was thirteen years old, and right downstairs outside Palmer Hall, at about 8 o’clock in the evening, after an orientation for the upcoming mission trip, Abby climbed into the back seat of our car. The window of an SUV parked next to us was lowered, and two smiling girls, who I would later learn were Gabby DiCarlo and Natalie McDonough, called out, “Hey, can Abby come with us for Mexican food? We’ll take good care of her; we promise.” No doubt looking like proverbial deer in the headlights, Lourdes and I stuttered, “Sure, I guess so!” And in the blink of an eye, Abby was gone! We were left to wonder, what have we done? Will we ever see our daughter again?

Lourdes and I ended up waiting in the Puerto Vallarta parking lot for Abby to emerge after her meal. She came out bubbling with excitement about being out on her own with older girls. After listening to her talk happily about the things Gabby and Natalie taught her about high school boys, I couldn’t resist asking her if Gabby was a good driver. “She’s an awesome driver!” Abby responded, “Some biker dude tried to pass us and cut us off, but Gabby sped up and totally flipped him off!”

Just like that, Abby released her hold on my index finger to follow the middle finger of another. And so began the process of letting go.

On this Mother’s Day, I have been inspired by both of the Bible passages I read to reflect upon motherhood, more broadly, parenthood, and more specifically, the challenge parenting presents to letting go of our children.

I acknowledge up front that it is impossible to speak to every mother or parent’s experience. There was a time when some churches would steer clear of Mother’s Day reflections, not wanting to hurt those who feel conflicted on this day, whether because of a difficult relationship with a mother or child, the loss of a mother or child, or an unfulfilled desire to be a mother. But I hope the lessons we find in this morning’s Bible verses will speak, not only to mothers and parents, but to all who struggle to let go of who and what we love.

So, without presuming to speak for everyone, I think I can safely say that the vast majority of parents want their children to one day grow up to live successfully and happily apart from us. I can’t imagine any mother or parent, at their child’s birth, not having this dream for their child.

This morning we celebrated two baptisms, and I don’t doubt that the Beals and the Veales share this deep desire for their babies, that they grow up able to live and find happiness on their own.

Baptism, affirms God’s participation in the fulfillment of this hope for our children. Baptism reminds us that the Holy Spirit is already working in the lives of these little ones to one day lead them beyond their parents’ protective and nurturing arms to fulfill God’s promise for their lives, that Jesus’ joy may be made complete in them.

The last thing I want to do is detract from this hopeful vision, but I expect it comes as no surprise that the years of child rearing beyond baptism come with a sizeable portion of parental anxiety. Not that parents don’t worry about our children at every age, but just as Lourdes and I learned two years ago, there is a particular kind of angst that sets in as our children begin to test their wings in preparation for one day, leaving our nest.

Though Abby now regularly catches rides with friends, and we are often grateful for the flexibility this provides all of us, that first ride from the church two years ago marked the beginning of a terrifying process of letting go that confronts most every parent.

Both readings this morning speak to this process of letting go.

In the four gospels, John alone includes a long speech by Jesus to his disciples at what we have come to call the Last Supper. Jesus knows that he will soon be leaving them and is preparing his disciples to let go. These verses I read from Chapter 17 are part of Jesus’ prayer to God for his disciples.

Anticipating Mother’s Day, I heard Jesus’ prayer as if from a mother for her children, praying for their well-being as they prepare to live without her. I paraphrase Jesus’ prayer:

I will not be in the world much longer, but they will still be here without me…While I was with them, I protected them, Holy One, I now ask that you protect them…I say these things while I am still here, so that they can share completely in my joy…My prayer is that they participate fully in all the world offers while being protected from all its danger and evil.

Jesus’ words are filled with deep love and concern, like a mother for her children.

The Book of Acts picks up the story following Jesus’ death and resurrection. After his resurrection, Jesus appears among his disciples for forty days, then gathers them one last time before being taken up to heaven. Luke, the author of Acts writes, “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

With Jesus’ departure imminent, the disciples still want reassurance that everything is going to be OK, “is this the time you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Just as a parent desires reassurance that their child will be OK, the disciples desire certainty. Instead, Jesus says trust the Holy Spirit. And he is gone.

Abby is only fifteen, but I imagine that this worry for our kids never ends. I imagine I will always want to be able to extend my index finger for Abby to hold onto, to lead her beyond danger to safety. And yet I know that this is not my purpose as a parent. We are meant to prepare our kids to venture across the parking lot of life without us, to face darkness and danger and find their own way back to safety and light.

We do what we can do to prepare them, and are asked to trust God with the rest, not to take them out of the world, but to protect them from evil and make their joy complete in the world. To send them forth with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yesterday, Lourdes was talking to the mother of Abby’s boyfriend, Nate; they were talking Junior Prom, matching the color of Abby’s dress to the color of her Nate’s bowtie – (boyfriends, another exercise in letting go). I shared the topic of my sermon with Nate’s mom, Beth, and asked her how she responds to the challenges of letting go.

She affirmed that as difficult as it is, her calling as a mother is to prepare her kids to lead fulfilling lives on their own. And she said that every day, as she watches Nate walk to the bus stop she says this prayer:

Dear God, Watch over him, guard him and guide him. Help him be a good student for his teachers, a good friend to his peers, a good citizen of the earth, and a good child of God. Lord, when he’s faced with difficult decisions and tempted by darkness, please lead him down the right and just path in your Son’s name. Amen.

And I offer this prayer for mothers and parents.

Dear God, Watch over us, guard us and guide us. Help us be good teachers for our children, good role models as citizens, spouses and friends, good examples as faithful followers of Jesus, and most of all good parents to our children. When we are faced with difficult parenting decisions and tempted by darkness, please lead us down the right path in your Son’s name, that we may one day let go and entrust our precious children to you. Amen.


Published in: on May 18, 2018 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Rest of the Story

This is the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, at First Church Simsbury.

Mark 16:1-8

Before I read this next account of the resurrection, let me make an observation about the reading the kids just shared, then give you an assignment. From the Spark Bible for children, the simple version these guys read combines plot elements from several of the gospels.

The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were each written for different audiences, different purposes, and at different times. So each writer tells the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection differently. The gospel of Mark was written first, around the year 70, about 37 years after that first Easter morning.

I invite you to listen to Mark’s story and see if you notice an important way it differs from what the kids just read.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

What did you notice, in particular about the way the story ends? How does Mark end his account of the resurrection? What is missing?

Here is his last verse, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

That’s it, the end of Mark’s story!  Why is that interesting or important?   Well, in Mark’s gospel, no one sees the resurrected Jesus.

The gospels that were written later tell stories of Mary and the disciples seeing Jesus, of Jesus speaking, of the disciples eating with Jesus, of the disciple Thomas touching the wound in Jesus’ hand.  But not Mark.  The guy in white just says, he’s not here, he got up and left.  Go on, get out of here, you’ll see him down the road.

Isn’t that awesome!

Not so sure?

Mark doesn’t tell us about particular people at a particular time in history that had a specific encounter with the flesh and blood risen Christ.  Instead, Mark’s account invites us to head on down the road to seek experiences of resurrection in our own lives.

Mark’s story is open ended. Mark leaves it up to the disciples, and so leaves it up to us, to tell “the rest of the story.”

Some of you, of a certain age, will recognize that phrase, “the rest of the story.”  Back before pastors found sermon illustrations on Facebook, there was radio, and there was Paul Harvey, a beloved radio commentator.  From 1976 until his death in 2009, Harvey had a daily segment on radio called, “The Rest of the Story.”  He would tell a true story about a person or event but would withhold some key fact, like the person’s name, leaving that a mystery until the end.  Finally, at the very end, he would reveal the missing piece that made sense of the story.

Here’s a great one, told just as Paul Harvey told it!

What I’m about to say is not to be construed as another round in the continuing debate over capital punishment; it’s merely to let you know that Broadway’s latest star, a name that you would recognize, once was, through no fault of his own, on death row.  And it is because his name is so frequently spoken in the annals of show business that you must wait just a little bit longer for the rest of the story.


Technically, legally, actually, there is yet a crime on the state books of Connecticut for which one may burn.  And it is for that crime that Broadway’s latest award winning star was once in the pen and the big countdown, the last mile, death row, his jailors seemingly callous, had to be, for theirs was the dirtiest job in the business.  And of course their apparent apathy only increased his anxiety, only made him more suspicious of the next man to enter the corridor, for one last meal, and one long last night stood between him and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow morning he would die.  As a matter of the greatest good fortune the next man to enter the corridor was not the bearer of his last meal but the harbinger of many meals to come, a messenger of freedom, and his name was Bill Berloni and he was looking for types with which to cast a new play headed for Broadway, now stay with me as incredible as this sounds, it happened just the way I am describing it.  Bill was looking for a particular type actor, no previous experience necessary, among those in confinement, by chance, he passed death row, he saw the doomed prisoner that we have been talking about and that prisoner was just the one Bill had been looking for.  Naturally it was explained to Bill that the prisoner was condemned to die, within hours in fact, but Bill did not care.  With some pull, with some clout, he affected a stay of execution, he got the case reviewed, he got bail granted and eventually the prisoner was exonerated.  My goodness look how far he’s gone since then.  The show opened at the Goodspeed Opera House.  The production went from there to Broadway just as Bill Berloni had promised it would.  Now as of last month this most remarkable of all contemporary Broadway hits played to its one thousand two hundred and fifth standing room only audience.  Awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, seven Drama Desk awards, seven Tony awards including best musical, and including one for the one who one year ago was on death row.  Now some are saying that he shouldn’t have gotten that award even though there can be little doubt that his personality had contributed to the advanced ticket sale of millions of dollars.  And to the Broadway smash based on a comic strip, Annie.  Now recently the actor who once was condemned to die attended a black tie dinner at the White House, was a guest of the President of the United States.  And that, I’m sure you’d agree, is a long way from the wire mesh pen at the Newington Humane Society where he was ready to take the fall on a vagrancy rap but was bailed out for eight dollars to steal the show as Sandy, Little Orphan Annie’s sad-eyed, flop-eared, mongrel dog.  And now you know the rest of the story.

This old tale told by Paul Harvey is so much more than a heart-warming story about a dog.  It is a parable about life, death and resurrection.

This story serves as a reminder that the freedom and new life of resurrection only have meaning in response to imprisonment, suffering and death.  We live in a world that too often imprisons, inflicts suffering and promotes death, both literally and metaphorically.

We know this through our own experience.  While none of us have literally been on death row, each life includes experiences of deprivation, discouragement, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, fear and despair.

And we know this by opening our eyes to the suffering around us.  Poverty, abuse, condemnation, selfishness, hunger, violence and injustice.

In the words of the orphans in the Municipal Orphanage, Girl’s Annex,

It’s the hard-knock life for us!

Like Annie and like Sandy, we can face the seeming callousness and apathy of a world that holds us captive.

And like Sandy, as a matter of greatest good fortune the next man to enter the corridor of our hard knock life is not bearing our last meal but is the harbinger of many meals to come, a messenger of freedom. But his name is not Bill Berloni, it is Jesus Christ, and he is looking for types with which to cast a new and more abundant life, looking for types from among those in confinement, no previous experience necessary.  And we are just the ones he is looking for.  With some pull, with some clout, through his resurrection, he has affected a stay of execution, he got our case reviewed; we have been exonerated.

But just as Sandy wasn’t released to return to a life of vagrancy, so Christ does not free us from captivity just so we can return to our old lives.

Remember, Mark’s story is open ended, leaving it up to us to tell “the rest of the story.” Jesus frees us to perform a role in God’s never ending story of resurrection.

What might this resurrection look like? I share this brief example. I was invited by John Fox from our local VFW post to attend a program on veteran suicide prevention at the Simsbury Library yesterday. It is as if those who contemplate suicide, whether because of depression, addiction, or trauma are trapped in a tomb that feels inescapable. But I learned that asking someone directly about their suicidal thoughts lowers anxiety, opens communication, and reduces the risk of an impulsive act. And simply saying, “I want you to live, I’m on your side, and we’ll get through this together,” will most often be met with agreement and relief. Just a willingness to listen and help can rekindle hope, can save a life. This is what resurrection looks like.

I am convinced that Mark ended his gospel the way he did because he wanted his community to know, wants us to know, that resurrection is ours to live and share. It can be as simple as expressing a willingness to listen and help.

So, refuse to let experiences of deprivation, discouragement, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, fear and despair rule your life.  Confront poverty, abuse, condemnation, selfishness, hunger, violence and injustice in all its guises.  This is what it means to live resurrection.

The tomb is empty and he has gone ahead of us.  That’s it!  That’s all we need to know.  It is up to us to write, tell and live, the rest of the story.

The Crucifixion Generation: A Defiant Hope

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018.

Mark 11:1-11

About a month ago, on Friday, February 23rd, I took my daughter Abby to the Bushnell to see the musical, The Bodyguard. Based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Huston and Kevin Costner, the acting was uneven and the plot kind of silly, but the Whitney Houston music was fantastic, and it was a great father-daughter night out.

There was a point in the play when the villain came on stage with a large pistol. It had one of these red lasers affixed to it, so a red dot would appear wherever he pointed the gun. For what seemed like an eternity, the actor aimed the gun into the audience, the red dot landing on one person, then another, then another.

This was just 9 days after a gunman killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Every time the actor swung his gun in my direction, I winced and squirmed. I looked over at Abby, and she had completely disappeared down into her seat, curled into a fetal position. On the way home, I asked Abby about that moment, and she said that it had “triggered her PTSD.” Now, I doubt that Abby could give a clinical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but she sure as heck knew her own feelings of trauma. She had been traumatized by the shooting at the Parkland, Florida high school, and has been left fearing for her own safety. She is not alone.

Though Abby may not know the clinical definition of PTSD, Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Rinad Beidas do. One is an emergency physician and violence prevention researcher, the other a clinical psychologist with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they are also parents. Together they just penned an article, Generation Parkland: How Mass Shootings Are Affecting America’s Children, And How We Can Help.

In their work, they observe evidence of trauma, not just in kids who have directly experienced gun violence, but in this so-called mas-shooting generation. They write, “Our combined experience and expertise make us particularly concerned about these events’ psychological effects on American kids.”

This generation of children, they say, “has grown up with turtle-time, lockdown drills, ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) maneuvers and the very real threat that a classmate will bring a gun to school.

As a parent, this knowledge makes me feel helpless, terrified, and angry.

As a preacher, I can’t help but bring my feelings and experience to my reading of the Bible. Thoughts of the trauma experienced by our children were weighing heavily on my mind, when I turned to this familiar and beloved story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

Jesus’ followers lay palm branches before him and greet him with shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! (meaning, “Saved! We are saved!). Like his disciples, this crowd is sometimes thought to be naïve or foolish. By this interpretation, his followers assume that Jesus is the promised king, God’s anointed, that has come to restore Israel to its former glory; and they fail to anticipate or understand that Jesus will soon be brutally executed on the cross.

But were they really naïve? Did the crowd really misunderstand?

I think an experience of trauma informs our understanding of this story.

Though they didn’t have 24/7 news coverage, and they didn’t have social media, Jews in first century Palestine were regularly exposed to something that was just as traumatizing as mass shootings today, crucifixion. If kids today identify as the mass shooting generation, it could be said that those growing up in Roman-ruled, first century Palestine were the crucifixion generation.

New Testament scholar Hal Taussig writes that “Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion.” Crucifixion got rid of those Rome perceived as threats, and fostered fear in the Jewish population as a means of social control.

First century Jewish historian Josephus writes that the Romans crucified thousands, sometimes on the walls of Jerusalem so all could see.

Television and social media bombard us with horrifying images, but imagine going about your day and seeing bodies, some of whom you recognize, hanging from Roman crosses dying, dead, and decaying.

Crucifixion is literally the background for everything we read in the gospels about Jesus’ life and ministry.

And crucifixion is the background for this morning’s well-known story about Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

So, do we still think his followers were naïve? They would have been well aware of the tensions that had been building between Jesus and Jewish and Roman authorities, and knew full well what fate awaited those who were perceived as a threat.

So maybe Jesus’ raucous welcome into Jerusalem was not out of ignorance of the cross, but in defiance of the threat of crucifixion.

We know from other historical sources that Jesus’ was one of two processions into the city that day. At the same time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the East, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was entering through the western gate at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and solders. Because the approaching Passover festival celebrated Jews’ liberation from an earlier empire, it was a time ripe for social unrest. So every year before Passover, Pilate and additional troops would enter Jerusalem to assert Roman power.

With crucifixion casting a traumatic shadow over daily life, and the acute threat of Roman power in the form of Pilate and a company of soldiers entering the city, Jesus chose this moment to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. And knowing the threat, his followers responded with shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

The researchers Ranney and Beidas make four suggestions for what we should do to help our kids and our communities to be resilient after a mass shooting.

First, parents need to take care of themselves. In the way we are asked to put on our oxygen mask first during an in-flight emergency, we need to make sure we reach out for help to respond to our own fears before we can support our kids.

Second, set limits around TV and social media, specifically how much we allow our kids to watch and re-watch coverage of traumatic events like mass shootings.

Third, ensure our kids have social support available and don’t become withdrawn and isolated,

And fourth, kids must be able to create a sense of control that generates hope.

In the aftermath of Parkland, youth like Emma Gonzales, that remarkable, young woman with the shaved head, are leading a movement. This movement is critically important for American communities in more ways than one. It may well lead to an effective and lasting response to pervasive gun violence. But taking action is also important for this generation. It gives them hope, and gives us hope.

Not every child is Emma Gonzales, but almost every child can take some action to help feel in control and to help feel like they can make a difference.

On March 14th, one month after the Parkland school shooting, my daughter Abby participated with several hundred other Simsbury High students, and close to a million students around the country, in a 17-minute, #neveragain walkout. Though the school administration had offered its support, Abby was especially pleased that the walkout was meant to be held in the school gym, but all the students walked right past the open gym door to gather outside instead, contributing to a sense of control that fostered hope.

I felt that same control and hope as I joined millions of others around the country at yesterday’s student-led March for Our Lives.

Which brings us to today’s Palm Sunday message for us all, whether or not gun violence is among your trauma triggers. As did Jesus, we live in traumatic times. We don’t need to know the clinical definition of PTSD to experience the fear, helplessness, and anger that trauma brings. Maybe gun violence prompts your fear. Or maybe it is the threat of nuclear war. Or the devastating breakup of a marriage. Or maybe it is the loss of a spouse, or a child. Or maybe you are facing bankruptcy. Or maybe the affair that has been kept quiet is now public knowledge. Or maybe the addiction you thought you had under control is now threatening your life. Or maybe the world just feels like it is changing too darn fast. Too often our lives feel out of control; hopelessness threatens.

We aren’t naïve, nor are we foolish. As in Jesus’ day, crucifixion casts a traumatic shadow in our lives. We know that crosses await. But as people of faith, we also know that our story does not end with the trauma of the cross. And on Palm Sunday, with the faithful of every generation, we lay claim to hope and choose life, welcoming Jesus into our lives with joyous shouts of, Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

Who Are You Listening To?

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-13

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Lent, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday, invites us to journey to the cross with Jesus. Though not easy or fun, this is one of the most profound and meaningful seasons of the church year. By submitting to suffering and death on the cross, God through Jesus, enters into and shares in all our human experiences of hardship and distress. The Passion of Jesus on the cross is where God delivers on the promise of Jesus’ birth, to be Emmanuel, God with us.

But before Lent begins we retell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus, with the disciples Peter, James and John, climb a high mountain together and there, we are told, Jesus is “transfigured” before their eyes. His clothes become dazzling white. Other gospel accounts of this story say that Jesus’ face shines like the sun.

I often suggest, in response to the miraculous stories of Jesus, that we not dwell upon what exactly happened or how, that is, that we avoid the “how is that scientifically possible,” questions, instead asking what this story meant to those who first heard it, and what it means to us today? Instead of what and how, we might ask why. Why did Mark tell this story?

In the previous chapter Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples all have different answers, but each compares him to one of the beloved and powerful Jewish prophets. Some say that Jesus is Elijah, others John the Baptist, and some name other prophets.

Though the other disciples believe Jesus to be a prophet, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah,” meaning that Jesus is the long anticipated one, anointed by God to free Israel from Roman rule, and restore it to glory among all nations. But when Jesus begins to tell the disciples what lies ahead, that he must submit himself to persecution, suffering and death at the hands of political and religious authorities, Peter protests.

All the disciples, Peter included, assume that Jesus, whether prophet or Messiah, has come for their own benefit. Going back hundreds of years, this is how God has functioned for Israel, taking their side against their enemies. Leading Israel to victory and others to defeat.

This is when Jesus utters the well-known rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus is saying, I am more than just another earthly leader here to reward you and punish those you judge.

So this is the background, preceding Jesus’ trip up the mountain with the disciples, the disciples still misunderstanding who Jesus is, presuming he is another prophet meant to restore the fortunes of Israel, and more specifically of the disciples themselves.

We read, that while on that mountain top, the disciples see two powerful prophets from Israel’s past, Elijah and Moses, alongside Jesus. This seems to confirm the disciples’ understanding that Jesus is simply another great man. In response they suggest making a structure for each. The translation I read uses the word, shelter, but the Common English Bible uses the word shrine. I like this better. Here are three great men, think the disciples, let’s demonstrate our loyalty to each of them by building a monument.

At this point a cloud descends upon all of them, and God’s voice comes from the cloud in much the same way it did when Jesus was baptized, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love, listen to him!” At this the visions of Moses and Elijah disappear, and only Jesus remains.

I suggested that we not get sidetracked trying to figure out what happened and how, instead focusing on the meaning of this story. The meaning is this. Jesus is different. He is not just another prophet, an earthly leader meant to “Make Israel Great Again.” He isn’t even a Messiah in the sense Peter means.

Jesus represents a unique connection to the divine, and we are invited to listen to, follow, and enter into relationship with God through him in a way that is unparalleled in human history.

So where do we find ourselves in this story today?

A recent study out of Stanford revealed that Americans’ strongest sense of attachment, the characteristic most essential to our identity, greater than race, culture or religion, is our affiliation to a political party. Politicians are our modern day prophets. Much like the disciples, we identify most strongly with those earthly leaders who promise to take our side, and we line up against those who take the other side.

Like the disciples, we too put earthly leaders ahead of our identity as followers of Jesus.

Imagine being on the mountain top with Jesus, who would appear next to our Jesus? Donald Trump and Paul Ryan? Or Barrack Obama and Nancy Pelosi? And what would it say if we were to build a monument to all three, Donald, Paul and Jesus? Or Barrack, Nancy, and Jesus? What would this say about our loyalty, our identity, our attachment? And more importantly, what would it say about our understanding of Jesus?

Like the disciples’ suggestion that they erect monuments for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, this would make Jesus small. The Transfiguration defies the disciples earthly understanding of Jesus, and, by the way, challenges the notion of many contemporary Christians, of Jesus simply as an example of how to live.

Do you know the contemporary term, the acronym, GOAT? It stands for Greatest Of All Time, and is used to describe sports stars like Tom Brady. Brady is said by some to be the greatest quarterback of all time, the GOAT. Still, Tom Brady is evaluated as a quarterback compared to other quarterbacks, and many would argue about who deserves this GOAT title.

This is what the Transfiguration is about.

In the Transfiguration we learn that Jesus is not just another earthly leader, not even the GOAT. Jesus provides a unique connection to the divine. Through the Transfiguration of Jesus, God is telling us, your identity is in Jesus, not Trump, not Obama, but in Jesus the Christ.

What would it mean, if when asked if we are a Democrat or Republican, we responded, “I am a Christian.”

My guess is that some of you felt a wave of discomfort wash over you at the thought of saying that. I can relate. For many, our faith is private. We are cautious about “imposing” our faith on others. We might worry about sounding like one of “those” Christians that is always thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” Did you see the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach and players after the Super Bowl? Many of them said exactly this.

But we feel no such compunction about letting people know we are a Republican or Democrat, do we? Interesting, isn’t it?

This morning we baptized two beautiful babies, Joey and Campbell, and this is exactly what they will be baptized into, not into a party, but into a unique and essential relationship with the divine through Jesus.

The Transfiguration challenges us not to make Jesus small, but to leave behind our earthly loyalty to Democrat and Republican prophets and follow Jesus, just as Jesus accompanies us, through the world’s hardship and suffering, all the way to the cross and beyond.


Our Common Life

mlk beloved community

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on January 14, 2018, the Sunday before the Monday observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 17:20-23

This is the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, and we often take this opportunity to reflect on King’s legacy in light of our faith. Of course the obvious theme for a service like this would be racial justice, an issue as important today as it was in 1929 when King was born and 1968 when he was assassinated. I believe that persistent racism is one of the foundational issues of our time, and lies at the root of many other challenges we face. I have preached a number of sermons on racial justice in my two years at First Church Simsbury, so rather than just making another impassioned plea on the topic, I thought I would look at something else important to King’s legacy, reconciliation.

In 1960, King said, “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” The Beloved Community was King’s vision for a society built on justice, equal opportunity and love. The Beloved Community is a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

This past week, I attended a conference for Senior Ministers of larger, multi-staff, UCC churches in St. Petersburg, Florida. And yes, it wasn’t awful that last Sunday morning in Connecticut, I woke to -11 degrees, and that same evening I arrived in St. Pete where it was a balmy 68 degrees. But more than the warm weather, and even more than being in the company of colleagues, I was thrilled by the Featured Speaker, Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton, the founder and leader of the House United Movement, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to bringing people together across political differences for the common good.

I have often been inspired by the words of Jesus’ prayer in the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, “that they may all be one,” as I have been inspired by the vision of King’s Beloved Community, and I feel called to ministries that promote reconciliation. That said, there seems to be an inherent tension between bringing people with diverse beliefs together while also speaking the sometimes challenging truth of Jesus’ teachings.

Paul speaks to this challenge in First Corinthians. The church in Corinth is divided about spiritual gifts. Members of the church disagree about which gifts are more important, especially with regard to the gifts of tongues and prophecy. Speaking in tongues is a mystical, ecstatic experience, and there were those that believed this kind of joyful manifestation of the Holy Spirit was necessary to faith in and the worship of God. Prophecy means speaking God’s truth, even when this truth makes people uncomfortable. The people in the Corinth church are asking, should church be all about preaching the truth of the gospel, even when that truth may divide us, or should church bring everyone together around a feel-good experience of the Holy Spirit? A question as relevant today as it was then.

I continued to ponder these things this week as I prepared for this worship service, and these questions were still on my mind as my wife Lourdes and I set out Friday evening for a little R and R.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey for the Simsbury High. The parents of all the girls had agreed to gather at a Simsbury institution, the Red Stone Pub, for some “team building” of our own.

I have known some of these families for seven or eight years, and I met others for the first time this season. Upon arriving, I quickly found myself in a conversation with a couple other hockey dads when one, who I didn’t know well, said, “I love to talk about politics!”

Now, I have perspectives on all the significant issues of our day, perspectives I hope are informed by my faith and the teachings of Jesus, perspectives I am not shy about sharing in the right context and circumstances. I assessed who was in that circle and knew there were significant differences represented there. I had hoped that this evening would be an escape from such conversations so I quickly asked the dads which colleges their daughters were interested in attending. They laughed at the obvious change of subject, and gladly went along.

Before we had talked much more, our attention was drawn to something in the corner of the bar. There was a metal ring, about so big around, hanging from the ceiling on a string. On the wall between the dartboards there was a metal hook. The objective was to stand facing the wall, and swing the ring on the string toward the hook, attempting to get the ring to fall over and hang on the hook.

That’s all there was too it. It wasn’t a game, meaning that one didn’t compete or keep score. We just took turns trying to get the ring on the hook. And it turns out that this seemingly simple exercise was not as easy as it looked, but was really fun and very addictive!

A large group of hockey parents soon gathered around to cheer each other on. Each miss was met with a collective,”Awwww! So close! or All most!” While every successful ringing of the hook brought forth happy shouts of congratulations, whoops of joy, and hands thrust in the air!

In this non-church setting, I sided with the Corinthians, opting for a feel-good ecstatic experience instead of an uncomfortable conversation about what is true and right.

But in fact, Paul’s answer to the church is that both gifts are necessary, truth telling and experiences of the Holy Spirit. King also recognized the need for both justice (truth-telling) and reconciliation (an experience of coming together as one). His vision of the Beloved Community could only be attained, he said, if the three evils of poverty, racism, and militarism were confronted.

I am very aware of the presence of this tension in our church. I spend a ton of time asking myself how to preach what I prayerfully and faithfully understand as the application of our Bible lesson for the world today, while not leaving those who disagree feeling judged and excluded, and sending everyone home hopeful. There was much discussion of this very question between the ministers at the conference and Dr. Hilton.

I can certainly empathize with those who would like to leave difficult conversations out of church on a Sunday morning – after all I succumbed to the same impulse at the Red Stone, but Paul reminds us that church requires that we embrace both truth and the unifying spirit.

This said, I returned from St. Petersburg newly committed to seeking and maintaining balance between messages of justice and shared experiences of reconciliation in worship and within the church. Where and how might we create experiences like the one I had around the Red Stone Pub ring and hook game, experiences where we cheer each other on through disappointment, and celebrate victories together?

I was inspired by a colleague, Rev. Sarah Sarchet Butter at The Village Church in Wellesley, Mass. You will have noticed that I didn’t make the usual announcements at the beginning of worship. Rev. Butter includes this information instead in what she calls Our Common Life. But instead of just reminding people about events in the bulletin, she takes the opportunity to tell a little story or interpret scripture in a way that lifts up opportunities to participate in the life of the church. Ministries of the church function like the ring and hook game, they bring us together across differences. Our Common Life emphasizes opportunities for reconciliation. You will see Our Common Life in your bulletin after our prayer time and before the offering.

In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God is made known in him, in Jesus, and this connectedness with the divine, remakes itself through Jesus’ relationship with the disciples, that’s us, the church, and the church is meant to model this connection with the divine in all human relationships. The oneness that Jesus prays for is more than a good feeling in a worship service, it is the mission of the church. The church, our church, has a unique responsibility to come together across our differences to demonstrate to all, that we can be one in and through God’s love. Allen Hilton has a book coming out in the spring, A House United: How the Church Can Save the World. May it be so.

Our Common Life

This is my column for the February 2018 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Some of you have heard me talking in worship these past few weeks about “Our Common Life.” I returned from an early January conference of Senior Ministers of larger, multi-staff, UCC churches with fresh insights on leading the church through challenging times. Ministers often speak of their dual functions as pastor and preacher. I take both these roles seriously, seeking to be present with each of you on your personal journey, accompanying you through the joys and challenges of your life as your pastor. And I spend hours each week studying the Bible text for the week to craft a sermon that is faithful and relevant. This is no small challenge, as any preacher can tell you that the same sermon that touches and inspires one person can seem irrelevant or worse upsetting to another person. I have always hoped that the pastoral care I offer will sustain our relationships beyond differences that arise around interpretation of the Bible and its application to our lives.

But in conversation with my colleagues at this St. Petersburg conference I realized that there is a necessary third component to my leadership of the church, an aspect I have frankly neglected over the past year, something I am calling Our Common Life. Our Common Life includes the dozens of ministries we participate in that bring us together across our differences. Of course I have always been appreciative and supportive of every ministry of the church, but I haven’t always been present for these ministries.

I am renewing my commitment to visit and engage all the various ministries of our church this year, and I have already started. On a recent Sunday when Rev. Kev was preaching I took the opportunity to attend the weekly Bible study led by Mark Scully. We had a wonderful, open conversation about what it means to be an ONA church. I heard a number of faithful, thoughtful perspectives while sharing some of my own thoughts on the subject.

That same Sunday, I left the 10 o’clock service with the children to attend church school with our 2nd and 3rd graders. This “Godly Play” included a creative telling of the story of young Jesus visiting the temple with his parents, then invited the kids (and me) to recreate the story using Legos, Play-Doh, drawings, and pipe cleaners. It was great fun and deeply meaningful to see the Bible through children’s eyes.

Then, that Tuesday, I attended our card-making ministry, a spirited group of our members who gather each month to make beautiful greeting cards to send our friends and church members on their birthdays and in times of need. I have never seen anything like it; each card is a little work of art, more beautiful than anything at Hallmark; each one made with love.

I know this commitment to be present for our many ministries will change the way I lead the church as both preacher and pastor.

Some of you have noticed that we are also emphasizing Our Common Life in worship by inserting a time in each worship service to lift up opportunities to engage more fully in the life of the church. This takes some of the items that were shared as “announcements” before worship and presents them in a way that is more integral and meaningful to the service.

Please share your thoughts about this renewed emphasis on Our Common Life and invite me to attend those ministries you are passionate about. I am excited about deepening these relationships in the year ahead.

In Christ, Pastor George


Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Advent I: From the Rubble

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

I remember childhood Christmas decorations as a mismatched hodgepodge of random stuff that had accumulated in the family for years. By this, I don’t mean beautiful, family heirlooms. We had a single, nativity scene, chipped, painted plaster figures, with legs on the manger that would collapse sending the baby Jesus tumbling to the floor. There were a couple hand-knit stockings, one with my name, the other with my brother Steve’s name stitched in. When my brother Tom came along, there was no knit stocking for him, so he got a plain store-bought one. We would haphazardly string colored Christmas lights, the kind with the big bulbs, on one bush in front of our house. We decorated our tree on Christmas Eve with a similar mixed-bag of mismatched ornaments. Once or twice, Mom found the time to help us make strings of popcorn and cranberries to put on the tree. And that was it! Simple, most imperfect, but it was ours and it was beautiful!

I have observed a couple things about Christmas decorations in the past decade or two. First, it is now quite common to see homes decked inside and out in a way that I would call magazine-worthy, exquisite, everything matching, like living in a department store window. The other part of this phenomenon is that this perfection can be had on a budget from Target, Kmart or Walmart. I give credit or blame for this whole phenomenon to Martha Steward and the proliferation of hers and copycat brands. There will be purists present, those who spend many hours crafting elegant homemade decorations each year who will scoff at the promise of store-bought perfection-in-a-box, but you can’t argue that it has changed decorating, indeed Christmas, in a profound way. Christmas perfection can be yours, and it’s on sale now!

And who wouldn’t want Christmas perfection! For some, the beginning of Advent marks the beginning of getting Christmas right.

Well, Bible scholar David Lose challenges this notion. Lose calls Norman Rockwell the most dangerous artist of the past half century.

“Think of it this way,” he writes, “how many of us look at Rockwell’s famous painting of a family gathered around a holiday table, all smiles and about to dig into a turkey, and somehow wonder why our family experiences don’t quite measure up. No arguing in this picture. No debate over recent politics. No one disappointed because there are no vegan options at grandma’s table. Instead, familial bliss. Perfection. Little wonder our experiences don’t measure up.”

Of course Lose has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in his critique of Rockwell. The fault is not the artist’s but our own, our tendency to forever compare our lives to some unattainable, idealized standard of perfection, whether Stewart’s or Rockwell’s.

This, says Lose, is the value of the apocalypse narrative in the gospel of Mark. Now, this might seem like a leap, so let me explain. First, what the heck is an apocalypse narrative?

An apocalypse is a genre of biblical literature. Apocalypticism emerged in response to extreme social and political crises. The book of Daniel, in the Hebrew Bible, is an apocalypse, and was written to answer the Greek emperor Antiochus IV’s violent suppression of a Jewish revolt, 167 years before the birth of Christ.

Chapter 13 of Mark is often referred to as “the little apocalypse” and references the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans following another Jewish revolt in the year 70 AD.

Though sometimes understood as predicting end times, an apocalypse is actually meant to reveal the way things really are today and offer hope for the future. An apocalypse has three characteristics, dualism, (good versus evil), pessimism (times are extremely tough), and imminence (the good and the evil will soon be judged and get what they deserve). Though the language and symbols of apocalyptic writing can be dark and scary, an apocalypse actually affirms that God is still working for good even amidst the most abject hardship and suffering, and reflects a hope for better times ahead.

In this morning’s Mark passage God’s redemptive work is symbolized by the coming of Christ in glory. Mark’s readers would recognize the symbols of darkened sun and stars falling from the sky from other Jewish apocalyptic literature.

It would be easy for us to draw contemporary parallels with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Many today feel like all our institutions are under assault, at risk of being torn down, left as rubble. In fact, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple seems pretty tame compared to the daily social and political crises we experience today. Apocalyptic books and movies so popular right now put words to a sense of dread many feel.

But instead of turning to today’s headlines, I’d like to make a more personal connection with apocalyptic dread before circling back to Advent and Christmas.

Many of you know that my family and I recently had a short-lived but painful experience as foster parents.

After attending a ten week training in the spring, we were matched with an eight year-old foster son, Kameron. We began regular day and overnight visits at the end of the summer and were quickly charmed. He was funny, smart, athletic, and affectionate. He moved in with us at the beginning of September. We were wholly committed to making his time with us successful. But after a brief honeymoon we began to face significant challenges with his behavior. These weren’t entirely unexpected, and we sought help from the cadre of social workers available to us. Unfortunately, the relationship continued to deteriorate; he challenged us in ways we never imagined and weren’t prepared for. He triggered emotions in both me and Lourdes that were entirely unhelpful in our role as foster parents. His last week or two with us were some of the most emotionally overwhelming Lourdes and I have ever experienced, and the night he moved out was devastating for all of us. The following days and weeks were really rough, filled with feelings of grief, guilt, remorse, shame, blame, embarrassment, disappointment, failure, betrayal, and anger.

At moments evil seemed to have the upper hand. We were pessimistic in response to this crisis. I can say without exaggeration that this felt… apocalyptic. The experience shook our view that we were in charge of our happy lives.

I won’t pretend that we have worked through all these emotions, we most certainly have not. But whereas it at first seemed that we would be stuck in the same dark, awful place forever, that nothing would ever be bright and happy again, I am now aware of God’s continued presence and movement in our lives.

Jesus uses a fig tree as a metaphor to describe God’s ever emerging presence. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

I have to believe, that just as I see signs that God is putting forth a few tender, green leaves on the branches of our lives, so God is also near to Kameron wherever he landed. And I absolutely believe that God is near to each of you, even, perhaps especially in response to those crises and traumas in your lives that seem apocalyptic, the loss of a loved one, the trials faced by our children, the exposure of our own limitations and failure. Anywhere we experience grief, guilt, remorse, shame, blame, embarrassment, disappointment, failure, betrayal, and anger.

And this, is good news on this First Sunday of Advent. Martha Stewart and Norman Rockwell do not set the standard for a successful, perfect Christmas. Jesus does.

By all means decorate! Whether your decorations are from Target, elegantly handcrafted, or a mismatched, aging collection of memories, by all means decorate. (These are new to the Harris household this year) But don’t confuse the idealized standard of Christmas perfection represented in the magazines with God’s standard. In fact, comparing our haphazard lives to these standards likely accounts for much of the depression that is so prevalent at this time of year.

If Mark’s apocalypse reminds us of nothing else, it is that God continues to put forth new growth, even from the rubble of our lives.

God loves us as we are, accepts us as we are. Yes, we have room for improvement. And yet, at the exact same time we are enough – totally and completely enough – and deserve love and respect now.

David Lose offers some sage advice. Rather than dwelling in the rubble and brokenness, and rather than looking too far ahead, to the end of time or even to December 25th, let us embrace a “present-tense Advent” here and now, an Advent that directs our attention to this very moment, imperfect yet beloved, fragile yet eternal, flawed yet beautiful, this very time in which God chooses to meet, love and redeem us. Here. Now. And forever. Amen.

Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

This is the sermon preached by Bekah Anderson at First Church of Christ Simsbury on November 26, 2017 to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. Bekah is an intern in the church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) ministry. YASC interns live in community in a house on the church premises, work in a social service agency for 32 hours a week, and are active in the life of the church for about 6 hours a week. Bekah is an intern at Our Piece of the Pie in Hartford.

Acts 8:26-33

Matthew 25:31-40

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been in mourning. Not constantly, you understand, but in preparation for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was last Monday, and then for this service, I’ve been reading through the list of names of the people who died this year. This list is thirty-seven pages long, and it contains the name, location, and cause of death of transgender and gender-nonconforming people murdered this year around the world, for nothing more than the crime of being trans. I have read this list and cried, not just for the names on it, but for those left off. This list does not contain murders that were not reported. It does not contain victims who were trans, but were not identified as such by families or officials. And finally, it does not contain suicides, which claims huge numbers of trans people every year. This list is an unfinished story. It does not tell the full truth of the losses transgender communities around the world have faced, but perhaps more than that, it is a reminder that every life is a story, and all of these stories are forever cut short. Unfinished.

Some of you may perhaps have noticed that our scriptures this morning are also, in a sense, unfinished. They both end a little … abruptly. You might have heard this passage from Matthew before and remembered that Jesus talks not just to the sheep, but to the goats. I know you heard the story about the Ethiopian eunuch as recently as September, and you might remember that something kind of important happens to him after he talks with Phillip. But this morning, both of these stories are cut short, unfinished. There are several reasons for this, one of which, frankly, was a desire to not have us spend all morning reading scripture. But more importantly, I think there’s something important for us to ponder in these abrupt endings. Take, for instance, this passage from Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading aloud: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Now, a verse or two after I stopped reading, Phillip is going to tell the Ethiopian eunuch how these verses are really talking about Jesus. And that’s a reasonable interpretation. But reading these verses today, I can’t help but think of others whose lives are taken away from the Earth. Who, in their humiliation, are denied justice. And I can’t help but imagine how the Ethiopian eunuch might be reading these passages.

Eunuchs, if you don’t remember from Pastor George’s sermon on Rally Day, are biological males who have been castrated. In the ancient world, eunuchs occupied a gender category all their own, not exactly male or female, and many of them took on a feminine presentation. While we don’t know how these individuals would identify using our current terminology, it would not be a stretch to call them gender-nonconforming, and not inconceivable to call them transgender. And Ethiopian is Bible-speak for African. So our friend the Ethiopian eunuch is, potentially, a trans-feminine person of color. Which reminds me that most of the names on this list are trans women of color.

Of course, biblical time is not our time. Our friend the Ethiopian eunuch—let’s call them E—has a position of power and prestige: they are in charge of the queen’s entire treasury. On the other hand, eunuchs were still socially marginalized in many places, including the Jerusalem Temple, where they were considered ritually impure. Plus, E’s dark skin would have marked them out as different, at the very least. I sincerely hope that in biblical times, a black, trans-feminine foreigner was no more likely to meet trouble on the road than anyone else. But I think I know enough about how humans have historically perceived difference to guess that E’s life was far from smooth. They probably faced inappropriate questions or remarks about their body; snide comments behind their back or to their face; lost friends or opportunities. Even with all the power and prestige they seem to have, they are still not safe from the world’s view of their identity. And as they are riding along in their chariot, reading these words from Isaiah, perhaps they are remembering times when they were not physically safe. Perhaps they are wondering, “Am I really safe? Or could my life be taken away from the earth at any time?”

That is the kind of question this list makes me ask every time I think about it. How safe are my trans friends? I, and the various communities I have been a part of have worked hard to keep our trans siblings safe. We’ve given them a place to sleep when their family’s house wasn’t home; we’ve offered to walk them home, or to the bathroom, or anywhere else they feel unsafe; we’ve worked to educate ignorant family and friends; and above all, we’ve made sure that wherever we are is a safe place to be. But this list reminds me that even the best of allies cannot promise safety. Some of the people on this list never were safe; they were homeless, or in abusive relationships. But some of them were surrounded by loving communities, had jobs and other societal advantages that seem to promise safety. But in the end, they were fundamentally unsafe, because deep down, our society still considered trans and black lives disposable. One or several people embodying that mindset crossed their path, and they died.

And it could happen to my friends. That’s the pain beneath my pain these past two weeks. I’ve been sitting with the knowledge that, like the dead we are honoring today, my friends are fundamentally unsafe. It’s terrifying, and it’s not a truth I can, or should, focus on for most of the year. But this is a truth that I need to wrestle with, first of all because it is true, and second of all because I know that many of my trans friends can never forget it. They live every day with the knowledge that they are unsafe, that society does not recognize their gifts, their struggles, or even their deaths. If I cannot make them safe, the least I can do is share their pain.

Let’s return to E now, and I’ll tell you the piece of the story I didn’t include in the reading this morning.

E is reading this passage of Isaiah to themself, thinking their thoughts, when suddenly this random Jew runs up to them and says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

And E says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

There are several things that could be happening in this answer. E could be asserting that, as a Jew, Phillip is far more likely to know how to interpret Isaiah than they are. They could be inviting Phillip to interpret with them, knowing that in Jewish tradition true scriptural understanding comes through conversation. But I wonder, too, if part of their response comes from a need to find a new lens through which to see these verses. Let me not see death, they are begging Phillip. Let me stop remembering the times I’ve been demeaned, or assaulted. Let me see something other than my own death in this text.

And Phillip, God bless him, does give E something new. First, he does talk about death—the death of Jesus. Jesus, who was killed for being himself, for living his mission and his call. Jesus, whose death was unjust and cruel.

And then Phillip goes on to speak of resurrection. He explains that, though Jesus was killed, though his body and his life were rendered disposable, he defied everyone’s understanding of him and rose from the dead.

E listens to this in awe, not just because someone rising from the dead is unheard of, but because they see themself in Jesus. E, too, is being themself, living their mission and call to be themself, no matter what society thinks. And because of that, they fear dying a cruel death and receiving no justice. So the fact that Jesus can absorb all this pain, die, and return with a renewed message of peace and joy and love—that is deeply meaningful to E. E knows, of course, that if they die, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be resurrected. But for E, identifying with Jesus’ suffering means identifying with Jesus’ power. It means that whatever they may suffer, whatever Good Fridays and deaths of the spirit, they can return, stronger than ever, more themself than ever, and make the world a better place for it. Which is perhaps why they say to Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Jesus is saying much the same thing in Matthew. “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” “I am them,” Jesus is saying, “and they are me. We are one in our suffering and need.” The obvious reading of this text, of course, is that those of us with resources have the responsibility to care for those without. We must search for Jesus within one another, and treat each other the way we would treat Jesus. This of course, is extremely relevant to this list I still have before me. The people who murdered these individuals were not treating them like Jesus. Any friends or family who abandoned their loved one when they came out as trans were not treating them like Jesus. And the justice systems that are making little or no progress in finding the murderers in many of these cases, are not treating the dead like Jesus.

But again, to identify with Jesus’ suffering is to identify with Jesus’ power. Hidden within all the forms of suffering Jesus mentions—hunger, thirst, sickness, prison—is the possibility of resurrection, of new life, new hope, new justice. For trans and other marginalized folks, this means that there is light, even at the darkest of times. You have the power of Jesus within you, and you can use it to do great things.

And for allies, this means that we need to recognize not just the vulnerability, but the power of trans and marginalized people among us. We are called not only to nourish and sustain them, but to lift up and empower them.

On a day like Transgender Day of Remembrance, it can be easy to feel powerless. We read this list of names, and know that nothing can bring them back, and we feel hopeless, alone, and afraid. I know I do. But it’s natural to feel these things. Necessary, even. You have to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter. But in that Easter spirit, I tell you that we are not powerless. We can find the power of Jesus in ourselves, and in others. We can sustain one another, lift each other up, and affirm that whether the world values the least of these or not, we do.

So I invite you to feel whatever it is you are feeling right now. If you need to grieve today, for these losses, and for the ones we will likely suffer next year, I grieve with you. If you need to be in fear today, for yourself or your loved ones, I am in fear with you. If you have found hope or courage in these words or others, I am in hope and courage with you. And if you have found awe in looking around at your siblings here today and seeing the power of Jesus, I am in awe with you, and of you. Let those who are in hope and awe comfort those in mourning and fear. And let us all honor our own power, and use it well, so that we may one day have a year where there is not a single name on this list.

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

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