Pentecost: Seen, Heard, Known, Accepted and Affirmed

fire 3

 

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017.

Note: At the end of each vignette, I describe a tongue of fire descending upon the story’s subject, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Each time I preached these words, I lit and released a piece of flash paper, allowing it to rise into the sanctuary.

Acts 2:1-12

This is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival called Shavuot, or Festival of Weeks. Shavuot was a harvest festival, and also celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. Shavuot was also a pilgrimage festival, so in this morning’s story the streets of Jerusalem are crowed with diaspora Jews from around the Roman Empire.

Jesus has gone home to Papa, leaving the Apostles behind to figure things out for themselves. They are hanging out in a Jerusalem home when a mighty wind roars through the house and flames descend and alight upon each of them. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles begin to speak in other languages. Hearing the wind and seeing the flames, the crowd outside turns to see what is going on and, we are told, each person hears the Apostles speaking to them in their own language.

I have always interpreted this story to mean that the Holy Spirit empowers us to transcend our differences, and I have preached a variety of sermons on such themes. The naming of all the different nations offers a parallel to present day ethnic and racial differences. But I am led in a different direction this morning. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, each pilgrim there that day heard the word of God in a way that spoke directly to them. By hearing in their own language, each person understood that God saw them, heard them, knew them, accepted them, and affirmed them exactly as they are.

Have you ever felt alone in a crowd? Times when we are surrounded by apparently happy, fulfilled people while there we sit, unseen and unknown, consumed with our own troubles. I expect many of us have experienced times in our lives when it feels like no one understands us. There may be some here this morning who feel alone in this way.

Let’s look in on five people who were in that Jerusalem crowd that day. Maybe you will recognize them. Maybe you will recognize yourself.

There is a woman from Phrygia, distracted by her anxiety; her mind is churning from one worry to the next. She is a widow; the husband she loved, raised a family with, and enjoyed a good life with, died ten years ago. She now has two adult children and three grandchildren whom she loves dearly and who love her back. She had thought this would be all she needed to enjoy this autumn of her life. Though she owns her home, Social Security is her only source of income. Ten years ago this seemed like it would be enough. But she recently had to replace the roof on her house, and now her children have faced various crises that have required her to dip further into her savings to help them. Now she may have to sell her house, and her comfort and security in her remaining years is uncertain. All around her people are laughing and smiling, celebrating the bountiful wheat harvest, but she is consumed with thoughts of the scarcity in her life, and feels so alone. Then she hears a voice coming from a balcony up above her, a voice so familiar it is as if it is speaking to her alone. She looks up to see a tongue of fire descending upon her and hears, I see you, I hear you, I know, accept and affirm you. And for the first time in months she can breathe.

Across the street a Cappadocian is also feeling out of step with the revelry around him. He came to Jerusalem because he thought it might help him snap out of the funk he’s been in. There are mornings he can barely drag himself out of bed, and if he does succeed in getting out the door, he can’t focus on his work. He can’t remember the last time he laughed. It feels like he is stuck in a box, a very dark place that he can’t imagine ever getting out of. His doctor told him that he is depressed, but whenever he tells anyone that they tell him, just cheer up. Rather than making him feel better, being surrounded by all these happy people only makes him feel inadequate, embarrassed and ashamed. He feels so very alone. Then he hears a voice. Even though it comes from across the street he knows these words are for him. He looks up to see a flame descending upon him and hears, I see you, hear you, know you, accept you and affirm you. And for the first time in months he notices the sun, and he smiles.

A Mesopotamian rounds the corner and approaches the center of town. She almost knocks over a child because her mind is elsewhere. The child reminds her of when her own son was that age. It was a different time, one more innocent and free from constant anxiety and fear. She only wishes she knew where her son was. He has disappeared again, and given his schizophrenia and addictions he could be anywhere. He could be dead. This is her constant worry, that she will receive a message that he has died, alone. She has tried everything, from sending money to withholding it. From getting him the very best treatment available, to the tough love of letting him figure it out for himself. He will get better for a time; he is a brilliant, funny and caring man, then will slip back into his psychosis. It is heart breaking. Somehow, above the din of the crowd, a voice from above reaches her, piercing her heart. She looks up to see a flicker of fire alight over her head and hears, I see you, hear you, know you, accept you and affirm you. You are my beloved child. And she feels a warmth spreading through her body.

An Elamite couple has stopped in the shade of an Olive tree to share a piece of bread. They don’t speak to each other, but both think the same thing, that this bread is about all they share anymore. Neither is sure what went wrong. They were once young, carefree and in love. But all they seem to do anymore is argue, criticize and blame one another. They thought this trip to Jerusalem for the harvest festival might rekindle their love, but it has done nothing of the sort. Without his work to distract him, and their kids to take her mind off the fact that they seem to have so little in common anymore, it feels like a chore just to carry on a civil conversation. Though unspoken, they are both thinking about what it would mean to go their separate ways. His eye follows an attractive Parthian walking by, as she wonders about taking her kids and moving back in with her parents. But they are both lifted out of their daydreams by a gentle but clear voice addressing them, and they are startled to see a tongue of fire over each other’s head. The voice says, my dear troubled children, I see you, hear you, know your hearts, accept you, and affirm you. In a way they thought they’d forgotten, they reach out and give each other’s hand a squeeze.

In an alleyway between two buildings a young Egyptian woman sits squeezing her knees to her chest, shoulders heaving, tears running down her cheeks. She had left home to come to Jerusalem looking for something better. She had big dreams, but all she ever heard from her parents was that she wasn’t good enough. She was too independent and not pretty enough to attract a husband, and she was told she was an embarrassment to her family. So she left, but all she found was more of the same. No one takes her seriously, and when she does assert herself, men expect something in return.  Would she never be seen for the strong, smart, capable person God created her to be? Not wanting anyone to see her cry, she stepped into the alley, and that’s when she hears a voice and, looking up, sees a tongue of fire alight upon her. I see you, hear you, and know you are a magnificent creation of the divine. There is nothing you cannot do.

The flames remind us that through the power of the Holy Spirit, God knows each of us intimately and affirms us just as we are. This divine empathy is liberating. We are not alone in our troubles, never alone.

These five stories may not be your story. Or maybe you do find yourself in one of the Pentecost visitors to Jerusalem. Regardless, we are assured that a tongue of fire alights upon each of us, and God sees, hears, knows, accepts and affirms you this morning and always.

A Varmint Will Never Quit – Ever

Caddyshack

Here is my column from the Summer 2017 issue of the First Church newsletter, the Cornerstone.

“Can lawn care serve as a model for faithful living?” said no one ever. Except, of course, this pastor.

For the first time ever, I have become invested in having a beautiful, green lawn. In our New Britain home our lawn was beyond repair, so we just lived with what was there, weeds, crabgrass, bare patches and all. In fact, I once preached a sermon, “If It’s Green, It’s Grass,” referring to my decision to embrace the weeds. But here in Simsbury we have the opportunity to have a beautiful lawn. Lourdes and I enjoy our morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine in our sun room that looks out onto our back yard. So as spring sprang this year, I decided to make the effort.

A friend told me about the “Scott Four Step Lawn Care Program,” a series of four chemicals that I am to apply to my lawn between the beginning of spring and Labor Day. Step 1 went down without incident, and my lawn has responded with thick, green grass! I couldn’t have been happier. I was keeping up with the Simsbury Joneses!

(Cue the ominous music suggesting impending doom.)

Then, a few weeks ago I noticed brown patches in my front lawn, then what appear to be trails of brown grass that intersect in little muddy patches. Friends in the know about such things tell me I have some sort of burrowing rodent, likely moles! Oh the horror! Visions of the Bill Murray character Carl Spackler in the 1980 comedy classic Caddyshack came immediately to mind, “My enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit – ever.”

I asked friends on Facebook how to get rid of moles and got a wide variety of earnest responses. Here is a sampling of suggestions I received:

Trap the moles. There are a variety of mole traps available; they appear to not only kill but mutilate the moles in the process. Even if I had the stomach for mole maiming, the traps appear to be too hard to use for this Carl Spackler wannabe.

Let the dogs out. Our dog is named Sweetie for a reason. She has zero interest in hunting moles.

Shoot the varmints with a .22. Um, no.

Kill the grubs the moles feed on and the moles will go away. There was widespread support for this option, though the suggested methods for grub extermination varied widely.

  • Poison the grubs with a readily available Scott product called Grub-Ex.
  • Spray Palmolive dish soap on the lawn. Sorry, I’m skeptical.
  • Get chickens! Seriously! Thanks to Simsbury Selectman Elaine Lang, she of lawn chicken fame, for this suggestion.
  • Let the skunks eat them. Moles or skunks? Hmm.

The very best suggestion came from my friend Michael in Hawaii who recommends a really good bottle of Cabernet (not for the moles or the grubs, but for me. Thanks, Michael!)

Some of these respondents were zealously anti-poison, pointing out the environmental and health hazards of using any poison, but especially this grub killing poison, on my lawn. One friend, Joe, summed up the feelings of these folks when he replied, “HOW ABOUT NOT SPRAYING LIQUID CANCER IN YOUR YARD!” Oh boy.

This is where the moral dilemma comes in. Poisoning the grubs seems to be the most accessible and efficient approach to getting rid of the moles and restoring my yard to its near-pristine, green state. I feel judged by the anti-poison lobby, but have to admit they are probably right. Poison could be harmful to pets, to my family, and to the environment. In spite of this knowledge I will probably end up poisoning the grubs (I bought the poison, just haven’t applied it yet).

The lesson for a life of faith? We are confronted daily with moral dilemmas, asked to choose among options when there is no perfect right answer. Even when one choice does appear to be ethically preferred (no poison), we reject that choice in favor of another option, often for selfish reasons (ease and efficiency). Here are two takeaways. Take each decision seriously; gather all the information needed and make the best decision possible. And, when we still come up short (as we surely will), be gentle with ourselves and embrace God’s grace and forgiveness.

 

Stand Up!

It was my privilege to preach this sermon at a Celebration of the Ministry of  my dear colleague, Reverend Da Vita McCallister, at Faith Congregational Church, on May 28, 2017. Reverend McCallister is leaving her position on the Connecticut Conference staff as Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development and Church Vitality to accept a call as Lead Pastor of  The First Congregational Church of Somerville in Massachusetts.

John 4:5-15, 27-30, 39-42

I extend my sincere gratitude to the planning committee for the invitation to preach today. As a preacher, it is an honor any time we are asked to preach outside our home church, but it is a privilege indeed to preach at this special service of celebration for the ministry of our dear colleague Rev. Day McCallister. And I offer a very special word of thanks to Rev. Stephen Camp and Faith Congregational Church for so graciously sharing your historic pulpit this afternoon. I know that this is no small thing, and requires both genuine humility and a generosity of Spirit. So again, thank you.

Finally, I thank my friend and colleague Rev. Jocelyn Gardner Spencer for that introduction. You and I will always be bound together by that memorable barbeque lunch with Reverend Day. In fact, I will turn to the text in a minute, but there is good reason to revisit that essential part of our formation as Racial Justice facilitators, as it relates directly to my presence in this pulpit this afternoon.

Jocelyn and I were leading a two-day, Racial Justice training for the Conference staff at Silver Lake. We had spent hours preparing, both in conversation with Reverend Day and on our own. Though admittedly nervous, we were ready, or so we thought. In the course of the morning we sought to establish a comfortable learning environment, thanking everyone for their presence, and acknowledging that conversations about race and racism can be difficult. To put people at ease, Jocelyn and I sat at the table with the Conference staff and, when someone made themselves vulnerable by sharing a personal reflection, we affirmed them warmly. We had our facilitators’ binders open in front of us, and we followed the syllabus that Reverend Day had provided perfectly.

The morning session ended and, as agreed upon in advance, we met with Reverend Day for lunch to debrief and prepare for the afternoon session. I remember the scene perfectly. Relaxed and smiling, she asked me and Jocelyn how we thought it went. Frankly, we were pretty pleased with ourselves. The morning had unfolded without incident, the Conference staff seemed happy, and we were on schedule.

And that’s when it happened. Reverend Day broke it down, broke us down.

“This,” she said, “is Racial Justice Training. Your job is not to make people happy. You are not their pastor. You are a racial justice facilitator, act like one. You are not required to honor and affirm every perspective. Take ownership of the material. Claim your authority. And for God’s sake, Stand Up!”

So, when the planning committee for this service invited me to preach, not a word celebrating Reverend Day’s ministry at the Conference, but a word about racial justice to the Conference, what could I do but Stand Up!

Let us pray: God, open our ears to hear your word, open our hearts to be transformed by the movement of your Holy Spirit in this place, and grant us courage to respond boldly together. Now, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Hot and tired from his journey to Galilee, Jesus has stopped to refresh himself at a well when along comes a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were a minority ethnic-religious group that was looked down upon and disparaged by many Jews at the time. Jesus’ followers, upon hearing, “A Samaritan woman came to draw water,” in this story, would have likely rolled their eyes, smirked, muttered a slur against Samaritans, or even cracked a Samaritan joke. These same followers would have been shocked, confused, and even angry upon hearing that Jesus enters into a respectful and mutual conversation with the woman.

Jesus offers this woman living water, a never ending source of life. What does this mean? It means Jesus sees her just as she is, as a woman and a Samaritan. He knows her completely, through and through. Jesus understands her unique value and power, and he recognizes the particular hardships that society inflicts upon her as a result of her gender and ethnicity. At the end of their encounter she says of Jesus, “He told me everything I have ever done!” This recognition, acknowledgment, acceptance and affirmation is the living water Jesus provides, and the life of the Samaritan woman is changed forever as a result.

The disciples arrive and are offended that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman, though they won’t come right out and say it. We might imagine the exchange, Jesus affirming for the disciples that Samaritan Lives Matter. The disciples protesting, “But Jesus, we’re sure you would agree that All Lives Matter,” and Jesus responding, “All lives do matter, but I am drawing your attention to the unique value of Samaritan lives and the particular injustices perpetrated against them.”

The Samaritan woman returns to her village to share the news of this one who sees her, knows her, accepts her, and affirms her. As a result many other Samaritans commit to follow in the way of Jesus, saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.”

Here ends the gospel account of the Samaritan woman, but her story continues.

Early Greek Christians give this Samaritan woman a name, Photina, P-H-O-T-I-N-A, meaning “the enlightened one.” Photina, it is said, was baptized by the Apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost; she then traveled with her sisters and children to Carthage in North Africa where she preached the gospel. After fulfilling her ministry in Carthage, Photina was called across the Mediterranean to the Greek city of Smyrna. Fourth century Greek sermons refer to Photina as “evangelist” and “apostle,” and say she surpassed all the male disciples.

According to this tradition, Emperor Nero ultimately martyred Photina in Rome by throwing her down a dry well. Think about that. Jesus meets her at a well, symbolizing the living water of understanding. The well is the place where she is seen, known, and affirmed for those very qualities that the world judges, her womanhood, her identity as a Samaritan. Empire, represented by Nero, appropriates the symbol of the well, but withholds the living water of recognition in an attempt to deny the power of her identity, and erase her story.

And what a story! Learning about this ancient tradition of Photina set my imagination free, wondering what her ministry might have been like in Carthage.

Let’s imagine that Photina shows up in Carthage filled with the Spirit, fired up to preach the gospel, to share the living water of Jesus, to see, know, accept and affirm the Carthaginians. She finds there, a community of disciples and Apostles from Jerusalem, also ministering in Christ’s name. She has high hopes for these relationships. After all, they had all shared an experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

On her first day she is greeted with a smile by one of these Jerusalem Apostles who says, “Photina, that’s a funny name, I’ll never remember that, I think I’ll call you “Tina.” Thousands of years later, this would be known as a micro-aggression, a way of asserting power over a person of color by refusing to use their given name. Though she didn’t have a word for it, she knew she was having none of that and responded, “My friends call me Pho, but you can call me The Apostle Photina of Samaria.”

Despite this rough start, Photina soon fell in love with the Apostles and church folk she found in Carthage, and they loved her back. Photina was smart, funny, charismatic, and could preach, teach, sing and pray like nobody’s business!

Though their affection for her was genuine, the church would also, at times, use its relationship with Photina, invoking her name to defend itself against any suggestion that they were anti-Samaritan, as in, “We’re not racist, we work with a Samaritan, and we love her!” Photina soon realized that being the only Samaritan Christian in Carthage was isolating for her, and didn’t fundamentally alter the Jerusalem culture of the church. So she invited her sisters, daughters and sons to join her in ministry there.

The Africans of Carthage responded enthusiastically to the living water shared by The Apostle Photina and her family, experiencing acceptance and affirmation for who they were. But some of the Jerusalem leaders wondered silently if there weren’t now “too many Samaritans” serving the church in Carthage.

And though Photina performed wonders and signs among the people of Carthage and was genuinely praised by the Jerusalem Apostles, she would still have encounters that would drain and burden her. One would say, “You are so articulate,” in a way that suggested that other Samaritans weren’t. Another would say, “You know, I’m color blind. I don’t see you as a Samaritan, but just as a human being.” Photina was required to assert herself, saying, “If you don’t see me as a Samaritan, then you don’t see me.” And still others, when they saw Photina, would want to question, challenge and debate her about “the problem with Samaritans,” forcing her to again defend herself and her people.

Photina began to name the ways the domination systems of Jerusalem and Rome wove themselves into the fabric of culture and institutions, including the church, and the ways the power of Empire manifested itself in every person and relationship. This work tried Photina’s faith, and the Jerusalem Apostles responded in a variety of ways. Truly desiring to make the church a vessel for living water, some began the hard work of confronting their own and the church’s participation in the domination system. But others became defensive, denying their own complicity; and others still sought to claim Photina’s work as their own, thereby perpetuating a history of appropriating the labor and accomplishments of ethnic and religious minorities going back to Pharaoh.

As I said, the story is told that Nero later sought to extinguish the unique power Photina wielded as a Samaritan woman by throwing her down a dry well. But I wonder if her martyrdom was in fact less sudden and dramatic, though no less painful. Each of these encounters withheld the living water of understanding, and each denied her Samaritan identity. Ministry as a Samaritan could sometimes feel like martyrdom by a thousand micro-aggressions. And such experiences with those she truly loved hurt the most of all.

According to this ancient tradition, Photina was called by God to leave Carthage and serve a church in the prosperous Roman city of Smyrna. Smyrna is one of seven cities addressed by Christ in the Second Chapter of the Book of Revelation, where he says, “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.”

Along with the sorrow of losing a dear friend and colleague, the Apostles wondered who would carry Photina’s powerful witness forward on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed in Carthage. Some thought they should find another Samaritan to speak for them. Others thought Photina’s departure could be an opportunity to shift resources to other ministries. And others still were paralyzed with indecision.

As the day approached for Photina to depart for Smyrna, all the Apostles and disciples of Carthage gathered around a table to break bread, eat barbeque, and celebrate their justice ministry together. Someone was about to suggest that they all hold hands and sing a favorite Carthaginian song, Kumbaya, when The Apostle Photina of Samaria began to speak:

“My dear friends and colleagues, you have been called to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the most vulnerable, those on the margins, and the oppressed.  See them, know them, accept them, and affirm them. Your job is not to make everyone happy. You do not need to be everyone’s pastor. You are a facilitator of justice, act like one. You are not required to honor and affirm every perspective. Take ownership. Claim your authority. And for God’s sake, Stand Up!”

That’s what Photina said, or so the story goes.

The John passage ends with these words addressed to the Samaritan woman we now know as Photina, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.”

So sisters and brothers, hear God’s call to justice in the Connecticut Conference, not because of what our imagined Apostle Photina of Samaria said, not even because of what The Reverend Da Vita McCallister has taught us, but that we may hear and respond to this call for ourselves.

We have been called to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the most vulnerable, those on the margins.  Black Lives Matter! Brown Lives Matter! See, know, accept, and affirm the unique value of black and brown lives, and name the injustices perpetrated against black and brown bodies! Our job is not to make everyone happy. We are not called to be everybody’s pastor. We are facilitators of justice! We are not required to honor and affirm every perspective! Take ownership, make these words your own, and Speak Up! Act Up! Rise Up! Claim your authority, and for God’s sake… for God’s sake… for God’s sake Stand Up!

 

What Kind of Witness?

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 14, 2017.

Acts 7:55-60

The short passage from the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts that I am going to preach on makes little sense without the story that precedes it, beginning in Chapter 6. So, here is that story.

Following Christ’s resurrection, then ascension to heaven, the Apostles began to organize as the church and set out in an around Jerusalem to share the story of Jesus and baptize people in his name. Among those early converts were Greek speaking Jews. Though the Apostles baptized these so-called Hellenists, they weren’t seen as the equals of Hebrew speaking Jews who traced their ancestry to Abraham.

Every day, the early church would distribute food to widows and those in need, but the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected. This annoyed the original twelve Apostles because they thought it was below them to “wait on tables,” serving food, especially to Hellenist widows. So they directed the Hellenists to identify seven of their own men of good standing to serve as Deacons. The Deacons would serve the food, so the Apostles could focus on praying and sharing the word of God.

Among those seven Deacons was a man named Stephen. Though he was said to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit; he wasn’t expected to do more than to volunteer in the soup kitchen.

But he quickly got himself in trouble by arguing with members of a Hellenist synagogue, and these Greek speaking Jews brought Stephen before the ruling council of chief priests in Jerusalem. His accusers said that Stephen’s promotion of Jesus as the “Way” represented a break from Jewish tradition and that he should be punished for this. Stephen then gives a long and impassioned speech to the Council to refute their charges.

He argues that there have been two groups in Israel’s long history, those who accept God’s message and messengers and those who reject them. Stephen and the Apostles are aligned with Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. The Council and the Jews they represent are aligned with the Egyptians, the ancestors who killed the prophets, and those who crucified Jesus. One group sought the liberation of the slaves, justice for the poor, and new life for the most vulnerable, while the others oppressed these same. According to Stephen, rather than rejecting God’s law, the followers of Jesus are in line with the faithful in Jewish history who have sought to keep covenant with God. Jesus is a fulfillment of the law, not a break from it. Stephen finished his speech to the Council with these words:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

Not surprisingly, Stephen’s words enrage his accusers, and this is where this morning’s passage picks up.

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

Note, this is the Saul that would soon have a conversion experience, after which he would be known as Paul, the Apostle who would become the greatest evangelist our tradition has ever known, and whose letters have profoundly influenced the way we understand our faith.

Stephen, the waiter, was stoned to death by a mob for confronting powerful religious authorities for their failure to follow Jewish law. Stephen was a witness for God’s truth and justice, and it cost him his life.

Saul was a different kind of witness, he stood by and watched as authorities incited a mob to murder, and his silence communicated his approval.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, waged from 1976 to 1983, the military government abducted, tortured, and killed left-wing militants, and anyone they claimed were “subversives,” including all political opponents of the regime. Many of the dissenters were young people, students and other youth trying to express their dissatisfactions with the regime. The kidnapped people became referred to as the “disappeared.” The government obliterated any records that would help the families find the bodies or reclaim their grandchildren.

The military government’s censorships prevented any discussion of the matter. Within a terrorist state, those who spoke out put their own lives in danger. Yet, in the face of the disappearance of their children, in 1977 a group of mothers began to meet each Thursday in the large Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the site of Argentina’s government. There they walked in non-violent demonstrations. As they walked they chanted: “We want our children; we want them to tell us where they are.” The madres said, “No matter what our children think they should not be tortured. They should have charges brought before them. We should be able to see them, visit them.”

The mothers’ simple request was the first time any of the public had spoken out against the brutality of the regime. The movement and numbers of women whose children had “disappeared” grew. In their weekly demonstrations some carried pictures of the missing children. Later they wore white scarfs to symbolize the white dove of peace, which “can unit all women.”

The mothers’ nonviolent expression of truth to power eventually drew international attention. Human rights groups arrived to help them open up an office, publish their own newspaper and learn to make speeches. Although the police continued to harass them, (the early founders in fact “disappeared” themselves), it became more difficult for the government to ignore the moral presence of mothers standing witness to the illegal and brutal acts of the regime. As mothers, they presented a powerful moral symbol which, over time, transformed them from women seeking to protect their children to women wishing to transform the state so that it reflected maternal values.

In no small part because of the mothers’ witness and martyrdom, Argentina returned to a civilian government in 1983.

One of the mothers, Maria del Rosario de Cerruti said:

“One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice…Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.”

Either we speak out, or we are accomplices.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

At the end of April, a number of students from Canton High School chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” at a basketball game against the predominantly black and Latino Classical Magnet School in Hartford. In an editorial, the Hartford Courant named the incident for what it was, racism, and the Principle of Canton High School acknowledged that the taunts crossed the line into hate speech. At the end of February, someone rearranged the letters of the Granby High School sign to spell a racial slur against African Americans.

We would like to think Simsbury is immune to such incidents but it isn’t. During a performance of 42nd Street in February a student yelled out a homophobic slur at one of the actors on stage. Rev Kev and I hear of other incidents of students directing slurs toward immigrants, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and Jews in the hallways and classrooms of Simsbury High.

Frankly, I felt convicted by today’s story about Stephen. I have heard about such things at the high school all year but, not being sure how to respond, have stood silently by. And I hear the words of Maria del Rosario de Cerruti, “We have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices.”

This is not to blame teachers or the administration. Naming and confronting such behavior is hard. And I am not imagining mothers wearing white scarves protesting in the school parking lot, though wouldn’t that be something. But maybe there is a response appropriate to our faith, something encouraging and helpful to the administration and teachers, something supportive of youth and their families, something that equips everyone to respond constructively to racism and homophobia when it arises, as it surely will.

Please help me think about this as we attempt to answer the question, what kind of witnesses will we be?

23rd Psalm (remix), featuring St. Francis

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Psalm 23, John 10:11-16

Do geese see God?

Tell me, do geese see God?

Not sure?  Let me say it backward?

Do geese see God?

Ah, this is a palindrome, a word or phrase that reads the same way frontward and backward.  Mom is a palindrome, as is Wow.  So is, Live not on evil; and, Desserts, I stressed.

Several years ago, I came across a variation of this kind of word play, something that when read backward says something very different than when it is read forward.

Here is a wonderful example, a video poem called Lost Generation (clink link to view before continuing).

The first time I watched the video, the dramatic reversal of the text and the message from self-centered cynicism to empowered hope brought tears to my eyes.

With thoughts of palindromes and clever videos in mind, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if there was some such meaningful word play embedded in our beloved 23rd Psalm.  I read it backward thinking there might be some hidden message in there.  Alas, the 23rd Psalm is not a palindrome, nor does its timeless and beautiful message of God’s tender care for us change when read backward.  But I was not to be deterred.

There is yet another form of word play that might inform this morning’s reflection on the 23rd Psalm, the remix.

Contemporary composers of popular music, hip-hop and jazz, remix standards and classics to create new music.  They do what is called sampling, recording recognizable words and rhythms from other popular songs and inserting them in their own composition.  Results vary.  Some people say that such sampling and remixing plagiarizes the talents of better composers and only succeeds in ruining the original classic.  Others find that this sampling and remixing gives the classic new life, helping people hear it in a new way.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe the 23rd Psalm doesn’t work as a palindrome, maybe it isn’t helpful to scroll the text backward.  How about a remix?  Now, I know what you are thinking.  Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare mess with the words and message of our beloved 23rd Psalm.  No passage in scripture is so treasured by so many.  It is perfect in its poetry, especially in the King James Version we heard this morning, and its message that God leads us, protects us from evil, and surrounds us with goodness and mercy provides timeless comfort and encouragement when we are feeling lost and bereft.

While written well before the birth of Christ, as Christians we associate the psalm with Jesus the Good Shepherd.  In this morning’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  We understand that in Christ, our Good Shepherd, we shall not want, we lie down in green pastures, we are led beside still waters, our soul is restored.

As beloved as the 23rd Psalm is, as many times as I have heard someone say that for them, the 23rd Psalm “says it all,” I dare say, that taken by itself, it’s a bit self-centered. Bear with me.

Listen to the emphasis of the psalm.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me.  The words I, me, my and mine appear in the 23rd psalm 17 times.  17 words out of 117, 15% of the psalm is all about me!  No wonder I feel so good when I read it!

By comparison, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis speaks not of what God will do for me, but how we can serve God and others.

Don’t get me wrong.  The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful expressions of God’s love for us ever written, and it remains so.  But in the larger context of the gospel, perhaps there is something more for us here.

You know I often refer back to the Apostle Paul’s words in the 12th Chapter of First Corinthians where he refers to the church as the body of Christ.  He doesn’t say that the church is like the body of Christ, Paul says the church is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ.  Read with Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ in mind, the 23rd Psalm isn’t referring to some idealized image of God as a good shepherd “out there” who will take good care of me, myself and I (17 times), instead we, the church, are the good shepherd called to care for all God’s children.

God asks us to be his good shepherd, to go out into the world to care for all his sheep.  Listen to these words from this morning’s gospel lesson.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

About six months ago, First Church members gathered with other interested people from the community to consider sponsoring a refugee family. Working with a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven, our volunteers quickly organized into committees, took the name HANA, Hartford Area Neighbors Alliance, and satisfied all the requirements to host a refugee family. Unfortunately, this was the very moment when the U.S. refugee resettlement program was suspended.  HANA has been in a holding pattern for the last few months.

I got an email yesterday that HANA now has an opportunity to assist a Syrian refugee family, Ibrahim, Adeebah and their five children ages 4-16. They arrived in the United States last November and were sponsored by a community group in Manchester. But it was no longer safe for them there as they were receiving death threats, so they have been resettled in West Hartford where there are other Syrian families.

HANA is now preparing to support this family

And Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”  We, the church, are God’s good shepherd.  We are called to reach out as the Good Shepherd to restore God’s promised love and protection to the lost.

I promised a 23rd Psalm Remix, so here it is, the 23rd Psalm, featuring St. Francis:

Lord make us an instrument of Thy peace,

make us, Lord, Thy Good Shepherd;

for we shall not want, but shall sow love;

Where there is injury,

may we prepare green pastures for lying down;

Where there is doubt, help us still troubled waters;

Where there is sadness and despair, make us restorers of souls;

And where there is darkness,

give us light to lead in paths of righteousness.

O Divine Master,

As we walk with those who suffer

through the valley of death’s shadow,

May we fear no evil, for you are with us.

Grant that your rod and staff may provide comfort,

and that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,

Let us set tables before friends and enemies,

Not to be understood, but to understand

Anoint our heads with oil and fill our cups to overflowing

Not because we are loved, but so we can love others

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in laying down our life for your sheep,

That we are born to eternal life

Where we will dwell in your house forever.  Amen.

Jesus, Open Your World

heineken commercial

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on April 30, 2017.

Luke 24:13-35

It is not always easy to take these stories that were written almost 2,000 years ago, and find relevance for our lives today. The seemingly supernatural elements of the resurrection of Jesus Christ can present particular challenges. Bringing these ancient stories into the present is one of the primary tasks of a preacher. This morning I will share a video that made this morning’s story come newly alive for me. But first, let’s review that story.

Later, that same day the women discovered the empty tomb, two followers of Jesus are walking along, talking about everything that had happened in Jerusalem. Well, along comes Jesus, who says, “Whassup?!” Not recognizing Jesus, they tell this stranger the story, that the person they hoped would make Israel great again had been persecuted and murdered by Jewish authorities; further, they share that the tomb of this Jesus had been found empty that very morning. There were even stories circulating that Jesus was alive!

Jesus, still unrecognized by his own followers by telling them the stories of their tradition, stories that point to Jesus’ divinity.

They arrive at their destination and invite this stranger to stay for dinner. When Jesus takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, BAM!, their eyes are opened and they recognize Jesus. And immediately, he disappears from their sight.

Then they get it. We felt his presence; our hearts were warmed, but we were too lost in our own world to recognize him.

So, that’s the ancient story. On the surface, not a lot for us to relate to.

The video is called, Worlds Apart: An Experiment. The video is four and a half minutes long, and was made to sell a product. I am not endorsing the product.

Click on link and watch video before continuing.

Worlds Apart: An Experiment

I would suggest that video effectively captures the message of the Emmaus Road story, communicating that message in a contemporary context.

The disciples were so absorbed in their own point of view that they were unable to recognize Jesus, more broadly, they were unable to see “that of God,” in the stranger.

Like the story of the two disciples and Jesus, the individuals in the video are at first unable to see the good in the other. They are shown positioning themselves against those who cause them to feel threatened.

The Emmaus Road story begins with the stranger, Jesus, walking alongside the two disciples. He fosters a connection with them by telling them familiar stories that reveal who he really is.

In a way, the video also asks the strangers to walk alongside each other, asking them to follow the instructions of this “experiment.” What are the ways the participants are invited to foster a connection with one another?

They participated in a common activity together. I think they called them “flat packs” in the video, but it is the equivalent of Ikea furniture, right? They are asked to put these pieces of furniture together. Did you catch the part where there were given each other’s instructions? They needed each other. They had to work together to assemble all the pieces into a bar.

Next they are asked to use five adjectives to describe themselves, then identify things they have in common. Two things happened here. First, in describing themselves they became confessional, using words like offensive and solemn, or saying, I have ups and down, or, I experienced homelessness. Participants also took this opportunity to affirm one another. We heard things like, you seem ambitious, you have a good aura, you would listen to me, thank you for your military service. These were ways of sharing their stories with each other.

After sharing in the stories of their faith together, the disciples were presented with a choice about whether to ask the stranger to stay.

After the strangers in the video followed the instructions they were offered a choice, whether to stay with the stranger or go.

The disciples and Jesus ate together, their meal became what we know as a communion table.

The strangers in the video drank beer together, the bar became its own kind of communion table.

The disciples’ eyes were opened to recognize Jesus in the stranger.

The strangers in the video opened their eyes to see the good in each other.

Jesus disappeared from their sight, reminding us that Jesus doesn’t need to be physically present for us to experience his presence in one another. We can find Jesus’ presence anywhere people come together to see and hear each other.

Note, nowhere in the video were these people told they needed to give up their beliefs, though their minds were opened in the course of the experiment. Did you notice?

The guy who was against feminism clinks his bottle with the feminist, affirming the saying on her t-shirt, “smash the patriarchy.”

And the guy who had insisted, “if you’re a man, be a man, or a female, be a female,” offered to stay in touch with the transgender woman, saying that he would have to explain to his girlfriend why he was texting another girl, affirming her identity as a woman.

In this morning’s lesson, the disciples’ come to see God in the stranger by walking with him and sharing, hearing his story, and seeing him for who he is. In the video experiment, two strangers come to see the good in each other by accompanying each other along the way, hearing each other’s story, and seeing each other for who they are.

The one man tells the transgender woman that he grew up seeing the world in black and white, but the world isn’t black and white. The woman responds laughing, yeah, I’m just me. This, in a nutshell, is the message of the incarnation, the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus. The world isn’t doctrine, the world is just a person, just people.

There are a couple ways we might apply these lessons to our lives as the church.

Each of us, as individuals are not asked to give up our beliefs to be members of the church. But when we gather around the shared stories of our faith, when we participate in shared activities (Rebuilding Together, the tag sale, or The Walk Against Hunger), when we confess, when we affirm one another, and when we break bread (or drink beer) together, our eyes will be opened to see that of God in each other, and our hearts and minds will naturally be opened, be warmed, as a result of our time together.

This also means that we, as the church, can have a point of view and represent it to others. But we should be careful to nurture our relationships with others in the community in these same ways, by telling the stories of our faith, by accompanying others along the way of life, confessing and affirming one another, and breaking bread together. When we do, our church and our community, indeed our world, will be opened and changed, and God will be revealed among us.

I’ll conclude by appropriating the tag line at the end of the video:

Jesus, Open Your World.

Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

Still Rising

 This is the sermon I preached on, April 23, 2017, the Sunday after Easter, at First Church Simsbury. I revisit the story of “Doubting” Thomas. Someone said that this sermon deepened their understanding of the Easter sermon Rev. Kev and I preached together last week. You might read them together.

John 20:19-31

I confess I groaned when I first saw that this Sunday’s reading was the one from the gospel of John about the disciple popularly known as Doubting Thomas. I groaned, in part, because I have preached so many times on this passage that I doubted, no pun intended, whether I had anything new to say. But also, because I have come to feel that Thomas has gotten a bum rap as a doubter, and I grow weary of having to come to his defense every year.

But the more Thomas and I spent time together this week, the more I felt compelled to again enter into his story together. So, here we go.

Let’s rewind to Easter morning. Peter and another disciple, the one who Jesus loved, see the empty tomb but have not yet laid eyes on Jesus. Mary then sees, touches, and speaks to Jesus outside the tomb and, we are told, tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

That’s where this morning’s story picks up. It is now evening of that same day, and we find the disciples locked in a room, afraid of those who crucified Jesus. If these are the same disciples Mary reported to, they haven’t believed that Jesus has risen from the dead. They have not had a personal encounter with Jesus following the resurrection. Until now.

Jesus appears to these disciples and shows them the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the soldier’s spear in his side. This confirms for them that this is in fact Jesus.

He then breathes on them, further confirming that Jesus is alive. This breath of the Holy Spirit empowers and equips these disciples to go forth into the world to forgive sins, to share the life changing grace of God.

We now encounter Thomas. He was not with the other disciples in the locked room who saw Jesus with their own eyes. As Mary first told them, they now tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas says, in effect, I need to have the same experience that you have had; I need to see the marks in his hands and the wound in his side just as you did. Then I will believe too.

Indeed, a week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is with them and Jesus invites him, not just to see, but to touch his wounds, saying “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas touches, experiences for himself, and affirms Jesus’ divine authority, saying “My Lord and my God!” Note that there is no record that the other disciples make such a proclamation of faith following their encounter with Jesus. Even Mary does not make such a bold affirmation.

Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” History has understood this as a rebuke of Thomas as a doubter, but I think this is where he gets a bum rap. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt. He goes out of his way to provide Thomas with an experience of the power of God, so that Thomas might carry that message to others. Rather than criticizing Thomas, Jesus’ words are a blessing upon those who follow Thomas, who come to believe without having personally experienced the power of God to bring forth new life from death.

So, that’s the rescue mission I feel obligated to launch on behalf of Thomas every year at this time.

And here are some of my new observations upon this text so framed.

In two separate sermons in the past month I have shared the view of Bible scholar Karoline Lewis that resurrection is not so much something to be believed, but something to be experienced. Mary, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas all had first-hand experiences of resurrection. Their belief followed from their experience.

But there is more than that to these stories. Mary has an experience of the resurrected Jesus, believes and tells the disciples. The disciples have their own experience, believe and tell Thomas. Thomas has his own experience and believes.

An experience of resurrection can be communicated in such a way that others may then experience it for themselves. Resurrection is reproducible.

This ability to communicate and reproduce an experience are cornerstones of the scientific method.

We live in a time where that which is directly observable and reproducible, in fact science itself, is under attack by some. New words have been introduced to the lexicon, fake news and alternative facts. We watch a video that shows a politician saying something, then the politician says “I never said that.” A picture captures an event as it unfolds, and someone insists that the event never happened. The conclusion of years of scientific research are dismissed based on something someone read on the internet. Yesterday, Earth Day, thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and around the world participated in a March for Science. Frankly, it seems incredible to me that anyone should need to stand up for science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that resurrection can be proved by science. But I am saying that individual experiences of resurrection can be shared and are reproducible. Jesus tells Mary, go tell the disciples what you experienced. Jesus tells the disciples, I empower and equip you to go forth in my name and share the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that Rev. Kev and I preached that an experience of resurrection is any experience in which we first encounter a dead end in our life, undergo a crushing loss, make a mistake that seems irredeemable, or fall into despair or depression, only to encounter God’s grace, a second chance, new life. This is what I mean when I talk about an experience of resurrection.

I can’t imagine I am alone in saying that I have made mistakes in my life, betrayed and hurt those I love. In those times, I was convinced that this was the end, the end of a relationship, the end of a good life. I saw no way out. But beyond all hope and reason, the stone was rolled away from the tomb, a way was made where there had been no way. This is a resurrection experience, and it is reproducible. It is reproducible, not just by telling others about it, but by becoming, and being, and living resurrection as God’s new creation.

I am Thomas, believing in Jesus after seeing and experiencing resurrection for myself. Jesus says, blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe. Jesus no longer walks the earth to inspire such faith. But we do. We are, therefore, required to do more than tell of our experience, but like Jesus we are called to show our wounds and share our stories of redemption. We become as Christ, wounded and risen, that others might share in an experience of resurrection.

If you are a widow or widower who has been restored to a full and happy life after losing your spouse, then foster redemptive relationships with those who still mourn. Let them see resurrection in you. If you are gay or lesbian and have found joy and wholeness following a childhood of condemnation, then model that freedom for those who still doubt that they are loved by God. If you have betrayed ones you loved but confessed, made amends, and found forgiveness, share this hope with others, not just with your words, but by committing yourself to walk side-by-side with those who are trapped in despair. If you have overcome an abusive childhood to raise happy children who know they are loved, reach out to extend that love beyond your family to other hurting children.

Belief in resurrection follows an experience of resurrection. Mary to the disciples. The disciples to Thomas. Thomas forward into history to us. If you have experienced resurrection, tell it, live it, be it. If you are still waiting to experience resurrection in your life. Believe. New life awaits.

 

Come Out… of the Tomb

This is the sermon that I preached with my partner in ministry, Rev. Kevin Weikel, at First Church Simsbury on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. Rev. Kev begins, then I pick it up half way through, and we finish together.

Matthew 28:1-10

Kevin:

First Church Music Director extraordinaire Mark Mercier was joking with Pastor George and I last week about outdated church words, especially the words that are most prevalent this time of year.  For example, last week was Palm Sunday and we shouted, “Hosanna,” but have you ever used that word in your daily life?  “Hosanna” literally means, “God save us.”  I’m sure there have been times you’ve watched the news and thought, “God help us,” but I doubt you’ve ever shouted “Hosanna.”

Today, Easter Sunday, the word is less outdated than complicated.

“Resurrection.”

Like “Hosanna,” It is not a word we use very much outside of these four walls, but even more importantly, what does it even mean?

To fully understand the word resurrection, it might be helpful to think back again, just for a moment, to what happened last week.  Jesus rode that humble donkey into Jerusalem as the people shouted, here’s that word, “Hosanna, God save us!”  That donkey was symbolic we recall.  Leaders going off to war rode horses; leaders coming in peace rode donkeys.  And the people believed that God, through the love and peace that Jesus preached, taught, and embodied, would save them from the corrupt, uncompassionate, and war hungry Roman empire.

In the days after Palm Sunday, in the week we just experienced we call Holy Week, the hope the people felt as they waved those palm branches on Palm Sunday turned to hopelessness rather quickly.  Fear and sadness took over as, after Jesus had ruffled the feathers of the Roman Empire so that they could take no more, he was taken away, tried, and led to the cross to die.

As we saw on the faces of the actors and actresses in our skits who played the role of the women who came to the tomb to pay their respects to Jesus, they were experience deep grief.  Their Jesus, in whom they had placed so much hope, had died.  He was gone, and so were his message and his movement.

As we also witnessed, however, these women were shocked when they arrived at the tomb to find the stone that had covered the opening of the tomb had been rolled away and Jesus was not there.  He had come out.  He was resurrected.  And we too experience resurrection every time we come out of a dark place in our lives to renewed life, to find that God has made a way where previously there seemed to be no way.

When have you come out of a tomb, out of a dark place and into the light, and experienced resurrection?  When you finally felt you had your strength back after a serious injury?  When you found that one person who seems to completely understand the grief you’ve been experiencing?  After you admitted you made a mistake, and apologized for it?  When you shared with a cherished friend or family member that you are gay, and they affirmed you?  When you got up the courage to go to a soup kitchen and returned with a heart so big you thought it might burst?

Yvonne Josephson is a nurse at High Point Regional Hospital in High Point, North Carolina.  Yvonne and her husband got married, and like all newly married couples, believed they were going to share many wonderful years together.  Soon after Yvonne and her husband were married, however, he got sick with a chronic illness and, even though they both loved kids, they felt they had to make the hard decision not to have children.  And then one day her husband died suddenly.

Yvonne was obviously devastated.  She felt lonely and hopeless.  She was in a dark place, a tomb you could call it.

But then one day Eppi, a Sudanese refugee who was a student at the University of North Carolina, stopped by the hospital where Yvonne was working because Eppi needed some guidance on the senior paper she was doing on strokes.  Yvonne volunteered to help.

As Yvonne and Eppi spent time together, they became fast friends.  Yvonne became somewhat of a mentor to Eppi and told her that if she ever needed anything to give her a call.

The following Monday Yvonne got a call from child protective services, Eppi needed a home.  Initially it was going to be a temporary situation but that’s not the way it worked out.

Over time, Eppi started calling Yvonne her American Mom, and Yvonne started calling Eppi her Godchild, because she believed God had worked things out for her.

Eppi says, “Yvonne needed a daughter, I needed a mom, and we met and connected.  And now I can’t imagine my life without her.  I call her every minute, whenever I run into problems or need someone to talk to.”

Eventually, Eppi met someone, got married, and had a baby.  Through Eppi, Yvonne became a grandmother.  Eppi says, “Yvonne loves the baby so much, whenever she sees her she just takes her and says ‘I miss my baby.’  It has been great for my daughter to have a grandmother because I didn’t have one.”

Eppi says Yvonne is her role model, and she wants to be as good as a mother to her daughter as Yvonne has been to her.  Through Eppi, Yvonne found her way out of the tomb and experienced resurrection, renewed life.

You see, resurrection is happening all around us, all the time.  God is always making a way for us to come out of the tombs of our lives to experience light and love, even sometimes when we thought it was not possible.

George:

I’m going to begin with a rather adult topic, so I am going to try to speak about it simply so children present might follow along.

About thirty-five years ago, before many of you were born, a dangerous new disease appeared in the United States called AIDS. AIDS made people very, very sick, and at first almost everyone who caught AIDS would die from it. In the beginning it only infected a small number of people, but over the next twenty years about half-a-million people would die from AIDS in America. Scientists figured out that people caught AIDS from infected blood and other body fluids. Though anyone can catch AIDS, in these first twenty years it was mostly gay men who caught it, mostly gay men who got sick and died of AIDS.

A gay man is a man who loves other men, who wants to be in a relationship with another man, maybe marry another man. Thirty-five years ago, when AIDS first came to America, many people thought there was something wrong with being gay. There isn’t, but that’s what many people thought. Back then, many gay men kept the fact that they liked other men a secret because they were afraid of being criticized, bullied, or hurt. If a gay man loved another man, they might meet secretly so no one would find out they loved each other.

Not only was this very sad, (if you love someone you would want everyone to know, right?), but keeping secrets also made it harder to help gay men protect themselves from getting AIDS, or get them medical treatment if they caught this disease. Even when a gay man started getting sick he might not tell his family he was gay because he was afraid of being rejected by them.

Keeping a secret about being gay is sometimes called “being in the closet.” Kids, think about hiding in a closet in your house during a game of hide and seek. Some gay men didn’t want anyone to find out they were gay so they hid who they really were “in the closet.”

When a gay man decided to let people know that he loves, and wants to be in relationships with other men, this is called “coming out of the closet,” or just “coming out.”

Even though gay men with AIDS were afraid to “come out” they quickly learned that if they stayed “in the closet” they couldn’t get the medicine that could save their life. Staying “in the closet” led to death; the closet became a tomb. “Coming out” led to a new and better life.

From 1995 – 1998 I led an organization called Pacificare that helped people who were living with AIDS. We trained volunteers to be companions or “buddies” to someone with AIDS. When I worked there I got to know many, many remarkable gay men. I will never forget one man in particular, named Valentine Cosmo.

Valentine was both a client of and volunteer for Pacificare. I remember very clearly the first time I heard him speak at a volunteer training; he introduced himself to a class of prospective “buddies” by saying, “I lived my whole life by a river in Africa called “Da Nile.” Get it? The Nile. Denial. He went on to explain to this group of strangers that he had been in denial about his identity as a gay man. This denial had led to unsafe behavior that brought about his infection with the HIV virus. His pathway to new life began when he came out as gay and started speaking openly about his illness.

Valentine was a beautiful, extraordinary human being. In time he would come to write a regular column called “From the Heart” for the Pacificare newsletter. When I first asked him to share a monthly reflection he refused; he would later confess his fear, “that I didn’t have anything inside myself that anyone would want to read.” But he eventually agreed and penned lovely, personal, poignant reflections about life and love, and in his last column wrote, “I have loved writing for the newsletter more than any fear I had.”

The name Valentine, of course, brings love to mind. But as I prepared this sermon I realized that his last name, Cosmo, evokes the infinite expanse of the universe. Valentine Cosmo, Cosmic Love! When I left Pacificare to respond to a call to ministry at Central Union Church, Valentine presented me with this Teddy Bear that he had made; to me, it represents a love that has been set free from the tomb.

Bible scholar Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not so much something to be believed but something to be experienced. By confronting his fear and coming out, out of the closet, out of the tomb, to live and love fully as God created him, Valentine entered into and shared that universal love of God.

I had coffee with our church member, the good Reverend Stoddard Williams, on Thursday, and he told the story of visiting a tomb in Jerusalem called Gordon’s Calvary that is said to be very much like the tomb that Jesus was laid in. Set in a cliff face, one must stoop to enter this small, cold, damp, dark hollow. Todd describes the frightening chill of death that lingered in that place, and the thrill of turning around to see the sunlit garden that awaited just outside the tomb.

George:           So, brothers and sisters, this is Christ’s invitation to each and all of you.

Kevin:             Face your fears.

George:           Then turn around.

Kevin:             Come out.

George:           With Jesus as our guide,

Kevin:             and Yvonne and Valentine as our examples,

George:           come out of those dark places that entomb you

Kevin:             to live and love as God created you,

George:           and enter into that universal love of God.

 

 

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.

 

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