Shane the Barber: Our Scars and God’s Mercy

haircut

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 6, 2017.

Matthew 14:13-21, Genesis 32:22-31

In 2008 I had open heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. With no guarantees of whether I would live or die, entering that surgery was, hands down, the scariest time of my life. I lived, of course, but was left with a thick, red rope of a scar right down the middle of my breast bone. Though the scar has now faded considerably, for several years it served as a stark reminder of my vulnerability and fear.

I thought of my scar when I read this morning’s story about Jacob. I don’t have time to share Jacob’s entire back story, but in short, he was a scoundrel. First he manipulates his twin brother Esau into signing over the inheritance from their father, then Jacob tricks his father Isaac into blessing him instead of his brother. Understandably, Esau is enraged after twice being cheated by Jacob, causing Jacob to flee for his life. After living on the run for twenty years, Jacob finally decides to return home to face his brother. But still fearing for his life, he sends his wives, maids and children ahead without him and settles down for the night. There, the story says, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Many scholars believe that this “man” represents God, but I would instead suggest that the man is a metaphor for Jacob’s failure and fear. As he anticipates seeing his brother 20 years after swindling him, Jacob is finally required to confront the suffering he has inflicted face to face. Though Jacob refuses to give in to his past failures, this “wrestler” strikes Jacob’s hip causing him to have a permanent limp.

 

The next morning, Jacob looks up to see Esau approaching. Esau runs to meet Jacob, embraces him, kisses him, and together they weep. But even after Jacob is forgiven by and reconciles with Esau, his limp will forever serve as a painful reminder of his former treachery. As my scar gives evidence of my once broken heart, so Jacob bears the mark of his brokenness.

Last Sunday, having just returned from our mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of our church youth Mason Thomsen shared his testimony about an encounter with a homeless barber named Shane. Like this morning’s story about Jacob, this is a story about the scars we carry, and the fear and failure they represent. Both Shane’s and Jacob’s story also point us beyond our brokenness to acceptance and reconciliation.

It was our second day in Biloxi and my small group was scheduled to work at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, preparing and serving a meal to Biloxi’s homeless. We pulled up in our minivan to park in a dirt lot across the street from Loaves and Fishes, and there, under a tree, just outside my driver’s side door, were two men. One was sitting on an upside down, five gallon paint bucket. The other, Shane, was standing behind him giving him a haircut, electric trimmers plugged into an electrical box on a lamppost. Shane was going about his business as if outside haircuts on paint buckets was the most normal thing in the world.

Those of you who heard me preach a sermon about my barber Elvis know that I take my haircuts seriously; and I know a good barber when I see one. The first thing I thought when I pulled up was that this guy knows what he’s doing. The second thing I thought was, I need a haircut. I had every intention of getting a haircut before I left Simsbury, but didn’t find the time, and was feeling a little shaggy. So, on impulse I asked, “Hey, can I get a haircut?”

Shane looked up from his work and it was then that I saw that he bears some terrible scars, big, thick and red like the one that once ran down the center of my chest. One side of his face was badly scarred, and one arm had extensive, deep, disfiguring scars. “Sure, he said, you’re next.”

His scars were jarring, but I was not deterred. I indicated to Shane that we would be across the street at Loaves and Fishes. Once there, we quickly got caught up chopping vegetables for salad and were soon serving lunch to a long line of hungry people. I hadn’t forgotten Shane and my promised haircut, but did begin to further analyze my impulsive request. In particular, I wondered how he cleaned his clippers and whether going from one homeless customer, to another, to me was a sure fire way to get head lice.

Just as I was pondering this very question, Shane came through the soup line and asked if I still wanted the haircut. “Um, sure, as soon as I’m done here,” I said, head lice be damned.

By the time we finished it was pouring rain outside, but there was Shane offering to cut my hair right in the entry way to Loaves and Fishes. I did ask him if he had a way to clean his clippers and he assured me that he did, and so began my haircut from Shane the Barber!

Mason and the other youth in my group soon gathered around to watch this odd spectacle, and Shane and I began to talk, the way you do with your barber. Shane said he wanted to be a barber all his life. When he was six years old he would go to a barber shop across the street from his Mom’s beauty parlor and help clean up, and he began learning the trade by watching the barbers there. As if it wasn’t already obvious, Shane soon confirmed that he had had what could politely be called a hard life. He had done hard-time in prison where he further honed his barbering skills by cutting other prisoners’ hair.

He soon volunteered the story behind his scars. He had been driving in his van with his girlfriend and they were having a terrible fight. He said he pulled his van over to the side of the road to “take five.” I took that to be something he had learned in an anger management class, meaning to step away from a volatile situation. Unfortunately, when he stepped away from his van, his girlfriend got behind the wheel and ran him over with it. He described getting pulled up into and through the wheel well before being dragged down the street under the van.

All the while, Shane continued to cut my hair, telling these dreadful stories the way my barber Elvis might talk about a Red Sox losing streak. But I could tell from the feel of the clippers on my head that I was in good hands.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t feel lucky,” he said. His implication was clear. He would have rather died that night than forever carry these scars as a constant reminder of his fear and failure.

Then the conversation turned.

“You guys are from a church.” Shane volunteered. “I used to lead my church choir. What songs do you know? How ‘bout this one.” And he began to sing.

He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He may not come when you want him,
But he’ll be there right on time
He’s an on time God, yes he is.

And that’s when I began to cry. Something about Shane, bearing the scars of all he had been through, singing about an on time God, really touched me.

So, this was the scene. Me, surrounded by five of our youth, getting my haircut in the entryway of a soup kitchen, hearing stories of unimaginable brutality told in the first person, Shane singing of a God that doesn’t come when you want him, but will be there right on time, and me weeping.

Saying that he hadn’t sung since his accident, Shane continued to sing songs we might know, encouraging us to join in. We knew a couple, like Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, and finally, my haircut done, Shane led Mason, Veronica, Justin, Julia and Thomas in singing a couple spirited verses of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down.

Think about those words in Shane’s mouth, Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down. With each new song I would shed more tears.

I paid Shane the price of a haircut, exchanged a bro hug, then the youth and I piled into the van and off we went.

Shane’s is the Jacob story retold. Shane has wrestled with his fear and failure and bears the marks of his brokenness. Though he has not yet experienced the face to face acceptance and reconciliation that Jacob did, he experiences these from God through his music. Jacob wept with Esau in response to the forgiveness he experienced, and I wept as a witness to that same experience of God’s mercy.

Our experiences of fear and failure don’t all leave visible marks. Some of us carry our scars on the inside and disguise our limp. But, I dare say, we’ve all got them, whether from encounters with loss, betrayal, condemnation, trauma or abuse, by the time we have lived to a certain age we will be required to wrestle with our shadow in the dark, and will leave these encounters with indelible evidence of our brokenness. And this isn’t a bad thing. Our scars and limps serve as a necessary reminder of our need for God’s grace and mercy.

And that mercy awaits each of us. Because we serve a God who doesn’t always come when we want him, but is always right on time. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burdens Down. Amen.

 

Tending Soil or Slinging Mud?

venice

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 16, 2017, just a couple days after returning from a fabulous vacation to Italy with my family.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Some of you know that my family and I just returned from a “vacation of a lifetime” to Italy. We spent three days in Rome, took a train to Florence and spend three days there, and finished with another three days in Venice. I will resist the temptation to make this sermon a travelogue of the trip, except to say that all of it, from the ancient ruins in Rome, to the Renaissance art in Florence, to the canals in Venice, to the food, Oh, the food, all of it was extraordinary!

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges. It was about 90 degrees and humid the whole time, the three of us shared small hotel rooms and none of us slept well. And though we tried to pace ourselves and not take on too much, we were constantly on the go with little real down time. So, despite the glory of it all, and it was glorious, we experienced the occasional meltdown.

Not surprisingly, the most significant of these came on our last day in Venice. With no more “must-sees” on the agenda, I suggested that we take the Vaparezzo, a water bus, to a nearby island in the bay to see a church there and climb a tower for a view of Venice. Lourdes was not enthusiastic, in particular noting how much this additional side trip would cost. You should know that Lourdes very expertly manages our family finances, and it was entirely because of her disciplined budgeting that we were able to go on this trip to begin with. While I regularly affirm Lourdes for her money management and express gratitude for all the ways it benefits our family, I occasionally push back and dig in around the particulars, how much to spend on a meal, whether to catch a taxi from the train station to the hotel, or whether to ride the Vaparezzo to San Giorgio Maggiore. And on that last day in Italy, on that subject of whether or not to ride the Vaparezzo, I dug in.

I won’t give you the play by play, but there are two things I want you to know.

First, we did not ride the Vaparezzo to see that church, yet we had a marvelous time. Taking our (free) walk through Venice we met an expat-Englishman who introduced us to a very inexpensive gondola to take us across the Grand Canal, and pointed us toward a lovely café on Plaza San Marco where we enjoyed a cold beverage and a sandwich. He taught us that by standing at the bar, as many locals do, instead of sitting at a table we would pay much less.

To make it plain, Lourdes was right, I was wrong.

The second thing I want you to know is that before that happy outcome was determined the disagreement devolved into one of those “you never-you always” disputes. I know you know what I’m talking about. Instead of just discussing the pros and cons of different points of view, we quickly claim the moral high ground and judge the other, using words like “always” and “never” to impugn the other’s character. As in, “You always spend money so frivolously,” or, “You can never relax and let us just enjoy ourselves.” Just for example.

When I returned to the office on Thursday and opened to this Sunday’s lesson, the well-known parable of the sower from the gospel of Matthew, I recalled this always-never exchange in Venice. Let’s take a look, then circle back.

You may have noticed that there are two distinct parts in the telling of this story. In the first part, Jesus tells the parable of a sower, a farmer sowing seed, who casts seed everywhere. Some falls on the path, some on rocks, some among thorns, and some in good soil. The seed that falls on good soil thrives while the other seed fails to produce. Notice that the focus in these first verses is on the sower, the one casting seeds without regard for where it lands or whether it produces. The sower is God, and the seed is God’s word which communicates grace and love. God shares grace and love abundantly, even, by the world’s standards, foolishly. After all, why scatter seed where we know it will not take root and grow? But this is the extravagant nature of God.

After the parable itself, comes an explanation or interpretation of the story. Some scholars suggest that while the parable was likely told by Jesus himself, the interpretation may have been added later by the writer of the gospel. Note that the explanation has a different emphasis. While the parable focuses on the sower, an extravagantly loving God, the interpretation focuses on what kind of soil the listener will be. Matthew likely wrote this as encouragement to those in his community to be good soil who take in God’s love and grace, reproduce it and share its fruit.

So both the parable and its explanation seem to have fabulous messages, right? God shares abundant love and grace everywhere, even upon the rockiest, thorniest parts of our lives. And, we are encouraged to be fertile soil for all that love and grace, take it in, nurture it, let it sprout and grow in us, and bear fruit that we then share as God does, extravagantly, along life’s path, amid rocks and thorns.

Unfortunately, I think we sometimes take another turn in response to this parable and its explanation, a turn not reflected in the biblical account, but evidenced in the “you always – you never” exchanges of our lives. That is, instead of tilling our own soil, we sling mud at others. We take Jesus’ symbolic identification of types of soil and appoint ourselves the world’s horticulturalists. When we claim the good soil of righteousness for ourselves and judge other’s dirt piles and sandboxes as inadequate we shut down communication and the consequences can be hurtful, even devastating.

I came across an article this week written by a woman whose parents had just finalized their divorce after 44 years of marriage. On the surface, the cause of the divorce was her father’s serial infidelity. But the author digs deeper, trying to get at those things that set up relationships for such betrayal, things she describes as hardness of heart. But we might just as rightly call them rocky and thorny soil. Her list of rocks and thorns includes these:

  • Comparing and contrasting your wrongs against the other and making the judgement that “theirs are worse.”

 

  • Magnifying the weaknesses and minimizing the strengths of the other, while magnifying the strengths and minimizing the weakness of yourself.

 

  • Spending more time trying to find an official diagnoses to explain away their issues than looking in the mirror to address your own.

The writer ends this list of heart hardening, soil depleting behaviors with one last example:

  • Reading this list, she writes, and thinking someone else should be reading it instead of reflecting on its implications for you.

It seems to me that these are all variations of the soil depleting “you always – you never” response to the tough stuff and hard work of committed relationships. Each presumes the moral high ground, justifying one’s own beliefs and behavior while condemning that of the other.

Lourdes and I celebrate, and I do mean celebrate, sixteen years of marriage this coming Friday, and in those sixteen years I have fallen into each of these ways of thinking and acting from time to time, most recently in Venice. I have also come to better recognize these rocks and thorns when they arise and respond differently, namely by returning to tend to my own soil.

So, here are the takeaways. God scatters love and grace everywhere. There were ample reminders of this in Italy, from honeymoon couples riding in gondolas to the extraordinary churches and cathedrals, but truth be told, our trip also reminded me of all the love and grace I experience right here. The comfort of our own bed, a slower, more predictable pace of life, home cooked meals, our dog Sweetie, and this good church.

God scatters love and grace everywhere. Whether it sprouts, puts down roots, grows up and spreads out, and bears fruit is up to us and the soil we prepare.

When we are weary, as I was in Venice, it is easy to claim our patch of earth as moral high ground and sling mud at others – you always… you never…. But when we do, we only succeed in depleting our own soil.

Perhaps you are weary now, feeling depleted by rocky and thorny circumstance, tempted to blame and dismiss others with pronouncements of “always and never.” We are encouraged by Matthew to return to our own soil, opening ourselves to the grace and love of God. And we are reminded by Jesus that that grace and love is EVERYWHERE!

Faith Enough to Let Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 18, 2017.

Romans 5:1-5

There is an old story of a man who fell off a cliff, but before falling to his certain death, he was able to grab hold of a limb protruding from the side of the cliff. As he grips the limb with all his might, he cries out, “Help! Is anyone up there?” He is heartened when a voice responds, “Yes, I am here. I can help you.” Frantic, the man screams, “Please help me. I am loosing my grip. Please help me now!” A calm voice comes from the top of the cliff, “Do not worry my child. It is God. All you have to do is let go.” There is a long pause. The man looks down at the 200 feet drop and the raging river below…takes a deep breath…and yells back, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I begin with this old joke, first, because much of the rest of this sermon is unapologetically theological so I thought you could use a good laugh, and second, because I am inviting you to think about faith as an act of letting go.

The word theology comes from two Greek words – theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word, discourse, or reasoning. Theology, then is thinking about God, or making sense of God. I hope to craft a theological framework to help us think about faith, and God’s invitation to let go.

These verses from Romans, in fact, the first five chapters of Paul’s letter, figured prominently in the theology of Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Catholic Church at the time was promoting a belief that the faithful needed to earn their way into heaven by freeing themselves from sin and doing good. This theology had been corrupted to include practices like selling indulgences, paying the church money for the forgiveness of sins

In 1517 Luther, a monk, famously nailed 95 theses, questions and propositions for debate, to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. He didn’t intend to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to reform it. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him, and so, Protestantism was born.

Luther took his faith and his salvation very seriously, he tried and tried and tried to perfect himself, filled volumes of journals documenting the minutest of sins in the hopes of ridding himself of them. He came to recognize that if human salvation depended on perfection, no one would ever meet this standard. This is when he turned to Romans to articulate what would become the foundation for Protestantism, that we are justified by grace through faith.

I expect that many have heard this, but although this theology is central to our Protestant faith, I also expect that some would find it difficult to explain.

Let’s look at some of these words: justified, sin, grace, and faith.

Justified means to be made righteous, to be seen by God as righteous, to be accepted by God, to be in right relationship with God, or to be reconciled with God. So, a contemporary paraphrase of Luther’s theology could be that we are reconciled with God by grace through faith.

Now, let’s turn to sin and grace. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich talks about the relationship between sin and grace.

For Tillich the core human predicament is the problem of separation, or of estrangement. We are separated from each other, we are separated from God (who Tillich calls the “Ground of Being”), and we are separated from ourselves. This separation, Tillich says, is what Paul calls sin.

Tillich does not speak of sin as particular acts of moral failing about which we should feel guilty. Tillich argues, instead, that sin is a state of being; a state of separation or estrangement – of alienation.

The only thing that can really overcome this state of sin, of estrangement, is grace. Grace is the work of God, the divine gift which unifies that which has been split apart, alienated, separated. This unification is not something we can achieve or even work toward. That’s what makes it grace.

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

“In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds more.”

Writing in the 50’s, Tillich notes that the divisions between nations, peoples, competing interests, and the tragic suffering of so many across the world, call for the divine grace of forgiveness to heal the estrangement and alienation. And that healing begins with an acceptance of ourselves.

There are those moments, says Tillich, when grace comes over us and creates in us the capacity to accept ourselves, to truly love ourselves, to accept God’s acceptance of us.

 

So, bringing Paul and Tillich together, we are justified, accepted and reconciled with God and each other, by grace… through faith.

Christians sometimes assume that faith is primarily a matter of believing things on the basis of little or no evidence. But faith does not need to be understood as believing a particular something – for example, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus died for our sins – rather faith can be understood as the act of letting go, letting go of our own way, letting go of our belief that we are right or in control.

Theologian Garrett Green writes, “The person insistent on achieving righteousness through his or her own efforts is in effect refusing God’s grace, like an obstreperous toddler, the self-righteous moralist is saying, “I can do it myself.””

Faith is something more than and quite different from mere belief.

The Twelve Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous articulate the need to let go beautifully. Step 1 acknowledges that we are ultimately powerless; Step 2, recognizes that our lives are unmanageable on our own; and Step 3, turns our lives over to a higher power, let’s go into the reconciling grace of something greater than ourselves, our Ground of Being.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, do we have faith enough to let go?

By its nature, theology is pretty abstract. Thinking about God is a step removed from practicing our faith or experiencing grace.

So here’s a story, one that on its surface has nothing to do with God or grace or faith, but demonstrates what happens when we let go of our own way.

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving writes of her experience as a second grade teacher with a Haitian student, Rosie, who would repeatedly jump up during math class to talk to a classmate across the room. Like many of us, Irving had been raised in a culture that taught the value of thinking and working independently, of being self-sufficient. This cultural norm of self-control had been made explicit in Irving’s education as a teacher, and she in turn communicated this expectation to her class. But despite Irving’s constant intervention, Rosie continued to get up and interact with other students.

One day, in a workshop that she attended on multi-culturalism, Irving learned that both Hispanic and African-America cultures revolve around a collective orientation rather than an individual one. The idea of working independently goes against everything that many Hispanic and black children are taught at home.

The next day, with this understanding fresh in her mind, Irving resisted her inclination to chase Rosie down, and instead watched as she again made her way across the room to a classmate’s desk. Arriving at her destination, Rosie put her hand on her classmate’s back and leaned in to help her with a math problem.

At lunch that day Irving approached Rosie and asked her about the morning’s exchange with her classmate. Assuming she was again in trouble, Rosie shot Irving an, “I know, I’m sorry” look. But Irving continued, and asked, “Do you think some of those times that you get up it’s because you wanted to help a classmate.” Irving writes, “Rosie beamed at me, put down her fork, and hugged me.” Irving and Rosie were then able to negotiate a compromise that identified work-alone times and work-with-friend times.

Like most of us, Irving had assumed that her interpretation of a situation was correct and judged others by how they conformed or didn’t conform to her understanding. She saw Rosie’s “inability” to work independently as a flaw, a deficit, not her exquisite ability to tune into the needs of others as a strength and an asset.

Tillich writes:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is great then you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”

It was only when Irving was able to let go, that she and Rosie were able to overcome their separation and alienation and experience reconciliation and acceptance.

God accepts us. Will you accept that God accepts you? Do you have faith enough to let go?

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

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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.

 

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