Deeply Divided: Of Folders, Scrunchers and Jesus

A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 14, 2016.

Luke 12:49-56

On recent Sundays I have offered a couple reflections on our youth mission trip, a poverty simulation that was deeply meaningful for the twenty-five youth and five adult leaders who went. Our experiences on this trip were overwhelmingly positive, but I also learned something on that trip that, in truth, I found rather disturbing. I learned that we are a congregation deeply divided, pretty much split right down the middle, it seems.

This is contrary to the way we like to imagine ourselves as a church; like most churches, we like to think of ourselves as a unified community of Christ. Not that we all believe exactly the same thing, but on the whole, I was under the impression that First Church was free of the kind of disagreements, the conflicts, that can divide some churches. In fact, this was specifically communicated to me when I interviewed to be your Senior Minister about a year ago. And we will sing of this hoped for unity when we close worship this morning with the hymn, O Church of God United.

After all, isn’t this the heart of the gospel message that Jesus brings through his life and teaching, a message of peace, harmony and reconciliation. In fact, at the beginning of the gospel of Luke, Zechariah prophesies Jesus’ birth saying he will, “guide our feet in the way of peace.” And at the very end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus reveals his resurrected self to his disciples, standing among them and praying, “Peace be with you.” From beginning to end Jesus is all about peace.

Which is why this mornings’ text from Luke is so disturbing. Jesus says he does not come to bring peace, but to kindle fire, divide family member against family member. Jesus’ words aren’t just upsetting in the abstract. Some have had words like this used against them, used to hurt and exclude.

Fundamentalist traditions have used Bible passages like this to justify condemning those who are not “born again,” and rejecting gays and lesbians. Such churches would claim they are just following Jesus’ demands, dividing humanity for God.

Churches like ours often respond to such condemnation and division by promoting a warm, fuzzy, judgement-free, conflict-averse understanding of the gospel. This is reflected in the Open and Affirming statement that we adopted in 2012, and is named in the words we share every Sunday morning, No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

But is this really true? As I said, on the mission trip I learned of a division that could threaten to split our church right down the middle.

Kevin brought this to my attention. At the end of the first day of driving, we stopped for the night at a church in Ohio. There was still plenty of day light so Kevin suggested a game of kickball on the church lawn while we waited for pizza to be delivered. We all gathered, and Kevin took charge of dividing up the two teams. “Scrunchers over here,” he said pointing to his right, “and folders over here,” gesturing to his left. “Huh?” I thought, leaning over to one of the more experienced youth leaders, I asked, “scrunchers and folders, what does that mean?” “Toilet paper,” she said, “do you scrunch or fold your toilet paper?” By the time I looked up, the youth were already separated into two pretty equal teams. I hurried to join my people, the Folders, on the left.” And what followed was a very competitive game of kickball, each side fighting to demonstrate its superiority.

I asked Kevin about this after the game and he told me that this was well known in youth ministry, that most groups split pretty evenly into folders and scrunchers.

So I can only conclude, First Church, that we are also divided. To demonstrate, let’s take a poll. Will all the scrunchers raise your hands please? Look around. Now all the folders? Look around. Anyone too shy or embarrassed to declare?

No matter where you are on life’s journey, gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, black, white or brown, old and young, men and women, scrunchers and folders, you are welcome here at First Church.

But is it really true, are all equally welcome without judgement?

What if you are a folder and you refuse to accept those who scrunch. In fact you regularly let everyone know that you are against scrunching? You truly believe that scrunchers are disgusting, an abomination. You find even being in the presence of scrunchers to be abhorrent, believing that God judges scrunchers harshly as you do. Scrunchers cannot be saved.

Would you, scrunchaphobic person that you are, find a happy home in this church? Probably not.

You might be welcomed here to a point, but if you began to make scrunchers feel ashamed for who they are, you might eventually be asked to leave.

In fact, someone once asked the question at an orientation for prospective new members at the church I was leading, “Is there anything I can do to get thrown out of this church?” Well, this was also an Open and Affirming UCC church that prided itself on welcoming everyone. But after thinking about it I said, if someone believed and acted in a way that made this an unsafe place for others, that could be a reason, that after all attempts at peace and reconciliation failed, they could be asked to leave.

This, I think, gets at what Jesus is talking about when he says he brings division.

Following Jesus requires us to make choices.

Jesus’ was a message of inclusion, he very intentionally demonstrated God’s love for women, people of races and religions other than his own, the mentally ill and people with physical disabilities, immigrants and the poor. Jesus very deliberately went against cultural and religious norms of his day.

By including those that the world around him excluded, Jesus separated himself and his followers from those that depended on the status quo, the religious, political, and economic leaders of his time.

Jesus’ message of inclusion itself excluded those (Pharisees, Romans) who rejected inclusion

Jesus has not come to validate us, make us feel good, tell us we are all OK, but to initiate God’s radical will on earth.

Anytime we say yes to one perspective we are necessarily saying no to another.

Can’t remain neutral, can’t claim to be both a scruncher and a folder. In fact Jesus says this a little earlier in the Gospel of Luke, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

But the division Jesus speaks of is not between rich and poor, Jews and Samaristans, or scrunchers and folders, but between those who seek to include and those who seek to exclude

We as a church, are not and cannot be all things to all people. We could pretend to be by just not talking about what we believe, by not taking a stand on behalf of those whom our society rejects. There are plenty of churches like this, churches that just don’t talk about anything they feel could be “controversial,” cause conflict and division. But not talking about it does in fact take a side. By not being specifically inclusive, we end up supporting an exclusive status quo.

In choosing to follow Jesus in particular ways we are affirming some and identifying others as being outside the norms he represents.

Does that mean we all have to believe the same thing? Does that mean we can’t still be learning and growing? Does that mean we can’t have doubts and fears? Of course not.

For example, what if we worry that Muslim immigrants might be terrorists? Does following Jesus mean we can’t express that fear? Of course we can and we should. But a belief that all immigrants, all Muslims, are categorically less-than and outside God’s favor is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It’s not. And holding fast to such a belief, being unwilling to critically examine such a belief, would itself separate one from the community of Christ.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t engage those whose beliefs exclude, scrunchaphobics for example, this doesn’t mean we can’t treat scrunchaphobics kindly, but it does mean we can’t assume every perspective is equal and equally deserving of respect. Perspectives that seek to exclude should be called out and challenged.

This stance is central to the gospel message of Jesus Christ and, I believe, is essential to our identity as a church, as First Church Simsbury. This, is who Jesus calls us to be, even when it leads to conflict and division.  Amen.

 

 

If Failure Didn’t Matter

A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 7, 2016.

Bible scholar and pastor David Lose writes: One of my favorite questions to ask in counseling sessions is: “What would you love to try if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

This is a provocative question, meant to help us get beyond the ways we sometimes avoid trying new things out of a fear of failing. It prompts us, Lose writes, “to cast our gaze beyond our present circumstances and challenges, elements in our lives that, while perhaps real, often cast a larger than necessary shadow.”

While Lose’ question suggests a useful exercise, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews takes this approach to achieving our hopes and dreams a step further.

Faith, says Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. The writer seems to promise success, if only we believe. Like a high-powered motivational speaker, they say, we cannot fail to achieve all our hopes and dreams if only we have faith!

Hebrews then lifts up Abraham as an example of just such a faith. Abraham obeys God’s call and God delivers on His promise, providing Abraham descendants, as many as the stars and as plentiful as grains of sand at the seashore.

This idea that our hopes and dreams can be realized through faith is comforting to many, and we often look to Abraham as an example of such fealty. But to tell you the truth, I worry when I hear this perspective on faith. Saying faith equals success implies that failure results from a lack of faith. It follows that we call successful people “blessed” and blame people who fail. This could have the effect of making God small, reduced to picking life’s winners and losers.

Lose seems to recognize the limitations of this perspective, and revisits and reframes his original question.

“While it’s important to free folks to dream of life without limits,” he writes,” it’s also important to equip us to live with the very real challenges in front of us.” He then asks, “What would we do or dare, not if we knew we couldn’t fail, but rather if we believed that it is OK to fail?

Lose refers back to Abraham who fails, at times spectacularly, but maintains his relationship with God throughout.

Over the years, as he responds to God’s call to move his family to the land of Canaan, Abraham twice, in order to save his own life, passes off his wife Sarah as his sister, in effect prostituting her, first to Pharaoh then to King Abimelech. Giving up on God’s promise of descendants with his wife, Abraham bears a child, Ishmael with his wife’s servant Hagar, then, when Sarah does bear him a son, sends Hagar and Ismael off into the wilderness to die. Yes, Abraham was faithful, yet he failed spectacularly. In this respect he makes an interesting example of “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” Abraham most certainly did not live the “happily ever after” life he hoped for.

I got this far in my thinking about this text and I got stuck. How can we understand faith in a way that doesn’t focus on the realization of all our own hopes and dreams? When I get stuck like this nothing I think seems inspired; I hear my own preaching voice in my head and it sounds like this, “Blah-blah-blah-blah.”

I felt a case of the blah-blahs coming on so, needing to hear voices other than my own, I posed Lose’ question on Facebook. I wrote, “Help! I’m really struggling to get started on my sermon today. Given the Bible texts, I’d like to explore what it means to have and act with faith in a way that doesn’t imply everything will turn out “happily ever after.” I am intrigued by the question one writer asks, What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail? Anyone want to respond to the question, or more generally on faith (beyond, “don’t worry, be happy”)?

Well, many, including some of you, provided great responses. Here were some of the answers to Lose’ question, “What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail?”

I would be braver – be more willing to go all in for creative endeavors. I think I’d probably be willing to love myself more, disregard judgement more. The fear of failure holds me back a lot.

 

I would be more willing to take risks like starting my own business or moving different places. It is easy to get stuck in a comfort zone. But some of my best moments have been from pushing myself outside of it.

 

What could you do if failure didn’t matter? Everything, take the jump from comfort and ease. If failure doesn’t matter then judgements don’t either because failure and judgements go hand in hand. And I don’t mean judgment from God I mean judgements from others and ourselves. If the judgements weren’t there many more people would be ok with being who they are and walking closer to God without fear of others eyes.

 

Wow! Beautiful, deep, heartfelt words. Notice two of these made a connection between failure and judgement. Maybe failure isn’t even a thing, maybe failure is simply a judgement made by others or ourselves.

Others responded to the question, “What does it mean to have and act with faith in a way that doesn’t imply everything will turn out happily ever after?

Several people, including our own Marge Brown, spoke of learning and growing from our mistakes.

Someone offered a variation of this, comparing living a life of faith to learning to ride a bicycle, instead of living “happily ever after,” we “earn our scars.”

But the response that really helped me get unstuck from the seeming “happily ever after” promise of Hebrew’s assurance of things hoped for came from my friend Michael. He writes: “I think of that old Franz Kafka quote, when he was asked, “Is there hope?” He replied, “Oh, there’s lots of hope. Just not for us.” Michael continues, “It often is not about us and the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins cliché that proper belief will result in our personal well-being. It might be a catastrophe for us, but good for that which we’re part of and which sustains us.”

Now, this might not sound especially optimistic, and in fact Michael isn’t always the most optimistic guy, after all he’s quoting Kafka. But there is some really deep wisdom in his words. Namely, it’s not all about us. When Michael writes about “good for that which we’re part of” he is referring to our community, our world, creation. And his reference to “that which sustains us” can be understood as God. As individuals, we will surely fail, but there is lots of hope for the Creator and Creation.

An old high school friend used more religious language to say something similar, “Acting in faith means this life is all about Christ, not me. It’s not about how things turn out for me, but for God’s glory.” And this hope is assured and worthy of our faith.

This makes sense of God’s promise to Abraham. God did not promise success and happiness for Abraham, but hope for his descendants, the continued unfolding of God’s plan for God’s people.

Let’s return to Lose’ question, “What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail?” Maybe this assurance isn’t God’s to provide, but ours. How do we, as a community of Christ, create a place, not just where it is OK to fail, but where failure is valued?

Remember the way my two Facebook friends described being disabled by the judgment that defines failure? So that would be a start. Do we, can we, as a community of Christ provide a safe place to fail, a place that doesn’t judge failed relationships, lost jobs, poor grades, dropped footballs and strikeouts, DUI’s, burnt dinner and bad haircuts, bad grammar, “a past.” That would be a start, and in my experience First Church does pretty well in these regards. But what would it look like to value, even encourage failure?

In response to my Facebook plea, a seminary friend pointed me to an online TED Talk, a lecture by a man named Astro Teller. Astro leads a division at Google called Google X. Google X is a place that is meant to inspire big audacious ideas, moonshots Astro calls them. A self-driving car, Google glasses, giant lighter than air ships that would give small land-bound countries markets for their crops and goods.

Developing big ideas like this requires an environment that encourages risk taking, risk taking that often results in failure. How does one develop such a risk-taking, forgiving culture?

Astro describes standing up on stage with one of the project teams in front of all Google X employees. This was a team that had, in effect failed, despite an investment of millions of dollars the idea they were exploring just wouldn’t work. Astro told the assembled Google X employees, “This team has done more by ending their project than all the rest of you have done in the last quarter.” The auditorium responded with an uncomfortable silence. “And,” Astro continued, “We’re giving them all bonuses for having ended their project.” What? People began to murmur. Astro concluded, addressing the team, “Take a vacation, and when you get back, the world is your oyster, find some new project to jump into.”

“Everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind,” he says. “But the 10th time, no one even thinks about it. Now, those teams that fail just get a standing ovation. I don’t even need to say the speech anymore; it’s part of the culture now.”

Now wouldn’t that be something, a church that gives standing ovations and vacations in response to failure? Creating a culture where sharing failure is encouraged and even celebrated.

I think I unwittingly stumbled on to something when posting my question on Facebook. This topic of faith and failure struck a chord with people. And by coming together we modelled a response that includes both shared vulnerability and mutual support, both fear and assurance.

Shortly, I will invite you to this table (gesture to the Communion table) to continue this conversation.

 

 

Published in: on August 8, 2016 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Whose Is It?

A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 31, 2016.

Luke 12:13-21

Let’s set the scene. If we look back to the beginning of Chapter 12, we learn that Jesus is speaking to thousands of people, people who are said to be trampling on each other in their excitement or even desperation to see Jesus.

It is from this crowd of thousands that one man steps forward and doesn’t ask, but demands that Jesus tell his brother to divide the family fortune with him. We might assume that the offending brother is also standing right there in front. The one speaking is, in effect, pointing to his brother, saying Jesus, tell “him” to divide the inheritance with me.” Awkward. It would be as if, Frank Gould here (pointing to Frank) were to interrupt this sermon to demand, “Pastor George, my wife Louise and I are having a fight about our will. Tell her, I’m right!” Can you imagine? Thousands gathered to hear Jesus’ teachings, a word of hope, maybe hoping to be healed of some physical or mental illness, and this guy has the gall to ask Jesus to intervene in a family conflict about money. Before even hearing Jesus’ response to this man, we have learned something important. This story begins with broken relationship. There is a lot of conflict and pain represented in the man’s plea.

Perhaps some of you have been involved in just such a dispute over an inheritance. I remember years ago, when I was a kid, my great grandmother died, my father’s grandmother, and there was some stipulation in her will that the grandchildren would take turns choosing items from her estate. My father had hoped to select a particular clock but before he could take his rightful turn, an uncle swooped in to snatch the clock away. In the privacy of our Harris household, that uncle was forever known as Uncle Ben Who Steals Clocks. Despite the hard feelings, the clock stealing was pretty minor, but such things can be genuinely hurtful and can and do divide families.

Well, Jesus is having none of it. What, you think this is the People’s Court? Do I look like Judge Judy? He identifies greed as the source of the conflict. Life, Jesus tells the brothers, is not all about possessions.

Among the four gospels, Luke is particularly critical of wealth, specifically as it interferes with relationships with God and neighbor.

Jesus then tells the story of a rich man, a land owner, whose farm produced a great big harvest. Notice that Jesus doesn’t criticize the abundance, doesn’t condemn the farmer for his success. So it is not the wealth itself that is the problem here.

The rich man then has a conversation with himself that goes something like this:

“Self, I don’t have enough room for all my stuff? What should I do?”

“I know, Self, let’s build bigger buildings.”

“Self, that’s a grand idea, if I do say so myself, and I do say so myself!”

“Oh my soul, I’ll be set for life! No more stress, no more worry, I can eat drink and be merry forever!”

If Jesus isn’t criticizing the man for having a lot, what is the farmer’s sin? It’s that he thinks only of himself, he doesn’t include anyone else, God or neighbor, in his conversation about his abundant crop.

His farm exists in a community. He no doubt has family and extended family, farmhands, those who provide supplies for him and those who purchase his crops. There would have been neighboring farms, merchants, religious leaders, and of course those trapped in poverty, some of whom would have held off starvation by gleaning fallen grain from around the edges of the rich man’s fields.

But the farmer doesn’t invite any of these into the conversation. He was entirely focused on himself, working to make his farm, his home, an island. He assumes that possessions will assuage all his anxiety and fear, protect him from the world around him, but instead his efforts only isolate him from God and neighbor, leaving him utterly alone.

Many of you know that about a month ago Rev. Kev led 25 youth, me and three other adult leaders from First Church on a week-long poverty simulation in Louisville, Kentucky. The details of this trip have been explained elsewhere, but suffice it to say we experienced some of the real hardships associated with poverty and homelessness, including sleeping on hard floors and eating very little over five days.

This was a profound experience, in fact I had two epiphanies over the course of that week.

Many of you know that my family and I have now moved to Simsbury. The movers delivered our household goods to our new home on a Thursday and Abby and I left on the mission trip early on Saturday morning, leaving Lourdes to unpack.

Our Simsbury home is significantly bigger than our New Britain house. One of the ways the size has changed our life is that our new house is too big to communicate with my daughter by yelling. In New Britain I could stand at the foot of the stairs and yell loudly enough to get Abby’s attention in her bedroom. If yelling didn’t work I could bang on the wall. Well Abby has moved into a third floor loft and yelling is now futile, meaning Abby can remain incommunicado in her room for hours, possibly days.

Don’t get me wrong, I love our new house. We are already settled in and are very comfortable and happy there. But the size could be isolating for our little family of three if we let it.

I thought about our big ol’ Simsbury house as I looked out upon a sea of thirty sleeping bags laid out on the tile floor of our “bedroom” for our week in Louisville. The hour before lights out was one of the best times in the day, one of the few times we could all just relax and enjoy each other’s company, trade stories of our day, play cards, crack jokes.

And that’s when I had my first epiphany. For all the challenges of Louisville, the closeness of our living arrangement made for a very strong, intimate sense of community. As I lay sleepless on the hard floor thinking about our big new Simsbury home I realized that it isn’t that it is too big, it’s that it doesn’t have enough people in it… yet.

For years Lourdes has wanted to explore becoming foster parents. I have been less than enthusiastic because… well just because. Well now we have all this room, so I came home committed to at least explore the possibility of fostering a child.

Then on Friday we entertained friends in our home for the first time and the house filled with storytelling and loud laughter. Now our house is the perfect size, we just need more people.

And this is the first lessons of the parable. Our stuff can be insolating if we don’t invite God and neighbors in to share it.

So, in Louisville, we slept on hard floors and we also ate very little. Though constantly hungry, we learned that we could function very well on a fraction of the calories we ate back home.

I realized just how much I typically eat, not because I am hungry, but for all manner of other reasons. Often I eat in response to stress and anxiety, and sometimes I eat out of pure greed. If one slice of cake is good, two must be better and three better still.

My second epiphany came to me over a lunch of 7 Saltines spread with peanut butter. We had so little, but I realized that despite my hunger, it was enough.

So when I returned home, 12 pounds lighter than when I left, I committed to change my relationship with food. Having had the experience of being very hungry while still having a very full and rewarding week, I decided I would allow myself to be hungry, sit with my hunger before thoughtlessly scarfing down snacks.

Have you ever seen those commercials for Dos Equis beer featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World? His tag line is, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” Well, since returning from Louisville I have decided to “Stay hungry, my friends.” I haven’t turned into an ascetic. I still take pleasure in good food, but I am allowing myself to be hungry and not freak out. If I’m anxious, I just sit with my anxiety instead of reaching for a cookie.

And instead of loading up my plate with a second or third helping, I take a breath and remind myself that it’s not all about me and my hunger, I am part of a larger community, a larger conversation; there are others at the table, both literally and figuratively. I find that my self-imposed and rather mild hunger provides an important reminder of the poverty that inflicts a much more significant hunger upon millions.

And that’s the second lesson from the parable, our stuff will not protect us from anxiety and fear. In fact our fear of things “out there” will be compounded by a fear of never having enough. Cultivating a certain hunger for justice may lead us into relationships with neighbors in poverty and teach us that there is indeed enough for everyone.

After the rich man had the conversation with himself, and talked himself into building bigger barns, and reassured himself that by isolating himself and filling up with second and third helpings he could be free of anxiety and fear, God weighs in, revealing the rich man’s foolishness. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you!” Fat lot of good all your stuff will do. It won’t keep you from suffering and it won’t keep you from dying! All you will succeed in doing is closing yourself off from God and neighbor assuring that you will remain alone.

So, it appears, that God doesn’t condemn prosperity or plenty itself, but instead asks us, whose is it?

In the end, this is a parable about relationship and community. It begins with a breakdown in community because of two brothers’ greed, a fear that there is not enough to be shared.

Jesus teaches that our stuff can be isolating unless we invite others in to share in its enjoyment. But we are afraid there won’t be enough for us.

Seminary professor David Lose writes, “There is, right now, a profound and increasingly shared message out and about that we should not and cannot trust each other; that the world is increasingly dangerous and we should therefore be increasingly afraid. That kind of fear will not lead us forward. The regular and relentless biblical injunction “do not be afraid” is not offered simply to bolster our individual courage but to make it easier for us to turn to one another with our fears and hopes and dreams and needs in order to form a community. The Bible warns us against fear because it’s really hard to care for your neighbor and create a community when you are afraid.”

When we allow ourselves to let go of our fear, allow ourselves a certain hunger, we will learn that there is not just enough, but plenty.

So, let us “Stay hungry, my friends,” inviting the world in trusting that all we have belongs to God, and that when we do, there will always be enough for everyone.

 

 

Reversal of Fortune

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 10, 2016, the Sunday following the shooting deaths, first of two Black men by police officers in Baton Rogue and St. Paul, then of five police officers by a sniper in Dallas.

Luke 10:25-37

Following this week’s’ events, the video-taped police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul followed by the killing of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper at a Black Lives Matter rally, my heart and mind are full to overflowing. Part of me just wants to start talking, offering a stream of consciousness dump of all my thoughts and feeling. That might be therapeutic, for me anyway. But a sermon isn’t meant to be therapy for the preacher, not just an opportunity to tell you my opinions or vent my emotions. A sermon is meant to deliver the word of God as it relates to our lives today. This is why scripture is helpful, it requires that the preacher and the congregation get on the same page and go from there.

This morning’s Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known stories in the Bible. Let me summarize.

Jesus tells this story in response to a lawyer who is testing him about the meaning of Jewish religious law. Jesus tells this story to illustrate what it means to love our neighbor.

Robbers mug a guy who is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road was notorious for its danger and difficulty, and was known as the “Way of Blood” because “of the blood which was often shed there by robbers” We might say that this road ran through a “bad neighborhood.” These muggers beat the man up, stripped him, stole everything he had and left him for dead.

Two Jewish religious leaders, first a priest then a Levite, passed by this guy lying beside the road. Both ignored him, in fact each one crossed to the other side of the road.

Then, along comes a Samaritan. The Samaritan responds with kindness to the man who had been mugged. He treats the man’s wounds and bandages them. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He put the wounded man on his own animal and brought him to a hotel, got a room for the night, then spent the night in the hotel room with the victim taking care of him. The next day, the Samaritan gave the innkeeper 2 danarii, two days wages, to take care of the man until he returned promising to reimburse the innkeeper for any other expenses.

The Samaritan was more of a neighbor to the man in need than the so-called religious leaders. The Samaritan was the one living out his faith.

This parable is most often read as an encouragement to all of us “be a good Samaritan,” someone who follows the example of the Samaritan to help those in need. But there is more to the story than just a call to be kind.

Who were the Samaritans?

Samaritans were a minority ethnic and religious group. They were judged harshly by the Jews, stereotyped, devalued, degraded and dismissed. We might imagine that Samaritans were called lazy, dishonest and stupid by Jews. We might imagine that Jews in Jesus’ day told tasteless Samaritan jokes. The Jewish lawyer that Jesus is talking to would have been among those who would have judged the Samaritans most harshly. So would have Jesus’ followers who were hearing this story told by Luke. We might imagine that when Luke first introduces the Samaritan in the story, listeners would have responded with, “Booo! Hiss!” But in a dramatic role reversal, it is the Samaritan who steps up to help.

I hear this story differently, not only after the events of this past week, but following our experience on last week’s youth mission trip, a poverty simulation, referred to by Rev. Kev, who is off on a well-deserved vacation this week, as “Not your Momma’s mission trip.”

For better part of the week, twenty-five youth, age 13-18, and five adults, lived as if we were poor, even homeless.

We existed on very limited food. Peanut butter and Saltines. A can of fruit or beans. A box of dry cereal. I figured that we consumed maybe 500-700 calories a day. I lost 12 pounds. We slept on hard floors. Had very limited access to showers. Did day-labor jobs, three hours in morning and three hours in afternoon. Some were enjoyable, such as child care; others were really hard labor, carrying heavy stuff, painting in closed rooms in sweltering heat, landscaping under the hot sun. And we took our belongings with us everywhere. We would walk for up to an hour through some of Louisville’s poorest, predominantly African-American neighborhoods with the summer sun beating down, towing our suitcases and shouldering our bags all the way. We got paid in “poverty bucks,” carefully budgeting our money so we would have enough for food or a shower at the end of the day, only to find out that we had incurred some unexpected expense such as an emergency room visit or child care that threw us into debt. I have said, that while the poverty was a simulation, the feelings we experienced were very real. We were hungry, exhausted, sore, frustrated, angry, and helpless.

I think it is fair to say that for many of us, our only prior experience with really poor people may have been when volunteering in a soup kitchen or tutoring youth in Hartford. In these situations we were in the role of helpers. And it is also fair to say that many of us, though we might hesitate to admit it, carried some preconceptions, dare I say stereotypes about poverty and the poor.

But, as in the story of the Good Samaritan, we were confronted by a dramatic role reversal.

All of us came back with stories of the extraordinary kindness shown to us by the poor and homeless residents of Louisville. A disabled man escorted one of our simulated “families” off the bus and showed them the way home. On more than one occasion homeless people lent an encouraging word to us. Two of our “families” were greeted by people driving by who, observing how hot and tired we were, returned with cold water; one woman even delivered a bucket of ice, a gallon if ice tea, bread and sliced ham to a famished “family.” To be clear, those who were showing us mercy were the very ones who lived in the battered neighborhoods we walked through. On Thursday two of our “families” ate at soup kitchens. With our empty stomachs we felt no embarrassment but only gratitude for our first hot meal of the week. Our fellow hungry and homeless gladly made room for us at the table.

Role reversal. Those we had known only as recipients of our largesse were showing us kindness and mercy. Those we had once judged reached out to us as neighbors.

Again, this role reversing experience didn’t come easily. We had to extend ourselves way beyond our comfort zone. We had to step out in faith over and over again opening ourselves to experiencing life through others eyes. Like the Samaritan, we moved in together and got our hands dirty.

These two, the parable of the Good Samaritan and our experience in Louisville last week, have much to say in response to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. For those who haven’t followed the news, both black men were shot to death by police officers one in Baton Rouge after being detained in a parking lot while selling CDs, the other in St. Paul after being pulled over for a broken tail light. The killing of both men was videotaped and broadcast widely on social media.

Putting ourselves in another’s shoes is really hard. In an interview on Friday I heard one person say:

“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years, to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

Do you know who said that? The head of the NAACP, maybe? A Black Lives Matter protester? Hillary? Kind of sounds like Hillary, right? No, that was staunch Conservative Newt Gingrich.

“It is more dangerous to be black in America,” Gingrich continues. “It is more dangerous in that they are substantially more likely to end up in a situation where the police don’t respect you and you could easily get killed. And sometimes for whites it’s difficult to appreciate how real that is and how it’s an everyday danger.”

Newt Gingrich.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to open the eyes of his followers to see Samaritans as fully human and deserving of better lives.

Urban Spirit led us through a poverty simulation that we might see people who are trapped in poverty as fully human and deserving of better lives.

And the growing number of black men shot to death by police, just in the past two years, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and now Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, reminds us that African-Americans are still not seen as fully human and deserving of better lives.

An uncompromising, fiery, modern-day prophet named Deb led us through our poverty simulation. Deb sent us home with two lessons.

We learned the difference between generosity and justice. Generosity is giving to someone in need. Feeding the hungry is generosity. Tutoring poor kids is generosity. Generosity typically feels good for the giver. Justice work is harder and offers less immediate rewards. Justice requires working to change a system that keeps people trapped in poverty. Justice requires working to change a system that makes it “more dangerous to be black in America” (as Newt said).

Jesus told a story about a Samaritan’s generosity. But he told the story to bring about a change in the way Samaritan’s were viewed and treated, to give Samaritans a better life, to deliver justice. In telling this story, Jesus was proclaiming, Samaritan Lives Matter!

Deb also sent us home with this: She said, “I don’t give a damn about your gratitude, I care whether you are going to work to end poverty and racism.” Yeah, we were startled too. After all, what would be wrong with being grateful? She meant it wasn’t enough to go home and feel grateful for having enough food and a roof over our head. If gratitude is our only response to our week in poverty, nothing will change for the poor.

Working to end poverty and racism, and we might add gun violence to that list, is daunting. Moving from generosity to justice is hard. As did the youth last week, we will have to extend ourselves way beyond our comfort zone. Like the Samaritan we will have to get our hands dirty. We will have to begin by having tough conversations, we will surely disagree along the way. And we will have to step out in faith over and over again, bringing all our baggage with us, opening ourselves to experiencing life through others eyes.

I told my Urban Spirit “family” group one thing last week Saturday as we prepared to begin our week in poverty, that no matter what, we would support each other through it all. And we did. And we, First Church, will support each other as we embark on the journey from generosity to justice that God has set before us. Let’s go.

 

Sanctuary

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 19, 2016, the Sunday following the murder of forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida

 

Jeremiah 31:10-17, John 20:19-23

Here’s something most people don’t hear from their pastor on a typical Sunday morning:

I’ve spent a lot of time in bars. Yep, it’s true.

Of course I went to college in New Orleans when the drinking age was still 18. So there were some late nights at Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter.

But beyond this youthful exploration of freedom, when I met my wife Lourdes in my late 30’s she was working as a cocktail waitress at the Outrigger Reef Hotel on the beach in Waikiki. I courted her at her poolside bar, called the Chief’s Hut. This was a warm welcoming place where tourists from every walk of life sat side-by-side with locals coming off the beach for a little refreshment. Young couples on their honeymoon and retired couples taking their dream vacation sipped Mai Tais and Pina Coladas next to leathery-skinned beach boys who brought beer in their own coolers. There were truck drivers, bankers, even a retired Baptist minister and his Sunday school teaching, organ playing wife.

I once preached as sermon about the Chief’s Hut as an example of hospitality that churches might seek to emulate.

Early last Sunday morning, a hate-filled tragedy played out at a gay bar in Orlando Florida when a gunman shot and killed forty-nine men and women and injured fifty-three others. In the days that followed some of my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues took the opportunity to talk about their experiences in bars, specifically gay bars.

One of my seminary professors, Sharon Fenema writes: “When I was first coming out, the only places I could go and feel safe, feel like I could be myself, sense the presence of the Holy in my body, mind and spirit were the gay clubs. To dance, to celebrate, to see other people like me, my family, my community – was all I had keeping me alive some days.”

My best friend Michael writes: “Every tragedy has its unique DNA. For gay men of my generation, the clubs were sanctuaries, places of safety, fellowship, community organizing and self-discovery.”

I have felt the presence of the Holy that Sharon describes and observed the sanctuary Michael identifies. You see, not only have I spent a goodly amount of time in bars in general, for a straight guy, I have spent a lot of time in gay bars.

For three years in the mid-nineties I led an AIDS service organization that coordinated volunteer support for people living with HIV and AIDS. Gay board members and volunteers for that organization would invite me to the well-known gay bar in Waikiki, Hula’s, for a beer. Not only was this a safe comfortable place for them to meet, I think they saw this as part of the acculturation that was necessary for me to better serve a predominantly gay constituency.

Then, right around the time Lourdes and I started dating, my best friend Michael, the one I just quoted, began dating the man who is now his husband, Stacey. The four of us became fast friends and would often double date, ending our evening at Hulas for drinks and dancing. I don’t know that I have ever experienced such freedom, such abandon. People could be themselves and know they wouldn’t be judged. It is a beautiful thing.

I share about my visits to Hula’s not just to describe or affirm what I observed in the sanctuary of a gay bar, but because I experienced it too. I say with all the love in the world that my wife Lourdes is somewhere on the diva-drama queen spectrum which, when paired with my pastoral identity, makes us a unique couple. There, in the midst of all these men and women who were rejoicing in who God created them to be, Lourdes and I felt safe and free to be who God created us to be. We fit right in!

UCC minister Quinn Caldwell, picks up this theme of sanctuary in the Still Speaking Daily Devotional that appeared on Tuesday. He writes:

For me it was The Common Ground in Ithaca, NY, a magnificently seedy roadhouse several miles outside of town.  It had a gravel and grass parking lot, a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, and an all-age cast of regulars you could easily have built a sitcom around.  My husband will tell you about The Park in Roanoke, VA, which he and his college friends would drive 45 minutes to get to every weekend, and which they talk about today like it’s a homeland from which they’re in unwilling diaspora.

Ask any queer person you know, and chances are they’ll have a story to tell you about a place like this.  They will tell you about how they found a family there, how they found themselves there, how they felt safe for the first time on the dance floor there, how much they learned there, how they found love there, how they learned to be bold there, how they dressed like themselves for the very first time there, showing off their glitter, or butch haircut, or size 13 high heels without fear.  That note you hear in their voice as they tell you about it?  That’s gratitude, and reverence.

50 dead and more than 50 wounded hits hard anytime and anywhere.  But for many queer people, what happened at Pulse hits as hard as shootings in churches hit for Christians, as hard as shootings in black churches hit for black Christians.  It’s not just the death toll.  It’s not just that it was a hate crime.  It’s that it happened in a sanctuary.

The passage from Jeremiah echoes some of the themes we find in the Orlando shooting. Jeremiah is communicating God’s promise to the Jews, a return home from exile. There shall be a time when “young women (will) rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy” says God. Indeed, to those who found sanctuary at Pulse night club last Saturday night it probably felt as if that promise of a return from exile had been fulfilled. In a holy respite from judgment, young men and women rejoiced in dance and were merry.

The Jeremiah text then shifts dramatically, from rejoicing and dancing to lamentation and bitter weeping. There is reference to Ramah, a town five miles north of Jerusalem through which Jewish people travelled on their way to exile in Babylon. Rachel, here representing the nation of Israel, weeps for the continued suffering and death of Jews in exile, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.

A voice was heard from Pulse, lamentation and bitter weeping, and we refuse to be comforted because these children are no more. Gays and lesbians continue to fear for their lives in exile.

The Jeremiah text mirrors the emotional whiplash between joy-filled dancing in response to an experience of God’s love and acceptance followed by inconsolable anguish in response to the death of God’s children. The grief is even more bitter when violence penetrates the promise of sanctuary. Caldwell responds to this violation in this way:

Here’s a true thing: every sanctuary will be invaded, by madness or death or slow decay, sooner or later.  Even the Temple in Jerusalem fell.  Even the body of God was penetrated.  But here’s what Christians believe: that body is still our refuge and our might.  That the lord of the dance(hall) wouldn’t stay dead.  That his pulse wouldn’t stop pulsing.  That they couldn’t take our Sanctuary away.

 In the Gospel lesson from John the disciples seek sanctuary, seal themselves apart, following the murder of Jesus on the cross. Caldwell reminds us, “even the body of God was penetrated,” and here Jesus shares his woundedness with the disciples’ own suffering, there is no escaping the pain; but Jesus also communicates peace and forgiveness and new life. Jesus reminds the disciples that his pulse won’t stop pulsing, then sends them out to share this love and acceptance with a hurting world.

This is the other reason I told some of my own stories this morning. I recognize that for some, the preacher sharing about his wonderful experiences in a gay bar would be taboo. But what does that taboo communicate? If we cannot celebrate the ways and places that gays and lesbians feel most accepted, safe and free, can we as a church legitimately claim to be a sanctuary? Let me say that again. If we cannot celebrate the ways and places that gays and lesbians feel most accepted, safe and free, can we as a church legitimately claim to be a sanctuary?

So let us weep with Rachel, refusing to be comforted for the death of God’s children, of our children.

Then, let us ask God to prepare us to be a sanctuary.

Let us pray that Quinn Caldwell’s words about gay bars may come to apply to us and our church.

May those who are most vulnerable and threatened tell of how they found a family here, how they found themselves here, how they felt safe for the first time on the dance floor that is this sanctuary, how much they learned here, how we found love here, how we learned to be bold here, how we dressed like ourselves for the very first time here, showing off our glitter, or butch haircut, or size 13 high heels without fear.

And should that happen… when this happens, may we respond with gratitude and reverence.

Jeremiah concludes:

For there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.

 

 

Published in: on June 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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10 Ways to Worship God This Summer

Inspired by Psalm 100, I shared these ideas for summer worship in my sermon, Twenty-Four Seven, preached on the last Sunday of the First Church Simsbury program year, June 5, 2016.

  1. Make a Joyful Noise: Every time something good happens shout “Amen!” “Alleluia!” or “Thank you Jesus!” Did you just enjoy a delicious lobster dinner by the shore? Alleluia! Finish reading a really great mystery novel? Amen! Watched an especially beautiful sunset? Thank you Jesus! Why do this? To remind ourselves that every good thing comes from God. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

  1. Share Your Sabbath: You might be on vacation, but the people around you may not be. Wake up one morning and commit yourself to showing God’s love to everyone you meet. Note: This doesn’t mean going up to strangers and saying, “I love you.” You might get arrested. But even if it is just smiling and greeting a stranger good morning as you pass by, commit to noticing the people around you, reminding yourself that each is bearing unseen burdens. Are there small acts of kindness you might perform for someone to ease their burden? If a young mother is clutching a baby and toddler while trying to load groceries into her car, maybe you can offer to return her cart for her. Worship the Lord with gladness.

  1. Sing Praise: Bring a hymn book on vacation. Leaf through it each morning until you find a hymn you love and sing it. Find a hymn you have never heard before and read it. Let the poetry of the words wash over you. Let the melody lift you up. Throughout the day, recall the tune or a verse that moved you. Come into his presence with singing!

  1. Through a Child’s Eyes: See the world around you through the eyes of a child. Do this, first, by noticing children. Pay attention to their curiosity. Watch them explore the world around them. What makes them squeal and giggle? What makes them cry? You don’t need to analyze it. Just notice. Then try observing everything around you as a child might. See things as if for the very first time. Be curious. Wonder! Birds fly! Can you believe it?! Really, it’s a miracle. There are miracles all around us. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.

  1. The Hands That Made It: Pick out an object in your surroundings and reflect on all the hands that went into making it. For example a baseball bat. Think about the people growing and harvesting maple and ash from tree farms in New York and Pennsylvania. Others are inspecting and milling the wood, while others are driving the trucks that bring the lumber to the shop where bats are made. You get the idea. And each of these people that was part of the process that led to this bat you hold in your hands has a family, each experiences the full range of life’s joys and hardships. All of that energy pulses through the bat you hold in your hands. I find this meditation quickly reminds me how interconnected we all really are. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

  1. Listen for the Birds (or the ocean, or the wind in the trees): Years ago I knew a young woman, Kaliko, who had a serious addiction and checked into a treatment facility. One of the things she learned there was to “listen for the birds.” She learned that she could quiet her busy mind when, wherever she was, she would pause to “listen for the birds.” “They’re always there!” she said excitedly, “If only you get quiet enough and listen.” I’m not sure this is literally true, but I am convinced that it is spiritually true. Wherever you are, in bed when you wake up in the morning, lying in a hammock in the shade, walking on the beach, or sitting on a bench at an amusement park, pick out a sound and give it your full attention. Listen and your mind will settle. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.

  1. God at Work: This is a variation of The Hands that Made It. Here, instead of drawing to mind the human hands that made an object, reflect on the way God worked to bring the things around you into being. When you dig your toes into the sand, remind yourself that all that sand used to be rock formed in the depths of the earth. Shifting plates pushed that rock to the surface where wind and water began to wear it down one grain at a time over billions of years. Here’s another one, that Frisbee you’re throwing? Made of plastic, which is made of petroleum, right? And where does petroleum come from? Lots and lots of decayed organic matter, including dead dinosaurs. So all of that, the billions of years, the dinosaurs, it’s all in your hands as you toss that Frisbee to your friend. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.

  1. Remember When: Maybe you can’t take vacation this summer. Maybe you can’t get off work or maybe you are too tired or frail or poor. Then remember when… Remember one of your best vacations or Sabbath times. Maybe it was the time you lay on your back, with a friend or by yourself, and looked up at the stars. Try to remember every detail. What were you lying on? Could you feel the wind on your face? Which constellations could you see? Could you see the Milky Way? Remember those shooting stars? Who were you with? Relive the experience. I remember going scuba diving with my Dad when I was a teenager. I remember the feel of sun and salt on my skin. I remember feeling my heartbeat speed up when I saw the antennae of the spiny lobster sticking out from under the reef. I remember my Dad treating me as an equal. We have heard the word staycation, we can travel back to a special Sabbath time right here (mind) and right here (heart). For the Lord is good.

  1. Church Adventure: When you are away from Simsbury this summer, go to a different church. Not necessarily the Congregational church in town, go to a very different church. A few summers ago my family and I were camping in Gettysburg. Come Sunday we went to St. Paul AME Zion Church, having read that it was a historic church that had been active in sheltering slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Well we were three of the twelve people in worship that Sunday, and the twelve also included a Co-Pastor couple; and I was the only Caucasian. But we were never so warmly welcomed. There was even a Children’s Message and Abby, bless her heart, went up even though she was the only kid in worship. And I am not making this up, when Abby got up front the lay woman leading the Children’s Message asked her if she had a song she would like to sing. Just like that, out of nowhere, “Hi Honey, aren’t you beautiful, do you have a song you’d like to sing for us this morning?” And she sang! Abby sang “Down to the River to Pray” and brought the house down, all twelve of us. Go to a different church. Be daring, try something completely different from what you are used to. You might be surprised by the way God moves in that place. God’s steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

  1. Come Home to First Church! Once again, don’t assume you have the summer off from church. Church during the summer can be a little more informal, more intimate and personal. Some of my most spirit-filled experiences in church have taken place during a summer service. Come! Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth!

 

 

Published in: on June 10, 2016 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pastor Pondering: Are You a Child of God?

Published in the May 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

I often chuckle at humorous examples of punctuation mistakes that circulate on the internet. Here are a few of my favorites.

A magazine cover includes the headline:
“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”
Surely this was meant to read:
“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.

Then there is the sign that reads:
“Attention: Toilet only for disabled elderly pregnant children.”
At least there will never be a line!

And in this example note the difference a comma makes:
Let’s eat grandpa!
Let’s eat, grandpa!

I thought of these internet memes after the bulletins for my installation were printed. I sent copies to Cindy Braunlich and Susan White who would be leading the Call to Worship. I soon received an email from Susan asking, “Any chance that the final punctuation on the last line is supposed to be a ‘!’ and not a ‘?’”

Oh boy! The Call to Worship began with a strong affirmation. In response to the question, “Who are you?” the congregation would respond, “We are children of God!” The litany was meant to end as it began, “Who are you?” but the congregation’s response read, “We are children of God?” Instead of an enthusiastic proclamation of our intimate relationship with God as parent, this simple punctuation error had the congregation responding with uncertainty and doubt, as if to say Um… Gosh, we don’t know. Are we really children of God?

After Susan pointed out the mistake I alternated between feeling embarrassed, laughing out loud, and thinking that the misplaced question mark revealed an important truth about our walk of faith. Regardless of what we say, pray and sing in church on Sundays, deep down we often have doubts. Am I really a child of God? With all the mistakes I’ve made, how is that possible?

I just couldn’t let the doubt implied by that stray question mark stand. On Saturday, I went through all three hundred bulletins and penned in a big exclamation point at the end of that sentence.

Absolutely! We are children of God! May First Church, Simsbury be that exclamation point for you, affirming God’s love for you, not just on Sundays but each and every day of your life. You are a child of God, precious in God’s sight!

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 10, 2016 at 11:02 am  Leave a Comment  

What Could Be Better Than That?

Published in the April 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

In 1978, when I was sixteen years old, my father helped me buy a 1969 MGB convertible. It wasn’t in great shape – missing a front bumper, had ripped upholstery and a cheap coat of paint- and cost only a thousand dollars. But it was fire-engine red, had knock-off wire wheels, and it was mine! Our first car represents independence, both practically and symbolically. The symbolic value of my little, red convertible was especially strong; it screamed FREEDOM! There is a What could be better than this? of me driving my MG, top down, friend in the passenger seat, with two teenage girls perched precariously behind the two seats, their arms thrust in the air, and huge smiles on all our faces! What could be better than that?

Well, within my first year of owning that sweet icon of freedom I had accumulated four tickets and had my license suspended. The citations included a fender bender, speeding, rolling through a stop sign, and a late-night “chase” through the streets of my town with two friends who also drove British sports cars. Now, thirty-six years later and a father of a teenager myself, I shake my head and wonder, what was my father thinking? Honestly, I’m lucky to be alive.

In addition to losing my license (and freedom) I was required to complete a defensive driving class. As awful as this whole experience was, to this day I remember the core lesson of that class. Pay attention to other drivers.This simple practice forever changed my driving and in some way, my life. It’s not all about me. I may be free, but that doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want. I have a responsibility to other people.

We just celebrated Easter. Even more than a red, MG convertible, resurrection symbolizes freedom, liberation from persecution, suffering and death. Some Christians make the same mistake I did as a young driver and assume this freedom is meant for our personal enjoyment. Our American culture reinforces this self-centered understanding of individual freedom, freedom from authority. “No one can tell me what to do!”

But this is not the understanding of freedom revealed through the empty tomb. Like my defensive driving class, the gospels teach us that freedom comes with a commitment to and responsibility for one another. It’s not all about us. As “the body of Christ,” the church is meant to model both freedom and responsibility. This means that church members and even our boards can’t just do whatever feels good and right. We must pay attention to one another, and by paying attention to each other we will come to experience true freedom from hardship and want. And THAT is even better than anything, even a teenage boy’s red convertible!

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 8:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pastor Pondering: Death and New Life

Published in the March 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

For those who dare to follow, I invite you into the stream of consciousness that became this Cornerstone reflection:

Oh no, it’s Thursday afternoon and my Cornerstone article is due. What in the world am I going to write about? Think, George, think! What am I hearing from people in the church that suggests a topic? Members are still asking, “What are we going to do?” I wrote about that in the January Cornerstone but there is more to say. I know! I’ll write about a vision and mission for First Church. That’s it! … write-write-write-write-write-write… (three hours and 600 words later) OK, let’s see what I’ve got …blah-blah-blah-blah-blah… Help me Jesus! This is complete garbage! <select all> <delete> Start over. Time’s up, what am I going to do? I need a theme. (while driving home) think, think, think. It’s still Lent. (while eating dinner) think, think, think. Easter is coming. (while watching Bruins game) think, think, think. I know, I’ll Google “Lent and Easter.” Ugh! Just more blah-blah-blah. Really?! My eyes are getting heavy, must sleep. I’ll have to revisit this in the morning. Lourdes is waking me up, “Come on, we need to pack, we need to be on the road by 8:00.” Panic sets in; we’re driving to Baltimore for my Uncle Sunny’s funeral. The Cornerstone article is late! If only I had a poignant Lent and Easter story to share. Uncle Sunny, why did you have to die; this isn’t a good time. I’ll have to write my article in the car. At least I get to see my mom. When I saw her at Christmas she was really beat down by her radiation and chemo treatment, weak and wobbly. Can’t believe the MRI doesn’t show any cancer now. We all thought this was the end, but mom sounds strong and happy. Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter. Come on George, think!

Oh… Duh!

In response to my frantic plea, the chaotic jumble of my mind cleared to reveal the presence of death and new life.

Less than twenty-four hours after hearing about her brother Sunny’s death, my mother received the news that the cancer that had filled the cavity behind her eye, wrapped itself around her optic nerve, and was intruding into her skull, was now undetectable. Both grief and hope are woven into the fabric of creation. This is the message of Lent and Easter. God acts in the world through death and new life, but we often have a hard time recognizing this because death can be so darn scary and sad, and hope can seem irrational. So we compartmentalize (newsletter article), distract ourselves (Bruins game), and refuse to think about death or recognize new life even when it is right in front of us (Sunny and Mom).

These themes don’t just manifest themselves in our family. The Black Lives Matter movement, birthed in response to the violent deaths of young black men, calls forth new life, testifies to hope in the very presence of fear and despair.

Some might say, “Pastor George why did you have to go there? I was touched by the story of your uncle and your mom; did you have to mention Black Lives Matter?” But you see, that’s my point. Lent requires us to confront the places death intrudes unwanted, sometimes violently, into our lives. And Easter demands that we proclaim hope in the very face of death, even and especially when this makes us uncomfortable.

And herein, after all, is the makings of a vision and mission for our good church.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Pastor Pondering: Trouble

Published in the February 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

The world-weary voice of folk singer Ray LaMontagne cries…

Trouble… Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble
Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born
Worry… Worry, worry, worry, worry
Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone

I hear LaMontagne’s words and music as a plaintive invitation into Lent. Lent is the season of the church year during which we seek to grow closer to God, not through ecstatic experiences of joy, not in response to warm, cozy feelings of love, but by recognizing God’s presence in the midst of suffering, in the troubled, world-weary, worry-filled places in our lives. We are assured of God’s empathetic presence in times of trouble through God’s own suffering as Jesus Christ. There is no dark place humanity can visit that God has not already trod through Christ’s persecution, torture and death on the cross. In the forty days preceding Easter (not including Sundays) we accompany Jesus to the cross, and God accompanies us through the trouble and worry that dog our soul.

Those who were in church on Sunday, January 17, know that an old college friend of mine, John Fahsbender, joined us in worship. Later that evening, Lourdes and I sat down to dinner with John, his brother Tom, and sister-in-law Jennifer. As often happens when pastors are present, we got to talking about church. Jennifer observed that church is the one place where everyone is encouraged to share their heartache and pain, maybe the only place where we can count on being loved in response to our troubles. This understanding of church was affirmed for me when I visited the small group Bible study led by Cathie Behrens. One of the women present said, “Each of us here has experienced a crisis or tragedy or two, but we can share it here and know that we will be loved and supported.” Caring people are everywhere, at work and school, in our kids’ sports leagues or scout troops, in our family and among our friends. But only church specifically invites us to lay our burdens down and commits to love us through the shadowed valleys of our lives.

Our culture often communicates the message, “Don’t worry, be happy!” Sometimes we hear this as a helpful encouragement. But at other times we need someone to acknowledge our pain and sing the blues with us.

Ray LaMontagne concludes his testimony:

Well I’ve been saved by a woman… She won’t let me go.

Well we’ve been saved by a God who enters into suffering and death with us through Jesus and won’t ever let us go, carrying us beyond the cross to a new life in Christ.

Come to First Church during Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday), lay your burden down, know you will be loved and that God will never let you go.

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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