What Kind of Witness?

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

Acts 7:55-60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of witnesses will we be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either we speak out, or we are accomplices.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

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

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

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

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

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

23rd Psalm (remix), featuring St. Francis

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

Psalm 23, John 10:11-16

Do geese see God?

Tell me, do geese see God?

Not sure?  Let me say it backward?

Do geese see God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HANA is now preparing to support this family

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

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

Lord make us an instrument of Thy peace,

make us, Lord, Thy Good Shepherd;

for we shall not want, but shall sow love;

Where there is injury,

may we prepare green pastures for lying down;

Where there is doubt, help us still troubled waters;

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

And where there is darkness,

give us light to lead in paths of righteousness.

O Divine Master,

As we walk with those who suffer

through the valley of death’s shadow,

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

Grant that your rod and staff may provide comfort,

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

Let us set tables before friends and enemies,

Not to be understood, but to understand

Anoint our heads with oil and fill our cups to overflowing

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

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

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

That we are born to eternal life

Where we will dwell in your house forever.  Amen.

Jesus, Open Your World

heineken commercial

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

Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on link and watch video before continuing.

Worlds Apart: An Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, Open Your World.

Let’s Talk!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Still Rising

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

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Come Out… of the Tomb

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

Matthew 28:1-10

Kevin:

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

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

“Resurrection.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin:             Face your fears.

George:           Then turn around.

Kevin:             Come out.

George:           With Jesus as our guide,

Kevin:             and Yvonne and Valentine as our examples,

George:           come out of those dark places that entomb you

Kevin:             to live and love as God created you,

George:           and enter into that universal love of God.

 

 

Just Me and My Shadow

lenten altar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(singing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we the church encourage shadow dancing?

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

 

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

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

Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker

Senior Minister, Center Church, Hartford

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

Holy Conversations

John 4:5-42, Psalm 71

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While the Jews believed worship should take place in Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, suggests that:

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

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

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

A conversation that dismantled oppression.

A conversation that overcame exclusiveness and built community through inclusiveness.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations that lead us to being vulnerable;

Conversations that lead us to ask Questions;

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

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

Conversations that lead us to being changed;

and, finally,

Conversations that can happen when we relocate the sacred.

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

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

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

 _____________________

Rev. George Harris

Senior Minister, First Church, Simsbury

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

Nevertheless, She Persisted

John 4:5-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, she persists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same But Different: What It Means to Believe in Jesus

lenten altar

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

John 3:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temptation: Just One Bite

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

 

lenten altar

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

Temptation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As in quantum physics, temptation begins with small things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am God’s precious child…

Chosen and marked by God’s love…

Delight of God’s life…

Just as I am…

And that’s enough.

Amen.

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