Who Are You Listening To?

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we find ourselves in this story today?

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the Transfiguration is about.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Our Common Life

mlk beloved community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Common Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ, Pastor George


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

Advent I: From the Rubble

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

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

Acts 8:26-33

Matthew 25:31-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift Opens the Way


This is the sermon preached by First Church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn on Stewardship Sunday, November 19, 2017. In addition to her expert leadership of the First Church internship program, Ms. Sanborn is an Admissions Recruiter at Hartford Seminary and, until recently, served as Pastor of Enfield American Baptist Church.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Matthew 25:14-30

First, let me offer a word of thanks to Pastor George and Rev. Kev for their invitation to bring my gifts to First Church as we together create the Young Adult Service Community–and especially for the invitation to bring part of my story to you this morning. Let’s pray together:

God, your Spirit opens the way to understanding–help us to hear your message for us in this moment, in this place, in this season in our lives and our world. Amen.

Proverbs 18:16, A gift opens the way… and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.

Do you remember the gift that opened the way for you? If a giver or a gift come to mind during this time together, bring them along with us in your memory.

I first received the gift of music from my family. In my immediate family of origin, we all played numerous instruments and had an insatiable appetite for singing together–in church, at home, and, especially in those years before smartphones, in the car.

Musical doors opened for me with a very particular gift, though, when I was 13 going on 14, and in my first year of high school. We lived on Martha’s Vineyard then–my father was a pastor and my mother, a music teacher at my school. When she discovered that a community branch of the New England Conservatory offered lessons for talented young musicians, she started a list of students who might audition, including her daughters. My sister Heather was an aspiring flute player and I was a pianist and singer who sat at the piano nightly and fantasized that I was the next Amy Grant or a future Broadway star. Let me pause for a word of gratitude to my parents who listened to me play and sing “On My Own” from Les Mis over and over and over. Every. Single Night. If you’re that parent now, then this word of thanks is for you too!

On the day of my audition at the Conservatory, I sat in the musty hallway with sweating palms, biting my nails and praying not to mess up. Whereas on Martha’s Vineyard I was comfortable and confident in my talents, the halls of the New England Conservatory were filled with children half my age who could play circles around me….I was intimidated. Despite this, I found a way through my piece that day, and I was invited to attend. For all four years of high school, I woke willingly each Saturday morning at 5am to catch the first ferry.

I was the younger sibling, and funds in our family were short, but I don’t recall questioning how it was I was able to go for lessons. It was some time later–whether months or years, I’m not sure–that I learned a woman loosely connected with one of my father’s congregations had paid for me and my musical adventures in Boston. Let’s call her “Mrs. H.” She had a granddaughter who studied at the Conservatory too, and she would have known that attempting to provide lessons for not just one child, but two, would have forced difficult choices for my parents. Quietly, with little fanfare, she paid for me to go and spend my half hour each week with Fredericka King.

Miss King was tall and elegant–she had true pianist hands, and her fingers extended far past the octave I could manage. Her playing was fluid and graceful in a way that made me realize I had *a lot* to learn. Fredericka King was also a woman of color….African-American, and I was to discover over my years of study with her that it was rare for her as a young black girl to have trained as a classical musician. I learned some of the obstacles she had encountered along the way, and the music I studied took on greater meaning because it was she who taught me. I had the fortune of studying with another person of color there, too, when a dynamic African-American composer, conductor, and future Baptist pastor, Geoff Hicks, was hired to launch an all-New England youth chorale.

It very well might have been another gift from Mrs. H. that opened the way to me auditioning for the Chorale. I have no idea where my parents would have found the money otherwise, but without questioning the how, I happily celebrated being accepted again into a musical community that rapidly expanded my circle of friends. I met Molly and Josh and James, and we were inseparable at breaks and lunchtime. James was a giant baritone who was black and gay–openly so….my first friend who was publicly known to me as LGBTQ. When I invited summer camp friends to come to my first concert, one of my camp friends, Kelvin, who is white, said, “You never told us that James is black.” In truth, it hadn’t ever occurred to me to say so–James was simply my friend. Kelvin noted how “cool” he found this to be–that I was just friends with someone black and didn’t need to make a big deal out of it. I began to understand that this wasn’t true in every place or for every person.

I went weekly from the relatively homogenous town of Vineyard Haven to one of the East Coast’s greatest cities. The students who sang or waited nervously beside me in the hall before lessons were from many nations, and in their homes they worshipped differently, ate foods I had never heard of, and lived in family contexts that I had only previously read about in books.

While in Boston, I learned about my friends from home as well. Week after week we spent hours together traveling by boat and bus or car. One week I noticed that one of my friends, a junior, was quiet and sitting alone, tended to by a senior who returned to tell the rest of us that our mutual friend had become ill during the day. A few days later, this friend who had been sick called to say that she had attended her lesson that Saturday morning, then departed to have an abortion. I learned then–and have persisted in believing since–that no woman has an abortion casually, and I have understood from that day forward that the political views we each hold have been shaped by personal stories that are deeply held and remembered, yet rarely revealed.

My years at the Conservatory included dozens of such discoveries about the world–I have only scratched the surface.

As is so often the case with the writings of the Bible, the story of Mrs. H and her gift to me feel connected to the story Jesus told his followers in today’s Gospel lesson. To refresh–a master gives a significant sum of money to three men enslaved to him. They each invest it differently, and are then held accountable for their returns. There are lots of questions about the character of the Master, and the end of the story includes judgement–the slave who buried his treasure and delivered no additional funds is thrown into the outer darkness. I have to admit, when stories in the Bible end with wailing and gnashing of teeth, I want to move on to a less challenging passage, but instead of being distracted by the close, let’s look with curiosity at the beginning.

A master gives his resources to people he had enslaved to invest. The words in the Gospel translation I used today are that he “entrusted his property to them.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine handing a year’s salary to the contractor who replaced my gutters and asking her to put it to good use, or inviting the man who cared for our children to oversee the bank account for a year or two. What if one lesson to claim today in this parable is the viability of giving to someone who is a bit of a risk….perhaps someone we would call “undeserving” if we were being completely honest. Surely, at 13 years old, I was a risk for Mrs. H. I had done nothing to deserve her gift beyond once or twice singing “Oh Holy Night” at church on Christmas Eve. There would have been a hundred other ways she could have given her resources for a more certain outcome.

We’re told in the Gospel that the people who were enslaved received resources according to their ability–some more, some less. The one with the most and the one in the middle doubled their treasures–and both offerings were seen as acceptable. The one who received the least and admitted being afraid, perhaps in a scarcity mindset, buried it, is the one who received punishment–banishment. This resonates with the Corinthians passage about those who sow sparingly reaping sparingly, and those who sow bountifully reaping bountifully. I’d like to believe I had a lot of talent at the age of 13, so perhaps this explains the generosity of the gift–but what was the return on the investment?

To my memory, I never spoke with Mrs. H about her gift–and because my parents have died, I have no idea if they shared with her musical programs or updates, appearing on her porch each year as though submitting an annual report. So, thirty years later, let me finally account for her gift:

Mrs. H, I still recall the fingerings for every major scale, but if you invested in me in hopes of seeing my young promise develop into a musical profession, I might as well have buried your gift in the ground. My high school years were my most musically promising and fulfilling. I went on to study for one year in college, but soon thereafter my mother died. I stopped singing and playing for others, and music became a more and more private affair for me. I took the talents God gave me and the investment you made in me, yet I have nothing more than what you gave me to show–perhaps I have far, far less.

Would she banish me to the outer darkness and declare the end of story? I surely hope not!

Hear instead this more full and complete accounting: Mrs. H, your gift might have saved my life. On Friday evenings when friends discovered alcohol and other drugs, I was home in bed, anticipating that 5am alarm clock. Your gift took me off-island to a world I might never have encountered otherwise. You gave me confidence in the city, confidence driving on the highway (no small thing for a girl living on Martha’s Vineyard in a one stoplight town), and a sense that my life and future stretched far beyond the four walls of my house and high school and the shores of our island home. I had one of my first kisses on the steps outside Jordan Hall, and, most importantly, the friends I made and the teachers I studied with inspired and directed my life’s commitments. To this day, I dedicate myself to the work of realizing racial justice, to ensuring full inclusion for LGBTQ people in the church and in the world, and to proclaiming the beauty of our diversity as the essence of God.

In truth, Mrs. H, I haven’t told you the whole musical story either. My mother died to the sound of my singing voice. My old conductor, Geoff Hicks, sang at her service in the holiest moment I have lived to witness, and I have called Miss King at the profound moments of change and transition in my life, including this one. You gave me the gift of music, yes, and ever since I have used it in the most sacred of ways–to connect with people, to bring earth closer to heaven, to be with God.

If I look at your gift, Mrs. H, and the ripple effects that continue out from it, you might say you are one the reasons I became an educator, a pastor, an activist, and, yes, even the Young Adult Service Community Coordinator at First Church of Christ in Simsbury. Because when Mrs. H’s gift from way back when met the power of an anonymous gift here in this congregation, the YASC was born and I was called to your midst. And though there was no criteria whatsoever that young adults in this new service community be musical, what is the trait that Bekah, Anastasia, and Sarah all share? They all have extraordinary voices and a desire to sing their questions, their faith, their doubts, and their love. Who could orchestrate such an outcome? Only the Spirit of God, moving across time and space and working through our generosity.

The connections between the Gospel, my story, and the story we are composing together here and now are many. You have chosen as a congregation to invest in young people….in the case of YASC, young people who have not come from you and are unlikely to remain physically with you, making them a bit of a risk. The outcomes of your generosity are an unknown, though I see already, from the brief time we’ve shared with Anastasia, Sarah, and Bekah, that they have grown and changed. They’re asking new questions about themselves and the world–they’ve met people they wouldn’t otherwise have known–they’ve shown up with their lives and their talents in a sacrificial way to say in Hartford and in Simsbury, “We, too, are part of the movement for a just world for all.” I don’t know about you, but I absolutely LOVE the idea that each of these young women will be telling a story ten, twenty, or thirty years from now about the gift that opened the way–and then the many gifts that are shaping and creating this time in their lives. Think of the lifelong effects of your gift to them as compounding interest, with the returns reinvested over and over in a better world.

Who gets to decide what way is opened by a gift? The giver? Sometimes, perhaps, we give in directed ways. Maybe we’ve even given in controlling ways, clutching potential outcomes in our fist like our life depends on it. More powerful to me, though, is the gift we entrust to the Spirit–a gift with some risk attached to it–a gift we give joyfully, even with our uncertainty and questions–a gift with outcomes that will reverberate far beyond our involvement as the giver. The invitation I hear in these stories, friends, is to release our resources and trust the Spirit of God. This is good news. We do not give because we have all the answers, but because we can ask and live with wise questions. We do not have to control the gift after we’ve given. We simply must give, then trust.

It’s countercultural, yes, but isn’t this always the way of God? To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, let us give today with abandon–with thanksgiving for all those, like Mrs. H, who have given to us. Let us give with honor and glory to God who is the giver of all good and risky gifts. And let us give with delight that the Spirit uses our gift to open the way and do infinitely more than we would ever imagine. Amen.




To Walk as a Child of the Light


This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on November 12, 2017.

Matthew 25:1-13

Next week Rev. Kev and I will again invite you to come forward to drop your pledge card in the tithing box. I am always moved by the sight, especially of young families coming up together to renew their commitment to the church.

I like to imagine that the couple spent the previous weeks thoughtfully praying together for God’s guidance, ultimately agreeing to stretch in giving to the church just as they seek to stretch their faith.

Yet I confess, that it also occurs to me that the decision couples make about how much to pledge to First Church may have been arrived at, not by prayer, but after an argument, a bitter disagreement about family finances and where church fits in.

After all, it is said that money is the most common source of conflict in marriages.

In fact, there once was a couple, Kim and her wife Martha. Year after year Kim and Martha would attend the county fair, and every fall it was the same story: Kim was tantalized by the old-fashioned bi-plane in which anybody could take a ride for only $20, and Martha was disgusted by such an obvious waste of money. “$20 is $20,” she would always say. Kim would argue, but to no avail and she would go home without her plane ride. Many years passed this way, and Kim once again said, “Martha, there’s that bi-plane again. I’m 81 years old and this year I want to go for a ride.” Martha bristled, “There you go again. Don’t you realize that $20 is $20? Look at what we have gained by saving that money every year.” At this point the man who owned the bi-plane, and who had heard this argument as far back as he could remember, intervened. “Listen, you two, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you both a ride for free if you promise not to say anything during the flight. If you speak even one word, I’ll charge you the $20.” Kim and Martha thought that sounded fair, and off they went. The pilot put on quite a show. He took his plane through banks and spins and loop-the-loops, and then did the whole thing over again. Amazingly, he never heard a single word. When the plane landed he looked over at Kim and said, “I’ll have to admit I’m impressed. You never spoke once.” “Well,” said Kim, “I was going to say something when Martha fell out… but $20 is $20.”

Indeed, money is the most common source of conflict in marriages. I have found this to be true both as a pastor, and in my own marriage.

So, in anticipation of the decisions that will be made this week about giving to the church, this morning I specifically address our couples.

Renowned Marriage and Family therapist Dr. John Gottman tells a story about a couple:

The husband’s story went like this: “I don’t want to save for tomorrow. I want to live for today. I want to spend money enjoying life. Uncle Jack saved up millions of dollars living in a one room condo and he never went out. He never truly enjoyed life. I don’t want that.”

The wife’s story went like this: “My family grew up poor. We never had any money when an emergency came up or if somebody got sick. We never had enough to plan for the future. When my parents got older and couldn’t work as hard, they had nothing. They couldn’t retire. I don’t want to be like my parents.”

Just as in the story of Kim and Martha, one wants to spend now; the other wants to save for later. They are stuck in financial gridlock.

On the surface, the answer for this couple shouldn’t be so hard, right? Keeping a budget simply requires that there is more money coming in than going out. All they need to do is compromise, save some and spend some. But it doesn’t always feel simple, does it?

As these two stories begin to illustrate, our relationship with money is about much more than just dollars and cents. Our personal history shapes our feelings about money and what it represents.

It’s these personal meanings that guide how we deal with money in our lives and marriages. Logic has very little to do with it.

My wife Lourdes and I have certainly had our share of such conversations, including about our giving to the church. She grew up Catholic, one of nine children, on a sugar plantation in the Philippines. There were times when money was tight and food was scarce. I have learned that the anxiety bred by that kind of insecurity doesn’t dissipate, even in times of plenty. At Catholic Mass, her mom would drop a little something in the offering plate when she had enough.

I grew up middle class. My father was in construction, so when the economy took a turn downward we would eat more spaghetti and less steak, but I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from. I always assumed there would be enough. Of course now, as Senior Minister, I am expected to set an example with my giving.

You can see how our respective experiences lead to some interesting discussions about giving to the church. And we come by our perspectives honestly.

Though there are many money matters we may disagree about, there is one thing almost all parents agree upon, putting the interests of our children first. And no amount ever seems like too much when it comes to our kids. Whether it means paying for academic, athletic, and arts opportunities today, or saving for their college tomorrow, most parents find common ground by making their children their first priority when it comes to budget decisions.

But isn’t it interesting that Jesus consistently challenges the traditional, biological notion of family, instead calling us all to follow him into a new community of faith, sometimes called the realm of God, sometimes symbolized by a wedding banquet.

So let’s turn to the gospel lesson, The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, and see how Matthew might inform this conversation about family finances and giving. Mine is an admittedly imaginative interpretation of this story.

The story begins like so many Jesus tells, the realm of God is like this, meaning, this story illustrates the life that God intends for us.

Ten bridesmaids take oil lamps and set out to meet the bridegroom. Half take just the lamps with the oil they contain; the others take lamps with extra flasks of oil.

The bridegroom here, represents Jesus. So the bridesmaids are bringing their light, to enter with Jesus into the wedding banquet, the abundant life that God intends for them.

I find it interesting to think of these ten bridesmaids as a family, and the amount of oil they bring as representing the choices they make about how to spend money. Will they save it for themselves, or will they spend it in support of a new kind of family, a community of faith, the realm of God?

Now, Matthew already weighs in. Those who bring extra oil are wise and those who don’t are foolish. But as we have learned in our reflection on family finances, we might imagine a contentious conversation among the bridesmaids as they set out. The so-called foolish might argue that they are just being careful, conservative, frugal with their limited resource. Why waste money on unnecessary oil? The others, they insist, are making a reckless expenditure on oil for this bridegroom, not unlike Kim’s insistence on a bi-plane ride, after all, oil is oil. Of course the wise would fight back that money is no object, there has always been enough so why save; they should bring plenty to the banquet.

We might imagine that each set of bridesmaids comes by their feelings and choices honestly based on their experiences of scarcity or abundance.

Maybe those who bring less oil argue that they are saving money to give their children a better life.

But these bridesmaids, the ones who have to go to the store to get more oil, arrive too late to enjoy the riches of a life lived fully in God’s presence. A traditional interpretation of this parable concludes that the five so-called foolish bridesmaids are punished, shut out of the kingdom of God for not being prepared for Jesus’ arrival.

Instead, I might suggest a more nuanced and grace-full interpretation. To fully experience the good life that God intends for us, we can’t hold back. Those who go all in, embrace Jesus’ expansive understanding of family, and bring their light to the wedding banquet, enter fully into the life that God has prepared for them, for us.

Now maybe, in this retelling, the other five return home to their families and enjoy watching their children grow up. Maybe they continue to disagree about money, and lamp oil, and how much to give and how much to save. And maybe they never fully appreciate what they missed out on by not giving everything needed to keep their light burning bright, by not entering the wedding banquet. After all, life with our kids is pretty great.

But oh my, what those who were generous with their oil, whose lamps burned bright late into the night experienced when they stepped fully into God’s realm of love and light!

So let me see if I can wrap this up. We come by our understandings about money and giving honestly. There is more to these thoughts than just balancing a budget; our feelings about money run deep. We won’t always agree with spouses and partners about money matters, in fact making decisions about money can sometimes lead to conflict and separation from loved ones. So be gentle with each other in these “discussions” about family finances. Spouses usually do come together around doing what is best for their children, but remember, Jesus challenges traditional notions of family, instead calling us into God’s family. And, when we go all in; when we give all that is necessary to keep our light burning bright in the darkness outside our doors, then we will we enter fully into the magnificent life God prepares for us, a new community of faith, the realm of God. Amen.

Love Yourself

shooting ghosts 2

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 29, 2017.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Matthew 22:34-46

I recently finished a book, Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War, a memoir penned by retired Marine Thomas “TJ” Brennan and combat photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly. This is a powerful story of both men’s journey from the trauma of war to their subsequent recovery. Both men’s stories weave together from action in Afghanistan, back to the states, and into a lasting friendship. I found TJ’s story especially compelling.

Finbarr is present and takes pictures as TJ is knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade in a fire fight with Taliban fighters. After being treated for a concussion TJ is sent back to his unit even though he is still experiencing severe headaches and memory problems. Nevertheless, he manages to lead his unit successfully until his deployment finally ends. When he returns home TJ learns he has a traumatic brain injury (dead brain tissue the size of a golf ball), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and what is known as Moral Injury, damage to his mental health due to what he experienced in the war.

We learn that on a previous deployment to Iraq, TJ blew up a building with two Iraqi insurgents inside. When he went to confirm that they had been killed, in addition to the insurgents he found that two children had also been killed by the projectile he fired. He had killed two children.

Understandably, TJ develops severe depression, has nightmares, and in time attempts suicide. While the Marine Corps’ official channels encourage Marines like TJ to seek help, when they do they are ridiculed as weak by their superiors, shunned by their fellow Marines, and taken out of the units that give them their identity as Marines.

And though he couldn’t wait to get back to his wife and daughter, TJ finds it all but impossible to rekindle the love he once had for them. He is awful to his wife, pushing her to the brink of seeking a divorce.

Throughout the book, the photographer Finn tells his parallel story of trauma, and the rest of the book chronicles their long road back from these experiences of death.

You have noticed that I, like most preachers, take whatever I am reading, either in a book or the headlines, or experiencing, either in my past, my life today, or the life of the church, and hold it up next to the Bible passage for the week to see how one informs the other.

In this morning’s passage from Matthew a lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment? We will leave aside for the moment that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong and focus instead on Jesus’ response which is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

I would guess that this is one of the top five answers given when people are asked for their favorite Bible passage. Love God and love our neighbor. What a seemingly simple formula for faithful living.

But I have a hard time leaving well enough alone so I began poking at these so-called greatest commandments. In particular, I have always wondered about those two words, “as yourself.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Is this part of the commandment, to love your neighbor just as you are to love yourself? Does God command self-love, and if so what does this look like? An entire self-help industry has existed for at least fifty years purporting to teach us to love ourselves. I remember my parents had a book I’m OK – You’re OK. There it is, love your self – love your neighbor.

I dug into some commentaries about this passage. I will spare you the translation and analysis of the Greek word for as, but in short, the answer is no, Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves. Instead, he is commanding us to love our neighbor the way we already do love our self. Jesus assumes we already love ourselves. Self-love is a given.

Well, that brought up another question for me. What does Jesus mean by love in these commandments?

In our lives today we think of love as a feeling, a strong emotion in response to something or someone outside us. So, love as we know it is passive and emotional.

But biblical love is neither. Love, as used by Jesus here, is not passive but a choice, and is not a feeling, but what could be called active mercy.

Bible scholar Clayton Schmit writes:

This means that, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it. 

So what could all this mean to TJ? As I said, he has found it impossible to rekindle the powerful love he once shared with his wife, Mel.

TJ and Mel attend a fundraiser for the Semper Fi Fund. He is the featured speaker, and from the podium shares his story, their story. “I admit I’ve been a terrible person at times, that no person deserves to be treated the way I tormented Mel. I tried to emotionally destroy her. Misery loved company, see? She was the closest target. I burdened her with my own guilt, my shame. I called her names I now regret. I pushed her away.”

Though Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves, he assumes a love of self as a basis for love for one another. And. remember, love here is not a passive feeling, but an active choice to show mercy. To treat his wife Mel with loving-kindness, TJ needs to act with mercy toward himself. He needed to learn to be patient, generous and gentle with himself.

Two important aspects of TJ’s healing come from telling his stories, even and especially those stories that caused him to feel guilt and shame, like the story of him killing the two children, and a story of hoisting a brick to bash in the head of a dying and helpless Iraqi soldier because of the diffuse rage that consumes him. At first he would share these stories with therapists, later in articles he wrote for the New York Times blog At War. It was TJ’s experience writing for this blog that piques his interest in journalism.

He gets a job as a reporter at a Jacksonville, North Carolina newspaper and begins interviewing other veterans about their experiences in war. They open up to him about their experiences, both their love for the comaraderie and excitement of war, and the wounds they still carry, both physical and emotional. TJ can relate to all of it. Hearing their stories affirms TJ’s identity as a Marine and reminds him that he is not alone in his struggles. Storytelling has been essential to TJ’s healing.

I tell TJ’s story, of course, because though his experiences of trauma are extreme, and his moral injury profound, we all experience hardship and the accompanying wounds. We can all be challenged, at some point in our lives, to love ourselves and so also, our neighbor.

Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, is a way to love neighbor and self. Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, communicates mercy, patience, generosity and gentleness.

In her book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette writes, “Every Sunday morning at our church, a person who is not a paid professional walks up the steps next to the ministers, stands in front of the microphone with their knees knocking and voice trembling, and begins, “Now is the time when we bring our own stories before God. And each gives a testimony – recent or from the distant past – about a sin they committed.”

“This is a book,” she continues, “about telling our stories – our real stories. Not the all cleaned up versions…but the stories of things that almost killed us and made us stronger, the stories of people who did unforgivable things to us, and, most importantly, stories of the unforgivable things we ourselves have done.”

People talk, she writes, about the “obvious” candidates like hatred, sexual sin, jealousy, greed, and arrogance, but also include things that aren’t necessarily sins such as clinical depression, anxiety, and addiction. Those these aren’t sins in themselves, keeping secrets from loved ones or refusing treatment, can be seen as sin as this breaks the bond of love.

Just as telling his own stories and providing an outlet for other veterans to tell theirs created opportunities for healing, so testifying about their sins to one another in Rev. Baskette’s church has set love of self and neighbor free. Beyond the positive effect on members of the church, it has grown and strengthened the community of the church. Her church in Sommerville, Massachusetts grew to over 300 members and had 80 people signed up to give their testimonies, a 20 month waiting list!

Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor begins with an assumption that we love our self. Do we? Do you? For TJ the path to restoring and strengthening love for his wife began by finding and renewing love for himself and the man he had become after the war.

Storytelling was central to this long process of restoration, each story a choice, an act of mercy toward himself or another.

I am just beginning Baskette’s book but am intrigued by her idea of testimony in the church. As I said, TJ’s healing, confessional storytelling began in private with a therapist, but ultimately became liberating when he shared these stories publically through his writing. My sense is that his public testimony was essential to the cause of love, as it was only then that he knew that his secrets had lost their power to guilt and shame.

TJ concludes his speech at that fundraiser with these words to Mel. “I love you. Thank you for saving me.” He steps down from the podium and he and Mel embrace. He writes, “I longed for Mel in Afghanistan. The few moments I hold her in my arms are the embrace I wish I had given her when I first stepped off the bus. For the rest of the night she glows. So do I.”

What would it require for you to share your stories? To listen to the stories of others without judgement? Could you share your stories with a best friend, a therapist, or your pastor? Can you imagine ever sharing these stories in public? Let’s think and pray about these things; our self and our neighbors depends on such acts of mercy.


It’s Always Been Us

This is the column I wrote for the November issues of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

I recently had two opportunities to reflect on the relationship between a church and its pastor.

At a “Super Saturday” conference of UCC churches in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, I attended a workshop on becoming an immigrant welcoming church. It was led by a seminary classmate of mine, Rev. Noel Anderson, and there were some in attendance whose churches were in some stage of becoming a “sanctuary church,” a church that identifies itself as a safe place for undocumented immigrants. I know this is a hot-button, potentially divisive issue in many churches so I was very interested when a man and woman sitting together began to share the experience of their church in Amherst, Massachusetts. The woman identified herself as the pastor and spoke about the work she and some church members were doing to support another local church that was providing sanctuary to an immigrant threatened with immanent deportation. Then the man spoke, identifying himself as the church Moderator and describing himself as the “Archie Bunker” of the church. This got a laugh since he looked and spoke a little like Archie Bunker. He said, “We are not a sanctuary church, but we have a sanctuary pastor and we are OK with that.” Isn’t that interesting? The church and its members were not all in the same place on this issue, but they were able to affirm that taking a stand in the community in support of immigrant rights was a genuine part of their pastor’s faith and call. “Archie” went on to say that his church continues to discuss and find its place on this issue.

A pastor of another Connecticut church shared a story on Facebook about two of his members, a lesbian couple, being accosted on the way into church by a woman who said, “You shouldn’t go there; their pastor’s gay. The whole place is going to hell.”

During the announcements, one of the women stood up, described what had just happened in the parking lot, and spoke her truth. She told the truth about who she is, about what it is like to worry and fear and hope and dread. And with a quivering voice, she thanked the church for trying its damnedest to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. She spoke of how this church was safe for her on the day she needed it most.

When she finished, she was swarmed with people, hugs, and cheers.

The pastor then writes, “But here’s the thing: I wasn’t there. They did it all on their own.” He confesses that he has sometimes wondered whether the commitment to the LGBT community was “mine or ours,” but that he now realizes, “I never had anything to worry about. It’s never been me; it’s always been us.”

Perhaps both stories can inform our experience as church and pastor. I know I sometimes have perspectives on issues that do not reflect a consensus, maybe not even a majority, of our members. As we continue to discuss our church’s position and place in responding to these important matters of faith, please know that I am acting, as best as I am able, from a prayerful understanding of my faith and my call. And when push comes to shove, and people’s safety and well-being is threatened, I know I don’t need to wonder or worry about your response. It’s not about me; it’s always been us.” I am grateful.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Published in: on November 3, 2017 at 2:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Responding to #metoo

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This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 22, 2017 to mark the 5th Anniversary of First Church becoming an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last week, I noticed that many women were making the same short, cryptic post on their Facebook page, writing simply #metoo (see my sermon title for how that is written). At first I couldn’t figure out what these women had in common that would cause them to all say #metoo, they were young and old, gay and straight, black, white and brown, and liberal and conservative. I soon learned that these posts were meant to draw attention to the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women at the hands of men. Each woman was saying that she too had experienced such sexual violence.

Dozens of women, including A-list stars, recently came forward to charge Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein with sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is said that Weinstein asserted his power to touch them, expose himself to them, and rape them. In such cases there are always some who first blame, then try to correct the women, if only they would wear longer skirts and less makeup this wouldn’t happen. In response to these stories and attempts to defend this behavior, women, including some members of this church, began posting #metoo, some with accompanying stories, to draw attention to how prevalent this abuse is, and make it clear that such behavior is entirely the responsibility of men.

I sat with this all week, aware of the years of trauma represented by these #metoo posts, scrutinizing my own behavior for ways I am complicit. I wondered about an appropriate response, aware that denial and silence render this violence invisible.

This is the 5 year anniversary of this church’s commitment to become Open and Affirming. This means that we seek to be intentional in our welcome of all people without regard to gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, class, marital status, or ability. We are justifiably proud of our Open and Affirming identity.

When I think of what it means to be Open and Affirming, I imagine that every person who walks through the door is greeted with the same genuine smile, warm handshake, and words of welcome without regard to differences. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And I think we do a pretty good job of this. Not perfect, but pretty good.

But #metoo has me wondering if there isn’t more to being an Open and Affirming church. Though we all deserve kindness, we aren’t all the same. As we have been so painfully reminded, women and men have dramatically different experiences with regard to sexual harassment and assault. So, I wonder if being an Open and Affirming church requires that we work to acknowledge, understand and respond to such differences, not just between men and women, but between all the aspects of our identity that I mentioned.

The passage I read from Isaiah informs this perspective. I’m really only going to focus on the very first line, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” Cyrus is the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon 539 years before Jesus was born. When Cyrus came to power, the Jews had been in exile in Babylon for some 60 years, taken from their homeland of Judah, forcibly removed from the presence of their God in the temple in Jerusalem.

Note, our text calls Cyrus “anointed.” The Hebrew word translated here as anointed is Messiah. How about that? The prophet Isaiah is calling this Persian, to be clear, a non-Jewish, conqueror, Messiah. The only other one referred to as Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is King David. And the Greek translation of this word Messiah? Christ, a word we only associate with Jesus. Wow! What’s going on? Well, it was Cyrus who saw the plight of the Jews and allowed them to return from exile to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple there. He saw their suffering, took responsibility, and set them free.

This is my point. Cyrus, as the Jew’s oppressor, has an essential role, an anointed, meaning God given, role, in liberating the Jews from Babylon and restoring them to their proper relationship with God. To be clear, that role was not to fix the Jews; there was nothing wrong with the Jews. Cyrus’ role was to represent the cause of the Jews to the Babylonians. To use his understanding and influence to lead his people. We might imagine his position wasn’t popular. There would have been those who protested, insisting the Jews didn’t deserve or weren’t capable of a renewed relationship with God. But Cyrus saw the Jews’ humanity and persisted. And the Jews were liberated.

Using Cyrus as our example, let’s return to the #metoo posts. How should men respond to the sexual oppression of women, not to fix them, but to lead other men? I think Pastor and author John Pavlovitz gets it right when he says:

Guys, while we may not believe we have committed direct acts of violence against women (however given the statistics, this is quite likely), we have each participated in a culture of misogyny and sexism that continues to victimize and traumatize, to steal safety and generate fear, to deny humanity and to cultivate disrespect. We are fully complicit in these #metoo stories.

We should be the ones stepping from the shadows right now.
We should be the one laying our souls bare.
We should be risking the judgment of strangers.
We should be the ones demanding renovation.

We are the other side of the #metoo stories.
We are the writers of these awful stories.
It’s time we owned this sickness.
It’s time we stopped it. 

Maybe this is what it means to be Open and Affirming. Acknowledging, understanding and responding to differences between us, and taking responsibility for ourselves when we have caused harm.

This week, I attended a two and a half day racial justice training with a group of Hartford area clergy. Some forty of us have been meeting monthly for over a year, developing the relationships necessary to launch a faith-based community organizing effort. The group included about 30 white and 8 black ministers. One of the exercises invited the white ministers to name what we liked about being white. Going around the circle, we named things such as, I like being considered safe, being the majority, being presumed knowledgeable, having ease in life, I like being welcomed everywhere, and having educational opportunities. The African-American pastors were then asked what they liked about being black. Their list looked very different; they affirmed their resilience, creativity and innovation, their history and sense of community, and their faith. I don’t know if we could have been so honest with each other if we hadn’t spent the past year building the relationships among us. Nevertheless, I felt anxious when the facilitator asked my black colleagues how it felt looking at the two lists. I felt certain they would express disappointment, hurt, sadness and anger that us white people had named the benefits we experienced as a result of our white skin. So I was surprised when more than a couple said they felt affirmed. By this they meant that what we named affirmed their experience in the world. Our words didn’t surprise them, they lived with this reality; it was a relief for them to hear us speak it aloud. One friend, an African-American woman, said, “Finally, I know I’m not crazy.”

As with misogyny and sexual violence against women, denial and silence have rendered racism and its impact invisible, even to the point of causing my friend to doubt her sanity.

Here again, the value comes, not in ignoring differences and settling for a smile and a handshake, nor is the intent to try to fix black people. No, the value comes from naming the difference in experience, then seeking to understand, confront, and take responsibility for the hurt caused by the resulting inequality.

Cyrus saw the unique trials faced by the Jews in exile, spoke up, took responsibility for his role in these trials, and used his power to work with his people to set the Jews free. We are called to do the same.

Violence against women is a men’s issue.

Racism is an issue that must be addressed by white people, not by correcting people of color but by taking responsibility for our own beliefs and the institutions we create and manage.

Equality for gays and lesbians cannot be the exclusive responsibility of the LGBT community.

Tonight, our PF youth group will welcome gay and lesbian speakers from the Stonewall Speakers Bureau who will share the challenges they have faced and overcome. This coming Friday the 27th we will welcome the recently retired President of Hartford PFLAG, Lori Davison. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was founded in 1972 by a mother wanting to support her gay son. Now with over 400 chapters in all fifty states, PFLAG offers support groups for both adults and youth. Lori will help us answer the question, “What do we do now?” meaning how do me move beyond the smile and a handshake welcome as an Open and Affirming church.

And in the coming months we will begin hosting monthly PFLAG support groups here at First Church. Our Open and Affirming Committee has been working tirelessly for the past six months for First Church to become part of the Hartford Chapter of PFLAG that we may offer this essential affirmation and support to LGBT people and their families.

This is what I’m saying. If you are a man, if you are white, if you are straight, if you are cis-gendered (do you know what that means? It means you identify as the sex you were born with, as opposed to being transgendered), if you are abled in mind and body, you have a unique responsibility to make First Church truly Open and Affirming, not just with a smile and a handshake, but by seeking to understand and by taking a stand, each of us claiming our own privilege and using our particular power and influence to confront the trauma caused by misogyny, racism, hetero-sexism, and ableism. This good church is then called to represent this perspective to other churches and to our community. This, is what it means to be Open and Affirming, this is what it means to be anointed.



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