Love and Moral Outrage: From Nashville to Connecticut

truck parking

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 3, 2017.

Romans 12:9-21

Yesterday morning, I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot looking forward to my weekly spiritual practice of sermon writing. The first thing I noticed was how full the parking lot was, but to my delight there were two parking spaces directly in front of me! But wouldn’t you know it, the huge pickup truck ahead of me took both spaces, clearly over the line, making it difficult if not impossible for me to park in the other space.  Immediately annoyed, I pulled up a little, making clear my intent to park in the other space, expecting him to move to make room for me.

There was a bit of a standoff, his reverse lights went on, then off again, and in the end it became clear he intended to stay right where he was. Now I was more than annoyed, and wedged my car into the half-space that was left, leaving little room for either of us to get out. As I squeezed out of the car I came face to face with the man in the truck and said, “Excuse me sir, you are taking up two parking spaces.” In hind sight, I recognize my polite words were not the least bit consistent with how I was feeling inside. He dropped any pretense of being polite, not passive aggressive but just plain aggressive he said, “Ya think?! Did you really need to park in that space!” We both walked away in a huff.

But it quickly became clear to me that we were both headed to Starbucks, and wouldn’t you know it I ended up right behind him and his wife in line! I was feeling righteous anger, clear I was in the right, and shaky from the confrontation. I began to imagine all sorts of terrible things about him. But I heard him order, and he sounded like a pretty normal, decent guy. I took a few deep breaths and tried to gain some perspective. After all, I’m the Pastor of this prominent church, I can’t just say and do whatever is on my mind. How could I have approached this differently? What could I do now to redeem the situation in a way that would be authentic for me?

Even though I recognized that I had played a part in our confrontation, I wasn’t going to apologize. After all, he did take two spots! But maybe I could say something like, “Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I’m pretty sure you are a nice guy, and I’m a nice guy too. My name is George.” I was rehearsing variations of this speech as I waited for my coffee, and suddenly, there he was walking toward me. I took a deep breath, but before I could say anything he reached out his hand and said, “I’m sorry about that. I am driving a borrowed truck and was worried about damaging it.” I shook his hand and laughed, “I was just going to say something too, I’m sorry about that. My name is George.” He responded with his name, Bill, and that was that! He left with his coffee, all the tension I had been feeling left my body, and I sat down to write my sermon.

That said, I am still clear that I correctly judged his actions. He was wrong. He asserted all the space as his own, thereby excluding others. His justification for his actions didn’t change this. But as a result of the words and handshake we exchanged in Starbucks I can now say this without anger or malice.

In his letter to the church in Rome Paul writes, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” This brings to mind the popular aphorism, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”

This saying has rubbed many a progressive Christian the wrong way. Often applied by evangelical Christians to the treatment of gays and lesbians, it strikes me as an insincere way of expressing love, and a backhanded way of judging people.

On Tuesday, a group of conservative, evangelical religious leaders released a “manifesto” they named the Nashville Statement, asserting their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and condemning what they called “homosexual immorality and transgenderism.”

I had the same reaction to this statement that I had to that man taking up two parking spaces. I felt my blood pressure rise  and my stomach clench. Here they were trying to claim all God’s space as their own while excluding others.

The Nashville Statement is a series of short, tightly argued paragraphs for what they believe to be true about sexuality and gender. And sure enough, it includes a call to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” not in so many words, but using the well-known corollary, “to speak the truth in love.”

But here’s the thing. My Starbucks acquaintance can justify his choice to take two parking spaces, he was trying not to damage a borrowed truck, but that doesn’t make it right. I don’t agree with the Nashville Statement’s justification, specifically their definition of sin and truth. Those who signed this statement claim that homosexuality and being transgendered are behavioral choices, sinful ones; I assert that variations in gender and sexual orientation are aspects of identity, part of the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. “

I am not alone in this, of course. Just days after the Nashville Statement was released, Episcopal clergy in Connecticut responded with what they call the Connecticut Statement, saying:

We put forth a different vision: one in which God made diversity as one of God’s first creative acts; in which God infused that diversity into the human species; and in which God invites us to celebrate the vast array of identities that all weave together to make the tapestry of humanity. We believe the Biblical witness supports such a vision and that the Holy Spirit is moving the Christian Church to acceptance, celebration, and full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and indeed of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and abilities. Far from being antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ, such movement fulfills the dream of God that all be welcomed and affirmed as God’s beloved children.

 

The Nashville Statement seeks to exclude. This is, in fact, a way to understand sin, acting in a way that seeks to separate people one from another and from God. While the Nashville Statement separates, the Connecticut Statement lays claim to a God whose love embraces all people.

As I always affirm at the beginning of each service, we are an Open and Affirming church, meaning that we have a statement of our own, that says, “Led by God’s spirit, we welcome, respect and affirm all people, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, economic circumstance, or physical, emotional or mental ability.”

Though I have never liked, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” civil rights activist Ruby Sale recently said something that sounds similar. “In these times,” she says, “we must learn to hold together both love and moral outrage.”

This is not unlike Paul’s challenge to us in Romans to:

  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So how does one go about this? What might we learn from my encounter at Starbucks?

As I took time to reflect on this experience I realized a few things. I recognize the way I responded in the moment contributed to the conflict between me and the driver of the truck. Pulling up close to wait for him to move communicated my irritation and impatience, then to be fake-nice in telling him what he already knew ramped up the existing tension between us.

Sharing the same neutral space for a time was helpful for both of us, to observe one another apart from our disagreement. We both had to arrive at a place where we were prepared to acknowledge our role in the conflict and apologize for that.

Now notice, I am not saying we let go of our beliefs about the thing itself, merely about how we had behaved in response. I still think he was wrong to take two parking spaces, and he may still believe he was justified in doing so. Yet we were both able to recognize that the ways we acted toward each other were not helpful and act to change that.

There is the underlying right and wrong of a thing. Then there are the layers of emotion, the righteous anger, the moral indignation, and the judgment of character that we heap upon the other. We end up responding as much to these feelings as we do to the underlying disagreement.

So, let me offer a couple cautions before posing a question.

I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between taking two parking spaces and condemning gay and transgender people; one is a  minor annoyance, the other ruins lives. If there is any value in the parking space story it is only as parable and metaphor.

I also recognize that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people need to safeguard their physical and emotional well-being, and this may mean choosing not to directly engage in any way those who judge them.

With these qualifications in mind, I am left to wonder how we can create neutral settings that allow us to encounter those with whom we have strong differences, metaphorical Starbucks lines that could allow us to experience one another in a less threatening way, giving us time to reflect upon and accept responsibility for our own role in conflict, shake hands and learn each other’s names.

Amen.

 

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Holy Plot Twist, Cathie

moses in nile

This painting is Moses in the Reedbed by Addie Hirchten.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

This story of Moses has plot twists worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.

There’s nothing like a good plot twist, especially when it revolves around life and death. The 1999 movie The Sixth Sense is remembered for two things. The line uttered by nine year old Cole Sear, “I see dead people,” will forever be part of the pop culture lexicon. And the movie’s concluding plot twist left movie goers slack jawed. In this surprise ending, child psychologist Malcom Crowe, who we see visiting with Cole throughout the movie, helping him accept and understand his ghostly visitations, is shown at movies end to have been dead all along, himself a ghost. The Sixth Sense is a redemption story, at the same time the ghost of Malcom Crowe is helping Cole, so he is also working out some unfinished business of his own, healing the relationship with the wife he left behind.

It is always risky using movies or books as sermon illustrations. The point may be lost on those who never saw the movie. Whether or not you saw The Sixth Sense, remember this, redemptive plot twist.

The Sixth Sense had a redemptive plot twist, an unexpected element that healed, restored and affirmed the meaning of the lives of the characters. Of course the foundational story of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus, has the greatest redemptive plot twists of all time. Three days after his gruesome death on a cross, Jesus emerges from the tomb affirming God’s love for humanity forever.

Well, this short passage chronicling Moses’ first months has more plot twists than a Latino telenovela.

To summarize, Joseph (a Jew of Technicolor dream coat fame) had emigrated to Egypt with his family, found favor with the king, and prospered. Joseph died and a new king arose in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph or his family. This king saw the increasing population of Israelites as a threat, so he oppressed them and enslaved them.

But the more the Egyptians persecuted the Israelites, the more they multiplied and spread throughout Egypt.

Seeking to stem the tide of Israelites in Egypt, the king instructed Hebrew midwives to kill any male Hebrew children at their birth. The midwives refused to execute this awful command and instead made up a story to tell the king to save their own lives. It worked. Next the king told the Egyptian people to throw every male, Hebrew infant in the Nile River to drown.

Now we learn of Moses’ birth to a here unnamed Hebrew couple. His mother, fearing for his life, kept his birth a secret for three months. Imagine how afraid of being found out she must have been every time he cried. When she felt she could no longer hide him from the prying eyes of Egyptian neighbors, in desperation, she waterproofed a basket, put him in it, and hid the basket at river’s edge among the reeds. Imagine the hopelessness and despair that would cause a mother to abandon the child she loved, knowing that if found by the Egyptians he would likely be drowned. Moses’ sister, we are told, watched from a distance.

But plot twist. Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who finds Moses when she goes down to the Nile to bathe. She recognizes him as one of the Hebrew children but, instead of having him put to death, she takes pity on him.

Then, plot twist, Moses’ sister steps from the shadows and offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for her, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees.

And, plot twist, Moses’ sister calls her own mother, Moses’ own mother to come, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees to pay her to nurse and raise Moses!

And still another plot twist, after Moses is grown, his mother brings him back to Pharaoh’s daughter who takes him as her own son! She names him Moses which means to pull out, to draw out, of the water.

The final plot twist is yet to come, that Moses will be called by God to confront Pharaoh, his adopted grandfather, and free the Israelites from slavery.

Now this is a redemption story, revealing the ways God moves to redeem suffering and death.

Notice, I say that God moves in this story, by God does not have a speaking part. Rather, the redemption of suffering and death is enabled by the actors, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter. God moves through them, and God moves through us, empowering us to perform the plot twists that redeem our experiences of suffering and death.

Moses’ sister is our example. She watched for God to create an opportunity, then she responded, spoke and acted with God to give life.

I have witnessed a powerful example of just such redemptive plot twists in the life of our beloved church member Cathie Behrens these past couple weeks. I asked her if it was OK to share these stories and she agreed.

Many of you know Cathie. She has been a member of First Church forever, she worked here in a number of essential roles for 25 years until retiring last fall, and she leads both a women’s small group Bible study and our Card Making ministry. To say that Cathie is beloved is an understatement.

Rev. Kev and I were on the mission trip just one month ago when Cathie called from the ER saying that she was experiencing some unusual bleeding, and everything moved very rapidly from there. She was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer, then with lung cancer that has metastasized, and just early this week with a golf ball sized tumor in her liver. Her doctors tell her that this is an extremely aggressive, fast-moving cancer. Sadly, accompanying people through such tragedy and trauma is part of being a pastor, so I thought I knew what to expect, a series of very somber visits with Cathie.

Well, plot twist.

Every time I would call Cathie over the past couple weeks, she would say seriously, I’ve got more bad news, and update me on her latest doctor visit. But she would immediately follow this by saying, “But I have to tell you about the God-moments I experienced today.

God moments are Cathie’s way of describing the ways she experiences God in the world. These usually involved people she met in the course of medical appointments. There was the doctor who, like Cathie, was a Duke University alumni. They compared notes about the basketball team’s prospect this year. There was a nurse who, like Cathie, had once ridden horses competitively and knew many of the same people Cathie did. These were God moments, experiences that assured Cathie of God’s continued presence. They didn’t erase the fear, anger or sadness she felt, but they helped redeem these experiences, place them in the larger context of God’s love.

Like Moses’ sister, Cathie watched for God to be revealed in this difficult chapter in her life.

Then, just a few days ago, Cathie was put in hospice care. Here again, I thought I knew what to expect.

But again, plot twist. I had a long conversation with Cathie on Thursday afternoon during which we talked about her life and faith. Her life changed for the better three years ago, she said, when she decided that instead of giving something up for Lent, she would make ten people smile every day. And she has never stopped. This has become a daily spiritual practice for her. She does this simply by asking people about themselves, wishing them a good day, and sharing a smile, and she has maintained this practice throughout her illness. When they smile, she says, my life is better too. Just in the course of our visit I witnessed her work her magic on three people, a doctor, a nurse and me.

And like Moses’ daughter, Cathie didn’t just stand back and wait for God to appear, when God created openings, she responded with a kind word and a smile.

I visited Cathie last night and she was having a rough time. Likely the effect of an ever increasing dose of pain meds, she was finding it impossible to complete a thought. She would start to talk, say a few words, and be unable to get the rest of the words out. She would doze off, and wake with a start, and after forty five minutes we had been unable to have a meaningful conversation. I thought maybe it might help if I just said a simple prayer together.

Now, I need confess something necessary to understand the rest of this story. When I visited Cathie on Monday, just after she found out about the tumor in her liver, I screwed up the words to the 23rd Psalm. Some of the most well-known, beautiful and comforting words every written, to be delivered at this most difficult time, to this woman I adore, and I blew it. Now, Cathie was a good sport, but I left feeling like I had missed an opportunity to minister to her.

So last night, I suggested to Cathie that we say the Lord’s Prayer, and…

Plot twist. After what had so far been a frustrating visit for both of us, Cathie got a familiar twinkle in her eye and said, without missing a beat, “If you remember the words.” We both laughed, then prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. Perfectly.

Cathie is still making people smile, making me smile. And, this was a God moment, an experience that reminded us that God was still present, even in the face of suffering and death. This was a redemptive plot twist. Cathie and I were the actors in this scene, but we were equipped and enabled by God to perform our roles.

Every moment is pregnant with these God moments. Remember, Moses would have died, never gone on to save his people, if his sister hadn’t been paying attention, then hadn’t risked a conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter, a conversation that revealed an unimagined, life-saving, life-giving way forward.

To experience life’s redemptive plot twists we need to do more than watch and listen, we need to participate. Like Cathie, we need to face our fears and suffering and talk to one another, make each other smile through simple acts of kindness. When we do, God will lead us from death to new life, today and always. Amen.

Easter in August!

rose 7

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

Forget Christmas in July, it’s Time for Easter in August!

Though I have never participated, I know Christmas in July is “a thing.” People who can’t get enough of Christmas or are just looking for an excuse to throw a party host events with a Christmas theme in July (though I expect the baby Jesus can nary be found). When I left the house this morning, burdened by the news of the day, and saw that my rose bushes are in bloom it occurred to me that, more than a Christmas party in July, we need more Easter in August!

In May, my Aunt Dot, sent me six bare-root rose “bushes” in the mail as thanks for performing a grave-side service for her husband, my Uncle Sunny. I opened the box to find what looked like a bunch of brown sticks. You know from other stories I have told that I have the brownest of thumbs, so this box of dead wood was unrecognizable to me until I read the enclosed card. The instructions promised that by following some simple steps, these bare roots and stems would soon produce beautiful roses. I had my doubts, and if it wasn’t for some sense of duty to my Aunt Dot I might have just left them where they lay. But obligation can be a powerful motivator, so before a couple days passed I followed the steps and planted the sticks along my driveway. Sure enough, the stems quickly began to sprout leaves and have continued to grow throughout the summer.

There has been the occasional challenge. I sought advice on Facebook on how to prune them; pretty simple it turns out but even the most basic tasks can seem intimidating if you have never done them. A number of you offered helpful advice, and church members even invited me and my family over to dinner, followed by a hands-on demonstration of rose pruning in their garden! There have been bugs, brown leaves, and other worries, but now the bushes are putting forth beautiful blossoms.

The story of Jesus’ Passion is one of persecution, suffering and death. Likewise, today’s headlines are filled with stories of persecution, suffering and death, whether it be nuclear sabre rattling or Nazi marches. At the same time, members of our church are carrying their own crosses, whether terminal illness, depression, or a broken marriage.

As we anticipate the beginning of the church year, let’s prepare for Easter in August (and September… and October…).

We are planning a number of initiatives to promote resurrection and new life in our church and community. Read the column by our new Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn, about ways the Spirit of resurrection is moving in this exciting new ministry. Also read about the coming church-wide book group for Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible? Whether you are a biblical novice or experienced veteran of Bible studies, I guarantee that Bell’s perspective will make the Bible newly interesting and relevant to you! And stay tuned to information about a Greater Hartford Faith-Based Community Organizing Initiative. These, along with our continuing commitment to Spirit-filled, creative, engaging and relevant, Sunday worship remind us that Easter isn’t a once-a-year invitation to a resurrection celebration, but an everyday commitment we make to bring new life to a hurting world.

And just as my rose bushes required community participation (and a dinner invitation!) to bring forth beautiful blossoms from that which appeared to be dead, so we must all pitch in to make resurrection real in the church, the community, and our lives. I’ll see you in church!

Cannanite Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!

rally black lives matter

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 20, at First Church Simsbury, a day after joining 40,000 other marchers in the “Fight Supremacy” march in Boston.

Matthew 15:21-28

This is one of the most fascinating, and most disturbing stories about Jesus in the gospels. Bottom line, he comes off as a complete jerk, or worse, a bigot. Really!

Let’s review. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus asking him to cast out a demon from her daughter. Some suspect that symptoms of mental illness or epilepsy were attributed to demons in ancient Palestine. Though we can’t know the exact nature of this demon, we are clear that this mother is distraught and desperate to get help for her daughter, help she believes Jesus can provide.

Sadly, Jesus completely ignores her. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away, and indeed, he tries to dismiss her, saying, “My job is to minister to Jews, not a Gentile Canaanite woman like you.” Think about the Woolworth lunch counter refusing to serve blacks in 1960. Jesus is posting a sign, “No Gentiles.” To add insult to injury he then calls her a dog. “It is not fair,” he says, “to take the food meant for children (Jews) and give it to dogs (Gentiles).” Even then, she persists. But even dogs, she says, get the crumbs from their master’s table.

Finally, Jesus responds to her plea saying, “you have great faith, your daughter is healed.”

If his seemingly abusive behavior isn’t troubling enough, we are also left to wonder, does Jesus change his mind? We tend to think of Jesus as perfect and unchanging. What are the implications of this apparently judgmental, flip-flopping, Jesus?

One interpretation of this story is that Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, treating her like dirt to see if she will remain faithful. And when she does, he rewards her, as if to say, “Congratulations, you passed the test!” I suppose the message here would be to stay faithful when we are experiencing hardships. But is this how we understand God? One who dishes out all manner of humiliation and pain just to test us? I sure hope not.

No, I think something else is going on here.

As painful as this is to read, Jesus gives expression to widespread prejudices held by Jews toward the Gentile Canaanites at the time. Notice how this story moves from exclusion to inclusion. Jesus moves from ministering to only Jews to ministering to Gentiles as well. This shift to include Gentiles would become very important in the early church. So maybe Matthew’s purpose in telling the story this way is to lead those in his community to change their mind about Gentiles?

Following the hate-filled marches by Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists last weekend in Charlottesville we are left to wonder if our country isn’t moving in the opposite direction, from inclusion back to the racist exclusion of the past. What might Matthew’s story of Jesus have to teach us about opening hearts and minds to become more inclusive?

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I went to a march against racism in Boston yesterday. I was deeply moved by this experience. The day began with a worship service at Old South Church where our UCC President, Rev. John Dorhauer offered an inspiring word. Dozens of clergy then walked together to the place where the march began. Some ministers went to the front to lead the march while others of us dispersed through the large crowd, the police commissioner estimated 40,000 marchers. There was an extremely positive energy throughout. Though I read afterward that a small number of protesters acted poorly and were arrested, I didn’t witness any violent or hateful behavior, quite the opposite, all I saw was love.

One of the most moving things I witnessed along the route of the march was a young black woman standing on a milk crate. Maybe 17, she was flanked by two girls, her sisters maybe, and she was shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter.” I don’t know if I can adequately communicate the raw emotion in her voice. It wasn’t angry in the least. Nor did I hear accusation or blame. Rather, hers was a desperate cry, a plaintive plea in response to all the racist hatred she has witnessed this past week, and over her lifetime. It was if she was crying out, “Listen to me, see me, hear me! Black Lives Matter! My Life Matters!” And the crowd answered her call. Hundreds of voices responded to her plea, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter” as if to say, “We see you, we hear you! Yes! Your Life Matters!” And like the Canaanite woman, she wouldn’t give up, continuing her appeal long after I passed by. I can still feel the sound of her voice in my gut.

That young woman touched my heart, and this is the first lesson we learn from Jesus’s encounter. After he had a meaningful exchange with her, looked into her eyes, had the sound of her voice work its way down into his heart, Jesus no longer saw the Canaanite woman as a position on an issue or a set of beliefs. Instead he saw her as a hurting human being. The first thing that Matthew teaches us about opening our minds to be more inclusive is that it requires face to face encounters in which we hear another’s pain. I would like to think that even someone who had a tightly constructed critique of the Black Lives Matter movement might have understood these words in a new way upon hearing this young woman’s cry yesterday.

The second thing we learn from Matthew is the need for someone to meet us where we are without judgment and lead us beyond exclusion. This is the power of this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. We might think the things Jesus says are awful, but those in Matthew’s community who heard this story would immediately identify with Jesus. Then when Jesus opens his eyes to see the woman’s full humanity and faith, so his followers would be invited to see the woman anew through Jesus’ eyes.

I know that talking about race makes many people uncomfortable. When I bring up the topic, some people become hurt and defensive.

I have been recommending a book to white colleagues and church members, Waking up White, by Debby Irving. This is a memoir in which Irving is uncompromisingly confessional about all the mistakes she made in her ongoing journey from exclusion to inclusion. To be clear, Irving was never someone who we would think of as a racist. Irving grew up in a town very much like Simsbury, Winchester, Massachusetts. The size of the population, median income, cost of housing are all similar, and like Simsbury, Winchester was over 90 percent white. Irving had always been taught to be kind to all people regardless of race. But through a series of encounters and experiences over several years she begins to question many of her assumptions and little by little she changes her mind about what she had held to be true. She writes:

“My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance. As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race. I also explain why and how I’ve changed the way I talk about racism, work in racially mixed groups, and understand the racial justice movement as a whole.”

I find that Irving functions in a role similar to Jesus’ in this morning’s story. Jesus’ initial response to the Canaanite woman allowed Matthew’s readers to acknowledge their own beliefs about Canaanites. As I read Waking up White I would find myself nodding and think, “Yeah, I’ve thought that too.” Then Irving’s story would take a turn, and I would come to see things in a new way through her eyes. The fact that she doesn’t judge, but is instead so guilelessly confessional made it feel safe to explore my own beliefs and feelings. By the conclusion of the story I felt like I had had a conversion experience! And this, I believe, is Matthew’s intention in telling the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this way, to convert his followers to a more inclusive perspective.

There is much more to this story, but this is enough for this morning.

Jesus invites us to journey from exclusion to inclusion. He invites us into face to face encounters with those our society judges, invites us to let their cry work a change in our hearts. And Jesus invites us to accompany one another on this journey without judgment. Following the confessional example of leaders like Irving we too might change our minds.

Simsbury Stands Up Against Hate

vigil pic

These were the words and prayer I shared at the “Simsbury Stands Up Against Hate” vigil held on Thursday evening, August 17, organized in response to the violent expressions of racist hate in Charlottesville this past week.

I am Pastor George Harris from First Church Simsbury just down the street. I am still relatively new to Simsbury, and I can tell you that moving hear feels like coming home. Though I wasn’t born here, I lived in Hamden through elementary school, so the look and feel of Connecticut evokes fond memories. But more than a geographic home, Simsbury feels like home in other ways.

For most of my adult life I lived in Hawaii, and for the eight years before coming here I served a church in downtown New Britain. For the past twenty-five years I have lived in communities of color and ministered among the urban poor. Coming to prosperous, highly educated, mostly white Simsbury marks a notable change. And as I contemplated this change it occurred to me that, as a well-educated, middle class, white man, Simsbury represents a homecoming. It makes sense that in this season of my life I have been called to minister here. It feels right.

Though much here in Simsbury is familiar, I have also been confronted with new experiences. Oddly, one of these new experiences is with oak trees. I know that sounds ridiculous. Of course I know what an oak tree is. As a kid I remember finding acorns, and playing with the little cap, like a hat on a little head. Somewhere along the way I learned the saying, “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” And I also learned that it can take 100 years for an oak tree to grow to maturity

But I had never had an oak tree in my own yard.

When our realtor first showed us our home on Fairview, I noticed that the backyard was carpeted with acorns. I commented on this to our realtor and she rolled her eyes, acknowledging the challenge these present. “Oh yeah, you will have to keep after those. Get your daughter or neighborhood kids to help you,” she said.

I was reminded of oak trees and acorns this week. Like many of you, I expect, I was shocked and dismayed, heartbroken really, by the seemingly sudden appearance of what seems to be fully mature racist hate in Charlottesville last weekend.

In the days that followed I wondered where this sprang from, not only as a so-called, white supremacist, white nationalist, Nazi movement, but what gave birth to such hatred in the heart of these mostly young white men? What were the acorns of racism that caused such anger to grow strong and emerge into the light?

And as I have continued to pray upon and ponder these things it occurs to me that there are acorns of racism everywhere in our society, seemingly small things that send a message that people of color in general, and African Americans in particular are less than.

Much racism is socially unacceptable, such as use of the n-word, telling racist jokes, and wearing swastikas. But we pass right by many other acorns that lie upon the day to day paths we travel.

Now, I have committed much of the past 25 years of my life to working for equality and justice, but I know that I have lots of acorns of bias, prejudice and stereotypes that take root in the fertile soil of my privilege. To tell you the truth, as a white guy, these little acorns are barely visible, they just become part of the landscape unless I pause to look for them. But still, they germinate, and these roots of racism extend deeper and deeper into the soil that is my life, our life, influencing the way we see the world and the choices we make.

And though they aren’t always easy to see, and we may not really want to look for them, there are plenty of these acorns in Simsbury too.

Yes, responding to the horrific events in Charlottesville requires speaking out strongly against white nationalists and Nazis, chopping down these mature oaks of racist hatred at their base. And, responding to Charlottesville also requires picking up acorns right here in our own backyard.

And just as my realtor encouraged me to get some kids to help pick up my yard, so this work of cleaning up our own beliefs and institutions here in Simsbury must involve our children.

Let’s come together to first identify, then cleanup, the seeds of racism right here in Simsbury, before they become the mighty oaks of racist hatred that we witnessed in Charlottesville.

Let us pray…

Gracious and loving God,

We affirm today that you created each and every human being in your image, and that you love us all completely.

So God, we affirm everyone here this evening as a magnificent creation of the divine. Though not perfect, we come together to express our intention to work together for good and to confront evil wherever we may find it.

We also affirm before you this evening, God that you create all humans as equal, and send us forth into the world to live abundantly, and to live together in peace. In particular, today God, we affirm the value of people of color and Jews since these peoples were singled out for hatred in last week’s march in Charlottesville.

Heal us, strengthen us, and encourage us, God, as we have been shaken badly by what continues to unfold on our television and computer screens each day. Quiet the fear that wells up in us and ground us in your peace.

Give us wisdom and courage, God, to respond to racism in all its guises, whether as acorns or full-grown oaks. May we not fall victim to the same hatred and anger we saw on display in Charlottesville, but may we instead draw from the wellspring of never ending love that is you.

And God, may we not forget that those who donned swastikas and picked up torches in Charlottesville are also your children, beloved by you. Please, God, may your loving spirit displace the hatred and anger that separates us one from another that we might live together in peace.

Amen.

Published in: on August 18, 2017 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shane the Barber: Our Scars and God’s Mercy

haircut

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the conversation turned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tending Soil or Slinging Mud?

venice

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

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Enough to Let Go

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

Romans 5:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tillich writes:

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

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

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

Pentecost: Seen, Heard, Known, Accepted and Affirmed

fire 3

 

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

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

Acts 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Varmint Will Never Quit – Ever

Caddyshack

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

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

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

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

(Cue the ominous music suggesting impending doom.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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