The Politics of Jesus II: The Issues

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 16, 2016, the second of a four-part series, The Politics of Jesus.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Luke 17:11-19

In the summer of 2006, my family and I went back to Hawaii from seminary so I could complete required chaplaincy training at the Hawaii State Hospital. We stayed with the father of a good friend, a retired Army General, Orlando Epp, known to my daughter Abby as Grandpa Orlando. Orlando was a lovable character, one of these guys that would get started telling jokes and could go all night long, one after another with the same deadpan delivery. We spent many evenings by his pool, sipping a cold beverage, as he would rattle off his jokes. Some his favorite were “walks-into-a-bar” jokes. You know the ones:

A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”


A grasshopper walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you!” The grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Ernie?”


Two peanuts walk into a bar. One was a salted.


A guy with a slab of asphalt under his arm walks into a bar and orders a beer, and another one for the road.

Those are all Grandpa Orlando jokes, I didn’t say they were good. Yesterday, when I was poking around on the internet trying to remember his jokes, I also found these:

Past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.


C, E-flat and G walk into a bar. The bartender says, sorry we don’t serve minors here.


A drum set walks into a bar. Ba dum tshhh


Last one. Jesus walks into a bar with a Samaritan and a leper, and the bartender says, “Is this a joke?” And Jesus replies, “No, it’s a parable.”

The parables Jesus told and the stories of Jesus’ life were peopled with an extraordinary cast of characters, Samaritans, lepers, demoniacs, centurions, tax collectors, rich men, and menstruating women. You’d think there was a punchline coming.

But these stories are no joke, instead they offer a critique of the dominant culture in Jesus’ day and communicate something essential about the kingdom of God.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first a little review, this is the second in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus.

Last week I asked, “Was Jesus political, and if so in what way?”

I began with this definition, to be political is to engage a process to order collective lives for the public good. I concluded that by this definition, Jesus was political. Just as Moses confronted Pharaoh to demand freedom for enslaved Israelites, so Jesus, the “new Moses,” was confronting a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. By claiming the authority of God to stand with those who had been pushed to the margins, Jesus confronted powerful religious and political leaders and challenged the domination system. This got him crucified.

If you missed it, both a manuscript and recording of that sermon are available on the church’s website and Facebook page.

This week is part two; I have titled this simply, The Issues. I will not take specific positions on issues, but I will try to draw some general conclusions about how the gospels inform and frame perspectives on certain categories of issues before us in this election cycle. So to tackle this let me return to that cast of characters that fills the stories of Jesus’ life and the parables he tells.

I went through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. Here are just a few representative selections from what I found there.

The main character in the very first chapter is Mary, a young pregnant woman whose claim to be a virgin would have been viewed with suspicion and invited speculation of adultery. Yet her Song of Praise speaks powerfully of God bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is most definitely political language, pointing to a reordering of collective lives.

In Chapter Four, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus returns to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There he references two stories from the Hebrew Bible (what is sometimes referred to as our Old Testament), one about a widow at Zarephath who saved the prophet Elijah’s life during a famine, the other featuring a Syrian General named Naaman who was healed of his leprosy by Elisha. Jesus’ point in celebrating these two as heroes is that neither is Jewish. That means that they were both a different nationality and practiced a different religion than Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Luke writes that those in the synagogue were enraged by the fact that Jesus celebrated these two pagan foreigners in this way.

Then, in Chapter 8, Jesus heals a man in Gerasene who was possessed by demons. We are told that the man was naked and lived in tombs. He would be chained up in an attempt to control him but would break his chains and be driven by the demons back into the wild. Jesus cast out the demons, restoring the man to his right mind. Gerasene was a Gentile city, the people more Greek than Semitic; this, in itself, is significant. And certainly today, we would understand this man to be mentally ill. Significantly, Jesus concludes this encounter by telling the man, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.”

Subsequently, Jesus heals a woman who had been menstruating for 12 years. Women who were menstruating were considered to be ritually impure according to Jewish law and were separated from their community. As a result of her bleeding, this woman had been apart from her community for 12 years. By healing her body, Jesus allowed the woman to enter back into the life of her community.

Then we come to the passage I read about Jesus healing ten lepers. There are two things to notice here. Lepers too were considered to be ritually impure and were cast out of their communities. We read this in Leviticus: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” After they are healed, Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priests. By having their priests confirm that they are now clean they can be restored to their communities.

The other significant thing here is that only one of the healed lepers returns to thank Jesus, the only Samaritan. I talk about Samaritans quite a bit. They were of mixed ethnicity, having intermarried with Assyrian occupiers during the exilic period, and also practiced a form of Judaism not recognized as legitimate in Israel. Samaritans were judged harshly by Jews, yet on at least three occasions they are presented in the gospels as the heroes of a story. Here Jesus comments on the nine Jewish lepers who left, saying, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

So, let’s see what we have here.

  • A young, pregnant woman speaks on behalf of God about reordering the relationship between rich and poor.
  • Jesus begins his ministry, in a synagogue, by identifying two pagans, one a widowed single mother, as examples for people of faith.
  • Jesus heals a mentally ill pagan man and a woman who had been shunned because of her uncontrolled menstrual bleeding, restoring them to their communities.
  • And Jesus cures those with a debilitating and disfiguring disease, restoring them to their communities while also affirming the value and morality of the “foreigner” who was routinely judged for his faith and ethnicity.

All of these inform our perspective on any number of issues that are prominent in this year’s presidential campaign:

  • Respect for women’s leadership;
  • responding to poverty;
  • recognizing the morality and value of those from other faiths and nations;
  • treating the mentally ill and integrating them back into the community;
  • healthcare for the most vulnerable, specifically women’s health;
  • and confronting prejudice toward minority ethnic groups.

These stories are far from a prescription for public policy, but certainly can, and I believe should, be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God. Each of these stories involves lifting up those who are laid low by circumstance, viewing positively those whom the society judges harshly, and relieving suffering. And taken together, these and many, many more similar stories in the gospels, challenge and seek to reorder a whole legal and cultural system that marginalizes some while privileging others.

Let me make one more observation about stories like these in the gospels. Certainly they feature characters that would be routinely judged by the law and culture of the day as less-than. And many of these stories also emphasize the role that restoring someone back to health plays in restoring them to their community. And so it is today. This is why debates about accessible healthcare are so important.

In two weeks, after Rev Kev gets a crack at The Politics of Jesus, I will return to look at the relationship between our faith and civic responsibility. What is our appropriate response, what is our government’s role in responding to the politics of Jesus?

A Muslim, Christian and Jew walk into a bar followed by an immigrant from Mexico and a refugee from Syria. They are joined by men and women, gay and straight, and people with a range of physical and mental abilities. African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders enter with people of European ancestry. “Is this a joke?” asks the bartender. Everyone lifts their glass and responds as one, “No! We are the kingdom of God!”


Note: Before the Benediction I offered these words: “In our tradition the sermon is not intended to be the last word on a subject, but rather an invitation into a conversation. I invite your thoughts on the p0litics of Jesus, however I present this challenge. We are a church, a “people of the Book.” So try to frame your response in the context of your faith. I recognize that you are not all authorities on the Bible, but you can still speak to what you believe about God and Jesus and how this informs your worldview and political perspective.”

The Politics of Jesus, Part I: Was He?

This is the first of a four-part sermon series, “The Politics of Jesus,” preached on October 9, 2016 at First Church in Simsbury, Connecticut.

Exodus 6:28 – 7:6

Luke 4:16-21

This morning’s topic is, “Was Jesus political, and if so, how?”

But before we wade into those questions together, I think three observations are in order.

First, why preach a sermon series about the politics of Jesus, if there is such a thing? Well, I think it is fair to say that this year’s presidential election has been like no other. It consumes headlines, fills social media feeds, and dominates conversations at water coolers and dinner tables alike. We are a people of faith who seek to follow Jesus. When the election seems to be turning our world upside down, God, through Jesus Christ, should, we would hope, be able to provide a center and help us gain some perspective.

Second, I know for myself, and I have heard from many people, that this election is creating a palatable anxiety and worry. In particular the conflict that arises between people with different viewpoints is very stressful for many. Kevin and I will seek to balance our roles as teachers and pastors. I will endeavor to speak the truth of the gospel as best I understand it, while staying grounded in God’s grace and love for all people.

And third, someone asked a fair question, I thought churches aren’t allowed to engage in politics or risk losing their non-profit status. I have looked this up. The IRS Statute on Charities, Churches and Politics is very clear, churches are forbidden from participating on political campaigns on behalf of particular candidates. I can assure you that neither Kevin nor I will promote a particular candidate. You may feel drawn to one candidate or another as a result of what we share, but those connections and conclusions are entirely yours to make. Our purpose is not to sway a vote for one candidate or another but to provide a framework for thinking about these things.

So, was Jesus political?

The answer depends of course on what we mean by political.

Politics has come to be associated with government. In particular, in our American form of Democracy, we associate politics with elections for candidates to public office.

And we know that in Jesus’ day, Israel and its capitol Jerusalem were nothing like an American democracy. Israel was part of the Roman Empire, so was expected to be loyal to Emperor Augustus and his representative in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate. A Jewish king, Herod, was appointed by Rome to rule over Galilee. And a Council of religious leaders, also loyal to Rome, was responsible for the religious life of Jerusalem. So there is no way Jesus was political in any American Democratic sense.

That said, I have a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, and through that work came to understand politics more broadly than just elections and government. In fact, looking for a good definition of politics for this morning, I contacted my favorite PoliSci professor, Kathy Ferguson, and she shared this: Politics is the process of organizing our collective lives. Politics is a process, ongoing not static. Politics requires organizing which can involve both cooperation and conflict. And politics is about our collective lives, not about the individual, but concerned with the public good. Power is also integral to politics, and power makes people do what they would otherwise not do, or enables people to do what they otherwise could not do.

I included the Exodus passage as an example of this definition of politics; Moses entered into a process identified by God to reorder the collective lives of his people, and he wielded the power of God to make Pharaoh do what he otherwise would not, and to enable the Israelites to do what they otherwise could not.

So this is the definition of politics I will use when asking, was Jesus political, did he seek to influence the process of organizing lives for the public good?

So let’s turn to Jesus.

There are various ways of understanding the meaning of Jesus’s life and ministry and these are not mutually exclusive.

One popular understanding of Jesus is as the arbiter of individual salvation. This is communicated in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Another way of understanding Jesus is as the good shepherd who has come to seek us out and bring us back when we are lost, to serve as a source of comfort and strength in times of trial.

Or Jesus may be seen as a teacher and example of a way to live a better, kinder life. For example, in the fifth chapter of Matthew we find Jesus teachings his followers about forgiveness and love for our enemies. Many work to follow these and other teachings so as to be better, happier people.

Notice that each of these understandings focuses on the individual, each is private and apolitical. None of these understandings of Jesus is about organizing our collective lives for the common good. I affirm each of these perspectives and believe all are important to our faith.

So, I ask again, was Jesus political?

I have mentioned that Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh meets my Professor Kathy Ferguson’s definition of political. Many Bible scholars note that Jesus is presented in the gospels, especially the gospel of Matthew, as the “new Moses.” There are a number of intriguing parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus, but the most significant is that Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, and Jesus delivered the “new law” in the Sermon on the Mount. So, if Moses used the power of God to liberate his people, how might Jesus also be seeking to reorder lives for the common good?

One of the most prominent contemporary Bible scholars, Marcus Borg (who just died a couple years ago), identified what he called a “domination system” which operated throughout the Roman Empire, and in Jerusalem in particular. The domination system consisted of the Roman Empire’s political and military might, coupled with the religious power of the temple authorities. The chief priests, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes supported the Roman Empire so they could retain their power and continue to collect temple taxes. In addition to political and religious power, the economic system preserved the wealth and land holdings of a very few. So all three of these, political, religious and economic systems, functioned together to benefit a small number of elite while oppressing and excluding everyone else.

So, whereas Moses liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, Jesus, suggests Borg, worked to liberate those kept down and excluded by the domination system.

Jesus entered into a process identified by God to reorder the collective lives of these people, and he wielded the power of God to make the chief priests, Herod and Pilate do what they otherwise would not, and to enable those on the margins of the domination system to do what they otherwise could not do.

But unlike Moses, Jesus didn’t do this by demanding freedom, he did it by going among those who had been cast out (lepers, demoniacs, the blind), healing them, and restoring them to the community. In addition to being individual, private acts of mercy, these were public, political acts; and the reordering of collective lives these acts promoted threatened the domination system. This is why we find Jesus being confronted by the religious authorities again and again. In Chapter 12 of Matthew the Pharisees seek to undermine Jesus’ authority, delegitimize his power by claiming that Jesus casts our demons by the power of Beelzebub. And in Chapter 21 of Matthew the chief priests challenge Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

The Roman Emperor Julius Cesar was deified, given the title of The Divine Julius. His son, Augustus, who ruled during Jesus lifetime, was then identified as the Son of God. So reference to Jesus as the Son of God were a direct challenge to Rome and the existing system of political, religious and economic power.

So yes, faith in Jesus Christ offers eternal life to those who believe. And yes, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, seeking us out and returning us home when we are lost, offering comfort and strength in times of trial. And yes, Jesus’ teachings and example can help us be better, kinder people. But these are not what got Jesus killed by Roman and temple authorities. Jesus was killed because he was political, because he sought to reorder collective lives for a public good in a way that threatened the existing domination system.

The domination system still exists, and Jesus still poses a threat to those who benefit from it politically, religiously and economically. This is why it is beneficial for some to interpret Christianity as only a private, personal, apolitical faith.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and author of the book, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity. In an Miroslav Volf Interview on Wednesday Volf said:

“The Christian faith is one single faith that we encounter in myriad of forms. By “public faith” we don’t mean some special kind of faith, but we refer to the public dimension of that one faith. It is faith as it concerns common goods. There are circles of these common goods: from the roads and water pipes that run by our houses, through elementary schools all the way to a nation’s monetary policy and international relations. Since Christians believe in the God who created and is redeeming all things, Christian faith is concerned with all these common goods. We should not forget that there is no clear demarcating line between common goods and personal good, between public faith and private faith. My desires are intimate things, but they, too, concern the common good and are of public import.”

So yes, Jesus was political, and our faith today has a public, political dimension. Let us think carefully and engage wisely knowing that God created and is redeeming all things. Amen.



OMG! Not Another Sermon About…(The Poor, African-Americans, Immigrants, Muslims, Gays and Lesbians)

This is the column I wrote for the October 2016 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Greetings, Dear Ones. My how time flies! The first Sunday in October, World Communion Sunday, will mark the conclusion of my ninth month as Senior Minister of First Church! That means that I have preached roughly thirty sermons. So let me name something that has likely become apparent to those who have heard me preach regularly. I preach A LOT of sermons that are peopled with “the poor,” African-Americans and people of color, Muslims, refugees and immigrants, and gays and lesbians. Notice the word I chose, that my sermons are “peopled” with these folks, not preached specifically “to” or “about” them. My sermons are about God’s grace, love and forgiveness, about faith, hope and doubt, about sin and suffering, about being the church, about creation and new beginnings, and much more.

So why do I preach on these themes using illustrations that feature people that, quite frankly, are not represented in large numbers in our congregation? This is a fair question. In the words of a woman at my last church, a seventy-something, Caucasian, retired teacher, “I never hear sermons about me!” Though many of you have enthusiastically affirmed my preaching, I wouldn’t be surprised if some have gone home on a Sunday morning after worship thinking the same thing, “What about me!”

Well, let me respond as I did to this dear woman.

The easiest, though not necessarily satisfying, answer is because Jesus did. Yes he did. Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that the great majority of the parables Jesus told, the sermons he preached, and the interactions he had featured positive portrayals of those on the margins, women, those of other ethnicities and religions, and the poor. When Jesus spoke to or about people with power and money it was almost always as a critique. Imagine the “parking lot conversations” following the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor! I’m not poor; when will he say something that blesses me!” Or the conversation around the table when the Nazareth Women’s Guild got together for their monthly luncheon, “Enough with the Samaritan stories already! He’s from Nazareth, not Samaria!”

Saying that I people my sermon with those on the margins because Jesus does leaves unanswered the question, why did Jesus do this? Liberation Theology answers this question by presuming that Jesus reveals God’s “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.” This suggests that God puts the interests of those on the margins first. After all, didn’t Jesus say on multiple occasions, “The last shall be first?”

I offer a more nuanced response to why Jesus and I talk A LOT about those with less power and wealth. Society in Jesus’ day was just as deeply divided as ours is today. Read the morning headlines about what the Presidential candidates are talking about, race, poverty, immigration, and Islam. Don’t focus on the public policy perspectives on these, feel the emotions that underlie the divisions represented by these issues, resentment, bitterness, fear, anger, hurt, judgment, despair, and helplessness. People on all sides of these issues share these emotions; and these knotted-up feelings prevent us from living the expansive, abundant life God intends for us. Yet the way we typically respond to these feelings is to retreat more and more into the company of people like ourselves. We respond by trying to make our world small rather than pushing boundaries ever outward until the world we inhabit is as big as the kingdom of God.

Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit enables all the nations to come together across their differences, embodies the message of the Gospel for me and frames my perspective as pastor and preacher.

So, dear ones, I preach A LOT of sermons that are peopled with “the poor,” people of color, Muslims, refugees and immigrants, and gays and lesbians. But make no mistake, every sermon I preach is about YOU. I am at First Church Simsbury and preach the message I do because of my love for YOU, each and every one of you. Because I believe with all my heart that EACH and ALL of us are called by God to live into Jesus’ life-giving, life-saving message of reconciliation in order to be the extraordinary, unbound people God created us to be.

Of Russia Salve, Tiger Balm, and Gilead

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 18, 2016.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

When I was in the Navy my ship made a port call in Singapore. In addition to drinking the obligatory Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, some shipmates and I visited a place called Tiger Balm Gardens.

This was a public garden full of colorful statues and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese folklore, legends, and history. To this young American the Tiger Balm Garden seemed pretty cheesy, and was subject to lot of jokes from me and my shipmates, especially when we were funneled into the gift shop and pressed to buy Tiger Balm. Tiger Balm is a fragrant ointment that promises to soothe sore muscles, stiff necks, and arthritis pain. Like the gardens, Tiger Balm seemed exotic until I unscrewed the cap and took a whiff. I knew that smell! Vicks VapoRub!

Remember that? Who grew up having Vicks VapoRub rubbed on your chest or dabbed under your nose when you were congested with a cold? My mom would smear a big glob of Vicks on my chest then pin a wash cloth under my t-shirt, part of the magic, I assumed. Well, truth be told, I always hated mom’s treatments with Vicks VapoRub, and never used the little jar of Tiger Balm that I bought at the Tiger Balm Garden either. But I can never read this morning’s passage from Jeremiah, with its reference to a balm in Gilead, without thinking about, and smelling, Tiger Balm, and Vicks VapoRub.

What was that Gilead Balm anyway? Well, it turns out there are several other references to balm from Gilead in the Old Testament. In Genesis, Joseph (he of the technicolor dream coat) was sold by his brothers to merchants on their way to Egypt with balm from Gilead. The verse reads, “Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.” Later, after the Israelites were freed from captivity in Egypt and entered the promised land, they occupied Gilead, west of the Jordan. The balm trade then became their own. Gilead balm was a highly sought after turpentine like resin that was secreted by a tree that grew there. With its prized healing properties, the balm is said to have been worth twice its weight in silver.

Ah, turpentine! Now, in addition to Tiger Balm, I have another association with this balm from Gilead, Russia Salve! My grandfather, my mother’s father, died when I was a kid. But I remember looking through a box of his nick-nacks and finding an ancient looking tin that said, Redding’s Russia Salve. With a child’s curiosity I brought it to my mother. Mom explained that in the 1800s Russia Salve had been a universal remedy for everything that ailed you, and that Grampa’s parents rubbed it on him just like she rubbed Vicks VapoRub on me! Grampa was a PhD Geologist from Yale, and, using the scientific method he figured out that the key ingredients in Russia Salve were beeswax and, what else, turpentine! So he made his own and filled old Russia Slave tins with his concoction.

So there you go, Tiger Balm, Russia Salve and Gilead.

In these opening chapters of Jeremiah, the people of Israel are mired in sin, in particular they have sought to enrich themselves while neglecting the most vulnerable in their society. In Chapter 5 of Jeremiah we read:

Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.

Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.

They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.


God judges Israel for their sin and the people suffer as a result. The verses that I read this morning mingle the voices of the people, the prophet and God in a lament over this pervasive and intractable sin and suffering.

The people have assumed that God will save them, but God is offended by these assumptions. God has told the people of Israel all they must do to escape the cycle of sin and suffering, but they have turned their back on God’s teaching.

The Israelites assume that God is absent, “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her? Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there?” These are all references to God’s apparent absence.

But there is a certain irony here, right? Because, we have learned that there is balm in Gilead. Of all places, Gilead is known for its healing balm, meaning that God has provided the people all they need. Like what my Grampa learned, that he had everything he needed to make healing salve; the ingredients were right there.

We certainly know what it is to suffer. Whether from the physical pain of arthritis or sciatica, the loss of a loved one, the hurt of betrayal, the grip of addiction, neglect, abuse or trauma, the anxiety of joblessness, or the darkness of depression, to be human is to suffer.

And we also know what it is to sin. As in Jeremiah’s day, we too often don’t promote the case of the fatherless or defend the just cause of the poor; we are prone to neglect the most vulnerable.

And, as in Jeremiah’s day, God has given us all we need in response.

In the words of the African-American spiritual that the Chancel Choir sang so beautifully, there is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul, and that balm is Jesus. But what does that look like in practice. Should we expect Jesus to “take the wheel” of our sin sick lives, as Carrie Underwood sings? Remember, God and Jeremiah are hard on the people of Israel for just assuming God will save them.

Hey, do you know why Tiger Balm smells like Vicks? Both have Camphor and Menthol as their main ingredients. Russia Salve has beeswax and turpentine. So what are the main ingredients for the healing balm of Jesus? I would suggest that the main ingredients in the balm that we need to make our lives whole are faithful relationships and action.

On Thursday I attended a meeting of sixty clergy from the Greater Hartford area. Organized by the Christian Activities Council after two years of meeting with each clergy person one-on-one, the gathering was to build support for a faith-based community organizing initiative. There were Christians of every stripe, Catholic, Episcopal, Congregational, Baptist and Pentecostal. There were Muslims and Jews and Unitarians. Men and women were represented in equal numbers, as were white people and people of color, including a sizable number of African-American ministers.

Now, I’m not sure what you think about when you hear “community organizing.” I know in the 2008 election the term was used as something of a Liberal slur against Barrack Obama. But I assure you that there were as many social and religious Conservatives in the room as there were more liberal clergy. Some may also conjure visions of large, angry mobs protesting in the streets. But there was no anger being expressed here, but a shared commitment to act upon a shared faith in a loving, justice-seeking God.

Faith-based community organizing seeks to channel the power of God by bringing churches, synagogues and mosques together to confront and bring positive change to specific problems that everyone has agreed to, these could include safe streets, a good public education for all, or affordable housing. Actions may begin small, by challenging the opening of a liquor store across the street from a school, or bringing more community policing to an especially dangerous block in the city, but the organization builds on these to take on larger issues. Rev. James Manship of Saint Rose Catholic Church in New Haven spoke movingly about the way faith-based community organizing has transformed his parish over the past five years.

So, remember I suggested that the two main ingredients to make a balm for the sin and suffering that surrounds us are faithful relationship and action. Well, faith-based community organizing might sound like lots of action but not so much relationship. In fact, I have had that experience as a pastor over the years. I will get a call from an activist for a particular issue who says, “Pastor, can you bring twenty-people down to the state capitol on Tuesday to advocate for passage of thus-and-such a bill?” “I’m sorry, do I know you?” All action, no relationship.

But what I heard and witnessed on Thursday was a fundamentally different model. In fact, we took about fifteen or twenty minutes out of our two hours together to sit with someone we didn’t know and have a conversation about when we had witnessed a positive, successful use of power. Really, this was just a conversation starter. I sat with Rev. Dr. Jeff Powell of New Antioch Baptist Church in Hartford, an African-American pastor some 15 years my senior. In that short discussion we found we shared a lot in common, we communicated genuine concern for each other, and agreed to meet again over coffee to continue our conversation.

One of the leaders of this gathering described an activity that will come to conclude each of our meetings, where each participant will draw a name of another participant out of a hat and agree to contact that person between meetings to have a one-on-one conversation. In time, everyone participating in the organizing effort will have a personal relationship with everyone else; we will come to care about each other.

Relationship and action, the ingredients for the balm to soothe our sin-sick souls.

Relationship and Action. So what might it mean for us here at First Church?

I think we have the action part pretty well down. We do a ton of stuff, pastoral care, preparation for worship, programs for our children and youth, community outreach.

And how about relationship? Though I look out on a Sunday morning and I see what appears to be a tightly knit community, there is a happy buzz before worship and at coffee hour, I am learning that lots of us don’t know each other very well. I am also learning that there are more differences among us than it appears. This isn’t a criticism, but is true of any church of a certain size. If we are to be a balm to each other and the community in these troubled times, if we are to effectively respond to sin and suffering, we will need to nurture our relationships.

I’m wondering if we might adapt that exercise I described. What if, upon leaving worship one Sunday a month we drew a name of someone else in worship? We would agree to reach out to that person in the month that followed and have a one-on-one conversation with them. Of course someone would have drawn our name and would be reaching out to us, so by the time we came back together we would know two people better.

Let’s think about it.

There is a Balm in Gilead to sooth the sin sick soul. And God has given us everything we need to make and apply it. Amen.

Collateral Beauty

I preached this sermon on September 11, 2016, “Rally Sunday,” the first Sunday of the church year.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Again, let me give a shout out to our youth group here in worship this morning. The freshmen, including my daughter Abby were “kidnapped” by the older youth at the crack of dawn this morning and taken to Friendly’s for breakfast.

Seeing it through Abby’s eyes, I am reminded that high school brings a whole host of new experiences; every day Abby comes home with stories and questions that cause me to recall my own high school experience 40 years ago!

The other day she asked, Dad, what’s a pep rally? I have no idea what a pep rally at Simsbury High is like, but back in the day, at Satellite High School in Satellite Beach, Florida, the whole school crowed into the gym on a Friday afternoon dressed in school colors. An emcee would get us worked up with a loud, enthusiastic, introduction. I was in the pep band and we would play a few of our most rocking songs; “The Horse,” does anyone remember The Horse? Mark? (Mark plays a few bars of The Horse on the piano) Cheerleaders would lead us in cheers; students on opposite sides of the gym would compete, “We’ve got spirit yes we do…” Players would be introduced with great fanfare. It was all meant to convey the power and strength of our team and school and encourage us on to victory in the big game that night! We were the first and the best!

It sometimes seems that Rally Sundays are meant to be big pep rallies for church.

Our various choirs and musicians present inspirational music (Mark plays a few bars of The Horse). Your ministers are the cheerleaders. Heck, we could even introduce our team; “Ladies and Gentleman, our quarterback (i.e., President), Cindy Braunlich!” The crowd goes wild! This morning could set the tone for the whole year, reminding us that we are powerful and strong! We are the first and the best!

Indeed, First Church is considered a large, successful church, like that powerhouse high school football team that contends for the championship every year. And we have “stars” in our congregation, individuals who are the best in their positions. After eight months, I’m still astonished by how much this church and our members achieve.

Though it would be a stretch to equate Paul’s letter to Timothy to a pep rally, his words here are meant to inspire and prepare the early church for success and victory. And thought of in this context, Paul’s words would seem to be the worst kick-off to Rally Sunday ever. As the emcee, Paul introduces himself as a former blasphemer (that means he insulted God), a persecutor and man of violence (meaning that he had been a terrorist who tortured and killed Christians), and the foremost sinner. Instead of leading a cheer of “We’re number one!” he kicks off the pep rally with “I’m the worst! The number one sinner!”

As strange as it may sound to our modern sensibilities, this letter was intended to call the church to victory by reminding it that it cannot succeed on its own strength and power. Only after Paul acknowledged his own weakness and dependence was he able to answer God’s call to mission and ministry, and he is calling on the church to do the same, to put its faith in God, not itself.

And as strange as it may at first sound to our modern sensibilities, this is the appropriate starting place for this morning’s Rally Sunday. Our starting place is not strength and power and achievement, but recognition of humanity’s limitations, acknowledgement of our individual and collective weakness and failure. In the words of the hymn, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, “I am weak but thou art strong. Jesus keep me from all wrong.”

Paul is leading a cheer for the early church and for us. Give me an S – Give me an I – Give me an N – Give me another N – Give me an E – Give me an R – Give me an S. What’s it spell? SINNERS! Say it again! SINNERS! One more time! SINNERS! (Hold up sign, “Let’s Go Sinners!” as Mark plays “Charge” on piano.)

Understand that we are not celebrating or cheering on sin. But rather, when we acknowledge our limitations, God’s grace empowers us to do extraordinary things in spite of ourselves, to function as God’s team, the body of Christ, in the world, winning justice for underdogs everywhere!

I saw a trailer for a movie that’s coming out in December, called Collateral Beauty. A father, played by Will Smith, tragically loses his young daughter. Mired in depression he begins writing and mailing letters addressed to time, love and death. Though expecting no response, the Smith character is visited by each of these, time, love and death, in the form of three people who engage him in response to his letters. That’s all I know about the movie, but I was struck by the title, Collateral Beauty. An obvious play on the term collateral damage, which refers to the unintended death and destruction that occurs as a result of war. A bomb lands too close to a hospital and kills innocents, that’s called collateral damage. The term collateral beauty speaks to the surprising, unintended acts of beauty that are set in motion by God’s grace in spite of our human failings, our sin. It’s a lovely turn of a phrase. Collateral Beauty.

So maybe, we aren’t meant to cheer our own or the church’s success and accomplishments on Rally Sunday, but instead invited to tell stories of the collateral beauty that God births into the world in spite of our limitations. I read just such a story on Friday, shared on Facebook by one of our members, Robin Batchelder.

Robin writes:

So I just had an “incident” at the grocery store. I was going a little slow cause I had just walked/ran about 5 miles. I am sore. The woman behind me said “hurry up slow poke” normally I would have been pissed, instead I turned to her and made sure I had her attention. I said to her “I hope that you find peace within yourself, enjoy the rest of your day.” Many people heard me and started applauding. Know your words in a minute can make or break someone’s day. I chose to have them make mine. I was approached in the parking lot by a woman with her children. She thanked me for having her kids witness the beauty in such a dark world. I think this has changed me forever.

Now Robin doesn’t mention God’s grace in her story. But she does acknowledge that, “normally, I would have been pissed.” I would suggest that that thing that allows us to rise above our “normal” bad behavior is, by definition, God’s grace.” And then look what happened; collateral beauty runs all over the place, gets all over everyone and everything. People smile and applaud. A woman thanks Robin for setting a good example for her kids. We don’t know about the woman in line, but we can be sure that some of that collateral beauty spilled on her too. And we can rest assured that the collateral beauty that God’s grace set in motion that day continued to flow in the lives of those who witnessed Robin’s actions.

This is, of course, the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I came across an article written on the fifth year anniversary in Bates Magazine. I know we have some Bates graduates in the church. In the article, Why 9/11 Stories Matter, Jonathan Adler explores the value of telling stories. Americans in particular, says Adler, love to tell redemptive stories, “narratives that weave together the reconstructed past, the perceived present, and anticipated future in an attempt to provide our lives with some sense of unity and purpose.”

Though his is not an article about Christianity, ours is a faith tradition of redemptive storytelling. Of course the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the archetypal redemptive story, and Paul’s conversion and call is also a story of redemption. Robin’s is a redemptive story. And now, fifteen years after 9/11, we are finding redemptive stories to tell – stories of relationships formed, good acts inspired, lessons learned – stories that reveal the collateral beauty that triumphs over humanity’s worst.

And finally, Baptism, tells a redemptive story. In a moment I will invite the Mauke family up to baptize their precious Parker James. Now to be clear, little Parker himself does not require redemption. Some 1600 years ago, the church father Augustine put forward the concept of original sin, the idea that we are all born with sin within us. But I don’t believe it, not for a second.

In the Gospel of Matthew we find the story of people bringing children to Jesus in hopes that he might bless them, but the disciples rebuked the people for doing so. They didn’t think Jesus should be wasting his time on children. But when Jesus heard what the disciples were doing, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the Children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the realm of God.” And Jesus took those children in his arms and blessed them.

So, while we are born innocent, blessed and beloved, who could argue that we are born into a sinful world, a world that begins to exert its influence upon us from our earliest moments? In a child’s life, Baptism becomes a symbolic first telling of God’s redemption story, a story of grace and the collateral beauty that no darkness can ever overcome.

On this Rally Sunday and in this year to come, may this be the story we tell, a story of God’s grace that forever calls us beyond our “normal” bad behavior to be the body of Christ, the church, empowered to be agents of God’s love and beauty.

I invite the Mauke’s to come forward with Parker James.

Follow the Happy People, and Be One!

Two recent studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reveal that “people who attend Sunday worship not only feel better during the time they are in church, but they are happier throughout the week than non-churchgoers.”

Talking about her faith and experience in the United Methodist Church, actress Pauley Perrette (Abby on NCIS) affirms these findings in a video she made for UMTV . Perrette describes her real estate agent as the happiest person she knows. After not having had much connection with church, and going through a difficult time in her life, she describes waking up one morning and saying, “You know, I think I’m gonna go to that church where the happy guy goes!” There’s a lot there! Like the studies,  Perrette’s experience concludes, come to church and be happier. Her experience also suggests that happiness  (and love) serve as invitations to church!

Some people are paralyzed when they hear they the word “evangelism,” thinking it means they need to be something or someone they aren’t. Quite the opposite. Perrette wasn’t drawn to church by an invitation to “be saved.” Rather, she saw something in her realtor that she wanted too, and associated that with his attendance at church.

So what does that imply for evangelism? First, come to church and be happier. Next, let that light shine for all to see. Then, don’t be shy about letting people know you attend church. Led by the Spirit, they will make the connections between church and happiness for themselves!

Published in: on September 2, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Deeply Divided: Of Folders, Scrunchers and Jesus

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

Luke 12:49-56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following Jesus requires us to make choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



If Failure Didn’t Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Luke 12:13-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Reversal of Fortune

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

Luke 10:25-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who were the Samaritans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newt Gingrich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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