Our Stories, Our Story: A Great Dane, Moana, and the Baby Jesus

This is my column for the December 2016 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

My Harris ancestry is reasonably well documented. There is a church yard cemetery in Paoli, Pennsylvania where all my direct Harris ancestors are buried, going back to Thomas Harris who immigrated before the Revolutionary War. Then there is the vaunted “Green Book” that chronicles much of the early Harris history. Though well-documented and much talked about I have never had a keen interest in my Harris lineage. I have never felt an especially strong connection to these people.

I know much less about my mother’s Dane side of the family, hearing only occasional references to her mother’s German ancestry and father’s English roots. But when my mother came to Simsbury for Thanksgiving she brought some Dane genealogy with her including a family tree, written in my Uncle Sunny’s hand, going back into the 1600’s. Right there near the top was my forbear Reverend Francis Dane who emigrated from England in 1636. A few Google searches later I learned that Francis was the second minister of the North Parish Congregational Church in Andover, Massachusetts, the 37th church founded by Puritans. He and many in his family were accused of witchcraft, and his daughter Abigail was convicted. She escaped hanging because she was pregnant, and after petitioning the court for eleven years was finally exonerated. It is said of Rev. Francis Dane that he “was indeed to fight the plague with a heroism unequaled by any who had choice in the matter, risking not only his own life and reputation, but what must have come harder, the lives of nearly all the womenfolk in his family.”

I felt an immediate connection to Francis’ story. He was a Congregational minister who stood up against social forces that fearfully scapegoated, demonized and persecuted vulnerable people. Not only do I make a strong connection to my own call to ministry, like me, Francis had a remarkable daughter, Abigail!

Genealogy is enjoying a renaissance, fueled in part by websites such as ancestry.com that make it easier to identify our ancestors. For me, this is less about the DNA I share with Francis and more the connection I make to his story. On the same day I was discovering Francis’ story, my Abby was inspired by the new Disney movie, Moana, a mythical tale with a female, Pacific Islander hero (who looks remarkably like Abby). Francis provides a meaningful touchstone for me as a Dane, while Moana makes Abby’s Pacific Islander heritage come alive. But even as stories like these reveal connections across families and ethnic groups, they also exclude those who don’t share these ties.

But there is an extraordinary story we all share as Christians, a story that traces our lineage back to God through the birth of Jesus Christ! Our story includes a cast of characters to rival any Disney epic, a teenage girl, an evil king, angels and shepherds, an innkeeper, mystics from the East, and an infant laid in a cattle trough. Each year we gather to tell and retell this beloved story that joins us all to the family of God. In this story we find ourselves. Through this story we better understand who we are and whose we are.

Francis stood up for what was right at an important moment in American history. Moana saved her island people. But God, through Jesus, reveals the divine power of redemptive love that binds us all together forever.

Come to First Church over Advent, on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning as we again gather to tell this, our family’s story.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Advent I: Standing Watch

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on November 27, 2016 on the First Sunday of Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

Many of you know that I was an officer in the Navy. For two and a half years I was stationed on a ship, the frigate USS Ouellet out of Pearl Harbor. Whether in port or at sea, ships operate twenty-four hours a day. To make sure all the systems operate properly and safely the entire crew are assigned to stand watches overlooking various aspects of the ship’s operations. In port I was qualified as the Command Duty Officer or CDO meaning I was responsible for everything that happened on the ship after the Captain had gone home for the day.

CDOs were allowed to sleep at night while several sailors would stand watch, checking machinery readings, making security checks, and standing at the brow, checking sailors on and off the ship. But I was always anxious about what might happen while I was sleeping. One night as I slept the ship got a call from the Honolulu police that two of our sailors had caused a terrible car accident, they had been drinking, speeding through a tunnel, hit another car that crashed and burst into flames, killing the occupants including a baby. The sailors then fled the scene and were later apprehended. When the call came in, the sailors standing watch came in to wake me up, I am told, but I fell back asleep and didn’t hear about the accident until I woke up in the morning. I remember the feeling of dread that consumed me as I realized that I had failed in my responsibilities and slept through this really important incident. At a minimum I should have woken up and called the Captain. When all was said and done, no additional harm came of my failure. But I can still recall that fear following my inability to “stay awake.”

This memory came to me when I read the Matthew passage in which Jesus implores his disciples to “stay awake” suggesting dire consequences should they fail.

This is what is known as an eschatological text, a teaching about the end of human history as we know it, and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal reign of peace. Every year, the Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, begins with one of these eschatological teachings or stories. And I can tell you, most preachers I know hate it, myself included! Why? First, because it is hard for many of us to wrap our minds around. So called “end times” are the stuff of bad books and movies. And second, because it is terrifying. These lessons bring up that same fear I felt at having slept through something important, failed in my responsibilities, sure I would be judged with terrible consequences.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The church is decorated, we are looking toward Christmas with excitement and anticipation! I think these parables are inserted at the beginning of Advent as a way of framing Jesus’ birth as an end of the old order and the dawn of a new era. But really, is it necessary to scare the bejesus out of us just to say, “Something good is coming; get ready?”

But this is the text we have been given, so let’s see what we might find here to lead us from fear to hope?

Following the teachings of Judaism, many of Jesus’ followers believed that his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be followed in short order by his triumphal return to inaugurate a new age of peace and justice. This is what the prophet Isaiah anticipates when he says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and…nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought this would happen in their lifetime. However years passed, and instead of a triumphal return, really bad things happened. The Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Matthew is writing to a fearful community of Jesus followers with a couple messages. First, no one knows when this will happen, not the angels nor Jesus himself. Only God knows the time when God’s plans for peace and justice will be fulfilled. And because no one knows, everyone better pay attention so as not to miss it when the realm of God breaks through.

Well, now almost two thousand years have passed and God’s promise of a new heaven and earth has still not been realized. So how are we left to understand passages like this?

We have three choices.

First, we can wait as Jesus’ followers did, for a once and for all end to our conflicted human history and the dawn of a new age with no more suffering or crying or pain.

Or, second, we could understand that this promise of life everlasting is fulfilled not at the end of human history, but for each of us as individuals at the time of our death. Many Christians share this hope that death will deliver us from the suffering of this life into eternal rest in the realm of God.

But there is a third understanding of eschatological passages like this one; we can find here God’s promise to us today. Each day is a day of judgment, God is forever revealing a new heaven and new earth if only we stay awake and pay attention. We can recognize these God moments, and choose to participate in them, or we may fail to see or willfully ignore them, and oppose God’s activity among us.

These understandings are not mutually exclusive, and many people of faith embrace some aspect or combination of the three.

But I believe that the third, the idea that God is beating swords into plowshares right here, right now, is especially compelling for us today. This reading makes sense of Jesus’ intense, almost threatening tone in this passage. He isn’t just saying get ready for good times; rather Jesus is saying I am revealing the realm of God to you in this moment, yet you refuse to see and accept it; and you’re refusal has consequences. Wake up!

So, how might we stay awake to recognize, and participate with the ways that God is breaking into our lives each and every day?

To do this, I want to return to that metaphor of standing watch.

My favorite watches to stand were bridge watches as Officer of the Deck underway. I especially enjoyed the mid-watch, stood from midnight until four in the morning, when we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Captain would be in his stateroom asleep, and I would be on the bridge with three other sailors, a helmsman, a lee helmsman and a quartermaster.

I was responsible for the safety of the ship. This meant staying alert for any danger, reading the chart with the quartermaster, looking at the radar, tracking the course of any other ships to make sure they would remain a safe distance from us, receiving reports from the engineering watch about the operation of the boilers and engine, and ordering the helmsman and lee helmsman to make the necessary corrections to our speed and direction to say on course.

But something else would happen on the bridge of the ship on those mid-watches. While staying alert for peril, I would also have a heightened awareness of the moon rising over the ocean, of the phosphorescence illuminating the bow wake, of the Milky Way undimmed by city lights, and of the taste of the salt air.

The Confirmation class learned recently about “thin moments,” experiences where the boundary between the mundane and sacred become porous, permeable, or thin. I had many thin moments on the bridge of the Ouellet.

Beyond seeing God revealed in the magnificence of creation, there was something about that darkened bridge of the ship that made one mindful of the relationships between us. A ship’s crew is a wonderfully diverse assortment of humanity. You’d get kids right off a farm in Nebraska alongside men who grew up in inner-city Detroit. I can’t say that we had deep conversations about philosophy or religion, but we had very genuine conversations. Along with funny stories about escapades in the last port call, we would talk about being homesick, of our hopes and dreams for the future, of having our heart broken.

These conversations were also thin moments. Though I wasn’t even active in a church at the time, I can look back on standing watch on the bridge and see the gentle stirrings of what would later become a call to ministry.

Thomas Merton once said:  “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through everything.  The thing is that we normally don’t see it.”

This is how I read this morning’s Matthew passage. Stay awake! Pay attention! God’s realm of peace and justice is being revealed, all the time, right here, right now.

Some describe the experience of giving birth as a thin place where human flesh kisses the divine. This is why Paul draws on the language of birthing in describing humanity’s relationship with creation, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” And this is why the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are uniquely powerful, human life is affirmed as holy.

I remember cupping Abby in the palm of one hand the day she was born, sure I was looking upon the face of God. Though being the father of a teenager is a considerably thicker experience, that divinity still lives in her and lives in each of us if only we have eyes to see. One of my favorite contemporary hymn writers Brian Wren expresses this beautifully in his poem Good Is the Flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Beginning with the uncertainty and anxiety we share with angels, this Advent we are asked to develop the art of watchful living. What lies before us is far from certain, but certainty is not required to act in a spirit of wakefulness.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God is shining through everything. So watch! Pay attention! Stay awake!

 

Dreading Thanksgiving Table Talk? Helpful Words from Jesus, Piglet and Pooh

Here is the homily I preached at the Simsbury Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church on November 20, 2016.

Luke 14:1, 7-11

Good evening!

For those who might be meeting me for the first time, I am George Harris, or Pastor George, as I am known to many at First Church Simsbury. I am fast approaching my one-year anniversary as that good church’s Senior Minister, and my six-month anniversary as a proud and happy resident of this special town of Simsbury. My family and I moved here all the way from New Britain where I had been serving a church for eight years.

My Simsbury colleagues turned to me several months ago and said, “George you’re new, and the new minister usually preaches at the Thanksgiving service.” Though I wasn’t given much of a choice, I was thrilled by the opportunity! I love to preach; some at First Church have told me that I am courageous, risk-taking, even fearless in the pulpit, unafraid to take on tough issues from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So I thought, how fantastic is this? I have the attentive ears of Simsbury all in one place. Think of all the trouble I could cause?

And then I read my Bible. Nothing ruins a preacher’s great idea for a sermon like reading the Bible. The parable of the wedding banquet in Luke quickly put me in my place. It’s not all about me. Jesus directs the guest at the banquet to humble him or herself, to choose the lowest place at the table instead of sitting at the head of the table. So much for my visions of grandeur.

As I sat down to think about this wedding banquet table in the parable, it morphed in my imagination into a table set for Thanksgiving. I smelled the delicious smells of roast turkey and fresh baked pies. I saw the best china, polished silver, the gravy boat that only comes out once a year. And the air is filled with happy sounds, the youngest cousins squealing as they chase each other through the house, older cousins comparing videos and music on their phones, and the grownups, many of whom have made the annual trek from out of state reconnect over a beverage.

Suddenly, these happy sounds are interrupted by “Wah-Waaah!” Oh no, it’s Debbie Downer! Some of you may know Debbie, a recurring character played by Rachel Dratch on the long-running sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Others will recognize Debbie Downer from your own Thanksgiving gatherings.

There was even a Debbie Downer Thanksgiving skit some years ago. A family is gathered around a Thanksgiving table filled with happy banter when one guy at the table says, “Wow, the traffic on the way here was a disaster,” to which Debbie responds, “Nothing compared to what the Chinese are going through…” Wah-Waaah… The camera zooms in on Debbie’s downturned face. Everyone falls silent and shifts uncomfortably as Debbie describes the typhoons and bird flu that have devastated China. Debbie finishes and the conversation picks back up; the father at the head of the table passes a bottle of wine around asking with a wink if the Pilgrims brought Pinot Grigio to the first Thanksgiving. Debbie responds to the rhetorical question with, “I’ll tell you what the Pilgrims did bring, smallpox.” Wah-Waaah… “they killed scores of Native Americans, ravaging their population.” Again the camera zooms in on Debbie. And on it goes, happy conversation followed by a buzz-killing comment by Debbie Downer until one person at a time walks away from the table leaving Debbie by herself. Finally, even the roast turkey gets up and walks away.

Almost as much as Thanksgiving meals are known as love-filled expressions of gratitude, they are also too often stressful gatherings rife with conflict. As a pastor, church members sometimes come to me expressing dread at the prospect of being at the table with Uncle Ferd or Aunt Izzy. I think this anxiety about family gatherings is true this year more than ever, given our bitterly divided political climate. I have a dear friend who has unfriended her own mother on Facebook as a result of their angry exchanges about politics, but come Thursday mother and daughter will be sitting across the Thanksgiving table from each other. Wah-Waaah. I don’t doubt that there are those here this evening who are facing similar fears.

Looking for a helpful word to share for those with Thanksgiving anxiety I again turned to Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. What would it mean to take the lowest place at a conflicted Thanksgiving table?

But before I could get very far in interpreting the text, my mind drifted to a more innocent time.

As a kid my family owned a twenty-five foot sailboat that we would take cruising on Long Island Sound and around New England.  One of my favorite memories from this time is rocking gently at anchor, the halyards clanging against the mast, and curling up below with my brother as my Mom read Winnie-the-Pooh stories to us. This was probably around 1970 when the Viet Nam War and accompanying protests were going on, so the times weren’t really so innocent. But fond memories of my 8 year-old self, listening to Winnie-the-Pooh stories, now seem worlds apart from our current trials.

Returning to some of those stories as an adult reminds me that there is some deep wisdom in those books by A. A. Milne. In fact Pooh and Piglet knew a lot about humility.

So, here is the lesson of the wedding banquet, interpreted by Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, and applied to a conflicted Thanksgiving dinner in this conflicted world of ours.

Think of these as five steps to humility, ways we might work our way down from the head of the table, to accept Jesus’ invitation to take the lowest place.

First, seek understanding.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has a brain.”

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has a brain.”

There was a long silence.

I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

This exchange between Piglet and Pooh about Rabbit reveals the difference between being clever and understanding. There is no doubt that we will be prepared for clever conversation around the Thanksgiving table, bringing carefully practiced and well-worn arguments in support of our favorite causes and positions. But understanding is different; understanding one another requires seeing from another perspective and may require leaving our clever arguments behind.

The first step to humility is to seek understanding. The second is to pay attention. This quote is from Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” This is an elegantly simple definition of mindfulness, a way of quieting our busy minds. Have you had the experience of formulating a response to someone’s comment before they have even finished talking? I pretty much do that all the time. It means we aren’t really present with someone or listening to what they are saying. We also aren’t in touch with how we are feeling. Maybe if we just sits, pay attention to our breathing, allow ourselves to be present with what is happening inside us without jumping in to respond, the energy around the table may change for the better.

Seek understanding, pay attention and then be patient. Piglet says, “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Perfect! When Uncle Ferd cuts me off and begins ranting, I will assume he has a small bit of fluff in his ear! He’ll wonder why I’m just sitting there smiling.

So, humility understands, pays attention, is patient, and then gives way.

Winnie-the-Pooh says, “Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more…to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”

What would happen if we gave way on those hot-button issues that arise at the dinner table? I don’t think Pooh is suggesting that we give up our deepest held beliefs, but that the love that is nurtured by letting go in a particular moment could be more important than driving someone away on principle.

We are almost there. A last word from Piglet.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could still hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

With each of these steps we have worked our way down from the head to the lowest seat at the table. We seek understanding, pay attention, are patient, give way, and when we arrive at the other end of the table we just might find that our very small hearts are filled with gratitude for the people at the table, even Uncle Ferd and Aunt Izzy!

Of course Jesus’ lesson in the telling of the parable was never meant to apply to just wedding banquets or Thanksgiving dinners, but was meant to be a lesson for life. And again, none of this is to suggest that we stop fighting for what we know is true and just in our lives; Jesus stood up for who and what he believed in, even unto death. But like Pooh and Piglet, Jesus also sought understanding, paid attention, was patient, gave way, and lived with a heart filled with gratitude for God and all God’s children.

Whether in our encounters at the Thanksgiving table or in this conflicted world we live in, may we do the same.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Go and Do the Same: Take Care

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Donald Trump was elected as President.

Luke 10:25-37

This is the second Sunday of three during which we are focusing on stewardship themes, giving to and caring for the church. I have shared that I intend to refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan each of these three Sundays, each time making an observation about giving to the church. I thought this Sunday was going to be a cinch, I already had the sermon outlined in my head.

Then the election happened. Of course I knew the election was going to happen, but I didn’t anticipate that this was going to be sermon worthy. For reasons I will soon speak to, I concluded that I must say something in response to the election and its aftermath, as difficult as that might be.

With any significant sermon challenge it always pays to spend some time with the Bible text first. Some of these most loved parables are so familiar that it is sometimes hard to imagine there is more to learn from them. But I am always amazed that such stories continue to reveal layer after layer of new insight.

So, this is the most common interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. Two hypocritical, cold-hearted religious leaders cross the street so they don’t have to help a man who has been beaten up and left for dead next to the road. Along comes a Samaritan, one who was looked down upon by society because of his religion and ethnicity, and he stops to help the man. The religious leaders are the obvious villains in the story, the Samaritan the unlikely hero. The moral is, don’t be a villain; be a hero.

I expect, however, that if this was a true story the situation would have been much more nuanced than a contrast between two evil people and one good one. If this was a true story, the priest and the Levite would have truly believed that they had very good reasons to avoid the man alongside the road. In fact, they may have had truly good and important reasons to cross the street. The priest may have been afraid. There had been reports that robbers were setting traps for passersby. One would pretend to be injured; then, when someone stopped to help others would emerge from hiding to beat and rob the kindhearted stranger. Maybe the Levite had an urgent matter to attend to. He had received a message that his child was sick and near death, and all he could think about was getting home to be by her side. It broke his heart to pass by the man beside the road, but he had to put his daughter first. Maybe neither of these two men was the uncaring beast that history portrays them to be.

I know this isn’t the way Jesus tells the story, but isn’t this more like real life? Life often seems complicated, more gray than black and white, filled with tough moral dilemmas.

So, let’s tuck that away as we reflect together on the election.

Our President elect, Donald Trump said and did some terrible, truly offensive things in the course of the election. He ridiculed a reporter with disabilities. He belittled a war hero. He cast Muslims as terrorists and Mexicans as rapists. He spoke of forcibly grabbing women by the genitals. He promised to revoke rights for gays and lesbians. This is all part of the much publicized public record.

Like the priest and the Levite in the Samaritan story (as I recast it), Trump voters, and I know there are some here this morning, are sure they made the best choice, and in fact likely had thoughtful reasons to make that choice. One thing I hear is that people looked past Trump’s vile behavior because they believe the policies he promotes are necessary for our country, that he can best keep us safe, that he will lower taxes and return manufacturing jobs, and that he will better respond to illegal immigration. Others had such strong negative feelings toward Hilary Clinton that they could not bring themselves to vote for her.

It is not important whether I agree with these positions or not, my point is that many who voted for Trump are sincere in their belief about what is best for our country. I can’t imagine that good and faithful people in this church voted for Trump because of the racist, sexist, xenophobic and offensive things he said, but voted for him in spite of these things.

I saw a helpful metaphor a few days ago. Does everyone know what HBO and Cinemax are? These are two cable TV channels that you have to pay extra for. So imagine that you call the cable company because you want to order HBO and only HBO. You like particular shows on HBO and want to watch these shows, nothing else. But the representative on the other end of the line informs you that the only way to get HBO is to order a package that also includes Cinemax. You keep insisting that you don’t want Cinemax, please give me only HBO you plead, back and forth you go. Finally, exasperated you realize that the only way are going to get HBO is to get the package that includes Cinemax, even though you are sure you will never ever watch it.

I think this metaphor captures something about the package we have gotten with Trump. Accepting that many who voted for him were not voting for the racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic things he said, now all of us, whether we voted for  him or not, have the whole package.

None of this is meant to point a finger of blame at anyone. I don’t think that is helpful. But we all now have Cinemax even though none of us really wanted it.

Some Trump supporters accuse Hillary voters of being sore losers. Get over it, get behind the President. If this was just about policy disagreements that is a fair statement. We don’t all get what we want in any election.

But what I am hearing most from those who voted for Hillary is fear. Gays and lesbians are afraid. African Americans are afraid. Immigrants and Muslims are afraid. Women and fathers of daughters are afraid.

That fear may be partly about Trump’s anticipated policies, but more immediately we are afraid what racist, homophobic, misogynist actions people will be emboldened to take because of what they heard our President elect say.

There has already been a spike in vandalism, bullying and violence toward women, Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and Hispanics, and gays and lesbians since the election. Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama told USA Today yesterday, “Since the election, we’ve seen a big uptick in incidents of vandalism, threats, and intimidation spurred by the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election. The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory and many are feeling their oats.”

This isn’t just something I read. You all know that my gorgeous and talented wife Lourdes was born in the Philippines and speaks accented English. She is easily identifiable as an immigrant. My gorgeous and talented, 13 year-old daughter Abby is of Pacific Islander ancestry and has beautiful brown skin. I can tell you, I woke up Wednesday morning afraid, worried for their safety.

Beyond a fear of physical violence is the emotional toll of feeling like your life matters less. Over 60 million people voted for the man who said these horrible things. For many who are members of one of these denigrated populations this knowledge feels like an invalidation of one’s identity and very existence. It feels like voters put other things before the dignity, worth, well-being and safety of these people, and they did.

This is not a rant. So please don’t hear or dismiss it as me railing against Trump. This is where I am going.

We, as a church, regardless of who we voted for as individuals, are called by faith to stay on the same side of the road with and render aid to the most vulnerable people in our society. We are called to be the Samaritan in this time, to act to preserve the safety and well-being of gays and lesbians, people of color, women and girls, Muslims and immigrants, and people with disabilities. Now more than ever, First Church must be this safe place and work to make our community and our country this safe place.

None of us are simplistic villains or heroes. We all have limitations, yet we all try to do the best we can with what we’ve been given. But whether we voted for Trump or Hillary, this is how we are now called by God to come together as the body of Christ.

Yes, like the priest and the Levite, we may be afraid, we may have other genuinely important things to give our attention to. But as revealed in the Good Samaritan story, we are above all called to be neighbors to the vulnerable and injured. This is our mission. This is our call.

And a stewardship message follows from this perspective. Last week, I observed that the Samaritan was moved by compassion to respond to the beaten man’s immediate needs. This week, I draw our attention to the Samaritan’s decision to carry the man on his pack animal to an inn and pay the innkeeper for a room, so that the man might more fully recover.

We might equate responding from compassion to meet immediate needs to putting something in the offering plate in response to a story that touched our heart in the sermon.

But the Samaritan’s decision to put the man up in an inn required careful fore thought. Here he makes a longer term commitment. He would have asked, how much money do I have? What other demands are there on my finances? What do I hope will be accomplished through this commitment I am making? These are the same kinds of questions we should be asking when making a pledge to First Church. Yes we should be moved by compassion. And we should also give prayerful forethought to our decision.

This year our stewardship committee has set two goals. Increase participation. We are asking all members and friends of the church to do more than put something in the plate on Sunday morning, but make an annual pledge to the church. A pledge demonstrates the extra level of commitment shown by the Samaritan.

The second goal is to increase the total amount pledged by 10%. This will allow the church to expand our ministry and mission, whether in pastoral care, women’s and youth ministry, or outreach. Like the Samaritan, please give careful thought to how much you are able to commit to the church.

This road to Jericho is dangerous. Together we are the Samaritan walking on the side of the vulnerable and injured. Together we are the body of Christ. Together we will find the courage and make the commitment to respond.

 

A Pastoral Word In Response To The Presidential Election

For those who are struggling mightily emotionally and spiritually with the outcome of the presidential election I offer these pastoral words:

  • Feel. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, all of them. Some will say, “Be hopeful!” Hope has not been extinguished; but true hope will emerge out of the real dark stuff of our experience, including fear, anger or despair. We can only find our way to hope by beginning where we are.

  • Breathe. Take time out to watch your breath, in and out, in and out. Not only will this help quiet our busy minds, our breath is also a concrete reminder that we still have this “one wild and precious life” to live to the fullest (Mary Oliver).

  • Embrace. Hold one another. Exchange a heartfelt hug or handclasp; we need to affirm our human connections, now more than ever.

  • Pray. In particular pray for our own and the church’s wisdom and courage to respond to the challenges that lie ahead.

  • Listen. There is a lot of noise right now. The ground underneath us feels unstable. But remember, God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire (1 Kings 19:11-12) but in the silence, listen for the still small voice of God. It’s still there.

  • Demand. Demand justice, and avoid appeals to reconciliation that do not first commit also to equality and justice for all God’s children.

  • Resist. Especially resist oversimplified or unhelpful theological explanations, specifically that everything that happens is part of God’s plan (“for a reason”). God has no plan apart from us. If God’s Kingdom (Beloved Community) is to come, it’s up to us to get busy building it.

  • Speak. Boldly speak the truth as we understand it, as made known to us through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • Act. We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), called by God “for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)

  • Believe. No earthly leader can extinguish the light of God nor the love of God for all creation.

Finally, Remember. You have Pastors at First Church Simsbury always available to feel, breathe, embrace, pray, listen, demand, resist, speak, act and believe with you.

Published in: on November 9, 2016 at 8:16 pm  Comments (1)  

The Politics of Jesus IV: Faith and State

This is the last in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus, that I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 30, 2016.

Mark 11:15-19

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last November, Saturday Night Live produced a short comedy video of a family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving.

The father, at the head of the table, begins the meal by saying, “Happy Thanksgiving everyone! To which everyone around the table responds with big smiles, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

The father continues, “I am so thankful that all of you are hear today.” The mom in turn says, “I am so thankful that I only burned the turkey a little bit.” Everyone laughs.

An aunt says, “You know what I am thankful for, that our governor is not going to let those refugees in here.” A cousin across the trouble looks horrified, and responds, “Oh my God.”

Words appear on the screen that say, “Thanksgiving with family can be hard.”

The conversation continues, the father saying, “You know, I heard the refugees are all ISIS in disguise.” The aunt jumps in again, “That’s true, I saw a ISIS at the A&P today when I was picking up the yams.” Disgusted by the direction the conversation is taking, the aforementioned cousin raises her voice in response, “No you didn’t, Aunt Cathy that was an Asian woman.”

Again words on the screen, “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs.

The dinner table conversation devolves further when “Aunt Cathy” asks the cousin’s black boyfriend why his “friends” keep antagonizing the police?

By now the table is erupting in angry exchanges, and the words on the screen read, “But there’s one thing that unites us all…”

A little girl leaves the table, walks across the room and turns on a CD player, and we hear the opening bars of Adele’s song, “Hello.” The table quiets immediately, and Aunt Cathy lip synchs, “Hello, it’s me…”

Everyone around the table stops fighting and joins in,

“I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet

To go over everything

They say that time’s supposed to heal ya

But…”

The doorbell rings, the music stops, grandparents arrive, and everyone resumes arguing in response to the grandmother’s comment that she saw “two transgenders at the airport.”

The little girl rolls her eyes, and again pushes play.

Again the table responds together with an even more impassioned lip synch performance of the Adele song.

One more time, fighting erupts, only to be reconciled again by Adele’s music.

Finally, all rancor overcome, the mom invites the smiling family, “Dig in everyone,” and the little girl turns to the camera and says, “Thanks Adele.”

SNL effectively drew upon the ubiquitous popularity of Adele’s hit a year ago to help us laugh at what are equally ubiquitous and painful experiences of division over politics.

That was a year ago and today we are even more painfully divided around the table and across the country. It will take more than Adele and a laugh to bring us together.

This is the fourth and final in the Politics of Jesus sermon series. Let me review the path we have trod together.

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

I began with this definition, that 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 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 was political, and this got him crucified.

The second week I took a look at “The Issues,” going through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. I concluded that the stories of Jesus’ life and the stories he told 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.

While the stories in the gospels are far from a prescription for public policy, they can, and I believe should be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God.

Then, last week Rev Kev delivered a much needed message of hope, reminding us that Jesus walks with us through all our discouragement and despair.

The title of this week’s sermon is Faith and State. Accepting that Jesus is political and, and that Jesus does prioritize certain issues over others, what does this require of us as his followers?

First, many Christians are quick to respond to political questions by invoking “the separation between church and state.” Just to be clear, this is part of the First Amendment of the Constitution, not the Bible. And these words are not meant to prohibit religious people from bringing their faith into politics, rather they emphasizes that the government cannot promote or prohibit religion. So we, as Christians, can and should apply our values in the political realm. We can and should reflect prayerfully on Jesus’ teachings, his priorities, when we vote and otherwise participate in the public sphere.

But that’s not all. The politics of Jesus leads us far beyond a vote in an election.

Again, I proposed that Jesus confronts a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. This confrontation climaxes when Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple.

I would suggest that a similar domination system comprised of political and economic elite continues to act to preserve wealth and power in the hands of a few today. Further, both major parties and their candidates represent these same powerful interests and perpetuate this unequal and unjust system. In fact, I would suggest that the entire electoral system and system of governance as it is currently structured and practiced preserves and maintains this unequal system.

So, if Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers then, who confronts these interests today?

Says the Apostle Paul, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” This is the way the Apostle Paul refers to the church. Notice he doesn’t say the church is like the body of Christ, or could be the body of Christ, if only we behaved differently or better. He says you are the body of Christ. So, who is confronting entrenched political and economic, and yes, religious interests today? That would be, should be, us, the church.

I recognize that this is daunting, especially imagining ourselves literally overturning tables. I can imagine the response should I invite everyone to meet at the Capitol in Hartford to overturn some tables. “Thank you, but I’m not really dressed for that.” “My son has a soccer game.” “I have to do laundry.”

But Jesus didn’t only confront the powerful through acts of civil disobedience, he did it by forming a particular kind of community that modeled an alternative way of being, by modeling the kingdom of God. As noted by Paul in his description of the body of Christ, this community required many and diverse members to function.

Over the years I have been fascinated by what are sometimes called intentional communities, Christian communities that seek to model the body of Christ, intentionally bringing diverse people under one roof to live, work, and worship together.

One powerful example of such communities are the L’Arche communities that provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. The first such community was founded by Jean Vanier in France in 1964, and there are now almost twenty in the United States including ones in Boston and on Long Island.

Another example, years ago I spent several days in an intentional Christian community called the Open Door in Atlanta, Georgia. Middle class Christians live together with the formerly homeless and incarcerated, worshiping and sharing communion, providing breakfast to day laborers, and fighting for fair housing practices in the Atlanta area. The commitment these folks showed to loving in each other and working for God together across profound differences made a lasting impact on my faith.

Communities like L’Arche and Open Door represent a certain ideal of discipleship for me, both confronting a system that excludes and oppresses while modeling an alternative. But I have never found my way to committing to such a life.

But as I pondered our role as the body of Christ here at First Church in Simsbury it occurred to me that we have a unique and invaluable opportunity to seek reconciliation, confronting a domination system that seeks to divide and exclude, while modeling an alternative.

I don’t really know how our congregation breaks down along liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican lines, except I know we have both in good numbers.

To some extent, simply gathering together on Sunday mornings and worshipping together, sharing communion together, pot-lucking and lip-synching together challenges the increasing divisiveness in our country.

We are a somewhat politically diverse community, but we would not yet qualify as an intentional Christian community that seeks to understand and love one another across our political differences. In fact, if we are intentional about anything, it would be avoiding any conversations about our political views.

What would it look like for us to develop and practice safe ways for us to talk to each other about our deeply held beliefs, to cultivate within ourselves an ability to really listen and hear one another, affirming always God’s grace for all?

I think it is pretty clear that the division and rancor we are experiencing in this country isn’t going to disappear on Election Day, no matter who wins.

After all the votes are counted we will be left with that angrily divided Thanksgiving table portrayed by Saturday Night Live. If only Adele was enough to unite us and bring peace. But in fact the one we need to bring us together is already at the table, Jesus Christ, and we are that body of Christ and individually members of it. Let us be intentional about modeling reconciliation for a divided and hurting world. For this is the politics of Jesus.

 

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!”

Amen.

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.

%d bloggers like this: