To Walk as a Child of the Light

bridesmaids-2

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

Matthew 25:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love Yourself

shooting ghosts 2

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

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Matthew 22:34-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible scholar Clayton Schmit writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

It’s Always Been Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

Pastor George

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

ona banner

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

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence against women is a men’s issue.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Have You Never Read the Scriptures?

what is the bible

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 8, 2017 as an introduction to a book study of Rob Bell’s, “What is the Bible?” 

Deuteronomy 34:7,  Isaiah 43:18-21

Matthew 21:33-46

I was recently talking to a church member about an issue in the morning’s headlines. Though we had differing opinions, the conversation was respectful. At some point I shared a Bible story about Jesus that seemed like a helpful way to frame the issue we were discussing. He all but rolled his eyes. It was obvious that for him, the biblical reference was irrelevant, meaningless, maybe even ridiculous. I was disappointed though not surprised. Even for lifelong Christians and every-Sunday church members, the Bible can seem peripheral to our day-to-day lives.

In the Bible passage from Matthew Jesus tells a parable of wicked tenants that is meant to criticize the leadership of the religious authorities. When it becomes apparent that the chief priests and Pharisees have missed his point entirely, Jesus responds, “Have you never read the scriptures?” He then quotes from one of the Psalms to strengthen his argument against these powerful Jewish leaders. Jesus is challenging them to hear their ancient texts in a new way.

I am not going to delve more deeply into the meaning of the parable itself, rather I am going to use Jesus’ challenge to church leaders, “Have you never read the scriptures?” as a challenge to us all to think about the Bible in a new way.

As I was reminded in my recent eye-roll-inducing encounter with a church member, many today just don’t take the Bible seriously. There are a whole host of questions that are commonly used to dismiss its value and authority. Why should we bother with such an ancient book? Isn’t it all myths and fairy tales? What about all the violence? And the contradictions? Isn’t it only those scary fundamentalist Christians that take the Bible so seriously?

Next Sunday, October 15, following worship we will begin a five week book study of Rob Bell’s latest book, “What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think About Everything.” Like Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees, Bell’s book invites us to approach the Bible in a new way, a way that reveals these ancient texts to be not just relevant but potentially life changing.

Most of the rest of this sermon will present Bell’s first chapter. My hope is that this will both make the case for the transforming power of the Bible in our lives today, but also entice you to sign up for the book study next week

Chapter 1, Moses and His Moisture

A little background. God promised to lead Abraham and his descendants to a better life in a new land. Many generations later, Moses leads Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt, accompanies them though 40 years in the wilderness, and finally arrives with them at a vista overlooking this long promised land of Cana. All this only to find out that he will not cross over with his people to this land of milk and honey, that here he will die.

This is where Bell begins, quoting a single verse from Chapter 34 of Deuteronomy:

Moses was a hundred and twenty five years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak or his strength gone.

OK, so admittedly, thus far this is the kind of Bible story that can make our eyes glaze over and our heads begin to nod. C’mon Pastor George, I thought you promised relevance.

At first it isn’t clear where Bell is going with this. He focuses in on one short phrase. Though Moses dies at the ripe old age of one hundred twenty-five, his strength is not gone. This is counter-intuitive, right? When we are old and die, it can be assumed we have become weak.

Then, Bell focuses in still further on a single word, the word translated as strength, the Hebrew word leho, which literally means moisture or fresh. Other translations read:

nor had is natural force abated

he still had vigor

he had not become wrinkled

Bell asks, “Do you see where this is going?” then makes it plain.

This phrase with the word leho here, just to make sure we’re all clear, is a euphemism for sexual potency. That’s what the storyteller here wants us to know about Moses at the time of his death.

That’s right, friends, Bell continues, Moses, the great leader of the Hebrews, the liberator who led his people out of slavery, the hero who defied Pharaoh, the one who climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, the towering figure of the Hebrew scriptures, when he died,

(and remember, I am quoting Bell here)

When he died, he could still get it up.

Now there’s something you don’t hear in church every Sunday!

And just so you know, this kind of playful, seeming irreverence, is typical of Bell’s writing. That said, this is as naughty as he gets in the book. So if you are sensitive about such things, you have now heard the worst.

So, beyond finding this mildly titillating, why should we care about Moses’ erectile functioning at his death?

For an answer Bell takes us back generations to Abraham. Before Abraham, there was a belief that there was nothing new under the sun. What happened to your ancestors, would happen to you, would happen to your children. God invites Abraham to step out of this cycle, to walk into a fundamentally new and better future. This was a new idea in human history. We aren’t stuck. We don’t have to repeat everything. Up until Abraham, humanity had fallen into a cycle of violence. Empires had formed that perpetuated systems of injustice. People are left to wonder, how much worse can it get?

This is the question that hangs in the air when God tells Abraham that he has a destiny to fulfill, to be the father of a new kind of people, a new era for humanity, an era built upon love not violence.

God tells Abraham that he and his progeny will be a blessing to all people on earth. Instead of being sent out to conquer, he is being sent to bless.

And how do you form a new kind of people that will take the world in a new direction?

You have kids.

And how do you have kids?

You have sex.

And sex involves – that’s right, says Bell – moisture and freshness.

He continues:

So when the writer tells us that Moses wasn’t wrinkled and his strength hadn’t abated and he still had his force, the writer is telling us that Moses was still able to participate in the creation of this new kind of tribe that would take the world in a new direction away from all that violence and destruction.

Can the world head in a new direction, or are we trapped, doomed to repeat that same old, tired cycle of conflict?

That’s the question at the heart of this Abraham and Moses story.

Of course, this question is just as relevant today as it was in Moses’ day.

And of course this question meant everything when Moses was called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. After all, why would Moses even try, or why would anyone follow him, if they believed that once a slave, always a slave.

Bell writes:

If you’re a slave, you have one burning question. Will we always be slaves?

Or to put it another way: Will Pharaoh always have the power?

Or to put it another way: Who’s side are the gods on – ours or Pharaoh’s?

Or to put it another way: Are the deepest forces of life for us or against us?

Or to put it another way: Are we here to suffer, or are we here to do something else, something bigger and better?

Or to put it another way: Does oppression or liberation have the last word? Does injustice or freedom win in the end?

So when Moses led his people out of Egypt, this wasn’t just the liberation of a specific tribe – it was the answer to a question people have been asking for thousands of years:

Are our lives set in stone and unable to change, or can we be set free from whatever enslaves us?

But it wasn’t just an answer to a question. This story about Moses and the Exodus was also a warning to anyone who has ever bullied another person, anyone who has ever held their boot on the neck of someone they were dominating, anyone who has ever used power and strength to dehumanize and exploit the weakness of another:

Your days in power are numbered because the deepest forces of the universe are on the side of the oppressed, the underdog, and the powerless.

 

And this is where Bell brings it all home.

For this Hebrew Tribe, then, passing this liberating and intoxicating idea along to the next generation was really important. That’s how you change the world, by entering into your own liberation and then passing that freedom and joy and liberation along to your kids.

And how do you get kids?

You have sex.

And how do you have sex?

Well, as we all know, that involves leho, moisture and freshness.

So, there you go.

A seemingly obscure, irrelevant affirmation of Moses’ organ potency, in Bell’s hands, leads us to confront the despair we all flirt with from time to time, are we stuck? Can we hope for anything better? These questions along with the accompanying doubt and despair we sometimes feel in response apply equally to our individual lives and to all humanity.

Bell concludes:

We started with a line about his life, which led us to a line about their life, which led us to your life and my life, which led us from the past to the present to the future of all life.

All that, from reading one line in…

the Bible.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ question for the Pharisees, “Have you never read the scriptures?” Which brings me back to my recent conversation with a church member about the news of the day. Which brings us back to the book study that begins next week.

In his light-hearted, seemingly-irreverent way, Bell responds brilliantly and beautifully to all those tough questions so many of us carry around about the Bible.

I close with that verse from Isaiah that I read:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Come next week and see for yourselves.

All Mixed Up!

sneetches

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on World Communion Sunday, October 1, 2017.

Let me begin by reading you a story by the beloved Dr. Seuss:

 

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches-

Had bellies with stars.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches-Had none upon thars.  

Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.

You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. 

 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches

Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort

“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”

And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,

They’d hike right on past them without even talking.  

 

When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,

Could a Plain- Belly get in the game…? Not at all.

You only could play if your bellies had stars

And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars. 

 

When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts

Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,

They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches.

They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.

They kept them away. Never let them come near.

And that’s how they treated them year after year. 

 

Then ONE day, seems…while the Plain-Belly Sneetches

Were moping and doping alone on the beaches,

Just sitting there wishing their bellies had stars…

A stranger zipped up in the strangest of cars!

“My friends,” he announced in a voice clear and keen,

“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.

But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie.

I’ve come here to help you. I have what you need.

And my prices are low. And I work at great speed.

And my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!

Then, quickly Sylvester McMonkey McBean

Put together a very peculiar machine.

And he said, “You want stars like a Star-Belly Sneetch…?

My friends, you can have them for three dollars each!” 

 

“Just pay me your money and hop right aboard!”

So they clambered inside. Then the big machine roared

And it klonked. And it bonked. And it jerked. And it berked

And it bopped them about. But the thing really worked!

When the Plain-Belly Sneetches popped out, they had stars!

They actually did. They had stars upon thars! 

 

Then they yelled at the ones who had stars at the start,

“We’re exactly like you! You can’t tell us apart.

We’re all just the same, now, you snooty old smarties!

And now we can go to your frankfurter parties.” 

 

“Good grief!” groaned the ones who had stars at the first.

“We’re still the best Sneetches and they are the worst.

But, now, how in the world will we know,” they all frowned,

“If which kind is what, or the other way round?” 

 

Then came  McBean with a very sly wink.

And he said, “Things are not quite as bad as you think.

So you don’t know who’s who. That is perfectly true.

But come with me, friends. Do you know what I’ll do?

I’ll make you, again, the best Sneetches on beaches

And all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.” 

 

“Belly stars are no longer in style,” said McBean.

“What you need is a trip through my Star-off Machine.

This wondrous contraption will take off your stars

So you won’t look like Sneetches who have them on thars.”

And that handy machine working very precisely

Removed all the stars from their tummies quite nicely. 

 

Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about

And they opened their beaks and they let out a shout,

“We know who is who! Now there isn’t a doubt.

The best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without!” 

 

Then, of course, those with stars all got frightfully mad.

To be wearing a star now was frightfully bad.

Then, of course, old Sylvester McMonkey McBean

Invited them into his star-off machine. 

Then, of course from THEN on, as you probably guess,

Things really got into a horrible mess.

 

All the rest of that day, on those wild screaming beaches,

The fix-it-up Chappie kept fixing up Sneetches.

Off again! On Again!  In again! Out again!

Through the machines they raced round and about again,

Changing their stars every minute or two.

They kept paying money. They kept running through

Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew

Whether this one was that one…or that one was this one

Or which one was what one …or what one was who. 

 

Then, when every last cent

Of their money was spent,

The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up

And he went. 

And he laughed as he drove

In his car up the beach,

“They never will learn.

No. You can’t teach a Sneetch!” 

 

But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say

That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

Differences lead one group to think they are better than another.

Maybe, once those differences are all mixed up, when no one sees themselves as better than another, everyone can get along.

Sneetches might not be real, but even kids know all about judging because of differences. They get it from us.

Boys might brag that they are stronger than girls. Handsome or pretty boys and girls can get more attention than other kids. Or a kid might get bullied because they speak with a “funny” accent.

The older we get, the more things there are that divide us. Some of these grown up differences might also be visible, like stars on Sneetches. For example, we know that people get judged for the color of their skin, or because they are gay

Lately beliefs about issues have come to divide us like never before.

Opinions about immigration policy, race, healthcare, the role of government, political candidates, patriotism and protests are just a few of the things that have us thinking we are better than one another.

Just as Sylvester McMonkey McBean tried to provoke and profit from divisions, so our differences are exacerbated by politicians who stoke the flames and social media which stirs the pot by tempting us to take sides with polarizing posts and memes.

We may love the story about Sneetches, but how can we respond to the less visible, but just as bitter, divisions around beliefs? Might there be a way we could see each other as the same even as we don’t all agree? Is it possible to both maintain our beliefs while still enjoying frankfurter parties together?

It would be great to think that beliefs are just like stars on Sneetches, that there could be some kind of mechanism that would mix things up until we are no longer divided. Seuss has weighed in; could Jesus be our Fix-it-Up Chappie?

This morning’s text from Matthew has some interesting things to say about differences, specifically the place of belief.

There are two parts to this passage, a confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests, and a parable Jesus tells about two sons.

Jesus has been taking positions on religious and social issues that challenge the beliefs and power of the religious authorities, so they confront him, seeking to discredit him. They want to show that he doesn’t speak with the authority of God.

But Jesus turns the tables on them. He asks them to declare their beliefs about John the Baptist. He asks them to take sides. Does John’s authority come from God or humans? It’s a trap because if the chief priests say that God sent John then they legitimize John as a prophet which then challenges their exclusive religious authority. But if they say that John’s authority comes only from humans then they are afraid that John’s followers will rebel against them.

This highlights a couple things.

There was just as much that divided people in Jesus’ day as there is today. Some of these divisions are familiar, religion, ethnicity and class for example. People then were also divided by their beliefs.

And, as we see, Jesus didn’t shy away from taking sides and challenging beliefs.

He could have been conciliatory. He could have said, can’t we all just get along? Or he could have declared that he had come, not to challenge and confront religious leaders and politicians, but to just give everyone a hug. But in this story, as in much of his ministry, he is intentionally provocative. If this was today, Jesus might have tweeted, “John’s authority, God or human? Fake priests won’t answer. Sad.”

The second part of this morning’s passage is a short parable about two brothers.

A man had two sons. The father tells the first to go work in his vineyard. At first, this son refuses, but later goes to work anyway. The father also tells his second son to go work in the vineyard. This son says he will but never does.

Jesus is probably telling this parable to demonstrate that the chief priests say they believe but, like the second son, don’t act according to those beliefs.

The parable highlights the difference between belief and action. The first son didn’t believe the right thing (respect for his father’s authority) but did the right thing. The second son believed the right thing, but didn’t act on that belief.

In our divided world, where we are so consumed by our beliefs and opinions, and where we judge so harshly those who disagree with us, this gave me pause.

Some of the people I disagree with most strongly do good work. They are loving parents, lead scout troops or coach little league, are active in their church, and give generously to charities. And I also know some people who I agree with on all the issues that don’t always live out their beliefs, can be judgmental, selfish, and unkind.

I once had a Jungian psychotherapist who would offer helpful interpretations of my dreams. I learned that every character in our dreams reveals something about us. I have come to believe that this is true of reading the Bible as well. Though we may identify with one character in a parable more than another; in fact every character represents some aspect of our self and our human condition. So, in this parable of the two sons, we are both sons.

We all, at times, believe things that are wrong but in spite of this are capable of doing much good. And we all also seek to believe in what is right, but not live up to these beliefs.

Beliefs do matter. Beliefs are not just green stars that can be wiped off or put back on our bellies to bring harmony.

The beliefs of Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. mattered. Beliefs shape actions for evil or for good.

Like Jesus we are called to affirm beliefs that are life giving and challenge those that lead to death.

Beliefs matter, and we are all both sons, called to believe and act.

We are all both sons, who ultimately fail to believe and respond.

Beliefs matter, and we are all more than a collection of our beliefs, capable of good but coming up short.

Beliefs matter, but like the Sneetches, we are all mixed up.

I came across a Pete Seeger song by this name, All Mixed Up that expresses this sentiment beautifully.

Long live many different kinds of races

It’s differences of opinion that makes horse races

Just remember the rule about rules, brother

What could be right for one could be wrong for the other

And take a tip from La Belle France

Viva la difference.

Mark will lead us, our YASC interns will sing the verses, and we will all join in on the refrain!

 

Forgiveness: A Work in Progress

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 17, 2017.

Matthew 18:21-35

Those of you who get our mid-week email know that I have had a difficult time finding my way into this sermon on forgiveness. My placeholder for a sermon title is “A Work in Progress,” which meant that when it was time to send out the email and print the bulletin this sermon was only a work in progress; it still is. But it also means that I am a work in progress when it comes to forgiveness, as are each of you.

There are three contexts in which we desire forgiveness.

Some struggle mightily to forgive someone who has hurt or betrayed them.

Others acknowledge the hurt they have caused another, and seek forgiveness from that person.

And still others work to forgive themselves for a wrong they have perpetrated.

Like many, I have experienced all three of these scenarios at one time or another.

Reflecting upon forgiveness in each of these contexts can be extraordinarily painful. I know a number of your struggles to forgive or be forgiven, and I don’t doubt that we could each share painful stories of forgiveness denied. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis acknowledges that the topic of forgiveness “sets in motion — deeply, tragically, painfully — memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive.”

I think the pain we experience around forgiveness leads to a common understanding that forgiveness promises relief of our pain. In this sense forgiveness is transactional. In return for forgiveness, I will feel better. Good feelings between myself and another will be restored.

And, in addition to being painful, according to theologian David Lose, forgiveness is just plain difficult.

“I don’t mean,” he writes, “the occasional moment of warm-hearted forgiveness, overlooking someone’s minor slight when you feel magnanimous; nor do I mean the spontaneous forgiveness you feel when someone is genuinely contrite over some accidental – and again preferably minor – fault. What I mean are those things that are really hurtful; those times when the person seems disinclined to take responsibility, let alone apologize; those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them; those words or deeds that have marked you deeply and painfully and feel like they’ll never go away. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”

At a loss as to where to begin, I googled things like “Top 10 Ways to Forgive.” But after pouring over various self-help lists, I had still not found anything especially helpful. Desperate, I turned to the Bible.

Let’s begin by looking at the Greek word aphiemi in the Matthew passage, translated here as forgiveness. Its primary meanings are to send away, release, leave behind, and let go. Matthew uses this same word quite literally when he writes that Peter and Andrew aphiemi, or left their nets to follow Jesus.

Isn’t that interesting, this suggests that forgiveness isn’t about the restoration of good feelings toward someone, but has more to do with releasing and letting go. This might mean releasing attachment to a wrong committed by or against us, and could even require letting go of and leaving behind a person.

Forgiveness is more than a feeling.

The Matthew passage begins with this short exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive someone who sins against him seven times, and Jesus responds not seven but seventy-seven times. To the casual reader, this might sound like Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard for forgiveness; “OMG Jesus, it’s hard enough to forgive once, and you are asking us to forgive how many times?” But this exchange actually references a passage in Genesis. God promises a “sevenfold vengeance” against anyone who kills Cain; remember Adam and Eve’s son? Sometime later, Cain’s descendent Lamech promises mortal vengeance against a young man who injured him, not sevenfold as God promised, but seventy-seven fold.

Isn’t that interesting? This suggests that anger and hatred multiply over generations.

So, rather than setting an impossibly high bar for forgiveness, Jesus is using a reference from the Torah to demonstrate the power of forgiveness to restore cosmic balance. He is demonstrating a correction to thousands of years of self-centered retribution in order to break the cycle of violence that grips humanity. Jesus is inviting Peter (and us) “to undo the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in cycles of envy, hatred, and retribution across the generations to this day.”

Again, the goal of forgiveness is not to hurt less. There is not a quid pro quo, do this and feel better.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. The king’s servants would travel the kingdom collecting taxes. They were permitted to squeeze some extra money from the peasants for themselves as long as the king gets his cut. It appears that the tax collector in this story had failed to pass along the required percentage he collected, and now owes the kind the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. It would take a laborer about 15 years to earn one talent, so 10,000 talents would take 150,000 years to pay back, obviously impossible.

The servant throws himself upon the king’s mercy, and the king forgives all of this impossibly large debt.

Having just been the recipient of this extraordinary act of forgiveness, the servant is approached by another servant who owes the first servant 100 denarii. Now a denarii is a day’s wage, so this servant owed the other the equivalent of 100 days of labor, a lot, but attainable. But the servant who had just been forgiven by the king refuses to forgive the other’s debt and throws this one into prison.

In this story we might look to the king as our model, that like the king we should seek to be infinitely forgiving.

But the king in the parable represents God. Thankfully, we are not expected to fill the role of God in any of the parables that Jesus tells. God is God so we don’t have to be. And God has already forgiven us everything. That is the message of this parable. Forgiveness isn’t something we need to do, not once, not seven times, not seventy-seven times, because God has already forgiven everything, once and for all.

God’s act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. Forgiveness is s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We act like it is — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question. What do I have to do?

Our goal instead is to not be the unforgiving servant.

We cannot expect to be an infinitely forgiving God, but we can strive not to be like the servant who doesn’t acknowledge the king’s forgiveness and, when asked to himself forgive a reasonable debt, instead seeks vengeance.

By recognizing that the heavy lifting of forgiveness has already been accomplished by God, releasing our hold on some wrong perpetrated by or against us might just be attainable, not easy, but attainable.

This might mean taking responsibility for our own pain rather than affixing responsibility for our feelings upon another’s forgiveness. And when we do this we might find we are able to empathize with the pain of those who continue to judge us. Both these, responsibility and empathy, can help us remove ourselves from the unhelpful, outcome-driven forgiveness equation.

As is true for so much of life in the realm of God, there is a certain paradox in this approach to forgiveness. By not making the restoration of our own happiness the goal of forgiveness, but instead working to let go of our desire for others to feel or act in a certain way toward us, we will likely feel better.

Rather than urging you to just forgive, or forgive more, I think I will follow David Lose’ invitation to simply announce the king’s forgiveness, the unbelievable, nearly inconceivable, amazing and unpredictable and possibility-creating forgiveness of God which each of us has been granted, and invite you to recognize, acknowledge and let go into that gift, remembering that we are all a work in progress.

 

Beloved Child, Magnificent Creation

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Rally Sunday, September 10, 2017.

Acts 8:26-39

Preaching on Rally Sunday always presents an interesting challenge.

Rally Sunday marks the beginning of the church year. Beloved ministries like our choirs and Sunday schools start back up after a summer hiatus, and new ministries like our Young Adult Service Community and church-wide book study are introduced. This Sunday is meant to communicate a certain excitement; in the past I have likened it to a big pep rally.

But here’s the challenge. There is no Rally Sunday in the Bible. I can’t tell a familiar story of the time Jesus gathered his disciples or a crowd of his followers for Rally Sunday. But luckily, references to God’s participation in new beginnings are plentiful in our tradition, right? We’ve got Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth. How about a good Christmas story on Rally Sunday? And what speaks to new beginnings better than Easter! Maybe a resurrection story is what we need. Or Pentecost. In fact, maybe Pentecost really was the first Rally Sunday, the Holy Spirit descending upon thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem, marking the birth of the church.

But this morning we had the pleasure of baptizing little Natalie so what better to mark this fresh start with God than a couple Bible passages about baptism!

The first will be familiar to many. John the Baptist stands in the river Jordan, calling all the people of Jerusalem to be washed in the water, ceremonially cleansed of their sins, making a fresh start. All the people of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside respond to John’s appeal. Then, along comes John’s cousin Jesus who, though identified as more powerful than John, submits himself to be baptized. As John lifts Jesus out of the water, the heavens part, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God’s voice declares, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

Here baptism represents the beginning of the Good News of Jesus’ ministry.

The other story, less well known, takes place following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The apostles set out around the Mediterranean to share this great news about God’s love and welcome as made known through Jesus. They preach, teach and heal, then invite those who want to become part of this loving family of God to be baptized. Baptism affirms for these new followers of Jesus that the Holy Spirit welcomes them, that they too are “God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” In these first months following Jesus’ death the apostles baptize thousands.

This morning’s story chronicles the story of the Apostle Phillip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Just those two words, Ethiopian eunuch, are packed with meaning. This Ethiopian was not a Jew. This story says the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship which may indicate he was what is known in the New Testament as a God-fearer, a non-Jew who sought to follow Jewish law. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian was not a Jew and so considered to be beyond God’s promise of love and excluded from the community of God’s people. Second, he was an Ethiopian. Ethiopia is in Africa; his is African, of a different race than the Semitic apostles. Then, as now, he would have been referred to as black. And then, as now, these racial distinctions carried meaning including judgment and rejection. And third, he is a eunuch! Just to be clear, that means he has been castrated.

When I was in seminary I wrote a paper on eunuchs in biblical times. First century Jewish historian Philo writes:

Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs…

And contemporary scholar J. David Hester writes:

The eunuch as a figure perceived to be neither celibate nor morally chaste, but was an extraordinary gender formation whose ability to navigate within and take on the properties of both male/masculine and female/feminine worlds (physically, sexually, socially, culturally, even politically) was the source of their ambivalent social status.

In short, eunuchs were what we could call today, transgendered, understood to be neither male nor female. Likewise, they had relations with both men and women. Just as it is today, this meant that society judged them harshly and Judaism specifically excluded them from God’s community of care.

So while we have to be careful not to conflate the biblical context with our own, it is absolutely true that the Ethiopian eunuch is someone who because of his religion, his race, his gender identity, and who he had relations with was excluded from the Jewish community and the promise of God’s love and protection.

So, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip could have, according to Jewish law should have, responded with a whole laundry list of reasons. Instead, the two step down from the chariot, enter some water, and Phillip baptizes him right then and there, affirming for him that the Holy Spirit includes him, that he too is “God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

So these two stories affirm that both Jesus and the Ethiopian eunuch are God’s precious children. And we have affirmed this morning, that dear, little Natalie is a precious child of God.

There would have been a temptation then, as now, to rank these as to whom we presume to be God’s favorites. Some would certainly insist that Jesus must be God’s favorite, baby Natalie a close second, and the black, pagan, gender non-conforming, bisexual Ethiopian eunuch a way-back, distant last. By this way of thinking, all of the rest of us would be somewhere between Natalie and the Ethiopian eunuch on this imagined chart of God’s favorites. That would be the temptation. To think that way.

But that would be wrong. Because that is not what is communicated through baptism. Baptism doesn’t rank us. Through baptism, everyone hears the same word of God without qualifications or rankings, “You are God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” Period.

In the novel, The Shack, the God character, Papa, a large black woman, tells the main Character, Mack Phillips, “You may not know this, but I am especially fond of you.” This, of course, makes him feel, special, “God is especially fond of me.” But in time he realizes that Papa says this to everyone…and means it. Baptism is God’s, “I am especially fond of you,” and God communicates this to each and all of us. So, it is true that God is especially fond of Natalie. And, God is especially fond of the Ethiopian eunuch. And God is especially fond of you, and you, and you, and you, and you…

So what makes this a Rally Sunday message?

First, it is right that we begin the church year by reaffirming that we are each a beloved child of God, a magnificent creation of the divine, precious in God’s sight. The ministries of this church, from Sunday morning worship, to our choirs, to baptisms, to children’s Sunday school, to Bible studies, to our visitation and card making ministries, to memorial services, remind each of us that we are chosen and marked by God, pride of God’s life.

Second, we enter into the church year reminded of our mission, to bring this good news of a loving, inclusive God to a divided and hurting world.

These are two essential aspects to our faith. We are accepted, and we are then called to communicate this radical acceptance to all God’s children.

In the course of this church year we will introduce a number of new ministries that bring this message to members of the church and community alike.

The all church book study of Rob Bell’s book, “What is the Bible?” asserts this message, that God’s love, as revealed in the Bible, includes everyone. And the time we spend together over five weeks in small groups will reinforce the good news of our acceptance.

On Sunday, October 22nd we will celebrate the fifth anniversary of becoming an Open and Affirming church with a special worship service and other programs. And, as part of the ongoing process of becoming Open and Affirming we will begin hosting monthly meetings of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Support groups will be offered both for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and their parents.

We will soon welcome our Young Adult Service Community interns and, through their work with Our Piece of the Pie and the Christian Activities Council, will deepen our relationships with people “over the mountain” in Hartford.

Part of this work will involve exploring an inter-faith community organizing initiative with over forty churches, synagogues, and mosques in the Greater Hartford area.

And we will be offering opportunities for racial justice training.

Finally, a group is gathering to get the word out about all this good news here at First Church by updating our website and developing a marketing plan.

This is a day of new beginnings!

“You are God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

Pass it on!

Love and Moral Outrage: From Nashville to Connecticut

truck parking

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

Romans 12:9-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Holy Plot Twist, Cathie

moses in nile

This painting is Moses in the Reedbed by Addie Hirchten.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, plot twist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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