Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

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

Acts 8:26-33

Matthew 25:31-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gift Opens the Way

sanborn

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

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Matthew 25:14-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

To Walk as a Child of the Light

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.

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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