Tongue Tied

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 16, 2018.

James 3:1-12

An old friend of mine from Hawaii just shared a wonderful story. Peggy is a brilliant trial lawyer and passionate advocate for liberal causes. She is fearless and dogged in any debate about contemporary issues. Some years ago, Peggy moved from Hawaii to Moscow, Idaho. Though the University of Idaho attracts some liberals to Moscow, Idaho is a red state so Peggy often finds herself outnumbered in political discussions. Since moving to Idaho Peggy’s labor of love has been leading an organization called Palouse Pathways that works with children and youth to inspire and prepare them to attend college.

Peggy picks up the story from here:

I had a great afternoon at the Latah County Fair at my table for Palouse Pathways. I have to share a couple of experiences that will stay with me in this crazy world. I had a wonderful time talking with kids, but these experiences were both with older men.

One was a volunteer for the Palouse CareNet Pregnancy Center booth right next to mine. I loathe crisis pregnancy centers, hate them with a passion. But I did not discuss this with my booth neighbor. We talked about kids and college, and I felt we had a similar passion for helping young adults figure out what to do.

The other encounter was with a heavy set guy named Lynn, a little rough around the edges, wearing overalls. He took all the material I had, telling me that he wanted to give it to his neighbor who had three little kids and no job. He kept saying he wanted her to have dreams and that it’s terrible when people don’t dream.

He then pulled out his beat up wallet and took out a tattered piece of paper (I’m thinking, uh oh), and he quietly sang to me a song he wrote, reading the lyrics off of the folded and refolded sheet. The verses each started with the phrase “oh dreamer, oh dreamer, oh dreamer.” He had a lovely voice and pale blue teary eyes.

It felt like time stood still — really because I wrestled my monkey mind to hold time still — because I was telling myself — this is a moment.

And it was.

Peggy faced a choice, we all do, especially in these times, when to hold our tongue and when to speak up for what we believe in. In his letter, James writes, about the power of the tongue, of words, of speech, of language to damage and destroy. He also writes about bridling or controlling our tongue. I know Peggy well enough to know that she was capable of using her tongue to start a political firestorm in her encounters with these two men, yet she felt led in a different direction.

James’ letter is wisdom literature, the only example in the New Testament. This means it is composed or proverbial sayings and practical word of wisdom to live by.

The author speaks in imperatives, short commands that tell us what to do and what not to do, for example, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

To some, James’ tone is off puttingly judgy. Many contemporary readers would rather be led to a feel-good experience of God’s grace and love, than be left feeling reprimanded for falling short of God’s expectations. As a result, James is sometimes neglected in Bible studies and sermons.

But James suggests that we cannot fully rest in God’s love, nor can we fully experience our own humanity, unless we first recognize God in each other. And we too often deploy our tongue to deny God’s likeness in others.

James puts it right out there, we all make mistakes, specifically in what we say, in our use of language. He then uses a series of metaphors to describe the tongue, like a bridle or a rudder, the tongue is small but powerful. Ignited by hell, he says, the tongue is a small fire that can set a whole forest ablaze. The tongue is a world of iniquity that stains the whole body. Then come these blistering verses:

“No one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

Bible scholar Mark Douglas writes, “James’ warnings about language are all the more pressing at the beginning of the twentieth-first century. As we move ever further into the information age, we also move ever further into the disinformation age. Error, miscommunication, deception, slander, and libel have become so common that we expect them from reputable sources, and all but insist on them from sources we think of as disreputable.” Douglas wrote those words in 2009. Some ten years later, James’ words have never been truer.

I return again to Peggy’s encounter with the two men at the county fair. Like all of us, she is quite capable of cursing those made in the likeness of God. Given her experience as a trial lawyer, Peggy’s tongue could have functioned as a flamethrower. Where did she find the bridle to lead her in another direction?

As sometimes happens when I have scripture percolating in my head all week, stories come in bunches. In this one, Ann Bauer writes:

I come from Minneapolis, and before that I lived in Seattle and Boston — three of the bluest, most left-leaning cities in the United States. I was an urban woman and couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than a city. My husband concurred. Then our 28 year-old son died in late 2016.

Suddenly the traffic and noise and confusion became too much. John and I took off on a year’s driving tour of gentler parts — both of us working from the road, a computer security consultant and a writer. We grew nearly silent in grief. We considered Asheville, N.C., and Santa Fe, N.M. But on a chilly, silver January day, we drove into the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. Though neither of us could put our finger on exactly why, this felt like our place.

People back home were flummoxed: I heard them say a lot about white, rural Christians who reject outsiders and “cling to their guns.” But what city folk don’t know is how beautiful it is here, and by that I mean way more than you imagine.

One Sunday in August, after yoga, our pit bull Ellie accompanied us to Home Depot.

There was an old truck in the parking lot with a large American flag stuck upright in the bed and a handmade sign about the virtues of patriotism and God. Since our daughter joined the Navy, everything about the military makes me miss her. And the constant evangelizing feels like a threat to every spiritual inkling I have.

We walked through the store slowly, because it was cool and somehow nicer — quieter, maybe? — than the Home Depots up north. Somewhere around plumbing, a couple stopped to admire Ellie. They were adorned in pastel tie-dye and Jesus paraphernalia. He had a silver beard, a lurching limp and an enormous silver cross on a leather cord around his neck. She wore her hair in a messy gray bun, and had a rubber bracelet around her wrist. On it was printed “Matthew 11:28.” “She is gorgeous!” hollered the man, leaning down to pet Ellie, teetering because his game leg was at least two inches shorter than his good one. He scratched her where she likes, on her hips, for a minute. After he was done, the woman squatted gracefully and let Ellie lick her entire face. “They are such a misunderstood breed,” she said, wiping away either tears or dog slobber as she rose. “Thank you for letting us visit with your little one.” We wished them a good afternoon, and they walked away holding hands.

When we got home, the dog lay in the air conditioning and slept with her tongue hanging out. I started making dinner, and while the meat was cooking I googled Matthew 11:28 on my phone. I suspected it would be about the wicked and our need for salvation, or miracles where only believers were raised from the dead. Instead, I found this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I had wandered onto our deck, and the trees around me shimmered in a sudden cooling breeze. And so — in a sense — we have, I wanted to tell the woman. We are weary. We’ve found rest. We are here.

Peggy concludes her story with these words:

I know the value of meaningful political conversations. But encounters like the ones I had at the fair remind me of the essential human dignity of others. That’s what I need now.

I need to be reminded of others’ humanity.

And my own.

Upon meeting those they were inclined to judge, both Peggy and Ann were led to hold their tongues, and so encountered God in these strangers.

Oh dreamers, Oh dreamers, Oh dreamers, you too are being led.

Come, all you who are weary and burdened, open yourselves to recognize the likeness of God in others, their humanity and your own, and find rest in God’s grace and love.

Amen.

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Published in: on September 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Letting Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Mother’s Day, May 13, 2018.

John 17:6-19

Acts 1:1-11

It seems like just yesterday that my daughter Abby would, upon getting out of the car in a parking lot, reach up to grasp my index finger with her tiny hand, so I could lead her safely to our destination. Even though Abby stopped looking for my finger to hold onto over a decade ago, I somehow still imagined that I could always offer her something to hold on to that would assure her safety.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I would not and could not always be there to protect Abby from harm until two years ago. That illusion evaporated before my eyes right here in the parking lot of this church.

Abby was thirteen years old, and right downstairs outside Palmer Hall, at about 8 o’clock in the evening, after an orientation for the upcoming mission trip, Abby climbed into the back seat of our car. The window of an SUV parked next to us was lowered, and two smiling girls, who I would later learn were Gabby DiCarlo and Natalie McDonough, called out, “Hey, can Abby come with us for Mexican food? We’ll take good care of her; we promise.” No doubt looking like proverbial deer in the headlights, Lourdes and I stuttered, “Sure, I guess so!” And in the blink of an eye, Abby was gone! We were left to wonder, what have we done? Will we ever see our daughter again?

Lourdes and I ended up waiting in the Puerto Vallarta parking lot for Abby to emerge after her meal. She came out bubbling with excitement about being out on her own with older girls. After listening to her talk happily about the things Gabby and Natalie taught her about high school boys, I couldn’t resist asking her if Gabby was a good driver. “She’s an awesome driver!” Abby responded, “Some biker dude tried to pass us and cut us off, but Gabby sped up and totally flipped him off!”

Just like that, Abby released her hold on my index finger to follow the middle finger of another. And so began the process of letting go.

On this Mother’s Day, I have been inspired by both of the Bible passages I read to reflect upon motherhood, more broadly, parenthood, and more specifically, the challenge parenting presents to letting go of our children.

I acknowledge up front that it is impossible to speak to every mother or parent’s experience. There was a time when some churches would steer clear of Mother’s Day reflections, not wanting to hurt those who feel conflicted on this day, whether because of a difficult relationship with a mother or child, the loss of a mother or child, or an unfulfilled desire to be a mother. But I hope the lessons we find in this morning’s Bible verses will speak, not only to mothers and parents, but to all who struggle to let go of who and what we love.

So, without presuming to speak for everyone, I think I can safely say that the vast majority of parents want their children to one day grow up to live successfully and happily apart from us. I can’t imagine any mother or parent, at their child’s birth, not having this dream for their child.

This morning we celebrated two baptisms, and I don’t doubt that the Beals and the Veales share this deep desire for their babies, that they grow up able to live and find happiness on their own.

Baptism, affirms God’s participation in the fulfillment of this hope for our children. Baptism reminds us that the Holy Spirit is already working in the lives of these little ones to one day lead them beyond their parents’ protective and nurturing arms to fulfill God’s promise for their lives, that Jesus’ joy may be made complete in them.

The last thing I want to do is detract from this hopeful vision, but I expect it comes as no surprise that the years of child rearing beyond baptism come with a sizeable portion of parental anxiety. Not that parents don’t worry about our children at every age, but just as Lourdes and I learned two years ago, there is a particular kind of angst that sets in as our children begin to test their wings in preparation for one day, leaving our nest.

Though Abby now regularly catches rides with friends, and we are often grateful for the flexibility this provides all of us, that first ride from the church two years ago marked the beginning of a terrifying process of letting go that confronts most every parent.

Both readings this morning speak to this process of letting go.

In the four gospels, John alone includes a long speech by Jesus to his disciples at what we have come to call the Last Supper. Jesus knows that he will soon be leaving them and is preparing his disciples to let go. These verses I read from Chapter 17 are part of Jesus’ prayer to God for his disciples.

Anticipating Mother’s Day, I heard Jesus’ prayer as if from a mother for her children, praying for their well-being as they prepare to live without her. I paraphrase Jesus’ prayer:

I will not be in the world much longer, but they will still be here without me…While I was with them, I protected them, Holy One, I now ask that you protect them…I say these things while I am still here, so that they can share completely in my joy…My prayer is that they participate fully in all the world offers while being protected from all its danger and evil.

Jesus’ words are filled with deep love and concern, like a mother for her children.

The Book of Acts picks up the story following Jesus’ death and resurrection. After his resurrection, Jesus appears among his disciples for forty days, then gathers them one last time before being taken up to heaven. Luke, the author of Acts writes, “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

With Jesus’ departure imminent, the disciples still want reassurance that everything is going to be OK, “is this the time you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Just as a parent desires reassurance that their child will be OK, the disciples desire certainty. Instead, Jesus says trust the Holy Spirit. And he is gone.

Abby is only fifteen, but I imagine that this worry for our kids never ends. I imagine I will always want to be able to extend my index finger for Abby to hold onto, to lead her beyond danger to safety. And yet I know that this is not my purpose as a parent. We are meant to prepare our kids to venture across the parking lot of life without us, to face darkness and danger and find their own way back to safety and light.

We do what we can do to prepare them, and are asked to trust God with the rest, not to take them out of the world, but to protect them from evil and make their joy complete in the world. To send them forth with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yesterday, Lourdes was talking to the mother of Abby’s boyfriend, Nate; they were talking Junior Prom, matching the color of Abby’s dress to the color of her Nate’s bowtie – (boyfriends, another exercise in letting go). I shared the topic of my sermon with Nate’s mom, Beth, and asked her how she responds to the challenges of letting go.

She affirmed that as difficult as it is, her calling as a mother is to prepare her kids to lead fulfilling lives on their own. And she said that every day, as she watches Nate walk to the bus stop she says this prayer:

Dear God, Watch over him, guard him and guide him. Help him be a good student for his teachers, a good friend to his peers, a good citizen of the earth, and a good child of God. Lord, when he’s faced with difficult decisions and tempted by darkness, please lead him down the right and just path in your Son’s name. Amen.

And I offer this prayer for mothers and parents.

Dear God, Watch over us, guard us and guide us. Help us be good teachers for our children, good role models as citizens, spouses and friends, good examples as faithful followers of Jesus, and most of all good parents to our children. When we are faced with difficult parenting decisions and tempted by darkness, please lead us down the right path in your Son’s name, that we may one day let go and entrust our precious children to you. Amen.

 

Published in: on May 18, 2018 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

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.

 

 

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!

 

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