23rd Psalm (remix), featuring St. Francis

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Psalm 23, John 10:11-16

Do geese see God?

Tell me, do geese see God?

Not sure?  Let me say it backward?

Do geese see God?

Ah, this is a palindrome, a word or phrase that reads the same way frontward and backward.  Mom is a palindrome, as is Wow.  So is, Live not on evil; and, Desserts, I stressed.

Several years ago, I came across a variation of this kind of word play, something that when read backward says something very different than when it is read forward.

Here is a wonderful example, a video poem called Lost Generation (clink link to view before continuing).

The first time I watched the video, the dramatic reversal of the text and the message from self-centered cynicism to empowered hope brought tears to my eyes.

With thoughts of palindromes and clever videos in mind, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if there was some such meaningful word play embedded in our beloved 23rd Psalm.  I read it backward thinking there might be some hidden message in there.  Alas, the 23rd Psalm is not a palindrome, nor does its timeless and beautiful message of God’s tender care for us change when read backward.  But I was not to be deterred.

There is yet another form of word play that might inform this morning’s reflection on the 23rd Psalm, the remix.

Contemporary composers of popular music, hip-hop and jazz, remix standards and classics to create new music.  They do what is called sampling, recording recognizable words and rhythms from other popular songs and inserting them in their own composition.  Results vary.  Some people say that such sampling and remixing plagiarizes the talents of better composers and only succeeds in ruining the original classic.  Others find that this sampling and remixing gives the classic new life, helping people hear it in a new way.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe the 23rd Psalm doesn’t work as a palindrome, maybe it isn’t helpful to scroll the text backward.  How about a remix?  Now, I know what you are thinking.  Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare mess with the words and message of our beloved 23rd Psalm.  No passage in scripture is so treasured by so many.  It is perfect in its poetry, especially in the King James Version we heard this morning, and its message that God leads us, protects us from evil, and surrounds us with goodness and mercy provides timeless comfort and encouragement when we are feeling lost and bereft.

While written well before the birth of Christ, as Christians we associate the psalm with Jesus the Good Shepherd.  In this morning’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  We understand that in Christ, our Good Shepherd, we shall not want, we lie down in green pastures, we are led beside still waters, our soul is restored.

As beloved as the 23rd Psalm is, as many times as I have heard someone say that for them, the 23rd Psalm “says it all,” I dare say, that taken by itself, it’s a bit self-centered. Bear with me.

Listen to the emphasis of the psalm.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me.  The words I, me, my and mine appear in the 23rd psalm 17 times.  17 words out of 117, 15% of the psalm is all about me!  No wonder I feel so good when I read it!

By comparison, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis speaks not of what God will do for me, but how we can serve God and others.

Don’t get me wrong.  The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful expressions of God’s love for us ever written, and it remains so.  But in the larger context of the gospel, perhaps there is something more for us here.

You know I often refer back to the Apostle Paul’s words in the 12th Chapter of First Corinthians where he refers to the church as the body of Christ.  He doesn’t say that the church is like the body of Christ, Paul says the church is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ.  Read with Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ in mind, the 23rd Psalm isn’t referring to some idealized image of God as a good shepherd “out there” who will take good care of me, myself and I (17 times), instead we, the church, are the good shepherd called to care for all God’s children.

God asks us to be his good shepherd, to go out into the world to care for all his sheep.  Listen to these words from this morning’s gospel lesson.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

About six months ago, First Church members gathered with other interested people from the community to consider sponsoring a refugee family. Working with a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven, our volunteers quickly organized into committees, took the name HANA, Hartford Area Neighbors Alliance, and satisfied all the requirements to host a refugee family. Unfortunately, this was the very moment when the U.S. refugee resettlement program was suspended.  HANA has been in a holding pattern for the last few months.

I got an email yesterday that HANA now has an opportunity to assist a Syrian refugee family, Ibrahim, Adeebah and their five children ages 4-16. They arrived in the United States last November and were sponsored by a community group in Manchester. But it was no longer safe for them there as they were receiving death threats, so they have been resettled in West Hartford where there are other Syrian families.

HANA is now preparing to support this family

And Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”  We, the church, are God’s good shepherd.  We are called to reach out as the Good Shepherd to restore God’s promised love and protection to the lost.

I promised a 23rd Psalm Remix, so here it is, the 23rd Psalm, featuring St. Francis:

Lord make us an instrument of Thy peace,

make us, Lord, Thy Good Shepherd;

for we shall not want, but shall sow love;

Where there is injury,

may we prepare green pastures for lying down;

Where there is doubt, help us still troubled waters;

Where there is sadness and despair, make us restorers of souls;

And where there is darkness,

give us light to lead in paths of righteousness.

O Divine Master,

As we walk with those who suffer

through the valley of death’s shadow,

May we fear no evil, for you are with us.

Grant that your rod and staff may provide comfort,

and that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,

Let us set tables before friends and enemies,

Not to be understood, but to understand

Anoint our heads with oil and fill our cups to overflowing

Not because we are loved, but so we can love others

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in laying down our life for your sheep,

That we are born to eternal life

Where we will dwell in your house forever.  Amen.

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Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

In 2017, Make Like a Pig! Rooting Our Way Through the Mud to Unearth the Truffles.

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on New Year’s Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Revelation 21:1-6a

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable—such as eating a pound of bacon for breakfast—complaining isn’t good for you.

Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future—so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.

I thought of this research about the way repeated behavior can change our minds when I read a quote from a book by Rob Bell. In his book Love Wins, Bell writes:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

Let me read that again:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

This quote, in turn, caused me to think about the passage I read from the Gospel of Matthew in a new way.

Sometimes called the Parable of the Judgement of the Nations, Jesus speaks here of the consequences of choices we make. Speaking of his own return, Jesus says the Son of Man will choose some to “inherit His kingdom,” while others will be condemned to eternal punishment.

I expect that for many, this image of Christ the King sitting on a throne doling out rewards and punishment feels pretty foreign, inaccessible, and scary, which is why I find Rob Bell’s perspective so helpful. In much the same way that complaining can rewire our brain, Bell suggest that the repeated choices we make over our lifetime can change us to the point that we simply lose interest in God’s promised realm of eternal love and peace.

Jesus is using this metaphor of dividing sheep from goats to show us that the choices we make will determine what kind of people we become. Will we ultimately become one with God’s realm of perfect harmony or will we opt out, deciding we need no part in the choir of angels, deciding instead that we can sing by ourselves in the shower of life.

So what are these choices Jesus presents to us?

We have choices, Jesus says, about the way we treat those he calls “the least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, and naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. When you feed, give drink, and clothe these, you do it to me, Jesus says. And when you welcome and visit these, you do it to me. Likewise, says Jesus, when you fail to respond to the needs of these so you turn your back on me.

I have preached many sermons on this passage over the years.

On its surface the message is pretty simple. Provide for the basic needs of the most vulnerable. When I arrived at church this morning I encountered a group of volunteers from First Church setting out to Hartford to serve a New Year’s meal to the hungry and homeless. Our church helped found and continues to sponsor a clinic in Uganda that ministers to the sick there. We seek to be a welcoming church to the stranger. Certainly, as we enter 2017 we can recommit ourselves to ministries like these.

But Jesus isn’t just directing us to serve “those people,” he refers to these as members of his family. So I have also preached sermons that have asked what it would mean to treat the least of these as family members.

Family members share equally with one another, not just the good stuff, but family also shares hardships together. Over my daughter Abby’s years playing hockey in Simsbury we have become friends with members of the Melanson family, maybe some of you know them. The matriarch of the family, Ethel, died on Wednesday leaving behind nine children, 31 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, the vast majority of whom play hockey! Some fifty of these, including aging sisters who traveled here from Canada, were at her bedside when she died. Abby was at the Melanson home with her friends Grace and Anna Melanson as the family gathered and said she had never received so many warm hugs. Is this what Jesus has in mind when he calls us to serve the least of these as family members. Warm hugs for everyone, especially in times of trial?

How might we move beyond the soup kitchen model to establish more loving, hugging relationships with one another? Here, we might look toward our efforts to better understand Muslims by inviting Imam Sami Aziz and his wife Vjosa in to educate us about Islam. As part of this effort, our youth participated in a get together with Muslim youth.

So this is where I was with my sermon at the end of the week, thinking about soup kitchens and hugs, when I poked my head in Rev Kev’s office, and he greeted me with these words. Did you know that most animals dig by throwing the dirt behind them, but pigs dig by pushing dirt forward? Well, I did not know that, and I confessed as much to Kevin. I’m not sure exactly what Kevin had in mind when he shared this gem. I expect like most preachers, he thought this might make a good sermon illustration sometime. And so it does!

When I pondered these images of digging through dirt and pushing through mud, I realized that the way I had been thinking about the “members of Jesus’ family” had been too idealized, too precious, too Norman Rockwell. If only we empathize with each other, share with each other, exchange hugs with each other, join hands and sing Kum-bay-Yah with each other, then we will care for each other as Jesus intends.

Yeah, right. The loving Melanson’s notwithstanding, family is messy. Every single human problem exists within families, conflict and betrayal, rejection and judgement, mental illness and addiction, death and divorce. And because of the closeness of these family relationships, these issues are often writ large, are especially challenging and hurtful. I believe that it is often true, that our closest family members, whether a parent, a spouse or a child, know us better than anyone else, and regularly see us at our worst.

There’s an old country song, She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft. Ask any minister’s spouse if they don’t sometimes feel that way when they see the loving pastor who greets the church on a Sunday morning, and experience the grumpy, impatient person that walks in the door at the end of a long day.

Every family has dirt, the question becomes, what do we do with it? Do we try to throw it behind us, like my dog Sweetie does when she buries a bone in the yard? Or do we make like a pig, put our head down, and push our way through.

I actually went online to fact check Rev Kev’s claim about pig digging. Called rooting, it is indeed true, they push their big flat noses in the ground in search of delectable roots and grubs. I even learned about truffle hogs that are trained to root out truffles that grow as deeply as three feet underground. And here is an interesting but irrelevant tidbit, that is likely too much information for a Sunday morning, it is thought that the natural sex hormones of male pigs have a similar fragrance to truffles. There you go.

So, I think this is where Kevin was headed with the pigs. We might think we can rid ourselves of the dirt in our family, in our life, by throwing it behind us. In fact, that might figure into any number of New Year’s resolutions. I have heard many say they can’t wait to leave 2016 behind.

But more often than not, what lies beneath the dirt, is just more dirt. It’s the human condition. So there may be something to be said for just putting our head down and sniffing, snorting and rooting our way through the muck and manure of our lives sure that we will uncover delicious truffles in the process.

So, at this point I have to acknowledge that my New Year’s resolution to preach sermons that have less moving parts has already failed miserably!

But let me see if I can pull this all together just the same.

Jesus asks for us to care for the least of these who are members of His family. We might like to do this in a way that allows us to keep our nose clean, by which I mean not take others’ problems home with us, not having to share in other’s pain. But if we just dig beneath the surface a bit we discover that these are members of our family. There is no escaping hunger and thirst, estrangement, illness and imprisonment in this life. We are called to put our nose in each other’s business and root around until we find the treasured love and peace assured by God’s grace.

So in conclusion, maybe it isn’t a choice between the soup kitchen model, the Melanson hug model, and the truffle hog model that requires us to root through the slop of our human condition, maybe Jesus calls us to choose all three in ministering to each other as members of His family.

May this be a resolution for this good church in 2017, that as members of Jesus’ family we seek to serve each other, hug each other, and be willing to get our noses dirty for each other.

And when we make these choices, and repeat them again and again and again, we will begin to change our minds to become the heaven-ready members of Christ’s family God created us to be.

Pastor and Prophet: The Role of Minister and Church in These Times

This is the “Pastor Pondering” column that I wrote for the January 2017 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

On Christmas Eve the Boston Globe ran a story – “Church Looks to Heal after Politics, Faith Collide” – about Plymouth Congregational Church in Framingham, Massachusetts.  On the Sunday after the presidential election, the Senior Minister, Rev. Gregory Morisse, delivered a strongly worded sermon in which he condemned the tone and content of President-elect Trump’s campaign, and called upon the congregation to stand with the downtrodden and oppressed. Morisse’s sermon brought divisions within the church to the fore, between those who felt ministered to by his sermon and those who felt like they were being wrongly judged as “deplorable” for the choice they made to vote for Donald Trump.

I read the story with great interest. I also preached a sermon on the Sunday after the election in which I named as racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic things that were said in the course of the campaign, and spoke of the attacks on these vulnerable groups that followed the election. Though I named Donald Trump as saying these things (he did), I was careful not to suggest that anyone who voted for him did so because they shared these particular views. Instead, I emphasized that as the church we are all called to stand with the most vulnerable members of our society and confront those forces that seek to denigrate or harm these people.

At the 10 o’clock service many in the congregation applauded this sermon. I am quite clear that this was not because it was such a fantastic sermon, but because it gave voice to what a number of people were feeling. The applause was a, “Yes, that’s what I feel too!” I was also clear that as the applause rippled through the sanctuary, there would be some who didn’t share these feelings, some who would feel judged by my words and indeed, by the applause.

Though the reaction at First was more muted than that at Plymouth Church I heard from several people who disagreed with or felt hurt by my post-election remarks. One such person sent me a thoughtful email to which I responded; this exchange ended up with affirmation of my ministry and the direction the church is going. I met with another member who felt judged, hurt and angry in response to my words. While acknowledging our differences, I sought to hear and understand her perspective, and expressed my genuine appreciation of her faithfulness. And someone else responded, not to feeling judged, but to my statement that I woke up Wednesday after the election feeling afraid, specifically for the well-being of my wife who is easily identifiable as an immigrant and my beautiful, brown-skinned daughter. This member said they were uncomfortable hearing that their pastor is afraid, that I should set an example of hope and optimism. I responded that I experience the whole range of human emotions, including anger and fear, and that I understand my role as pastor as to model an appropriate faithful response to such feelings. Similarly, a fourth member, though he agreed with my sermon’s conclusion, expressed concern that I had scared people or made people feel guilty.

Though this was the extent of the expressions of concern that were voiced in response to my sermon, I am sure these few speak for others in the congregation who have chosen to remain silent. I have also heard from many others who felt ministered to by my words.

In the weeks that have followed the presidential election I have thought a lot about my appropriate role as the Senior Minister of this church.

Ministers are sometimes said to fill roles as both pastor (caring for the flock) and prophet (speaking God’s truth even when that truth is hard to hear). I feel a very strong call to both roles. I love people. I love to hear your stories. I am curious about your interests and passions, and I care about your regrets and sorrows. I rejoice with you, and I hurt when you hurt. I want everyone at First Church to see me as their pastor, regardless of how we each understand our faith.

I also feel called to speak strongly on behalf of the most vulnerable, as I believe the meaning and demands of Jesus’ birth, teachings, persecution, murder and resurrection could not be clearer in this regard. I expect we are entering an extended period of history where the rights and well-being of people of color, the poor, women, Muslims, Jews, and gays and lesbians will be undermined and degraded and I expect to speak directly to these concerns from the pulpit.

In addition to the comments above, I have heard a few express concerns about dividing the church. The article about the Framingham church speaks to this possibility. I am sensitive to this concern though I don’t sense we are in any immediate danger of this. And I do not believe that unity can come at the expense of being faithful to the Gospel. Jesus does not call us to a warm and fuzzy, least-common-denominator faith. Rather, unity comes through the hard work of faithfully confronting the tough issues of our day together. This is what Plymouth Church is doing, and this is what we will do.

In that post-election sermon, I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The two religious leaders that crossed the road to avoid the man beaten alongside the road may have had perfectly understandable justifications for doing so. That being said, Jesus calls each of us and the church to walk on the side of the most vulnerable in these troubled times. I recently read a blogpost by Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York. She takes the interpretation of the Samaritan parable a step further, asking of the church, “Are we really doing our jobs if at some point we don’t also stand up and call for safer roads to keep our people from being assaulted in the first place?”

Those who attended my Installation Service in April will remember that our preacher, my colleague Rev. Da Vita McCallister, proposed that God is “stirring up the waters” at First Church and encouraged us to “wade in the water” together. We all laughed in recognition when she suggested that we are more comfortable sitting in our beach chair right at the water’s edge, just sticking our toe in the water, rather than wading on in to those stirred-up, troubled waters. Well, this is what Rev. McCallister was calling us to. This is our time to hold hands, confront our fear together, and walk together into the waters that roil around us.

Rev. Butler concludes her blogpost with these words:

The day after the election I was sitting in my colleague Michael’s office, wondering aloud what the results of the election meant for our work as the church. He said something I will never forget. He said: “You know, we’ve been working together here for two years, giving everything we have to help this church get healthy. All this time we thought we were working so hard to insure the health of the institution — both this one and the Church with a big “C.” But maybe that’s not what we’ve been working for after all. Maybe this election has created a moment in which we will have to decide whether we really believe what we say we believe as Christians. Maybe this is the moment we’ve been working for our whole lives.”

Maybe, indeed.

Before concluding that post-election service with the Benediction, I reminded the congregation that my words are meant as a touchstone in an ongoing conversation among us, not a last word but an encouragement for us to engage the conversation together. I look forward to hearing from you and getting our feet wet as we wade into this new year together.

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

 

Collateral Beauty

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

1 Timothy 1:12-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the Happy People, and Be One!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 12:49-56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following Jesus requires us to make choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

To Disagree Is Human: It Can Also Be Biblical and Christian

Churches are often judged as successful when they appear to be free of conflict. While bitter conflict can certainly divide and even destroy churches, I’m not so sure that a conflict-free church should be our goal. To disagree is human. And debating matters that are important to us is one of the ways we learn, change and grow together. I worry sometimes that South Church could become a too-comfortable, conflict-free, growth-free zone. Rather than striving to be free of conflict, maybe we should strive to disagree in ways that encourage growth.

There are various ways to disagree:

Don’t talk about our differences. This approach is very common in churches. In fact, some believe that to openly disagree is “unchristian.” Yet we know that the early church was defined by conflict between Peter and Paul; and working out their different perspectives led to the survival and growth of the church.

Agree to disagree. How often have we heard this? Acknowledge differences; then carry on without agreement. This sounds good in theory, but sometimes doesn’t work in practice. For example, a church considers becoming Open and Affirming but after realizing that members hold strong opposing opinions decides to “agree to disagree” and not continue the conversation. This approach takes a side by default, supporting the status quo.

One variation of “agree to disagree” is to honor different perspectives. But not all beliefs are equally honorable. If a belief diminishes or degrades the value of a human being then it should be challenged.

Meet in the Middle. Another approach that sounds good on the surface but falls apart upon closer scrutiny is to meet half way. While this kind of compromise can sometimes lead to peace, it may not be helpful when one approach really is damaging. Half way between right and wrong is half-wrong, which is still wrong.

Engage the Conversation. Debating passionately is not unbiblical or unchristian. And there are ways to have these conversations that respect all people in the process.

First, begin with prayer, specifically a prayer of confession. If we all begin a potentially divisive conversation by confessing that we all fall short of fully comprehending God’s truth and stand in need of God’s help, we can cultivate an openness to listen and change.

Next, agree to address our perspectives in the context of our faith with the Bible as our guide, not in a narrow way that attempts to use particular verses to “prove” a point but by drawing from the values and stories of our faith for inspiration.

Seek to empathize with each other. While we may disagree with some people’s opinions, when we seek to understand how someone came to their belief and affirm their feelings and experience we create an opportunity for agreement and reconciliation.

Finally, trust the process and each other. To argue without hurting people or damaging the church requires trusting that our loving relationships will remain intact through tough discussions.

In the months ahead I hope to create opportunities to talk about some of the tough issues that divide our world and trust that we will all grow in faith through the process.
In Christ, Pastor George

Published in: on May 26, 2015 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Our Vision, Our Song

Here is the sermon I preached on July 1, 2012. I weave together the vision statement that I have proposed for South Church (see previous blog post), this clip from the new HBO series, The Newsroom, and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15. This is an example of how our vision statement might be used as a touchstone for conversations and growth.

“Our Vision, Our Song”

Those of you who are on the church mailing list should have received the July issue of our South Church newsletter, The Voice, in the past day or two. If not there are copies on the desk outside the chapel. In my monthly column I propose a vision statement for South Church. A vision statement is meant to articulate where we want to go as a church, what we would like to become. I offer these words for prayerful consideration and discussion, “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” I hope this captures the diversity, hospitality and grace we seek to embody while also calling us to respond to a hurting world. I am planning to preach a sermon series on this vision in the fall, but I thought I would introduce it and give it a little work out this morning.

In The Voice I write of the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country, indeed our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Nowhere are these differences more visible and acute than in our national politics. Battles between Democrats and Republicans have never been so bitter or divisive. This vitriol was all on display this week when the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation proposed by President Obama and approved by Congress. Of course I have opinions of my own with regard to the various issues that face our country and our world. I too take sides. But more than anything, my heart just hurts at the brokenness among and between people on all sides who I believe to be good, created in God’s image.

I love this country. I was walking down my street this week and saw that some of my neighbors had put out their American flag in anticipation of the Fourth of July. When I came home that day I was pleased to see that Lourdes had the same idea and had retrieved our flags from the basement for placement in our garden. My love of country aside, I sometimes worry that patriotism, or more correctly nationalism, contributes to division. All sides in public policy disputes claim to be on the side of God and country, implying that anyone who disagrees is not a good Christian or a good American.

A friend shared a transcript of a speech from a new show on HBO called The Newsroom. Jeff Daniels plays news anchor Will McAvoy. In this episode McAvoy is part of a panel discussion with a liberal and conservative pundit. A female college student asks the panelists, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy hedges, not wanting to take sides. But the moderator presses him and he responds:

“It’s not the greatest country in the world professor, that’s my answer.”

He turns to the liberal pundit, “The National Endowment for the Arts is a loser, yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck but he (referring to the Conservative pundit) gets to hit you with it any time he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes, it costs airtime, it costs column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so smart, how come they always lose?”

He then turns to the conservative pundit and continues, “And with a straight face you’re going to tell students that America is so star spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world that have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, BELGIUM has freedom. So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.”

“And you,” he now directs his attention to the young woman who asked the question, “sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day there’re some things you should know. One of them is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 16th in literacy, 32nd in math, 14th in science, 50th in life expectancy, 49th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, Number 4 in labor force and Number 4 in exports, we lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.

Now none of this is the fault of a 20 year-old college student, but when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?”

This is tough talk and I realize that this is a heck of a thing to share in a sermon on the Sunday before the Fourth of July. First, it may sound like I’m being hard on this land that we love. And second, we might well ask what any of this has to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Well, the answer to both these questions comes back to the vision statement that I am proposing for South Church. “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Nationalistic claims in general, and the claim to be the greatest country in the world in particular do not aide in bridging differences that divide our world, especially when there is evidence that this is simply not true. I should say that I spot checked the rankings in that speech and even adjusted a few numbers based on what I found, so while The Newsroom is a fictional show, these statistics stand up.

Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says that the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is one. We might also say that the first step in bridging the differences that divide us is to tell the truth, most especially to tell the truth about ourselves.

This morning’s lesson from Second Corinthians speaks directly to this issue of bridging differences. In his letter Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to give to the church in Jerusalem. Corinth and Jerusalem represent a central division in the early church, a division between Gentiles and Jews. The founding members of the church in Jerusalem were Jews before they chose to follow Christ, while the Corinth church was made up of Gentiles, or non-Jewish Christians. There was lots of conflict in the early years of the church about whether Gentiles could even become Christians. Maybe the arguments about whether Jews or Gentiles were better Christians can be equated to our present day battles about whether Democrats or Republicans are better Americans. The Gentile Christians in Corinth were wealthier than Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem so Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church to collect an offering to support their struggling brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Paul is “testing the genuineness of (the) love” of the Corinthian Christians by asking them to overcome their judgment and distrust and give to the Jerusalem church. Listen again to his words to the Corinthians, “I do not believe that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

These early Christians were just as divided around matters if ethnicity, nationality, class and beliefs as we are today and Paul made it his mission to bring them all together in Christ. Paul seeks to bridge the divisions that divide the world to form one Body of Christ by asking the Corinthians to set aside their judgments to find a fair balance between their needs with the needs of others.

These lessons apply to each of us today just as they apply to our church. As we examine our lives and our church we are called to tell the truth about ourselves, even when it hurts, and seek a fair balance between our needs and the needs of others. Since before my arrival at South Church the tradition here has been to conclude worship on this Sunday before the Fourth of July with the hymn, This is My Song. The words give beautiful, poetic expression to the vision of a church that bridges differences that divide the world to become on Body of Christ. I close with these words:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, though God of all the nations,
a land of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Ruler of all nations;
let thy reign come; on earth thy will be done.
In peace may all earth’s people draw together,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, though God of all the nations;
myself I give to thee; let thy will be done. Amen.

Please share your thoughts, not only about the sermon itself, but about the use of the proposed vision statement as a focal point for our community.

The Vision Thing

This is my column from the July, 2012 South Church newsletter, The Voice:

President George H. W. Bush once dismissed pleas from his party to articulate a compelling vision for the country by making contemptuous reference to “the vision thing.” This sound bite only seemed to reinforce the perception that Bush’s presidency was a ship without a rudder, wandering from one short-term objective to another.

From time to time someone at South Church will ask me about my vision for the church. I think a shared, compelling vision is essential for any organization, so I haven’t been dismissive of these queries. But I also haven’t rallied the church around a single, coherent “vision statement,” yet.

There are two reasons for this. First, we are a Congregational and Baptist church committed to democratic governance. Ideally, a vision emerges out of a congregational process in which everyone participates. But such visioning processes can be long and, frankly, tedious. Instead of ending up with a powerful statement of vision the result is too often a cumbersome paragraph that looks like it was written by a committee (because it was).

The second reason I haven’t proclaimed a vision for South Church is because there have been lots and lots of other pressing issues before the church. Restoring confidence and hope following a challenging interim period and addressing a life-threatening budget crisis seemed to call for a series of timely responses instead of “the vision thing.” Maybe this is how President Bush felt.

This said, I have had a vision that has served as my rudder since I first experienced a call to ministry. And I have frequently articulated this vision here at South Church; I just haven’t announced it by saying, “HERE IS MY VISION!” But this vision is often discernable in my sermons and evident through the choices I make as your pastor. I wonder how each of you would complete the sentence, “Pastor George’s vision for the church is…”?

My words of welcome on the South Church homepage are instructive:

“Welcome to South Church! We are a diverse community of faithful and seekers. We are Baptist (ABC) and Congregational (UCC); we are black, brown and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, born again and agnostic; we work in schools, offices, factories and Dunkin’ Donuts; we are students, retired and unemployed. We come from backgrounds Protestant and Catholic, while others are discovering church for the first time.

And when we come together with our joys and sorrows, our faith and our doubts – when we worship together, share communion together, sing together, study the Bible together, and fellowship together – we love and support one another to become one body of Christ.

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Welcome home to South Church.”

What to you find here? Diversity? Yes. Hospitality? Certainly. Grace? Of course. But there is still more implied by these words. Try this on for size:

South Church brings people together across the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.

I don’t need to tell you about the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country and our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Attempting to bridge (not resolve but connect across) our differences is a tall order requiring much more than a smile and a handshake on a Sunday morning. We would have a lot of work to do to live into this vision for the church, but when I look out on the congregation on a Sunday morning I believe we are already off to a great start.

Please prayerfully ponder these words, “South Church brings people together across the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Does this vision for South Church speak to you? Could this vision provide a rudder to guide our worship and work together? How do we become the church described by this vision? Let’s begin the conversation and get under way.

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