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.

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.

 

Called from Occupied Territory

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on January 22, 2017 after members of First Church and Center Church in Hartford joined together to participate in a “Signs of Hope Urban Immersion Experience.” After drawing parallels between Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood and ancient Israel’s occupied territories of Zebulun and Naphtali I ask, what would it mean for us to travel back to our occupied territory, those parts of our lives that are occupied by disappointment, loss, betrayal or condemnation? And what would it mean to hear Jesus calling us to ministry from that very darkness?

Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

Did you hear that?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching…and proclaiming the good news…and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Sounds great doesn’t it? In preparing this sermon, I thought, I want some of that. I want some of that for our troubled world, I want some of that for each of you, and quite frankly, I want some of that for myself. So, we’ll circle back to that vision of a cure for what ails us, but first, I want to share a story about Signs of Hope.

This past Thursday, a group of our members joined with members of Center Church in Hartford for the Signs of Hope Immersion Experience. Meant to give us first-hand exposure to some of the people, places, issues and challenges of inner-city Hartford, the day was planned by our Mission Board member Debi Ackels and her counterpart Bill from Center Church. With Rev Kev behind the wheel of the Jesus Bus, our first stop was at Center Church where we learned about the assistance they provide through their Warburton Resource Center. Next we stopped at the ImmaCare emergency, no-freeze shelter, housed in the sanctuary of what was once Immaculate Conception Church, then on to the Frog Hollow branch of the Hartford Public Library. We finished with lunch at Hands on Hartford, and a presentation by the Christian Activities Council.

This was an eye-opening experience for all of us who participated, and I extend a big thank you to Debi and Bill who pulled it all together so beautifully.

I was especially moved by our visit to the Frog Hollow library. For those who don’t know, Frog Hollow is the poorest neighborhood in Hartford, with a median household income of just over $25,000 per year. We were told that Frog Hollow was named for the French Canadian immigrants who settled there in the mid-1800’s. Frog, of course, being a racial slur for these immigrants. Today, this neighborhood of about 10,000 is populated mostly by immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Guatemala.

Many identified our visit to the library as the most memorable stop. With one room, just big enough to hold the twenty-five of us, the library functions as a place for school children to get tutoring and use the half-dozen computers, while also serving as a community gathering place. The Head Librarian, Leticia Cotto, and her two assistants gave eloquent and powerful testimony about the invaluable role the little library fills. We learned that the City of Hartford approved a bond for a larger and better equipped library many years ago, but that each year the legislature reapportions those funds somewhere else, most recently for the Duncan Donuts Yard Goat Stadium.

Our visit was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to reflect on this morning’s passage from Matthew.

Over the years, I have read these words dozens of times and preached any number of sermons on the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. But I must have skimmed right over the first five verses.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

 

Other than trying not to stumble over the names, I never gave much thought to Zebulun and Naphtali.

But my experience in Frog Hollow drew my attention to the importance of geography and history, so I became curious about these places. Who were these territories named after? Who lived there? What was their history? Was it a history of triumph or struggle?

Matthew doesn’t leave us to wonder, pointing us to an important chapter in the history of Israel as told by the prophet Isaiah some 700 years before Jesus lived.

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’ 

Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Territories where these family groups settled carried their names. When Isaiah is writing, these territories are occupied by the Assyrian Empire. Those who have some familiarity with the Old Testament will know that the Assyrian Empire to the north invaded Israel and took leading citizens into captivity in Assyria while occupying the territory of those who remained behind.

So in Isaiah’s day, Zebulun and Naphtali were occupied territory. That means that the people of Israel who lived there suffered daily under an oppressive regime that siphoned off resources in support of the empire.

700 years later, it is significant that Jesus begins his public ministry in this very same territory. And this region is again occupied, now by the Roman Empire.

It can be challenging to wrap our mind around just how thoroughly this impacted daily life. As in Isaiah’s day, resources were siphoned off, this time in support of Roman elites.

Just as my visit to Frog Hollow informed my understanding of this scripture passage, causing me to consider the importance of place names and geography; so this scripture passage in turn informs my understanding of Frog Hollow.

Though Frog Hollow is not occupied territory in any literal sense, like Zebulun and Naphtali, resources are siphoned off from the poor of Frog Hollow to support the lifestyle and interests of the powerful. This is why, year after year, funds to upgrade the small, one-room, store front library get diverted to support wealthier districts.

It is no accident that this these regions in Galilee are where Jesus chooses to begin his ministry. Matthew’s audience would have understood the significance of this immediately.

When Jesus says, repent, for the kingdom of God has come near, he isn’t telling the Jewish residents of this place to repent from their sins – telling lies, gossiping, jealousy – no Jesus is confronting empire, demanding that the occupying Romans and their Jewish collaborators, the Pharisees, repent for oppressing the poor and most vulnerable.

In the previous chapter, John the Baptist had called out the Pharisees and Sadducees for this same behavior. Matthew writes, “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, John said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And as revealed in the first verse of this morning’s passage, John was arrested for daring to confront the political and religious power of empire.

But while knowing the danger, instead of fleeing in the other direction, Jesus goes to the very symbolic heart of empire, and takes up John’s demand, “Repent!”

Jesus then calls his first disciples from among those whom had felt the bite of Roman rule, four fishermen. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was not a way to get rich; fisherman made just enough to get by. After Rome takes its cut, and the Jewish tax collectors squeeze some extra for themselves, you can bet Peter, Andrew, James and John found it impossible to get ahead.

At the end of our day in Hartford, a woman who had joined us from the Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation asked exasperated, how can people who face all these daily challenges possibly escape this cycle? Like these fishermen, those trapped in poverty in Frog Hollow find it next to impossible to break the cycle of poverty.

Yet these are the very people Jesus calls as his disciples. And with Peter, Andrew, James and John in tow, Jesus then sets out restoring people to health and wholeness.

To review, Jesus intentionally begins his ministry in a place that had been under the thumb of empire for 700 years. He begins by demanding that those in power repent, change their ways, because the reign of God is upon them. He calls his first disciples from among those who live with this reality day in and day out, then sets about restoring people to health and wholeness.

Restoring people to health and wholeness. That’s where this morning’s passage ends, and it’s where I began. So I ask again, doesn’t that sound great? Don’t we all want that healing for ourselves and our world?

What would it mean for us to travel back to the occupied territories of our life? Now of course I don’t mean literally occupied by empire, but I am talking about those experiences that continue to occupy our hearts and minds, burden us, hold us back. These may be experiences of hurt, betrayal, trauma, disappointment, regret, or condemnation. Or we may be occupied by anxiety, fear or anger. Where do we sit in darkness, where does the shadow of death fall upon us?

Maybe you have had an experience of being bullied. Been in an abusive relationship. Had a parent from whom you never felt love. Been subject to sexual harassment. Experienced betrayal in a marriage, or a broken relationship with a child. Maybe you just feel like your life has never amounted to much.

These are the occupied territories we are invited to travel to within ourselves knowing that Jesus will meet us there. Jesus will meet us there and demand that the forces of darkness that occupy and oppress us repent, let go, set us free!

And these are the places in which we will find fellow disciples, those who also know what it means to be occupied, to suffer, to be squeezed.

And these are the places from which we will then be called to ministry.

Which brings us back to places like Frog Hollow.

Jesus calls us from our own pre-occupation to minister in the occupied territories of the world today. Whether in Frog Hollow, among Syrian refugees, in support of equal rights for women and gays and lesbians, to children with special needs, or with lonely seniors in nearby nursing facilities, Jesus meets us in our dark and shadowed places and says “Follow me,” leading us and the world to health and wholeness. And that is a sign of hope.

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.

Privileged Language: Poor Choice of Words

I recently turned to an article in the New York Times for a sermon illustration. So-called “overachieving” communities such as those near Stanford University in Palo Alto, California exhibit an especially high teen suicide rate. Researchers believe the pressure on students to do better and better and the accompanying belief among some teens that they can never be good enough contributes to anxiety, depression and suicide. I compared the experience of these youth to the plight of children in the inner-city who face other sorts of challenges that also lead to feelings of failure and loss of hope. South Church, I suggested, sits right at the intersection of these types of communities, within an easy drive of many of the top prep schools in the country and smack in the middle of New Britain’s urban poverty. In describing this New Britain context I spoke of “New Britain’s failing public schools.” I used this same “failing” language when I posted the New York Times article on the church’s Facebook page.

We have had forums about public education at South Church where I learned that the tax-base in New Britain cannot generate as much income in support of our schools as more prosperous neighboring towns. One of the results of this is large class sizes. Compared to other more suburban settings New Britain has a large number of immigrant families that do not speak English in their homes. And poverty comes with a number of accompanying social problems that interfere with a child’s education. These and other factors combine to contribute to lower scores on standardized tests.

I experienced some of these challenges with my own daughter Abby who attended New Britain public schools beginning in Kindergarten. By the time she was in the third grade we were seeing signs that the large class sizes and the attention required from teachers to attend to children with behavior or developmental challenges was contributing to a decline in Abby’s comprehension, especially in math. These are the kinds of issues I had in mind when I spoke of “New Britain’s failing public schools.”

Pastor Jane recently asked to talk to me after our Tuesday morning staff meeting. She told me that this way of talking about our public schools does a disservice to the hardworking and dedicated administrators and teachers in the New Britain school system as well as New Britain children and families who work hard every day to succeed. This language also takes attention away from the many educational triumphs in New Britain, successful schools and programs, award winning teachers, and standout students, and fuels a widely held prejudice about New Britain schools in neighboring communities.

I felt immediately convicted. Though I knew many of these great things about New Britain public schools I had allowed myself to use the pejorative shorthand, “failing schools” that erased the hundreds of good people working to make the system better and succeed within that system. In fact, our experience with Abby’s public school teachers was always great. They were skilled, hard working and caring, heroic even. But now that Abby has been in the privileged setting of a private school for four years it was easy for me to overlook all this with a dismissive turn of a phrase.

I immediately acknowledged to Jane that I was wrong and thanked her for bringing this to my attention. I didn’t minimize her concern or try to justify or excuse my comment. Yes, the New Britain public schools face unique and complex challenges; and smart, resourceful people are responding to these challenges every day. But facing challenges is very different than “failing.” I am humbled by this experience and reminded how just a little bit of privilege can skew our perspective.

The reason I tell this probably-too-long story is as a reminder for us all about just how easy it is for our perspective to narrow based on our personal experience. I think of the way media and popular culture has come to refer to young, urban, black men as “thugs.” We may think we are using the word to critique particular behavior, but that word fuels a widely held prejudice and erases the many individuals who are striving everyday to achieve better lives for themselves and their communities in response to harsh challenges. Those of us who don’t live in that context enjoy a privilege that allows us to use this pejorative “shorthand” because we don’t see the daily heroic action taken and victories won by young black men every day.

It was because I trust Pastor Jane and know that she loves and respects me that I was able to admit my mistake so readily. I/we often find it much harder to humble ourselves and see from a different perspective. When we feel criticized we tend to dig in and defend ourselves. But being the church is all about offering each other a safe place of love and respect where we can confront each other, identify our limitations, and grow together. This requires practice, practice, and more practice. So let’s get to work!

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