For Such a Time as This: Believe Esther

This is the sermon I preached on September 30, 2018 at First Church of Christ, Simsbury. The week preceding, Dr. Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Ford’s allegation the Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Both their testimonies were emotionally charged, and traumatizing to some, especially those women who have been sexually assaulted themselves.

Esther 7:1-10

This has been a rough week for many of us. There have been a lot of deeply disturbing stories in the news and on social media. I know I don’t have adequate words to capture or respond to all of it, so I am going to simply tell the story of Esther, and invite you to find yourself in her story.

Esther is one of a very few books in the Bible with a female protagonist, the others being Song of Songs, which I just preached on a few weeks ago, and Ruth. Esther is a great story. In many ways it feels very contemporary, rich with lessons for our lives today.

The tone of Esther is satirical, farcical and political, using exaggerated and improbable situations to ridicule and criticize issues of its day.

Esther is set in the post-exilic Persian Empire. This means that several generations before Esther appears on the scene, the Babylonians captured Judah and took Jewish leaders into exile. The Persian Empire is huge, 127 provinces stretching from present day India to Ethiopia, and Jews are dispersed throughout the kingdom.

King Ahasuerus is portrayed as a pompous fool, ridiculous and inept; he depends on his advisors, who all have their own agenda, to tell him what to do.

As the story opens, King Ahasuerus hosts an extravagant banquet, and “the army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present.” The banquet goes on for six months, and there was drinking by flagons without restraint.

At the same time this was going on, the king’s wife, Queen Vashti hosted a banquet for all the women.

After days and days of partying, the king asks his aides to bring Queen Vashti to him, so he can show off her beauty. But Vashti refuses to come. Maybe she knew what lay in store for her at a party with so many drunk men in attendance.

Remember, the king has difficulty reading situations, he is unable to make his own decisions, and he overreacts to small-scale problems.

When Vashti refuses to appear before him at his party, he is enraged, but he doesn’t know what to do, so he consults his seven lawyers. They tell the king that if women in the kingdom hear of Vashti’s disobedience, all women will disobey their husbands and there will be chaos. So in addition stripping Vashti of her title as queen, the king issues a formal decree calling for wives to obey their husbands.

Because this is satire, we might ask what is being satirized. Since Esther is the hero of the story, it appears that the Persian Empire is being satirized for its treatment of women!

Vashti is dismissed as the queen and needs to be replaced, so word is sent into all the provinces to send beautiful virgins to the capital that they may become part of the king’s harem. The best and most beautiful will be given “cosmetic treatment” for a year after which the one that “pleases the king” will become queen.

We are now introduced to Mordecai, a Jew, who lives in the capital. Mordecai is Esther’s uncle, and adopted her and raised her when her mother and father died. Though it isn’t spelled out, it appears that Mordecai sees the king’s search for a new wife as an opportunity to gain access and power, power that could help Jews. He sends his niece Esther who is described as fair and beautiful to join the king’s harem.

After a year of cosmetic treatments, each of the eight most beautiful girls enters the king’s chambers for a night for a try-out to see how she performs in bed. Kind of like the modern-day show, The Bachelor. Of course we know who gets the rose; we are told that the king loves Esther most of all. And Esther becomes the queen.

The scene shifts back to Mordecai who overhears two of the king’s servants plotting to kill the king. Mordecai tells Esther, who in turn tells the king. The plot is foiled and the servants are hung.

Next we meet Haman when he is appointed as the king’s highest official. All servants and citizens are required to bow down to Haman, but when Haman passes by Mordecai, Mordecai refuses to bow.

Haman is furious, but thinks it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai himself, so instead plots to kill all Jews in the kingdom. Note, this is twice that punishment has been meted out to a whole group in response to one person’s disobedience. All women because of Vashti’s disobedience, all Jews because of Mordecai’s refusal to bow. Perhaps this is identifying a characteristic of empire.

Haman tells the king, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from the laws of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury.”

Remember, the king is an ignorant tool, and says, “Sounds good to me!”

So the king signs an order to have all Jews killed, young and old, women and children. As further evidence that the king is clueless, the king and Haman then sit down for a drink together.

Bible scholar Cameron B. R Howard writes, “The king seems oblivious and prone to excess, and his methods appear arbitrary, yet his decisions have devastating consequences for his subjects. This dynamic is perhaps best summed up in Esther 3:15, just after the king’s edict for the annihilation of the Jews has been released: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the capital city was thrown into confusion.” For the king and Haman, the edict is just another paper to sign, while for the people in their charge, it is a calamity. The book of Esther…wrestles with how to survive and thrive under rulers who are at turns capricious or hostile.”

Hearing about the edict to destroy the Jews, Mordecai appeals to Esther to intercede with the king.

Esther resists. The king has a rule, if you enter his chambers without being invited, you will be killed. Talking to the king will endanger her own life.

But Mordecai pushes back, saying:

“For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

So Esther hangs around the king’s open door until he invites her to come in and asks what he can do for her.

Meanwhile, Mordecai continues to infuriate Haman by refusing to bow. Haman’s wife suggests building a 75 foot gallows from which to hang Mordecai. Here again, is the use of exaggeration for comic effect; this is a six-story gallows.

But no sooner does Haman complete the gallows to hang Mordecai, than the king decides to honor Mordecai as a hero for saving the king’s life. The king orders Haman to provide Mordecai a royal robe and crown, and parade him through the city on a royal horse.

Haman is humiliated.

Finally, we reach the climax that is this morning’s passage.

Esther invites Haman and the king to a private dinner. When the king asks Esther what he can do for her, she replies, save my life and the life of my people “for we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, to be annihilated.”

Here again, the king shows his ignorance, not realizing he himself signed the decree he asks “Who has done this?”

Esther responds, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman”

The king is enraged, and Haman is terrified. When the king steps out into his garden for a cigarette, Haman stays to beg Esther for his life.

The king returns to find that Haman has thrown himself on the couch where Esther is reclining. Not realizing that Haman is begging for his life, the king thinks he is sexually assaulting Esther.

The king’s attendant suggests a response, “Look, the very gallows that Haman prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house fifty cubit high.”

The simple king has a simple response, “Hang him on that!”

So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

The king’s anger abates, Esther reveals that Mordecai is her uncle, Mordecai is given Haman’s position, and all the Jews are saved.

As I said, for many this has been an especially difficult week. Dr. Christine Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was sexually assaulted by nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, and she was subsequently questioned and challenged by the committee about the veracity of her experience. Then Judge Kavanaugh shared his own testimony. In addition to the raw, painful emotions of both testimonies, we witnessed bitter, ugly political exchanges between Senators of the two parties.

In support of Dr. Ford’s story, some women are sharing their own stories of being attacked. For others, memories of their assault are being triggered by all the stories in the news and the victim blaming that often accompanies them. For anyone who has witnessed and absorbed all of this, it has been overwhelmingly painful.

Esther reminds us that politics is not tangential to people of faith. Not only does Esther not mention God, there is almost nothing in the book that is specifically religious. But Esther is all about seeking justice for God’s people (here, women and Jews), through politics. In the realm of politics, Haman’s fate reminds us that in building gallows to hang others, we just might hang ourselves.

Mordecai tells Esther, “For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

Every woman does not need to share her painful story for the cause of justice to be served. With or without our participation, injustice will not win out. But choosing to withdraw ourselves from the battle for justice will not secure our safety either.

But like Esther, each of us is perfectly positioned because of who we are and the life we have lived, to act for justice in such a time as this.

 

Advertisements

Catholic Sex Abuse Scandals: Who Knew?

This is one of the more sensitive things I have ever posted about. So, let me first say to my Catholic brothers and sisters that I have enormous respect for the Catholic faith. I have attended any number of deeply meaningful mass, loved and been inspired by priests, nuns, and Catholic lay people, taken classes in religion at a Catholic university, and consider Catholic Liberation Theology to be foundational to my faith. The continuing sex abuse scandals break my heart, most of all for the victims, but also for all Catholics whose faith is being rocked to its core.

It is with all this in heart and mind that I say this. It appears that sex abuse has been so pervasive in the Catholic Church, for so many years, around the world, that it seems likely that few if any priests, bishops, or popes were unaware of its prominence. This does not necessarily mean that every cleric knew of particular instances of abuse, though many must have, but just about every clergy person must have known that such abuse was prevalent.

I was an officer in the Navy for seven years, from 1984-1991. I don’t know if this is still the case, but at the time, it was part of the Navy culture that when a ship would pull into port, many of the sailors, officers and enlisted, would head to the bars and engage the services of prostitutes. Tales would be told with great bravado of the wild times had with these “bar girls.” Of course not everyone participated in these activities, and some would quietly express their disapproval. But EVERYONE in the Navy knew that this behavior was pervasive. It was part of the fabric of Navy life, and went largely unchallenged.

I knew of the Navy culture that demeaned women through unbridled prostitution. I was present for some of it, attending shipboard parties in such bars. Though I never joined in the gleeful celebration of this behavior, I also never protested.

I am not saying that abusive priests would brag like a sailor about their predatory behavior. But I can only imagine that most priests knew that such behavior was part of the fabric of Catholicism. Many no doubt quietly disapproved, but did not actively challenge it.

Certainly, those who sexually abused anyone should be prosecuted to the full extent of civil and church law. And those who used their power to actively cover up such crimes should also be held accountable. And efforts at reform must acknowledge and confront that this is about so much more than some (a lot of) sinful priests, but that systemic and cultural issues underlie it all. I am hearing such acknowledgment in recent critiques of Catholic patriarchy and clericalism.

But, if I am correct in my assessment, there must also be a reckoning with the fact that many priests knew, dare I say, all priests knew, and few if any challenged the behavior or the institution. The silence of the presumed “innocent” perpetuated the sins of the guilty.

Any sincere effort at repentance and reform leading to forgiveness and healing must include this confession.

Of course I welcome any discussions of or challenges to this perspective.

 

Worth Fighting For

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 26, 2018.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl named Lola who was born on a sugar plantation in the Philippines. Lola remembers some aspects of her childhood fondly, playing kick-the-can with friends, favorite foods prepared by her mother, getting into mischief with her eight siblings, gathering mangoes off the ground in the middle of a typhoon! But Lola also experienced many hardships in her early life, hardships beyond what most of us will ever know. Sometimes all the family would have to eat was a small serving of rice flavored with a little fish sauce. Lola remembers that hunger. And she and her family were also impacted by many of the social ills that often accompany such poverty including alcoholism and abuse.

From a young age, Lola dreamed of getting out and making a better life for herself. At eighteen, she met her knight in shining armor, a young U. S. Marine, at a softball game. They fell in love, married, and moved, first to Japan and then to Hawaii. Not entirely surprisingly given their youth, the separation required by the military, and other challenges, their marriage ended after six years. But Lola held fast to her dreams and set about making that better life for herself in Honolulu.

After working and supporting herself for another ten years or so, never receiving any public assistance, she would again meet a man, this one’s armor creaky and a bit tarnished, and fell in love… with me! I know many of you had already figured out that Lola is my dear wife, Lourdes.

As a result of her first marriage, Lourdes had a “green card” giving her status as a permanent legal resident of the United States. Lourdes and I had been dating a couple years when terrorists brought down the twin towers. You may remember that these attacks almost immediately prompted fresh scrutiny of immigrants in the United States. My mother was worried that Lourdes could be deported. To be clear, as a permanent legal resident, by law she could not. But my mother insisted that Lourdes become a citizen. So she did, she went over the 100 questions for the citizenship exam again and again, having her customers at the Waikiki hotel where she worked quiz her until she could get them all right. It was a proud day indeed when she took the oath to become a U.S. citizen.

I share Lourdes’ story because in my experience, she is a typical immigrant in at least three ways. She has a burning desire for a better life, she works tirelessly to achieve that life for herself and her family, and she loves the United States. Lourdes is living the American Dream.

Despite these admirable qualities, in the nineteen years we have been together, I have known Lourdes to experience any number of slights and disparagements as a result of her brown skin and accented English. These are often in the form of what are known as micro-aggressions, diminishing, stereotyping assumptions about her as an immigrant from the Philippines. But none of these has been quite as obvious or hurtful as what Lourdes recently experienced right here in Simsbury.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey. Not long ago, at the ISCC rink down the road, Lourdes had been talking to one of the hockey dads, someone she has always had a warm relationship with. He kids Lourdes about her reputation as one of the loudest parents at every game. Lourdes had just left the rink, and saw this dad exiting behind her. She playfully held the glass door closed as he reached for it. He, apparently joking, said, “You better let me out, or I’ll send you back to where you came from!”

Now, these very words are often used to threaten immigrants and communicate that they do not belong in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. Lourdes responded immediately, “Wow! That’s really racist!” She was deeply hurt and troubled by this exchange, made an angry post on Facebook (while not naming the offender) and, when she saw the dad a few weeks later confronted him about what he had said. He apologized.

Let me make a few observations about this incident. In addition to communicating that Lourdes doesn’t really belong here, that this is not her home, his words wield power, suggesting that as a white American, he has legitimacy and therefore power to forcibly eject her from the only home she has known for almost her entire adult life, her country, where she has earned her citizenship. One might be inclined to dismiss the threat of violence and fear evoked by his words, after all, it was “just a joke.” He couldn’t really deport her. But think about it, to have these words ready on his lips to emerge spontaneously in a relaxed and happy moment means that he buys into a set of beliefs about immigrants that normalize such a comment. Though it might be hard for an average white person to understand, for many immigrants, even citizens, fear of encounters like the one Lourdes experienced is real.

Women, imagine if that was you holding the door, and the man had said, “jokingly,” “You better let me out or I will rape you!” Not at all funny, and a violent assertion of power evoking fear. That a man would presume to make such a “joke” would say a lot about his views on women, just as the hockey dad’s joke said a lot about his views on immigrants.

None of this is meant to condemn this guy. As I said, Lourdes took the initiative to name the offense and seek reconciliation, and she still considers him a friend, as do I. Rather, it is to point out how pervasive such beliefs are about immigrants.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This means that the enemy is not the flesh and blood hockey dad, but that the forces of evil live in systems and institutions that have the power to promote, perpetuate, and enforce such beliefs.

Theologian Walter Wink writes that, “so formidable a phalanx demands spiritual weaponry…It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institution and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent.”

Christians in Ephesus knew all about the power of such oppressive institutions. They were a religious minority who faced daily discrimination and persecution by the Roman Empire. This was more than hurtful jokes; Ephesian Christians were likely required to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of the emperor Domitian to test their allegiance.

Of course Paul’s is not a literal call to arms; he is not encouraging Christians to violently resist their persecutors. But he does draw upon the martial metaphor of armor to call upon Christians to oppose the evil systems that oppress them with weapons of truth, justice, a gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God! A sword! Not just protection against harm, but an offensive weapon. Make no mistake, Paul is urging Christians in Ephesus to prepare themselves for spiritual warfare!

As for the treatment of immigrants? Some of you know that I have been rereading the Bible, “cover to cover.” I am reminded that the Old Testament is thick with commands to treat immigrants fairly. These verses from Leviticus are typical: “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”

Just as it was after September 11th, immigration is again much in the news. To be sure, there are always reasoned debates to be had about immigration policy, but this is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about principalities and powers, systems of belief that diminish immigrants, and the institutions that nurture and enforce such beliefs. Politicians refer to immigrants as rapists, drug dealers and murderers. News stations give disproportionate attention to an undocumented immigrant who commits a murder while portraying a white man who kills his wife and children as a good family man. Immigrants fleeing poverty and violence seeking a better life for themselves and their children are said to be seeking welfare. And immigrant parents are forcibly separated from their children at the border.

This is no joking matter.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The systemic persecution of immigrants directed by rulers and authorities is evil.

Paul is calling us to respond to the biblical imperative, to stand and fight forces of injustice. Not to sit on the sidelines with our convictions, but to put on our armor, take up our sword, and enter the battle. Or, as one scholar writes, “Paul is calling the church to aggressively enter the market and challenge the hold of evil in the marketplace of life. Take the fight to the enemy. The church is a phalanx penetrating the powers of darkness as a wedge of light.”

May it be so.

 

 

At Our Church, We…

giant slayers

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 10, 2018.

John 5:1-9, Psalm 98

Just over a year ago, a panicked young mother, Julissa, called her pastor, AJ Johnson, from the Saint Francis Hospital Emergency Room. Through tears she explained that her infant daughter had been bitten by mice as she slept in their apartment in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford. As if the horror of mice biting her baby wasn’t overwhelming enough, the Department of Children and Families had been called and was now refusing to release her baby to return home with her. Pastor AJ arrived within minutes, and so begins a most remarkable, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring story.

In addition to leading the Urban Hope Refuge Church in Hartford’s North End, Pastor AJ is a neighborhood organizer on the staff of the Christian Activities Council, a Hartford faith-based social justice organization. As he inquired more about the circumstances that led to Julissa’s emergency room visit, he learned that the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments (CARA) where she lived had an uncontrolled infestation of mice living within its walls, beyond the reach of tenants’ traps or poison. In addition to mice and rats, the 300-plus tenants of these CARA apartments dealt with leaks, water damage and mold, broken windows, and no heat; and despite being cited more than 2,300 times for violations, the landlord Emmanuel Ku, failed to remedy these deplorable, inhumane conditions.

Pastor AJ and the Christian Activities Council began to organize the CARA tenants in what would become a year-long effort to hold Ku accountable for providing safe housing. Community organizing campaigns like this one depend on the leadership of the tenants. The Christian Activities Council remains in the background, training, equipping, and supporting the tenants to do the necessary research, meet with public officials, and publicize their cause. The tenants soon learned that Ku is one of the most notorious slumlords in America. Every year he received over a million dollars in subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and 260,000 dollars in tax abatement from the City of Hartford.

Holding Ku accountable would require holding HUD and the city accountable. Mayor Bronin of Hartford quickly agreed to support the tenants; not surprisingly, HUD moved more slowly. But on May 31st, HUD notified Ku that they would be removing his subsidy, effectively ending his management of the CARA apartments. Tenants will now be given a voucher from HUD to relocate, and the Christian Activities Council is working with them to make sure they secure appropriate housing.

In the words of Psalm 98:

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

Just a year after a young mother’s desperate phone call, she and her fellow tenants came together to stand up to forces of evil and achieve justice for themselves. This is the promise of community organizing.

First Church has had a number of meaningful connections to this campaign, most significantly through our intern, Anastasia, who has been working on the front lines with the Christian Activities Council since September. And I have been meeting with a group of over 40 Hartford Area clergy organized by the Christian Activities Council to provide a faith-based witness for righteousness and justice. In May, I had the privilege of sitting in on a large meeting between all the players. The city was represented by Mayor Bronin and the Fire Chief; HUD executives in Boston appeared via a large video screen; Emmanuel Ku’s people were at the table, CARA tenants set the tone for the meeting; and a couple dozen of us clergy sat in rows along one wall, now that I think of it, like a kind of holy jury. I was deeply moved by the skill, strength and resolve of the tenant leadership of that meeting.

First Church has now formed a Core Team of six volunteers that will develop relationships within our church to inform future organizing efforts. Ten of us from First Church were present at an organizing training on Tuesday evening, when the tenant leaders of the CARA apartments were invited to come forward. The room, over a hundred representatives of some thirty-five churches, erupted in a spontaneous and raucous standing ovation for this remarkable, if unlikely, group of giant slayers.

From our psalm, The Lord has made known her victory; she has revealed her vindication in the sight of all people.

With the time I have left I want to address a couple questions.

First, is it consistent with our faith for churches like ours to participate in community organizing efforts like the one in support of the Clay Arsenal tenants?

And, if this is indeed the work of the church, where do each of us find ourselves in stories like this?

In the story I shared from the Gospel of John, a crowd of people with various disabilities gathers at the edge of a pool of healing water. From time to time the water is agitated, activating its healing properties, and those waiting to be healed clamor to be the first into the water. The King James Version of the Bible describes this scene more colorfully. “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

It seems that some people were closer to the edge of the pool than others, some may have been less debilitated than the man Jesus is talking to, and others may have had someone to help them down into the water. But this man who has been ill for thirty-eight years can never reach the pool in time to be healed. Others have more access, ability and resources. Jesus instructs this man, stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up and walks!

Likewise, by themselves, the tenants of CARA did not have the access, ability, or resources necessary to remedy their situation. Like Jesus, the Christian Activities Council prepared and supported the tenants to stand up and walk on their own.

The psalm continues, God has remembered her steadfast love and faithfulness to her children. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Yes, this equipping and enabling of those without access and means is work we are called to as the body of Christ, the church.

Though this work of organizing for justice and equity is clearly the work of the church, as a pastor I know well that not every individual feels called to such ministries. So, where might you fit in to stories like the one about the CARA residents’ victory over Emmanuel Ku?

Well, this is choir Sunday, and Psalm 98 instructs us, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

I think our music ministry provides a perfect model for ways we might all claim our place in the social justice “choir.”

At First Church, those who feel called and have a gift for music are invited to sing in one of our choirs. But not everyone feels so called, and not everyone has been so gifted. But the music ministry of this church, with all its choirs and musicians, clearly inspires us all and enriches our faith. And called or not, and gifted or not, each of us is regularly invited to participate in the music of the church through the singing of hymns in worship. And though we might not like every hymn sung or piece of music performed, I think we would all agree that we have an extraordinary music ministry here at First Church, especially unique and successful in my mind, because of the diverse music Mark Mercier brings to us. I would like to think that all of us, whether or not we sing or play an instrument, claim the music ministry as our own, “At our church, we have the most amazing music ministry!”

In fact, I would like to think we could come up with a whole string of “At our church, we…” statements. At our church, we have an extraordinary youth group. At our church we have a great church school. And that each of us feels empowered and equipped to tell stories about these, our ministries.

Like the music ministry, those who are gifted or called are invited to enter into particular roles in our fledgling community organizing ministry. You might attend a training to be a member of the Core Team. Or you might agree to host a house meeting in the fall. Or down the road, you might fill a specific need in a particular campaign. But whether or not you participate at this level, like the music ministry, this organizing ministry will inspire us all and enrich our faith. And called or not, gifted or not, there will be opportunities for everyone to participate. Instead of Sunday morning worship, you will be invited to attend gatherings called actions in support of particular issues. Instead of hymns to sing, you will be given stories to tell. And I would like to think that all of us will become comfortable saying, “At our church, we have a thriving community organizing ministry. Let me tell you the story of Julissa and how, with Pastor AJ, she sparked a campaign that brought down one of the most notorious slum lords in the United States! Yes, at our church, we stood alongside the tenants as witnesses to righteousness and equity!”

Tell these stories, and…

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,

for God is coming to judge the earth.

And God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

 

 

 

 

Merciful and Mighty

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 27, 2018.

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17

Isaiah and Paul present two very different images of God.

In Isaiah’s vision God is powerful, awe inspiring, even frightening. God sits high on a throne, so massive that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Six-winged creatures called seraphs fill the temple with smoke and shake its foundation with their cries of Holy, Holy, Holy! This is God strong, glorious and transcendent, sitting above and apart from humanity.

Paul, on the other hand, invites us to imagine ourselves as children adopted by a loving parent, in a relationship so intimate that we call God, Abba, or Papa.

In my experience as a pastor, many people today are drawn more to Paul’s tender Abba, while some flatly reject the fearsome God portrayed by Isaiah.

But there are days that I’m just not in the mood to cozy up to Abba; Some days I need some of that temple-shaking power of God! Yesterday was one of those days.

For decades, I have had a strong dislike for McDonald’s hamburgers. Hear me out. They’re awful. Cooked frozen, these small, gray, chewy discs taste more like shoe leather than the 100% beef they claim to be. I dislike them so much, that they make me angry at McDonald’s. I went years without ever setting foot in McDonald’s until, in 2001, when I saw a commercial with the Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant biting into a brand new, delicious looking, McDonald’s hamburger called the Big and Tasty! Finally, I thought, McDonald’s has seen the light and made a proper burger! I wasted no time going to the closest McDonald’s and ordering a Big and Tasty! Imagine my disappointment when I took my first bite, not into the big, juicy burger that Kobe Bryant had, but into the same gray, chewy, hockey puck McDonald’s had always served, this one with lettuce and tomato! I was so mad at being duped that I went right home and wrote a letter to McDonald’s telling them that instead of a Big and Tasty, they should call their burger a Small and Nasty.

I stayed away from McDonald’s for another ten years until I was again drawn in by an ad for new “gourmet burgers,” but was again left feeling betrayed and angry.

So, did you hear? McDonalds now says that they have seen the light. They have replaced the patty on their Quarter Pounder with fresh, never frozen, ground beef. I saw the commercial, this one with retired basketball star Charles Barkley. It looked delicious! So, yesterday, in the drive through to get Abby her favorite Chicken McNuggets, I saw the picture of the new improved Quarter Pounder and thought, “What the heck?”

But I didn’t even finish giving my order before I knew this wasn’t going to end well. After I said that I didn’t want mustard or onions, the voice in the speaker said, “Well, that will only leave pickles and ketchup.” “What about lettuce and tomato?” I asked, knowing the answer. There is no lettuce and tomato on a Quarter Pounder, not even on the new improved Quarter Pounder. To add insult to injury, after I paid, I had to go park and wait more than ten minutes until the burger was delivered to my car, “because it was cooked fresh,” the attendant explained.

And the final verdict? Not good. I learned that just because a burger is made with fresh ground beef doesn’t mean it tastes good. But this is about more than bad burgers. I am outraged that that one of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world can’t care for and respect their customers enough to make a decent hamburger! And that they manipulate the appetite of their customers by misrepresenting their product, making it look like it’s big and tasty when it continues to be small and nasty. It’s more than a bad burger, it’s an injustice!

Which brings us to Isaiah.

Isaiah speaks to the injustices of his time.

In the first five chapters he lays bare the corruption and greed of the wealthy and powerful of Judah and the injustice they perpetrate:

Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Called to respond to the rampant injustices perpetrated by Judean leaders, Isaiah has this vision of God sitting high on a throne, more powerful than any human evil. For his part, Isaiah confesses. I have unclean lips,” meaning, “How can I confront injustice if I am also a sinner?”

Reading this yesterday, I felt convicted. I realized that in my years-long battle with McDonald’s over its lousy hamburgers I also have unclean lips and need to confess. You see, I haven’t been completely honest. In spite of genuinely loathing McDonald’s hamburgers, I am sometimes overcome by a forbidden craving, for a Big Mac. Yes, hypocritical as it may be, every year or so I will sneak to McD’s for two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. It’s the special sauce that gets me. I also have unclean lips.

In response to his confession, God blots out Isaiah’s transgressions, and Isaiah says, “Here I am, Lord, Send me,” then goes on to confront Judah’s injustice.

My McDonald’s example is admittedly a little silly. But this is my point.

There are certainly times when we need the love and acceptance only Abba can provide. And there are other times when we need God to be bigger and stronger than any human injustice; we need a vision of a God who transcends human sin.

Today we honor those who have been members of First Church for fifty or more years. Think about that! I asked Ken Poppe, a member of our Heritage Committee, what was happening in the church and in the world fifty years ago, when these folks joined the church.

Not unlike Judah in Isaiah’s day, 1968 America was a time rife with injustice and electric with opposition to that injustice, including:

  • The Viet Nam War and anti-war protests
  • Riots at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
  • Urban disturbances in Newark, Detroit, and LA
  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s Rights demonstrations
  • and The Cold War versus the USSR

For all I know, Class of 1968, some of you may have been seeking refuge here from a mad, mad, world. But the seraphs cried, Holy, Holy, Holy, the foundation shook, and as a member of First Church you were sent back into the world changed, to represent all that is good and just.

Its sobering how much the events of 1968 look like a list we could make today, isn’t it?

  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s rights demonstrations
  • Cold War-like tensions with Russia and North Korea

Add to the list:

  • Terrorism
  • Mass shootings and gun violence
  • Economic inequality
  • And a politically divided nation

Truth be told, whether a member for fifty years or a first time visitor, many of us came here this morning seeking a little love and validation from a loving, parent God, our Abba. But hear the seraphs’ cry, Holy, Holy, Holy; feel the foundation shake, and listen as a mighty God, greater than any human failing and injustice asks, “Whom shall I send?”

None of us is innocent; if we are honest, we all have unclean lips.

But here’s the thing. When we confess, and step forward in response to an awesome God, God blots out our transgressions, and we are led forth by the Spirt of God as children of God. For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

And it is as children of God that we say with confidence, “Send me, Lord. Send me.”

 

Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

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

Acts 8:26-33

Matthew 25:31-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannanite Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!

rally black lives matter

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 20, at First Church Simsbury, a day after joining 40,000 other marchers in the “Fight Supremacy” march in Boston.

Matthew 15:21-28

This is one of the most fascinating, and most disturbing stories about Jesus in the gospels. Bottom line, he comes off as a complete jerk, or worse, a bigot. Really!

Let’s review. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus asking him to cast out a demon from her daughter. Some suspect that symptoms of mental illness or epilepsy were attributed to demons in ancient Palestine. Though we can’t know the exact nature of this demon, we are clear that this mother is distraught and desperate to get help for her daughter, help she believes Jesus can provide.

Sadly, Jesus completely ignores her. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away, and indeed, he tries to dismiss her, saying, “My job is to minister to Jews, not a Gentile Canaanite woman like you.” Think about the Woolworth lunch counter refusing to serve blacks in 1960. Jesus is posting a sign, “No Gentiles.” To add insult to injury he then calls her a dog. “It is not fair,” he says, “to take the food meant for children (Jews) and give it to dogs (Gentiles).” Even then, she persists. But even dogs, she says, get the crumbs from their master’s table.

Finally, Jesus responds to her plea saying, “you have great faith, your daughter is healed.”

If his seemingly abusive behavior isn’t troubling enough, we are also left to wonder, does Jesus change his mind? We tend to think of Jesus as perfect and unchanging. What are the implications of this apparently judgmental, flip-flopping, Jesus?

One interpretation of this story is that Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, treating her like dirt to see if she will remain faithful. And when she does, he rewards her, as if to say, “Congratulations, you passed the test!” I suppose the message here would be to stay faithful when we are experiencing hardships. But is this how we understand God? One who dishes out all manner of humiliation and pain just to test us? I sure hope not.

No, I think something else is going on here.

As painful as this is to read, Jesus gives expression to widespread prejudices held by Jews toward the Gentile Canaanites at the time. Notice how this story moves from exclusion to inclusion. Jesus moves from ministering to only Jews to ministering to Gentiles as well. This shift to include Gentiles would become very important in the early church. So maybe Matthew’s purpose in telling the story this way is to lead those in his community to change their mind about Gentiles?

Following the hate-filled marches by Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists last weekend in Charlottesville we are left to wonder if our country isn’t moving in the opposite direction, from inclusion back to the racist exclusion of the past. What might Matthew’s story of Jesus have to teach us about opening hearts and minds to become more inclusive?

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I went to a march against racism in Boston yesterday. I was deeply moved by this experience. The day began with a worship service at Old South Church where our UCC President, Rev. John Dorhauer offered an inspiring word. Dozens of clergy then walked together to the place where the march began. Some ministers went to the front to lead the march while others of us dispersed through the large crowd, the police commissioner estimated 40,000 marchers. There was an extremely positive energy throughout. Though I read afterward that a small number of protesters acted poorly and were arrested, I didn’t witness any violent or hateful behavior, quite the opposite, all I saw was love.

One of the most moving things I witnessed along the route of the march was a young black woman standing on a milk crate. Maybe 17, she was flanked by two girls, her sisters maybe, and she was shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter.” I don’t know if I can adequately communicate the raw emotion in her voice. It wasn’t angry in the least. Nor did I hear accusation or blame. Rather, hers was a desperate cry, a plaintive plea in response to all the racist hatred she has witnessed this past week, and over her lifetime. It was if she was crying out, “Listen to me, see me, hear me! Black Lives Matter! My Life Matters!” And the crowd answered her call. Hundreds of voices responded to her plea, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter” as if to say, “We see you, we hear you! Yes! Your Life Matters!” And like the Canaanite woman, she wouldn’t give up, continuing her appeal long after I passed by. I can still feel the sound of her voice in my gut.

That young woman touched my heart, and this is the first lesson we learn from Jesus’s encounter. After he had a meaningful exchange with her, looked into her eyes, had the sound of her voice work its way down into his heart, Jesus no longer saw the Canaanite woman as a position on an issue or a set of beliefs. Instead he saw her as a hurting human being. The first thing that Matthew teaches us about opening our minds to be more inclusive is that it requires face to face encounters in which we hear another’s pain. I would like to think that even someone who had a tightly constructed critique of the Black Lives Matter movement might have understood these words in a new way upon hearing this young woman’s cry yesterday.

The second thing we learn from Matthew is the need for someone to meet us where we are without judgment and lead us beyond exclusion. This is the power of this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. We might think the things Jesus says are awful, but those in Matthew’s community who heard this story would immediately identify with Jesus. Then when Jesus opens his eyes to see the woman’s full humanity and faith, so his followers would be invited to see the woman anew through Jesus’ eyes.

I know that talking about race makes many people uncomfortable. When I bring up the topic, some people become hurt and defensive.

I have been recommending a book to white colleagues and church members, Waking up White, by Debby Irving. This is a memoir in which Irving is uncompromisingly confessional about all the mistakes she made in her ongoing journey from exclusion to inclusion. To be clear, Irving was never someone who we would think of as a racist. Irving grew up in a town very much like Simsbury, Winchester, Massachusetts. The size of the population, median income, cost of housing are all similar, and like Simsbury, Winchester was over 90 percent white. Irving had always been taught to be kind to all people regardless of race. But through a series of encounters and experiences over several years she begins to question many of her assumptions and little by little she changes her mind about what she had held to be true. She writes:

“My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance. As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race. I also explain why and how I’ve changed the way I talk about racism, work in racially mixed groups, and understand the racial justice movement as a whole.”

I find that Irving functions in a role similar to Jesus’ in this morning’s story. Jesus’ initial response to the Canaanite woman allowed Matthew’s readers to acknowledge their own beliefs about Canaanites. As I read Waking up White I would find myself nodding and think, “Yeah, I’ve thought that too.” Then Irving’s story would take a turn, and I would come to see things in a new way through her eyes. The fact that she doesn’t judge, but is instead so guilelessly confessional made it feel safe to explore my own beliefs and feelings. By the conclusion of the story I felt like I had had a conversion experience! And this, I believe, is Matthew’s intention in telling the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this way, to convert his followers to a more inclusive perspective.

There is much more to this story, but this is enough for this morning.

Jesus invites us to journey from exclusion to inclusion. He invites us into face to face encounters with those our society judges, invites us to let their cry work a change in our hearts. And Jesus invites us to accompany one another on this journey without judgment. Following the confessional example of leaders like Irving we too might change our minds.

Simsbury Stands Up Against Hate

vigil pic

These were the words and prayer I shared at the “Simsbury Stands Up Against Hate” vigil held on Thursday evening, August 17, organized in response to the violent expressions of racist hate in Charlottesville this past week.

I am Pastor George Harris from First Church Simsbury just down the street. I am still relatively new to Simsbury, and I can tell you that moving hear feels like coming home. Though I wasn’t born here, I lived in Hamden through elementary school, so the look and feel of Connecticut evokes fond memories. But more than a geographic home, Simsbury feels like home in other ways.

For most of my adult life I lived in Hawaii, and for the eight years before coming here I served a church in downtown New Britain. For the past twenty-five years I have lived in communities of color and ministered among the urban poor. Coming to prosperous, highly educated, mostly white Simsbury marks a notable change. And as I contemplated this change it occurred to me that, as a well-educated, middle class, white man, Simsbury represents a homecoming. It makes sense that in this season of my life I have been called to minister here. It feels right.

Though much here in Simsbury is familiar, I have also been confronted with new experiences. Oddly, one of these new experiences is with oak trees. I know that sounds ridiculous. Of course I know what an oak tree is. As a kid I remember finding acorns, and playing with the little cap, like a hat on a little head. Somewhere along the way I learned the saying, “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” And I also learned that it can take 100 years for an oak tree to grow to maturity

But I had never had an oak tree in my own yard.

When our realtor first showed us our home on Fairview, I noticed that the backyard was carpeted with acorns. I commented on this to our realtor and she rolled her eyes, acknowledging the challenge these present. “Oh yeah, you will have to keep after those. Get your daughter or neighborhood kids to help you,” she said.

I was reminded of oak trees and acorns this week. Like many of you, I expect, I was shocked and dismayed, heartbroken really, by the seemingly sudden appearance of what seems to be fully mature racist hate in Charlottesville last weekend.

In the days that followed I wondered where this sprang from, not only as a so-called, white supremacist, white nationalist, Nazi movement, but what gave birth to such hatred in the heart of these mostly young white men? What were the acorns of racism that caused such anger to grow strong and emerge into the light?

And as I have continued to pray upon and ponder these things it occurs to me that there are acorns of racism everywhere in our society, seemingly small things that send a message that people of color in general, and African Americans in particular are less than.

Much racism is socially unacceptable, such as use of the n-word, telling racist jokes, and wearing swastikas. But we pass right by many other acorns that lie upon the day to day paths we travel.

Now, I have committed much of the past 25 years of my life to working for equality and justice, but I know that I have lots of acorns of bias, prejudice and stereotypes that take root in the fertile soil of my privilege. To tell you the truth, as a white guy, these little acorns are barely visible, they just become part of the landscape unless I pause to look for them. But still, they germinate, and these roots of racism extend deeper and deeper into the soil that is my life, our life, influencing the way we see the world and the choices we make.

And though they aren’t always easy to see, and we may not really want to look for them, there are plenty of these acorns in Simsbury too.

Yes, responding to the horrific events in Charlottesville requires speaking out strongly against white nationalists and Nazis, chopping down these mature oaks of racist hatred at their base. And, responding to Charlottesville also requires picking up acorns right here in our own backyard.

And just as my realtor encouraged me to get some kids to help pick up my yard, so this work of cleaning up our own beliefs and institutions here in Simsbury must involve our children.

Let’s come together to first identify, then cleanup, the seeds of racism right here in Simsbury, before they become the mighty oaks of racist hatred that we witnessed in Charlottesville.

Let us pray…

Gracious and loving God,

We affirm today that you created each and every human being in your image, and that you love us all completely.

So God, we affirm everyone here this evening as a magnificent creation of the divine. Though not perfect, we come together to express our intention to work together for good and to confront evil wherever we may find it.

We also affirm before you this evening, God that you create all humans as equal, and send us forth into the world to live abundantly, and to live together in peace. In particular, today God, we affirm the value of people of color and Jews since these peoples were singled out for hatred in last week’s march in Charlottesville.

Heal us, strengthen us, and encourage us, God, as we have been shaken badly by what continues to unfold on our television and computer screens each day. Quiet the fear that wells up in us and ground us in your peace.

Give us wisdom and courage, God, to respond to racism in all its guises, whether as acorns or full-grown oaks. May we not fall victim to the same hatred and anger we saw on display in Charlottesville, but may we instead draw from the wellspring of never ending love that is you.

And God, may we not forget that those who donned swastikas and picked up torches in Charlottesville are also your children, beloved by you. Please, God, may your loving spirit displace the hatred and anger that separates us one from another that we might live together in peace.

Amen.

Published in: on August 18, 2017 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags:

Stand Up!

It was my privilege to preach this sermon at a Celebration of the Ministry of  my dear colleague, Reverend Da Vita McCallister, at Faith Congregational Church, on May 28, 2017. Reverend McCallister is leaving her position on the Connecticut Conference staff as Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development and Church Vitality to accept a call as Lead Pastor of  The First Congregational Church of Somerville in Massachusetts.

John 4:5-15, 27-30, 39-42

I extend my sincere gratitude to the planning committee for the invitation to preach today. As a preacher, it is an honor any time we are asked to preach outside our home church, but it is a privilege indeed to preach at this special service of celebration for the ministry of our dear colleague Rev. Day McCallister. And I offer a very special word of thanks to Rev. Stephen Camp and Faith Congregational Church for so graciously sharing your historic pulpit this afternoon. I know that this is no small thing, and requires both genuine humility and a generosity of Spirit. So again, thank you.

Finally, I thank my friend and colleague Rev. Jocelyn Gardner Spencer for that introduction. You and I will always be bound together by that memorable barbeque lunch with Reverend Day. In fact, I will turn to the text in a minute, but there is good reason to revisit that essential part of our formation as Racial Justice facilitators, as it relates directly to my presence in this pulpit this afternoon.

Jocelyn and I were leading a two-day, Racial Justice training for the Conference staff at Silver Lake. We had spent hours preparing, both in conversation with Reverend Day and on our own. Though admittedly nervous, we were ready, or so we thought. In the course of the morning we sought to establish a comfortable learning environment, thanking everyone for their presence, and acknowledging that conversations about race and racism can be difficult. To put people at ease, Jocelyn and I sat at the table with the Conference staff and, when someone made themselves vulnerable by sharing a personal reflection, we affirmed them warmly. We had our facilitators’ binders open in front of us, and we followed the syllabus that Reverend Day had provided perfectly.

The morning session ended and, as agreed upon in advance, we met with Reverend Day for lunch to debrief and prepare for the afternoon session. I remember the scene perfectly. Relaxed and smiling, she asked me and Jocelyn how we thought it went. Frankly, we were pretty pleased with ourselves. The morning had unfolded without incident, the Conference staff seemed happy, and we were on schedule.

And that’s when it happened. Reverend Day broke it down, broke us down.

“This,” she said, “is Racial Justice Training. Your job is not to make people happy. You are not their pastor. You are a racial justice facilitator, act like one. You are not required to honor and affirm every perspective. Take ownership of the material. Claim your authority. And for God’s sake, Stand Up!”

So, when the planning committee for this service invited me to preach, not a word celebrating Reverend Day’s ministry at the Conference, but a word about racial justice to the Conference, what could I do but Stand Up!

Let us pray: God, open our ears to hear your word, open our hearts to be transformed by the movement of your Holy Spirit in this place, and grant us courage to respond boldly together. Now, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Hot and tired from his journey to Galilee, Jesus has stopped to refresh himself at a well when along comes a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were a minority ethnic-religious group that was looked down upon and disparaged by many Jews at the time. Jesus’ followers, upon hearing, “A Samaritan woman came to draw water,” in this story, would have likely rolled their eyes, smirked, muttered a slur against Samaritans, or even cracked a Samaritan joke. These same followers would have been shocked, confused, and even angry upon hearing that Jesus enters into a respectful and mutual conversation with the woman.

Jesus offers this woman living water, a never ending source of life. What does this mean? It means Jesus sees her just as she is, as a woman and a Samaritan. He knows her completely, through and through. Jesus understands her unique value and power, and he recognizes the particular hardships that society inflicts upon her as a result of her gender and ethnicity. At the end of their encounter she says of Jesus, “He told me everything I have ever done!” This recognition, acknowledgment, acceptance and affirmation is the living water Jesus provides, and the life of the Samaritan woman is changed forever as a result.

The disciples arrive and are offended that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman, though they won’t come right out and say it. We might imagine the exchange, Jesus affirming for the disciples that Samaritan Lives Matter. The disciples protesting, “But Jesus, we’re sure you would agree that All Lives Matter,” and Jesus responding, “All lives do matter, but I am drawing your attention to the unique value of Samaritan lives and the particular injustices perpetrated against them.”

The Samaritan woman returns to her village to share the news of this one who sees her, knows her, accepts her, and affirms her. As a result many other Samaritans commit to follow in the way of Jesus, saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.”

Here ends the gospel account of the Samaritan woman, but her story continues.

Early Greek Christians give this Samaritan woman a name, Photina, P-H-O-T-I-N-A, meaning “the enlightened one.” Photina, it is said, was baptized by the Apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost; she then traveled with her sisters and children to Carthage in North Africa where she preached the gospel. After fulfilling her ministry in Carthage, Photina was called across the Mediterranean to the Greek city of Smyrna. Fourth century Greek sermons refer to Photina as “evangelist” and “apostle,” and say she surpassed all the male disciples.

According to this tradition, Emperor Nero ultimately martyred Photina in Rome by throwing her down a dry well. Think about that. Jesus meets her at a well, symbolizing the living water of understanding. The well is the place where she is seen, known, and affirmed for those very qualities that the world judges, her womanhood, her identity as a Samaritan. Empire, represented by Nero, appropriates the symbol of the well, but withholds the living water of recognition in an attempt to deny the power of her identity, and erase her story.

And what a story! Learning about this ancient tradition of Photina set my imagination free, wondering what her ministry might have been like in Carthage.

Let’s imagine that Photina shows up in Carthage filled with the Spirit, fired up to preach the gospel, to share the living water of Jesus, to see, know, accept and affirm the Carthaginians. She finds there, a community of disciples and Apostles from Jerusalem, also ministering in Christ’s name. She has high hopes for these relationships. After all, they had all shared an experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

On her first day she is greeted with a smile by one of these Jerusalem Apostles who says, “Photina, that’s a funny name, I’ll never remember that, I think I’ll call you “Tina.” Thousands of years later, this would be known as a micro-aggression, a way of asserting power over a person of color by refusing to use their given name. Though she didn’t have a word for it, she knew she was having none of that and responded, “My friends call me Pho, but you can call me The Apostle Photina of Samaria.”

Despite this rough start, Photina soon fell in love with the Apostles and church folk she found in Carthage, and they loved her back. Photina was smart, funny, charismatic, and could preach, teach, sing and pray like nobody’s business!

Though their affection for her was genuine, the church would also, at times, use its relationship with Photina, invoking her name to defend itself against any suggestion that they were anti-Samaritan, as in, “We’re not racist, we work with a Samaritan, and we love her!” Photina soon realized that being the only Samaritan Christian in Carthage was isolating for her, and didn’t fundamentally alter the Jerusalem culture of the church. So she invited her sisters, daughters and sons to join her in ministry there.

The Africans of Carthage responded enthusiastically to the living water shared by The Apostle Photina and her family, experiencing acceptance and affirmation for who they were. But some of the Jerusalem leaders wondered silently if there weren’t now “too many Samaritans” serving the church in Carthage.

And though Photina performed wonders and signs among the people of Carthage and was genuinely praised by the Jerusalem Apostles, she would still have encounters that would drain and burden her. One would say, “You are so articulate,” in a way that suggested that other Samaritans weren’t. Another would say, “You know, I’m color blind. I don’t see you as a Samaritan, but just as a human being.” Photina was required to assert herself, saying, “If you don’t see me as a Samaritan, then you don’t see me.” And still others, when they saw Photina, would want to question, challenge and debate her about “the problem with Samaritans,” forcing her to again defend herself and her people.

Photina began to name the ways the domination systems of Jerusalem and Rome wove themselves into the fabric of culture and institutions, including the church, and the ways the power of Empire manifested itself in every person and relationship. This work tried Photina’s faith, and the Jerusalem Apostles responded in a variety of ways. Truly desiring to make the church a vessel for living water, some began the hard work of confronting their own and the church’s participation in the domination system. But others became defensive, denying their own complicity; and others still sought to claim Photina’s work as their own, thereby perpetuating a history of appropriating the labor and accomplishments of ethnic and religious minorities going back to Pharaoh.

As I said, the story is told that Nero later sought to extinguish the unique power Photina wielded as a Samaritan woman by throwing her down a dry well. But I wonder if her martyrdom was in fact less sudden and dramatic, though no less painful. Each of these encounters withheld the living water of understanding, and each denied her Samaritan identity. Ministry as a Samaritan could sometimes feel like martyrdom by a thousand micro-aggressions. And such experiences with those she truly loved hurt the most of all.

According to this ancient tradition, Photina was called by God to leave Carthage and serve a church in the prosperous Roman city of Smyrna. Smyrna is one of seven cities addressed by Christ in the Second Chapter of the Book of Revelation, where he says, “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.”

Along with the sorrow of losing a dear friend and colleague, the Apostles wondered who would carry Photina’s powerful witness forward on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed in Carthage. Some thought they should find another Samaritan to speak for them. Others thought Photina’s departure could be an opportunity to shift resources to other ministries. And others still were paralyzed with indecision.

As the day approached for Photina to depart for Smyrna, all the Apostles and disciples of Carthage gathered around a table to break bread, eat barbeque, and celebrate their justice ministry together. Someone was about to suggest that they all hold hands and sing a favorite Carthaginian song, Kumbaya, when The Apostle Photina of Samaria began to speak:

“My dear friends and colleagues, you have been called to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the most vulnerable, those on the margins, and the oppressed.  See them, know them, accept them, and affirm them. Your job is not to make everyone happy. You do not need to be everyone’s pastor. You are a facilitator of justice, act like one. You are not required to honor and affirm every perspective. Take ownership. Claim your authority. And for God’s sake, Stand Up!”

That’s what Photina said, or so the story goes.

The John passage ends with these words addressed to the Samaritan woman we now know as Photina, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.”

So sisters and brothers, hear God’s call to justice in the Connecticut Conference, not because of what our imagined Apostle Photina of Samaria said, not even because of what The Reverend Da Vita McCallister has taught us, but that we may hear and respond to this call for ourselves.

We have been called to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the most vulnerable, those on the margins.  Black Lives Matter! Brown Lives Matter! See, know, accept, and affirm the unique value of black and brown lives, and name the injustices perpetrated against black and brown bodies! Our job is not to make everyone happy. We are not called to be everybody’s pastor. We are facilitators of justice! We are not required to honor and affirm every perspective! Take ownership, make these words your own, and Speak Up! Act Up! Rise Up! Claim your authority, and for God’s sake… for God’s sake… for God’s sake Stand Up!

 

What Kind of Witness?

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 14, 2017.

Acts 7:55-60

The short passage from the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts that I am going to preach on makes little sense without the story that precedes it, beginning in Chapter 6. So, here is that story.

Following Christ’s resurrection, then ascension to heaven, the Apostles began to organize as the church and set out in an around Jerusalem to share the story of Jesus and baptize people in his name. Among those early converts were Greek speaking Jews. Though the Apostles baptized these so-called Hellenists, they weren’t seen as the equals of Hebrew speaking Jews who traced their ancestry to Abraham.

Every day, the early church would distribute food to widows and those in need, but the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected. This annoyed the original twelve Apostles because they thought it was below them to “wait on tables,” serving food, especially to Hellenist widows. So they directed the Hellenists to identify seven of their own men of good standing to serve as Deacons. The Deacons would serve the food, so the Apostles could focus on praying and sharing the word of God.

Among those seven Deacons was a man named Stephen. Though he was said to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit; he wasn’t expected to do more than to volunteer in the soup kitchen.

But he quickly got himself in trouble by arguing with members of a Hellenist synagogue, and these Greek speaking Jews brought Stephen before the ruling council of chief priests in Jerusalem. His accusers said that Stephen’s promotion of Jesus as the “Way” represented a break from Jewish tradition and that he should be punished for this. Stephen then gives a long and impassioned speech to the Council to refute their charges.

He argues that there have been two groups in Israel’s long history, those who accept God’s message and messengers and those who reject them. Stephen and the Apostles are aligned with Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. The Council and the Jews they represent are aligned with the Egyptians, the ancestors who killed the prophets, and those who crucified Jesus. One group sought the liberation of the slaves, justice for the poor, and new life for the most vulnerable, while the others oppressed these same. According to Stephen, rather than rejecting God’s law, the followers of Jesus are in line with the faithful in Jewish history who have sought to keep covenant with God. Jesus is a fulfillment of the law, not a break from it. Stephen finished his speech to the Council with these words:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

Not surprisingly, Stephen’s words enrage his accusers, and this is where this morning’s passage picks up.

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

Note, this is the Saul that would soon have a conversion experience, after which he would be known as Paul, the Apostle who would become the greatest evangelist our tradition has ever known, and whose letters have profoundly influenced the way we understand our faith.

Stephen, the waiter, was stoned to death by a mob for confronting powerful religious authorities for their failure to follow Jewish law. Stephen was a witness for God’s truth and justice, and it cost him his life.

Saul was a different kind of witness, he stood by and watched as authorities incited a mob to murder, and his silence communicated his approval.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, waged from 1976 to 1983, the military government abducted, tortured, and killed left-wing militants, and anyone they claimed were “subversives,” including all political opponents of the regime. Many of the dissenters were young people, students and other youth trying to express their dissatisfactions with the regime. The kidnapped people became referred to as the “disappeared.” The government obliterated any records that would help the families find the bodies or reclaim their grandchildren.

The military government’s censorships prevented any discussion of the matter. Within a terrorist state, those who spoke out put their own lives in danger. Yet, in the face of the disappearance of their children, in 1977 a group of mothers began to meet each Thursday in the large Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the site of Argentina’s government. There they walked in non-violent demonstrations. As they walked they chanted: “We want our children; we want them to tell us where they are.” The madres said, “No matter what our children think they should not be tortured. They should have charges brought before them. We should be able to see them, visit them.”

The mothers’ simple request was the first time any of the public had spoken out against the brutality of the regime. The movement and numbers of women whose children had “disappeared” grew. In their weekly demonstrations some carried pictures of the missing children. Later they wore white scarfs to symbolize the white dove of peace, which “can unit all women.”

The mothers’ nonviolent expression of truth to power eventually drew international attention. Human rights groups arrived to help them open up an office, publish their own newspaper and learn to make speeches. Although the police continued to harass them, (the early founders in fact “disappeared” themselves), it became more difficult for the government to ignore the moral presence of mothers standing witness to the illegal and brutal acts of the regime. As mothers, they presented a powerful moral symbol which, over time, transformed them from women seeking to protect their children to women wishing to transform the state so that it reflected maternal values.

In no small part because of the mothers’ witness and martyrdom, Argentina returned to a civilian government in 1983.

One of the mothers, Maria del Rosario de Cerruti said:

“One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice…Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.”

Either we speak out, or we are accomplices.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

At the end of April, a number of students from Canton High School chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” at a basketball game against the predominantly black and Latino Classical Magnet School in Hartford. In an editorial, the Hartford Courant named the incident for what it was, racism, and the Principle of Canton High School acknowledged that the taunts crossed the line into hate speech. At the end of February, someone rearranged the letters of the Granby High School sign to spell a racial slur against African Americans.

We would like to think Simsbury is immune to such incidents but it isn’t. During a performance of 42nd Street in February a student yelled out a homophobic slur at one of the actors on stage. Rev Kev and I hear of other incidents of students directing slurs toward immigrants, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and Jews in the hallways and classrooms of Simsbury High.

Frankly, I felt convicted by today’s story about Stephen. I have heard about such things at the high school all year but, not being sure how to respond, have stood silently by. And I hear the words of Maria del Rosario de Cerruti, “We have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices.”

This is not to blame teachers or the administration. Naming and confronting such behavior is hard. And I am not imagining mothers wearing white scarves protesting in the school parking lot, though wouldn’t that be something. But maybe there is a response appropriate to our faith, something encouraging and helpful to the administration and teachers, something supportive of youth and their families, something that equips everyone to respond constructively to racism and homophobia when it arises, as it surely will.

Please help me think about this as we attempt to answer the question, what kind of witnesses will we be?

%d bloggers like this: