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?

Blessed Are the Refugees

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, January 29.

Matthew 5:1-12, Luke 6:20-26

On Friday, First Church staff and our spouses gathered in my home for a post-Christmas party. As you know, the holiday season is especially busy for our staff so there is no real opportunity for us to relax and celebrate the season with each other. By coming together in January, we are able to enjoy a potluck meal and some less businesslike interactions with one another. We ended the evening with a Yankee swap. Many will be familiar with the tradition. Everyone brings an inexpensive wrapped gift, then we take turns either picking a wrapped gift from the pile or taking, basically stealing, a gift that someone has already chosen and unwrapped. Yankee swaps always lead to lots of laughter as someone opens a gag gift, or as a coveted gift is snatched away; and I find that Yankee swaps are especially fun with church staff. For good reason, we are required to be pretty buttoned up during the week and on Sunday mornings. But once a year we can let our hair down, be silly, and laugh at things that might raise eyebrows within the church walls.

Uh-oh, I think I’ve said too much. Your imaginations are probably running wild. OK, I’ll share one story. One of the Yankee swap gifts was a small picture book called Hot Guys and Baby Animals. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Each page contains a picture of a gorgeous, shirtless man holding a cute little baby animal. On one page you might find Ty, a muscular young man with a seductive smile, holding an adorable little puppy named Jasper. Ty, we read, is proud of having served in the military. While Jasper is proud of his ability to chase his own tail. And so on. As you might imagine, there was much uproarious laughter every time the book changed hands!

Oh, and if you want to sneak a peek at those “cute animals,” see our Church Administrator Shannon Lindsay; she went home with the book.

So, my reason for beginning with this story are two-fold. First, I want you to know that members of your staff like each other; we enjoy each others company. Second, it illustrates, albeit in a silly, clumsy way, that what we say and the way we say it changes depending on our setting and audience. I will express myself one way when speaking to Nancy Crouch about the church’s clinic in Uganda, and another when I open a nose-hair trimmer at the staff post-Christmas party (Mark Mercier and I battled over that nose-hair  trimmer!). Context matters.

Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Matthew, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. The beatitudes are a series of proverb-like blessings, each consisting of two phrases, a condition and a result. Blessed are the poor in spirit (the condition), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (the result). The Beatitudes can be read as moral instruction; God will bless you when you act in this way, and many find comfort in these blessings, an assurance of God’s loving response to hardship.

Not one to mince words, Pope Francis recently said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian; you cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes.”

Some of you may know that there is a version of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Luke. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s telling of this story is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. While it is possible that Jesus preached two different versions of the same sermon, it is more likely that Matthew and Luke take the same story and interpret it differently for their respective readers.

Just as is makes sense for our church staff to present ourselves one way in the more formal professional setting of the church and another way in a more relaxed social setting, so it makes sense that the two gospel writers recount Jesus’ sermon about God’s blessings differently, depending on their setting and audience. What is said and the way it is said changes depending on the context.

I will spend a little time unpacking the difference between these two versions of the Beatitudes as this will help us understand what Jesus is saying to us today. First, let’s look at the setting and audience for each.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, near Jerusalem, while Luke is writing to a community of gentile or Greek followers somewhere in Asia Minor.

Matthew introduces the Beatitudes by saying: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them. So in Matthew, Jesus goes up the mountain to escape the crowd and teach the disciples.

Luke, on the other hand, writes that Jesus came down from the mountain with his disciples and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and cured of unclean spirits. Here, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the people in the crowd.

Let’s compare two verses from the each gospel and see how this knowledge influences our understanding.

While Luke writes, “blessed are you who are poor,” Matthew writes, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” You hear the difference. In Luke, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the impoverished people in the crowd. While these poor had been treated by the religious elites as if they were unloved by God and deserving of their lot in life, Jesus specifically affirms God’s love for them, for “you, who are poor.”

In Matthew however we find Jesus speaking privately to his disciples, teaching that if they want to experience God’s blessing they need to be “poor in spirit,” emptying themselves, letting go of their own way to let God in.

Similarly, in Luke, Jesus speaks to those in the crowd saying, “blessed are you who are hungry now,” while Matthew’s Jesus teaches the disciples, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s treatment of Jesus’ teachings is consistent with the whole tone of his gospel which consistently affirms God’s love and justice for the outcast and challenges the rich and powerful. Jesus’ blessing of the poor and hungry on the plain echoes the words Mary sings when pregnant with Jesus, “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Matthew, on the other hand, seems to spiritualize Jesus’ teachings, taking the focus off the poor, but is this really his intent? Notice that Matthew does not say that those who are righteous are blessed, but that God blesses those who hunger for righteousness, here meaning justice.

What does it look like to be poor in spirit and to hunger for justice?

Some of you know that with leadership from First Church members, a group named HANA has been formed to sponsor a refugee family in Connecticut. Some fifty excited, gifted and committed volunteers from area churches and organizations now comprise this group, Hartford Area Neighbors’ Alliance or HANA; they have been trained by a refugee resettlement agency called IRIS in New Haven and are now ready to receive a family.

Refugees are poor and hungry, right? Fleeing political or religious persecution, often leaving everything they own behind in their war-torn homelands. In Luke version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says of these poor, hungry refugees, God sees you, knows your suffering, and has something better in store for you.

Poor in spirit and hungering for what is right, “disciples” from HANA are responding to the plight of these beloved of God, emptying themselves of their own interest, putting love of God and stranger first.

Taken together, Luke and Matthew reconcile those who are poor and hungry in fact, with those poor in spirit disciples who hunger and thirst for justice. We need to hear the sermon in both ways if we are to come together and respond to the world’s poverty and hunger.

As many of you know, as of Friday, an executive order halted the entry of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. These countries would be the most likely homes of refugee families we would sponsor. I am heartbroken about this decision as I know the abject suffering these refugees are experiencing. For some, this decision to refuse entry to the United States could be a matter of life and death.

In the same speech in which he referred to practicing the Beatitudes, Pope Francis rebuked “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand are against refugees and other religions. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he says.

The two gospels offer other blessings, and here Matthew and Luke agree.

Jesus, in both accounts, says, blessed are those who mourn and weep. So together poor and poor in spirit, refugees and those who see and know their suffering, will mourn; and the hungry and those hungry for justice will weep together until we all experience God’s blessing.

And in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus preaches, blessed are you when people hate, exclude, revile, defame and persecute you.

Those in the crowd that gathered on the plain with Jesus that day knew such condemnation, and so do Muslim refugees today. Through no fault of their own, they have faced persecution in their own countries that has required them to run for their lives, and they now confront hate and exclusion anew as they seek new homes around the world.

And Jesus gives the same message to the disciples on the mountain top. And guess what, that’s us. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to lift our voices in defense of Jesus’ teachings, even as we face the real possibility that we may be reviled for it.

In addition to supporting the ongoing work of HANA to sponsor a refugee family, I have reached out to friend of the church, Imam Sami Aziz of the Bloomfield Muslim Community Center and let him know that he and his congregation have the support of First Church. He urged me, urges us, to publicly refute the false narrative about Islam that is being promoted by some evangelical Christians and used by politicians to exclude and persecute Muslim immigrants and refugees in the United States.

This is just one of the ways Jesus is calling to us in these times, called from this Sunday morning mountaintop to go among the poor and hungry. You poor in spirit, God’s realm is crying out to us. You who mourn, God will meet us here, now, that we might be encouraged and respond. You who hunger and thirst for justice, go. Go. Go knowing that God blesses and accompanies us always. Amen.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Butler concludes her blogpost with these words:

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

Maybe, indeed.

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

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

 

Go and Do the Same: Take Care

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Donald Trump was elected as President.

Luke 10:25-37

This is the second Sunday of three during which we are focusing on stewardship themes, giving to and caring for the church. I have shared that I intend to refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan each of these three Sundays, each time making an observation about giving to the church. I thought this Sunday was going to be a cinch, I already had the sermon outlined in my head.

Then the election happened. Of course I knew the election was going to happen, but I didn’t anticipate that this was going to be sermon worthy. For reasons I will soon speak to, I concluded that I must say something in response to the election and its aftermath, as difficult as that might be.

With any significant sermon challenge it always pays to spend some time with the Bible text first. Some of these most loved parables are so familiar that it is sometimes hard to imagine there is more to learn from them. But I am always amazed that such stories continue to reveal layer after layer of new insight.

So, this is the most common interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. Two hypocritical, cold-hearted religious leaders cross the street so they don’t have to help a man who has been beaten up and left for dead next to the road. Along comes a Samaritan, one who was looked down upon by society because of his religion and ethnicity, and he stops to help the man. The religious leaders are the obvious villains in the story, the Samaritan the unlikely hero. The moral is, don’t be a villain; be a hero.

I expect, however, that if this was a true story the situation would have been much more nuanced than a contrast between two evil people and one good one. If this was a true story, the priest and the Levite would have truly believed that they had very good reasons to avoid the man alongside the road. In fact, they may have had truly good and important reasons to cross the street. The priest may have been afraid. There had been reports that robbers were setting traps for passersby. One would pretend to be injured; then, when someone stopped to help others would emerge from hiding to beat and rob the kindhearted stranger. Maybe the Levite had an urgent matter to attend to. He had received a message that his child was sick and near death, and all he could think about was getting home to be by her side. It broke his heart to pass by the man beside the road, but he had to put his daughter first. Maybe neither of these two men was the uncaring beast that history portrays them to be.

I know this isn’t the way Jesus tells the story, but isn’t this more like real life? Life often seems complicated, more gray than black and white, filled with tough moral dilemmas.

So, let’s tuck that away as we reflect together on the election.

Our President elect, Donald Trump said and did some terrible, truly offensive things in the course of the election. He ridiculed a reporter with disabilities. He belittled a war hero. He cast Muslims as terrorists and Mexicans as rapists. He spoke of forcibly grabbing women by the genitals. He promised to revoke rights for gays and lesbians. This is all part of the much publicized public record.

Like the priest and the Levite in the Samaritan story (as I recast it), Trump voters, and I know there are some here this morning, are sure they made the best choice, and in fact likely had thoughtful reasons to make that choice. One thing I hear is that people looked past Trump’s vile behavior because they believe the policies he promotes are necessary for our country, that he can best keep us safe, that he will lower taxes and return manufacturing jobs, and that he will better respond to illegal immigration. Others had such strong negative feelings toward Hilary Clinton that they could not bring themselves to vote for her.

It is not important whether I agree with these positions or not, my point is that many who voted for Trump are sincere in their belief about what is best for our country. I can’t imagine that good and faithful people in this church voted for Trump because of the racist, sexist, xenophobic and offensive things he said, but voted for him in spite of these things.

I saw a helpful metaphor a few days ago. Does everyone know what HBO and Cinemax are? These are two cable TV channels that you have to pay extra for. So imagine that you call the cable company because you want to order HBO and only HBO. You like particular shows on HBO and want to watch these shows, nothing else. But the representative on the other end of the line informs you that the only way to get HBO is to order a package that also includes Cinemax. You keep insisting that you don’t want Cinemax, please give me only HBO you plead, back and forth you go. Finally, exasperated you realize that the only way are going to get HBO is to get the package that includes Cinemax, even though you are sure you will never ever watch it.

I think this metaphor captures something about the package we have gotten with Trump. Accepting that many who voted for him were not voting for the racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic things he said, now all of us, whether we voted for  him or not, have the whole package.

None of this is meant to point a finger of blame at anyone. I don’t think that is helpful. But we all now have Cinemax even though none of us really wanted it.

Some Trump supporters accuse Hillary voters of being sore losers. Get over it, get behind the President. If this was just about policy disagreements that is a fair statement. We don’t all get what we want in any election.

But what I am hearing most from those who voted for Hillary is fear. Gays and lesbians are afraid. African Americans are afraid. Immigrants and Muslims are afraid. Women and fathers of daughters are afraid.

That fear may be partly about Trump’s anticipated policies, but more immediately we are afraid what racist, homophobic, misogynist actions people will be emboldened to take because of what they heard our President elect say.

There has already been a spike in vandalism, bullying and violence toward women, Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and Hispanics, and gays and lesbians since the election. Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama told USA Today yesterday, “Since the election, we’ve seen a big uptick in incidents of vandalism, threats, and intimidation spurred by the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election. The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory and many are feeling their oats.”

This isn’t just something I read. You all know that my gorgeous and talented wife Lourdes was born in the Philippines and speaks accented English. She is easily identifiable as an immigrant. My gorgeous and talented, 13 year-old daughter Abby is of Pacific Islander ancestry and has beautiful brown skin. I can tell you, I woke up Wednesday morning afraid, worried for their safety.

Beyond a fear of physical violence is the emotional toll of feeling like your life matters less. Over 60 million people voted for the man who said these horrible things. For many who are members of one of these denigrated populations this knowledge feels like an invalidation of one’s identity and very existence. It feels like voters put other things before the dignity, worth, well-being and safety of these people, and they did.

This is not a rant. So please don’t hear or dismiss it as me railing against Trump. This is where I am going.

We, as a church, regardless of who we voted for as individuals, are called by faith to stay on the same side of the road with and render aid to the most vulnerable people in our society. We are called to be the Samaritan in this time, to act to preserve the safety and well-being of gays and lesbians, people of color, women and girls, Muslims and immigrants, and people with disabilities. Now more than ever, First Church must be this safe place and work to make our community and our country this safe place.

None of us are simplistic villains or heroes. We all have limitations, yet we all try to do the best we can with what we’ve been given. But whether we voted for Trump or Hillary, this is how we are now called by God to come together as the body of Christ.

Yes, like the priest and the Levite, we may be afraid, we may have other genuinely important things to give our attention to. But as revealed in the Good Samaritan story, we are above all called to be neighbors to the vulnerable and injured. This is our mission. This is our call.

And a stewardship message follows from this perspective. Last week, I observed that the Samaritan was moved by compassion to respond to the beaten man’s immediate needs. This week, I draw our attention to the Samaritan’s decision to carry the man on his pack animal to an inn and pay the innkeeper for a room, so that the man might more fully recover.

We might equate responding from compassion to meet immediate needs to putting something in the offering plate in response to a story that touched our heart in the sermon.

But the Samaritan’s decision to put the man up in an inn required careful fore thought. Here he makes a longer term commitment. He would have asked, how much money do I have? What other demands are there on my finances? What do I hope will be accomplished through this commitment I am making? These are the same kinds of questions we should be asking when making a pledge to First Church. Yes we should be moved by compassion. And we should also give prayerful forethought to our decision.

This year our stewardship committee has set two goals. Increase participation. We are asking all members and friends of the church to do more than put something in the plate on Sunday morning, but make an annual pledge to the church. A pledge demonstrates the extra level of commitment shown by the Samaritan.

The second goal is to increase the total amount pledged by 10%. This will allow the church to expand our ministry and mission, whether in pastoral care, women’s and youth ministry, or outreach. Like the Samaritan, please give careful thought to how much you are able to commit to the church.

This road to Jericho is dangerous. Together we are the Samaritan walking on the side of the vulnerable and injured. Together we are the body of Christ. Together we will find the courage and make the commitment to respond.

 

OMG! Not Another Sermon About…(The Poor, African-Americans, Immigrants, Muslims, Gays and Lesbians)

This is the column I wrote for the October 2016 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Greetings, Dear Ones. My how time flies! The first Sunday in October, World Communion Sunday, will mark the conclusion of my ninth month as Senior Minister of First Church! That means that I have preached roughly thirty sermons. So let me name something that has likely become apparent to those who have heard me preach regularly. I preach A LOT of sermons that are peopled with “the poor,” African-Americans and people of color, Muslims, refugees and immigrants, and gays and lesbians. Notice the word I chose, that my sermons are “peopled” with these folks, not preached specifically “to” or “about” them. My sermons are about God’s grace, love and forgiveness, about faith, hope and doubt, about sin and suffering, about being the church, about creation and new beginnings, and much more.

So why do I preach on these themes using illustrations that feature people that, quite frankly, are not represented in large numbers in our congregation? This is a fair question. In the words of a woman at my last church, a seventy-something, Caucasian, retired teacher, “I never hear sermons about me!” Though many of you have enthusiastically affirmed my preaching, I wouldn’t be surprised if some have gone home on a Sunday morning after worship thinking the same thing, “What about me!”

Well, let me respond as I did to this dear woman.

The easiest, though not necessarily satisfying, answer is because Jesus did. Yes he did. Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that the great majority of the parables Jesus told, the sermons he preached, and the interactions he had featured positive portrayals of those on the margins, women, those of other ethnicities and religions, and the poor. When Jesus spoke to or about people with power and money it was almost always as a critique. Imagine the “parking lot conversations” following the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor! I’m not poor; when will he say something that blesses me!” Or the conversation around the table when the Nazareth Women’s Guild got together for their monthly luncheon, “Enough with the Samaritan stories already! He’s from Nazareth, not Samaria!”

Saying that I people my sermon with those on the margins because Jesus does leaves unanswered the question, why did Jesus do this? Liberation Theology answers this question by presuming that Jesus reveals God’s “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.” This suggests that God puts the interests of those on the margins first. After all, didn’t Jesus say on multiple occasions, “The last shall be first?”

I offer a more nuanced response to why Jesus and I talk A LOT about those with less power and wealth. Society in Jesus’ day was just as deeply divided as ours is today. Read the morning headlines about what the Presidential candidates are talking about, race, poverty, immigration, and Islam. Don’t focus on the public policy perspectives on these, feel the emotions that underlie the divisions represented by these issues, resentment, bitterness, fear, anger, hurt, judgment, despair, and helplessness. People on all sides of these issues share these emotions; and these knotted-up feelings prevent us from living the expansive, abundant life God intends for us. Yet the way we typically respond to these feelings is to retreat more and more into the company of people like ourselves. We respond by trying to make our world small rather than pushing boundaries ever outward until the world we inhabit is as big as the kingdom of God.

Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit enables all the nations to come together across their differences, embodies the message of the Gospel for me and frames my perspective as pastor and preacher.

So, dear ones, I preach A LOT of sermons that are peopled with “the poor,” people of color, Muslims, refugees and immigrants, and gays and lesbians. But make no mistake, every sermon I preach is about YOU. I am at First Church Simsbury and preach the message I do because of my love for YOU, each and every one of you. Because I believe with all my heart that EACH and ALL of us are called by God to live into Jesus’ life-giving, life-saving message of reconciliation in order to be the extraordinary, unbound people God created us to be.

Reversal of Fortune

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 10, 2016, the Sunday following the shooting deaths, first of two Black men by police officers in Baton Rogue and St. Paul, then of five police officers by a sniper in Dallas.

Luke 10:25-37

Following this week’s’ events, the video-taped police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul followed by the killing of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper at a Black Lives Matter rally, my heart and mind are full to overflowing. Part of me just wants to start talking, offering a stream of consciousness dump of all my thoughts and feeling. That might be therapeutic, for me anyway. But a sermon isn’t meant to be therapy for the preacher, not just an opportunity to tell you my opinions or vent my emotions. A sermon is meant to deliver the word of God as it relates to our lives today. This is why scripture is helpful, it requires that the preacher and the congregation get on the same page and go from there.

This morning’s Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known stories in the Bible. Let me summarize.

Jesus tells this story in response to a lawyer who is testing him about the meaning of Jewish religious law. Jesus tells this story to illustrate what it means to love our neighbor.

Robbers mug a guy who is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road was notorious for its danger and difficulty, and was known as the “Way of Blood” because “of the blood which was often shed there by robbers” We might say that this road ran through a “bad neighborhood.” These muggers beat the man up, stripped him, stole everything he had and left him for dead.

Two Jewish religious leaders, first a priest then a Levite, passed by this guy lying beside the road. Both ignored him, in fact each one crossed to the other side of the road.

Then, along comes a Samaritan. The Samaritan responds with kindness to the man who had been mugged. He treats the man’s wounds and bandages them. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He put the wounded man on his own animal and brought him to a hotel, got a room for the night, then spent the night in the hotel room with the victim taking care of him. The next day, the Samaritan gave the innkeeper 2 danarii, two days wages, to take care of the man until he returned promising to reimburse the innkeeper for any other expenses.

The Samaritan was more of a neighbor to the man in need than the so-called religious leaders. The Samaritan was the one living out his faith.

This parable is most often read as an encouragement to all of us “be a good Samaritan,” someone who follows the example of the Samaritan to help those in need. But there is more to the story than just a call to be kind.

Who were the Samaritans?

Samaritans were a minority ethnic and religious group. They were judged harshly by the Jews, stereotyped, devalued, degraded and dismissed. We might imagine that Samaritans were called lazy, dishonest and stupid by Jews. We might imagine that Jews in Jesus’ day told tasteless Samaritan jokes. The Jewish lawyer that Jesus is talking to would have been among those who would have judged the Samaritans most harshly. So would have Jesus’ followers who were hearing this story told by Luke. We might imagine that when Luke first introduces the Samaritan in the story, listeners would have responded with, “Booo! Hiss!” But in a dramatic role reversal, it is the Samaritan who steps up to help.

I hear this story differently, not only after the events of this past week, but following our experience on last week’s youth mission trip, a poverty simulation, referred to by Rev. Kev, who is off on a well-deserved vacation this week, as “Not your Momma’s mission trip.”

For better part of the week, twenty-five youth, age 13-18, and five adults, lived as if we were poor, even homeless.

We existed on very limited food. Peanut butter and Saltines. A can of fruit or beans. A box of dry cereal. I figured that we consumed maybe 500-700 calories a day. I lost 12 pounds. We slept on hard floors. Had very limited access to showers. Did day-labor jobs, three hours in morning and three hours in afternoon. Some were enjoyable, such as child care; others were really hard labor, carrying heavy stuff, painting in closed rooms in sweltering heat, landscaping under the hot sun. And we took our belongings with us everywhere. We would walk for up to an hour through some of Louisville’s poorest, predominantly African-American neighborhoods with the summer sun beating down, towing our suitcases and shouldering our bags all the way. We got paid in “poverty bucks,” carefully budgeting our money so we would have enough for food or a shower at the end of the day, only to find out that we had incurred some unexpected expense such as an emergency room visit or child care that threw us into debt. I have said, that while the poverty was a simulation, the feelings we experienced were very real. We were hungry, exhausted, sore, frustrated, angry, and helpless.

I think it is fair to say that for many of us, our only prior experience with really poor people may have been when volunteering in a soup kitchen or tutoring youth in Hartford. In these situations we were in the role of helpers. And it is also fair to say that many of us, though we might hesitate to admit it, carried some preconceptions, dare I say stereotypes about poverty and the poor.

But, as in the story of the Good Samaritan, we were confronted by a dramatic role reversal.

All of us came back with stories of the extraordinary kindness shown to us by the poor and homeless residents of Louisville. A disabled man escorted one of our simulated “families” off the bus and showed them the way home. On more than one occasion homeless people lent an encouraging word to us. Two of our “families” were greeted by people driving by who, observing how hot and tired we were, returned with cold water; one woman even delivered a bucket of ice, a gallon if ice tea, bread and sliced ham to a famished “family.” To be clear, those who were showing us mercy were the very ones who lived in the battered neighborhoods we walked through. On Thursday two of our “families” ate at soup kitchens. With our empty stomachs we felt no embarrassment but only gratitude for our first hot meal of the week. Our fellow hungry and homeless gladly made room for us at the table.

Role reversal. Those we had known only as recipients of our largesse were showing us kindness and mercy. Those we had once judged reached out to us as neighbors.

Again, this role reversing experience didn’t come easily. We had to extend ourselves way beyond our comfort zone. We had to step out in faith over and over again opening ourselves to experiencing life through others eyes. Like the Samaritan, we moved in together and got our hands dirty.

These two, the parable of the Good Samaritan and our experience in Louisville last week, have much to say in response to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. For those who haven’t followed the news, both black men were shot to death by police officers one in Baton Rouge after being detained in a parking lot while selling CDs, the other in St. Paul after being pulled over for a broken tail light. The killing of both men was videotaped and broadcast widely on social media.

Putting ourselves in another’s shoes is really hard. In an interview on Friday I heard one person say:

“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years, to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

Do you know who said that? The head of the NAACP, maybe? A Black Lives Matter protester? Hillary? Kind of sounds like Hillary, right? No, that was staunch Conservative Newt Gingrich.

“It is more dangerous to be black in America,” Gingrich continues. “It is more dangerous in that they are substantially more likely to end up in a situation where the police don’t respect you and you could easily get killed. And sometimes for whites it’s difficult to appreciate how real that is and how it’s an everyday danger.”

Newt Gingrich.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to open the eyes of his followers to see Samaritans as fully human and deserving of better lives.

Urban Spirit led us through a poverty simulation that we might see people who are trapped in poverty as fully human and deserving of better lives.

And the growing number of black men shot to death by police, just in the past two years, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and now Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, reminds us that African-Americans are still not seen as fully human and deserving of better lives.

An uncompromising, fiery, modern-day prophet named Deb led us through our poverty simulation. Deb sent us home with two lessons.

We learned the difference between generosity and justice. Generosity is giving to someone in need. Feeding the hungry is generosity. Tutoring poor kids is generosity. Generosity typically feels good for the giver. Justice work is harder and offers less immediate rewards. Justice requires working to change a system that keeps people trapped in poverty. Justice requires working to change a system that makes it “more dangerous to be black in America” (as Newt said).

Jesus told a story about a Samaritan’s generosity. But he told the story to bring about a change in the way Samaritan’s were viewed and treated, to give Samaritans a better life, to deliver justice. In telling this story, Jesus was proclaiming, Samaritan Lives Matter!

Deb also sent us home with this: She said, “I don’t give a damn about your gratitude, I care whether you are going to work to end poverty and racism.” Yeah, we were startled too. After all, what would be wrong with being grateful? She meant it wasn’t enough to go home and feel grateful for having enough food and a roof over our head. If gratitude is our only response to our week in poverty, nothing will change for the poor.

Working to end poverty and racism, and we might add gun violence to that list, is daunting. Moving from generosity to justice is hard. As did the youth last week, we will have to extend ourselves way beyond our comfort zone. Like the Samaritan we will have to get our hands dirty. We will have to begin by having tough conversations, we will surely disagree along the way. And we will have to step out in faith over and over again, bringing all our baggage with us, opening ourselves to experiencing life through others eyes.

I told my Urban Spirit “family” group one thing last week Saturday as we prepared to begin our week in poverty, that no matter what, we would support each other through it all. And we did. And we, First Church, will support each other as we embark on the journey from generosity to justice that God has set before us. Let’s go.

 

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