If Justice, Then Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 17, 2019.

Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

I was recently talking to one of our members, Karen Callahan, who is the supervisor of nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Hartford Hospital, She was sharing love-filled, but heart breaking stories of some of the newborns they treat there. Some of course, are premature, and spend a few weeks or a month in the NICU, then return home to live happily ever after. But others suffer from an incurable condition, or experience a complication in birth, that means their life will be short and painful. These little ones suffer in their short lives, and of course there are no words to describe the pain the parents experience in losing their child.

I thought of these little babies when I read the First Corinthians passage which is about the hope for the dead found in the resurrection of Christ. Paul’s talk of resurrection may sound strange to some, but let’s take a closer look at what he means.

 

A couple weeks ago, another one of our members, Mario Chiappetti, shared a New York Times article about a minister in the United Church of Canada, Rev. Greta Bosper, who identifies herself as an atheist. She rejects the idea of God as a supernatural being, instead emphasizing living a life of love, justice and compassion. A fascinating email exchange between Mario, Rev. Kev, Mark Scully, and I followed, in which we shared thoughts about what beliefs are essential to being a Christian.

Initially, of course, atheism, popularly understood as not believing in God, would seem to be incompatible with Christianity. But in our email exchange, we took a closer look at the meaning of a-theism. Theism is a belief in a divine being that acts directly in human lives. So a-theism, means to not believe in such a theistic God. Atheism, as understood this way, doesn’t rule out other understandings of God, for example, as divine mystery, or as the power of a transcendent and unconditional love. It turns out, there are even Christian atheists who, like the Canadian pastor, commit to follow Jesus without accepting the supernatural aspects of God.

My criticism of the Canadian minister is less for what she believes, but because that as a pastor I try not to emphasize my own beliefs, but to leave room for a range of beliefs among members of the congregation. I worry, that by asserting her own beliefs so strongly, she discourages the membership and participation of those who think or believe differently.

Here at First Church, we have both theists and those that reject the supernatural qualities of God.

There are also those who dismiss the supernatural parts of Jesus’ story, His virgin birth, the miracles he performs, and his bodily resurrection, Like the Canadian minister, these Christians seek to follow the example of Jesus, by feeding the hungry, seeking justice for the most vulnerable, trying to practice unconditional love, even for enemies, and forgiving seven times seven.

Recognizing that spiritual journeys last a lifetime, and are ever evolving, I ask new members to simply “live with Jesus at the center of their lives,” this allows space for those who embrace Christ’s divinity, and those that seek to live by the example of Jesus.

I do think there are fair questions to ask of those whose most significant connection to Jesus is as an example of how to live.

First, what makes Jesus’ example unique? After all, we typically follow the examples of many people in our lives, admired historical figures, our parents or grandparents, a beloved teacher or coach, or a mentor.

So it’s one thing to say we follow Jesus as an example. But is Jesus’ example unique, and if so, how?

Second, a reminder to those who seek to live by the example of Jesus, he willingly submitted himself to be tortured and killed for what he believed in.

If we are indeed putting the example of Jesus at the center of our lives, how far are we willing to follow him? To death? Or are we only going to choose those things to follow that seem safe?

And then, there is the matter of Christ’s resurrection. Can those who seek to follow Christ’s example simply choose to ignore what many consider to be essential to his story?

The church in Corinth is asking the same questions many of us ask, why can’t we just follow Jesus’s teaching to love one another? Do we really need to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?

These questions about resurrection were not new, even in Paul’s day. In Jesus and Paul’s time, Judaism had been debating resurrection for centuries.

Belief in resurrection emerged out of centuries of abject physical suffering by Jews, from slavery in Egypt, to brutal wars including the slaughter or women and children, to the burning and looting of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon, to the persecution of Jews by the Roman Empire including mass crucifixions.

Faithful Jews asked a very reasonable question, if we believe in a just God who promises to deliver us from slavery and suffering, what about those we love who have suffered and died terrible, painful deaths? Where is the justice for them, not in the abstract, not in the afterlife, but as they experienced bodily harm, does not justice for them include restoration of their broken bodies? This is a compelling question.

Some of these Jewish rabbis answered this question in a powerful and meaningful way, with a belief, that at the end of time, the dead would be resurrected, their bodies restored and reunited with their souls.

But there was no consensus among ancient Jews. The gospels refer to two Jewish sects, Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees, did not believe in physical resurrection, Pharisees did. There is a story in gospel of Mark where Sadducees argue with Jesus against resurrection.

In response to the church he founded in Corinth, Paul doesn’t mince words.

If there is no resurrection, there is no hope. If there is no resurrection, then everything we thought we knew about God is a lie. If there is no resurrection, then all we have is this life, and the so-called gospel is not really “good news” at all.

Christ’s resurrection is non-negotiable. It has to be for Paul’s gospel to work. At the heart of this good news is the resurrection of Jesus. If God did not actually raise Jesus from the dead, then God is not stronger than death.

Just as it was for the Sadducees, just as it was for the church in Corinth, belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is hard to accept for many Christians today, even becoming a stumbling block to identifying as a Christian for some.

As a result, many contemporary Christians have come to understand the stories of Jesus’ resurrection – stories in which his followers are said to have interacted with, talked to, touched, and eaten with Jesus following his death on the cross – as metaphors for the truth that life triumphs over death, love wins out over hate.

On Easter, because the idea of bodily resurrection is so outrageous to some, we illustrate these truths with safer symbols of new life, tulips springing up after a hard winter, or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. But the broken, lifeless body of Jesus, taken down from the cross and sealed in a tomb, physically returning to life, no, that’s just too much to accept.

As shocking as resurrection may seem, Paul poses a good question. If we believe that God is just, then God must be just in the flesh, in response to the suffering and death of real people, not just in the abstract, not just for tulips and butterflies and springtime. If God is not just to those who suffer and die, then God, says Paul, is not just.

Tortured lives and deaths like those experienced by ancient Jews still exist in our world today. There are obvious examples, like the Holocaust, Apartheid, or the Rwandan genocide, but even in the relative ease of our American lives, we watch loved ones, good, good people, suffer terribly.

I mentioned Karen Callahan’s experiences in the NICU at Hartford Hospital. Stories of tulips and butterflies hardly seem enough for the parent that just lost a child. We are fond of quoting Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, those little ones in the NICU don’t have time to wait for that long arc of justice to reach them.

In response to such abject suffering, Jews asked, what would a truly just God do? Heal broken bodies and restore life, that’s what.

 

I think of those who live with Alzheimer’s and those who love them. How would a just God respond to their awful hardship and suffering? By healing broken bodies and restoring life.

I think of children who were separated from their parents crossing the U.S. border, and subsequently died in custody. How would a just God respond? By healing broken bodies and restoring life.

What would justice look like? The answer, the only answer, says Paul, is resurrection.

Paul’s experience of seeing the resurrected Christ changed his perspective on when and how God was renewing God’s creation. Paul’s hope for resurrection was no longer a distant future dream. God’s life-giving power had invaded the cosmos and conquered death by resurrecting Jesus. With this act, God declared certain victory over death. Through Christ’s resurrection, justice had been restored for all who suffer and die.

Paul is naming this. If we claim a God of justice, it is not enough to talk in metaphors, not enough to follow the example of Jesus. Death is not a metaphor, and justice in response to sin, suffering and death demands more than tulips and butterflies.

If we claim to believe in a just God, but don’t believe in resurrection, then Jesus just become one of many examples of a moral life.

If a God is truly just, then Jesus’ resurrection must be true.

What would it look like, what would it require, for you to claim and proclaim resurrection as good news?

 

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Convicting and Convicted: Testimony from Joshua Serrano and a Response from Pastor George Harris

josh

Tenant Organizer Joshua Seranno with Congressman John Larson

On January 27, 2019, Mission Sunday, at First Church, Joshua Seranno, Tenant Organizer for Christian Activities Council, shared these words during the traditional sermon time.

Good morning everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here this Sunday morning. My name is Joshua Serrano. I am a community organizer with the Christian Activities Council. I come from the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments also known as CARA where I’ve lived for the past 13 years.

For years we lived in horrendous conditions.  I’m talking rat infestations, roaches, mold and mildew and numerous safety hazards — In a property that was being subsidized by the Federal Government. Our owner was getting over 1 million dollars a year to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Years of negligence on behalf of the owner, Emanuel Ku is what caused the deteriorating conditions.  The worst I’ve seen it in all my time residing there.

About a year and a half ago the Christian Activities Council got involved.   After attending a meeting with the property manager we realize we needed to organize. The CAC taught me and my fellow resident leaders the principles of organizing, which helped us take action in our community.  We researched contracts, policies and procedures, and analyzed who had the power to influence HUD and the City. We met face to face with city and federal officials, including HUD secretary Ben Carson. WE had public meetings and some from this congregation, including your pastor and CAC board member Sara Batchelder stood with us as allies.

After months of organizing we were successful in compelling the Mayor of Hartford to revoke the owner’s tax abatement and we compelled HUD to revoke his million dollar contract. In addition to getting HUD to pull the contract, all of our 150 families living in Ku’s 26 buildings were given mobile section 8 vouchers so we could move wherever we wanted in CT or in the United States. You see, before this, our housing subsidy was tied to our unit so if we left our apartment, we would no longer have a housing subsidy, forcing us to stay in these conditions. Now we were free to move to any community we wanted to – or at least that’s what we were told.

The day HUD announced they were relocating us we thought  our prayers were answered. This decision and the relocation benefits was music to our ears. Freedom some of us called it — we finally have choices. It gave a lot of us hope where for so long we seen little of, like we can finally leave and live life better, more humanely. Isn’t this what we all want, to be able to raise our family in a safe sanitary home with the promise of progress.. Well in actuality, not all of us were able to move into the town’s and county’s we desired.

Though it is illegal to deny a person or family housing with a section 8 voucher here in CT, we found out that there is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are “poor” and, in particular, who have black or brown skin.

Every time we called a landlord for a property in West Hartford, Glastonbury, Newington, and, yes, Simsbury, we were told the apartment had been rented, only to find it still listed when a CAC staff person would call. We then decided to have white people call to make the initial appointment and then when we would go to look at it they would require a credit check which doesn’t make sense with guaranteed section 8 income, or they would simply never call back after we submitted our application. The message was clear – we were simply not wanted in this community or in any other community where good schools, low crime, and other opportunities exist. Where we did find possibilities, HUD created others barriers forcing us into already segregated neighborhoods.

I find hope and comfort in our partnership with your faith community and the other 50 congregations that are organizing together through the Greater Hartford Sponsoring Committee. I dream of the day we get to fight together to bring about justice together.  Thank you for all that you do and for the work we will do together in the future.

Following Josh’s testimony, I shared the following words during the Our Common Life time in the service.

This is the time in the service we call Our Common Life. I usually deliver it from the chancel steps, but I think I need a pulpit for some of what I am moved to say.

So, Dawn offered the powerful, beautiful image of the body of Christ as the Apostle Paul refers to it in First Corinthians, Chapter 12, that we are all members of the body of Christ. We often use this image to refer to the local church, those of us who are sitting here this morning, other times more broadly, the church in Connecticut, or the church universal, or the entire Beloved Community of Christ. And, it refers to the need for all members to be present, for the body of Christ, for Christ to be present in the world.

I found myself convicted twice in the last seven days. That word, “convicted,” is a legal term, but it is also a religious term, and it means the same thing in both contexts, it means found to be guilty. I was found to be guilty twice in the last seven days. The second time was by Joshua. Thank you, brother. It took a lot of courage, Joshua, to stand up here and say what you did, both to affirm the good work of the Christian Activities Council and this church, and to say that you and others have been turned away by towns like ours, by our town. Convicted, that’s me, Simsbury resident, member of this town, I heard you, and I felt that.

The first time I was convicted was on Monday, at the Martin Luther King celebration in Hartford, at the State Capital. One of the women being honored there was Elizabeth Horton Sheff. You will recognize the name Sheff. On behalf of her son, she brought the case, Sheff-O’Neill. That was the court case that said there should be equity in funding for public education across towns in Connecticut. Now some thirty years later that case is still very much alive, still being debated, has not been resolved, there is not equity in public education across Connecticut.

Again, I was convicted. I am a Simsbury resident. I am here in part, because… well first and foremost because I accepted a call to this good church, but by gosh, my sixteen year old daughter is getting a great education in the Simsbury school system. And that education, and the cost of that education, the money devoted to my daughter’s education in Simsbury, has a negative impact in Hartford, could be apportioned differently to benefit Hartford. Elizabeth Horton Sheff reminded me of that, in fact she is a member of a UCC church and, she preaches. And you can expect to see her in this pulpit one day before too very long.

So, thank you brother. I share this because it has everything to do with Our Common Life, doesn’t it, and whether we define Our Common Life as those in the sanctuary this morning, or whether we define Our Common Life and the body of Christ, as reaching across to Hartford, across Connecticut, and around the world, and how that body of Christ responds to and treats our weakest, most vulnerable members.

 

The Hero of the Story

This is the sermon I preached at the early, 8:30, worship service at First Church Simsbury on January 27, 2019. We were observing “Mission Sunday” at our 10:30 service with speakers form the community sharing their testimony in lieu of a sermon.

Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:14-21; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

As I said, the 10 o’clock service will be observing Mission Sunday by bringing in speakers from two community organizations in lieu of a sermon. These speakers were unable to be present at this early service, so you get me! We will still reflect on mission, not so much by lifting up the church’s work in our community, but by turning to this morning’s Bible readings.

The passage from Luke that I read is often referred to as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins to read.

Anyone who has been to a service in a synagogue knows that the Hebrew Bible is read from a scroll. Over time, each book of the Bible is read from beginning to end, each week’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.

So Jesus does not enter the synagogue and search for the particular passage he wants to read, rather he opens the scroll to that day’s assigned passage; who knows, maybe he was the designated reader that day. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 61, verse 1:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”

When Isaiah says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he is speaking of himself, and he is speaking to the exiled people of Israel of their coming return to Israel, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and reestablishment of the temple as the home of God and locus of worship. This is the good news Isaiah proclaims, to Jews held captive by the Assyrian empire.

Over five hundred years later, Jesus reads Isaiah’s words, not to Jews oppressed by the Assyrian Empire, but to Jews oppressed by the Roman Empire. Oppression by empire is the backdrop for everything in the Bible, from Exodus in the Old Testament to Revelation in our New Testament.

So to this point in the story Jesus has just done what any scripture reader would have done in the synagogue on the Sabbath, read the day’s text. But then Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that these are not just words of Isaiah that apply to the exiled Jews, but even as I read them, Jesus says, these words are fulfilled in your life, in your context, today. We might even hear Jesus saying, I, Jesus, am the fulfillment of this good news, I am the embodiment of God’s promised deliverance from suffering.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! Powerful words written in one context, applied in a new context, brought to life through Jesus.

I had an opportunity to think about the power of words and their contexts on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Here, the “text” is the well-known story of First Church and Martin Luther King, Jr.

For two summers in the 1940’s, African-American students from Morehouse College traveled to Simsbury to work in the tobacco fields here to earn money for their schooling.

One Sunday morning in 1947, a beautiful baritone voice carried up to the balcony of First Church where Garland Martin was directing the summer choir. When he inquired about the one who possessed that remarkable voice, he was told it belonged to one of the African American tobacco workers who sometimes worshipped in the church. Though members of the choir protested, Garland insisted that the man be invited up to the balcony to sing with the choir, saying, “I don’t care about the color of his skin, as long as he can sing.” That man, of course, was Martin Luther King, Jr.

King would later write letters home about his time in Connecticut, remarking upon the difference between the ways blacks were treated in the North versus the South. Some go so far as to suggest that King’s time in Connecticut contributed to his call as a prophet, one anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives.

I was invited to bring this story to two different contexts on Martin Luther King Day. At the first, the annual Martin Luther King Celebration at the State Capital, I was invited to give the invocation. The invitation was extended, of course, because of the First Church-MLK story. Other than politicians, I was the only White person who had a part in the program, and very few White people were present among the hundred or so people in the audience.

I was introduced simply as the pastor whose Simsbury church has a connection to Martin Luther King. I anticipated this, so came prepared to “tell the story.” I had also pondered how the story would be received in this setting. I “unrolled the scroll,” told the story, then continued:

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about telling this story on this day. Yes, it is an inspiring example of someone rejecting racist values to embrace equality and acceptance.

But who is the hero of the First Church story? If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury. If I may be so bold, white people like me love stories that make us the hero, right? When we can identify with the white hero in a story about racism, then we don’t have to confront our own privilege and biases. When we are the hero, we don’t have to own the ways white people like me continue to perpetuate racial injustice by not speaking and acting out more strongly against it.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course. King was the one who, in spite of a racist system that conspired against him, went to college. King was the one who travelled hundreds of miles to a strange land where he would labor long days in the hot sun picking tobacco, work most white people wouldn’t touch. King was the one who ventured into an unfamiliar white church because he knew that he too was a beloved child of God. And King was the one who boldly lifted his voice in praise of the God who leads all oppressed and enslaved to freedom.

Note, recognizing King as the hero in no way diminishes Garland Martin. Martin played his modest role in King’s story well; perhaps he deserves a best supporting actor nod. And this story of King reminds us that we all have a role to play in confronting racism. But make no mistake, Martin Luther King, Jr. is this story’s hero.

And it is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we gather to remember, honor and celebrate today. With his words, let us pray:

I then prayed a prayer that Martin Luther King had written.

As soon as the celebration at the Capital ended, I returned to Simsbury for the eighth annual Martin Luther King Community Celebration hosted right here at First Church. Here, it was my responsibility to welcome people and again, “tell the story.”  Not surprisingly, the demographics of our Simsbury celebration were the opposite of those in Hartford. Except for a few politicians, and our keynote speaker, Joelle A. Murchison, ours was a celebration mostly led and attended by White people.

Just as Jesus applied Isaiah’s words of justice in his new context, so I now brought the same story, told in the same words to Simsbury:

If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course.

Isaiah’s words confronted the power of empire in both contexts. Similarly, in both Hartford and Simsbury, the story of the prophet Martin Luther King, when properly told with King as the story’s anointed one, confronts racism and the power of White supremacy.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! A powerful story, birthed in one context, applied in new contexts, brought to life through Jesus.

In the second reading, Paul writes: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Jesus says, “Today this story has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that ours is not just a story about Marin Luther King and Garland Martin that has meaning in Hartford and Simsbury, this story of confronting racism and white supremacy is brought to life, is embodied in our lives, through this body of Christ, the church, and we each have a necessary role to play. May it be so.

If I Speak…

This is my column from the January issue of the First Church Simsbury Newsletter, The Cornerstone.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1

In my sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 9, 2018), I preached:

There are two essential commitments I make as your pastor and preacher. First, that each of you know that you are created in the image of God and loved unconditionally. And second, that together we follow Jesus in standing alongside the most vulnerable, those the Gospel calls “the least of these,” including immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, women, ethnic and religious minorities, those with disabilities, and the poor. These two commitments are not incompatible with one another. Both are biblical, and both are central to our Christian walk of faith. That said, as your pastor and preacher, I sometimes find that in lifting up the gospel’s commitment to the least of these, I leave others, some of you, feeling diminished or judged rather than unconditionally loved.

Here, public theologian Christena Cleveland, offers a helpful perspective about how we might all more effectively communicate our commitment to both justice and love.

In 2019, I want to practice justice with a deeper wisdom and sustainability…Very few injustices escape my attention – and I’m not shy about speaking out…but sometimes my words have the impact of a clanging symbol – they are neither loving nor effective.

In 2019, I hope to practice a wiser justice by carefully choosing when I speak up and when I stay silent. I want to intentionally practice what one of my beloved spiritual teachers has taught me. Before I speak out about an injustice, I want to ask myself these 3 questions.

 

  • IS IT TRUE? (more than just factually true — does it take into account & affirm the fullness of their humanity, not just the action/belief at hand? Am I currently able to see and interact with them truthfully in the fullness of their humanity?)

 

  • DOES IT NEED TO BE SAID BY ME? (Am I afraid that if I don’t say it, it won’t get said? Am I afraid that the Divine will not be able to reach them if I don’t intervene? Am I “playing God”? In other words, am I operating from a place of love or fear?)

 

  • DOES IT NEED TO BE SAID BY ME RIGHT NOW? (Sometimes, issues need to be addressed immediately. But often my sense of urgency is fueled by self-righteousness or my need to rid myself of my own discomfort. It’s helpful for me to remember that I can usually circle back to the issue when I am able to engage the issue and person from a place of spaciousness, hope and love.)

 

When I ask these questions, I often find myself keeping my mouth closed & leaning into a trust that God will guide the person in God’s time. And when I do feel led to speak up, my words and approach are so much more effective because I am not running on fear. Here’s to more love-fueled justice work in 2019!”

 

Amen!

In Christ,

Pastor George

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.

 

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.

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