A Varmint Will Never Quit – Ever

Caddyshack

Here is my column from the Summer 2017 issue of the First Church newsletter, the Cornerstone.

“Can lawn care serve as a model for faithful living?” said no one ever. Except, of course, this pastor.

For the first time ever, I have become invested in having a beautiful, green lawn. In our New Britain home our lawn was beyond repair, so we just lived with what was there, weeds, crabgrass, bare patches and all. In fact, I once preached a sermon, “If It’s Green, It’s Grass,” referring to my decision to embrace the weeds. But here in Simsbury we have the opportunity to have a beautiful lawn. Lourdes and I enjoy our morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine in our sun room that looks out onto our back yard. So as spring sprang this year, I decided to make the effort.

A friend told me about the “Scott Four Step Lawn Care Program,” a series of four chemicals that I am to apply to my lawn between the beginning of spring and Labor Day. Step 1 went down without incident, and my lawn has responded with thick, green grass! I couldn’t have been happier. I was keeping up with the Simsbury Joneses!

(Cue the ominous music suggesting impending doom.)

Then, a few weeks ago I noticed brown patches in my front lawn, then what appear to be trails of brown grass that intersect in little muddy patches. Friends in the know about such things tell me I have some sort of burrowing rodent, likely moles! Oh the horror! Visions of the Bill Murray character Carl Spackler in the 1980 comedy classic Caddyshack came immediately to mind, “My enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit – ever.”

I asked friends on Facebook how to get rid of moles and got a wide variety of earnest responses. Here is a sampling of suggestions I received:

Trap the moles. There are a variety of mole traps available; they appear to not only kill but mutilate the moles in the process. Even if I had the stomach for mole maiming, the traps appear to be too hard to use for this Carl Spackler wannabe.

Let the dogs out. Our dog is named Sweetie for a reason. She has zero interest in hunting moles.

Shoot the varmints with a .22. Um, no.

Kill the grubs the moles feed on and the moles will go away. There was widespread support for this option, though the suggested methods for grub extermination varied widely.

  • Poison the grubs with a readily available Scott product called Grub-Ex.
  • Spray Palmolive dish soap on the lawn. Sorry, I’m skeptical.
  • Get chickens! Seriously! Thanks to Simsbury Selectman Elaine Lang, she of lawn chicken fame, for this suggestion.
  • Let the skunks eat them. Moles or skunks? Hmm.

The very best suggestion came from my friend Michael in Hawaii who recommends a really good bottle of Cabernet (not for the moles or the grubs, but for me. Thanks, Michael!)

Some of these respondents were zealously anti-poison, pointing out the environmental and health hazards of using any poison, but especially this grub killing poison, on my lawn. One friend, Joe, summed up the feelings of these folks when he replied, “HOW ABOUT NOT SPRAYING LIQUID CANCER IN YOUR YARD!” Oh boy.

This is where the moral dilemma comes in. Poisoning the grubs seems to be the most accessible and efficient approach to getting rid of the moles and restoring my yard to its near-pristine, green state. I feel judged by the anti-poison lobby, but have to admit they are probably right. Poison could be harmful to pets, to my family, and to the environment. In spite of this knowledge I will probably end up poisoning the grubs (I bought the poison, just haven’t applied it yet).

The lesson for a life of faith? We are confronted daily with moral dilemmas, asked to choose among options when there is no perfect right answer. Even when one choice does appear to be ethically preferred (no poison), we reject that choice in favor of another option, often for selfish reasons (ease and efficiency). Here are two takeaways. Take each decision seriously; gather all the information needed and make the best decision possible. And, when we still come up short (as we surely will), be gentle with ourselves and embrace God’s grace and forgiveness.

 

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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?

That Muttering Man in a Bathrobe

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 12, 2017. The original title was “The Fine Print,” but “That Muttering Man in a Bathrobe,” if not more appropriate, is certainly more fun!

Matthew 5:21-30

It is three in the morning. In a room lit only by the glow of a television a solitary figure shuffles back and forth in his bathrobe, brooding, seething. Absolutely convinced that he is right, the arguments against his opponents ricocheting through his mind, he mutters under his breath and gestures forcefully. He is in a position of power; how dare anyone question him. How could they not see how wonderful he is?

We know this shadowy figure, susceptible to fits of anger and lustful passions, all too well, and we will return to this scene in a moment. But first let’s turn back to the text from Matthew in which Jesus interprets and expands upon the Ten Commandments.

Here, in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues teaching his disciples.

Responding to those who believed that Jesus represented a break from Judaism, Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to abolish Jewish law but to fulfill it. He then forcefully emphasizes the importance of following and teaching the law. Those who break even one little commandment will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

As if this isn’t scary enough, Jesus then explains the “fine print” of this contract with God.

Beginning with the commandment, “You shall not murder,” Jesus then lowers the bar saying, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” even going so far as to say that anyone who says, “’you fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

So, in case that’s not clear, Jesus is saying that we don’t have to literally murder someone to break God’s commandment not to kill. Simply being angry at or insulting someone is enough to break the covenant with God and experience harsh and eternal consequences.

And in case you’re not already freaking out, I’ll share just one more example of this “fine print” from our contract with God. Jesus next interprets and expands upon the commandment against adultery, saying that anyone who has looked at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart. Some will remember that 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Playboy magazine, famously admitted, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Carter, then and still a Sunday school teacher in his church in Plains, Georgia, knew his Bible and was referencing this passage from Matthew.

And, lest any of you still not find yourselves convicted by Jesus’ apparent condemnation of anger and lust, he concludes this teaching with these words:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

I’ve always wanted to end a sermon right there. Just drop the mic and walk out of the pulpit.

But, the story of Jesus’ life doesn’t end there nor should any sermon we preach or lesson we teach about Jesus.

One of the phrases that was coined during this past election season was “some things are meant to be taken seriously but not literally.” I don’t care to revisit that phrase in its political context, but it seems relevant here. Jesus admonishment to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand when they cause us to sin are hyperbole, a literary device that uses obvious exaggeration to make a point, to grab our attention and say, “take this seriously, not literally but take it seriously.”

And what is the serious point that Jesus is making? The commandments matter. Morality matters. Accountability to our relationships matters.

This may sound obvious, but I sometimes wonder if mainline, progressive Christians can emphasize God’s grace, forgiveness and love so much that we can overlook and excuse bad and hurtful behavior, our own or other’s. We can justify our anger because of our belief that we are right. And we can shrug off lust and even excuse adultery with an appeal to love. After all, in a pinch we can always fall back upon God’s love and forgiveness.

So here, using the strongest possible language, Jesus is emphasizing for his disciples and for us that morality matters. Though he embodies God’s grace, forgiveness and love, this grace, forgiveness and love is meant to be lived out by us in our relationships with one another by following God’s laws and then some.

Which brings us back to that agitated, shadowy figure pacing up and down in his bathrobe at 3 in the morning. Some of you who have been paying attention to the news this week may think you recognize this scene and have an idea where this is going. There was an article in the New York Times. Well, you would be wrong.

That muttering maniac was me, at 3 o’clock Saturday morning. I woke up with my mind churning away on conversations I had had on Friday afternoon. On the surface it was nothing, not a matter of national security or human rights. The conversations had been about how to organize this service, in particular how to fit in both the blessing of our service members and the baptism of Thomas Smith in a way that was meaningful, accommodated other commitments, and didn’t disrupt the flow of worship. I realize that to almost all of you this sounds ridiculous. But I can tell you that people shared a number of different perspectives on this topic in these Friday conversations. So, I made a decision. As Senior Minister, I certainly have the power to make such decisions, and I thought I was making a decision that was good and right. I was convinced of it. That decision is reflected in your bulletins.

But not everyone agreed with me. I won’t name any names (Rev. Kev), because the who and what and why are not important. Everyone had perfectly understandable reasons for their opinions, all had good intentions. But what is important is that I got pretty knotted up about it. Knotted up enough to be up at 3 in the morning pacing, arguing my case to no one.

And that’s when Jesus spoke to me, “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with them.”

Darn you Jesus!

In an instant, I realized that the issue wasn’t other peoples’ problems, it was my own righteous indignation. And that certainty that I was right caused me to judge other perspectives and closed me off to other options. It wasn’t “them” it was me!

And as soon as I realized that and let go of my own way, I recognized that there were indeed other options, options that hadn’t even been considered. And will you look at that, we blessed service members and baptized a baby and are worshipping God with gladness. God is good.

I share confessionally, what, in the greater scheme of things, is pretty insignificant, because this example demonstrates some things that are likely true for many of us.

First, we are all convinced that we are in the right from time to time. We all get self-righteous, indignant and even angry, even pastors. Thankfully, there isn’t time to make a confession about lustfulness, but as Jimmy Carter showed, many of us experience that too, pastors included.

Jesus is telling us to take these things seriously. Morality matters, not to please God, but that we might live together in loving communion with each other.

So that is one important message in this morning’s lesson. And the other is this. We are all implicated, right? Who among us has not been angry at someone or felt lust toward another? I won’t ask for a show of hands. These feelings are part of being human. Try as we might, despite our commitment to live moral lives, we will come up short, just as I did.

And when we do, Jesus will fulfill the law in our stead. When we come humbly before God acknowledging our failings and limitations, we will be met by God’s grace, forgiveness and love in the person of Jesus Christ.

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