Tongue Tied

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 16, 2018.

James 3:1-12

An old friend of mine from Hawaii just shared a wonderful story. Peggy is a brilliant trial lawyer and passionate advocate for liberal causes. She is fearless and dogged in any debate about contemporary issues. Some years ago, Peggy moved from Hawaii to Moscow, Idaho. Though the University of Idaho attracts some liberals to Moscow, Idaho is a red state so Peggy often finds herself outnumbered in political discussions. Since moving to Idaho Peggy’s labor of love has been leading an organization called Palouse Pathways that works with children and youth to inspire and prepare them to attend college.

Peggy picks up the story from here:

I had a great afternoon at the Latah County Fair at my table for Palouse Pathways. I have to share a couple of experiences that will stay with me in this crazy world. I had a wonderful time talking with kids, but these experiences were both with older men.

One was a volunteer for the Palouse CareNet Pregnancy Center booth right next to mine. I loathe crisis pregnancy centers, hate them with a passion. But I did not discuss this with my booth neighbor. We talked about kids and college, and I felt we had a similar passion for helping young adults figure out what to do.

The other encounter was with a heavy set guy named Lynn, a little rough around the edges, wearing overalls. He took all the material I had, telling me that he wanted to give it to his neighbor who had three little kids and no job. He kept saying he wanted her to have dreams and that it’s terrible when people don’t dream.

He then pulled out his beat up wallet and took out a tattered piece of paper (I’m thinking, uh oh), and he quietly sang to me a song he wrote, reading the lyrics off of the folded and refolded sheet. The verses each started with the phrase “oh dreamer, oh dreamer, oh dreamer.” He had a lovely voice and pale blue teary eyes.

It felt like time stood still — really because I wrestled my monkey mind to hold time still — because I was telling myself — this is a moment.

And it was.

Peggy faced a choice, we all do, especially in these times, when to hold our tongue and when to speak up for what we believe in. In his letter, James writes, about the power of the tongue, of words, of speech, of language to damage and destroy. He also writes about bridling or controlling our tongue. I know Peggy well enough to know that she was capable of using her tongue to start a political firestorm in her encounters with these two men, yet she felt led in a different direction.

James’ letter is wisdom literature, the only example in the New Testament. This means it is composed or proverbial sayings and practical word of wisdom to live by.

The author speaks in imperatives, short commands that tell us what to do and what not to do, for example, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

To some, James’ tone is off puttingly judgy. Many contemporary readers would rather be led to a feel-good experience of God’s grace and love, than be left feeling reprimanded for falling short of God’s expectations. As a result, James is sometimes neglected in Bible studies and sermons.

But James suggests that we cannot fully rest in God’s love, nor can we fully experience our own humanity, unless we first recognize God in each other. And we too often deploy our tongue to deny God’s likeness in others.

James puts it right out there, we all make mistakes, specifically in what we say, in our use of language. He then uses a series of metaphors to describe the tongue, like a bridle or a rudder, the tongue is small but powerful. Ignited by hell, he says, the tongue is a small fire that can set a whole forest ablaze. The tongue is a world of iniquity that stains the whole body. Then come these blistering verses:

“No one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

Bible scholar Mark Douglas writes, “James’ warnings about language are all the more pressing at the beginning of the twentieth-first century. As we move ever further into the information age, we also move ever further into the disinformation age. Error, miscommunication, deception, slander, and libel have become so common that we expect them from reputable sources, and all but insist on them from sources we think of as disreputable.” Douglas wrote those words in 2009. Some ten years later, James’ words have never been truer.

I return again to Peggy’s encounter with the two men at the county fair. Like all of us, she is quite capable of cursing those made in the likeness of God. Given her experience as a trial lawyer, Peggy’s tongue could have functioned as a flamethrower. Where did she find the bridle to lead her in another direction?

As sometimes happens when I have scripture percolating in my head all week, stories come in bunches. In this one, Ann Bauer writes:

I come from Minneapolis, and before that I lived in Seattle and Boston — three of the bluest, most left-leaning cities in the United States. I was an urban woman and couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than a city. My husband concurred. Then our 28 year-old son died in late 2016.

Suddenly the traffic and noise and confusion became too much. John and I took off on a year’s driving tour of gentler parts — both of us working from the road, a computer security consultant and a writer. We grew nearly silent in grief. We considered Asheville, N.C., and Santa Fe, N.M. But on a chilly, silver January day, we drove into the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. Though neither of us could put our finger on exactly why, this felt like our place.

People back home were flummoxed: I heard them say a lot about white, rural Christians who reject outsiders and “cling to their guns.” But what city folk don’t know is how beautiful it is here, and by that I mean way more than you imagine.

One Sunday in August, after yoga, our pit bull Ellie accompanied us to Home Depot.

There was an old truck in the parking lot with a large American flag stuck upright in the bed and a handmade sign about the virtues of patriotism and God. Since our daughter joined the Navy, everything about the military makes me miss her. And the constant evangelizing feels like a threat to every spiritual inkling I have.

We walked through the store slowly, because it was cool and somehow nicer — quieter, maybe? — than the Home Depots up north. Somewhere around plumbing, a couple stopped to admire Ellie. They were adorned in pastel tie-dye and Jesus paraphernalia. He had a silver beard, a lurching limp and an enormous silver cross on a leather cord around his neck. She wore her hair in a messy gray bun, and had a rubber bracelet around her wrist. On it was printed “Matthew 11:28.” “She is gorgeous!” hollered the man, leaning down to pet Ellie, teetering because his game leg was at least two inches shorter than his good one. He scratched her where she likes, on her hips, for a minute. After he was done, the woman squatted gracefully and let Ellie lick her entire face. “They are such a misunderstood breed,” she said, wiping away either tears or dog slobber as she rose. “Thank you for letting us visit with your little one.” We wished them a good afternoon, and they walked away holding hands.

When we got home, the dog lay in the air conditioning and slept with her tongue hanging out. I started making dinner, and while the meat was cooking I googled Matthew 11:28 on my phone. I suspected it would be about the wicked and our need for salvation, or miracles where only believers were raised from the dead. Instead, I found this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I had wandered onto our deck, and the trees around me shimmered in a sudden cooling breeze. And so — in a sense — we have, I wanted to tell the woman. We are weary. We’ve found rest. We are here.

Peggy concludes her story with these words:

I know the value of meaningful political conversations. But encounters like the ones I had at the fair remind me of the essential human dignity of others. That’s what I need now.

I need to be reminded of others’ humanity.

And my own.

Upon meeting those they were inclined to judge, both Peggy and Ann were led to hold their tongues, and so encountered God in these strangers.

Oh dreamers, Oh dreamers, Oh dreamers, you too are being led.

Come, all you who are weary and burdened, open yourselves to recognize the likeness of God in others, their humanity and your own, and find rest in God’s grace and love.

Amen.

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Published in: on September 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Touched by Love

This is the sermon I preached on September 2, 2018, at First Church, Simsbury. I included this “Parental Advisory” during my Greeting and Welcome at the beginning of worship:

Parental Advisory

This morning’s Bible readings are pretty steamy love poems from the Song of Songs. The readings include the word breasts. My sermon will affirm the sacred value of sensual, intimate touch and will include words like erotic and sex. Nothing I say will be graphic in any way. I believe the sermon is G rated, but I know that is subjective. I further think the sermon has an important message for children of any age, speaking to the value of touch, but also the need for us to feel and be safe. I want parents to be able to hear these words without worrying where I am headed. I hope this helps! If in hearing this, you are already feeling nervous, I won’t be offended if you choose to slip out for breakfast!

The First Reading, from Song of Songs

read by Heather Dawson

12Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, 3your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out. 4Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine.

12While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance. 13My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts. 14My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi.

26O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!

8The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

16My beloved is mine and I am his.

The Second Reading, from Song of Songs

read by Heather Dawson

5 2I slept, but my heart was awake. Listen! my beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.” 3I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? 4My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. 5I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. 6I opened to my beloved.

read by Pastor George

4 7How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. 2Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. 3Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. 4Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim. Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus. 5Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses. 6How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! 7You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. 8I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, 9and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.

Touched by Love

When someone touches us they pierce the boundary of our personal space. When we invite or allow it, touch can be a beautiful, powerful, and thrilling part of being in relationship with one another. We hear and feel that beauty, power and thrill in the words Heather and I just read from Song of Songs.

Something as simple as holding hands, having our back scratched, or draping our leg across another’s while watching TV can be an intimate sign of affection. But when uninvited and unwanted, even a hand on the shoulder can feel uncomfortable or threatening. And when forced, touch is terrifying and traumatizing.

Being touched makes us vulnerable. And choosing to make ourselves vulnerable requires that we feel safe.

Over the years I have heard that Passing the Peace in worship is the favorite part of the service for many, but that the touching can be uncomfortable for some. From time to time Rev Kev and I will remind you that it is OK to respond to an outstretched hand by simply offering your “prayer hands” and a smile in response. This is a way of keeping a space safe for yourself.

As the parent of a teenager, I realized several years ago that my wife Lourdes and I would need to have “the talk” with our daughter Abby. I remember how my parents handled “the talk” about sex, they didn’t. They handed my brothers and I little paperback books, “A Doctor Talks to 5 – 8 Year Olds,” “then A Doctor Talks to 9 – 12 Year Olds.” The only thing I remember from those books is the drawings. I remember gawking and giggling as my brother and I would flip the pages to the anatomical drawings.

I was no less anxious than my parents must have been about “the talk” and would have loved to push a book into Abby’s hands and be done with it. But instead of a talk or a book ours has been an ongoing conversation about sex and intimacy, not always easy or comfortable, but meaningful and rewarding.

I believe that one of my finer moments as a parent was to begin this series of conversations by saying that at its best, sex is a powerful, beautiful and amazing way to be close to someone we love, sex can be very, very exciting, and… it is meant to feel great!

I say this was one of my finest moments as a parent because it took all I had to overcome the urge to tell Abby that sex is unpleasant, painful, evil and dangerous and that she shouldn’t even think about it until she is 30. I’m kidding, sort of. But why would I even joke about saying something like this? Well, I told myself it’s because I don’t want my baby girl to get hurt. But truth be told, it’s also because I grew up with mixed messages about sex. It is a beautiful and sacred union between two people, but it is also dirty and sinful, and don’t talk about it.

But siding with my better angels, choosing to talk about sex as sacred and beautiful has paid dividends, opening some wonderful, frank conversations between us.

Of course, I also talked about how physically and emotionally vulnerable intimate touch can make one feel which is why it is so important to be safe and in control before venturing there. Such safety and control requires that one be with someone who you know well, love and trust, and who loves and trusts you.  And I suggested that such knowledge, love and trust requires a certain emotional maturity that comes only with age.

Though in my humble opinion, I nailed the introductory talk, I offer this confession and disclaimer. My words are clearly easier said than lived into. Not long ago, Abby asked, “If all those things you said are true, then why can’t my boyfriend and I be alone in my room?” Well, isn’t that a great question? Really, it’s a good question. I had no deep wisdom to share in response, but fell back on, “Because I said so!” Those mixed messages die hard!

So what does any of this have to do with our life of faith? The answer in part, lies in Song of Songs.

You heard the selections that Heather and I read. This is hot, hot, hot, sensual, sexual, erotic love poetry. Song of Songs, meaning the greatest of all songs, takes the thoughts and feelings I tried to communicate to Abby and makes them sing: sex is a powerful, beautiful and amazing way to be close to someone we love, sex can be very, very exciting, and… it is meant to feel great!

Song of Songs is so hot, in fact that early rabbis and priests quickly abandoned a literal reading of these texts in favor of an allegorical reading according to which these poems were said to refer to God’s love for Israel, or Christ’s love for the church. But really, do these words sound like they are referring to the love of God or Jesus? If you ask me that feels weird and kind of creepy, casting God and Jesus in the role of our lover.

Biblical scholar Wil Gafney, who not incidentally is an African-American woman, writes “A literal reading requires coming to terms with the raw sexual desire and gratification called for by this woman to her man in the scriptures which many readers found – and find – incompatible with their notion of scripture in spite of the fact that these verses are enshrined and canonized in (the Bible).”

Gafney continues, “The Greek philosophical tradition that will become so important to the Church Fathers as many of them reject and restrict sensuality, sexual love and bodyliness is unknown here. This text does not share the later dualism separating flesh and spirit inspired by Greek philosophy in which the body and its desires are regarded as being lower or lesser than spiritual things. Body and soul are one here, united in love.”

In addition to affirming the raw physicality of this text, it is notable for its female voice. Gafney writes, “The Song of Songs is unique in the scriptures for its passionate lyrics extolling the physical love between a woman and a man, and for the dominance of the woman in voice and agency.”

This is the only book in the Bible in which a strong woman speaks for herself throughout the text.

The #metoo movement and the ever unfolding Catholic sex abuse scandal remind us what happens when that voice and agency are absent. Song of Songs “celebrates human sexuality as part of God’s good creation,” two people “in perfect harmony with each other and with the natural world.”

The couple in Song of Songs clearly love each other with abandon. Given their passion, giving themselves over to an all-consuming love, we might imagine that they are young. I think it is fair to say that such passion and idealism is often tempered by the passage of years. These two definitely don’t appear to be an old married couple. But Song of Songs is not just meant for the young, nor is it really meant as inspiration for “the talk” with teenagers.

Song of Songs is for all of us. There are no mixed messages here; Song of Songs reminds us that there is no division between body and soul, that human sexuality is part of God’s good creation, and that God intends our love to be embodied.

Creation is a place that is meant to be safe, a place to be vulnerable, a place to experience the power, anticipation and thrill of loving, sensual touch. Song of songs reminds us that we all deserve spaces in which we can be vulnerable, spaces that allow us to open ourselves to emotional and physical intimacy when and with whom we want. We all deserve spaces and relationships within which we can safely touch and be touched with love. And we all share a responsibility, for ourselves, for our children, and for our world to create and preserve these safe spaces, spaces that that allow for voice and agency, especially for those often silenced.

And all of us, from teens whose hormones are raging to us old folks who, frankly, are sometimes just too busy, too tired and too cranky, God invites all of us to experience physical intimacy as a powerful, beautiful and thrilling way to be close to someone we love. Whether holding hands or chasing each other through the garden; such intimacy is meant to be exciting, and… such touch is meant to feel great!

 

Our Common Life

mlk beloved community

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on January 14, 2018, the Sunday before the Monday observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 17:20-23

This is the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, and we often take this opportunity to reflect on King’s legacy in light of our faith. Of course the obvious theme for a service like this would be racial justice, an issue as important today as it was in 1929 when King was born and 1968 when he was assassinated. I believe that persistent racism is one of the foundational issues of our time, and lies at the root of many other challenges we face. I have preached a number of sermons on racial justice in my two years at First Church Simsbury, so rather than just making another impassioned plea on the topic, I thought I would look at something else important to King’s legacy, reconciliation.

In 1960, King said, “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” The Beloved Community was King’s vision for a society built on justice, equal opportunity and love. The Beloved Community is a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

This past week, I attended a conference for Senior Ministers of larger, multi-staff, UCC churches in St. Petersburg, Florida. And yes, it wasn’t awful that last Sunday morning in Connecticut, I woke to -11 degrees, and that same evening I arrived in St. Pete where it was a balmy 68 degrees. But more than the warm weather, and even more than being in the company of colleagues, I was thrilled by the Featured Speaker, Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton, the founder and leader of the House United Movement, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to bringing people together across political differences for the common good.

I have often been inspired by the words of Jesus’ prayer in the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, “that they may all be one,” as I have been inspired by the vision of King’s Beloved Community, and I feel called to ministries that promote reconciliation. That said, there seems to be an inherent tension between bringing people with diverse beliefs together while also speaking the sometimes challenging truth of Jesus’ teachings.

Paul speaks to this challenge in First Corinthians. The church in Corinth is divided about spiritual gifts. Members of the church disagree about which gifts are more important, especially with regard to the gifts of tongues and prophecy. Speaking in tongues is a mystical, ecstatic experience, and there were those that believed this kind of joyful manifestation of the Holy Spirit was necessary to faith in and the worship of God. Prophecy means speaking God’s truth, even when this truth makes people uncomfortable. The people in the Corinth church are asking, should church be all about preaching the truth of the gospel, even when that truth may divide us, or should church bring everyone together around a feel-good experience of the Holy Spirit? A question as relevant today as it was then.

I continued to ponder these things this week as I prepared for this worship service, and these questions were still on my mind as my wife Lourdes and I set out Friday evening for a little R and R.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey for the Simsbury High. The parents of all the girls had agreed to gather at a Simsbury institution, the Red Stone Pub, for some “team building” of our own.

I have known some of these families for seven or eight years, and I met others for the first time this season. Upon arriving, I quickly found myself in a conversation with a couple other hockey dads when one, who I didn’t know well, said, “I love to talk about politics!”

Now, I have perspectives on all the significant issues of our day, perspectives I hope are informed by my faith and the teachings of Jesus, perspectives I am not shy about sharing in the right context and circumstances. I assessed who was in that circle and knew there were significant differences represented there. I had hoped that this evening would be an escape from such conversations so I quickly asked the dads which colleges their daughters were interested in attending. They laughed at the obvious change of subject, and gladly went along.

Before we had talked much more, our attention was drawn to something in the corner of the bar. There was a metal ring, about so big around, hanging from the ceiling on a string. On the wall between the dartboards there was a metal hook. The objective was to stand facing the wall, and swing the ring on the string toward the hook, attempting to get the ring to fall over and hang on the hook.

That’s all there was too it. It wasn’t a game, meaning that one didn’t compete or keep score. We just took turns trying to get the ring on the hook. And it turns out that this seemingly simple exercise was not as easy as it looked, but was really fun and very addictive!

A large group of hockey parents soon gathered around to cheer each other on. Each miss was met with a collective,”Awwww! So close! or All most!” While every successful ringing of the hook brought forth happy shouts of congratulations, whoops of joy, and hands thrust in the air!

In this non-church setting, I sided with the Corinthians, opting for a feel-good ecstatic experience instead of an uncomfortable conversation about what is true and right.

But in fact, Paul’s answer to the church is that both gifts are necessary, truth telling and experiences of the Holy Spirit. King also recognized the need for both justice (truth-telling) and reconciliation (an experience of coming together as one). His vision of the Beloved Community could only be attained, he said, if the three evils of poverty, racism, and militarism were confronted.

I am very aware of the presence of this tension in our church. I spend a ton of time asking myself how to preach what I prayerfully and faithfully understand as the application of our Bible lesson for the world today, while not leaving those who disagree feeling judged and excluded, and sending everyone home hopeful. There was much discussion of this very question between the ministers at the conference and Dr. Hilton.

I can certainly empathize with those who would like to leave difficult conversations out of church on a Sunday morning – after all I succumbed to the same impulse at the Red Stone, but Paul reminds us that church requires that we embrace both truth and the unifying spirit.

This said, I returned from St. Petersburg newly committed to seeking and maintaining balance between messages of justice and shared experiences of reconciliation in worship and within the church. Where and how might we create experiences like the one I had around the Red Stone Pub ring and hook game, experiences where we cheer each other on through disappointment, and celebrate victories together?

I was inspired by a colleague, Rev. Sarah Sarchet Butter at The Village Church in Wellesley, Mass. You will have noticed that I didn’t make the usual announcements at the beginning of worship. Rev. Butter includes this information instead in what she calls Our Common Life. But instead of just reminding people about events in the bulletin, she takes the opportunity to tell a little story or interpret scripture in a way that lifts up opportunities to participate in the life of the church. Ministries of the church function like the ring and hook game, they bring us together across differences. Our Common Life emphasizes opportunities for reconciliation. You will see Our Common Life in your bulletin after our prayer time and before the offering.

In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God is made known in him, in Jesus, and this connectedness with the divine, remakes itself through Jesus’ relationship with the disciples, that’s us, the church, and the church is meant to model this connection with the divine in all human relationships. The oneness that Jesus prays for is more than a good feeling in a worship service, it is the mission of the church. The church, our church, has a unique responsibility to come together across our differences to demonstrate to all, that we can be one in and through God’s love. Allen Hilton has a book coming out in the spring, A House United: How the Church Can Save the World. May it be so.

Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

In 2017, Make Like a Pig! Rooting Our Way Through the Mud to Unearth the Truffles.

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on New Year’s Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Revelation 21:1-6a

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable—such as eating a pound of bacon for breakfast—complaining isn’t good for you.

Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future—so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.

I thought of this research about the way repeated behavior can change our minds when I read a quote from a book by Rob Bell. In his book Love Wins, Bell writes:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

Let me read that again:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

This quote, in turn, caused me to think about the passage I read from the Gospel of Matthew in a new way.

Sometimes called the Parable of the Judgement of the Nations, Jesus speaks here of the consequences of choices we make. Speaking of his own return, Jesus says the Son of Man will choose some to “inherit His kingdom,” while others will be condemned to eternal punishment.

I expect that for many, this image of Christ the King sitting on a throne doling out rewards and punishment feels pretty foreign, inaccessible, and scary, which is why I find Rob Bell’s perspective so helpful. In much the same way that complaining can rewire our brain, Bell suggest that the repeated choices we make over our lifetime can change us to the point that we simply lose interest in God’s promised realm of eternal love and peace.

Jesus is using this metaphor of dividing sheep from goats to show us that the choices we make will determine what kind of people we become. Will we ultimately become one with God’s realm of perfect harmony or will we opt out, deciding we need no part in the choir of angels, deciding instead that we can sing by ourselves in the shower of life.

So what are these choices Jesus presents to us?

We have choices, Jesus says, about the way we treat those he calls “the least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, and naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. When you feed, give drink, and clothe these, you do it to me, Jesus says. And when you welcome and visit these, you do it to me. Likewise, says Jesus, when you fail to respond to the needs of these so you turn your back on me.

I have preached many sermons on this passage over the years.

On its surface the message is pretty simple. Provide for the basic needs of the most vulnerable. When I arrived at church this morning I encountered a group of volunteers from First Church setting out to Hartford to serve a New Year’s meal to the hungry and homeless. Our church helped found and continues to sponsor a clinic in Uganda that ministers to the sick there. We seek to be a welcoming church to the stranger. Certainly, as we enter 2017 we can recommit ourselves to ministries like these.

But Jesus isn’t just directing us to serve “those people,” he refers to these as members of his family. So I have also preached sermons that have asked what it would mean to treat the least of these as family members.

Family members share equally with one another, not just the good stuff, but family also shares hardships together. Over my daughter Abby’s years playing hockey in Simsbury we have become friends with members of the Melanson family, maybe some of you know them. The matriarch of the family, Ethel, died on Wednesday leaving behind nine children, 31 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, the vast majority of whom play hockey! Some fifty of these, including aging sisters who traveled here from Canada, were at her bedside when she died. Abby was at the Melanson home with her friends Grace and Anna Melanson as the family gathered and said she had never received so many warm hugs. Is this what Jesus has in mind when he calls us to serve the least of these as family members. Warm hugs for everyone, especially in times of trial?

How might we move beyond the soup kitchen model to establish more loving, hugging relationships with one another? Here, we might look toward our efforts to better understand Muslims by inviting Imam Sami Aziz and his wife Vjosa in to educate us about Islam. As part of this effort, our youth participated in a get together with Muslim youth.

So this is where I was with my sermon at the end of the week, thinking about soup kitchens and hugs, when I poked my head in Rev Kev’s office, and he greeted me with these words. Did you know that most animals dig by throwing the dirt behind them, but pigs dig by pushing dirt forward? Well, I did not know that, and I confessed as much to Kevin. I’m not sure exactly what Kevin had in mind when he shared this gem. I expect like most preachers, he thought this might make a good sermon illustration sometime. And so it does!

When I pondered these images of digging through dirt and pushing through mud, I realized that the way I had been thinking about the “members of Jesus’ family” had been too idealized, too precious, too Norman Rockwell. If only we empathize with each other, share with each other, exchange hugs with each other, join hands and sing Kum-bay-Yah with each other, then we will care for each other as Jesus intends.

Yeah, right. The loving Melanson’s notwithstanding, family is messy. Every single human problem exists within families, conflict and betrayal, rejection and judgement, mental illness and addiction, death and divorce. And because of the closeness of these family relationships, these issues are often writ large, are especially challenging and hurtful. I believe that it is often true, that our closest family members, whether a parent, a spouse or a child, know us better than anyone else, and regularly see us at our worst.

There’s an old country song, She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft. Ask any minister’s spouse if they don’t sometimes feel that way when they see the loving pastor who greets the church on a Sunday morning, and experience the grumpy, impatient person that walks in the door at the end of a long day.

Every family has dirt, the question becomes, what do we do with it? Do we try to throw it behind us, like my dog Sweetie does when she buries a bone in the yard? Or do we make like a pig, put our head down, and push our way through.

I actually went online to fact check Rev Kev’s claim about pig digging. Called rooting, it is indeed true, they push their big flat noses in the ground in search of delectable roots and grubs. I even learned about truffle hogs that are trained to root out truffles that grow as deeply as three feet underground. And here is an interesting but irrelevant tidbit, that is likely too much information for a Sunday morning, it is thought that the natural sex hormones of male pigs have a similar fragrance to truffles. There you go.

So, I think this is where Kevin was headed with the pigs. We might think we can rid ourselves of the dirt in our family, in our life, by throwing it behind us. In fact, that might figure into any number of New Year’s resolutions. I have heard many say they can’t wait to leave 2016 behind.

But more often than not, what lies beneath the dirt, is just more dirt. It’s the human condition. So there may be something to be said for just putting our head down and sniffing, snorting and rooting our way through the muck and manure of our lives sure that we will uncover delicious truffles in the process.

So, at this point I have to acknowledge that my New Year’s resolution to preach sermons that have less moving parts has already failed miserably!

But let me see if I can pull this all together just the same.

Jesus asks for us to care for the least of these who are members of His family. We might like to do this in a way that allows us to keep our nose clean, by which I mean not take others’ problems home with us, not having to share in other’s pain. But if we just dig beneath the surface a bit we discover that these are members of our family. There is no escaping hunger and thirst, estrangement, illness and imprisonment in this life. We are called to put our nose in each other’s business and root around until we find the treasured love and peace assured by God’s grace.

So in conclusion, maybe it isn’t a choice between the soup kitchen model, the Melanson hug model, and the truffle hog model that requires us to root through the slop of our human condition, maybe Jesus calls us to choose all three in ministering to each other as members of His family.

May this be a resolution for this good church in 2017, that as members of Jesus’ family we seek to serve each other, hug each other, and be willing to get our noses dirty for each other.

And when we make these choices, and repeat them again and again and again, we will begin to change our minds to become the heaven-ready members of Christ’s family God created us to be.

Dreading Thanksgiving Table Talk? Helpful Words from Jesus, Piglet and Pooh

Here is the homily I preached at the Simsbury Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church on November 20, 2016.

Luke 14:1, 7-11

Good evening!

For those who might be meeting me for the first time, I am George Harris, or Pastor George, as I am known to many at First Church Simsbury. I am fast approaching my one-year anniversary as that good church’s Senior Minister, and my six-month anniversary as a proud and happy resident of this special town of Simsbury. My family and I moved here all the way from New Britain where I had been serving a church for eight years.

My Simsbury colleagues turned to me several months ago and said, “George you’re new, and the new minister usually preaches at the Thanksgiving service.” Though I wasn’t given much of a choice, I was thrilled by the opportunity! I love to preach; some at First Church have told me that I am courageous, risk-taking, even fearless in the pulpit, unafraid to take on tough issues from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So I thought, how fantastic is this? I have the attentive ears of Simsbury all in one place. Think of all the trouble I could cause?

And then I read my Bible. Nothing ruins a preacher’s great idea for a sermon like reading the Bible. The parable of the wedding banquet in Luke quickly put me in my place. It’s not all about me. Jesus directs the guest at the banquet to humble him or herself, to choose the lowest place at the table instead of sitting at the head of the table. So much for my visions of grandeur.

As I sat down to think about this wedding banquet table in the parable, it morphed in my imagination into a table set for Thanksgiving. I smelled the delicious smells of roast turkey and fresh baked pies. I saw the best china, polished silver, the gravy boat that only comes out once a year. And the air is filled with happy sounds, the youngest cousins squealing as they chase each other through the house, older cousins comparing videos and music on their phones, and the grownups, many of whom have made the annual trek from out of state reconnect over a beverage.

Suddenly, these happy sounds are interrupted by “Wah-Waaah!” Oh no, it’s Debbie Downer! Some of you may know Debbie, a recurring character played by Rachel Dratch on the long-running sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Others will recognize Debbie Downer from your own Thanksgiving gatherings.

There was even a Debbie Downer Thanksgiving skit some years ago. A family is gathered around a Thanksgiving table filled with happy banter when one guy at the table says, “Wow, the traffic on the way here was a disaster,” to which Debbie responds, “Nothing compared to what the Chinese are going through…” Wah-Waaah… The camera zooms in on Debbie’s downturned face. Everyone falls silent and shifts uncomfortably as Debbie describes the typhoons and bird flu that have devastated China. Debbie finishes and the conversation picks back up; the father at the head of the table passes a bottle of wine around asking with a wink if the Pilgrims brought Pinot Grigio to the first Thanksgiving. Debbie responds to the rhetorical question with, “I’ll tell you what the Pilgrims did bring, smallpox.” Wah-Waaah… “they killed scores of Native Americans, ravaging their population.” Again the camera zooms in on Debbie. And on it goes, happy conversation followed by a buzz-killing comment by Debbie Downer until one person at a time walks away from the table leaving Debbie by herself. Finally, even the roast turkey gets up and walks away.

Almost as much as Thanksgiving meals are known as love-filled expressions of gratitude, they are also too often stressful gatherings rife with conflict. As a pastor, church members sometimes come to me expressing dread at the prospect of being at the table with Uncle Ferd or Aunt Izzy. I think this anxiety about family gatherings is true this year more than ever, given our bitterly divided political climate. I have a dear friend who has unfriended her own mother on Facebook as a result of their angry exchanges about politics, but come Thursday mother and daughter will be sitting across the Thanksgiving table from each other. Wah-Waaah. I don’t doubt that there are those here this evening who are facing similar fears.

Looking for a helpful word to share for those with Thanksgiving anxiety I again turned to Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. What would it mean to take the lowest place at a conflicted Thanksgiving table?

But before I could get very far in interpreting the text, my mind drifted to a more innocent time.

As a kid my family owned a twenty-five foot sailboat that we would take cruising on Long Island Sound and around New England.  One of my favorite memories from this time is rocking gently at anchor, the halyards clanging against the mast, and curling up below with my brother as my Mom read Winnie-the-Pooh stories to us. This was probably around 1970 when the Viet Nam War and accompanying protests were going on, so the times weren’t really so innocent. But fond memories of my 8 year-old self, listening to Winnie-the-Pooh stories, now seem worlds apart from our current trials.

Returning to some of those stories as an adult reminds me that there is some deep wisdom in those books by A. A. Milne. In fact Pooh and Piglet knew a lot about humility.

So, here is the lesson of the wedding banquet, interpreted by Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, and applied to a conflicted Thanksgiving dinner in this conflicted world of ours.

Think of these as five steps to humility, ways we might work our way down from the head of the table, to accept Jesus’ invitation to take the lowest place.

First, seek understanding.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has a brain.”

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has a brain.”

There was a long silence.

I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

This exchange between Piglet and Pooh about Rabbit reveals the difference between being clever and understanding. There is no doubt that we will be prepared for clever conversation around the Thanksgiving table, bringing carefully practiced and well-worn arguments in support of our favorite causes and positions. But understanding is different; understanding one another requires seeing from another perspective and may require leaving our clever arguments behind.

The first step to humility is to seek understanding. The second is to pay attention. This quote is from Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” This is an elegantly simple definition of mindfulness, a way of quieting our busy minds. Have you had the experience of formulating a response to someone’s comment before they have even finished talking? I pretty much do that all the time. It means we aren’t really present with someone or listening to what they are saying. We also aren’t in touch with how we are feeling. Maybe if we just sits, pay attention to our breathing, allow ourselves to be present with what is happening inside us without jumping in to respond, the energy around the table may change for the better.

Seek understanding, pay attention and then be patient. Piglet says, “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Perfect! When Uncle Ferd cuts me off and begins ranting, I will assume he has a small bit of fluff in his ear! He’ll wonder why I’m just sitting there smiling.

So, humility understands, pays attention, is patient, and then gives way.

Winnie-the-Pooh says, “Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more…to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”

What would happen if we gave way on those hot-button issues that arise at the dinner table? I don’t think Pooh is suggesting that we give up our deepest held beliefs, but that the love that is nurtured by letting go in a particular moment could be more important than driving someone away on principle.

We are almost there. A last word from Piglet.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could still hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

With each of these steps we have worked our way down from the head to the lowest seat at the table. We seek understanding, pay attention, are patient, give way, and when we arrive at the other end of the table we just might find that our very small hearts are filled with gratitude for the people at the table, even Uncle Ferd and Aunt Izzy!

Of course Jesus’ lesson in the telling of the parable was never meant to apply to just wedding banquets or Thanksgiving dinners, but was meant to be a lesson for life. And again, none of this is to suggest that we stop fighting for what we know is true and just in our lives; Jesus stood up for who and what he believed in, even unto death. But like Pooh and Piglet, Jesus also sought understanding, paid attention, was patient, gave way, and lived with a heart filled with gratitude for God and all God’s children.

Whether in our encounters at the Thanksgiving table or in this conflicted world we live in, may we do the same.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liking Your Neighbor

Check out Shannon Quay’s post from the Relevant Magazine website challenging us to not just to love our neighbor, but to like our neighbor.  Amen.  Some ten years ago or so I preached a sermon Like Never Faileth.  The church I served at the time had the words Love Never Faileth emblazoned on the wall above the altar.  I guess I was a bit cynical about love at the time.  I identified more with the old J. Giles song, Love Stinks, than Paul’s love poem to the Corinthians. While it may be true that God’s love never fails, our human love is too often impatient and unkind.

I agree with Shannon:

Christians, at least the ones that I spend a significant amount of time with, like to say things like, “You don’t have to like people to love them.” This seems like a nice, backdoor remedy to being annoyed with that guy who makes the offhand political jokes about the guy you voted for and still feeling like an upstanding believer, but I don’t think that it’s true. When I don’t like someone, I don’t go out of my way for him. I don’t care about her more than myself.  I don’t attempt to bear his burdens. I am not patient. I am not kind.  Call me crazy, but I think you have to like people if you ever want to love them.

Honestly, do you really want to hear from someone, “I love you, but I just don’t like you.”  Please!  In that sermon, I preached that like never fails.  That is, when we find our way to really like someone, then we are inclined to respond to them with love.  The challenge then is to like people.  Easier said than done, right?

I have a doctor friend in Berkeley, California who treats senior citizens in a public health setting.  I once had this conversation with her about liking people who seem quite unlikable.  She said that she looks for one genuine connection with everyone she meets.  She described one elderly man who was always disagreeable and angry.  He never seemed happy and criticized everyone including my doctor friend.  She tried and tried to find some honest connection with this man and finally found it, his shoes!  She really liked his shoes and shoe told him so, “Mr. Philpot, those are great shoes you have on!”  He lit up immediately; the relationship was transformed.

Read Quay’s reflection and share your thoughts.

Liking Your Neighbor

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Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 9:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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