Cannanite Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!

rally black lives matter

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

Matthew 15:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I think something else is going on here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stand Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blessed Are the Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Our Vision, Our Song

Here is the sermon I preached on July 1, 2012. I weave together the vision statement that I have proposed for South Church (see previous blog post), this clip from the new HBO series, The Newsroom, and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15. This is an example of how our vision statement might be used as a touchstone for conversations and growth.

“Our Vision, Our Song”

Those of you who are on the church mailing list should have received the July issue of our South Church newsletter, The Voice, in the past day or two. If not there are copies on the desk outside the chapel. In my monthly column I propose a vision statement for South Church. A vision statement is meant to articulate where we want to go as a church, what we would like to become. I offer these words for prayerful consideration and discussion, “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” I hope this captures the diversity, hospitality and grace we seek to embody while also calling us to respond to a hurting world. I am planning to preach a sermon series on this vision in the fall, but I thought I would introduce it and give it a little work out this morning.

In The Voice I write of the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country, indeed our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Nowhere are these differences more visible and acute than in our national politics. Battles between Democrats and Republicans have never been so bitter or divisive. This vitriol was all on display this week when the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation proposed by President Obama and approved by Congress. Of course I have opinions of my own with regard to the various issues that face our country and our world. I too take sides. But more than anything, my heart just hurts at the brokenness among and between people on all sides who I believe to be good, created in God’s image.

I love this country. I was walking down my street this week and saw that some of my neighbors had put out their American flag in anticipation of the Fourth of July. When I came home that day I was pleased to see that Lourdes had the same idea and had retrieved our flags from the basement for placement in our garden. My love of country aside, I sometimes worry that patriotism, or more correctly nationalism, contributes to division. All sides in public policy disputes claim to be on the side of God and country, implying that anyone who disagrees is not a good Christian or a good American.

A friend shared a transcript of a speech from a new show on HBO called The Newsroom. Jeff Daniels plays news anchor Will McAvoy. In this episode McAvoy is part of a panel discussion with a liberal and conservative pundit. A female college student asks the panelists, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy hedges, not wanting to take sides. But the moderator presses him and he responds:

“It’s not the greatest country in the world professor, that’s my answer.”

He turns to the liberal pundit, “The National Endowment for the Arts is a loser, yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck but he (referring to the Conservative pundit) gets to hit you with it any time he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes, it costs airtime, it costs column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so smart, how come they always lose?”

He then turns to the conservative pundit and continues, “And with a straight face you’re going to tell students that America is so star spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world that have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, BELGIUM has freedom. So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.”

“And you,” he now directs his attention to the young woman who asked the question, “sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day there’re some things you should know. One of them is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 16th in literacy, 32nd in math, 14th in science, 50th in life expectancy, 49th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, Number 4 in labor force and Number 4 in exports, we lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.

Now none of this is the fault of a 20 year-old college student, but when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?”

This is tough talk and I realize that this is a heck of a thing to share in a sermon on the Sunday before the Fourth of July. First, it may sound like I’m being hard on this land that we love. And second, we might well ask what any of this has to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Well, the answer to both these questions comes back to the vision statement that I am proposing for South Church. “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Nationalistic claims in general, and the claim to be the greatest country in the world in particular do not aide in bridging differences that divide our world, especially when there is evidence that this is simply not true. I should say that I spot checked the rankings in that speech and even adjusted a few numbers based on what I found, so while The Newsroom is a fictional show, these statistics stand up.

Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says that the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is one. We might also say that the first step in bridging the differences that divide us is to tell the truth, most especially to tell the truth about ourselves.

This morning’s lesson from Second Corinthians speaks directly to this issue of bridging differences. In his letter Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to give to the church in Jerusalem. Corinth and Jerusalem represent a central division in the early church, a division between Gentiles and Jews. The founding members of the church in Jerusalem were Jews before they chose to follow Christ, while the Corinth church was made up of Gentiles, or non-Jewish Christians. There was lots of conflict in the early years of the church about whether Gentiles could even become Christians. Maybe the arguments about whether Jews or Gentiles were better Christians can be equated to our present day battles about whether Democrats or Republicans are better Americans. The Gentile Christians in Corinth were wealthier than Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem so Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church to collect an offering to support their struggling brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Paul is “testing the genuineness of (the) love” of the Corinthian Christians by asking them to overcome their judgment and distrust and give to the Jerusalem church. Listen again to his words to the Corinthians, “I do not believe that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

These early Christians were just as divided around matters if ethnicity, nationality, class and beliefs as we are today and Paul made it his mission to bring them all together in Christ. Paul seeks to bridge the divisions that divide the world to form one Body of Christ by asking the Corinthians to set aside their judgments to find a fair balance between their needs with the needs of others.

These lessons apply to each of us today just as they apply to our church. As we examine our lives and our church we are called to tell the truth about ourselves, even when it hurts, and seek a fair balance between our needs and the needs of others. Since before my arrival at South Church the tradition here has been to conclude worship on this Sunday before the Fourth of July with the hymn, This is My Song. The words give beautiful, poetic expression to the vision of a church that bridges differences that divide the world to become on Body of Christ. I close with these words:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, though God of all the nations,
a land of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Ruler of all nations;
let thy reign come; on earth thy will be done.
In peace may all earth’s people draw together,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, though God of all the nations;
myself I give to thee; let thy will be done. Amen.

Please share your thoughts, not only about the sermon itself, but about the use of the proposed vision statement as a focal point for our community.

Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

New Moon: Vampires, Werewolves and Resurrection

I’m not sure if this will work or not, but here is the connection I am exploring.  I believe that there are universal yearnings, cosmic questions that work themselves out in our lives.  My perspective here is informed by Joseph Campbell’s work on myth.  The world’s great religious traditions evolved to give expression to these yearnings and questions, but too often become dull and legalistic over time.  When this happens, we look elsewhere for our answers, to psychology, to pop culture, or to literature.

Many of our yearnings and questions emerge out of our powerlessness and accompanying fear.  One question might be, “Can we claim power out of our powerlessness?  Can we leave fear, hurt, and suffering behind to become something new?  Can we find freedom from those things that threaten and enslave us?”   Another question follows from our fear of our ultimate powerlessness, death.  “Do we have to die?  Why can’t we live forever?”

These two questions seem to be given expression in the Twilight series of books and movies by werewolves and vampires.  Werewolves transform into something powerful in response to vulnerability and suffering.  Vampires live forever.

Christ responds to these questions through resurrection.  So, why Christ instead of werewolves and vampires?

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 3:14 am  Comments (2)  
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A Matter of Life and Death

This morning I preached on the passage in the gospel of Luke where Jesus is asked about the connection between sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5).  First, some in the crowd ask him about some people from Galilee who were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate.  Jesus asks, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than others from Galilee?”  Then, he is asked about eighteen people who died when a tower collapsed in Jerusalem.  Here again, Jesus asks if these people died because of their sins.  Jesus answers both of his own questions with a clear, “No.”  God does not punish us for our sins with suffering and death; God offers forgiveness, grace, love and mercy in response to the world’s sin and suffering.

I preached this sermon because I know there are people in my congregation who are hurting and believe that God is punishing them for something they have done.   Sometimes they don’t even know what they did, only that God must be angry at them about something because their life is so hard.

Then, this evening, I taught a lesson about forgiveness at our recovery ministry, Celebrate Recovery.  I noted that forgiveness includes accepting God’s forgiveness, forgiving those who have wronged us, and forgiving ourselves.  There was a man there who is drinking himself to death because of his inability to accept that God forgives him and so, is unable to forgive himself.

God’s love and forgiveness can save lives.  I have seen it happen again and again.  But one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that while we can preach it, we can teach and council it, and we can try to embody it, we cannot make someone believe and live in the knowledge that God loves and forgives them.  This is where we need to practice letting go and letting God, no matter how painful it is.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 3:44 am  Comments (2)  
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Of Drag Queens and Jesus

I have been fascinated by drag queens for almost twenty years, since I went with some friends to see RuPaul in concert in the early 90’s.  Lourdes and I went to a couple drag shows when we were courting and first married, extravagant affairs in Waikiki ballrooms that were fundraisers for AIDS service organizations or the LGBT Community Center.  There are some very funny pictures somewhere of petite Lourdes posing between two 6’4″ (6’8″ with heals) Samoan Drag Queens.  She fits right in.  Lourdes and I have gay friends that will dress in drag occasionally (Halloween), and I have a friend who is mahu, a Hawaiian word for a third gender (men who live as women) in the native Hawaiian culture.  I love many things about the drag culture.  It is grand, exaggerated, dramatic, in-your-face, fun and funny.  But I especially love how drag crosses boundaries, transgresses cultural and even biological norms.  I have heard some use drag in a more generic sense to mean dressing in a symbolic way or putting on an identity.  I sometimes think of the robe and stole I wear in worship as my clergy drag.  In this sense, drag can be used as a strategy for crossing various boundaries.  Jesus was all about crossing boundaries.

I wonder if drag provides a way to talk about the transfiguration of Christ.  Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the top of a high mountain to pray.  “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt 9:29).  I imagine Jesus dressed for Vegas in a white sequined tuxedo with a glittering top hat (or was it a gown and tiara?).  In the transfiguration Jesus appears in his God drag.  Or maybe Jesus was God in human drag, and the transfiguration is his big reveal (like a drag queen whipping off her wig).  Drag queens transgress the boundary between male and female.  In my limited understanding, the transgender community is very diverse including straight men who cross dress, gay men who wear drag as campy fun, and men who live as women.  Jesus crosses the boundary between human and divine.  This relationship is also very complex, much more than God in human clothing or a human wearing God drag, Jesus disturbs our understanding of the relationship between people and God.  We can no longer speak of God as being “up there.”

The reason that drag queens unsettle us is not so much that the distinction between genders is blurred or confused in them, we are disturbed because their existence suggests that all our gender identities aren’t as fixed as we would like to think.  This is why the disciples freak out (“a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified”), and why we should also be unsettled by Jesus’ drag show.  The transfiguration means the distinction between the human and divine isn’t fixed.  Who do we pray to if God is all mixed up in us somehow?  What are the implications for our faith?

Published in: on February 8, 2010 at 5:45 am  Comments (3)  
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