Reversal of Fortune

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

Luke 10:25-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who were the Samaritans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newt Gingrich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sanctuary

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 19, 2016, the Sunday following the murder of forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida

 

Jeremiah 31:10-17, John 20:19-23

Here’s something most people don’t hear from their pastor on a typical Sunday morning:

I’ve spent a lot of time in bars. Yep, it’s true.

Of course I went to college in New Orleans when the drinking age was still 18. So there were some late nights at Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter.

But beyond this youthful exploration of freedom, when I met my wife Lourdes in my late 30’s she was working as a cocktail waitress at the Outrigger Reef Hotel on the beach in Waikiki. I courted her at her poolside bar, called the Chief’s Hut. This was a warm welcoming place where tourists from every walk of life sat side-by-side with locals coming off the beach for a little refreshment. Young couples on their honeymoon and retired couples taking their dream vacation sipped Mai Tais and Pina Coladas next to leathery-skinned beach boys who brought beer in their own coolers. There were truck drivers, bankers, even a retired Baptist minister and his Sunday school teaching, organ playing wife.

I once preached as sermon about the Chief’s Hut as an example of hospitality that churches might seek to emulate.

Early last Sunday morning, a hate-filled tragedy played out at a gay bar in Orlando Florida when a gunman shot and killed forty-nine men and women and injured fifty-three others. In the days that followed some of my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues took the opportunity to talk about their experiences in bars, specifically gay bars.

One of my seminary professors, Sharon Fenema writes: “When I was first coming out, the only places I could go and feel safe, feel like I could be myself, sense the presence of the Holy in my body, mind and spirit were the gay clubs. To dance, to celebrate, to see other people like me, my family, my community – was all I had keeping me alive some days.”

My best friend Michael writes: “Every tragedy has its unique DNA. For gay men of my generation, the clubs were sanctuaries, places of safety, fellowship, community organizing and self-discovery.”

I have felt the presence of the Holy that Sharon describes and observed the sanctuary Michael identifies. You see, not only have I spent a goodly amount of time in bars in general, for a straight guy, I have spent a lot of time in gay bars.

For three years in the mid-nineties I led an AIDS service organization that coordinated volunteer support for people living with HIV and AIDS. Gay board members and volunteers for that organization would invite me to the well-known gay bar in Waikiki, Hula’s, for a beer. Not only was this a safe comfortable place for them to meet, I think they saw this as part of the acculturation that was necessary for me to better serve a predominantly gay constituency.

Then, right around the time Lourdes and I started dating, my best friend Michael, the one I just quoted, began dating the man who is now his husband, Stacey. The four of us became fast friends and would often double date, ending our evening at Hulas for drinks and dancing. I don’t know that I have ever experienced such freedom, such abandon. People could be themselves and know they wouldn’t be judged. It is a beautiful thing.

I share about my visits to Hula’s not just to describe or affirm what I observed in the sanctuary of a gay bar, but because I experienced it too. I say with all the love in the world that my wife Lourdes is somewhere on the diva-drama queen spectrum which, when paired with my pastoral identity, makes us a unique couple. There, in the midst of all these men and women who were rejoicing in who God created them to be, Lourdes and I felt safe and free to be who God created us to be. We fit right in!

UCC minister Quinn Caldwell, picks up this theme of sanctuary in the Still Speaking Daily Devotional that appeared on Tuesday. He writes:

For me it was The Common Ground in Ithaca, NY, a magnificently seedy roadhouse several miles outside of town.  It had a gravel and grass parking lot, a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, and an all-age cast of regulars you could easily have built a sitcom around.  My husband will tell you about The Park in Roanoke, VA, which he and his college friends would drive 45 minutes to get to every weekend, and which they talk about today like it’s a homeland from which they’re in unwilling diaspora.

Ask any queer person you know, and chances are they’ll have a story to tell you about a place like this.  They will tell you about how they found a family there, how they found themselves there, how they felt safe for the first time on the dance floor there, how much they learned there, how they found love there, how they learned to be bold there, how they dressed like themselves for the very first time there, showing off their glitter, or butch haircut, or size 13 high heels without fear.  That note you hear in their voice as they tell you about it?  That’s gratitude, and reverence.

50 dead and more than 50 wounded hits hard anytime and anywhere.  But for many queer people, what happened at Pulse hits as hard as shootings in churches hit for Christians, as hard as shootings in black churches hit for black Christians.  It’s not just the death toll.  It’s not just that it was a hate crime.  It’s that it happened in a sanctuary.

The passage from Jeremiah echoes some of the themes we find in the Orlando shooting. Jeremiah is communicating God’s promise to the Jews, a return home from exile. There shall be a time when “young women (will) rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy” says God. Indeed, to those who found sanctuary at Pulse night club last Saturday night it probably felt as if that promise of a return from exile had been fulfilled. In a holy respite from judgment, young men and women rejoiced in dance and were merry.

The Jeremiah text then shifts dramatically, from rejoicing and dancing to lamentation and bitter weeping. There is reference to Ramah, a town five miles north of Jerusalem through which Jewish people travelled on their way to exile in Babylon. Rachel, here representing the nation of Israel, weeps for the continued suffering and death of Jews in exile, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.

A voice was heard from Pulse, lamentation and bitter weeping, and we refuse to be comforted because these children are no more. Gays and lesbians continue to fear for their lives in exile.

The Jeremiah text mirrors the emotional whiplash between joy-filled dancing in response to an experience of God’s love and acceptance followed by inconsolable anguish in response to the death of God’s children. The grief is even more bitter when violence penetrates the promise of sanctuary. Caldwell responds to this violation in this way:

Here’s a true thing: every sanctuary will be invaded, by madness or death or slow decay, sooner or later.  Even the Temple in Jerusalem fell.  Even the body of God was penetrated.  But here’s what Christians believe: that body is still our refuge and our might.  That the lord of the dance(hall) wouldn’t stay dead.  That his pulse wouldn’t stop pulsing.  That they couldn’t take our Sanctuary away.

 In the Gospel lesson from John the disciples seek sanctuary, seal themselves apart, following the murder of Jesus on the cross. Caldwell reminds us, “even the body of God was penetrated,” and here Jesus shares his woundedness with the disciples’ own suffering, there is no escaping the pain; but Jesus also communicates peace and forgiveness and new life. Jesus reminds the disciples that his pulse won’t stop pulsing, then sends them out to share this love and acceptance with a hurting world.

This is the other reason I told some of my own stories this morning. I recognize that for some, the preacher sharing about his wonderful experiences in a gay bar would be taboo. But what does that taboo communicate? If we cannot celebrate the ways and places that gays and lesbians feel most accepted, safe and free, can we as a church legitimately claim to be a sanctuary? Let me say that again. If we cannot celebrate the ways and places that gays and lesbians feel most accepted, safe and free, can we as a church legitimately claim to be a sanctuary?

So let us weep with Rachel, refusing to be comforted for the death of God’s children, of our children.

Then, let us ask God to prepare us to be a sanctuary.

Let us pray that Quinn Caldwell’s words about gay bars may come to apply to us and our church.

May those who are most vulnerable and threatened tell of how they found a family here, how they found themselves here, how they felt safe for the first time on the dance floor that is this sanctuary, how much they learned here, how we found love here, how we learned to be bold here, how we dressed like ourselves for the very first time here, showing off our glitter, or butch haircut, or size 13 high heels without fear.

And should that happen… when this happens, may we respond with gratitude and reverence.

Jeremiah concludes:

For there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.

 

 

Published in: on June 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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10 Ways to Worship God This Summer

Inspired by Psalm 100, I shared these ideas for summer worship in my sermon, Twenty-Four Seven, preached on the last Sunday of the First Church Simsbury program year, June 5, 2016.

  1. Make a Joyful Noise: Every time something good happens shout “Amen!” “Alleluia!” or “Thank you Jesus!” Did you just enjoy a delicious lobster dinner by the shore? Alleluia! Finish reading a really great mystery novel? Amen! Watched an especially beautiful sunset? Thank you Jesus! Why do this? To remind ourselves that every good thing comes from God. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

  1. Share Your Sabbath: You might be on vacation, but the people around you may not be. Wake up one morning and commit yourself to showing God’s love to everyone you meet. Note: This doesn’t mean going up to strangers and saying, “I love you.” You might get arrested. But even if it is just smiling and greeting a stranger good morning as you pass by, commit to noticing the people around you, reminding yourself that each is bearing unseen burdens. Are there small acts of kindness you might perform for someone to ease their burden? If a young mother is clutching a baby and toddler while trying to load groceries into her car, maybe you can offer to return her cart for her. Worship the Lord with gladness.

  1. Sing Praise: Bring a hymn book on vacation. Leaf through it each morning until you find a hymn you love and sing it. Find a hymn you have never heard before and read it. Let the poetry of the words wash over you. Let the melody lift you up. Throughout the day, recall the tune or a verse that moved you. Come into his presence with singing!

  1. Through a Child’s Eyes: See the world around you through the eyes of a child. Do this, first, by noticing children. Pay attention to their curiosity. Watch them explore the world around them. What makes them squeal and giggle? What makes them cry? You don’t need to analyze it. Just notice. Then try observing everything around you as a child might. See things as if for the very first time. Be curious. Wonder! Birds fly! Can you believe it?! Really, it’s a miracle. There are miracles all around us. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.

  1. The Hands That Made It: Pick out an object in your surroundings and reflect on all the hands that went into making it. For example a baseball bat. Think about the people growing and harvesting maple and ash from tree farms in New York and Pennsylvania. Others are inspecting and milling the wood, while others are driving the trucks that bring the lumber to the shop where bats are made. You get the idea. And each of these people that was part of the process that led to this bat you hold in your hands has a family, each experiences the full range of life’s joys and hardships. All of that energy pulses through the bat you hold in your hands. I find this meditation quickly reminds me how interconnected we all really are. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

  1. Listen for the Birds (or the ocean, or the wind in the trees): Years ago I knew a young woman, Kaliko, who had a serious addiction and checked into a treatment facility. One of the things she learned there was to “listen for the birds.” She learned that she could quiet her busy mind when, wherever she was, she would pause to “listen for the birds.” “They’re always there!” she said excitedly, “If only you get quiet enough and listen.” I’m not sure this is literally true, but I am convinced that it is spiritually true. Wherever you are, in bed when you wake up in the morning, lying in a hammock in the shade, walking on the beach, or sitting on a bench at an amusement park, pick out a sound and give it your full attention. Listen and your mind will settle. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.

  1. God at Work: This is a variation of The Hands that Made It. Here, instead of drawing to mind the human hands that made an object, reflect on the way God worked to bring the things around you into being. When you dig your toes into the sand, remind yourself that all that sand used to be rock formed in the depths of the earth. Shifting plates pushed that rock to the surface where wind and water began to wear it down one grain at a time over billions of years. Here’s another one, that Frisbee you’re throwing? Made of plastic, which is made of petroleum, right? And where does petroleum come from? Lots and lots of decayed organic matter, including dead dinosaurs. So all of that, the billions of years, the dinosaurs, it’s all in your hands as you toss that Frisbee to your friend. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.

  1. Remember When: Maybe you can’t take vacation this summer. Maybe you can’t get off work or maybe you are too tired or frail or poor. Then remember when… Remember one of your best vacations or Sabbath times. Maybe it was the time you lay on your back, with a friend or by yourself, and looked up at the stars. Try to remember every detail. What were you lying on? Could you feel the wind on your face? Which constellations could you see? Could you see the Milky Way? Remember those shooting stars? Who were you with? Relive the experience. I remember going scuba diving with my Dad when I was a teenager. I remember the feel of sun and salt on my skin. I remember feeling my heartbeat speed up when I saw the antennae of the spiny lobster sticking out from under the reef. I remember my Dad treating me as an equal. We have heard the word staycation, we can travel back to a special Sabbath time right here (mind) and right here (heart). For the Lord is good.

  1. Church Adventure: When you are away from Simsbury this summer, go to a different church. Not necessarily the Congregational church in town, go to a very different church. A few summers ago my family and I were camping in Gettysburg. Come Sunday we went to St. Paul AME Zion Church, having read that it was a historic church that had been active in sheltering slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Well we were three of the twelve people in worship that Sunday, and the twelve also included a Co-Pastor couple; and I was the only Caucasian. But we were never so warmly welcomed. There was even a Children’s Message and Abby, bless her heart, went up even though she was the only kid in worship. And I am not making this up, when Abby got up front the lay woman leading the Children’s Message asked her if she had a song she would like to sing. Just like that, out of nowhere, “Hi Honey, aren’t you beautiful, do you have a song you’d like to sing for us this morning?” And she sang! Abby sang “Down to the River to Pray” and brought the house down, all twelve of us. Go to a different church. Be daring, try something completely different from what you are used to. You might be surprised by the way God moves in that place. God’s steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

  1. Come Home to First Church! Once again, don’t assume you have the summer off from church. Church during the summer can be a little more informal, more intimate and personal. Some of my most spirit-filled experiences in church have taken place during a summer service. Come! Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth!

 

 

Published in: on June 10, 2016 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pastor Pondering: Are You a Child of God?

Published in the May 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

I often chuckle at humorous examples of punctuation mistakes that circulate on the internet. Here are a few of my favorites.

A magazine cover includes the headline:
“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”
Surely this was meant to read:
“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.

Then there is the sign that reads:
“Attention: Toilet only for disabled elderly pregnant children.”
At least there will never be a line!

And in this example note the difference a comma makes:
Let’s eat grandpa!
Let’s eat, grandpa!

I thought of these internet memes after the bulletins for my installation were printed. I sent copies to Cindy Braunlich and Susan White who would be leading the Call to Worship. I soon received an email from Susan asking, “Any chance that the final punctuation on the last line is supposed to be a ‘!’ and not a ‘?’”

Oh boy! The Call to Worship began with a strong affirmation. In response to the question, “Who are you?” the congregation would respond, “We are children of God!” The litany was meant to end as it began, “Who are you?” but the congregation’s response read, “We are children of God?” Instead of an enthusiastic proclamation of our intimate relationship with God as parent, this simple punctuation error had the congregation responding with uncertainty and doubt, as if to say Um… Gosh, we don’t know. Are we really children of God?

After Susan pointed out the mistake I alternated between feeling embarrassed, laughing out loud, and thinking that the misplaced question mark revealed an important truth about our walk of faith. Regardless of what we say, pray and sing in church on Sundays, deep down we often have doubts. Am I really a child of God? With all the mistakes I’ve made, how is that possible?

I just couldn’t let the doubt implied by that stray question mark stand. On Saturday, I went through all three hundred bulletins and penned in a big exclamation point at the end of that sentence.

Absolutely! We are children of God! May First Church, Simsbury be that exclamation point for you, affirming God’s love for you, not just on Sundays but each and every day of your life. You are a child of God, precious in God’s sight!

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 10, 2016 at 11:02 am  Leave a Comment  

What Could Be Better Than That?

Published in the April 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

In 1978, when I was sixteen years old, my father helped me buy a 1969 MGB convertible. It wasn’t in great shape – missing a front bumper, had ripped upholstery and a cheap coat of paint- and cost only a thousand dollars. But it was fire-engine red, had knock-off wire wheels, and it was mine! Our first car represents independence, both practically and symbolically. The symbolic value of my little, red convertible was especially strong; it screamed FREEDOM! There is a What could be better than this? of me driving my MG, top down, friend in the passenger seat, with two teenage girls perched precariously behind the two seats, their arms thrust in the air, and huge smiles on all our faces! What could be better than that?

Well, within my first year of owning that sweet icon of freedom I had accumulated four tickets and had my license suspended. The citations included a fender bender, speeding, rolling through a stop sign, and a late-night “chase” through the streets of my town with two friends who also drove British sports cars. Now, thirty-six years later and a father of a teenager myself, I shake my head and wonder, what was my father thinking? Honestly, I’m lucky to be alive.

In addition to losing my license (and freedom) I was required to complete a defensive driving class. As awful as this whole experience was, to this day I remember the core lesson of that class. Pay attention to other drivers.This simple practice forever changed my driving and in some way, my life. It’s not all about me. I may be free, but that doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want. I have a responsibility to other people.

We just celebrated Easter. Even more than a red, MG convertible, resurrection symbolizes freedom, liberation from persecution, suffering and death. Some Christians make the same mistake I did as a young driver and assume this freedom is meant for our personal enjoyment. Our American culture reinforces this self-centered understanding of individual freedom, freedom from authority. “No one can tell me what to do!”

But this is not the understanding of freedom revealed through the empty tomb. Like my defensive driving class, the gospels teach us that freedom comes with a commitment to and responsibility for one another. It’s not all about us. As “the body of Christ,” the church is meant to model both freedom and responsibility. This means that church members and even our boards can’t just do whatever feels good and right. We must pay attention to one another, and by paying attention to each other we will come to experience true freedom from hardship and want. And THAT is even better than anything, even a teenage boy’s red convertible!

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 8:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pastor Pondering: Death and New Life

Published in the March 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

For those who dare to follow, I invite you into the stream of consciousness that became this Cornerstone reflection:

Oh no, it’s Thursday afternoon and my Cornerstone article is due. What in the world am I going to write about? Think, George, think! What am I hearing from people in the church that suggests a topic? Members are still asking, “What are we going to do?” I wrote about that in the January Cornerstone but there is more to say. I know! I’ll write about a vision and mission for First Church. That’s it! … write-write-write-write-write-write… (three hours and 600 words later) OK, let’s see what I’ve got …blah-blah-blah-blah-blah… Help me Jesus! This is complete garbage! <select all> <delete> Start over. Time’s up, what am I going to do? I need a theme. (while driving home) think, think, think. It’s still Lent. (while eating dinner) think, think, think. Easter is coming. (while watching Bruins game) think, think, think. I know, I’ll Google “Lent and Easter.” Ugh! Just more blah-blah-blah. Really?! My eyes are getting heavy, must sleep. I’ll have to revisit this in the morning. Lourdes is waking me up, “Come on, we need to pack, we need to be on the road by 8:00.” Panic sets in; we’re driving to Baltimore for my Uncle Sunny’s funeral. The Cornerstone article is late! If only I had a poignant Lent and Easter story to share. Uncle Sunny, why did you have to die; this isn’t a good time. I’ll have to write my article in the car. At least I get to see my mom. When I saw her at Christmas she was really beat down by her radiation and chemo treatment, weak and wobbly. Can’t believe the MRI doesn’t show any cancer now. We all thought this was the end, but mom sounds strong and happy. Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter. Come on George, think!

Oh… Duh!

In response to my frantic plea, the chaotic jumble of my mind cleared to reveal the presence of death and new life.

Less than twenty-four hours after hearing about her brother Sunny’s death, my mother received the news that the cancer that had filled the cavity behind her eye, wrapped itself around her optic nerve, and was intruding into her skull, was now undetectable. Both grief and hope are woven into the fabric of creation. This is the message of Lent and Easter. God acts in the world through death and new life, but we often have a hard time recognizing this because death can be so darn scary and sad, and hope can seem irrational. So we compartmentalize (newsletter article), distract ourselves (Bruins game), and refuse to think about death or recognize new life even when it is right in front of us (Sunny and Mom).

These themes don’t just manifest themselves in our family. The Black Lives Matter movement, birthed in response to the violent deaths of young black men, calls forth new life, testifies to hope in the very presence of fear and despair.

Some might say, “Pastor George why did you have to go there? I was touched by the story of your uncle and your mom; did you have to mention Black Lives Matter?” But you see, that’s my point. Lent requires us to confront the places death intrudes unwanted, sometimes violently, into our lives. And Easter demands that we proclaim hope in the very face of death, even and especially when this makes us uncomfortable.

And herein, after all, is the makings of a vision and mission for our good church.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Pastor Pondering: Trouble

Published in the February 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

The world-weary voice of folk singer Ray LaMontagne cries…

Trouble… Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble
Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born
Worry… Worry, worry, worry, worry
Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone

I hear LaMontagne’s words and music as a plaintive invitation into Lent. Lent is the season of the church year during which we seek to grow closer to God, not through ecstatic experiences of joy, not in response to warm, cozy feelings of love, but by recognizing God’s presence in the midst of suffering, in the troubled, world-weary, worry-filled places in our lives. We are assured of God’s empathetic presence in times of trouble through God’s own suffering as Jesus Christ. There is no dark place humanity can visit that God has not already trod through Christ’s persecution, torture and death on the cross. In the forty days preceding Easter (not including Sundays) we accompany Jesus to the cross, and God accompanies us through the trouble and worry that dog our soul.

Those who were in church on Sunday, January 17, know that an old college friend of mine, John Fahsbender, joined us in worship. Later that evening, Lourdes and I sat down to dinner with John, his brother Tom, and sister-in-law Jennifer. As often happens when pastors are present, we got to talking about church. Jennifer observed that church is the one place where everyone is encouraged to share their heartache and pain, maybe the only place where we can count on being loved in response to our troubles. This understanding of church was affirmed for me when I visited the small group Bible study led by Cathie Behrens. One of the women present said, “Each of us here has experienced a crisis or tragedy or two, but we can share it here and know that we will be loved and supported.” Caring people are everywhere, at work and school, in our kids’ sports leagues or scout troops, in our family and among our friends. But only church specifically invites us to lay our burdens down and commits to love us through the shadowed valleys of our lives.

Our culture often communicates the message, “Don’t worry, be happy!” Sometimes we hear this as a helpful encouragement. But at other times we need someone to acknowledge our pain and sing the blues with us.

Ray LaMontagne concludes his testimony:

Well I’ve been saved by a woman… She won’t let me go.

Well we’ve been saved by a God who enters into suffering and death with us through Jesus and won’t ever let us go, carrying us beyond the cross to a new life in Christ.

Come to First Church during Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday), lay your burden down, know you will be loved and that God will never let you go.

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Prepare to Welcome Spring

Published in the March 2015 issue of the South Church newsletter, The Voice:

This is one of the coldest winters in many years.  Meteorologists tell us that February was Connecticut’s coldest month on record!  And it’s all anyone can talk about.  Many complain.  Others talk about escaping to Florida.  A few die-hard New Englanders still embrace it all!  Well, as strange as it may sound for someone who grew up in Florida and spent twenty years of my life living in Hawaii, I’m with those die-hard New Englanders.  I love it!

Part of my embrace of our New England winters comes from plain old stubbornness.  When I moved here from Hawaii in 2007, I was determined not to be that thin-blooded, whiney guy from the tropics that was put to shame by Connecticut Yankees.  I shoveled out from each storm, even the thirty inches we received in the 2013 blizzard, with a metaphorical shake of the fist at the sky, “You aren’t going to beat me, Mother Nature!”

But there is more than stubbornness at work in my embrace of winter.  The cold and snow leaves me in awe of creation’s power and beauty.  I look at the layer upon layer of snow on my lawn, with more on the way, and I know that I am not in control of this world we call home.  I am not in control of my life.  When a storm is dumping snow all I can do is let go and wait it out.  And when the storm is over, I do my best to respond, to dig my way out.  This is hard work, but there is a feeling of satisfaction when I am done.  I regain my freedom.  Though when I go back about my business I do so with more caution, move a bit more slowly; I watch out for others on the road.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for sin, while spring communicates resurrection and redemption.  Beyond just complaining we might ask ourselves how best to respond to the winters, sin and all its accompanying hardships, of our lives.  Will we just hunker-down, squeeze our eyes shut, and hope it goes away?  Will we just complain?  Or will we look our sin square in the eye, appreciate God’s power and acknowledge our vulnerability, then do our best to dig our way out of the mess we’re in?  And when the grace and forgiveness of God’s spring pushes up through the hardened, frozen places in our lives, will we respond to our freedom by moving about life with more caution, more attention to the welfare of others?  And, will we remember to praise God through it all?

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Black Lives Matter

Published in February 2015 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

“Black Lives Matter.” We have all heard or seen this quote in recent months. Sometimes appearing on social media as #blacklivesmatter, these words affirm the lives of black people in response to recent deaths of African-American men at the hands of police officers.

I have not encountered anyone who refutes this statement outright; no one has said, “No, black lives do not matter.” Though I often hear, “Yes, of course black live matter, but…” What follows the “Yes, but…” varies. Some want to argue the details of specific cases, suggesting that the men who were killed were somehow responsible, inviting the deadly violence upon themselves. Others worry that statements like #blacklivesmatter are divisive, emphasizing our differences rather than our shared humanity. The most common retort I have heard is, “Yes, but…all lives matter,” suggesting that to affirm the specific value of black lives somehow diminishes the value of other lives.

I do not agree. In fact, Jesus (and the Gospel writers) regularly named specific, excluded people in order to affirm universal inclusion. Consider the story in John’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well. Samaritans were a mixed-race people who were despised and routinely discriminated against by Jews. To Jews, Samaritan lives mattered less than Jewish lives. In fact, Jews believed that Samaritans were excluded from God’s promise and protection. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well affirms her as a child of God. Jesus is identifying a specific group that has been excluded in order to affirm a universally inclusive God. This story and its message would completely fall apart if it said only that Jesus met a “person” at the well. Its power comes from singling out Samaritans (and women) and saying these lives matter.

Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same approach in the civil rights movement. He focused on full civil rights for those who were being specifically excluded, black people. By naming the specifically excluded he was affirming that these rights are universal.

Like the Samaritans of Jesus’ day, African-Americans today still experience unequal treatment in ways small, large and life threatening. These daily threats and indignities send a message that the lives of black people matter less than the lives of white people. I don’t doubt that if Jesus had been on Twitter he would have tweeted a selfie of himself and the Samaritan woman with the hashtag, #samaritanlivesmatter. So today, affirming that #blacklivesmatter is a way to boldly witness to our universally inclusive God.

Blessed Are The Crazy

Published in November 2014 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

In Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church, Rev. Sarah Griffith Lund writes:

“God wants for us to be not a sorority with a Jesus mascot but a Beloved Community, where people come together for justice, peace, and redemptive love.”

“Faith is not an anti-depressant. It cannot be swallowed in order to rewire our brains for happiness. Rather, faith allows us to accept the coexistence of God and suffering. We do not have to choose between two realities, because, if we did, God would have to go. There is no way we could deny the existence of suffering. I believe God exists in this messed-up world, and, in the moments of greatest pain, God is there to wipe away our tears. After all, we aren’t the only ones crying. God is crying too.”

“Mental illness cannot be wished or prayed away. The stigma and shame about mental illness only increases its destructive power. Hiding in our closets, we are swallowed up in its shadows. It is my confession that by exposing mental illness to the healing light of God, through testimony, through carrying one another’s burdens, through therapeutic circles of care, we can find hope and strength. It is my hope that church can be a community of truth tellers, decreasing stigma as we create safe, welcoming spaces for people with mental illness. It is my testimony that the God of love is with us, even when there’s crazy in the blood. It is my gospel truth that blessed, not cursed, are the crazy for we will be called children of God.”

Griffith Lund, “takes the lid off mental illness” by sharing “her father’s battle with bipolar disorder, (her) helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother struggles with his own mental illness, and (her experience) serving as spiritual advisor for her cousin, a mentally ill man executed for murder.” Rev. Griffith Lund’s book has important lessons for South Church as we work to be a reconciled and reconciling congregation for all people.

When I talk about reconciliation (as I do constantly), I most often talk about reconciliation across race and class. Yet mental illness divides us terribly one from another, but we rarely speak of it. The fear, shame and stigma that people feel in response to mental illness enforces a silence that makes reconciliation impossible. Griffith Lund breaks that silence with her powerful testimony and models a way that we can all “carry one another’s burdens” and “become a community of truth tellers.”

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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