That Muttering Man in a Bathrobe

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

Matthew 5:21-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darn you Jesus!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

An Angel Remembered: Rick Lamb

rick-lamb

 

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

                                                                                                                                    Hebrews 13:2

 

I met Rick in a beach park in Honolulu. With Central Union Church, I founded a homeless ministry there, setting up a canopy and about 30 chairs for a worship service and shared meal each Thursday evening. Rick walked up as I arrived in the church van one day and offered to help set up for the service. Fifty something, Rick was ruggedly handsome, but the lines on his face betrayed years of hard living. He spoke proudly of his accomplishments including having owned an HVAC company and becoming a licensed pilot. And he also lay claim to more colorful chapters in his life including riding with a motorcycle gang; he carried a picture of his Harley with a holstered gun strapped to the handlebars.

And, I quickly learned, Rick was a serious alcoholic and lived in that beach park; he was homeless. I worked very closely with Rick for about four years. He made repeated efforts to get back on his feet, recommitting himself to sobriety and seeking employment. But there were many other times when he would call me, very, very drunk and in no shape to help himself.

Rick was the first person to call me pastor, though he would also sometimes call me “Pastor Pagan,” a rather questionable term of endearment that I never quite understood. He would also sometimes attend worship at Central Union Church, wearing his pilot’s uniform of black pants, a white shirt with military-style shoulder boards, and aviator sunglasses. The church loved him through all his ups and downs, and so did I. He attended my wedding.

One day, Rick got the news that his mother had died. He loved his mother, and she loved him. He had lived with her for a time, though I imagine that his drinking caused her much heartache. She left him a modest amount of money, enough to buy a cabin cruiser which he named Tailspin (a humorous nod to his love of flying, but also, perhaps, a darkly ironic premonition of things to come).

Living aboard his boat was going to be Rick’s ticket to a better life, he was sure of it. Indeed, he stayed sober for a few months but, sadly, again succumbed to his addiction. One night I got a call that Rick had gotten into a drunken fight on the waterfront. He was beaten badly and, after several days on life support, died.

Unbeknownst to me, Rick had made me, his Pastor Pagan, a beneficiary of his estate. There wasn’t a lot of money left after his debts were paid, but there was enough to cover some of the expenses of my seminary education.

Rick’s picture sits beside my computer in my office to remind me of the ways God worked through him to call and equip me for ministry, a ministry that has happily led me here to First Church Simsbury, another assembly of angels unaware.

Sunday, February 12, will be the fifteenth anniversary of Rick’s death, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination.

Thank you Rick. Soar with the angels.

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

Published in: on January 26, 2017 at 11:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Called from Occupied Territory

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on January 22, 2017 after members of First Church and Center Church in Hartford joined together to participate in a “Signs of Hope Urban Immersion Experience.” After drawing parallels between Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood and ancient Israel’s occupied territories of Zebulun and Naphtali I ask, what would it mean for us to travel back to our occupied territory, those parts of our lives that are occupied by disappointment, loss, betrayal or condemnation? And what would it mean to hear Jesus calling us to ministry from that very darkness?

Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

Did you hear that?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching…and proclaiming the good news…and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Sounds great doesn’t it? In preparing this sermon, I thought, I want some of that. I want some of that for our troubled world, I want some of that for each of you, and quite frankly, I want some of that for myself. So, we’ll circle back to that vision of a cure for what ails us, but first, I want to share a story about Signs of Hope.

This past Thursday, a group of our members joined with members of Center Church in Hartford for the Signs of Hope Immersion Experience. Meant to give us first-hand exposure to some of the people, places, issues and challenges of inner-city Hartford, the day was planned by our Mission Board member Debi Ackels and her counterpart Bill from Center Church. With Rev Kev behind the wheel of the Jesus Bus, our first stop was at Center Church where we learned about the assistance they provide through their Warburton Resource Center. Next we stopped at the ImmaCare emergency, no-freeze shelter, housed in the sanctuary of what was once Immaculate Conception Church, then on to the Frog Hollow branch of the Hartford Public Library. We finished with lunch at Hands on Hartford, and a presentation by the Christian Activities Council.

This was an eye-opening experience for all of us who participated, and I extend a big thank you to Debi and Bill who pulled it all together so beautifully.

I was especially moved by our visit to the Frog Hollow library. For those who don’t know, Frog Hollow is the poorest neighborhood in Hartford, with a median household income of just over $25,000 per year. We were told that Frog Hollow was named for the French Canadian immigrants who settled there in the mid-1800’s. Frog, of course, being a racial slur for these immigrants. Today, this neighborhood of about 10,000 is populated mostly by immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Guatemala.

Many identified our visit to the library as the most memorable stop. With one room, just big enough to hold the twenty-five of us, the library functions as a place for school children to get tutoring and use the half-dozen computers, while also serving as a community gathering place. The Head Librarian, Leticia Cotto, and her two assistants gave eloquent and powerful testimony about the invaluable role the little library fills. We learned that the City of Hartford approved a bond for a larger and better equipped library many years ago, but that each year the legislature reapportions those funds somewhere else, most recently for the Duncan Donuts Yard Goat Stadium.

Our visit was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to reflect on this morning’s passage from Matthew.

Over the years, I have read these words dozens of times and preached any number of sermons on the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. But I must have skimmed right over the first five verses.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

 

Other than trying not to stumble over the names, I never gave much thought to Zebulun and Naphtali.

But my experience in Frog Hollow drew my attention to the importance of geography and history, so I became curious about these places. Who were these territories named after? Who lived there? What was their history? Was it a history of triumph or struggle?

Matthew doesn’t leave us to wonder, pointing us to an important chapter in the history of Israel as told by the prophet Isaiah some 700 years before Jesus lived.

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’ 

Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Territories where these family groups settled carried their names. When Isaiah is writing, these territories are occupied by the Assyrian Empire. Those who have some familiarity with the Old Testament will know that the Assyrian Empire to the north invaded Israel and took leading citizens into captivity in Assyria while occupying the territory of those who remained behind.

So in Isaiah’s day, Zebulun and Naphtali were occupied territory. That means that the people of Israel who lived there suffered daily under an oppressive regime that siphoned off resources in support of the empire.

700 years later, it is significant that Jesus begins his public ministry in this very same territory. And this region is again occupied, now by the Roman Empire.

It can be challenging to wrap our mind around just how thoroughly this impacted daily life. As in Isaiah’s day, resources were siphoned off, this time in support of Roman elites.

Just as my visit to Frog Hollow informed my understanding of this scripture passage, causing me to consider the importance of place names and geography; so this scripture passage in turn informs my understanding of Frog Hollow.

Though Frog Hollow is not occupied territory in any literal sense, like Zebulun and Naphtali, resources are siphoned off from the poor of Frog Hollow to support the lifestyle and interests of the powerful. This is why, year after year, funds to upgrade the small, one-room, store front library get diverted to support wealthier districts.

It is no accident that this these regions in Galilee are where Jesus chooses to begin his ministry. Matthew’s audience would have understood the significance of this immediately.

When Jesus says, repent, for the kingdom of God has come near, he isn’t telling the Jewish residents of this place to repent from their sins – telling lies, gossiping, jealousy – no Jesus is confronting empire, demanding that the occupying Romans and their Jewish collaborators, the Pharisees, repent for oppressing the poor and most vulnerable.

In the previous chapter, John the Baptist had called out the Pharisees and Sadducees for this same behavior. Matthew writes, “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, John said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And as revealed in the first verse of this morning’s passage, John was arrested for daring to confront the political and religious power of empire.

But while knowing the danger, instead of fleeing in the other direction, Jesus goes to the very symbolic heart of empire, and takes up John’s demand, “Repent!”

Jesus then calls his first disciples from among those whom had felt the bite of Roman rule, four fishermen. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was not a way to get rich; fisherman made just enough to get by. After Rome takes its cut, and the Jewish tax collectors squeeze some extra for themselves, you can bet Peter, Andrew, James and John found it impossible to get ahead.

At the end of our day in Hartford, a woman who had joined us from the Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation asked exasperated, how can people who face all these daily challenges possibly escape this cycle? Like these fishermen, those trapped in poverty in Frog Hollow find it next to impossible to break the cycle of poverty.

Yet these are the very people Jesus calls as his disciples. And with Peter, Andrew, James and John in tow, Jesus then sets out restoring people to health and wholeness.

To review, Jesus intentionally begins his ministry in a place that had been under the thumb of empire for 700 years. He begins by demanding that those in power repent, change their ways, because the reign of God is upon them. He calls his first disciples from among those who live with this reality day in and day out, then sets about restoring people to health and wholeness.

Restoring people to health and wholeness. That’s where this morning’s passage ends, and it’s where I began. So I ask again, doesn’t that sound great? Don’t we all want that healing for ourselves and our world?

What would it mean for us to travel back to the occupied territories of our life? Now of course I don’t mean literally occupied by empire, but I am talking about those experiences that continue to occupy our hearts and minds, burden us, hold us back. These may be experiences of hurt, betrayal, trauma, disappointment, regret, or condemnation. Or we may be occupied by anxiety, fear or anger. Where do we sit in darkness, where does the shadow of death fall upon us?

Maybe you have had an experience of being bullied. Been in an abusive relationship. Had a parent from whom you never felt love. Been subject to sexual harassment. Experienced betrayal in a marriage, or a broken relationship with a child. Maybe you just feel like your life has never amounted to much.

These are the occupied territories we are invited to travel to within ourselves knowing that Jesus will meet us there. Jesus will meet us there and demand that the forces of darkness that occupy and oppress us repent, let go, set us free!

And these are the places in which we will find fellow disciples, those who also know what it means to be occupied, to suffer, to be squeezed.

And these are the places from which we will then be called to ministry.

Which brings us back to places like Frog Hollow.

Jesus calls us from our own pre-occupation to minister in the occupied territories of the world today. Whether in Frog Hollow, among Syrian refugees, in support of equal rights for women and gays and lesbians, to children with special needs, or with lonely seniors in nearby nursing facilities, Jesus meets us in our dark and shadowed places and says “Follow me,” leading us and the world to health and wholeness. And that is a sign of hope.

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

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

Revelation 21:1-6a

Matthew 25:31-46

 

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

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

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

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

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

Let me read that again:

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

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

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

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

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

So what are these choices Jesus presents to us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor and Prophet: The Role of Minister and Church in These Times

This is the “Pastor Pondering” column that I wrote for the January 2017 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

On Christmas Eve the Boston Globe ran a story – “Church Looks to Heal after Politics, Faith Collide” – about Plymouth Congregational Church in Framingham, Massachusetts.  On the Sunday after the presidential election, the Senior Minister, Rev. Gregory Morisse, delivered a strongly worded sermon in which he condemned the tone and content of President-elect Trump’s campaign, and called upon the congregation to stand with the downtrodden and oppressed. Morisse’s sermon brought divisions within the church to the fore, between those who felt ministered to by his sermon and those who felt like they were being wrongly judged as “deplorable” for the choice they made to vote for Donald Trump.

I read the story with great interest. I also preached a sermon on the Sunday after the election in which I named as racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic things that were said in the course of the campaign, and spoke of the attacks on these vulnerable groups that followed the election. Though I named Donald Trump as saying these things (he did), I was careful not to suggest that anyone who voted for him did so because they shared these particular views. Instead, I emphasized that as the church we are all called to stand with the most vulnerable members of our society and confront those forces that seek to denigrate or harm these people.

At the 10 o’clock service many in the congregation applauded this sermon. I am quite clear that this was not because it was such a fantastic sermon, but because it gave voice to what a number of people were feeling. The applause was a, “Yes, that’s what I feel too!” I was also clear that as the applause rippled through the sanctuary, there would be some who didn’t share these feelings, some who would feel judged by my words and indeed, by the applause.

Though the reaction at First was more muted than that at Plymouth Church I heard from several people who disagreed with or felt hurt by my post-election remarks. One such person sent me a thoughtful email to which I responded; this exchange ended up with affirmation of my ministry and the direction the church is going. I met with another member who felt judged, hurt and angry in response to my words. While acknowledging our differences, I sought to hear and understand her perspective, and expressed my genuine appreciation of her faithfulness. And someone else responded, not to feeling judged, but to my statement that I woke up Wednesday after the election feeling afraid, specifically for the well-being of my wife who is easily identifiable as an immigrant and my beautiful, brown-skinned daughter. This member said they were uncomfortable hearing that their pastor is afraid, that I should set an example of hope and optimism. I responded that I experience the whole range of human emotions, including anger and fear, and that I understand my role as pastor as to model an appropriate faithful response to such feelings. Similarly, a fourth member, though he agreed with my sermon’s conclusion, expressed concern that I had scared people or made people feel guilty.

Though this was the extent of the expressions of concern that were voiced in response to my sermon, I am sure these few speak for others in the congregation who have chosen to remain silent. I have also heard from many others who felt ministered to by my words.

In the weeks that have followed the presidential election I have thought a lot about my appropriate role as the Senior Minister of this church.

Ministers are sometimes said to fill roles as both pastor (caring for the flock) and prophet (speaking God’s truth even when that truth is hard to hear). I feel a very strong call to both roles. I love people. I love to hear your stories. I am curious about your interests and passions, and I care about your regrets and sorrows. I rejoice with you, and I hurt when you hurt. I want everyone at First Church to see me as their pastor, regardless of how we each understand our faith.

I also feel called to speak strongly on behalf of the most vulnerable, as I believe the meaning and demands of Jesus’ birth, teachings, persecution, murder and resurrection could not be clearer in this regard. I expect we are entering an extended period of history where the rights and well-being of people of color, the poor, women, Muslims, Jews, and gays and lesbians will be undermined and degraded and I expect to speak directly to these concerns from the pulpit.

In addition to the comments above, I have heard a few express concerns about dividing the church. The article about the Framingham church speaks to this possibility. I am sensitive to this concern though I don’t sense we are in any immediate danger of this. And I do not believe that unity can come at the expense of being faithful to the Gospel. Jesus does not call us to a warm and fuzzy, least-common-denominator faith. Rather, unity comes through the hard work of faithfully confronting the tough issues of our day together. This is what Plymouth Church is doing, and this is what we will do.

In that post-election sermon, I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The two religious leaders that crossed the road to avoid the man beaten alongside the road may have had perfectly understandable justifications for doing so. That being said, Jesus calls each of us and the church to walk on the side of the most vulnerable in these troubled times. I recently read a blogpost by Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York. She takes the interpretation of the Samaritan parable a step further, asking of the church, “Are we really doing our jobs if at some point we don’t also stand up and call for safer roads to keep our people from being assaulted in the first place?”

Those who attended my Installation Service in April will remember that our preacher, my colleague Rev. Da Vita McCallister, proposed that God is “stirring up the waters” at First Church and encouraged us to “wade in the water” together. We all laughed in recognition when she suggested that we are more comfortable sitting in our beach chair right at the water’s edge, just sticking our toe in the water, rather than wading on in to those stirred-up, troubled waters. Well, this is what Rev. McCallister was calling us to. This is our time to hold hands, confront our fear together, and walk together into the waters that roil around us.

Rev. Butler concludes her blogpost with these words:

The day after the election I was sitting in my colleague Michael’s office, wondering aloud what the results of the election meant for our work as the church. He said something I will never forget. He said: “You know, we’ve been working together here for two years, giving everything we have to help this church get healthy. All this time we thought we were working so hard to insure the health of the institution — both this one and the Church with a big “C.” But maybe that’s not what we’ve been working for after all. Maybe this election has created a moment in which we will have to decide whether we really believe what we say we believe as Christians. Maybe this is the moment we’ve been working for our whole lives.”

Maybe, indeed.

Before concluding that post-election service with the Benediction, I reminded the congregation that my words are meant as a touchstone in an ongoing conversation among us, not a last word but an encouragement for us to engage the conversation together. I look forward to hearing from you and getting our feet wet as we wade into this new year together.

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

 

More Than a Mannequin Challenge

I preached this sermon on December 18, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our “Christmas Sunday” at First Church, Simsbury. During the Children’s Moment that preceded the sermon the entire church participated in “The World’s Largest Nativity Mannequin Challenge.” The children came forward to fill the roles of Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and animals. I stood in the pulpit, arm outstretched, frozen in the middle of an impassioned sermon. Others also played themselves including our Bell Choir, the Ushers, and our Women’s Praise and Chancel Choirs. The rest of the congregation all posed, arms outstretched, as angels. The Nativity Mannequin Challenge can be found on the First Church Facebook Page (scroll down until you find it).

Who doesn’t love a beautiful nativity scene? Our family had a lovely old one when I was a kid, we called it a crèche. I remember the wooden manger required careful handling or its legs would collapse and baby Jesus would tumble out.

I have this tiny nativity set from Peru, the figures carved from Alabaster.

Then, there are all manner of odd nativities, dog and cat nativities, Lego nativities, a marshmallow s’mores nativity, nativities made from butter, from Spam, and from cupcakes. And new this year, a hipster nativity, with the wise men delivering their gifts from Amazon on Segway scooters, and Mary and Joseph taking a selfie!

Whether sacred or profane, we love nativity scenes. Whether children’s pageants or a Sunday morning mannequin challenge, we love nativity scenes. Like a snapshot, they capture a moment, snatch it out history, shepherds, angels, Mary, Joseph and Jesus stand frozen in time in a church chancel or on a front lawn, reduced to fit on a mantelpiece or in the palm of your hand.

Yet their very timelessness also speaks to the limitations of our beloved nativity scenes. The story of Jesus’ birth is so much more than a mannequin challenge frozen in time. God birthed God’s-self into human history. Removed from its historical context the story of Emmanuel, God with us, loses its meaning. Something preceded Jesus’ birth, and just as importantly something immediately followed his birth.

So, here the first of this morning’s readings from the gospel of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

This part of the story is familiar to many. The Roman emperor Cesar Augustus orders that all Jew in Judea be “registered.” The province of Judea had been put under direct Roman rule, and a distinguished soldier and Consul, Quirinius, was appointed as its Governor. The Jews initially went along with this but soon began to chaff at the loss of their autonomy, and a small number of Zealots tried to resist Rome and incite violence. So this “registration” is ostensibly a census taken in order to tax the Jews, but it is not hard to imagine that uprooting all Jews and ordering them to travel to their ancestral homes was also an effort to assert Roman power and disrupt plans for rebellion. Of course this requirement wasn’t voluntary, and we can only assume there would have been serious consequences for disobeying Rome.

Like thousands of other innocent Jews Mary and Joseph had nothing to do with resistance to or agitation against Rome, but they were required to be “registered” along with everyone else.

Imagine the disruption this would cause. Disruption and fear. Fear of Rome, of what could happen in Bethlehem, of the well-being of Mary’s baby. Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, about the distance from Simsbury to Providence, RI. Imagine the US government telling you that you needed to walk to Providence to be “registered.” Then, when you get to Providence, there is no place to stay. The weather forecast in Bethlehem for today is a high of 51, a low of 42, and raining.

So a far cry from our fun loving Nativity Mannequin Challenge, the events preceding Jesus’ birth were miserable and terrifying.

And what followed Jesus’ birth? Well this is a story that ministers rarely get to preach on. This reading comes up the Sunday after Christmas, a Sunday that is a “low” Sunday as far as church attendance. Everyone is still basking in the warm glow of Christmas so no one wants to hear a story like this, from Matthew:

Now after the Magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

As soon as the Magi depart, an angel comes to Joseph and tells him to flee to Egypt. King Herod, feeling his throne is threatened by the one “who has been born king of the Jews,” orders all male children in and around Bethlehem, age two and under, to be killed. Fleeing one who would murder their newborn child, not for anything they had done but just out of fear for what the child might become, Mary and Joseph become refugees. The Holy Family lived on the run in a strange land for anywhere from a few months to several years.

So there you have it. Our beloved Nativity scene of angels singing, shepherds quaking and cows lowing is sandwiched between two absolutely horrifying events in human history, an Empire’s forced registration of Jews, and a vicious king’s infanticide.

At this point, I should promise you that it is not my intent to ruin our happy Christmas buzz. Rather, I hope the context of Jesus’ birth will make this Christmas more meaningful for all of us.

Jesus’ birth takes its meaning from its particular historical context.

The hymn we will sing after the sermon, Star Child, begins:

Star child, earth-child, go between of God, love child, Christ child, heaven’s lightning rod.

God birthed Jesus, his love child, not in the midst of merriment, not to celebrate some victory or as a reward for an achievement. No, God offered a go between, Emmanuel, God with us, in a dark and scary time in Israel’s history. And God gave heaven’s lightning rod to a particular, ordinary couple in the midst of their fear and fatigue.

The Christmas story isn’t frozen in time like some mannequin challenge. It continues to take its meaning for us today from our context.

Like Mary and Joseph, we also live at a time when politicians talk openly of registering an entire population of faithful people, this time Muslims. Some have even proposed forcibly moving them out of fear of what a few might do. And like Mary and Joseph, today millions of refugees in Syria flee their homeland because children are being indiscriminately slaughtered by a vicious and fearful king.

And so it is today that Christ is born to ordinary people in the midst of our fear and fatigue. The hymn continues:

Street child, beat child, no place left to go, hurt child, used child no one wants to know.

 

Hope for peace child, God’s stupendous sign, down to earth child, star of stars that shine.

So this is the first thing we learn. In response to our fear and fatigue, God births God’s-self into the darkness of our world as a stupendous sign of hope. But that’s not all there is to this Christmas story. No sooner was this down to earth child born than one who feared him wanted to snuff out that star of stars that shine. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to keep that hope alive.

The Nativity draws its meaning from what precedes it and what follows. In Herod’s slaughter of the innocents we quickly learn that the birth of Jesus did not magically dispel all darkness to usher in a fear-free happily ever after. But that star child born in a manger reminds us that we need never again doubt God’s presence with us in the darkness.

The Gospel of John does not include a story of Jesus’ birth, but it does include these powerful words:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

When Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with Jesus, God’s grace and truth went with them. And so it is today. When we enjoy a Christmas pageant or enact a Nativity Mannequin Challenge in church on a Sunday morning, sure it’s fun, but it serves as a powerful reminder that we carry God’s grace and truth with us, within our very flesh, as a force for good in our lives and in the world.

So this is what we have learned so far. First, Jesus is born right smack in the middle of the darkest of dark times as a stupendous sign of hope.

Second, Herod serves as a reminder that dark forces will remain, but through Jesus’ birth we now know that God’s grace and truth live on within us, and through us a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.

And there is a third thing we learn about this still-speaking Christmas story. When Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt they did so not out of fear for their own lives but to preserve the life of their Star Child. They had been entrusted, not only to give birth to the light of God, but to ensure that that star of stars not be extinguished.

And so, brothers and sisters, this is also our charge this Christmas. We have been entrusted to preserve the life of this earthly Star Child, the heavenly earth child, God’s grace and truth that lives still within humanity.

One of the ways we do this is by telling the story, not just the nice parts about angels and shepherds, but the tough parts that come before and after, about an empire that sought to register a faithful people out of fear of a few, and of the Holy family  become refugees to flee a murderous king. And God calls us to share this not just as a story of long ago, but as a story that continues to unfold today.

Because empires still seek to forcibly register faithful citizens, and refugees still flee murderous kings. This is our story. And when we tell it, Jesus will live on within and among us, teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, overturning the tables of the greedy. And when we tell this story, Emmanuel accompanies us, suffers with us, even dies with us, and will ultimately triumph over death with us. But we have to tell the story. The whole story. The ancient story and today’s story of an encroaching darkness and of God’s light.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Our Stories, Our Story: A Great Dane, Moana, and the Baby Jesus

This is my column for the December 2016 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

My Harris ancestry is reasonably well documented. There is a church yard cemetery in Paoli, Pennsylvania where all my direct Harris ancestors are buried, going back to Thomas Harris who immigrated before the Revolutionary War. Then there is the vaunted “Green Book” that chronicles much of the early Harris history. Though well-documented and much talked about I have never had a keen interest in my Harris lineage. I have never felt an especially strong connection to these people.

I know much less about my mother’s Dane side of the family, hearing only occasional references to her mother’s German ancestry and father’s English roots. But when my mother came to Simsbury for Thanksgiving she brought some Dane genealogy with her including a family tree, written in my Uncle Sunny’s hand, going back into the 1600’s. Right there near the top was my forbear Reverend Francis Dane who emigrated from England in 1636. A few Google searches later I learned that Francis was the second minister of the North Parish Congregational Church in Andover, Massachusetts, the 37th church founded by Puritans. He and many in his family were accused of witchcraft, and his daughter Abigail was convicted. She escaped hanging because she was pregnant, and after petitioning the court for eleven years was finally exonerated. It is said of Rev. Francis Dane that he “was indeed to fight the plague with a heroism unequaled by any who had choice in the matter, risking not only his own life and reputation, but what must have come harder, the lives of nearly all the womenfolk in his family.”

I felt an immediate connection to Francis’ story. He was a Congregational minister who stood up against social forces that fearfully scapegoated, demonized and persecuted vulnerable people. Not only do I make a strong connection to my own call to ministry, like me, Francis had a remarkable daughter, Abigail!

Genealogy is enjoying a renaissance, fueled in part by websites such as ancestry.com that make it easier to identify our ancestors. For me, this is less about the DNA I share with Francis and more the connection I make to his story. On the same day I was discovering Francis’ story, my Abby was inspired by the new Disney movie, Moana, a mythical tale with a female, Pacific Islander hero (who looks remarkably like Abby). Francis provides a meaningful touchstone for me as a Dane, while Moana makes Abby’s Pacific Islander heritage come alive. But even as stories like these reveal connections across families and ethnic groups, they also exclude those who don’t share these ties.

But there is an extraordinary story we all share as Christians, a story that traces our lineage back to God through the birth of Jesus Christ! Our story includes a cast of characters to rival any Disney epic, a teenage girl, an evil king, angels and shepherds, an innkeeper, mystics from the East, and an infant laid in a cattle trough. Each year we gather to tell and retell this beloved story that joins us all to the family of God. In this story we find ourselves. Through this story we better understand who we are and whose we are.

Francis stood up for what was right at an important moment in American history. Moana saved her island people. But God, through Jesus, reveals the divine power of redemptive love that binds us all together forever.

Come to First Church over Advent, on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning as we again gather to tell this, our family’s story.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Advent I: Standing Watch

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on November 27, 2016 on the First Sunday of Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

Many of you know that I was an officer in the Navy. For two and a half years I was stationed on a ship, the frigate USS Ouellet out of Pearl Harbor. Whether in port or at sea, ships operate twenty-four hours a day. To make sure all the systems operate properly and safely the entire crew are assigned to stand watches overlooking various aspects of the ship’s operations. In port I was qualified as the Command Duty Officer or CDO meaning I was responsible for everything that happened on the ship after the Captain had gone home for the day.

CDOs were allowed to sleep at night while several sailors would stand watch, checking machinery readings, making security checks, and standing at the brow, checking sailors on and off the ship. But I was always anxious about what might happen while I was sleeping. One night as I slept the ship got a call from the Honolulu police that two of our sailors had caused a terrible car accident, they had been drinking, speeding through a tunnel, hit another car that crashed and burst into flames, killing the occupants including a baby. The sailors then fled the scene and were later apprehended. When the call came in, the sailors standing watch came in to wake me up, I am told, but I fell back asleep and didn’t hear about the accident until I woke up in the morning. I remember the feeling of dread that consumed me as I realized that I had failed in my responsibilities and slept through this really important incident. At a minimum I should have woken up and called the Captain. When all was said and done, no additional harm came of my failure. But I can still recall that fear following my inability to “stay awake.”

This memory came to me when I read the Matthew passage in which Jesus implores his disciples to “stay awake” suggesting dire consequences should they fail.

This is what is known as an eschatological text, a teaching about the end of human history as we know it, and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal reign of peace. Every year, the Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, begins with one of these eschatological teachings or stories. And I can tell you, most preachers I know hate it, myself included! Why? First, because it is hard for many of us to wrap our minds around. So called “end times” are the stuff of bad books and movies. And second, because it is terrifying. These lessons bring up that same fear I felt at having slept through something important, failed in my responsibilities, sure I would be judged with terrible consequences.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The church is decorated, we are looking toward Christmas with excitement and anticipation! I think these parables are inserted at the beginning of Advent as a way of framing Jesus’ birth as an end of the old order and the dawn of a new era. But really, is it necessary to scare the bejesus out of us just to say, “Something good is coming; get ready?”

But this is the text we have been given, so let’s see what we might find here to lead us from fear to hope?

Following the teachings of Judaism, many of Jesus’ followers believed that his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be followed in short order by his triumphal return to inaugurate a new age of peace and justice. This is what the prophet Isaiah anticipates when he says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and…nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought this would happen in their lifetime. However years passed, and instead of a triumphal return, really bad things happened. The Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Matthew is writing to a fearful community of Jesus followers with a couple messages. First, no one knows when this will happen, not the angels nor Jesus himself. Only God knows the time when God’s plans for peace and justice will be fulfilled. And because no one knows, everyone better pay attention so as not to miss it when the realm of God breaks through.

Well, now almost two thousand years have passed and God’s promise of a new heaven and earth has still not been realized. So how are we left to understand passages like this?

We have three choices.

First, we can wait as Jesus’ followers did, for a once and for all end to our conflicted human history and the dawn of a new age with no more suffering or crying or pain.

Or, second, we could understand that this promise of life everlasting is fulfilled not at the end of human history, but for each of us as individuals at the time of our death. Many Christians share this hope that death will deliver us from the suffering of this life into eternal rest in the realm of God.

But there is a third understanding of eschatological passages like this one; we can find here God’s promise to us today. Each day is a day of judgment, God is forever revealing a new heaven and new earth if only we stay awake and pay attention. We can recognize these God moments, and choose to participate in them, or we may fail to see or willfully ignore them, and oppose God’s activity among us.

These understandings are not mutually exclusive, and many people of faith embrace some aspect or combination of the three.

But I believe that the third, the idea that God is beating swords into plowshares right here, right now, is especially compelling for us today. This reading makes sense of Jesus’ intense, almost threatening tone in this passage. He isn’t just saying get ready for good times; rather Jesus is saying I am revealing the realm of God to you in this moment, yet you refuse to see and accept it; and you’re refusal has consequences. Wake up!

So, how might we stay awake to recognize, and participate with the ways that God is breaking into our lives each and every day?

To do this, I want to return to that metaphor of standing watch.

My favorite watches to stand were bridge watches as Officer of the Deck underway. I especially enjoyed the mid-watch, stood from midnight until four in the morning, when we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Captain would be in his stateroom asleep, and I would be on the bridge with three other sailors, a helmsman, a lee helmsman and a quartermaster.

I was responsible for the safety of the ship. This meant staying alert for any danger, reading the chart with the quartermaster, looking at the radar, tracking the course of any other ships to make sure they would remain a safe distance from us, receiving reports from the engineering watch about the operation of the boilers and engine, and ordering the helmsman and lee helmsman to make the necessary corrections to our speed and direction to say on course.

But something else would happen on the bridge of the ship on those mid-watches. While staying alert for peril, I would also have a heightened awareness of the moon rising over the ocean, of the phosphorescence illuminating the bow wake, of the Milky Way undimmed by city lights, and of the taste of the salt air.

The Confirmation class learned recently about “thin moments,” experiences where the boundary between the mundane and sacred become porous, permeable, or thin. I had many thin moments on the bridge of the Ouellet.

Beyond seeing God revealed in the magnificence of creation, there was something about that darkened bridge of the ship that made one mindful of the relationships between us. A ship’s crew is a wonderfully diverse assortment of humanity. You’d get kids right off a farm in Nebraska alongside men who grew up in inner-city Detroit. I can’t say that we had deep conversations about philosophy or religion, but we had very genuine conversations. Along with funny stories about escapades in the last port call, we would talk about being homesick, of our hopes and dreams for the future, of having our heart broken.

These conversations were also thin moments. Though I wasn’t even active in a church at the time, I can look back on standing watch on the bridge and see the gentle stirrings of what would later become a call to ministry.

Thomas Merton once said:  “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through everything.  The thing is that we normally don’t see it.”

This is how I read this morning’s Matthew passage. Stay awake! Pay attention! God’s realm of peace and justice is being revealed, all the time, right here, right now.

Some describe the experience of giving birth as a thin place where human flesh kisses the divine. This is why Paul draws on the language of birthing in describing humanity’s relationship with creation, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” And this is why the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are uniquely powerful, human life is affirmed as holy.

I remember cupping Abby in the palm of one hand the day she was born, sure I was looking upon the face of God. Though being the father of a teenager is a considerably thicker experience, that divinity still lives in her and lives in each of us if only we have eyes to see. One of my favorite contemporary hymn writers Brian Wren expresses this beautifully in his poem Good Is the Flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Beginning with the uncertainty and anxiety we share with angels, this Advent we are asked to develop the art of watchful living. What lies before us is far from certain, but certainty is not required to act in a spirit of wakefulness.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God is shining through everything. So watch! Pay attention! Stay awake!

 

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.

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