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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Seeing and Appreciating Differences

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

I extend warm and enthusiastic thanks to the entire South Church extended family for supporting and encouraging my sabbatical this summer. Ten weeks of study leave coupled with three weeks of vacation made for a very rich and renewing time. The focus of my sabbatical was reconciliation; how do we reach across the differences that divide us one from another? I took classes, read a stack of books and articles, visited other churches and met with colleagues, and returned to South Church on September 2 energized, inspired and hopeful.

One of the classes I took, a workshop really, was “A Personal Approach to Change and Equity” with an organization called Visions, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visions works with corporations, organizations and churches to help them recognize, understand and appreciate differences. Our group of twelve was half white and half people-of color, young and old, men and women, gay and straight. Over the week two facilitators led us through a series of discussions and exercises that were at once challenging and affirming.

Here is one thing I learned.

How many of us have said, when it comes to race, “I don’t see color. People are people.” This is meant as a very positive statement of anti-racism and equality. Affirmations like this emerged in the 1960s following the civil rights movement. It used to be that African-Americans couldn’t drink from a drinking fountain, sit at a lunch counter or ride in the front of the bus just because of the color of their skin. Saying, “I don’t see color” was a way of affirming that the color of someone’s skin would no longer prevent them from participating fully in society.

I learned that what in one historical context was an affirmation can today be heard differently. Just as our gender can communicate something about our experience and the way we see the world, so skin color can be an indicator of cultural norms and life experiences. How would I feel if someone came up to me and said, “George, I don’t see you as a man; I just see you as a person?” I would feel like you weren’t seeing me for all of who I am. My manhood is an inescapable and important part of my identity.

My wife and daughter love their beautiful brown skin. Skin color communicates something about valued heritage and ancestry. It can speak to shared experiences of struggle and overcoming hardship. When we say, “I don’t see color,” this can be heard as negating all of these, as assuming that your experience is identical to mine. “I don’t see color” can be heard as “I don’t see you.”

Jesus saw everyone for all of who they were. When he encountered a Samaritan woman at the well he acknowledged both her gender and her ethnicity along with the challenges that came with these. He saw her and loved her for all of who she was. And so Jesus calls us to do the same, to recognize, understand and appreciate our differences.

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyonce Spoof Reveals Bad Theology!

Beyonce Unhurt After Stray Bullet Miraculously Hits Passerby Instead

This great bit of satire from the always on target The Onion gives us an opportunity to look at ourselves when we say how “blessed” or “lucky” we are.  Beyonce, we are told, was very lucky when a stray bullet miraculously hits a passerby instead of her.  Of course the clip says nothing of the passerby’s lucky, focusing instead on a small bruise Beyonce got when the victim fell on her.  How often do we talk about how blessed or lucky we are without considering the implications for others.  Are we blessed by our comfortable standard of living if it comes at the expense of poverty inducing cheap labor in the developing world?  Does God bless some of us at the expense of others?  What does this say about God?  A great opportunity to share a good laugh and look at ourselves and our God.  What do you think?

Published in: on September 4, 2010 at 6:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hosanna! This King’s a Woman

Here is a great story about an African village in Ghana that anointed its first female king, Peggielene Bartels, a woman who has been a secretary in Washington, D.C. for the past 30 years!

I’m sure there is a great Palm Sunday sermon here.  What do you think?

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 2:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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