Who Are You Listening To?

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-13

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Lent, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday, invites us to journey to the cross with Jesus. Though not easy or fun, this is one of the most profound and meaningful seasons of the church year. By submitting to suffering and death on the cross, God through Jesus, enters into and shares in all our human experiences of hardship and distress. The Passion of Jesus on the cross is where God delivers on the promise of Jesus’ birth, to be Emmanuel, God with us.

But before Lent begins we retell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus, with the disciples Peter, James and John, climb a high mountain together and there, we are told, Jesus is “transfigured” before their eyes. His clothes become dazzling white. Other gospel accounts of this story say that Jesus’ face shines like the sun.

I often suggest, in response to the miraculous stories of Jesus, that we not dwell upon what exactly happened or how, that is, that we avoid the “how is that scientifically possible,” questions, instead asking what this story meant to those who first heard it, and what it means to us today? Instead of what and how, we might ask why. Why did Mark tell this story?

In the previous chapter Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples all have different answers, but each compares him to one of the beloved and powerful Jewish prophets. Some say that Jesus is Elijah, others John the Baptist, and some name other prophets.

Though the other disciples believe Jesus to be a prophet, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah,” meaning that Jesus is the long anticipated one, anointed by God to free Israel from Roman rule, and restore it to glory among all nations. But when Jesus begins to tell the disciples what lies ahead, that he must submit himself to persecution, suffering and death at the hands of political and religious authorities, Peter protests.

All the disciples, Peter included, assume that Jesus, whether prophet or Messiah, has come for their own benefit. Going back hundreds of years, this is how God has functioned for Israel, taking their side against their enemies. Leading Israel to victory and others to defeat.

This is when Jesus utters the well-known rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus is saying, I am more than just another earthly leader here to reward you and punish those you judge.

So this is the background, preceding Jesus’ trip up the mountain with the disciples, the disciples still misunderstanding who Jesus is, presuming he is another prophet meant to restore the fortunes of Israel, and more specifically of the disciples themselves.

We read, that while on that mountain top, the disciples see two powerful prophets from Israel’s past, Elijah and Moses, alongside Jesus. This seems to confirm the disciples’ understanding that Jesus is simply another great man. In response they suggest making a structure for each. The translation I read uses the word, shelter, but the Common English Bible uses the word shrine. I like this better. Here are three great men, think the disciples, let’s demonstrate our loyalty to each of them by building a monument.

At this point a cloud descends upon all of them, and God’s voice comes from the cloud in much the same way it did when Jesus was baptized, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love, listen to him!” At this the visions of Moses and Elijah disappear, and only Jesus remains.

I suggested that we not get sidetracked trying to figure out what happened and how, instead focusing on the meaning of this story. The meaning is this. Jesus is different. He is not just another prophet, an earthly leader meant to “Make Israel Great Again.” He isn’t even a Messiah in the sense Peter means.

Jesus represents a unique connection to the divine, and we are invited to listen to, follow, and enter into relationship with God through him in a way that is unparalleled in human history.

So where do we find ourselves in this story today?

A recent study out of Stanford revealed that Americans’ strongest sense of attachment, the characteristic most essential to our identity, greater than race, culture or religion, is our affiliation to a political party. Politicians are our modern day prophets. Much like the disciples, we identify most strongly with those earthly leaders who promise to take our side, and we line up against those who take the other side.

Like the disciples, we too put earthly leaders ahead of our identity as followers of Jesus.

Imagine being on the mountain top with Jesus, who would appear next to our Jesus? Donald Trump and Paul Ryan? Or Barrack Obama and Nancy Pelosi? And what would it say if we were to build a monument to all three, Donald, Paul and Jesus? Or Barrack, Nancy, and Jesus? What would this say about our loyalty, our identity, our attachment? And more importantly, what would it say about our understanding of Jesus?

Like the disciples’ suggestion that they erect monuments for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, this would make Jesus small. The Transfiguration defies the disciples earthly understanding of Jesus, and, by the way, challenges the notion of many contemporary Christians, of Jesus simply as an example of how to live.

Do you know the contemporary term, the acronym, GOAT? It stands for Greatest Of All Time, and is used to describe sports stars like Tom Brady. Brady is said by some to be the greatest quarterback of all time, the GOAT. Still, Tom Brady is evaluated as a quarterback compared to other quarterbacks, and many would argue about who deserves this GOAT title.

This is what the Transfiguration is about.

In the Transfiguration we learn that Jesus is not just another earthly leader, not even the GOAT. Jesus provides a unique connection to the divine. Through the Transfiguration of Jesus, God is telling us, your identity is in Jesus, not Trump, not Obama, but in Jesus the Christ.

What would it mean, if when asked if we are a Democrat or Republican, we responded, “I am a Christian.”

My guess is that some of you felt a wave of discomfort wash over you at the thought of saying that. I can relate. For many, our faith is private. We are cautious about “imposing” our faith on others. We might worry about sounding like one of “those” Christians that is always thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” Did you see the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach and players after the Super Bowl? Many of them said exactly this.

But we feel no such compunction about letting people know we are a Republican or Democrat, do we? Interesting, isn’t it?

This morning we baptized two beautiful babies, Joey and Campbell, and this is exactly what they will be baptized into, not into a party, but into a unique and essential relationship with the divine through Jesus.

The Transfiguration challenges us not to make Jesus small, but to leave behind our earthly loyalty to Democrat and Republican prophets and follow Jesus, just as Jesus accompanies us, through the world’s hardship and suffering, all the way to the cross and beyond.

 

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Our Common Life

This is my column for the February 2018 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Some of you have heard me talking in worship these past few weeks about “Our Common Life.” I returned from an early January conference of Senior Ministers of larger, multi-staff, UCC churches with fresh insights on leading the church through challenging times. Ministers often speak of their dual functions as pastor and preacher. I take both these roles seriously, seeking to be present with each of you on your personal journey, accompanying you through the joys and challenges of your life as your pastor. And I spend hours each week studying the Bible text for the week to craft a sermon that is faithful and relevant. This is no small challenge, as any preacher can tell you that the same sermon that touches and inspires one person can seem irrelevant or worse upsetting to another person. I have always hoped that the pastoral care I offer will sustain our relationships beyond differences that arise around interpretation of the Bible and its application to our lives.

But in conversation with my colleagues at this St. Petersburg conference I realized that there is a necessary third component to my leadership of the church, an aspect I have frankly neglected over the past year, something I am calling Our Common Life. Our Common Life includes the dozens of ministries we participate in that bring us together across our differences. Of course I have always been appreciative and supportive of every ministry of the church, but I haven’t always been present for these ministries.

I am renewing my commitment to visit and engage all the various ministries of our church this year, and I have already started. On a recent Sunday when Rev. Kev was preaching I took the opportunity to attend the weekly Bible study led by Mark Scully. We had a wonderful, open conversation about what it means to be an ONA church. I heard a number of faithful, thoughtful perspectives while sharing some of my own thoughts on the subject.

That same Sunday, I left the 10 o’clock service with the children to attend church school with our 2nd and 3rd graders. This “Godly Play” included a creative telling of the story of young Jesus visiting the temple with his parents, then invited the kids (and me) to recreate the story using Legos, Play-Doh, drawings, and pipe cleaners. It was great fun and deeply meaningful to see the Bible through children’s eyes.

Then, that Tuesday, I attended our card-making ministry, a spirited group of our members who gather each month to make beautiful greeting cards to send our friends and church members on their birthdays and in times of need. I have never seen anything like it; each card is a little work of art, more beautiful than anything at Hallmark; each one made with love.

I know this commitment to be present for our many ministries will change the way I lead the church as both preacher and pastor.

Some of you have noticed that we are also emphasizing Our Common Life in worship by inserting a time in each worship service to lift up opportunities to engage more fully in the life of the church. This takes some of the items that were shared as “announcements” before worship and presents them in a way that is more integral and meaningful to the service.

Please share your thoughts about this renewed emphasis on Our Common Life and invite me to attend those ministries you are passionate about. I am excited about deepening these relationships in the year ahead.

In Christ, Pastor George

 

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Love Yourself

shooting ghosts 2

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 29, 2017.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Matthew 22:34-46

I recently finished a book, Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War, a memoir penned by retired Marine Thomas “TJ” Brennan and combat photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly. This is a powerful story of both men’s journey from the trauma of war to their subsequent recovery. Both men’s stories weave together from action in Afghanistan, back to the states, and into a lasting friendship. I found TJ’s story especially compelling.

Finbarr is present and takes pictures as TJ is knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade in a fire fight with Taliban fighters. After being treated for a concussion TJ is sent back to his unit even though he is still experiencing severe headaches and memory problems. Nevertheless, he manages to lead his unit successfully until his deployment finally ends. When he returns home TJ learns he has a traumatic brain injury (dead brain tissue the size of a golf ball), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and what is known as Moral Injury, damage to his mental health due to what he experienced in the war.

We learn that on a previous deployment to Iraq, TJ blew up a building with two Iraqi insurgents inside. When he went to confirm that they had been killed, in addition to the insurgents he found that two children had also been killed by the projectile he fired. He had killed two children.

Understandably, TJ develops severe depression, has nightmares, and in time attempts suicide. While the Marine Corps’ official channels encourage Marines like TJ to seek help, when they do they are ridiculed as weak by their superiors, shunned by their fellow Marines, and taken out of the units that give them their identity as Marines.

And though he couldn’t wait to get back to his wife and daughter, TJ finds it all but impossible to rekindle the love he once had for them. He is awful to his wife, pushing her to the brink of seeking a divorce.

Throughout the book, the photographer Finn tells his parallel story of trauma, and the rest of the book chronicles their long road back from these experiences of death.

You have noticed that I, like most preachers, take whatever I am reading, either in a book or the headlines, or experiencing, either in my past, my life today, or the life of the church, and hold it up next to the Bible passage for the week to see how one informs the other.

In this morning’s passage from Matthew a lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment? We will leave aside for the moment that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong and focus instead on Jesus’ response which is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

I would guess that this is one of the top five answers given when people are asked for their favorite Bible passage. Love God and love our neighbor. What a seemingly simple formula for faithful living.

But I have a hard time leaving well enough alone so I began poking at these so-called greatest commandments. In particular, I have always wondered about those two words, “as yourself.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Is this part of the commandment, to love your neighbor just as you are to love yourself? Does God command self-love, and if so what does this look like? An entire self-help industry has existed for at least fifty years purporting to teach us to love ourselves. I remember my parents had a book I’m OK – You’re OK. There it is, love your self – love your neighbor.

I dug into some commentaries about this passage. I will spare you the translation and analysis of the Greek word for as, but in short, the answer is no, Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves. Instead, he is commanding us to love our neighbor the way we already do love our self. Jesus assumes we already love ourselves. Self-love is a given.

Well, that brought up another question for me. What does Jesus mean by love in these commandments?

In our lives today we think of love as a feeling, a strong emotion in response to something or someone outside us. So, love as we know it is passive and emotional.

But biblical love is neither. Love, as used by Jesus here, is not passive but a choice, and is not a feeling, but what could be called active mercy.

Bible scholar Clayton Schmit writes:

This means that, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it. 

So what could all this mean to TJ? As I said, he has found it impossible to rekindle the powerful love he once shared with his wife, Mel.

TJ and Mel attend a fundraiser for the Semper Fi Fund. He is the featured speaker, and from the podium shares his story, their story. “I admit I’ve been a terrible person at times, that no person deserves to be treated the way I tormented Mel. I tried to emotionally destroy her. Misery loved company, see? She was the closest target. I burdened her with my own guilt, my shame. I called her names I now regret. I pushed her away.”

Though Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves, he assumes a love of self as a basis for love for one another. And. remember, love here is not a passive feeling, but an active choice to show mercy. To treat his wife Mel with loving-kindness, TJ needs to act with mercy toward himself. He needed to learn to be patient, generous and gentle with himself.

Two important aspects of TJ’s healing come from telling his stories, even and especially those stories that caused him to feel guilt and shame, like the story of him killing the two children, and a story of hoisting a brick to bash in the head of a dying and helpless Iraqi soldier because of the diffuse rage that consumes him. At first he would share these stories with therapists, later in articles he wrote for the New York Times blog At War. It was TJ’s experience writing for this blog that piques his interest in journalism.

He gets a job as a reporter at a Jacksonville, North Carolina newspaper and begins interviewing other veterans about their experiences in war. They open up to him about their experiences, both their love for the comaraderie and excitement of war, and the wounds they still carry, both physical and emotional. TJ can relate to all of it. Hearing their stories affirms TJ’s identity as a Marine and reminds him that he is not alone in his struggles. Storytelling has been essential to TJ’s healing.

I tell TJ’s story, of course, because though his experiences of trauma are extreme, and his moral injury profound, we all experience hardship and the accompanying wounds. We can all be challenged, at some point in our lives, to love ourselves and so also, our neighbor.

Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, is a way to love neighbor and self. Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, communicates mercy, patience, generosity and gentleness.

In her book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette writes, “Every Sunday morning at our church, a person who is not a paid professional walks up the steps next to the ministers, stands in front of the microphone with their knees knocking and voice trembling, and begins, “Now is the time when we bring our own stories before God. And each gives a testimony – recent or from the distant past – about a sin they committed.”

“This is a book,” she continues, “about telling our stories – our real stories. Not the all cleaned up versions…but the stories of things that almost killed us and made us stronger, the stories of people who did unforgivable things to us, and, most importantly, stories of the unforgivable things we ourselves have done.”

People talk, she writes, about the “obvious” candidates like hatred, sexual sin, jealousy, greed, and arrogance, but also include things that aren’t necessarily sins such as clinical depression, anxiety, and addiction. Those these aren’t sins in themselves, keeping secrets from loved ones or refusing treatment, can be seen as sin as this breaks the bond of love.

Just as telling his own stories and providing an outlet for other veterans to tell theirs created opportunities for healing, so testifying about their sins to one another in Rev. Baskette’s church has set love of self and neighbor free. Beyond the positive effect on members of the church, it has grown and strengthened the community of the church. Her church in Sommerville, Massachusetts grew to over 300 members and had 80 people signed up to give their testimonies, a 20 month waiting list!

Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor begins with an assumption that we love our self. Do we? Do you? For TJ the path to restoring and strengthening love for his wife began by finding and renewing love for himself and the man he had become after the war.

Storytelling was central to this long process of restoration, each story a choice, an act of mercy toward himself or another.

I am just beginning Baskette’s book but am intrigued by her idea of testimony in the church. As I said, TJ’s healing, confessional storytelling began in private with a therapist, but ultimately became liberating when he shared these stories publically through his writing. My sense is that his public testimony was essential to the cause of love, as it was only then that he knew that his secrets had lost their power to guilt and shame.

TJ concludes his speech at that fundraiser with these words to Mel. “I love you. Thank you for saving me.” He steps down from the podium and he and Mel embrace. He writes, “I longed for Mel in Afghanistan. The few moments I hold her in my arms are the embrace I wish I had given her when I first stepped off the bus. For the rest of the night she glows. So do I.”

What would it require for you to share your stories? To listen to the stories of others without judgement? Could you share your stories with a best friend, a therapist, or your pastor? Can you imagine ever sharing these stories in public? Let’s think and pray about these things; our self and our neighbors depends on such acts of mercy.

Amen.

Beloved Child, Magnificent Creation

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Rally Sunday, September 10, 2017.

Acts 8:26-39

Preaching on Rally Sunday always presents an interesting challenge.

Rally Sunday marks the beginning of the church year. Beloved ministries like our choirs and Sunday schools start back up after a summer hiatus, and new ministries like our Young Adult Service Community and church-wide book study are introduced. This Sunday is meant to communicate a certain excitement; in the past I have likened it to a big pep rally.

But here’s the challenge. There is no Rally Sunday in the Bible. I can’t tell a familiar story of the time Jesus gathered his disciples or a crowd of his followers for Rally Sunday. But luckily, references to God’s participation in new beginnings are plentiful in our tradition, right? We’ve got Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth. How about a good Christmas story on Rally Sunday? And what speaks to new beginnings better than Easter! Maybe a resurrection story is what we need. Or Pentecost. In fact, maybe Pentecost really was the first Rally Sunday, the Holy Spirit descending upon thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem, marking the birth of the church.

But this morning we had the pleasure of baptizing little Natalie so what better to mark this fresh start with God than a couple Bible passages about baptism!

The first will be familiar to many. John the Baptist stands in the river Jordan, calling all the people of Jerusalem to be washed in the water, ceremonially cleansed of their sins, making a fresh start. All the people of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside respond to John’s appeal. Then, along comes John’s cousin Jesus who, though identified as more powerful than John, submits himself to be baptized. As John lifts Jesus out of the water, the heavens part, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God’s voice declares, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

Here baptism represents the beginning of the Good News of Jesus’ ministry.

The other story, less well known, takes place following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The apostles set out around the Mediterranean to share this great news about God’s love and welcome as made known through Jesus. They preach, teach and heal, then invite those who want to become part of this loving family of God to be baptized. Baptism affirms for these new followers of Jesus that the Holy Spirit welcomes them, that they too are “God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” In these first months following Jesus’ death the apostles baptize thousands.

This morning’s story chronicles the story of the Apostle Phillip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Just those two words, Ethiopian eunuch, are packed with meaning. This Ethiopian was not a Jew. This story says the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship which may indicate he was what is known in the New Testament as a God-fearer, a non-Jew who sought to follow Jewish law. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian was not a Jew and so considered to be beyond God’s promise of love and excluded from the community of God’s people. Second, he was an Ethiopian. Ethiopia is in Africa; his is African, of a different race than the Semitic apostles. Then, as now, he would have been referred to as black. And then, as now, these racial distinctions carried meaning including judgment and rejection. And third, he is a eunuch! Just to be clear, that means he has been castrated.

When I was in seminary I wrote a paper on eunuchs in biblical times. First century Jewish historian Philo writes:

Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs…

And contemporary scholar J. David Hester writes:

The eunuch as a figure perceived to be neither celibate nor morally chaste, but was an extraordinary gender formation whose ability to navigate within and take on the properties of both male/masculine and female/feminine worlds (physically, sexually, socially, culturally, even politically) was the source of their ambivalent social status.

In short, eunuchs were what we could call today, transgendered, understood to be neither male nor female. Likewise, they had relations with both men and women. Just as it is today, this meant that society judged them harshly and Judaism specifically excluded them from God’s community of care.

So while we have to be careful not to conflate the biblical context with our own, it is absolutely true that the Ethiopian eunuch is someone who because of his religion, his race, his gender identity, and who he had relations with was excluded from the Jewish community and the promise of God’s love and protection.

So, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip could have, according to Jewish law should have, responded with a whole laundry list of reasons. Instead, the two step down from the chariot, enter some water, and Phillip baptizes him right then and there, affirming for him that the Holy Spirit includes him, that he too is “God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

So these two stories affirm that both Jesus and the Ethiopian eunuch are God’s precious children. And we have affirmed this morning, that dear, little Natalie is a precious child of God.

There would have been a temptation then, as now, to rank these as to whom we presume to be God’s favorites. Some would certainly insist that Jesus must be God’s favorite, baby Natalie a close second, and the black, pagan, gender non-conforming, bisexual Ethiopian eunuch a way-back, distant last. By this way of thinking, all of the rest of us would be somewhere between Natalie and the Ethiopian eunuch on this imagined chart of God’s favorites. That would be the temptation. To think that way.

But that would be wrong. Because that is not what is communicated through baptism. Baptism doesn’t rank us. Through baptism, everyone hears the same word of God without qualifications or rankings, “You are God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” Period.

In the novel, The Shack, the God character, Papa, a large black woman, tells the main Character, Mack Phillips, “You may not know this, but I am especially fond of you.” This, of course, makes him feel, special, “God is especially fond of me.” But in time he realizes that Papa says this to everyone…and means it. Baptism is God’s, “I am especially fond of you,” and God communicates this to each and all of us. So, it is true that God is especially fond of Natalie. And, God is especially fond of the Ethiopian eunuch. And God is especially fond of you, and you, and you, and you, and you…

So what makes this a Rally Sunday message?

First, it is right that we begin the church year by reaffirming that we are each a beloved child of God, a magnificent creation of the divine, precious in God’s sight. The ministries of this church, from Sunday morning worship, to our choirs, to baptisms, to children’s Sunday school, to Bible studies, to our visitation and card making ministries, to memorial services, remind each of us that we are chosen and marked by God, pride of God’s life.

Second, we enter into the church year reminded of our mission, to bring this good news of a loving, inclusive God to a divided and hurting world.

These are two essential aspects to our faith. We are accepted, and we are then called to communicate this radical acceptance to all God’s children.

In the course of this church year we will introduce a number of new ministries that bring this message to members of the church and community alike.

The all church book study of Rob Bell’s book, “What is the Bible?” asserts this message, that God’s love, as revealed in the Bible, includes everyone. And the time we spend together over five weeks in small groups will reinforce the good news of our acceptance.

On Sunday, October 22nd we will celebrate the fifth anniversary of becoming an Open and Affirming church with a special worship service and other programs. And, as part of the ongoing process of becoming Open and Affirming we will begin hosting monthly meetings of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Support groups will be offered both for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and their parents.

We will soon welcome our Young Adult Service Community interns and, through their work with Our Piece of the Pie and the Christian Activities Council, will deepen our relationships with people “over the mountain” in Hartford.

Part of this work will involve exploring an inter-faith community organizing initiative with over forty churches, synagogues, and mosques in the Greater Hartford area.

And we will be offering opportunities for racial justice training.

Finally, a group is gathering to get the word out about all this good news here at First Church by updating our website and developing a marketing plan.

This is a day of new beginnings!

“You are God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

Pass it on!

Love and Moral Outrage: From Nashville to Connecticut

truck parking

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 3, 2017.

Romans 12:9-21

Yesterday morning, I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot looking forward to my weekly spiritual practice of sermon writing. The first thing I noticed was how full the parking lot was, but to my delight there were two parking spaces directly in front of me! But wouldn’t you know it, the huge pickup truck ahead of me took both spaces, clearly over the line, making it difficult if not impossible for me to park in the other space.  Immediately annoyed, I pulled up a little, making clear my intent to park in the other space, expecting him to move to make room for me.

There was a bit of a standoff, his reverse lights went on, then off again, and in the end it became clear he intended to stay right where he was. Now I was more than annoyed, and wedged my car into the half-space that was left, leaving little room for either of us to get out. As I squeezed out of the car I came face to face with the man in the truck and said, “Excuse me sir, you are taking up two parking spaces.” In hind sight, I recognize my polite words were not the least bit consistent with how I was feeling inside. He dropped any pretense of being polite, not passive aggressive but just plain aggressive he said, “Ya think?! Did you really need to park in that space!” We both walked away in a huff.

But it quickly became clear to me that we were both headed to Starbucks, and wouldn’t you know it I ended up right behind him and his wife in line! I was feeling righteous anger, clear I was in the right, and shaky from the confrontation. I began to imagine all sorts of terrible things about him. But I heard him order, and he sounded like a pretty normal, decent guy. I took a few deep breaths and tried to gain some perspective. After all, I’m the Pastor of this prominent church, I can’t just say and do whatever is on my mind. How could I have approached this differently? What could I do now to redeem the situation in a way that would be authentic for me?

Even though I recognized that I had played a part in our confrontation, I wasn’t going to apologize. After all, he did take two spots! But maybe I could say something like, “Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I’m pretty sure you are a nice guy, and I’m a nice guy too. My name is George.” I was rehearsing variations of this speech as I waited for my coffee, and suddenly, there he was walking toward me. I took a deep breath, but before I could say anything he reached out his hand and said, “I’m sorry about that. I am driving a borrowed truck and was worried about damaging it.” I shook his hand and laughed, “I was just going to say something too, I’m sorry about that. My name is George.” He responded with his name, Bill, and that was that! He left with his coffee, all the tension I had been feeling left my body, and I sat down to write my sermon.

That said, I am still clear that I correctly judged his actions. He was wrong. He asserted all the space as his own, thereby excluding others. His justification for his actions didn’t change this. But as a result of the words and handshake we exchanged in Starbucks I can now say this without anger or malice.

In his letter to the church in Rome Paul writes, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” This brings to mind the popular aphorism, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”

This saying has rubbed many a progressive Christian the wrong way. Often applied by evangelical Christians to the treatment of gays and lesbians, it strikes me as an insincere way of expressing love, and a backhanded way of judging people.

On Tuesday, a group of conservative, evangelical religious leaders released a “manifesto” they named the Nashville Statement, asserting their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and condemning what they called “homosexual immorality and transgenderism.”

I had the same reaction to this statement that I had to that man taking up two parking spaces. I felt my blood pressure rise  and my stomach clench. Here they were trying to claim all God’s space as their own while excluding others.

The Nashville Statement is a series of short, tightly argued paragraphs for what they believe to be true about sexuality and gender. And sure enough, it includes a call to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” not in so many words, but using the well-known corollary, “to speak the truth in love.”

But here’s the thing. My Starbucks acquaintance can justify his choice to take two parking spaces, he was trying not to damage a borrowed truck, but that doesn’t make it right. I don’t agree with the Nashville Statement’s justification, specifically their definition of sin and truth. Those who signed this statement claim that homosexuality and being transgendered are behavioral choices, sinful ones; I assert that variations in gender and sexual orientation are aspects of identity, part of the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. “

I am not alone in this, of course. Just days after the Nashville Statement was released, Episcopal clergy in Connecticut responded with what they call the Connecticut Statement, saying:

We put forth a different vision: one in which God made diversity as one of God’s first creative acts; in which God infused that diversity into the human species; and in which God invites us to celebrate the vast array of identities that all weave together to make the tapestry of humanity. We believe the Biblical witness supports such a vision and that the Holy Spirit is moving the Christian Church to acceptance, celebration, and full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and indeed of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and abilities. Far from being antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ, such movement fulfills the dream of God that all be welcomed and affirmed as God’s beloved children.

 

The Nashville Statement seeks to exclude. This is, in fact, a way to understand sin, acting in a way that seeks to separate people one from another and from God. While the Nashville Statement separates, the Connecticut Statement lays claim to a God whose love embraces all people.

As I always affirm at the beginning of each service, we are an Open and Affirming church, meaning that we have a statement of our own, that says, “Led by God’s spirit, we welcome, respect and affirm all people, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, economic circumstance, or physical, emotional or mental ability.”

Though I have never liked, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” civil rights activist Ruby Sale recently said something that sounds similar. “In these times,” she says, “we must learn to hold together both love and moral outrage.”

This is not unlike Paul’s challenge to us in Romans to:

  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So how does one go about this? What might we learn from my encounter at Starbucks?

As I took time to reflect on this experience I realized a few things. I recognize the way I responded in the moment contributed to the conflict between me and the driver of the truck. Pulling up close to wait for him to move communicated my irritation and impatience, then to be fake-nice in telling him what he already knew ramped up the existing tension between us.

Sharing the same neutral space for a time was helpful for both of us, to observe one another apart from our disagreement. We both had to arrive at a place where we were prepared to acknowledge our role in the conflict and apologize for that.

Now notice, I am not saying we let go of our beliefs about the thing itself, merely about how we had behaved in response. I still think he was wrong to take two parking spaces, and he may still believe he was justified in doing so. Yet we were both able to recognize that the ways we acted toward each other were not helpful and act to change that.

There is the underlying right and wrong of a thing. Then there are the layers of emotion, the righteous anger, the moral indignation, and the judgment of character that we heap upon the other. We end up responding as much to these feelings as we do to the underlying disagreement.

So, let me offer a couple cautions before posing a question.

I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between taking two parking spaces and condemning gay and transgender people; one is a  minor annoyance, the other ruins lives. If there is any value in the parking space story it is only as parable and metaphor.

I also recognize that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people need to safeguard their physical and emotional well-being, and this may mean choosing not to directly engage in any way those who judge them.

With these qualifications in mind, I am left to wonder how we can create neutral settings that allow us to encounter those with whom we have strong differences, metaphorical Starbucks lines that could allow us to experience one another in a less threatening way, giving us time to reflect upon and accept responsibility for our own role in conflict, shake hands and learn each other’s names.

Amen.

 

Tending Soil or Slinging Mud?

venice

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 16, 2017, just a couple days after returning from a fabulous vacation to Italy with my family.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Some of you know that my family and I just returned from a “vacation of a lifetime” to Italy. We spent three days in Rome, took a train to Florence and spend three days there, and finished with another three days in Venice. I will resist the temptation to make this sermon a travelogue of the trip, except to say that all of it, from the ancient ruins in Rome, to the Renaissance art in Florence, to the canals in Venice, to the food, Oh, the food, all of it was extraordinary!

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges. It was about 90 degrees and humid the whole time, the three of us shared small hotel rooms and none of us slept well. And though we tried to pace ourselves and not take on too much, we were constantly on the go with little real down time. So, despite the glory of it all, and it was glorious, we experienced the occasional meltdown.

Not surprisingly, the most significant of these came on our last day in Venice. With no more “must-sees” on the agenda, I suggested that we take the Vaparezzo, a water bus, to a nearby island in the bay to see a church there and climb a tower for a view of Venice. Lourdes was not enthusiastic, in particular noting how much this additional side trip would cost. You should know that Lourdes very expertly manages our family finances, and it was entirely because of her disciplined budgeting that we were able to go on this trip to begin with. While I regularly affirm Lourdes for her money management and express gratitude for all the ways it benefits our family, I occasionally push back and dig in around the particulars, how much to spend on a meal, whether to catch a taxi from the train station to the hotel, or whether to ride the Vaparezzo to San Giorgio Maggiore. And on that last day in Italy, on that subject of whether or not to ride the Vaparezzo, I dug in.

I won’t give you the play by play, but there are two things I want you to know.

First, we did not ride the Vaparezzo to see that church, yet we had a marvelous time. Taking our (free) walk through Venice we met an expat-Englishman who introduced us to a very inexpensive gondola to take us across the Grand Canal, and pointed us toward a lovely café on Plaza San Marco where we enjoyed a cold beverage and a sandwich. He taught us that by standing at the bar, as many locals do, instead of sitting at a table we would pay much less.

To make it plain, Lourdes was right, I was wrong.

The second thing I want you to know is that before that happy outcome was determined the disagreement devolved into one of those “you never-you always” disputes. I know you know what I’m talking about. Instead of just discussing the pros and cons of different points of view, we quickly claim the moral high ground and judge the other, using words like “always” and “never” to impugn the other’s character. As in, “You always spend money so frivolously,” or, “You can never relax and let us just enjoy ourselves.” Just for example.

When I returned to the office on Thursday and opened to this Sunday’s lesson, the well-known parable of the sower from the gospel of Matthew, I recalled this always-never exchange in Venice. Let’s take a look, then circle back.

You may have noticed that there are two distinct parts in the telling of this story. In the first part, Jesus tells the parable of a sower, a farmer sowing seed, who casts seed everywhere. Some falls on the path, some on rocks, some among thorns, and some in good soil. The seed that falls on good soil thrives while the other seed fails to produce. Notice that the focus in these first verses is on the sower, the one casting seeds without regard for where it lands or whether it produces. The sower is God, and the seed is God’s word which communicates grace and love. God shares grace and love abundantly, even, by the world’s standards, foolishly. After all, why scatter seed where we know it will not take root and grow? But this is the extravagant nature of God.

After the parable itself, comes an explanation or interpretation of the story. Some scholars suggest that while the parable was likely told by Jesus himself, the interpretation may have been added later by the writer of the gospel. Note that the explanation has a different emphasis. While the parable focuses on the sower, an extravagantly loving God, the interpretation focuses on what kind of soil the listener will be. Matthew likely wrote this as encouragement to those in his community to be good soil who take in God’s love and grace, reproduce it and share its fruit.

So both the parable and its explanation seem to have fabulous messages, right? God shares abundant love and grace everywhere, even upon the rockiest, thorniest parts of our lives. And, we are encouraged to be fertile soil for all that love and grace, take it in, nurture it, let it sprout and grow in us, and bear fruit that we then share as God does, extravagantly, along life’s path, amid rocks and thorns.

Unfortunately, I think we sometimes take another turn in response to this parable and its explanation, a turn not reflected in the biblical account, but evidenced in the “you always – you never” exchanges of our lives. That is, instead of tilling our own soil, we sling mud at others. We take Jesus’ symbolic identification of types of soil and appoint ourselves the world’s horticulturalists. When we claim the good soil of righteousness for ourselves and judge other’s dirt piles and sandboxes as inadequate we shut down communication and the consequences can be hurtful, even devastating.

I came across an article this week written by a woman whose parents had just finalized their divorce after 44 years of marriage. On the surface, the cause of the divorce was her father’s serial infidelity. But the author digs deeper, trying to get at those things that set up relationships for such betrayal, things she describes as hardness of heart. But we might just as rightly call them rocky and thorny soil. Her list of rocks and thorns includes these:

  • Comparing and contrasting your wrongs against the other and making the judgement that “theirs are worse.”

 

  • Magnifying the weaknesses and minimizing the strengths of the other, while magnifying the strengths and minimizing the weakness of yourself.

 

  • Spending more time trying to find an official diagnoses to explain away their issues than looking in the mirror to address your own.

The writer ends this list of heart hardening, soil depleting behaviors with one last example:

  • Reading this list, she writes, and thinking someone else should be reading it instead of reflecting on its implications for you.

It seems to me that these are all variations of the soil depleting “you always – you never” response to the tough stuff and hard work of committed relationships. Each presumes the moral high ground, justifying one’s own beliefs and behavior while condemning that of the other.

Lourdes and I celebrate, and I do mean celebrate, sixteen years of marriage this coming Friday, and in those sixteen years I have fallen into each of these ways of thinking and acting from time to time, most recently in Venice. I have also come to better recognize these rocks and thorns when they arise and respond differently, namely by returning to tend to my own soil.

So, here are the takeaways. God scatters love and grace everywhere. There were ample reminders of this in Italy, from honeymoon couples riding in gondolas to the extraordinary churches and cathedrals, but truth be told, our trip also reminded me of all the love and grace I experience right here. The comfort of our own bed, a slower, more predictable pace of life, home cooked meals, our dog Sweetie, and this good church.

God scatters love and grace everywhere. Whether it sprouts, puts down roots, grows up and spreads out, and bears fruit is up to us and the soil we prepare.

When we are weary, as I was in Venice, it is easy to claim our patch of earth as moral high ground and sling mud at others – you always… you never…. But when we do, we only succeed in depleting our own soil.

Perhaps you are weary now, feeling depleted by rocky and thorny circumstance, tempted to blame and dismiss others with pronouncements of “always and never.” We are encouraged by Matthew to return to our own soil, opening ourselves to the grace and love of God. And we are reminded by Jesus that that grace and love is EVERYWHERE!

The Samaritan Woman at the Well: Two Preachers, Two Perspectives

On March 19, 2017, Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker and Rev. George Harris participated in a pulpit exchange. Rev. Dr. Whittaker preached at First Church Simsbury while Rev. Harris preached at Center Church Hartford. Both preached on Chapter Four of the Gospel of John, the story of a Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at a well.

Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker

Senior Minister, Center Church, Hartford

Sermon preached at First Church, Simsbury, on March 19, 2017 (Pulpit Exchange)

Holy Conversations

John 4:5-42, Psalm 71

Friends, this morning it is, indeed, an honor to be here at the First Church of Christ in Simsbury as part of a pulpit exchange. Your Senior Minister, Rev. George Harris, is at Center Church in Hartford.

I am grateful for the work our two congregations have committed to doing together. As you know, we recently joined in anUrban Immersion during which about twenty-five of us, inserted ourselves in the realities of the City by visiting various organizations, which are doing great work, and learning about their successes and their challenges.

We came together, as two churches, in two very different locations to hold “Holy Conversations” about justice and peace in our corner of the world. Of course when our outreach leaders, from both congregations, organized the immersion, perhaps that was not an overt goal or objective, but like many conversations go, we do not know what we will discover until we are engaged in them.

***

In the Gospel lesson this morning we heard the story of the Samaritan woman. A story that is very dear to my heart.

A woman who is in the margins, is approached by Jesus in the most public, inconvenient and unexpected place. She is considered to be “the other” “less than” different.

Both of them from different backgrounds—divided by social conventions around race, gender and religion.

First, I want to name that one of the most difficult parts of this text for me is that we do not know the woman’s name. She is faceless to the writers of the text. The Samaritan Woman they called her, she is nameless.

Second, when approaching this text many commentaries focus on the part of the story when, Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (vs. 17-18)

This line has robbed the attention of so many scholars and commentaries, leading them to deduce that this woman was promiscuous and a prostitute. Hence, they have missed the transformational power contained in this story–for it is a story of freedom and not immorality.

It is important that we know that in the times of Jesus, divorce was not uncommon. Also, a woman could have widowed several times during her life.

Further, the fact that “her husband was not hers” could have been for various reasons. For instance, one of her husbands could have died and now she could have been living with his brother, as it was the law.

It is easy to look at this story and feel terribly sad for the Samaritan Woman–to victimize her for her situation—to see her as being the fortunate one because, after all, she got to have a conversation with Jesus.

But it is important to remember, that in this conversation, Jesus was at a deficit, he was thirsty and she had the bucket.

Their conversation, in many respects, go to the heart of the matter. It is a courageous conversation because, it breaks the social conventions but– also it addresses one of the core the issues that divided the Samaritans form the Jews;  and,  May I state the obvious? who brings it up is not Jesus, but rather, the woman.

The fundamental question that divided the Jews and the Samaritans, was: “Where should we worship?”

The Samaritans, had erected a place of worship on the mountain.

While the Jews believed worship should take place in Jerusalem.

Jesus response is one that inspires and leads us in re-thinking our postures about our differences. It leads us to reconsider what we are willing to hold on to versus what we can let go for the sake of the love we need to have for each other.

It is a response that makes us reflect about creating sacred spaces where we could co-exist; where we depart from the objective of “winning” and being right, and include the excluded. Jesus changes the rules the game, he says:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as    these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (vs. 23-24)

What Jesus does here is what Mujerista Theologians (a liberation theology from the perspective of Hispanic women in the United States) call “relocating the sacred.”

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, suggests that:

Mujerista liturgies, specifically, relocate the Sacred. “They locate the sacred in the midst of the marginalized, of the poor and the oppressed, instead of in an [institution].” Institutions that do little or nothing to be in solidarity with the oppressed. In doing so, she states, that authority is claimed by women in the margins to “make contact with the divine in [their] own way, according to [their own] experience.”[1]

And, there they were Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, relocating the sacred. Openly, in bright day light, in front of a cloud of witnesses that could not believe what they were seeing—conflicted on how to react at this scandalous scene.

There, in front of their own eyes, unbeknownst to them, they were being witnesses to a holy conversation.

A conversation that dismantled oppression.

A conversation that overcame exclusiveness and built community through inclusiveness.

Arguably, the longest conversation recorded, were are told, in Jesus ministry.

***

Friends, this is Women’s History month. There is not enough time, during this sermon to effectively present the many obstacles women have overcome, and still face, today.

I often feel privileged to be serving in a denomination where approximately, forty-seven percent of the authorized ministers are women.

But, it is not lost on me, that that number does not mean that we are treated equally and we have equal opportunities. There are still historic churches that have yet to call a woman as Senior Minister.

I am the first woman to lead Center Church and was called five years ago on its 380th anniversary year. I took almost 400 years for a people to say, I think a woman can do this job!”

Still, in this country, the wage gap between men and women is wide. The statistics on women trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to show that women are still being victimized and oppressed.

Nonetheless, we also have countless examples of women who persisted. Women whose actions embodied resistance and courage. Women who met at the well in their own terms.

Women like Harriett Tubman who “herself believed her success in single-handedly liberating over three hundred slaves was superintended by God, who had pre-ordained her political action”[2]

This morning, I invite all of us to say to one another, what the woman said to Jesus, “I see you.” She said “I see that you are a prophet.”

She saw him for who he was. I invite you to see one another for who you really are.

And perhaps, my call to action for all of us is, in order for us to see one another for who we are, we need to be able—have the courage to have holy or sacred conversations.

Conversations that lead us to being vulnerable;

Conversations that lead us to ask Questions;

Conversations that lead us to “see” each other, allowing us to take time to enter a sincere and perhaps difficult dialogue;

Conversations that lead us to being opened–to being surprised;

Conversations that lead us to being changed;

and, finally,

Conversations that can happen when we relocate the sacred.

In the current climate in our country, may God lead us to the well, where the stranger we might meet the stranger that will transform our lives. Amen.

[1] Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, New York: Maryknoll, 1996.

[2] Wiliams, Delores S., Sisters in the Wilderness: the challenge of womanist God-talk. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2013.

 _____________________

Rev. George Harris

Senior Minister, First Church, Simsbury

Sermon preached at Center Church, Hartford, on March 19, 2017 (Pulpit Exchange)

Nevertheless, She Persisted

John 4:5-42

Well, good morning! I am beginning to feel right at home here at Center Church. I think this is at least the third time that I have had the privilege to speak from this pulpit. Rev. Whittaker and I did a pulpit exchange a few years ago when I was serving South Church in New Britain. And I offered the Call to Worship at her installation not so long ago. Since I saw you last I accepted a call to First Church in Simsbury. Just a few months ago First Church Simsbury and Center Church participated in an urban immersion together. All of this combined means that I feel a meaningful connection here. And I am thrilled to be back this morning!

That said, there are both unique challenges and particular opportunities in preaching to a congregation that is not my own. I don’t have the established relationship with you that I have with First Church which can be both liberating and confining.

One of the things us pastors are discouraged from doing with our own church is to talk too much about ourselves. A sermon illustration from our life is OK, as long as we don’t reveal too much. We certainly shouldn’t use a sermon as an opportunity to unburden ourselves of some issue or problem of our own. And we should most definitely never air our dirty laundry from the pulpit of our church.

Well, this is not my church… and you are not my flock! So, I thought, what a perfect chance to vent a little about my wife Lourdes. Lourdes and I have been married for almost sixteen years, and we have a most extraordinary fourteen year-old daughter Abby. Lourdes was born on a sugar plantation in the Philippines, and we were both living in Hawaii when we met. My parents were visiting me, and Lourdes was the hostess that seated us in a restaurant we visited. One thing led to another and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lourdes is one of the strongest women I have ever met! She successfully rose above the poverty she was raised in to make a life for herself in the United States, and she did this by sheer determination, the force of her will. If I do say so myself, I am pretty bright, skilled in the use of words to articulate and defend my point of view.  Lourdes is also plenty smart, but has no interest in besting me in clever repartee. Instead, when there are disagreements between us, she simply asserts her will, she is right and we will do things her way. To this day, I have never experienced anything quite like it!

When I do pre-marital counseling with couples, I sometimes tell them that the very thing that attracts them to one another can become the greatest challenge in their marriage. Well that is certainly the case with me and Lourdes. I was immediately drawn to this remarkably assertive and disarmingly strong woman. And, over the years we have butted heads many times as I make some very logical, tightly argued case, and she rejects it out of hand. Do you hear me? Can you feel me? She just doesn’t follow the rules. How can you have a marriage without mutually accepted rules? I’m right, right?

OK, I should put your mind at ease. I am just joking about airing my dirty laundry from the pulpit. I love and respect Lourdes more today than when I fell in love with her all those years ago. It is true that our marriage is never boring, and it is also true that there can be occasional fireworks when we disagree. But I am sharing this not seeking sympathy, not that you take my side, but as a way of introducing this morning’s story from the Gospel of John. Because this woman at the well is also a remarkably strong, assertive woman.

Some are likely familiar with the basic outline of this story. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee and stops at a well were he meets a Samaritan woman. He asks her for a drink of water. She is surprised to be addressed by this stranger and says so, “Why are you talking to me, a woman and a Samaritan?” Jesus responds with an invitation to drink “living water.” Drink this living water, Jesus says, and you will never be thirsty. In fact, Jesus says, drink of his living water and it will become in you a spring that gushes up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman concludes, “Sir, give me this water.”

The most common interpretation of this story goes something like this. The woman had three strikes against her. She was a woman. She was a Samaritan, part of a despised ethnic and religious group. And she was a sinner, having been married five times and now living with a man who is not her husband. Nevertheless, Jesus offers her the living water of eternal life, revealing God’s unconditional grace, forgiveness and love. This is a hopeful message for all who worry that they are somehow beyond the love of God either because of who they are or what they have done. While not rejecting this message, I suggest that there is much more to this story.

To grasp the full meaning of the encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus we need some additional context. Wells, in Hebrew scripture, are firmly established as places for men to meet women. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all met their wives at wells. This kind of makes sense. In a world where women didn’t get out on their own much, their trips to the well to fetch water were one of the few times men might approach them without the watchful eye of parents or the community. We might think of wells as ancient pickup spots, “Hey beautiful, nice bucket. Can I get you a drink?”

So, when Jesus’ early followers heard the beginning of this story they would have assumed that romance was in the air and cast the woman in the role of Jesus’ future wife. That said, the role of women in these boy meets girl stories was largely passive with the men doing all the talking.

As I said, Samaritans were harshly judged by Jews. They practiced what was considered to be a corrupted form of Judaism that didn’t recognize God’s presence in the temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans had also intermarried with conquering Assyrians and therefore were not considered to be ethnically pure.  In these ways Gospel stories about Samaritans can inform present day experiences of racism and religious intolerance.

Noted Episcopal Bishop and author John Shelby Spong makes some important observations about this text. He is clear that the entire story is a parable, meant to be read for its symbolic value. He points out that the reference to the woman’s five husbands is a metaphor. In the Second book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, the ruler of Assyria, having conquered Samaria, brings people from five countries and places them in cities in Samaria. He sends a Jewish priest to instruct them in appropriate worship practices, but they disregard their instruction and continue to offer sacrifices to their own gods. The Samaritan woman’s “five husbands” represent settlers from these five countries. So, far from a judgment of the woman’s sexual immorality, Jesus’ critique is a reference to Samaria’s history of faithlessness, and a symbol of how divisions within the human family might be overcome through him.

Rather than responding from her limited role as religious and ethnic minority and prospective wife, the Samaritan woman first breaks out of societal norms and accepted practices to challenge Jesus. Then, satisfied with his response, she claims her power by embracing the vision of unity he proclaims.

At this point in the story the disciples return and completely miss the point, questioning why Jesus is even talking to a woman. Jesus’ is a clear message of inclusion and equality. The Samaritan woman recognizes this, claims it, and proclaims it. The disciples reject it. This story casts the woman, not as a bride to be, but as Jesus’ true disciple.

It is at this point in the story that I found myself convicted, seeing myself in the disciples. I realized that there is more to my relationship with Lourdes than butting heads with a strong woman. With some regularity, she will state an opinion and I will immediately contradict it in some way. Many of these issues are inconsequential, for example she will share plans that don’t involve me. Still, I find myself casting doubt on her idea and suggesting an alternative. When she calls me on this, I usually explain my response away as just sharing my opinion. But I realize that I am making an assumption in these interactions that I know best. I sometimes claim that I am making a necessary correction to her thought process, but truth be told, I am really reacting against a strong woman asserting herself to me. And despite my protests to the contrary, these interactions cast Lourdes in the proscribed role of wife.

Nevertheless, she persists!

I know you recognize this phrase that quickly spread across the internet a month and a half ago. Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor when reading a letter by Coretta Scott King. Attempting to explain his action, Senator Mitch McConnell said, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Far from successfully putting Senator Warren in her place, “Nevertheless, she persisted!” became a rallying cry for women everywhere to speak boldly for equality.

The Samaritan woman understands Jesus’ message of inclusion. Claiming her gender, ethnicity and religion, she responds boldly to Jesus, then fearlessly returns to her community to deliver this message to the Samaritans. She persists!

This story speaks to us on many levels. As I did, many of us can learn a lesson from the Samaritan woman. For over sixteen years I have been celebrating Lourdes’ strength, while reacting poorly when it is directed toward me. For her whole life Lourdes has had to persist in response to being dismissed and diminished, even by me. So men, are there ways you are making women in your life persist in response to you?

I dare say this message should also speak to us in our churches. When I first arrived at First Church last January there were no women on our Board of Trustees. There were reasonable explanations about why this was the case, but a certain amount of persistence was required to have two strong, well-qualified women nominated to the board. And Center Church, you are blessed to be led by an extraordinarily strong woman. You might reflect upon the story of the Samaritan woman as well as my testimony and ask whether there are any lessons for you there. Are there ways that Rev. Whittaker is being required to persist here?

And like the Samaritan woman, women throughout the country are being asked to persist in the face of misogyny, racism, and religious intolerance. Like my response to Lourdes, much of this may be framed as perfectly reasonable, well-argued differences of opinion, simple requests to follow the rules. This is what Mitch McConnell asked of Senator Warren, that she “follow the rules.” This was the disciples’ expectation of the Samaritan woman, that she “follow the rules.”

She didn’t and we shouldn’t. Not these rules. As people of faith we are called instead to follow the example of the Samaritan woman, to identify, name and challenge the inequalities of gender, race and religion, to claim the power of Jesus’ vision of inclusion, then become that spring of living water that gushes up for all people in our lives, in our church, and in our world. Amen.

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)  
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