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

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

Revelation 21:1-6a

Matthew 25:31-46

 

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

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

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

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

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

Let me read that again:

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

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

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

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

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

So what are these choices Jesus presents to us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Butler concludes her blogpost with these words:

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

Maybe, indeed.

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

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

 

More Than a Mannequin Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have three choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dreading Thanksgiving Table Talk? Helpful Words from Jesus, Piglet and Pooh

Here is the homily I preached at the Simsbury Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church on November 20, 2016.

Luke 14:1, 7-11

Good evening!

For those who might be meeting me for the first time, I am George Harris, or Pastor George, as I am known to many at First Church Simsbury. I am fast approaching my one-year anniversary as that good church’s Senior Minister, and my six-month anniversary as a proud and happy resident of this special town of Simsbury. My family and I moved here all the way from New Britain where I had been serving a church for eight years.

My Simsbury colleagues turned to me several months ago and said, “George you’re new, and the new minister usually preaches at the Thanksgiving service.” Though I wasn’t given much of a choice, I was thrilled by the opportunity! I love to preach; some at First Church have told me that I am courageous, risk-taking, even fearless in the pulpit, unafraid to take on tough issues from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So I thought, how fantastic is this? I have the attentive ears of Simsbury all in one place. Think of all the trouble I could cause?

And then I read my Bible. Nothing ruins a preacher’s great idea for a sermon like reading the Bible. The parable of the wedding banquet in Luke quickly put me in my place. It’s not all about me. Jesus directs the guest at the banquet to humble him or herself, to choose the lowest place at the table instead of sitting at the head of the table. So much for my visions of grandeur.

As I sat down to think about this wedding banquet table in the parable, it morphed in my imagination into a table set for Thanksgiving. I smelled the delicious smells of roast turkey and fresh baked pies. I saw the best china, polished silver, the gravy boat that only comes out once a year. And the air is filled with happy sounds, the youngest cousins squealing as they chase each other through the house, older cousins comparing videos and music on their phones, and the grownups, many of whom have made the annual trek from out of state reconnect over a beverage.

Suddenly, these happy sounds are interrupted by “Wah-Waaah!” Oh no, it’s Debbie Downer! Some of you may know Debbie, a recurring character played by Rachel Dratch on the long-running sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Others will recognize Debbie Downer from your own Thanksgiving gatherings.

There was even a Debbie Downer Thanksgiving skit some years ago. A family is gathered around a Thanksgiving table filled with happy banter when one guy at the table says, “Wow, the traffic on the way here was a disaster,” to which Debbie responds, “Nothing compared to what the Chinese are going through…” Wah-Waaah… The camera zooms in on Debbie’s downturned face. Everyone falls silent and shifts uncomfortably as Debbie describes the typhoons and bird flu that have devastated China. Debbie finishes and the conversation picks back up; the father at the head of the table passes a bottle of wine around asking with a wink if the Pilgrims brought Pinot Grigio to the first Thanksgiving. Debbie responds to the rhetorical question with, “I’ll tell you what the Pilgrims did bring, smallpox.” Wah-Waaah… “they killed scores of Native Americans, ravaging their population.” Again the camera zooms in on Debbie. And on it goes, happy conversation followed by a buzz-killing comment by Debbie Downer until one person at a time walks away from the table leaving Debbie by herself. Finally, even the roast turkey gets up and walks away.

Almost as much as Thanksgiving meals are known as love-filled expressions of gratitude, they are also too often stressful gatherings rife with conflict. As a pastor, church members sometimes come to me expressing dread at the prospect of being at the table with Uncle Ferd or Aunt Izzy. I think this anxiety about family gatherings is true this year more than ever, given our bitterly divided political climate. I have a dear friend who has unfriended her own mother on Facebook as a result of their angry exchanges about politics, but come Thursday mother and daughter will be sitting across the Thanksgiving table from each other. Wah-Waaah. I don’t doubt that there are those here this evening who are facing similar fears.

Looking for a helpful word to share for those with Thanksgiving anxiety I again turned to Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. What would it mean to take the lowest place at a conflicted Thanksgiving table?

But before I could get very far in interpreting the text, my mind drifted to a more innocent time.

As a kid my family owned a twenty-five foot sailboat that we would take cruising on Long Island Sound and around New England.  One of my favorite memories from this time is rocking gently at anchor, the halyards clanging against the mast, and curling up below with my brother as my Mom read Winnie-the-Pooh stories to us. This was probably around 1970 when the Viet Nam War and accompanying protests were going on, so the times weren’t really so innocent. But fond memories of my 8 year-old self, listening to Winnie-the-Pooh stories, now seem worlds apart from our current trials.

Returning to some of those stories as an adult reminds me that there is some deep wisdom in those books by A. A. Milne. In fact Pooh and Piglet knew a lot about humility.

So, here is the lesson of the wedding banquet, interpreted by Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, and applied to a conflicted Thanksgiving dinner in this conflicted world of ours.

Think of these as five steps to humility, ways we might work our way down from the head of the table, to accept Jesus’ invitation to take the lowest place.

First, seek understanding.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has a brain.”

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has a brain.”

There was a long silence.

I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

This exchange between Piglet and Pooh about Rabbit reveals the difference between being clever and understanding. There is no doubt that we will be prepared for clever conversation around the Thanksgiving table, bringing carefully practiced and well-worn arguments in support of our favorite causes and positions. But understanding is different; understanding one another requires seeing from another perspective and may require leaving our clever arguments behind.

The first step to humility is to seek understanding. The second is to pay attention. This quote is from Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” This is an elegantly simple definition of mindfulness, a way of quieting our busy minds. Have you had the experience of formulating a response to someone’s comment before they have even finished talking? I pretty much do that all the time. It means we aren’t really present with someone or listening to what they are saying. We also aren’t in touch with how we are feeling. Maybe if we just sits, pay attention to our breathing, allow ourselves to be present with what is happening inside us without jumping in to respond, the energy around the table may change for the better.

Seek understanding, pay attention and then be patient. Piglet says, “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Perfect! When Uncle Ferd cuts me off and begins ranting, I will assume he has a small bit of fluff in his ear! He’ll wonder why I’m just sitting there smiling.

So, humility understands, pays attention, is patient, and then gives way.

Winnie-the-Pooh says, “Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more…to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”

What would happen if we gave way on those hot-button issues that arise at the dinner table? I don’t think Pooh is suggesting that we give up our deepest held beliefs, but that the love that is nurtured by letting go in a particular moment could be more important than driving someone away on principle.

We are almost there. A last word from Piglet.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could still hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

With each of these steps we have worked our way down from the head to the lowest seat at the table. We seek understanding, pay attention, are patient, give way, and when we arrive at the other end of the table we just might find that our very small hearts are filled with gratitude for the people at the table, even Uncle Ferd and Aunt Izzy!

Of course Jesus’ lesson in the telling of the parable was never meant to apply to just wedding banquets or Thanksgiving dinners, but was meant to be a lesson for life. And again, none of this is to suggest that we stop fighting for what we know is true and just in our lives; Jesus stood up for who and what he believed in, even unto death. But like Pooh and Piglet, Jesus also sought understanding, paid attention, was patient, gave way, and lived with a heart filled with gratitude for God and all God’s children.

Whether in our encounters at the Thanksgiving table or in this conflicted world we live in, may we do the same.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Go and Do the Same: Take Care

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Donald Trump was elected as President.

Luke 10:25-37

This is the second Sunday of three during which we are focusing on stewardship themes, giving to and caring for the church. I have shared that I intend to refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan each of these three Sundays, each time making an observation about giving to the church. I thought this Sunday was going to be a cinch, I already had the sermon outlined in my head.

Then the election happened. Of course I knew the election was going to happen, but I didn’t anticipate that this was going to be sermon worthy. For reasons I will soon speak to, I concluded that I must say something in response to the election and its aftermath, as difficult as that might be.

With any significant sermon challenge it always pays to spend some time with the Bible text first. Some of these most loved parables are so familiar that it is sometimes hard to imagine there is more to learn from them. But I am always amazed that such stories continue to reveal layer after layer of new insight.

So, this is the most common interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. Two hypocritical, cold-hearted religious leaders cross the street so they don’t have to help a man who has been beaten up and left for dead next to the road. Along comes a Samaritan, one who was looked down upon by society because of his religion and ethnicity, and he stops to help the man. The religious leaders are the obvious villains in the story, the Samaritan the unlikely hero. The moral is, don’t be a villain; be a hero.

I expect, however, that if this was a true story the situation would have been much more nuanced than a contrast between two evil people and one good one. If this was a true story, the priest and the Levite would have truly believed that they had very good reasons to avoid the man alongside the road. In fact, they may have had truly good and important reasons to cross the street. The priest may have been afraid. There had been reports that robbers were setting traps for passersby. One would pretend to be injured; then, when someone stopped to help others would emerge from hiding to beat and rob the kindhearted stranger. Maybe the Levite had an urgent matter to attend to. He had received a message that his child was sick and near death, and all he could think about was getting home to be by her side. It broke his heart to pass by the man beside the road, but he had to put his daughter first. Maybe neither of these two men was the uncaring beast that history portrays them to be.

I know this isn’t the way Jesus tells the story, but isn’t this more like real life? Life often seems complicated, more gray than black and white, filled with tough moral dilemmas.

So, let’s tuck that away as we reflect together on the election.

Our President elect, Donald Trump said and did some terrible, truly offensive things in the course of the election. He ridiculed a reporter with disabilities. He belittled a war hero. He cast Muslims as terrorists and Mexicans as rapists. He spoke of forcibly grabbing women by the genitals. He promised to revoke rights for gays and lesbians. This is all part of the much publicized public record.

Like the priest and the Levite in the Samaritan story (as I recast it), Trump voters, and I know there are some here this morning, are sure they made the best choice, and in fact likely had thoughtful reasons to make that choice. One thing I hear is that people looked past Trump’s vile behavior because they believe the policies he promotes are necessary for our country, that he can best keep us safe, that he will lower taxes and return manufacturing jobs, and that he will better respond to illegal immigration. Others had such strong negative feelings toward Hilary Clinton that they could not bring themselves to vote for her.

It is not important whether I agree with these positions or not, my point is that many who voted for Trump are sincere in their belief about what is best for our country. I can’t imagine that good and faithful people in this church voted for Trump because of the racist, sexist, xenophobic and offensive things he said, but voted for him in spite of these things.

I saw a helpful metaphor a few days ago. Does everyone know what HBO and Cinemax are? These are two cable TV channels that you have to pay extra for. So imagine that you call the cable company because you want to order HBO and only HBO. You like particular shows on HBO and want to watch these shows, nothing else. But the representative on the other end of the line informs you that the only way to get HBO is to order a package that also includes Cinemax. You keep insisting that you don’t want Cinemax, please give me only HBO you plead, back and forth you go. Finally, exasperated you realize that the only way are going to get HBO is to get the package that includes Cinemax, even though you are sure you will never ever watch it.

I think this metaphor captures something about the package we have gotten with Trump. Accepting that many who voted for him were not voting for the racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic things he said, now all of us, whether we voted for  him or not, have the whole package.

None of this is meant to point a finger of blame at anyone. I don’t think that is helpful. But we all now have Cinemax even though none of us really wanted it.

Some Trump supporters accuse Hillary voters of being sore losers. Get over it, get behind the President. If this was just about policy disagreements that is a fair statement. We don’t all get what we want in any election.

But what I am hearing most from those who voted for Hillary is fear. Gays and lesbians are afraid. African Americans are afraid. Immigrants and Muslims are afraid. Women and fathers of daughters are afraid.

That fear may be partly about Trump’s anticipated policies, but more immediately we are afraid what racist, homophobic, misogynist actions people will be emboldened to take because of what they heard our President elect say.

There has already been a spike in vandalism, bullying and violence toward women, Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and Hispanics, and gays and lesbians since the election. Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama told USA Today yesterday, “Since the election, we’ve seen a big uptick in incidents of vandalism, threats, and intimidation spurred by the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election. The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory and many are feeling their oats.”

This isn’t just something I read. You all know that my gorgeous and talented wife Lourdes was born in the Philippines and speaks accented English. She is easily identifiable as an immigrant. My gorgeous and talented, 13 year-old daughter Abby is of Pacific Islander ancestry and has beautiful brown skin. I can tell you, I woke up Wednesday morning afraid, worried for their safety.

Beyond a fear of physical violence is the emotional toll of feeling like your life matters less. Over 60 million people voted for the man who said these horrible things. For many who are members of one of these denigrated populations this knowledge feels like an invalidation of one’s identity and very existence. It feels like voters put other things before the dignity, worth, well-being and safety of these people, and they did.

This is not a rant. So please don’t hear or dismiss it as me railing against Trump. This is where I am going.

We, as a church, regardless of who we voted for as individuals, are called by faith to stay on the same side of the road with and render aid to the most vulnerable people in our society. We are called to be the Samaritan in this time, to act to preserve the safety and well-being of gays and lesbians, people of color, women and girls, Muslims and immigrants, and people with disabilities. Now more than ever, First Church must be this safe place and work to make our community and our country this safe place.

None of us are simplistic villains or heroes. We all have limitations, yet we all try to do the best we can with what we’ve been given. But whether we voted for Trump or Hillary, this is how we are now called by God to come together as the body of Christ.

Yes, like the priest and the Levite, we may be afraid, we may have other genuinely important things to give our attention to. But as revealed in the Good Samaritan story, we are above all called to be neighbors to the vulnerable and injured. This is our mission. This is our call.

And a stewardship message follows from this perspective. Last week, I observed that the Samaritan was moved by compassion to respond to the beaten man’s immediate needs. This week, I draw our attention to the Samaritan’s decision to carry the man on his pack animal to an inn and pay the innkeeper for a room, so that the man might more fully recover.

We might equate responding from compassion to meet immediate needs to putting something in the offering plate in response to a story that touched our heart in the sermon.

But the Samaritan’s decision to put the man up in an inn required careful fore thought. Here he makes a longer term commitment. He would have asked, how much money do I have? What other demands are there on my finances? What do I hope will be accomplished through this commitment I am making? These are the same kinds of questions we should be asking when making a pledge to First Church. Yes we should be moved by compassion. And we should also give prayerful forethought to our decision.

This year our stewardship committee has set two goals. Increase participation. We are asking all members and friends of the church to do more than put something in the plate on Sunday morning, but make an annual pledge to the church. A pledge demonstrates the extra level of commitment shown by the Samaritan.

The second goal is to increase the total amount pledged by 10%. This will allow the church to expand our ministry and mission, whether in pastoral care, women’s and youth ministry, or outreach. Like the Samaritan, please give careful thought to how much you are able to commit to the church.

This road to Jericho is dangerous. Together we are the Samaritan walking on the side of the vulnerable and injured. Together we are the body of Christ. Together we will find the courage and make the commitment to respond.

 

A Pastoral Word In Response To The Presidential Election

For those who are struggling mightily emotionally and spiritually with the outcome of the presidential election I offer these pastoral words:

  • Feel. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, all of them. Some will say, “Be hopeful!” Hope has not been extinguished; but true hope will emerge out of the real dark stuff of our experience, including fear, anger or despair. We can only find our way to hope by beginning where we are.

  • Breathe. Take time out to watch your breath, in and out, in and out. Not only will this help quiet our busy minds, our breath is also a concrete reminder that we still have this “one wild and precious life” to live to the fullest (Mary Oliver).

  • Embrace. Hold one another. Exchange a heartfelt hug or handclasp; we need to affirm our human connections, now more than ever.

  • Pray. In particular pray for our own and the church’s wisdom and courage to respond to the challenges that lie ahead.

  • Listen. There is a lot of noise right now. The ground underneath us feels unstable. But remember, God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire (1 Kings 19:11-12) but in the silence, listen for the still small voice of God. It’s still there.

  • Demand. Demand justice, and avoid appeals to reconciliation that do not first commit also to equality and justice for all God’s children.

  • Resist. Especially resist oversimplified or unhelpful theological explanations, specifically that everything that happens is part of God’s plan (“for a reason”). God has no plan apart from us. If God’s Kingdom (Beloved Community) is to come, it’s up to us to get busy building it.

  • Speak. Boldly speak the truth as we understand it, as made known to us through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • Act. We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), called by God “for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)

  • Believe. No earthly leader can extinguish the light of God nor the love of God for all creation.

Finally, Remember. You have Pastors at First Church Simsbury always available to feel, breathe, embrace, pray, listen, demand, resist, speak, act and believe with you.

Published in: on November 9, 2016 at 8:16 pm  Comments (1)  

The Politics of Jesus IV: Faith and State

This is the last in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus, that I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 30, 2016.

Mark 11:15-19

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last November, Saturday Night Live produced a short comedy video of a family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving.

The father, at the head of the table, begins the meal by saying, “Happy Thanksgiving everyone! To which everyone around the table responds with big smiles, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

The father continues, “I am so thankful that all of you are hear today.” The mom in turn says, “I am so thankful that I only burned the turkey a little bit.” Everyone laughs.

An aunt says, “You know what I am thankful for, that our governor is not going to let those refugees in here.” A cousin across the trouble looks horrified, and responds, “Oh my God.”

Words appear on the screen that say, “Thanksgiving with family can be hard.”

The conversation continues, the father saying, “You know, I heard the refugees are all ISIS in disguise.” The aunt jumps in again, “That’s true, I saw a ISIS at the A&P today when I was picking up the yams.” Disgusted by the direction the conversation is taking, the aforementioned cousin raises her voice in response, “No you didn’t, Aunt Cathy that was an Asian woman.”

Again words on the screen, “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs.

The dinner table conversation devolves further when “Aunt Cathy” asks the cousin’s black boyfriend why his “friends” keep antagonizing the police?

By now the table is erupting in angry exchanges, and the words on the screen read, “But there’s one thing that unites us all…”

A little girl leaves the table, walks across the room and turns on a CD player, and we hear the opening bars of Adele’s song, “Hello.” The table quiets immediately, and Aunt Cathy lip synchs, “Hello, it’s me…”

Everyone around the table stops fighting and joins in,

“I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet

To go over everything

They say that time’s supposed to heal ya

But…”

The doorbell rings, the music stops, grandparents arrive, and everyone resumes arguing in response to the grandmother’s comment that she saw “two transgenders at the airport.”

The little girl rolls her eyes, and again pushes play.

Again the table responds together with an even more impassioned lip synch performance of the Adele song.

One more time, fighting erupts, only to be reconciled again by Adele’s music.

Finally, all rancor overcome, the mom invites the smiling family, “Dig in everyone,” and the little girl turns to the camera and says, “Thanks Adele.”

SNL effectively drew upon the ubiquitous popularity of Adele’s hit a year ago to help us laugh at what are equally ubiquitous and painful experiences of division over politics.

That was a year ago and today we are even more painfully divided around the table and across the country. It will take more than Adele and a laugh to bring us together.

This is the fourth and final in the Politics of Jesus sermon series. Let me review the path we have trod together.

The first week I asked, “Was Jesus political, and if so in what way?”

I began with this definition, that to be political is to engage a process to order collective lives for the public good. I concluded that by this definition, Jesus was political. Just as Moses confronted Pharaoh to demand freedom for enslaved Israelites, so Jesus was confronting a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. By claiming the authority of God to stand with those who had been pushed to the margins, Jesus confronted powerful religious and political leaders and challenged the domination system. This was political, and this got him crucified.

The second week I took a look at “The Issues,” going through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. I concluded that the stories of Jesus’ life and the stories he told inform our perspective on any number of issues that are prominent in this year’s presidential campaign. Respect for women’s leadership, responding to poverty, recognizing the morality and value of those from other faiths and nations, treating the mentally ill and integrating them back into the community, healthcare for the most vulnerable, specifically women’s health, and confronting prejudice toward minority ethnic groups.

While the stories in the gospels are far from a prescription for public policy, they can, and I believe should be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God.

Then, last week Rev Kev delivered a much needed message of hope, reminding us that Jesus walks with us through all our discouragement and despair.

The title of this week’s sermon is Faith and State. Accepting that Jesus is political and, and that Jesus does prioritize certain issues over others, what does this require of us as his followers?

First, many Christians are quick to respond to political questions by invoking “the separation between church and state.” Just to be clear, this is part of the First Amendment of the Constitution, not the Bible. And these words are not meant to prohibit religious people from bringing their faith into politics, rather they emphasizes that the government cannot promote or prohibit religion. So we, as Christians, can and should apply our values in the political realm. We can and should reflect prayerfully on Jesus’ teachings, his priorities, when we vote and otherwise participate in the public sphere.

But that’s not all. The politics of Jesus leads us far beyond a vote in an election.

Again, I proposed that Jesus confronts a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. This confrontation climaxes when Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple.

I would suggest that a similar domination system comprised of political and economic elite continues to act to preserve wealth and power in the hands of a few today. Further, both major parties and their candidates represent these same powerful interests and perpetuate this unequal and unjust system. In fact, I would suggest that the entire electoral system and system of governance as it is currently structured and practiced preserves and maintains this unequal system.

So, if Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers then, who confronts these interests today?

Says the Apostle Paul, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” This is the way the Apostle Paul refers to the church. Notice he doesn’t say the church is like the body of Christ, or could be the body of Christ, if only we behaved differently or better. He says you are the body of Christ. So, who is confronting entrenched political and economic, and yes, religious interests today? That would be, should be, us, the church.

I recognize that this is daunting, especially imagining ourselves literally overturning tables. I can imagine the response should I invite everyone to meet at the Capitol in Hartford to overturn some tables. “Thank you, but I’m not really dressed for that.” “My son has a soccer game.” “I have to do laundry.”

But Jesus didn’t only confront the powerful through acts of civil disobedience, he did it by forming a particular kind of community that modeled an alternative way of being, by modeling the kingdom of God. As noted by Paul in his description of the body of Christ, this community required many and diverse members to function.

Over the years I have been fascinated by what are sometimes called intentional communities, Christian communities that seek to model the body of Christ, intentionally bringing diverse people under one roof to live, work, and worship together.

One powerful example of such communities are the L’Arche communities that provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. The first such community was founded by Jean Vanier in France in 1964, and there are now almost twenty in the United States including ones in Boston and on Long Island.

Another example, years ago I spent several days in an intentional Christian community called the Open Door in Atlanta, Georgia. Middle class Christians live together with the formerly homeless and incarcerated, worshiping and sharing communion, providing breakfast to day laborers, and fighting for fair housing practices in the Atlanta area. The commitment these folks showed to loving in each other and working for God together across profound differences made a lasting impact on my faith.

Communities like L’Arche and Open Door represent a certain ideal of discipleship for me, both confronting a system that excludes and oppresses while modeling an alternative. But I have never found my way to committing to such a life.

But as I pondered our role as the body of Christ here at First Church in Simsbury it occurred to me that we have a unique and invaluable opportunity to seek reconciliation, confronting a domination system that seeks to divide and exclude, while modeling an alternative.

I don’t really know how our congregation breaks down along liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican lines, except I know we have both in good numbers.

To some extent, simply gathering together on Sunday mornings and worshipping together, sharing communion together, pot-lucking and lip-synching together challenges the increasing divisiveness in our country.

We are a somewhat politically diverse community, but we would not yet qualify as an intentional Christian community that seeks to understand and love one another across our political differences. In fact, if we are intentional about anything, it would be avoiding any conversations about our political views.

What would it look like for us to develop and practice safe ways for us to talk to each other about our deeply held beliefs, to cultivate within ourselves an ability to really listen and hear one another, affirming always God’s grace for all?

I think it is pretty clear that the division and rancor we are experiencing in this country isn’t going to disappear on Election Day, no matter who wins.

After all the votes are counted we will be left with that angrily divided Thanksgiving table portrayed by Saturday Night Live. If only Adele was enough to unite us and bring peace. But in fact the one we need to bring us together is already at the table, Jesus Christ, and we are that body of Christ and individually members of it. Let us be intentional about modeling reconciliation for a divided and hurting world. For this is the politics of Jesus.

 

The Politics of Jesus II: The Issues

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 16, 2016, the second of a four-part series, The Politics of Jesus.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Luke 17:11-19

In the summer of 2006, my family and I went back to Hawaii from seminary so I could complete required chaplaincy training at the Hawaii State Hospital. We stayed with the father of a good friend, a retired Army General, Orlando Epp, known to my daughter Abby as Grandpa Orlando. Orlando was a lovable character, one of these guys that would get started telling jokes and could go all night long, one after another with the same deadpan delivery. We spent many evenings by his pool, sipping a cold beverage, as he would rattle off his jokes. Some his favorite were “walks-into-a-bar” jokes. You know the ones:

A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”

 

A grasshopper walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you!” The grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Ernie?”

 

Two peanuts walk into a bar. One was a salted.

 

A guy with a slab of asphalt under his arm walks into a bar and orders a beer, and another one for the road.

Those are all Grandpa Orlando jokes, I didn’t say they were good. Yesterday, when I was poking around on the internet trying to remember his jokes, I also found these:

Past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.

 

C, E-flat and G walk into a bar. The bartender says, sorry we don’t serve minors here.

 

A drum set walks into a bar. Ba dum tshhh

 

Last one. Jesus walks into a bar with a Samaritan and a leper, and the bartender says, “Is this a joke?” And Jesus replies, “No, it’s a parable.”

The parables Jesus told and the stories of Jesus’ life were peopled with an extraordinary cast of characters, Samaritans, lepers, demoniacs, centurions, tax collectors, rich men, and menstruating women. You’d think there was a punchline coming.

But these stories are no joke, instead they offer a critique of the dominant culture in Jesus’ day and communicate something essential about the kingdom of God.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first a little review, this is the second in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus.

Last week I asked, “Was Jesus political, and if so in what way?”

I began with this definition, to be political is to engage a process to order collective lives for the public good. I concluded that by this definition, Jesus was political. Just as Moses confronted Pharaoh to demand freedom for enslaved Israelites, so Jesus, the “new Moses,” was confronting a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. By claiming the authority of God to stand with those who had been pushed to the margins, Jesus confronted powerful religious and political leaders and challenged the domination system. This got him crucified.

If you missed it, both a manuscript and recording of that sermon are available on the church’s website and Facebook page.

This week is part two; I have titled this simply, The Issues. I will not take specific positions on issues, but I will try to draw some general conclusions about how the gospels inform and frame perspectives on certain categories of issues before us in this election cycle. So to tackle this let me return to that cast of characters that fills the stories of Jesus’ life and the parables he tells.

I went through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. Here are just a few representative selections from what I found there.

The main character in the very first chapter is Mary, a young pregnant woman whose claim to be a virgin would have been viewed with suspicion and invited speculation of adultery. Yet her Song of Praise speaks powerfully of God bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is most definitely political language, pointing to a reordering of collective lives.

In Chapter Four, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus returns to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There he references two stories from the Hebrew Bible (what is sometimes referred to as our Old Testament), one about a widow at Zarephath who saved the prophet Elijah’s life during a famine, the other featuring a Syrian General named Naaman who was healed of his leprosy by Elisha. Jesus’ point in celebrating these two as heroes is that neither is Jewish. That means that they were both a different nationality and practiced a different religion than Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Luke writes that those in the synagogue were enraged by the fact that Jesus celebrated these two pagan foreigners in this way.

Then, in Chapter 8, Jesus heals a man in Gerasene who was possessed by demons. We are told that the man was naked and lived in tombs. He would be chained up in an attempt to control him but would break his chains and be driven by the demons back into the wild. Jesus cast out the demons, restoring the man to his right mind. Gerasene was a Gentile city, the people more Greek than Semitic; this, in itself, is significant. And certainly today, we would understand this man to be mentally ill. Significantly, Jesus concludes this encounter by telling the man, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.”

Subsequently, Jesus heals a woman who had been menstruating for 12 years. Women who were menstruating were considered to be ritually impure according to Jewish law and were separated from their community. As a result of her bleeding, this woman had been apart from her community for 12 years. By healing her body, Jesus allowed the woman to enter back into the life of her community.

Then we come to the passage I read about Jesus healing ten lepers. There are two things to notice here. Lepers too were considered to be ritually impure and were cast out of their communities. We read this in Leviticus: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” After they are healed, Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priests. By having their priests confirm that they are now clean they can be restored to their communities.

The other significant thing here is that only one of the healed lepers returns to thank Jesus, the only Samaritan. I talk about Samaritans quite a bit. They were of mixed ethnicity, having intermarried with Assyrian occupiers during the exilic period, and also practiced a form of Judaism not recognized as legitimate in Israel. Samaritans were judged harshly by Jews, yet on at least three occasions they are presented in the gospels as the heroes of a story. Here Jesus comments on the nine Jewish lepers who left, saying, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

So, let’s see what we have here.

  • A young, pregnant woman speaks on behalf of God about reordering the relationship between rich and poor.
  • Jesus begins his ministry, in a synagogue, by identifying two pagans, one a widowed single mother, as examples for people of faith.
  • Jesus heals a mentally ill pagan man and a woman who had been shunned because of her uncontrolled menstrual bleeding, restoring them to their communities.
  • And Jesus cures those with a debilitating and disfiguring disease, restoring them to their communities while also affirming the value and morality of the “foreigner” who was routinely judged for his faith and ethnicity.

All of these inform our perspective on any number of issues that are prominent in this year’s presidential campaign:

  • Respect for women’s leadership;
  • responding to poverty;
  • recognizing the morality and value of those from other faiths and nations;
  • treating the mentally ill and integrating them back into the community;
  • healthcare for the most vulnerable, specifically women’s health;
  • and confronting prejudice toward minority ethnic groups.

These stories are far from a prescription for public policy, but certainly can, and I believe should, be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God. Each of these stories involves lifting up those who are laid low by circumstance, viewing positively those whom the society judges harshly, and relieving suffering. And taken together, these and many, many more similar stories in the gospels, challenge and seek to reorder a whole legal and cultural system that marginalizes some while privileging others.

Let me make one more observation about stories like these in the gospels. Certainly they feature characters that would be routinely judged by the law and culture of the day as less-than. And many of these stories also emphasize the role that restoring someone back to health plays in restoring them to their community. And so it is today. This is why debates about accessible healthcare are so important.

In two weeks, after Rev Kev gets a crack at The Politics of Jesus, I will return to look at the relationship between our faith and civic responsibility. What is our appropriate response, what is our government’s role in responding to the politics of Jesus?

A Muslim, Christian and Jew walk into a bar followed by an immigrant from Mexico and a refugee from Syria. They are joined by men and women, gay and straight, and people with a range of physical and mental abilities. African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders enter with people of European ancestry. “Is this a joke?” asks the bartender. Everyone lifts their glass and responds as one, “No! We are the kingdom of God!”

Amen.

Note: Before the Benediction I offered these words: “In our tradition the sermon is not intended to be the last word on a subject, but rather an invitation into a conversation. I invite your thoughts on the p0litics of Jesus, however I present this challenge. We are a church, a “people of the Book.” So try to frame your response in the context of your faith. I recognize that you are not all authorities on the Bible, but you can still speak to what you believe about God and Jesus and how this informs your worldview and political perspective.”

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