Stand Up!

It was my privilege to preach this sermon at a Celebration of the Ministry of  my dear colleague, Reverend Da Vita McCallister, at Faith Congregational Church, on May 28, 2017. Reverend McCallister is leaving her position on the Connecticut Conference staff as Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development and Church Vitality to accept a call as Lead Pastor of  The First Congregational Church of Somerville in Massachusetts.

John 4:5-15, 27-30, 39-42

I extend my sincere gratitude to the planning committee for the invitation to preach today. As a preacher, it is an honor any time we are asked to preach outside our home church, but it is a privilege indeed to preach at this special service of celebration for the ministry of our dear colleague Rev. Day McCallister. And I offer a very special word of thanks to Rev. Stephen Camp and Faith Congregational Church for so graciously sharing your historic pulpit this afternoon. I know that this is no small thing, and requires both genuine humility and a generosity of Spirit. So again, thank you.

Finally, I thank my friend and colleague Rev. Jocelyn Gardner Spencer for that introduction. You and I will always be bound together by that memorable barbeque lunch with Reverend Day. In fact, I will turn to the text in a minute, but there is good reason to revisit that essential part of our formation as Racial Justice facilitators, as it relates directly to my presence in this pulpit this afternoon.

Jocelyn and I were leading a two-day, Racial Justice training for the Conference staff at Silver Lake. We had spent hours preparing, both in conversation with Reverend Day and on our own. Though admittedly nervous, we were ready, or so we thought. In the course of the morning we sought to establish a comfortable learning environment, thanking everyone for their presence, and acknowledging that conversations about race and racism can be difficult. To put people at ease, Jocelyn and I sat at the table with the Conference staff and, when someone made themselves vulnerable by sharing a personal reflection, we affirmed them warmly. We had our facilitators’ binders open in front of us, and we followed the syllabus that Reverend Day had provided perfectly.

The morning session ended and, as agreed upon in advance, we met with Reverend Day for lunch to debrief and prepare for the afternoon session. I remember the scene perfectly. Relaxed and smiling, she asked me and Jocelyn how we thought it went. Frankly, we were pretty pleased with ourselves. The morning had unfolded without incident, the Conference staff seemed happy, and we were on schedule.

And that’s when it happened. Reverend Day broke it down, broke us down.

“This,” she said, “is Racial Justice Training. Your job is not to make people happy. You are not their pastor. You are a racial justice facilitator, act like one. You are not required to honor and affirm every perspective. Take ownership of the material. Claim your authority. And for God’s sake, Stand Up!”

So, when the planning committee for this service invited me to preach, not a word celebrating Reverend Day’s ministry at the Conference, but a word about racial justice to the Conference, what could I do but Stand Up!

Let us pray: God, open our ears to hear your word, open our hearts to be transformed by the movement of your Holy Spirit in this place, and grant us courage to respond boldly together. Now, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Hot and tired from his journey to Galilee, Jesus has stopped to refresh himself at a well when along comes a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were a minority ethnic-religious group that was looked down upon and disparaged by many Jews at the time. Jesus’ followers, upon hearing, “A Samaritan woman came to draw water,” in this story, would have likely rolled their eyes, smirked, muttered a slur against Samaritans, or even cracked a Samaritan joke. These same followers would have been shocked, confused, and even angry upon hearing that Jesus enters into a respectful and mutual conversation with the woman.

Jesus offers this woman living water, a never ending source of life. What does this mean? It means Jesus sees her just as she is, as a woman and a Samaritan. He knows her completely, through and through. Jesus understands her unique value and power, and he recognizes the particular hardships that society inflicts upon her as a result of her gender and ethnicity. At the end of their encounter she says of Jesus, “He told me everything I have ever done!” This recognition, acknowledgment, acceptance and affirmation is the living water Jesus provides, and the life of the Samaritan woman is changed forever as a result.

The disciples arrive and are offended that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman, though they won’t come right out and say it. We might imagine the exchange, Jesus affirming for the disciples that Samaritan Lives Matter. The disciples protesting, “But Jesus, we’re sure you would agree that All Lives Matter,” and Jesus responding, “All lives do matter, but I am drawing your attention to the unique value of Samaritan lives and the particular injustices perpetrated against them.”

The Samaritan woman returns to her village to share the news of this one who sees her, knows her, accepts her, and affirms her. As a result many other Samaritans commit to follow in the way of Jesus, saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.”

Here ends the gospel account of the Samaritan woman, but her story continues.

Early Greek Christians give this Samaritan woman a name, Photina, P-H-O-T-I-N-A, meaning “the enlightened one.” Photina, it is said, was baptized by the Apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost; she then traveled with her sisters and children to Carthage in North Africa where she preached the gospel. After fulfilling her ministry in Carthage, Photina was called across the Mediterranean to the Greek city of Smyrna. Fourth century Greek sermons refer to Photina as “evangelist” and “apostle,” and say she surpassed all the male disciples.

According to this tradition, Emperor Nero ultimately martyred Photina in Rome by throwing her down a dry well. Think about that. Jesus meets her at a well, symbolizing the living water of understanding. The well is the place where she is seen, known, and affirmed for those very qualities that the world judges, her womanhood, her identity as a Samaritan. Empire, represented by Nero, appropriates the symbol of the well, but withholds the living water of recognition in an attempt to deny the power of her identity, and erase her story.

And what a story! Learning about this ancient tradition of Photina set my imagination free, wondering what her ministry might have been like in Carthage.

Let’s imagine that Photina shows up in Carthage filled with the Spirit, fired up to preach the gospel, to share the living water of Jesus, to see, know, accept and affirm the Carthaginians. She finds there, a community of disciples and Apostles from Jerusalem, also ministering in Christ’s name. She has high hopes for these relationships. After all, they had all shared an experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

On her first day she is greeted with a smile by one of these Jerusalem Apostles who says, “Photina, that’s a funny name, I’ll never remember that, I think I’ll call you “Tina.” Thousands of years later, this would be known as a micro-aggression, a way of asserting power over a person of color by refusing to use their given name. Though she didn’t have a word for it, she knew she was having none of that and responded, “My friends call me Pho, but you can call me The Apostle Photina of Samaria.”

Despite this rough start, Photina soon fell in love with the Apostles and church folk she found in Carthage, and they loved her back. Photina was smart, funny, charismatic, and could preach, teach, sing and pray like nobody’s business!

Though their affection for her was genuine, the church would also, at times, use its relationship with Photina, invoking her name to defend itself against any suggestion that they were anti-Samaritan, as in, “We’re not racist, we work with a Samaritan, and we love her!” Photina soon realized that being the only Samaritan Christian in Carthage was isolating for her, and didn’t fundamentally alter the Jerusalem culture of the church. So she invited her sisters, daughters and sons to join her in ministry there.

The Africans of Carthage responded enthusiastically to the living water shared by The Apostle Photina and her family, experiencing acceptance and affirmation for who they were. But some of the Jerusalem leaders wondered silently if there weren’t now “too many Samaritans” serving the church in Carthage.

And though Photina performed wonders and signs among the people of Carthage and was genuinely praised by the Jerusalem Apostles, she would still have encounters that would drain and burden her. One would say, “You are so articulate,” in a way that suggested that other Samaritans weren’t. Another would say, “You know, I’m color blind. I don’t see you as a Samaritan, but just as a human being.” Photina was required to assert herself, saying, “If you don’t see me as a Samaritan, then you don’t see me.” And still others, when they saw Photina, would want to question, challenge and debate her about “the problem with Samaritans,” forcing her to again defend herself and her people.

Photina began to name the ways the domination systems of Jerusalem and Rome wove themselves into the fabric of culture and institutions, including the church, and the ways the power of Empire manifested itself in every person and relationship. This work tried Photina’s faith, and the Jerusalem Apostles responded in a variety of ways. Truly desiring to make the church a vessel for living water, some began the hard work of confronting their own and the church’s participation in the domination system. But others became defensive, denying their own complicity; and others still sought to claim Photina’s work as their own, thereby perpetuating a history of appropriating the labor and accomplishments of ethnic and religious minorities going back to Pharaoh.

As I said, the story is told that Nero later sought to extinguish the unique power Photina wielded as a Samaritan woman by throwing her down a dry well. But I wonder if her martyrdom was in fact less sudden and dramatic, though no less painful. Each of these encounters withheld the living water of understanding, and each denied her Samaritan identity. Ministry as a Samaritan could sometimes feel like martyrdom by a thousand micro-aggressions. And such experiences with those she truly loved hurt the most of all.

According to this ancient tradition, Photina was called by God to leave Carthage and serve a church in the prosperous Roman city of Smyrna. Smyrna is one of seven cities addressed by Christ in the Second Chapter of the Book of Revelation, where he says, “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.”

Along with the sorrow of losing a dear friend and colleague, the Apostles wondered who would carry Photina’s powerful witness forward on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed in Carthage. Some thought they should find another Samaritan to speak for them. Others thought Photina’s departure could be an opportunity to shift resources to other ministries. And others still were paralyzed with indecision.

As the day approached for Photina to depart for Smyrna, all the Apostles and disciples of Carthage gathered around a table to break bread, eat barbeque, and celebrate their justice ministry together. Someone was about to suggest that they all hold hands and sing a favorite Carthaginian song, Kumbaya, when The Apostle Photina of Samaria began to speak:

“My dear friends and colleagues, you have been called to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the most vulnerable, those on the margins, and the oppressed.  See them, know them, accept them, and affirm them. Your job is not to make everyone happy. You do not need to be everyone’s pastor. You are a facilitator of justice, act like one. You are not required to honor and affirm every perspective. Take ownership. Claim your authority. And for God’s sake, Stand Up!”

That’s what Photina said, or so the story goes.

The John passage ends with these words addressed to the Samaritan woman we now know as Photina, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.”

So sisters and brothers, hear God’s call to justice in the Connecticut Conference, not because of what our imagined Apostle Photina of Samaria said, not even because of what The Reverend Da Vita McCallister has taught us, but that we may hear and respond to this call for ourselves.

We have been called to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the most vulnerable, those on the margins.  Black Lives Matter! Brown Lives Matter! See, know, accept, and affirm the unique value of black and brown lives, and name the injustices perpetrated against black and brown bodies! Our job is not to make everyone happy. We are not called to be everybody’s pastor. We are facilitators of justice! We are not required to honor and affirm every perspective! Take ownership, make these words your own, and Speak Up! Act Up! Rise Up! Claim your authority, and for God’s sake… for God’s sake… for God’s sake Stand Up!

 

Reversal of Fortune

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

Luke 10:25-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who were the Samaritans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newt Gingrich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pastor Pondering: Death and New Life

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

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

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

Oh… Duh!

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

Pastor George

Black Lives Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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