The Hero of the Story

This is the sermon I preached at the early, 8:30, worship service at First Church Simsbury on January 27, 2019. We were observing “Mission Sunday” at our 10:30 service with speakers form the community sharing their testimony in lieu of a sermon.

Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:14-21; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

As I said, the 10 o’clock service will be observing Mission Sunday by bringing in speakers from two community organizations in lieu of a sermon. These speakers were unable to be present at this early service, so you get me! We will still reflect on mission, not so much by lifting up the church’s work in our community, but by turning to this morning’s Bible readings.

The passage from Luke that I read is often referred to as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins to read.

Anyone who has been to a service in a synagogue knows that the Hebrew Bible is read from a scroll. Over time, each book of the Bible is read from beginning to end, each week’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.

So Jesus does not enter the synagogue and search for the particular passage he wants to read, rather he opens the scroll to that day’s assigned passage; who knows, maybe he was the designated reader that day. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 61, verse 1:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”

When Isaiah says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he is speaking of himself, and he is speaking to the exiled people of Israel of their coming return to Israel, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and reestablishment of the temple as the home of God and locus of worship. This is the good news Isaiah proclaims, to Jews held captive by the Assyrian empire.

Over five hundred years later, Jesus reads Isaiah’s words, not to Jews oppressed by the Assyrian Empire, but to Jews oppressed by the Roman Empire. Oppression by empire is the backdrop for everything in the Bible, from Exodus in the Old Testament to Revelation in our New Testament.

So to this point in the story Jesus has just done what any scripture reader would have done in the synagogue on the Sabbath, read the day’s text. But then Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that these are not just words of Isaiah that apply to the exiled Jews, but even as I read them, Jesus says, these words are fulfilled in your life, in your context, today. We might even hear Jesus saying, I, Jesus, am the fulfillment of this good news, I am the embodiment of God’s promised deliverance from suffering.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! Powerful words written in one context, applied in a new context, brought to life through Jesus.

I had an opportunity to think about the power of words and their contexts on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Here, the “text” is the well-known story of First Church and Martin Luther King, Jr.

For two summers in the 1940’s, African-American students from Morehouse College traveled to Simsbury to work in the tobacco fields here to earn money for their schooling.

One Sunday morning in 1947, a beautiful baritone voice carried up to the balcony of First Church where Garland Martin was directing the summer choir. When he inquired about the one who possessed that remarkable voice, he was told it belonged to one of the African American tobacco workers who sometimes worshipped in the church. Though members of the choir protested, Garland insisted that the man be invited up to the balcony to sing with the choir, saying, “I don’t care about the color of his skin, as long as he can sing.” That man, of course, was Martin Luther King, Jr.

King would later write letters home about his time in Connecticut, remarking upon the difference between the ways blacks were treated in the North versus the South. Some go so far as to suggest that King’s time in Connecticut contributed to his call as a prophet, one anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives.

I was invited to bring this story to two different contexts on Martin Luther King Day. At the first, the annual Martin Luther King Celebration at the State Capital, I was invited to give the invocation. The invitation was extended, of course, because of the First Church-MLK story. Other than politicians, I was the only White person who had a part in the program, and very few White people were present among the hundred or so people in the audience.

I was introduced simply as the pastor whose Simsbury church has a connection to Martin Luther King. I anticipated this, so came prepared to “tell the story.” I had also pondered how the story would be received in this setting. I “unrolled the scroll,” told the story, then continued:

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about telling this story on this day. Yes, it is an inspiring example of someone rejecting racist values to embrace equality and acceptance.

But who is the hero of the First Church story? If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury. If I may be so bold, white people like me love stories that make us the hero, right? When we can identify with the white hero in a story about racism, then we don’t have to confront our own privilege and biases. When we are the hero, we don’t have to own the ways white people like me continue to perpetuate racial injustice by not speaking and acting out more strongly against it.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course. King was the one who, in spite of a racist system that conspired against him, went to college. King was the one who travelled hundreds of miles to a strange land where he would labor long days in the hot sun picking tobacco, work most white people wouldn’t touch. King was the one who ventured into an unfamiliar white church because he knew that he too was a beloved child of God. And King was the one who boldly lifted his voice in praise of the God who leads all oppressed and enslaved to freedom.

Note, recognizing King as the hero in no way diminishes Garland Martin. Martin played his modest role in King’s story well; perhaps he deserves a best supporting actor nod. And this story of King reminds us that we all have a role to play in confronting racism. But make no mistake, Martin Luther King, Jr. is this story’s hero.

And it is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we gather to remember, honor and celebrate today. With his words, let us pray:

I then prayed a prayer that Martin Luther King had written.

As soon as the celebration at the Capital ended, I returned to Simsbury for the eighth annual Martin Luther King Community Celebration hosted right here at First Church. Here, it was my responsibility to welcome people and again, “tell the story.”  Not surprisingly, the demographics of our Simsbury celebration were the opposite of those in Hartford. Except for a few politicians, and our keynote speaker, Joelle A. Murchison, ours was a celebration mostly led and attended by White people.

Just as Jesus applied Isaiah’s words of justice in his new context, so I now brought the same story, told in the same words to Simsbury:

If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course.

Isaiah’s words confronted the power of empire in both contexts. Similarly, in both Hartford and Simsbury, the story of the prophet Martin Luther King, when properly told with King as the story’s anointed one, confronts racism and the power of White supremacy.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! A powerful story, birthed in one context, applied in new contexts, brought to life through Jesus.

In the second reading, Paul writes: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Jesus says, “Today this story has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that ours is not just a story about Marin Luther King and Garland Martin that has meaning in Hartford and Simsbury, this story of confronting racism and white supremacy is brought to life, is embodied in our lives, through this body of Christ, the church, and we each have a necessary role to play. May it be so.

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Companions: With Bread

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, October 7. 2018.

Genesis 2:18-23

I know some of you are hurting, depressed, angry, maybe scared this morning following the Senate vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice. I also know there are others present who are feeling some combination of relief, satisfaction, even hope, in response to that same vote. Whatever you are feeling this morning, I think it is fair to say that the hearing leading up to the vote, with its accusations of sexual assault, and bitter and angry personal attacks has been a uniquely painful experience for most of us, and leaves many raw, and even traumatized.

I experience a particular challenge as your Pastor. I have strongly held beliefs of my own regarding what is right and wrong in all that has transpired. I like to think that these are more than personal opinions, that my beliefs are grounded in our faith as informed by scripture, in particular the teachings of Jesus. I do not believe that it is a minister’s responsibility to represent “both sides” of issues, because it stands to reason that both sides are not equally consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus took sides, and I believe the church should aim to take Jesus’ side. When this church became Open and Affirming, we took a side, we sought to follow in the way of Jesus.

So make no mistake, at such a time as this, the church needs to stand alongside survivors of sexual assault. To see you. Hear you. Believe you. And communicate that what happened to you is not your fault.

And, I recognize that I have a responsibility to all of you as your Pastor, regardless of where you stand on a particular issue, a responsibility to listen to you and hear you, and see you as God sees you, created in God’s own image and beloved. And I do. I do. And I also have a responsibility to lead this church in a way that we continue to love one another despite our differences, and that we live together as one body of Christ.

As your pastor, I have found two practices particularly helpful in times such as these, confession, and studying the Bible.

Confession reminds me that I have my own issues, even as I seek to offer a reasoned and faithful critique of others. I recognize that confession will not be helpful to everyone right now. If you are a survivor of sexual assault whose memories have been triggered by events of the past couple weeks, confessing is the last thing you need to be doing right not. But for me, as a man, it is helpful to be reminded that I too act in ways that are sexist and perpetuate harm.

I offer this seemingly harm-less example. My wife Lourdes can tell you that I have this infuriating habit of offering an opinion, she might say critique, about even the most benign comments she makes. She might say, “I’m going to get new blue curtains for the living room.” Note, she isn’t asking my opinion, but simply making a statement. Yet I jump right in. Why, these curtains are fine. Why this room? Why now? Wouldn’t yellow be better? Shouldn’t we replace the curtains in the bedroom first? Understand, I have little real interest and no expertise in replacing curtains. What could have simply been “What a great idea!” becomes a meaningless and maddening back and forth about curtains. Make no mistake, I am speaking from my assumption that as a man I have something important to say about everything, and I believe my perspective, as careless and ill-informed as it might be, is somehow better than the one being put forth by Lourdes, the curtain queen. This is crazy, it is sexist, and I can’t seem to stop myself! And, it is not harmless after all, it comes between Lourdes and me and is damaging to our relationship. When I do things like this I am sending a message that she is less-than or subordinate to me.

I assure you, this is just the tip of my sexist iceberg!

Returning to scripture is the other practice that has been helpful to me in these times. Some of you were here last Sunday when 80% of my sermon (I counted the words) was simply telling the biblical story of Esther. The story seemed to serve its purpose well, inspiring some and challenging others. But regardless of each individual’s experience of that sermon, most people seemed to resonate with the biblical content.

This morning’s reading from Genesis is the ancient story of the creation of humanity, of man and woman. Many of us think we know the story pretty well. After having formed man from the dust of the earth and breathing life into him, God puts the man to sleep, and takes one of his ribs to create woman.

Tradition holds that because woman was created from man, and man then names woman, that women are to be subservient to men. But it turns out that there is a whole lot more to this story than meets the eye. I draw extensively here from the scholarship of respected Bible scholar Phyllis Trible.

Not everyone knows that there are two separate accounts of creation in Genesis, one in Chapter 1, the other in Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, God makes humankind, male and female, in the God’s own image on the sixth day of creation. In this account, humans, man and woman at once, are the climax of the week-long creation story.

Chapter 2 has a very different account of creation in which God creates earth and the heavens and all that is in them in a day! This is the story that includes the formation of a human from the dust of the earth, and this is where it gets really interesting.

The Hebrew word used here for the being created by God is adham, a-d-h-a-m, not the proper name Adam, but a word meaning simply humankind. Adham is derived from the word adhama, meaning earth. In Hebrew, the word adham is not gendered male of female; there were no sexes at creation but one androgynous creature.

After creating the Garden of Eden for adham, in verse 18, where this morning’s passage begins, God notes that it is not good for this human to be alone, so God decides to create for adham a helper.

Here the word helper has also been used to justify women’s subservience to men. But the Hebrew word for helper, ezer, does not suggest subservience. Elsewhere in the Bible God is described as a helper (ezer) to Israel, which clearly does not indicate that God is subservient to Israel. Rather, ezer is a relational term, designating a beneficial relationship. In verse 18, ezer is coupled with the word neged, connoting equality; together these words describe a helper who is a counterpart.

Trible’s own translation of this passage reads, “God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.”

Gender is introduced to the story at the very end, after God makes the garden, the trees, and the animals. As I said when I introduced this story, the placement of woman at the end has led some to allege female subordination. But Trible shows that woman was not an afterthought but a culmination of creation. Just as in the first creation account in Chapter 1 where humans are the crown on all creation, here in Chapter 2, the creation of woman is the climax of the story.

That woman is created from the rib of adham communicates solidarity and equality, not subordination.

Adham then recites this poem:

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.

She shall be called woman (the Hebrew word ishshah).

Because she was taken out of man (the Hebrew word ish).

What had been a gender-neutral term for human, adham, now becomes specific terms for male and female, ish and ishshah

The creation of sexuality is simultaneous for men and women, Sexes are interrelated and interdependent

Man does not precede woman but happens concurrently with her. The first act in the second chapter of Genesis is creation of an androgynous being, the final act is creation of gender.

The human is no longer a passive creature, ish comes alive in meeting ishshah

Some say man’s power is evidenced in naming woman, but this is not in the text. Ishshah (woman) is a common noun, not a name; adham simply recognizes her sexuality, he doesn’t name her to assert his power.

All of this is to say that God creates us to be in mutual relationships.

Men, women, and non-binary. Gay, straight and bisexual. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic and atheists. Young and old. People of every nation. And yes, Democrats and Republicans, have been created by God to be in mutual relationships.

But just as I felt the need to assert myself in the choice of living room curtains, so also men have tried to bend this story of gender to our will. Seeing how easy it is to again and again assert our power over one another, we cannot take the mutual relationships God intends for us for granted. Embracing mutuality requires continued commitment and hard work. Along with prayer, mutuality requires confessing the ways, large and small, that we assert our power creating separation, and returning together to the Bible.

Restoring and nurturing mutual relationships is the answer to our pain. And a little later at the communion table we will be reminded that through Jesus, God is made known to us in these relationships.

 

 

23rd Psalm (remix), featuring St. Francis

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Psalm 23, John 10:11-16

Do geese see God?

Tell me, do geese see God?

Not sure?  Let me say it backward?

Do geese see God?

Ah, this is a palindrome, a word or phrase that reads the same way frontward and backward.  Mom is a palindrome, as is Wow.  So is, Live not on evil; and, Desserts, I stressed.

Several years ago, I came across a variation of this kind of word play, something that when read backward says something very different than when it is read forward.

Here is a wonderful example, a video poem called Lost Generation (clink link to view before continuing).

The first time I watched the video, the dramatic reversal of the text and the message from self-centered cynicism to empowered hope brought tears to my eyes.

With thoughts of palindromes and clever videos in mind, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if there was some such meaningful word play embedded in our beloved 23rd Psalm.  I read it backward thinking there might be some hidden message in there.  Alas, the 23rd Psalm is not a palindrome, nor does its timeless and beautiful message of God’s tender care for us change when read backward.  But I was not to be deterred.

There is yet another form of word play that might inform this morning’s reflection on the 23rd Psalm, the remix.

Contemporary composers of popular music, hip-hop and jazz, remix standards and classics to create new music.  They do what is called sampling, recording recognizable words and rhythms from other popular songs and inserting them in their own composition.  Results vary.  Some people say that such sampling and remixing plagiarizes the talents of better composers and only succeeds in ruining the original classic.  Others find that this sampling and remixing gives the classic new life, helping people hear it in a new way.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe the 23rd Psalm doesn’t work as a palindrome, maybe it isn’t helpful to scroll the text backward.  How about a remix?  Now, I know what you are thinking.  Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare mess with the words and message of our beloved 23rd Psalm.  No passage in scripture is so treasured by so many.  It is perfect in its poetry, especially in the King James Version we heard this morning, and its message that God leads us, protects us from evil, and surrounds us with goodness and mercy provides timeless comfort and encouragement when we are feeling lost and bereft.

While written well before the birth of Christ, as Christians we associate the psalm with Jesus the Good Shepherd.  In this morning’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  We understand that in Christ, our Good Shepherd, we shall not want, we lie down in green pastures, we are led beside still waters, our soul is restored.

As beloved as the 23rd Psalm is, as many times as I have heard someone say that for them, the 23rd Psalm “says it all,” I dare say, that taken by itself, it’s a bit self-centered. Bear with me.

Listen to the emphasis of the psalm.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me.  The words I, me, my and mine appear in the 23rd psalm 17 times.  17 words out of 117, 15% of the psalm is all about me!  No wonder I feel so good when I read it!

By comparison, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis speaks not of what God will do for me, but how we can serve God and others.

Don’t get me wrong.  The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful expressions of God’s love for us ever written, and it remains so.  But in the larger context of the gospel, perhaps there is something more for us here.

You know I often refer back to the Apostle Paul’s words in the 12th Chapter of First Corinthians where he refers to the church as the body of Christ.  He doesn’t say that the church is like the body of Christ, Paul says the church is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ.  Read with Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ in mind, the 23rd Psalm isn’t referring to some idealized image of God as a good shepherd “out there” who will take good care of me, myself and I (17 times), instead we, the church, are the good shepherd called to care for all God’s children.

God asks us to be his good shepherd, to go out into the world to care for all his sheep.  Listen to these words from this morning’s gospel lesson.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

About six months ago, First Church members gathered with other interested people from the community to consider sponsoring a refugee family. Working with a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven, our volunteers quickly organized into committees, took the name HANA, Hartford Area Neighbors Alliance, and satisfied all the requirements to host a refugee family. Unfortunately, this was the very moment when the U.S. refugee resettlement program was suspended.  HANA has been in a holding pattern for the last few months.

I got an email yesterday that HANA now has an opportunity to assist a Syrian refugee family, Ibrahim, Adeebah and their five children ages 4-16. They arrived in the United States last November and were sponsored by a community group in Manchester. But it was no longer safe for them there as they were receiving death threats, so they have been resettled in West Hartford where there are other Syrian families.

HANA is now preparing to support this family

And Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”  We, the church, are God’s good shepherd.  We are called to reach out as the Good Shepherd to restore God’s promised love and protection to the lost.

I promised a 23rd Psalm Remix, so here it is, the 23rd Psalm, featuring St. Francis:

Lord make us an instrument of Thy peace,

make us, Lord, Thy Good Shepherd;

for we shall not want, but shall sow love;

Where there is injury,

may we prepare green pastures for lying down;

Where there is doubt, help us still troubled waters;

Where there is sadness and despair, make us restorers of souls;

And where there is darkness,

give us light to lead in paths of righteousness.

O Divine Master,

As we walk with those who suffer

through the valley of death’s shadow,

May we fear no evil, for you are with us.

Grant that your rod and staff may provide comfort,

and that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,

Let us set tables before friends and enemies,

Not to be understood, but to understand

Anoint our heads with oil and fill our cups to overflowing

Not because we are loved, but so we can love others

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in laying down our life for your sheep,

That we are born to eternal life

Where we will dwell in your house forever.  Amen.

The Vision Thing

This is my column from the July, 2012 South Church newsletter, The Voice:

President George H. W. Bush once dismissed pleas from his party to articulate a compelling vision for the country by making contemptuous reference to “the vision thing.” This sound bite only seemed to reinforce the perception that Bush’s presidency was a ship without a rudder, wandering from one short-term objective to another.

From time to time someone at South Church will ask me about my vision for the church. I think a shared, compelling vision is essential for any organization, so I haven’t been dismissive of these queries. But I also haven’t rallied the church around a single, coherent “vision statement,” yet.

There are two reasons for this. First, we are a Congregational and Baptist church committed to democratic governance. Ideally, a vision emerges out of a congregational process in which everyone participates. But such visioning processes can be long and, frankly, tedious. Instead of ending up with a powerful statement of vision the result is too often a cumbersome paragraph that looks like it was written by a committee (because it was).

The second reason I haven’t proclaimed a vision for South Church is because there have been lots and lots of other pressing issues before the church. Restoring confidence and hope following a challenging interim period and addressing a life-threatening budget crisis seemed to call for a series of timely responses instead of “the vision thing.” Maybe this is how President Bush felt.

This said, I have had a vision that has served as my rudder since I first experienced a call to ministry. And I have frequently articulated this vision here at South Church; I just haven’t announced it by saying, “HERE IS MY VISION!” But this vision is often discernable in my sermons and evident through the choices I make as your pastor. I wonder how each of you would complete the sentence, “Pastor George’s vision for the church is…”?

My words of welcome on the South Church homepage are instructive:

“Welcome to South Church! We are a diverse community of faithful and seekers. We are Baptist (ABC) and Congregational (UCC); we are black, brown and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, born again and agnostic; we work in schools, offices, factories and Dunkin’ Donuts; we are students, retired and unemployed. We come from backgrounds Protestant and Catholic, while others are discovering church for the first time.

And when we come together with our joys and sorrows, our faith and our doubts – when we worship together, share communion together, sing together, study the Bible together, and fellowship together – we love and support one another to become one body of Christ.

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Welcome home to South Church.”

What to you find here? Diversity? Yes. Hospitality? Certainly. Grace? Of course. But there is still more implied by these words. Try this on for size:

South Church brings people together across the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.

I don’t need to tell you about the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country and our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Attempting to bridge (not resolve but connect across) our differences is a tall order requiring much more than a smile and a handshake on a Sunday morning. We would have a lot of work to do to live into this vision for the church, but when I look out on the congregation on a Sunday morning I believe we are already off to a great start.

Please prayerfully ponder these words, “South Church brings people together across the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Does this vision for South Church speak to you? Could this vision provide a rudder to guide our worship and work together? How do we become the church described by this vision? Let’s begin the conversation and get under way.

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