Our Common Life

mlk beloved community

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on January 14, 2018, the Sunday before the Monday observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 17:20-23

This is the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, and we often take this opportunity to reflect on King’s legacy in light of our faith. Of course the obvious theme for a service like this would be racial justice, an issue as important today as it was in 1929 when King was born and 1968 when he was assassinated. I believe that persistent racism is one of the foundational issues of our time, and lies at the root of many other challenges we face. I have preached a number of sermons on racial justice in my two years at First Church Simsbury, so rather than just making another impassioned plea on the topic, I thought I would look at something else important to King’s legacy, reconciliation.

In 1960, King said, “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” The Beloved Community was King’s vision for a society built on justice, equal opportunity and love. The Beloved Community is a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

This past week, I attended a conference for Senior Ministers of larger, multi-staff, UCC churches in St. Petersburg, Florida. And yes, it wasn’t awful that last Sunday morning in Connecticut, I woke to -11 degrees, and that same evening I arrived in St. Pete where it was a balmy 68 degrees. But more than the warm weather, and even more than being in the company of colleagues, I was thrilled by the Featured Speaker, Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton, the founder and leader of the House United Movement, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to bringing people together across political differences for the common good.

I have often been inspired by the words of Jesus’ prayer in the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, “that they may all be one,” as I have been inspired by the vision of King’s Beloved Community, and I feel called to ministries that promote reconciliation. That said, there seems to be an inherent tension between bringing people with diverse beliefs together while also speaking the sometimes challenging truth of Jesus’ teachings.

Paul speaks to this challenge in First Corinthians. The church in Corinth is divided about spiritual gifts. Members of the church disagree about which gifts are more important, especially with regard to the gifts of tongues and prophecy. Speaking in tongues is a mystical, ecstatic experience, and there were those that believed this kind of joyful manifestation of the Holy Spirit was necessary to faith in and the worship of God. Prophecy means speaking God’s truth, even when this truth makes people uncomfortable. The people in the Corinth church are asking, should church be all about preaching the truth of the gospel, even when that truth may divide us, or should church bring everyone together around a feel-good experience of the Holy Spirit? A question as relevant today as it was then.

I continued to ponder these things this week as I prepared for this worship service, and these questions were still on my mind as my wife Lourdes and I set out Friday evening for a little R and R.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey for the Simsbury High. The parents of all the girls had agreed to gather at a Simsbury institution, the Red Stone Pub, for some “team building” of our own.

I have known some of these families for seven or eight years, and I met others for the first time this season. Upon arriving, I quickly found myself in a conversation with a couple other hockey dads when one, who I didn’t know well, said, “I love to talk about politics!”

Now, I have perspectives on all the significant issues of our day, perspectives I hope are informed by my faith and the teachings of Jesus, perspectives I am not shy about sharing in the right context and circumstances. I assessed who was in that circle and knew there were significant differences represented there. I had hoped that this evening would be an escape from such conversations so I quickly asked the dads which colleges their daughters were interested in attending. They laughed at the obvious change of subject, and gladly went along.

Before we had talked much more, our attention was drawn to something in the corner of the bar. There was a metal ring, about so big around, hanging from the ceiling on a string. On the wall between the dartboards there was a metal hook. The objective was to stand facing the wall, and swing the ring on the string toward the hook, attempting to get the ring to fall over and hang on the hook.

That’s all there was too it. It wasn’t a game, meaning that one didn’t compete or keep score. We just took turns trying to get the ring on the hook. And it turns out that this seemingly simple exercise was not as easy as it looked, but was really fun and very addictive!

A large group of hockey parents soon gathered around to cheer each other on. Each miss was met with a collective,”Awwww! So close! or All most!” While every successful ringing of the hook brought forth happy shouts of congratulations, whoops of joy, and hands thrust in the air!

In this non-church setting, I sided with the Corinthians, opting for a feel-good ecstatic experience instead of an uncomfortable conversation about what is true and right.

But in fact, Paul’s answer to the church is that both gifts are necessary, truth telling and experiences of the Holy Spirit. King also recognized the need for both justice (truth-telling) and reconciliation (an experience of coming together as one). His vision of the Beloved Community could only be attained, he said, if the three evils of poverty, racism, and militarism were confronted.

I am very aware of the presence of this tension in our church. I spend a ton of time asking myself how to preach what I prayerfully and faithfully understand as the application of our Bible lesson for the world today, while not leaving those who disagree feeling judged and excluded, and sending everyone home hopeful. There was much discussion of this very question between the ministers at the conference and Dr. Hilton.

I can certainly empathize with those who would like to leave difficult conversations out of church on a Sunday morning – after all I succumbed to the same impulse at the Red Stone, but Paul reminds us that church requires that we embrace both truth and the unifying spirit.

This said, I returned from St. Petersburg newly committed to seeking and maintaining balance between messages of justice and shared experiences of reconciliation in worship and within the church. Where and how might we create experiences like the one I had around the Red Stone Pub ring and hook game, experiences where we cheer each other on through disappointment, and celebrate victories together?

I was inspired by a colleague, Rev. Sarah Sarchet Butter at The Village Church in Wellesley, Mass. You will have noticed that I didn’t make the usual announcements at the beginning of worship. Rev. Butter includes this information instead in what she calls Our Common Life. But instead of just reminding people about events in the bulletin, she takes the opportunity to tell a little story or interpret scripture in a way that lifts up opportunities to participate in the life of the church. Ministries of the church function like the ring and hook game, they bring us together across differences. Our Common Life emphasizes opportunities for reconciliation. You will see Our Common Life in your bulletin after our prayer time and before the offering.

In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God is made known in him, in Jesus, and this connectedness with the divine, remakes itself through Jesus’ relationship with the disciples, that’s us, the church, and the church is meant to model this connection with the divine in all human relationships. The oneness that Jesus prays for is more than a good feeling in a worship service, it is the mission of the church. The church, our church, has a unique responsibility to come together across our differences to demonstrate to all, that we can be one in and through God’s love. Allen Hilton has a book coming out in the spring, A House United: How the Church Can Save the World. May it be so.


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!”


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.”

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.


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