Worth Fighting For

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 26, 2018.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl named Lola who was born on a sugar plantation in the Philippines. Lola remembers some aspects of her childhood fondly, playing kick-the-can with friends, favorite foods prepared by her mother, getting into mischief with her eight siblings, gathering mangoes off the ground in the middle of a typhoon! But Lola also experienced many hardships in her early life, hardships beyond what most of us will ever know. Sometimes all the family would have to eat was a small serving of rice flavored with a little fish sauce. Lola remembers that hunger. And she and her family were also impacted by many of the social ills that often accompany such poverty including alcoholism and abuse.

From a young age, Lola dreamed of getting out and making a better life for herself. At eighteen, she met her knight in shining armor, a young U. S. Marine, at a softball game. They fell in love, married, and moved, first to Japan and then to Hawaii. Not entirely surprisingly given their youth, the separation required by the military, and other challenges, their marriage ended after six years. But Lola held fast to her dreams and set about making that better life for herself in Honolulu.

After working and supporting herself for another ten years or so, never receiving any public assistance, she would again meet a man, this one’s armor creaky and a bit tarnished, and fell in love… with me! I know many of you had already figured out that Lola is my dear wife, Lourdes.

As a result of her first marriage, Lourdes had a “green card” giving her status as a permanent legal resident of the United States. Lourdes and I had been dating a couple years when terrorists brought down the twin towers. You may remember that these attacks almost immediately prompted fresh scrutiny of immigrants in the United States. My mother was worried that Lourdes could be deported. To be clear, as a permanent legal resident, by law she could not. But my mother insisted that Lourdes become a citizen. So she did, she went over the 100 questions for the citizenship exam again and again, having her customers at the Waikiki hotel where she worked quiz her until she could get them all right. It was a proud day indeed when she took the oath to become a U.S. citizen.

I share Lourdes’ story because in my experience, she is a typical immigrant in at least three ways. She has a burning desire for a better life, she works tirelessly to achieve that life for herself and her family, and she loves the United States. Lourdes is living the American Dream.

Despite these admirable qualities, in the nineteen years we have been together, I have known Lourdes to experience any number of slights and disparagements as a result of her brown skin and accented English. These are often in the form of what are known as micro-aggressions, diminishing, stereotyping assumptions about her as an immigrant from the Philippines. But none of these has been quite as obvious or hurtful as what Lourdes recently experienced right here in Simsbury.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey. Not long ago, at the ISCC rink down the road, Lourdes had been talking to one of the hockey dads, someone she has always had a warm relationship with. He kids Lourdes about her reputation as one of the loudest parents at every game. Lourdes had just left the rink, and saw this dad exiting behind her. She playfully held the glass door closed as he reached for it. He, apparently joking, said, “You better let me out, or I’ll send you back to where you came from!”

Now, these very words are often used to threaten immigrants and communicate that they do not belong in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. Lourdes responded immediately, “Wow! That’s really racist!” She was deeply hurt and troubled by this exchange, made an angry post on Facebook (while not naming the offender) and, when she saw the dad a few weeks later confronted him about what he had said. He apologized.

Let me make a few observations about this incident. In addition to communicating that Lourdes doesn’t really belong here, that this is not her home, his words wield power, suggesting that as a white American, he has legitimacy and therefore power to forcibly eject her from the only home she has known for almost her entire adult life, her country, where she has earned her citizenship. One might be inclined to dismiss the threat of violence and fear evoked by his words, after all, it was “just a joke.” He couldn’t really deport her. But think about it, to have these words ready on his lips to emerge spontaneously in a relaxed and happy moment means that he buys into a set of beliefs about immigrants that normalize such a comment. Though it might be hard for an average white person to understand, for many immigrants, even citizens, fear of encounters like the one Lourdes experienced is real.

Women, imagine if that was you holding the door, and the man had said, “jokingly,” “You better let me out or I will rape you!” Not at all funny, and a violent assertion of power evoking fear. That a man would presume to make such a “joke” would say a lot about his views on women, just as the hockey dad’s joke said a lot about his views on immigrants.

None of this is meant to condemn this guy. As I said, Lourdes took the initiative to name the offense and seek reconciliation, and she still considers him a friend, as do I. Rather, it is to point out how pervasive such beliefs are about immigrants.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This means that the enemy is not the flesh and blood hockey dad, but that the forces of evil live in systems and institutions that have the power to promote, perpetuate, and enforce such beliefs.

Theologian Walter Wink writes that, “so formidable a phalanx demands spiritual weaponry…It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institution and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent.”

Christians in Ephesus knew all about the power of such oppressive institutions. They were a religious minority who faced daily discrimination and persecution by the Roman Empire. This was more than hurtful jokes; Ephesian Christians were likely required to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of the emperor Domitian to test their allegiance.

Of course Paul’s is not a literal call to arms; he is not encouraging Christians to violently resist their persecutors. But he does draw upon the martial metaphor of armor to call upon Christians to oppose the evil systems that oppress them with weapons of truth, justice, a gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God! A sword! Not just protection against harm, but an offensive weapon. Make no mistake, Paul is urging Christians in Ephesus to prepare themselves for spiritual warfare!

As for the treatment of immigrants? Some of you know that I have been rereading the Bible, “cover to cover.” I am reminded that the Old Testament is thick with commands to treat immigrants fairly. These verses from Leviticus are typical: “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”

Just as it was after September 11th, immigration is again much in the news. To be sure, there are always reasoned debates to be had about immigration policy, but this is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about principalities and powers, systems of belief that diminish immigrants, and the institutions that nurture and enforce such beliefs. Politicians refer to immigrants as rapists, drug dealers and murderers. News stations give disproportionate attention to an undocumented immigrant who commits a murder while portraying a white man who kills his wife and children as a good family man. Immigrants fleeing poverty and violence seeking a better life for themselves and their children are said to be seeking welfare. And immigrant parents are forcibly separated from their children at the border.

This is no joking matter.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The systemic persecution of immigrants directed by rulers and authorities is evil.

Paul is calling us to respond to the biblical imperative, to stand and fight forces of injustice. Not to sit on the sidelines with our convictions, but to put on our armor, take up our sword, and enter the battle. Or, as one scholar writes, “Paul is calling the church to aggressively enter the market and challenge the hold of evil in the marketplace of life. Take the fight to the enemy. The church is a phalanx penetrating the powers of darkness as a wedge of light.”

May it be so.



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!


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