Responding to #metoo

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This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 22, 2017 to mark the 5th Anniversary of First Church becoming an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last week, I noticed that many women were making the same short, cryptic post on their Facebook page, writing simply #metoo (see my sermon title for how that is written). At first I couldn’t figure out what these women had in common that would cause them to all say #metoo, they were young and old, gay and straight, black, white and brown, and liberal and conservative. I soon learned that these posts were meant to draw attention to the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women at the hands of men. Each woman was saying that she too had experienced such sexual violence.

Dozens of women, including A-list stars, recently came forward to charge Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein with sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is said that Weinstein asserted his power to touch them, expose himself to them, and rape them. In such cases there are always some who first blame, then try to correct the women, if only they would wear longer skirts and less makeup this wouldn’t happen. In response to these stories and attempts to defend this behavior, women, including some members of this church, began posting #metoo, some with accompanying stories, to draw attention to how prevalent this abuse is, and make it clear that such behavior is entirely the responsibility of men.

I sat with this all week, aware of the years of trauma represented by these #metoo posts, scrutinizing my own behavior for ways I am complicit. I wondered about an appropriate response, aware that denial and silence render this violence invisible.

This is the 5 year anniversary of this church’s commitment to become Open and Affirming. This means that we seek to be intentional in our welcome of all people without regard to gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, class, marital status, or ability. We are justifiably proud of our Open and Affirming identity.

When I think of what it means to be Open and Affirming, I imagine that every person who walks through the door is greeted with the same genuine smile, warm handshake, and words of welcome without regard to differences. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And I think we do a pretty good job of this. Not perfect, but pretty good.

But #metoo has me wondering if there isn’t more to being an Open and Affirming church. Though we all deserve kindness, we aren’t all the same. As we have been so painfully reminded, women and men have dramatically different experiences with regard to sexual harassment and assault. So, I wonder if being an Open and Affirming church requires that we work to acknowledge, understand and respond to such differences, not just between men and women, but between all the aspects of our identity that I mentioned.

The passage I read from Isaiah informs this perspective. I’m really only going to focus on the very first line, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” Cyrus is the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon 539 years before Jesus was born. When Cyrus came to power, the Jews had been in exile in Babylon for some 60 years, taken from their homeland of Judah, forcibly removed from the presence of their God in the temple in Jerusalem.

Note, our text calls Cyrus “anointed.” The Hebrew word translated here as anointed is Messiah. How about that? The prophet Isaiah is calling this Persian, to be clear, a non-Jewish, conqueror, Messiah. The only other one referred to as Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is King David. And the Greek translation of this word Messiah? Christ, a word we only associate with Jesus. Wow! What’s going on? Well, it was Cyrus who saw the plight of the Jews and allowed them to return from exile to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple there. He saw their suffering, took responsibility, and set them free.

This is my point. Cyrus, as the Jew’s oppressor, has an essential role, an anointed, meaning God given, role, in liberating the Jews from Babylon and restoring them to their proper relationship with God. To be clear, that role was not to fix the Jews; there was nothing wrong with the Jews. Cyrus’ role was to represent the cause of the Jews to the Babylonians. To use his understanding and influence to lead his people. We might imagine his position wasn’t popular. There would have been those who protested, insisting the Jews didn’t deserve or weren’t capable of a renewed relationship with God. But Cyrus saw the Jews’ humanity and persisted. And the Jews were liberated.

Using Cyrus as our example, let’s return to the #metoo posts. How should men respond to the sexual oppression of women, not to fix them, but to lead other men? I think Pastor and author John Pavlovitz gets it right when he says:

Guys, while we may not believe we have committed direct acts of violence against women (however given the statistics, this is quite likely), we have each participated in a culture of misogyny and sexism that continues to victimize and traumatize, to steal safety and generate fear, to deny humanity and to cultivate disrespect. We are fully complicit in these #metoo stories.

We should be the ones stepping from the shadows right now.
We should be the one laying our souls bare.
We should be risking the judgment of strangers.
We should be the ones demanding renovation.

We are the other side of the #metoo stories.
We are the writers of these awful stories.
It’s time we owned this sickness.
It’s time we stopped it. 

Maybe this is what it means to be Open and Affirming. Acknowledging, understanding and responding to differences between us, and taking responsibility for ourselves when we have caused harm.

This week, I attended a two and a half day racial justice training with a group of Hartford area clergy. Some forty of us have been meeting monthly for over a year, developing the relationships necessary to launch a faith-based community organizing effort. The group included about 30 white and 8 black ministers. One of the exercises invited the white ministers to name what we liked about being white. Going around the circle, we named things such as, I like being considered safe, being the majority, being presumed knowledgeable, having ease in life, I like being welcomed everywhere, and having educational opportunities. The African-American pastors were then asked what they liked about being black. Their list looked very different; they affirmed their resilience, creativity and innovation, their history and sense of community, and their faith. I don’t know if we could have been so honest with each other if we hadn’t spent the past year building the relationships among us. Nevertheless, I felt anxious when the facilitator asked my black colleagues how it felt looking at the two lists. I felt certain they would express disappointment, hurt, sadness and anger that us white people had named the benefits we experienced as a result of our white skin. So I was surprised when more than a couple said they felt affirmed. By this they meant that what we named affirmed their experience in the world. Our words didn’t surprise them, they lived with this reality; it was a relief for them to hear us speak it aloud. One friend, an African-American woman, said, “Finally, I know I’m not crazy.”

As with misogyny and sexual violence against women, denial and silence have rendered racism and its impact invisible, even to the point of causing my friend to doubt her sanity.

Here again, the value comes, not in ignoring differences and settling for a smile and a handshake, nor is the intent to try to fix black people. No, the value comes from naming the difference in experience, then seeking to understand, confront, and take responsibility for the hurt caused by the resulting inequality.

Cyrus saw the unique trials faced by the Jews in exile, spoke up, took responsibility for his role in these trials, and used his power to work with his people to set the Jews free. We are called to do the same.

Violence against women is a men’s issue.

Racism is an issue that must be addressed by white people, not by correcting people of color but by taking responsibility for our own beliefs and the institutions we create and manage.

Equality for gays and lesbians cannot be the exclusive responsibility of the LGBT community.

Tonight, our PF youth group will welcome gay and lesbian speakers from the Stonewall Speakers Bureau who will share the challenges they have faced and overcome. This coming Friday the 27th we will welcome the recently retired President of Hartford PFLAG, Lori Davison. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was founded in 1972 by a mother wanting to support her gay son. Now with over 400 chapters in all fifty states, PFLAG offers support groups for both adults and youth. Lori will help us answer the question, “What do we do now?” meaning how do me move beyond the smile and a handshake welcome as an Open and Affirming church.

And in the coming months we will begin hosting monthly PFLAG support groups here at First Church. Our Open and Affirming Committee has been working tirelessly for the past six months for First Church to become part of the Hartford Chapter of PFLAG that we may offer this essential affirmation and support to LGBT people and their families.

This is what I’m saying. If you are a man, if you are white, if you are straight, if you are cis-gendered (do you know what that means? It means you identify as the sex you were born with, as opposed to being transgendered), if you are abled in mind and body, you have a unique responsibility to make First Church truly Open and Affirming, not just with a smile and a handshake, but by seeking to understand and by taking a stand, each of us claiming our own privilege and using our particular power and influence to confront the trauma caused by misogyny, racism, hetero-sexism, and ableism. This good church is then called to represent this perspective to other churches and to our community. This, is what it means to be Open and Affirming, this is what it means to be anointed.

 

 

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Go and Do the Same: Take Care

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

Luke 10:25-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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