Beloved Child, Magnificent Creation

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Rally Sunday, September 10, 2017.

Acts 8:26-39

Preaching on Rally Sunday always presents an interesting challenge.

Rally Sunday marks the beginning of the church year. Beloved ministries like our choirs and Sunday schools start back up after a summer hiatus, and new ministries like our Young Adult Service Community and church-wide book study are introduced. This Sunday is meant to communicate a certain excitement; in the past I have likened it to a big pep rally.

But here’s the challenge. There is no Rally Sunday in the Bible. I can’t tell a familiar story of the time Jesus gathered his disciples or a crowd of his followers for Rally Sunday. But luckily, references to God’s participation in new beginnings are plentiful in our tradition, right? We’ve got Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth. How about a good Christmas story on Rally Sunday? And what speaks to new beginnings better than Easter! Maybe a resurrection story is what we need. Or Pentecost. In fact, maybe Pentecost really was the first Rally Sunday, the Holy Spirit descending upon thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem, marking the birth of the church.

But this morning we had the pleasure of baptizing little Natalie so what better to mark this fresh start with God than a couple Bible passages about baptism!

The first will be familiar to many. John the Baptist stands in the river Jordan, calling all the people of Jerusalem to be washed in the water, ceremonially cleansed of their sins, making a fresh start. All the people of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside respond to John’s appeal. Then, along comes John’s cousin Jesus who, though identified as more powerful than John, submits himself to be baptized. As John lifts Jesus out of the water, the heavens part, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God’s voice declares, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

Here baptism represents the beginning of the Good News of Jesus’ ministry.

The other story, less well known, takes place following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The apostles set out around the Mediterranean to share this great news about God’s love and welcome as made known through Jesus. They preach, teach and heal, then invite those who want to become part of this loving family of God to be baptized. Baptism affirms for these new followers of Jesus that the Holy Spirit welcomes them, that they too are “God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” In these first months following Jesus’ death the apostles baptize thousands.

This morning’s story chronicles the story of the Apostle Phillip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Just those two words, Ethiopian eunuch, are packed with meaning. This Ethiopian was not a Jew. This story says the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship which may indicate he was what is known in the New Testament as a God-fearer, a non-Jew who sought to follow Jewish law. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian was not a Jew and so considered to be beyond God’s promise of love and excluded from the community of God’s people. Second, he was an Ethiopian. Ethiopia is in Africa; his is African, of a different race than the Semitic apostles. Then, as now, he would have been referred to as black. And then, as now, these racial distinctions carried meaning including judgment and rejection. And third, he is a eunuch! Just to be clear, that means he has been castrated.

When I was in seminary I wrote a paper on eunuchs in biblical times. First century Jewish historian Philo writes:

Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs…

And contemporary scholar J. David Hester writes:

The eunuch as a figure perceived to be neither celibate nor morally chaste, but was an extraordinary gender formation whose ability to navigate within and take on the properties of both male/masculine and female/feminine worlds (physically, sexually, socially, culturally, even politically) was the source of their ambivalent social status.

In short, eunuchs were what we could call today, transgendered, understood to be neither male nor female. Likewise, they had relations with both men and women. Just as it is today, this meant that society judged them harshly and Judaism specifically excluded them from God’s community of care.

So while we have to be careful not to conflate the biblical context with our own, it is absolutely true that the Ethiopian eunuch is someone who because of his religion, his race, his gender identity, and who he had relations with was excluded from the Jewish community and the promise of God’s love and protection.

So, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip could have, according to Jewish law should have, responded with a whole laundry list of reasons. Instead, the two step down from the chariot, enter some water, and Phillip baptizes him right then and there, affirming for him that the Holy Spirit includes him, that he too is “God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

So these two stories affirm that both Jesus and the Ethiopian eunuch are God’s precious children. And we have affirmed this morning, that dear, little Natalie is a precious child of God.

There would have been a temptation then, as now, to rank these as to whom we presume to be God’s favorites. Some would certainly insist that Jesus must be God’s favorite, baby Natalie a close second, and the black, pagan, gender non-conforming, bisexual Ethiopian eunuch a way-back, distant last. By this way of thinking, all of the rest of us would be somewhere between Natalie and the Ethiopian eunuch on this imagined chart of God’s favorites. That would be the temptation. To think that way.

But that would be wrong. Because that is not what is communicated through baptism. Baptism doesn’t rank us. Through baptism, everyone hears the same word of God without qualifications or rankings, “You are God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” Period.

In the novel, The Shack, the God character, Papa, a large black woman, tells the main Character, Mack Phillips, “You may not know this, but I am especially fond of you.” This, of course, makes him feel, special, “God is especially fond of me.” But in time he realizes that Papa says this to everyone…and means it. Baptism is God’s, “I am especially fond of you,” and God communicates this to each and all of us. So, it is true that God is especially fond of Natalie. And, God is especially fond of the Ethiopian eunuch. And God is especially fond of you, and you, and you, and you, and you…

So what makes this a Rally Sunday message?

First, it is right that we begin the church year by reaffirming that we are each a beloved child of God, a magnificent creation of the divine, precious in God’s sight. The ministries of this church, from Sunday morning worship, to our choirs, to baptisms, to children’s Sunday school, to Bible studies, to our visitation and card making ministries, to memorial services, remind each of us that we are chosen and marked by God, pride of God’s life.

Second, we enter into the church year reminded of our mission, to bring this good news of a loving, inclusive God to a divided and hurting world.

These are two essential aspects to our faith. We are accepted, and we are then called to communicate this radical acceptance to all God’s children.

In the course of this church year we will introduce a number of new ministries that bring this message to members of the church and community alike.

The all church book study of Rob Bell’s book, “What is the Bible?” asserts this message, that God’s love, as revealed in the Bible, includes everyone. And the time we spend together over five weeks in small groups will reinforce the good news of our acceptance.

On Sunday, October 22nd we will celebrate the fifth anniversary of becoming an Open and Affirming church with a special worship service and other programs. And, as part of the ongoing process of becoming Open and Affirming we will begin hosting monthly meetings of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Support groups will be offered both for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and their parents.

We will soon welcome our Young Adult Service Community interns and, through their work with Our Piece of the Pie and the Christian Activities Council, will deepen our relationships with people “over the mountain” in Hartford.

Part of this work will involve exploring an inter-faith community organizing initiative with over forty churches, synagogues, and mosques in the Greater Hartford area.

And we will be offering opportunities for racial justice training.

Finally, a group is gathering to get the word out about all this good news here at First Church by updating our website and developing a marketing plan.

This is a day of new beginnings!

“You are God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

Pass it on!

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Love and Moral Outrage: From Nashville to Connecticut

truck parking

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 3, 2017.

Romans 12:9-21

Yesterday morning, I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot looking forward to my weekly spiritual practice of sermon writing. The first thing I noticed was how full the parking lot was, but to my delight there were two parking spaces directly in front of me! But wouldn’t you know it, the huge pickup truck ahead of me took both spaces, clearly over the line, making it difficult if not impossible for me to park in the other space.  Immediately annoyed, I pulled up a little, making clear my intent to park in the other space, expecting him to move to make room for me.

There was a bit of a standoff, his reverse lights went on, then off again, and in the end it became clear he intended to stay right where he was. Now I was more than annoyed, and wedged my car into the half-space that was left, leaving little room for either of us to get out. As I squeezed out of the car I came face to face with the man in the truck and said, “Excuse me sir, you are taking up two parking spaces.” In hind sight, I recognize my polite words were not the least bit consistent with how I was feeling inside. He dropped any pretense of being polite, not passive aggressive but just plain aggressive he said, “Ya think?! Did you really need to park in that space!” We both walked away in a huff.

But it quickly became clear to me that we were both headed to Starbucks, and wouldn’t you know it I ended up right behind him and his wife in line! I was feeling righteous anger, clear I was in the right, and shaky from the confrontation. I began to imagine all sorts of terrible things about him. But I heard him order, and he sounded like a pretty normal, decent guy. I took a few deep breaths and tried to gain some perspective. After all, I’m the Pastor of this prominent church, I can’t just say and do whatever is on my mind. How could I have approached this differently? What could I do now to redeem the situation in a way that would be authentic for me?

Even though I recognized that I had played a part in our confrontation, I wasn’t going to apologize. After all, he did take two spots! But maybe I could say something like, “Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I’m pretty sure you are a nice guy, and I’m a nice guy too. My name is George.” I was rehearsing variations of this speech as I waited for my coffee, and suddenly, there he was walking toward me. I took a deep breath, but before I could say anything he reached out his hand and said, “I’m sorry about that. I am driving a borrowed truck and was worried about damaging it.” I shook his hand and laughed, “I was just going to say something too, I’m sorry about that. My name is George.” He responded with his name, Bill, and that was that! He left with his coffee, all the tension I had been feeling left my body, and I sat down to write my sermon.

That said, I am still clear that I correctly judged his actions. He was wrong. He asserted all the space as his own, thereby excluding others. His justification for his actions didn’t change this. But as a result of the words and handshake we exchanged in Starbucks I can now say this without anger or malice.

In his letter to the church in Rome Paul writes, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” This brings to mind the popular aphorism, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”

This saying has rubbed many a progressive Christian the wrong way. Often applied by evangelical Christians to the treatment of gays and lesbians, it strikes me as an insincere way of expressing love, and a backhanded way of judging people.

On Tuesday, a group of conservative, evangelical religious leaders released a “manifesto” they named the Nashville Statement, asserting their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and condemning what they called “homosexual immorality and transgenderism.”

I had the same reaction to this statement that I had to that man taking up two parking spaces. I felt my blood pressure rise  and my stomach clench. Here they were trying to claim all God’s space as their own while excluding others.

The Nashville Statement is a series of short, tightly argued paragraphs for what they believe to be true about sexuality and gender. And sure enough, it includes a call to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” not in so many words, but using the well-known corollary, “to speak the truth in love.”

But here’s the thing. My Starbucks acquaintance can justify his choice to take two parking spaces, he was trying not to damage a borrowed truck, but that doesn’t make it right. I don’t agree with the Nashville Statement’s justification, specifically their definition of sin and truth. Those who signed this statement claim that homosexuality and being transgendered are behavioral choices, sinful ones; I assert that variations in gender and sexual orientation are aspects of identity, part of the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. “

I am not alone in this, of course. Just days after the Nashville Statement was released, Episcopal clergy in Connecticut responded with what they call the Connecticut Statement, saying:

We put forth a different vision: one in which God made diversity as one of God’s first creative acts; in which God infused that diversity into the human species; and in which God invites us to celebrate the vast array of identities that all weave together to make the tapestry of humanity. We believe the Biblical witness supports such a vision and that the Holy Spirit is moving the Christian Church to acceptance, celebration, and full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and indeed of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and abilities. Far from being antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ, such movement fulfills the dream of God that all be welcomed and affirmed as God’s beloved children.

 

The Nashville Statement seeks to exclude. This is, in fact, a way to understand sin, acting in a way that seeks to separate people one from another and from God. While the Nashville Statement separates, the Connecticut Statement lays claim to a God whose love embraces all people.

As I always affirm at the beginning of each service, we are an Open and Affirming church, meaning that we have a statement of our own, that says, “Led by God’s spirit, we welcome, respect and affirm all people, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, economic circumstance, or physical, emotional or mental ability.”

Though I have never liked, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” civil rights activist Ruby Sale recently said something that sounds similar. “In these times,” she says, “we must learn to hold together both love and moral outrage.”

This is not unlike Paul’s challenge to us in Romans to:

  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So how does one go about this? What might we learn from my encounter at Starbucks?

As I took time to reflect on this experience I realized a few things. I recognize the way I responded in the moment contributed to the conflict between me and the driver of the truck. Pulling up close to wait for him to move communicated my irritation and impatience, then to be fake-nice in telling him what he already knew ramped up the existing tension between us.

Sharing the same neutral space for a time was helpful for both of us, to observe one another apart from our disagreement. We both had to arrive at a place where we were prepared to acknowledge our role in the conflict and apologize for that.

Now notice, I am not saying we let go of our beliefs about the thing itself, merely about how we had behaved in response. I still think he was wrong to take two parking spaces, and he may still believe he was justified in doing so. Yet we were both able to recognize that the ways we acted toward each other were not helpful and act to change that.

There is the underlying right and wrong of a thing. Then there are the layers of emotion, the righteous anger, the moral indignation, and the judgment of character that we heap upon the other. We end up responding as much to these feelings as we do to the underlying disagreement.

So, let me offer a couple cautions before posing a question.

I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between taking two parking spaces and condemning gay and transgender people; one is a  minor annoyance, the other ruins lives. If there is any value in the parking space story it is only as parable and metaphor.

I also recognize that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people need to safeguard their physical and emotional well-being, and this may mean choosing not to directly engage in any way those who judge them.

With these qualifications in mind, I am left to wonder how we can create neutral settings that allow us to encounter those with whom we have strong differences, metaphorical Starbucks lines that could allow us to experience one another in a less threatening way, giving us time to reflect upon and accept responsibility for our own role in conflict, shake hands and learn each other’s names.

Amen.

 

Jesus, Open Your World

heineken commercial

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on April 30, 2017.

Luke 24:13-35

It is not always easy to take these stories that were written almost 2,000 years ago, and find relevance for our lives today. The seemingly supernatural elements of the resurrection of Jesus Christ can present particular challenges. Bringing these ancient stories into the present is one of the primary tasks of a preacher. This morning I will share a video that made this morning’s story come newly alive for me. But first, let’s review that story.

Later, that same day the women discovered the empty tomb, two followers of Jesus are walking along, talking about everything that had happened in Jerusalem. Well, along comes Jesus, who says, “Whassup?!” Not recognizing Jesus, they tell this stranger the story, that the person they hoped would make Israel great again had been persecuted and murdered by Jewish authorities; further, they share that the tomb of this Jesus had been found empty that very morning. There were even stories circulating that Jesus was alive!

Jesus, still unrecognized by his own followers by telling them the stories of their tradition, stories that point to Jesus’ divinity.

They arrive at their destination and invite this stranger to stay for dinner. When Jesus takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, BAM!, their eyes are opened and they recognize Jesus. And immediately, he disappears from their sight.

Then they get it. We felt his presence; our hearts were warmed, but we were too lost in our own world to recognize him.

So, that’s the ancient story. On the surface, not a lot for us to relate to.

The video is called, Worlds Apart: An Experiment. The video is four and a half minutes long, and was made to sell a product. I am not endorsing the product.

Click on link and watch video before continuing.

Worlds Apart: An Experiment

I would suggest that video effectively captures the message of the Emmaus Road story, communicating that message in a contemporary context.

The disciples were so absorbed in their own point of view that they were unable to recognize Jesus, more broadly, they were unable to see “that of God,” in the stranger.

Like the story of the two disciples and Jesus, the individuals in the video are at first unable to see the good in the other. They are shown positioning themselves against those who cause them to feel threatened.

The Emmaus Road story begins with the stranger, Jesus, walking alongside the two disciples. He fosters a connection with them by telling them familiar stories that reveal who he really is.

In a way, the video also asks the strangers to walk alongside each other, asking them to follow the instructions of this “experiment.” What are the ways the participants are invited to foster a connection with one another?

They participated in a common activity together. I think they called them “flat packs” in the video, but it is the equivalent of Ikea furniture, right? They are asked to put these pieces of furniture together. Did you catch the part where there were given each other’s instructions? They needed each other. They had to work together to assemble all the pieces into a bar.

Next they are asked to use five adjectives to describe themselves, then identify things they have in common. Two things happened here. First, in describing themselves they became confessional, using words like offensive and solemn, or saying, I have ups and down, or, I experienced homelessness. Participants also took this opportunity to affirm one another. We heard things like, you seem ambitious, you have a good aura, you would listen to me, thank you for your military service. These were ways of sharing their stories with each other.

After sharing in the stories of their faith together, the disciples were presented with a choice about whether to ask the stranger to stay.

After the strangers in the video followed the instructions they were offered a choice, whether to stay with the stranger or go.

The disciples and Jesus ate together, their meal became what we know as a communion table.

The strangers in the video drank beer together, the bar became its own kind of communion table.

The disciples’ eyes were opened to recognize Jesus in the stranger.

The strangers in the video opened their eyes to see the good in each other.

Jesus disappeared from their sight, reminding us that Jesus doesn’t need to be physically present for us to experience his presence in one another. We can find Jesus’ presence anywhere people come together to see and hear each other.

Note, nowhere in the video were these people told they needed to give up their beliefs, though their minds were opened in the course of the experiment. Did you notice?

The guy who was against feminism clinks his bottle with the feminist, affirming the saying on her t-shirt, “smash the patriarchy.”

And the guy who had insisted, “if you’re a man, be a man, or a female, be a female,” offered to stay in touch with the transgender woman, saying that he would have to explain to his girlfriend why he was texting another girl, affirming her identity as a woman.

In this morning’s lesson, the disciples’ come to see God in the stranger by walking with him and sharing, hearing his story, and seeing him for who he is. In the video experiment, two strangers come to see the good in each other by accompanying each other along the way, hearing each other’s story, and seeing each other for who they are.

The one man tells the transgender woman that he grew up seeing the world in black and white, but the world isn’t black and white. The woman responds laughing, yeah, I’m just me. This, in a nutshell, is the message of the incarnation, the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus. The world isn’t doctrine, the world is just a person, just people.

There are a couple ways we might apply these lessons to our lives as the church.

Each of us, as individuals are not asked to give up our beliefs to be members of the church. But when we gather around the shared stories of our faith, when we participate in shared activities (Rebuilding Together, the tag sale, or The Walk Against Hunger), when we confess, when we affirm one another, and when we break bread (or drink beer) together, our eyes will be opened to see that of God in each other, and our hearts and minds will naturally be opened, be warmed, as a result of our time together.

This also means that we, as the church, can have a point of view and represent it to others. But we should be careful to nurture our relationships with others in the community in these same ways, by telling the stories of our faith, by accompanying others along the way of life, confessing and affirming one another, and breaking bread together. When we do, our church and our community, indeed our world, will be opened and changed, and God will be revealed among us.

I’ll conclude by appropriating the tag line at the end of the video:

Jesus, Open Your World.

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