Sermon: You’ll Never Walk Alone

You’ll Never Walk Alone

A Sermon for the Allin Church of Dedham, UCC

Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash

July 7. 2019

 

Text:

 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ 

 

16“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

 

Prayer:

 

Sermon:

 

A week ago today, thunderstorms worked their way through our area. We sat at home in our front room watching the driving rain and wind, oblivious to what was happening in our back yard. 

Between storms we took a post-dinner walk and in the midst of it, the text from our next door neighbor came: there’s a big branch down out back.  Looks like it missed your house. We scurried back to assess, and as we walked into our yard, our neighbor appeared with branch clippers and a saw for us to use. The real work began Monday morning when the skies had cleared and we amassed a 6 foot tall stack of twigs and leaves and a pile of firewood that is still available, if you’re interested. Charlotte, our neighbor, appeared again to help me haul the twigs and leaves away from the house.

 

Our neighborhood is like this, and particularly our next door neighbors.  Whatever minor or major crisis, they watch out for us, and they show up, with the right tools, and quiet wisdom about the way the neighborhood works.  

 

When we moved in three years ago, we thought the view and the nearby pond had brought us to this spot. But I think it was the neighbors. In this place, we know we are never alone. There are companions on the journey.

 

There is a storm happening here, in this community, I hear. Your dear, amazing Gabe is facing a great challenge and your strong, courageous pastor Cheryl is taking time to walk more closely to Gabe through his treatment. This whole family is traveling through an unexpected storm, and your church is simultaneously supporting them and dealing with what this storm means here, in your pews. You are stepping up to ministry in new ways. You are on a different journey than you were just a couple of months ago.

 

So this morning’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus sends out the seventy (or the seventy-two, depending on which translation you have in front of you) on a new mission is a good model for this moment.

 

There were seventy of them, which matches right up with the first seventy descendents of Noah, who formed seventy nations in the Jewish tradition. Moses chose seventy to go up Sinai with him to eat with God.  And Israel was captive to Babylon for seventy years. In other words, the number seventy had deep meaning. So Jesus sends 70, into the world, to minister in his name.

 

The work Jesus sends them out to do is urgent, important, and timely.

It’s also not always easy.

But:

They are not asked to go it alone.  They are sent in pairs, companions for comfort, strength, and challenge. Most of the time, throughout the Christian Testament and since then, followers of Jesus have ministered together, in community.  I wonder if this is in part because our triune God is within God’s own self, in community. In William Willimon’s words, “There is something about the Trinity that refuses to work alone.” Certainly, it is more possible to do ministry with companions. In one of the other readings in the lectionary today, Paul celebrates the power of companions:

 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

 

When we go out to do a hard thing, having a companion on the journey means the joy and challenge of bearing one another’s burdens. 

 

They are sent with a word, and that word is peace. The seventy are asked to begin each visit, each project, each ministry, with a blessing of peace.  While we don’t often go out to proselytize today, nevertheless, we are sent out to minister by Jesus. And a blessing of peace is an awfully good place to start any encounter.

 

They are sent out, not knowing how they will be received or what the power of their ministry will be. They are told to expect and accept hospitality, and not to be picky or critical of that hospitality. The good news for us is that these models of ministry come back to Jesus testifying to the healing power of the ministry he sends them to do.  We may not know what the next phase of our ministry journey will be, but this text gives us hope that it will be fruitful, healing, and powerful.

 

Jesus sends the seventy out, two by two, because they cannot do what he has asked them to do, on their own. We see again and again in the Bible, the mandate to share ministry and to seek help.  Jethro tells his son-in-law Moses that he cannot do what God has asked him to do on his own (Exodus 18). And God tells Moses the same thing – to share his burden with the people (Numbers 11). And Paul tells the Romans, we do not live for ourselves – we live for one another. 

 

Growing up, my congregation would recite a statement of faith at the end of worship most weeks, and it’s opening words became a great promise to me:

 

We are not alone. We live in God’s world.

 

( https://www.united-church.ca/community-faith/welcome-united-church-canada/new-creed

 

This is indeed one of the greatest promises of our faith: we are not alone.  God sends us companions on the journey, and God is with us, too.

Jessica Tate writes, “This is where we often find ourselves…in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story.  We do not know how, or if….our hope will be restored. We are left with simply a promise – a promise that we are not alone….This is God’s promise to us…that God will be with us, no matter what…This is how God acts.  God clings to us, refusing to allow us to bear our despair and emptiness alone. In so doing, God shows us loving kindness that sows in us hope and fullness, in short, salvation.” (Between Text and Sermon, Ruth 1:6-22, Interpretation)

God sends us through this world with companions. 

 

God sends people with casseroles and branch cutters, Spiderman capes and encouraging words.

 

 The people who pledge to us that they will walk beside us on the road, whether it be through forest or desert, whether it be through despair or redemption, these are the people who carry us, until the tears are wiped away. These are the saints who bring us the message of hope, that we will get through this life, together, and with God’s grace.

 

And there is another companion on our journey, one whose presence and wisdom and strength is steadfast.

 

 It is all well and good that Jesus called his disciples to follow him; called us to follow him.  But the reason Christians have said yes to that call is because Jesus came to us, to share our common lot, to walk the unknown journey with us, to embody God’s own love and cling to us, whatever may come.

 

Thanks be to God, who sends us people.

 

And who offers us hope of redemption and restoration and new beginnings.

 

Let me end with this prayer from Kathy Galloway of the Iona Community (in Coracle 3, no. 11 copyright Iona Community, 1992, from Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year C).

 

 Let us pray: Our brother Jesus, you set our feet upon the way and sometimes where you lead we do not like or understand. Bless us with courage where the way is fraught with dread or danger; bless us with graceful meetings where the way is lonely; bless us with good companions where the way demands a common cause; bless us with night vision where we travel in the dark, keen hearing where we have not sight, to hear the reassuring sounds of fellow travelers; bless us with humour – we cannot travel lightly weighed down with gravity; bless us with humility to learn from those around us; bless us with decisiveness where we must move with speed; bless us with lazy moments, to stretch and rest and savour; bless us with love, given and received; and bless us with your presence, even when we know it in your absence; Lead us into exile, until we find that on the road is where you are, and where you are is going home. Bless us, lead us, love us, bring us home bearing the Gospel of life. Amen. 

 

Sermon: Fruity

 

 

Fruity

A Sermon for First Church Somerville, UCC

June 30, 2019

Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash

 

Audio Recording, Including Liturgist’s Reading:

 

Text:

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 (NRSV, alt.)

5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

 

5:13 For you were called to freedom, siblings; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.

 

5:14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

5:15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

 

5:16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.

 

5:17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.

 

5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.

 

5:19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,

 

5:20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,

 

5:21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

 

5:22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,

 

5:23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

 

5:24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

 

5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

 

Prayer

 

Sermon

 

Strawberries.

Strawberries, this very week, let me talk to you about the strawberries – all 7 of them – that have ripened on my plants.  They are tiny, deeeeeep in color, intense in flavor, and I grew them my very own self. They are the tartest, sweetest, most lovely fruits.

The fruit of the spirit is joy.

 

They are joined this week in ripeness and loveliness by the several quarts of farmers market strawberries that I stocked up on because the farmstand manager, Jan, said the 90 degree weather on the way would take out the last of these beauties for the season.  It was a late spring and seems to have switched over to an early and hot summer, once again, thank you climate change and global weirding. But, Jan said, you come back next week and we’ll have the first raspberries.  She knows my boy can finish a box of raspberries before I manage to pay for them. There was one year we went up and picked a gallon ourselves. It was hot, out there on the farm that day, but my boy stayed hydrated with raspberry juice, dripping red down his chin and onto his shirt. 

The fruit of the spirit is patience.

 

Blackberries are not ready yet.  They come later in the summer, most years. Four summers in a row, the children at the day camp we co-led with the Brighton Allston UCC went on pilgrimage to the very back border of that church yard to look for blackberry vines falling down the wall, full and ripe. Some of these kids had no regular access to fresh fruit so one summer when our theme was, no kidding, Fruits of the Spirit, we took them across the street to Johnny’s Fruit Stand. Everyone had a basket to put their favorites into and then, it was like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the local beat cop walked in to say hello to Johnny and the neighborhood kids and on that day everyone was okay.

The fruit of the spirit is kindness.

 

Tomatoes.  Also a summer fruit. I don’t love them, myself. I have been told that for some folks there is nothing more delicious than a warm tomato, picked from the vine, luscious and juicy, maybe with a little salt sprinkled on, and eaten in the sunshine. Tomatoes, not my favorite, but in the summertime when I think of tomatoes I think of a hot day in Tampa, when I was one of hundreds of UCC folks who left General Synod for a little while to walk in with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a strike for fair wages and conditions for tomato pickers in Florida. The UCC is still working with this coalition, even recognizing them at last week’s General Synod.  This coalition and their supporters have won agreements with 14 major foodsellers and restaurant chains. They have, in their own words, eliminated in this industry in Florida a state of modern day slavery. They have reduced sexual harassment and increased wages for workers and they created a Fair Food Program. Every tomato you eat that is picked by members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is sweeter.(1) Those tomatoes, I love.  

 

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,

 

5:23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

 

The fruit of the spirit is justice.

The fruit of the spirit is liberation.

The fruit of the spirit is freedom.

 

Your preacher last week, Rachel Payne, didn’t she preach a word on Paul?  She spent some time talking about the dichotomy that Paul developed between Jewish law and Christian faith – as she pointed out, a false dichotomy that came perhaps out of Paul’s own anxiety about whether he was welcome and beloved.  Paul was an anxious sort, and had some social issues. When I spoke with you last time I preached from a section of Acts which chronicled a struggle between Peter and Paul and their followers over circumcision. Peter, in that passage from Acts, had a vision that moved him to support Christians who were from Gentile or Jewish backgrounds, and moved the church toward a new kind of inclusion. In Galatians, we find out two things.  According to Paul in Galatians, Peter succumbed to pressure and went back to expecting Gentile men to be circumcised to join the church. And, we learn, Paul just could not get over his conflict with Peter and his issues around what folks have to do to be Chrisian. When folks come to Galatia to preach circumcision, again – Galatians 2 – Paul gets anxious and angry, and as we do when we get that way, develops a stark contrast between his position and theirs.

 

Except that, in the end, Paul comes back to the law.

 

Freedom from the law, Paul winds up arguing, brings you back to the law.

 

“Ironically, Paul’s insistence on “Freedom from the Law” is supported by quoting from the Law: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”(2)   He is not quoting Jesus here, he is quoting Leviticus.  

 

And then, we get to the heart of this chapter of Galatians, in which Paul presents another moral dichotomy, and this one I think is more healthy, more useful. More fruitful, even.

 

Paul presents a dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit. But wait, you say, Reebee, separation of the body from the spirit is a terrible idea. Furthermore everyone in this room groans at the thought of what Paul or someone writing with his name had to say elsewhere in the Bible about bodies and flesh, words that have been used to oppress women and LGBT folks.

 

Well, I want to propose that flesh and spirit are not actually what Paul is contrasting here.  He is actually pointing to something even more abstract. He’s delineating between self-centeredness and neighborliness, individualism and interdependence.  Focus on flesh is self-absorption and self-promotion.  (Paraphrasing Rudolf Bultmann, David Bartlett, “Fruits of the Spirit in Paul’s letter to the Galatians” in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2016.)

I can tell you I got this framing from a bunch of different commentators but I want to quote Out in Scripture, from the Human Rights Campaign in particular:

 

“Galatians 5:1, 13-25 brings memories of both treasures and traumas. Paul begins (and ends) with this wonderful proclamation of grace. Yet, as soon as many people hear the word “flesh” (verse 16), they default into a legalistic and punitive theology. We are reminded that “flesh” was Paul’s shorthand for the lower, carnal mind — a life driven by fear rather than love. Galatians 5:14 clearly reminds us that the fulfillment of the law is to love your neighbor as yourself. When all else is hung on this anchor, we hear it more responsibly both for ourselves and for others…Free, embodied people consult deeply with their bodies as they relate to other bodies, with the God who is embodied in Christ.”(3)   

 

Thinking about freedom in this way, I come to my own paraphrase of the beginning of this chapter of Galatians:

For freedom, Christ has set us free,

For the freedom of all, Christ has freed us.

To liberate others, Christ as liberated us.

 

And therefore, the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of this freedom to free others, is oriented to our community, our siblings in Christ, our neighbors. 

 

Here we are, preparing to celebrate freedom this week.

 

We talk a lot about freedom in the United States leading up to July 4, we talk a lot about the freedom of the individual.  But Paul’s description of freedom is freedom that liberates an entire community.  

 

In other words, when Paul says we are free in Christ, the freedom he promotes is freedom to act in love. And when we act in love, 

 

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,

 

5:23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

The fruit of the spirit is neighborliness.

The fruit of the spirit is justice.

The fruit of the spirit is mutual liberation.

 

This July 4 many of us will be praying for, and advocating for, the freedom and liberation of folks who cross our borders yearning for freedom, remembering that until all of us are free, none of us are free.  Instead of waving a flag many of us will be staring at a picture of a father and daughter, face down in a river.

 

Emma Lazarus, whose words are on the Statue of Liberty, wrote: “Until all of us are free, none of us are free.”

 

I don’t know if next week you will have a third Sunday on Galatians, but here is a sneak preview of where Paul goes at the beginning of chapter 6:

 

6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 

 

This summer, 

Let us bear one another’s burdens,

Seek one another’s freedom,

Walk alongside our neighbors, 

And enjoy the sweet, ripe, luscious fruit of the Spirit.

 

Amen.

Sermon: Welcome Home?

Welcome Home?

Preached at North Reading Union Congregational Church, UCC

June 23, 2019

Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash

 

“God loves us through all our blemishes, and we respond by grabbing on to hope.” – UCC Mental Health Network liturgy for Mental Health Sunday 2019

 

Texts 

 

Galatians 3:26-29

 

3:26 …In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

 

3:27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

 

3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 

3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 

Luke 8:26-39

8:26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

 

8:27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.

 

8:28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”–

 

8:29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

 

8:30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.

 

8:31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

 

8:32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.

 

8:33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

 

8:34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.

 

8:35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

 

8:36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.

 

8:37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.

 

8:38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,

 

8:39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

 

Prayer

 

Sermon

 

I know this man. When I first sat with today’s text, I had a flash of recognition.  I know him, and I wonder if you do, too.

 

I wonder if you know someone bound up by a Legion of crises.

 

It’s no easy thing when a Bible story brings to mind the face of someone we love, or someone for whom our hearts break, or hardest of all, someone we can’t look at anymore. Someone we’ve sent away.

 

I read this text and thought of a modern Gerasene, occupied by a Legion of troubles, that I saw on our local bike path last month.  I rode past him, tucked into his sleeping bag. All his possessions were in a shopping cart he had dragged up onto the ledge. He lay precariously on that narrow place at the top of a concrete slope, under the bridge near Alewife.  

I looked for him a few days later but he was not there anymore. In his place were new No Trespassing signs.  

 

I read this text again and recognized someone I love, a family friend, bound for years by the chains of alcohol addiction, who could not find his way into an AA meeting, could not take the first of twelve steps.

 

And again as I pondered Luke’s words, I remembered a phone call, late at night, from a parishioner struggling so mightily to get her mental illness under control but that night she was driven into the wilds and she called, needing to get to the Emergency Room, fast.

 

One more time I read the Gospel, this time as I waited in a courthouse lobby, next to a woman who cannot go home, whose worries for herself and her children are more than Legion if she goes home.  Yet, she is told, she cannot stay here. She has neither clothes nor country.

 

He could be any of them, that’s the way the Gospel works. This man could be any of us

 

This man is naked, alone, exiled, unclean, bound in chains, occupied, out of control, homeless, sleeping in the place of the dead.

 

And hardest of all, 

he is without identity and without community.

 

Jesus asks him his name and the troubles in his soul come forth and name themselves Legion.

 

Legion, something with the power of 6000 Roman soldiers occupying the land, occupying his life.

 

Legion, binding up not only this man, but occupying the community that once loved him, just the way it happens, when our loved ones’ suffering binds us up.

 

Thankfully, Jesus shows up.

 

Jesus crosses a sea to get to him.

 

Jesus walks miles from the shore to see this brother.

 

Jesus – for the only time in Luke’s Gospel – travels into Gentile territory to find him.

 

Jesus asks the man, what is your name?  Because Jesus knows he has a name that transcends nakedness, homelessness, and disease.  God has not forgotten him. 

 

Jesus wants to know his name, the name of this beloved child of God.

 

The good news for this brother is that nothing can separate him from the love of God and on that day in Gerasa, Jesus does not call him Legion, he calls him beloved and the man is freed. Jesus calls all of us beloved, and in that there is liberation.

 

Frederick Buechner once said, “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.”  Legion does not have the last word, love has the last word, that is the good news for this brother. He is not his illness or his crisis, he is a whole and dignified soul.

 

None of us are defined by the Legions of crises within us, and oh my that is good news.

 

But, there is also a challenge in this morning’s Gospel. When they see him healed, this brother’s community is afraid.

 

If any of these people came into your mind, 

sister, or brother, or friend, 

If someone who is addicted, homeless, incarcerated, or struggling with mental illness,

Came into your mind,

This is a hard Gospel.

 

We are not Jesus. We cannot simply cast Legion off the cliff, no matter how much we love our brother. We are not Jesus – we can only walk the journey the best we can. It may even be hard for us to imagine restoration. And we really don’t know what to do with someone who is healing.

 

If we recognize the Gerasene demoniac in our own lives, 

Then we have to know that the Gospel, the Good News, is not just about this naked, bound, occupied one being healed.

It’s about us, their community.

 

And Luke doesn’t tell us how things turn out in Gerasa, nor how it will turn out here.

 

At the end of the text, Luke leaves the story unfinished.

 

He writes that the people are afraid, and rather than throwing a party for the return of their beloved, they ask Jesus to leave.

 

This brother wants to go away with Jesus, the nexus of his healing.  

 

Seriously, you know you would want the same thing. You would cling to your liberator, hide in the safety of his wings.

 

But Jesus will not let him leave home. Jesus sends him back to the community where he could not live while bound and occupied by Legion. Jesus sends him back to the city where his healing has terrified folks.

 

Jesus commissions him to ministry, saying: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And Luke says, “he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

 

Jesus sends this man, healed, and whole, back home, to tell his good news. 

 

Does anyone welcome him at the city’s gate and do they listen to him?

 

Luke does not tell us if dozens are reconciled or thousands are saved or hundreds more healed.  Luke does not tell us if this man is welcomed home. We just don’t know.

 

But we know this.

 

The good news for Christian communities in this Gospel is a charge to welcome our brothers and sisters home.  We are called to set aside labels and offer hospitality. 

 

We can see their face as we listen to this text, and here’s the thing:

 

We may not be able to heal him or unbind her, but we can be part of a community of many hands and hearts that offers welcome, support, grace and companionship on the journey of healing.

 

It may take more than we have individually. It may take a hospital stay, it may take medication, it may take therapy we are not trained to offer, it may take a shelter or a social worker, it may take time and it may have to be repeated over and over again. We may even wonder if healing will ever be complete, but the Gospel invites us to imagine that the worst thing may not be the last thing.

 

To imagine that healing may be possible.

To imagine restoration.

The Gospel tells us not to be afraid to stand, watching the horizon, for the prodigal one’s return.

 

The late Rachel Held Evans, in her final book, wrote: “The miracles of Jesus aren’t magic tricks designed to awe prospective converts, nor are they tests from the past, meant to sort true believers from doubters. They are instructions, challenges. They show us what to do and how to hope.”  ( Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2018) Kindle Edition, 248.)

 

I don’t know what happened to the man under the bridge, or any of his dozen companions, but I know officers and social workers who are walking around Alewife looking for them, and I know people of faith and folks moved by compassion are asking themselves how to help.

 

I do know what happened to my dad’s dear friend: he took that first step and spend years walking the eleven more, and then he found a church that called him beloved, and listened to his testimony and learned from him.

 

The woman on the phone has been back teaching Sunday School for years now, and the kids love her because she is silly and real at the same time.

 

And the woman in the courtroom is still waiting, but she is not waiting alone.

 

We can grab hope and hold on to it.

We can see this brother, this sister, as beloved,

We can watch for them and

Welcome them home.

 

We can whisper to them,

You are beloved.

 

If we forget how to do it, maybe we can turn to Paul’s words from Galatians.  I think he offers the same good news and the same invitation.

 

At the church at Galatia, you see, Paul witnesses people being bound by labels and separated from one another.

 

Paul sees a community where one piece of your story, one label, determines your worthiness.

 

Slave, female, Greek?  They tell you to stand outside the gate.

 

Free, male, or Jew?  They offer you a place at the banquet.

 

No, says Paul, those distinctions do not matter to God, nor should they in the church. Every one of you is clothed with Christ, every one of you is God’s beloved child, every one of you is an heir to the promise of God’s infinite love.

 

He’s talking about everyone who would follow Jesus, but I hear our Gerasene brother’s story in Paul’s words.

 

Naked, alone, exiled, occupied – all of that is gone now and as Paul puts it, he is clothed with Christ.

 

Paul envisions a time, already-but-not-yet, when labels are less important than community, when there is no longer outsider and insider, worthy and unworthy, rich or poor, well or disturbed but one family of God’s children, heirs according to the promise of Gods’ love, compassion and justice.  

 

And that is good news, my friends, because there is nothing that separates a single one of us from God’s love. Nothing. 

 

In Christ you are neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, 

Not bound or labeled by experiencing mental illness or homelessness, or nakedness either – you are clothed with Christ.

In Christ’s community you are no longer a label,

No longer unnamed,

You are valued, known, and seen.

 

The Gerasene brother came home on a mission, to share what Jesus had done for him.

These missionaries in our midst, these witnesses to redemption, these strangers and angels and prophets have a good word, a challenging invitation for us.

Jesus sends them to tell what God has done for them, 

To tell of God’s love for all of us.

 

Will we listen?

Amen.

 

Sermon: Of Roses and Rainbows

Of Roses and Rainbows

A Sermon for First Church Somerville, UCC

Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash

May 19, 2019

Audio Recording, including music by the amazing Dr. Jolie Rocke which precedes and follows the sermon:

Text:

 

Acts 11:1-18

11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 11:3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 11:4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,

11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 11:6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  11:7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 11:8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 11:9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 11:12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 11:13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 11:14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 11:16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 11:17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 11:18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.

 

Prayer:

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)

 

Sermon:

 

It was a pivot moment for the early church.

They were still figuring out their sense of identity, figuring out who they were and who was part of their movement. In a fledgling community, when you’re establishing identity, you have a tendency to define insiders and outsider, us and them, and so the early church had done.

 

Despite Jesus’ own ministry with and among people of many cultures and religious backgrounds, his followers were mostly Jewish.

At Pentecost the Spirit moved among “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5)

Philip started moving the early church toward a broader ministry by going to Samaria and preaching there, and his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 moved the way of Jesus toward a more inclusive identity.

 

Cornelius’ conversion and Peter’s vision expanded the church even further.

~~

I propose to you that First Church has been through its own pivot moments, and I was privileged to witness one of them in the first few years I was part of this community. I walked in to this building in August of 1996, and things were a little different at the time.

 

To begin with, the address.

The building we are in right now – what is the address?

89 College Ave?  When I walked through these doors for the first time, in August of 1996, the address on this building was 95 College Avenue.  (Give me a little feedback if you hear something familiar.)

That’s the address of the recovery house next door, you say? It was the parsonage at the time.  And all the mail – the mail for the church, the pastor, the pastor’s children, the pastor’s housemates, all came through the mailslot there.

The pastor’s office was there, too – where Jason Donnelly and I both came to talk to the pastor on the same day about wanting to go to seminary.

 

The chapel, if I recall correctly, still had pews and dark walls and Duhamel Hall wasn’t even called that yet. There was a stage used for dusty storage in the back half of the basement. (Can we get a shout out to the dozens of work weekend crews who have knocked down and lightened up the walls of this place over the years?)

 

The rose window, of course, was over there.

 

Davis Square was a little different, too, back then.  It had not hit its renaissance period yet. It was still the inexpensive neighborhood. There was a social security office where elders waited for hours where the BFresh is. Bars still smelled like smoke, the Someday Cafe was the first proto-hipster coffee shop, and I only knew two cycle commuters – both of them, by the way, tall Canadian scientists named John. 

 

As I walk this chancel, I can hear the whispers of the folks who first welcomed me here, in 1996, to this place.

 

Ralph and Ellen, who helped me practice adulting.

Peg, who had major questions for me when I first went on the deacons.

John, and Sara and Vin.

Kim and Virginia and Dibbie, Betsy and Dennis, Ellie and Bill, Neil and Beckie.

 

<Show two mugs, then ONA booklet>

 

Some of you longtimers will recognize this artifact from the 90s.  It’s the ONA Booklet, from the spring of 1998, when we were prayerfully considering whether this congregation would specifically and publicly welcome of LGBT folks. 

 

Becoming ONA was not obvious.

 

Indeed, digging through my email archives, I found a comment from someone who’d been on the ONA committee when they tried it in the early 90s – they tabled it because the church was dying, so what was the point?

 

(Y’all, this church has a habit of rising from the dead. Amen?)

 

In 1998 there were folks who said we were such a friendly church wouldn’t everyone just know they were welcome?

There were folks who thought it would be divisive.

There were folks simply afraid of change.

And the rainbow flag symbol itself was a challenge.

 

We had folks whose upbringing taught them a very specific notion of sin, folks who like the early church leaders in Jerusalem, wondered how we could minister with that kind of people. 

 

And then we had folks who believed that every single person is created in the image of God, beautiful and worthy.  Folks who believed it was an expression of God’s faithfulness and compassion for churches to be welcoming.

We had folks who were convinced the body of Christ was incomplete without making our welcome plain.

Folks who knew it was God’s will to minister to and with everyone, and God’s will that we proclaim it joyfully.

 

Folks who knew what a profound witness it would be to wave a beautiful, rainbow flag as if it were a blanket descended from heaven to say, everyone is welcome here.  We mean it.

 

Folks who heard in Peter’s testimony their own belief:

 “We truly understand that God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34)

“There is no distinction between us.” (Acts 11:12)

“Who are we that we could hinder God?”  (Acts 11:17)

 

We were, in late 1998, the 276th UCC church in the nation to become ONA.  I know that seems….not very pioneering, not a lot to write home about, but keep in mind some other numbers:

Today, there’s 1500 or 1600 ONA congregations, nationally.  We were, I think, 18th in Massachusetts – today there are 185 ONA churches in Massachusetts out of more than 350 UCC churches in the Commonwealth.

 

We walked in Pride that next spring, when there were only a few dozen of us from ONA Churches. 

 

So, we weren’t first in line but we were on the early end of things.

 

We made this pledge to inclusion at a time when it seemed just as like to lose us people as to appeal to newcomers.

 

I wonder how different congregation would be, today, if the Friendly Church of 1998 had a different vision and had not become ONA.

 

Raise your hand if you would be here if this church were not ONA?

 

Because you are here, and you are here, and you are here, and you are here,
this local body of Christ is whole and perfect.

 

~~

 

Back to Peter, and the early church.

 

Now, that gets a little complicated.  In that pivot moment, the church went from a small group of Jewish folks to a movement that embraced people of many nationalities and religious backgrounds and we would like to just celebrate this and say Amen and move on to the hymn.  

 

But I have to put in a couple of caveats to this pivot moment because Christian history is complex and one of the results of this moment was, when Christianity became the religion of empire, sharing the faith with people of all nations flat out turned into colonialism. When more and more Gentiles became Christian, it was not long before Christianity veered into the terrible terrain of supersessionism and anti-semitism. Repentance from these sins is our common work. 

 

~~

We are still figuring out what it means to be an Open and Affirming Church.

We are still figuring out how welcome without expecting folks to be just like us but with different pronouns.  (I’m inspired and provoked here by this article by K. HawkerSelf.)

 

And we are still figuring out how to live into all the promises made in our ONA statement:

 

We…commit ourselves to welcoming all people into the full life and ministry of the church regardless of sexual orientation, gender, marital status, age, mental and physical ability, race, ethnicity, nationality, or economic status. We continue to commit ourselves to the struggle against injustice in all forms.

 

Our work toward welcome did not end in 1998.  We celebrate same sex marriages here and we have updated our statement to reflect gender identity and to make clear our welcome of transgender folks, something only about 40% of ONA churches have done. (1) And there is surely more holy welcome yet to be proclaimed.

And more broadly, in 2019, our work is not done on justice.

Immigration; Women’s rights; Racial Justice, Environmental and Climate Justice, we are called to witness. All of these issues are about who is in and who is out, who has power and who does not, and any one of these could have been part of Peter’s vision, must be part of our vision in 2019.

 

Church, this is our ongoing and holy work.

 

Like Peter, we will continue (to try) not to hinder God.

 

Like Peter, we will not distinguish between people.

 

Like followers of Jesus we will declare everyone our neighbors.

 

 We will aspire to be more and more welcoming, more and more affirming, more and more justice-seeking.  Because this is our calling and our charism, in this congregation – as long as the rose window and the rainbow flag mark this place, it will be a church where all are welcomed and everyone’s dignity is upheld.

 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

“God is GOOD!”

“All the time!”

“Welcome everyone, welcome to First Church Somerville. Welcome to you if you are queer or straight, or a little bit of each. Welcome to you if you are young or old, or a little bit of each. Welcome to people of all colors, all genders, all body shapes and sizes. Because YOU are here this morning, this Body is whole and perfect. One of the ways we welcome one another here at First Church Somerville is through the passing of the peace. This is your opportunity to offer your neighbor your welcome, and the welcome of Jesus Christ, with a handshake, a hug, a holy kiss, or if you prefer a non-touch option, the peace sign. The peace of Christ be with you all!”

 

Sermon: Body of Christ, Body of Earth

Body of Christ, Body of Earth

A Sermon for the Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
April 28, 2019

Rev. Reebee Girash

 

Text:

John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews [Jewish authorities]*, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

*Historically more accurate and appropriate than “the Jews,” see note from Mary Luti used in Holy Week bulletins.

 

Prayer

 

Sermon

 

The moment I saw the text for today and connected it with our Earth Day theme,

I knew I’d preach on the visible wounds of Christ,

metaphorically relating to the visible wounds the earth is suffering in climate change.

For surely the wounds of the earth are deep, and critical.

 

I thought I’d preach on how some of us still don’t believe in climate change,

how Millenials have believed in it since they were in grade school;

how we must all believe.

 

But it turns out, with few exceptions,

we, old and young, rich and poor, North American, Central American, European, African,

we believe in the wounds of the earth,

suffered from climate change,

caused by human beings burning fossil fuels.

 

We believe because we have seen:

Cyclone Idai created an inland ocean in Mozambique a few weeks ago,
and now we are seeing Cyclone Kenneth, in the same region. (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/24/africa/storm-kenneth-mozambique-intl/index.html

Hurricanes Maria, Michael, Harvey, Irene, Sandy, Florence, we are running out of names.

The Coral Reefs are bleaching,
Greenland’s ice is melting,
California keeps burning,
and the refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border flee not just gangs but devastated farmland. ( https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/06/us-mexico-immigration-climate-change-migration

 

So it is not that we don’t believe

he was wounded –

The earth is wounded

He was crucified

The earth is being crucified.

 

We believe.  We have no doubt. We have seen the wounds with our own eyes.

 

Here is what some of us don’t believe.

 

We don’t believe he could come back from that.

We don’t believe the earth can survive these wounds.

We don’t believe in the possibility of the resurrection

Of Christ

Of the Earth

Some of us have begun to despair.

 

I have been in this climate action movement for over a decade, but a couple of years ago I dialed back a lot. Not completely, but my attention was drawn away by other social action causes, and my spirit was impacted by the constant barrage of discouraging climate news.  One of the hardest facts out there is this: UN climate scientists tell us we have just under a dozen years to radically reduce fossil fuel use in order to avert climate catastrophe. ( https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report ) And given the lack of global action on climate, it’s hard to believe we could pull together that fast.

 

It’s hard to believe.

 

Which is why the prophetic work of the next generation of climate leaders is so profound and so important.

 

Because they believe.

 

They operate from the belief that we can avert the worst catastrophes.

They cast a vision of a humanity that will mitigate, repair and adapt.

They can imagine a just transition for all workers; a society that is equitable and sustainable and fair.

They can see before them a wounded, scarred, and resurrected earth.

 

Kiran Oommen is one of this next generation of prophets. In his early 20s, he’s a musician and sociologist, a gardener and an organizer.  His mother is a UCC pastor, so you know he was raised right. He is a plaintiff in Juliana vs. the United States – otherwise known as the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit. Standing in the traditions of civil and human rights, these next generation folks from 11 to 22 years old are calling our government to be accountable and our country to believe it is possible for the current generation to leave an inhabitable world for the next seven generations. Kiran’s mother Rev. Melanie Oommen asks, “What does it look like to live hope when the very fate of our planet is at stake?  How do we enflesh the Easter Christ who triumphed over death itself in such a time as this?…Our God abides. In the enduring hope of those young plaintiffs, our God abides.” ( http://www.ucc.org/god_s_abiding_presence_in_the_prophetic_action_21_young_people )

 

Melody Zhang is one of this next generation of believers.  She testified before Congress this month, as a representative of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, drawing deeply from her Christian faith to call for action. I want to share some of her words:

“As a Christian, I believe God calls us to a total and radical re-imagination and transformation of our relationship with others and the earth…It takes courage, and the creativity, energy, and moral leadership of young people like us. Congress, I invite you to dream beyond this deep-rooted history of partisanship into co-creating a world of wholeness together. To my fellow believers in the room, we live in the era of the resurrected Christ. So then. Let us practice resurrection.” ( https://www.yecaction.org/melody_zhang_testifies

 

Greta Thunberg is one of this next generation of prophets. This 16 year old from Sweden is perhaps the most prophetic voice on climate in the world, calling us to determined action and leading thousands of teens –  including Framingham High students – to strike for climate action. She told the UN: “We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis…We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFkQSGyeCWg )

 

I could speak, by the way, as much about activist retirees as about activist teens – for example my friend Grady is a co-founder of Elders Climate Action and he operates with the same sense of urgency and defiant hope.

 

They can see before them a wounded, scarred, and resurrected earth.

 

Can you see it, too?

 

Can you imagine?

 

Or do you doubt?

 

Doubting resurrection is understandable in the face of crucifixion. Doubting that we can hold to two degrees celsius temperature change is understandable given that we are past one degree already. Needing to see him, needing to hear him say, Peace, needing to feel his breath in a repeating of God’s own breath across the waters of creation, needing to touch the wounds, it’s understandable.

 

He came to them in a locked room. To a group gathered in grief and fear, he offered peace. He offered them the Spirit. He breathed upon them. In the beginning, and in the end, the word and breath of God; the word made flesh; the peace which surpasses all understanding, the wounded and risen Word came to them, through locked doors.

 

But Thomas wasn’t there.

 

So he doubted. We can understand why.

 

We see the news reports. We collect relief buckets for Church World Service, knowing the next disaster is coming.

 

Friends, there are believers and prophets in front of us, casting a vision of a world – not where climate change is miraculously reversed but a world renewed and healed, a world still living and livable, even with wounds and scars. They know the world isn’t going back – but they are pushing us forward, in defiant and active hope. ( Defiant Hope – a phrase often used by Jim Antal; Active Hope – a phrase coined by Joanna Macy. )

 

And this is our work, as Easter people. We must choose to practice resurrection.  Hope is the blessing our faith brings to the world.  We know, as Easter people, that the worst thing is never the last thing. It’s hard to believe. It’s easy to doubt. But we do not have to look far to see prophets and believers who have called us to join them.

 

Our call, I fervently believe, is to join these prophets and believers, even when we doubt, because the time is now, to begin to heal the wounds of the earth; to practice resurrection.

 

Jim Antal, UCC minister and climate activist, wrote a book last year called Climate Church, Climate World.  Within its pages he gave an invitation:

 

“For hope to take hold, the church must cultivate moral imagination….We need to believe that the transition to a world free of fossil fuel is possible.” He goes on to quote Desmond Tutu: ‘It is possible to have a new kind of world, a world where there will be more compassion, more gentleness, more caring, more laughter, more joy for all of God’s creation, because that is God’s dream. And God says, ‘Help me, help me, help me realize my dream.’” ( Climate Church, Climate World by Jim Antal, page 168 ) 

Amen.

 

Sermon: Whose Procession Are You In?

A Sermon for the Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC

Palm Sunday

April 14, 2019

Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash

 

Video available here:

 

Text:  Luke 19:28- 40

28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

Prayer

 

Sermon   

 

Chester was a Heifer Project ambassador.  He spent almost 25 years caring for a flock of sheep, greeting children in his gentle way, pausing for photos, meandering around somewhat at random.  

 

Every spring, for many years Chester went on a roadtrip.  All the way to Somerville and he traveled, just to be with church people for their Palm Sunday parades. In Davis Square, he’d start in Powderhouse Circle and in the midst of the crowd, plod down College Ave, nodding to confused people on the sidewalks, listening to a great ecumenical choir singing their way down the block, waving palm branches.  In Arlington, he’d join the Episcopalians first, and then the Methodists, and finally the UCC, where the older children were in charge of meeting him halfway between. He would be pretty tired out by then, so they were instructed to be particularly solicitous of Chester while getting him settled on the church lawn before the final parade of the day.  Then the younger children would do just what children visiting Heifer did – run out toward Chester in glee, pose with him, pet him, and feed him apples or carrots.

 

Chester, of course, was a donkey.  

 

Now, once your church has a real donkey visiting annually, you get used to the idea.  It’s hard to give up.

 

So when the news came one winter that Chester had gone to glory, and that there would not be a successor Heifer Donkey, there was a fair panic amongst clergy and parents in the general vicinity.  That is, until Guapo was found, rented from a party company. Not a few of us said, wait, a Heifer Project ambassador rescue donkey is one thing, but a party rental donkey? Is there an animal rights question here?  Tradition, however, prevailed, and the sublimely ridiculous countercultural donkey parade through the streets of Somerville continued. Guapo was perhaps less amenable to the entire process, having a somewhat nervous digestive system and not really seeming happy about being petted but at least he was willing to nod and bray when posing for photos.

 

A couple of years later the Facebook post went out, Rest in Peace, Guapo, the Donkey, gone to glory.  Line break. So, anybody have a line on our next donkey?

 

The next one was rather tall for a donkey, and walked on his hind legs.  His plush polyester costume came in two parts, and animal welfare activists sighed in relief.  But this donkey was also a rental, and so you can imagine the relief in store for the people of Somerville this very morning.  First Church Somerville has purchased a donkey costume.

 

And so, this very morning:  a protest/parade dutifully depicting the peasants and pilgrims in Jerusalem waving and shouting Hosanna!  There are kazoos. Passersby who have no idea what is going on unknowingly enter into the reenactment as the unknown questioners in Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?””

 

Today’s parade will be as different from Jesus’ entry in to Jerusalem, as Jesus’s procession was different from Pilate’s parade.

 

 Let’s go back to Jerusalem, the City of Peace that knows no peace.  Let’s go back to the Pax Romana. Let’s go back to a spring day in the early decades of the Common Era, a day of two parades.

 

In the city that day, there were:

 

Pilate and his soldiers

The chief priests, elders, and temple leaders

The peasants and pilgrims come for the Passover

The zealots and rabble rousers

And Jesus, with his friends and followers.

 

Jerusalem was the center of Judaism, home of a re-built / soon to be destroyed temple.  Home of the temple priests who were also Roman appointees. The place where liberation was remembered and liberation was longed for.  The city of peace, the city that knew no peace. And every spring, preparations for the Passover evoked it all.

 

Pilate led the first parade that day, “from the west, the Roman governor coming into the city to keep order, during the Passover, the Jewish high holy day celebrating Israel’s long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire…Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city…A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses (horses were only used for war), foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold..the marching of feet…the beating of drums.”” (Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem)  Rome had power over the people, and a theology of power that said the emperor was the son of God, and every governor, every soldier, every war horse was sent in God’s name to maintain God’s power over the empire.  If they’d carried a banner, it would have said: We are the strongest and the greatest. Only we can save you. You are a conquered people, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

There were also in Jerusalem that day, chief priests, temple elders, perhaps watching from the center of the city as Pilate marched in.  The Romans had given them just a touch of power. The governors gave power to the priests so there would be “Jewish” religious legitimacy for Rome’s control.   Lead your people, the Romans said, keep them safe by keeping them controlled, passive, and out of our way. If you do this, we will give you land – taken from peasants who couldn’t pay their Roman tax – we will give you power and wealth.  Pilate’s parade kept the priests in line.

 

There were also in the city that day, peasants including farmers who grew the food that went to the city, that went to the priests, that went to the soldiers; by the toil of their hands they created the wealth which fueled the Pax Romana but they did not keep it.  Landholders who could not make ends meet and lost their land to empire and temple. Rural peasants were ninety percent of the population around Jerusalem and they came, near the Passover, to the city of their ancestor David, to Jerusalem the city of peace that gave them no peace.

 

There were also in the city of peace that day, zealots and rabble rousers who sought to overthrow empire and take power.  

 

And then there was Jesus.

 

He came from the east, on a humble farm animal, with no horses or swords, no drums, no soldiers, no prestige, no intimidation, no might.  No symbols of power over. Just people, peasants, pilgrims, disciples, calling out, Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Save us!

 

In spite of every sermon he preached on peace, every mile he walked humbly next to them, the people expected him to take worldly political power. For so many of his followers, his entry was the entrance of a new king.

 

~~

 

Human beings cling to systems that we understand, frameworks and structures that we are used to, even when they don’t make sense.

 

Even when they don’t make sense anymore.

 

It is is so much easier to tweak an existing system, than to set an entire system aside.

 

It is so much easier to transfer power than it is to transform what power means.  

 

Rome in the first century, and the United States and most of the world in 2019, are built on power-over.  Power is a possession and those who have it win. Fear is intrinsic to this model, because power is used to control.  But there is another concept of power, power-with – a collaborative model of power. “Power-with is not a property or a possession.  It arises from what we do rather than what we have.”   (Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy) Jesus, I propose to you, came in to Jerusalem to declare the realm of God, which looked like no kingdom ever before seen by human eyes.  Jesus came in to Jerusalem not to take power but to preach an entirely different concept of power.

 

When we describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a protest against the oppression of the  Pax Romana, or as a rejection of the chief priests’ collaboration with Pilate, we are not thinking radically enough to see what Jesus was really up to.  When we say, his parade echoed Pilate’s, we’re missing the point. When we say, well the donkey was a symbol of humility in contrast to Pilate’s warhorses – we are staying too close to the framework set up by Rome.  Jesus was not just protesting the oppression of Rome – he was mocking the notion of earthly power. He was not just claiming power for the powerless, he was redefining power. He was not just allying himself with the peasants in contrast to the priestly class and the Roman occupiers (although let me say clearly Jesus was always on the side of the poor and the oppressed). Jesus was calling all of them away from the power structures that human beings so consistently cling to, calling them toward the power of love.

The people cried out, Save us, Hosanna, Save us, blessed is the king, blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, give us the power.  For some folks there is comfort, in a system that you know and understand even when it is a system that hurts you. Because, you think, if I could just switch places. If I could just take power.

 

 But in response, Jesus proclaimed:   The system is broken. “We do not find our collective salvation in a political system.  We find it in the radical gospel of love.” (The Rev. Amy Butler, The Riverside Church (NYC), Palm Sunday Sermon 2016.)  Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.”

 

And is it any wonder, that in a system built on power over, leaders who used power to control, would want to kill this radical vision?  Wouldn’t it go down this same way today?

 

Perhaps it only seems possible to change the players – Chester to Guapo to donkey-person. King David to King Jesus.  Pilate to Jesus. Perhaps it seems impossible to change the system itself. Well, we’re moving toward Easter, a day when nothing is deemed impossible. So maybe we need to write the story of the power of love overcoming the love of power, and believe that it could be.

 

Here’s the question I invite you to walk through Holy Week pondering.  What is the power that would save you right now? What is the power that would save our world right now?  What is the story of the coming kin-dom of God in this moment? And whose procession are you walking in? Amen.

 

Sermon: We Want Our Children To Know (for Transgender Day of Visibility)

We Want Our Children to Know
A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
March 31, 2019

Sermon Video available on Vimeo.

Audio File:

 

Scripture Reading:

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Prayer:

God, creator of all people, whose image we all beautifully reflect,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together,
Make visible the beauty and dignity of all our siblings, especially today, our transgender siblings.
Amen.

 

Sermon:

On the walls of the traditional church sanctuary of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City I saw the most extraordinary set of contemporary paintings. They are part of the Queer Icons collection by visual artist Gabriel Garcia Roman – beautiful, glorious paintings of queer folks of color. The artist describes the folks portrayed as  multi-dimensional, powerful and proud – and includes their own narrative in gold calligraphy on the icons. Many of the folks portrayed identify and transgender or gender non-binary. The icons have been displayed in museums around the country – and in Middle Church’s sanctuary.

 

Think of what it means for the children of a congregation to walk into the center of their church home, and see in their sacred space paintings that make visible the beauty, strength, and courage of a spectrum of folks whose dignity is underrepresented in our culture.  The child who wonders about their own gender expression and the child who asks, will I be welcome and supported no matter what my gender expression is – knows they are welcome, beloved and supported because that promise has been made visible to them.

 

Today is Transgender Day of Visibility.  As an Open and Affirming Congregation your deacons and settled pastors chose months ago to mark this occasion in worship. And I am so glad you did.  Selfishly I am glad because it meant I got to sit with a crew of seven of you to talk about how in the world we might celebrate this day and how we might connect the scripture this morning with this theme.  And I want to tell you, the Spirit showed up, in the copy room downstairs.

 

As you heard from Joyce, we talked about where the usual interpretation of this scripture does not match up with the message of transgender visibility – we are not going to talk about sinful folks repenting and being forgiven, because it is not sinful to be transgender. (Say amen.) The full gender identity spectrum is part of God’s diverse and amazing creation. (Say amen.)

 

But we kept going and this part spoke to us:

 

The father watched the horizon for the son because he wanted the younger son to know he was loved and welcomed home.  He ran out to meet his son.

 

Then we knew what today’s theme would be.

 

We want every child in this congregation to know they are loved and welcomed.  

 

We want our children to know.

 

We want to make it plain.  We want to make it visible. We want to continue to make it public. Because even for an Open and Affirming church it is worth making plain. Because even in 2019 it does not go without saying.  It is not clear unless we make it clear. It is not current unless we have repeated it recently. On this Transgender Day of Visibility, we proclaim: we will run out to meet you, we will throw a party for you.  Our transgender children and our cisgender children and our children who haven’t discerned yet, we want you to know, you are loved, you are seen, and there will always be a seat for you, for every one of you, at our banquet table.

 

Friends, let me tell you something I have come to understand about this congregation’s story.

 

There have been multiple children who have grown up at Plymouth Church being affirmed and welcomed always – who have been able to claim a new name and write a new nametag and tell this community their gender identity.  There have been transgender children who have grown up knowing this community loves them.

 

That means, there have also been children here, whose friends have struggled over gender identity and not known who would support them.  Our children have been able to be good friends.

 

That means, there have been parents and grandparents here, who have found support in their work to love their children through the transition of their gender identity.

 

That means, there have been pastors and Sunday School teachers, and choir members, and lay leaders, and youth group mentors, and greeters who have found support in our offerings of love, even when we stumble, even when we’re confused, even when we use the wrong words.

 

Thank God.  Thank God for the ways this community has supported our kin. Thank God for the party that this community throws, to which everyone gets an invitation.

 

~

 

This parable is as much about the father as it is about the son.

 

It’s about a father who cannot stand that his family is separated, that his beloved child has gone away. It’s about a father who starts to wonder if he could have said something, could have done something, to make it right.  It’s about the father who watches the horizon, hoping and praying the son will make his way home, so the father can do something to make things better, to restore their relationship.

 

Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of Jesus’ parables, suggests we might rename this text, “The father who lost his sons.” (Short Stories by Jesus, page 34) Of course, she writes, of course the father would run out to meet the son. We would, too: “we search, desperately, [if] our family is not whole.” (Short Stories by Jesus, page 69)

 

If the father in this story is God, it tells us that God will always coming running to meet us.  That God will search high and low for us. That God will throw a party where all of us are invited.  God yearns for wholeness.

 

But if the father is the church, there’s a bit of a different message.  We are responsible for the sheep, the coins, and all our children. If they get lost, we bear some of the responsibility.  If they feel unable to come home, we are part of that. This is our deep work, as the church, to make clear the welcome, the love, the grace, the support – throughout our children’s lives.

 

Erin Wiebe’s family figured this out this deep work. It took them a while but they figured it out. Her story and her parents’ story is in a Mennonite booklet on transgender concerns. (  Trans101: A Brief Guide by the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests.  Downloaded at http://media.wix.com/ugd/fa8ffe_98093c908043433282e3b58ad5eee6b8.pdf )

“Erin says she wore a metaphorical mask, hiding her true identity and projecting a false self that was more socially acceptable in her community, for the better part of her life. In fact, she didn’t tell anyone about her struggle until she was nearly 40. “I made the decision to forever lock that part of me away because there was nothing I could do about it,” she says. “I was ashamed.”….

 

When she was 38, she came out to her parents.  And the lovely ending to this story is their response.  Not perfect, but filled with love: Erin’s parents, Art and Alma, who are members of Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, say they didn’t have any idea that she was suffering from a gender-identity crisis. It was a complete shock when she came out to them when she was 38. “I had no idea how they were going to respond,” Erin says. “My mom said, ‘You mean you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body? . . . What can we do to support you?’”    Her mom says, “I often think of Erin as a butterfly… Erin is a beautiful butterfly, testing her wings in what sometimes seems to be an unforgiving world.”Throughout the process, Art and Alma attended Bethel Mennonite Church and participated in its Pilgrim Group, a support group for lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgender/queer (LGBTQ) people and their families and friends. In turn, they found the strength to support their daughter through her transition process of taking off a proverbial mask.”

 

I share this story as an example of courage – Erin’s courage to become her true self – and grace – her parents’ ability to change, to try so hard to understand Erin and love her. Truly, these parents have run out toward their daughter to publicly and joyfully welcome her home.  

Imagine the parties at Erin’s house, these days.

Erin’s story is also a good reminder that our welcome is important not only for the children among us, and not only for those we know well – but also for the grownups and the new folks. Taj Smith told Sojourners Magazine how a church welcomed him as a young adult.  Some of you know Taj as the Faith Director of Yes on 3, last fall’s campaign for transgender rights in Massachusetts. Taj is also a friend and former student of mine at HDS, and this story of his shows what it means when a church community gets it:

“The first Sunday I went back to my church after I came out as trans, I just remember standing in front of the name tags and staring at mine and thinking, ‘I can’t put that on,’” Smith explained. The name on the tag no longer reflected who he really was.

“One of the greeters came up to me, and she says, ‘You need help finding your name tag?’ And she laughed, and I laughed, and I said, ‘No, I think I need a new one. I need a new one, like, forever.’ And she went, ‘Okay!’ And she got me a new tag, and she said, ‘Why don’t you write your name on this one and we’ll have a new permanent one for you next week!’ And she handed me an order of service and I went inside and thought, ‘That was the easiest thing ever!’ That church became a safe haven for me.” ( https://sojo.net/magazine/june-2017/just-i-am   – article by Austen Hartke, sharing Taj Smith’s story )

Thanks be to God for parents who might not get it right every time, but are moving toward love and understanding.  Thanks be to God for churches, like ours, who might not be perfect but are faithfully and joyfully preparing a banquet, who are faithfully and joyfully running out to meet our transgender siblings.  Thanks be to God for every one of God’s beautiful, beloved children, who reflect God’s own image. Amen.