Friday, April 24, 2020

The Last Survivors - Sermon for Week Ending April 25


Isaiah 40: 31—“Those who hope in God will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

John Pavlovitz—“Hope is the pulsating lifeblood for weary hearts in dispiriting days. The steadfast belief that somewhere off in the distance, terrible things will get better, and everything that is upside down will be right side up. That despite hate’s booming voices, love will have the last, loudest word.”

The Last Survivors

I had planned to begin the Documentary Sermon Series in a couple of weeks, but I recently watched a PBS Frontline video called The Last Survivors, which interviewed Holocaust death camp survivors who were children or teens at the time of their imprisonment.  Since Holocaust Remembrance Say was this week and this is such a powerful documentary, I decided to go ahead and start the series by sharing some of the survivors’ stories. (You can watch the documentary for free at PBS Frontline) Manfred Goldberg began by saying to the interviewer, “Sitting in the car coming here, it began to dawn on me that this would be a first for me, and I wasn’t quite sure just what I had let myself in for. I’m here today to record some testimony of my experiences during the Holocaust. Time is marching on, and it will not be long before there will be no firsthand survivors alive, and it is important to record this testimony as evidence for future generations.” Manfred was 14 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He said that he felt lucky that he and his mother were in the same camp, and that they both survived.  But his younger brother, Hermann, one day, just disappeared. There were rumors that the SS picked him up, but they never again heard from him or about him.

Frank Brichta said, “I can’t really communicate with others properly, because they don’t know what I’m talking about.  I mean, how many people have seen their parents murdered or seen a gas chamber in action? It has affected me.” At age 16, he too arrived with his mother.  Immediately, they were put into different lines. She broke free and came to him for just a moment, before she was led to the gas chamber.  He said that someone told him what was happening, and later, looking at the flames of the crematories, he wondered to himself, “Which flame was my mother?” Frank has kept a class picture that he calls Red for Dead. For every child in the photo that did not survive the death camps, he put a red square, which was almost all of them. He shared the picture with the interviewer, telling him the children’s names, when they were born, and when they died.

Susan Pollack, who was 14, lost over 50 relatives in the Holocaust. She remembers that the train trip to the camp took 6 to 8 days. There was no food or water, and many babies and children died along the way. She said that as soon as they arrived, the German guards started shouting orders at them. Susan is Hungarian, and another Hungarian girl in line with her whispered to her to tell them that she was 16. She did, and that saved her from the gas chamber.  But she watched as her mother was marched in.

Maurice Blik was only 5-years-old when his family arrived at Bergen- Belsen. When his little sister was close to her first birthday, he found a piece of discarded carrot and carved a little boat out of it to give to her. But she didn’t live to see her first birthday.  And he remembers his older sister taking her out and putting her on top of the pile of bodies. Blik is a sculptor. He said he was not one that looked forward to starting a new project.  More often than not, it is a tormenting experience for him. He shared that his therapist suggested that since his first sculpture was for his baby sister who died, that memory recurs each time he starts a new one.

Finally, Anita Laasker-Wallfisch was 19 when she entered Auschwitz.  A cellist, she became part of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz, which helped her survive when most women and girls did not. At age 95, she is one tough woman. Her daughter was there for the interview.  She is a psychologist and wanted to talk about second generation trauma. Anita interrupted and said, “To me, anybody who’s got a roof over their head and enough food, forget the trauma, you know?” She gave a speech before the German Parliament on the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. She didn’t talk about what she witnessed or endured at the camp. She talked about antisemitism and the human capacity for evil. She included a plea to the German people to make sure that it never happens again and ended on what was for her a note of hope, saying, “Hate is poison, and ultimately those who hate poison themselves.” We can only hope that you win this fight. The future lies in your hands. I really hated the Germans.  I’m trying to build bridges. And as long as I can do it, I’ll do it.”

Living through the unimaginable horrors of the holocaust, almost all the survivors said that what kept them going was the help that they got from each other. And the hope that someday, this would end. Help and Hope kept them alive, and gave them the opportunity to create families of their own after having lost so much. Help and Hope are their gift to us. May we learn from them to help one another in our hard times. And remember that no matter what we are going through, there is hope for better days ahead. No matter the amount of darkness that surrounds us, the light will shine again, and it will overcome the darkness.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Pearl Of Great Price - Sermon for Week ending April 18, 2020

The Pearl of Great Price 

I’m returning for a few weeks to this book, Short stories by Jesus by Amy- Jill Levine, professor of Jewish studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity school in Nashville. She describes herself as “a Yankee, Jewish, Feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian Divinity School in the Buckle of the Bible belt.” The book is primarily about all the ways that Christians interpret the parables of Jesus allegorically, with most of the interpretations focusing on who gets into heaven and Jews the enemy, and she notes that even the gospel writers added their own allegorical interpretations to the text of the parables. 

Levine reminds us that Jesus told the stories to fellow Jews who had no idea that he would be proclaimed the son of God by millions. And she asks us to try to hear the parables in that context. She says, “One does not have to worship Jesus for the parables to have meaning.
The people who first heard them did not. They paid attention because the parables spoke to their hearts. I do not worship Jesus, but I continue to return to these stories because they are at the heart of my own Judaism. They have provided me with hours of inspiration and conversation. If we hear them in their original context, and if we avoid the anti-Jewish interpretations that deform them, they gleam with a shine that cannot be hidden.”

Today we are looking at the very short parable, The Pearl of Great Price in Matthew 13, 45-46, which says, “The realm of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Levine says that Christians typically read this parable as an allegory of discipleship, with the merchant as the disciple and the pearl as the gospel. Or Jesus is the pearl of great value.Or the pearl is the church, and we have been purchased through the blood of Christ. Or God is the merchant and we are the pearl. Or the pearl is the New Covenant Jesus speaks about. Levine is a scholar, so after she asks us to resist reading the parable as allegory, she spends 12 pages telling us more than I ever needed to know about merchants and pearls. 

Finally, she suggests that this parable simply challenges us, as it would Jesus’ fellow Jews who heard it, to ask ourselves what is truly of value to us. For what would we sell or give everything we own? For what would we make a drastic and life-changing act? Levine asked her students the question. One woman answered that it was her doctoral degree. She already had a Masters of Divinity, and was planning to go directly into a doctoral program in New Testament. But she got married, to a pastor, and her husband discouraged her from seeking her doctorate, because he had his and felt that one Doctor of Ministry in the family was enough. But eventually she did apply to the program and was accepted, with funding.

She decided to enroll, and that hastened the end of her marriage. She said, “I gave up my home. I took out loans. I took back my original name. I do not know what will happen at the end of this program. But that does not matter. I am doing what is right for me. I have my pearl.” One of Levine’s Divinity students in the Riverbend Maximum security prison answered, Freedom. Saying he would do whatever it took to increase his chances of parole. Another Riverbend student answered, Safety. And other, his Dignity. We know that the Civil Rights activists asked themselves that question. Their answer was, Justice and Equality. And they risked everything, including their very lives, fighting for those values. Gay and trans rights activists’ answer is to not just be tolerated, but accepted and included as we are. For a great number of people all over the world, especially girls, their pearl is to be able to go to school. For the millions of refugees, it is safety for themselves and their families and the chance at a life without constant fear. For migrants, it’s the opportunity to work so their children can have better lives than they have had. 

This parable also challenges us to ask, What is of great value to our neighbors?
If we can find that out, we might be able to help them find their pearls. For so many of our neighbors out of work, they are most in need of food and supplies, masks and gloves, money to pay their bills, and help navigating the arduous task of filing for unemployment benefits. For some neighbors, their pearl is a place to live other than in the woods. For others, it’s a computer so their children can participate in online learning. And books to read to them. There are so very many people in our world who would give all they had just to have someone love them unconditionally. 

The parables that Jesus told speak to our hearts and our situations too. There’s no need to add meaning that isn’t there. Jesus said all that we need to hear. The parable, The Pearl of Great Price challenges us to ask ourselves what is most important to us and to our neighbors. And then to align our actions with those values. Amen. Take Care.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Easter Sunday - Sermon for Week ending April 11, 2020

Nobody knows for certain what happened after Jesus was executed for spreading his message of love and justice and inclusivity for all people. There were no eye witnesses still around to give their accounts. The earliest gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until 40 years after Jesus died, and the latest, John, was 60 to 70 years after. And all the gospel accounts are different. A lot of people think they know for certain what happened. A lot of people think they know everything there is to know about Jesus and about God. Others of us, who used to be certain, aren’t anymore. And we are just fine not knowing, embracing the mystery.

However we read the Easter story, we can find meaning in it. That from despair comes hope. From sadness, Joy. From death, life. For me, the primary message in this story is that love survives, no matter what. The fear and hate that led to Jesus’ death did not conquer the love that he lived and taught. The opposite happened. In the gospel of John, after Jesus gave the new commandment to ‘love one another as I love you, he said,‘ They will know you by your love.’ The love of Jesus is in us. And it multiplies with every act of compassion or sacrifice. We don’t have to look far to see love and sacrifice in action in these past weeks, in this time of fear, despair, and grief. There are so many regular folks making masks for our health care workers. We have mask makers right here in our congregation. There’s a group in Fernandina making masks for family members to visit their loved ones in the hospital. High school students are using 3-D printers to make faces shields. College students are building low cost-ventilators that can treat 2 patients at once with no cross-contamination. Whole communities near hospitals go out onto their balconies and clap and cheer for the nurses during shift change. Doctors and nurses and medics are coming out of retirement to help ease the burden that this virus has placed on our health care system. Have you seen the teacher parades? Teachers ride through the neighborhoods where their students live and honk and wave, and the children stand on their porches holding signs that say, “We miss you!  We love you!”

I read about a couple who are street performers in Naples. They lived on tourist dollars and are now out of work, as are most of the people they know. The city’s soup kitchens are closed. So this couple revived an old custom, which some of you might know more about than I do, of lowering food in baskets from their balcony to those below who need it. Inspired by the work of Italian doctor and St. Guiseppe Moscati, they put cards on the baskets that read, “Those who can, put something in. Those who can’t, help yourself.” Others neighbors have starting pitching in, and, at least for now, everyone has enough to eat. There are so many more examples. It would take me more than a day just to tell you all the ones I’ve heard about. I saw a poem on Facebook, attributed to the songwriter Paul Williams, although I don’t know if he actually wrote it. It describes so well the kind of love and sacrifice that Jesus lived and taught, the kind of love that survives in us and is now ours to share:

“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms, don't say to yourself, ‘It looks like the end of the world.’ What you're seeing is love in action. What you're seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other, for our grandparents, for our immuno-compromised brothers and sisters, for people we will never meet. People will lose jobs over this. Some will lose their businesses. And some will lose their lives. All the more reason to take a moment, when you're out on your walk, or on your way to the store, or just watching the news, to look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love. Let it fill and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

May the love of Jesus continue to fill us and sustain us. And may we keep that love alive through sharing it. Take care. I’ll see you soon.


Our modern reading is from Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott.

When we talk about goodness, an animating intelligence in the universe and in our hearts, or a pervasive positive unity or presence, we are not talking about an old beaded guy in the sky, Parvati, or a Jewish Palestinian baby. We are talking about a higher power. A power that might be called, ‘not me.’  A kindness, a patience, a hope which is everywhere, even in our annoying, self-centered fraudulent selves. The lower powers—greed, hatred, addiction, ignorance,  are easy to connect with and describe. But a higher power is not easily defined. It can’t be controlled, manipulated, or appropriated.  It opens up and heals us and brings us together, and turns hearts of stone into human hearts.

Our gospel reading for this Easter Sunday is from John 20: 1—16.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. Simon Peter went into the tomb and saw the linen wrapping lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head.

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Palm Sunday - Sermon for week ending April 4, 2020

Brene’ Brown was on 60 Minutes last Sunday. (Thanks to Cathy Brandt for that info, as I don’t usually watch it.) I know many of you are familiar with her books and Ted Talks and Netflix special. As we heard in the reading, her years of research have led her to the conclusion that vulnerability is one of the best qualities we can have, and it is a crucial element in courage, connection, and compassion. No one displays these characteristics better than Jesus did, So I thought we would take a look at how he exemplified those qualities during the final week of his life.

First is his procession into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, which is today. In their book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan noted that while Jesus was entering through one gate of the city, Pilate, the Roman governor, was entering through another gate. And there were great differences between them. Pilate entered on horseback, flanked by an armed battalion of soldiers.  Jesus entered on a borrowed donkey, surrounded by peasants. Pilate was posturing and blustering, a picture of grandiosity. Jesus was silent and humble. Pilate wore armor. Jesus wore no armor, leaving himself vulnerable to attack. Pilate was under the illusion that he was in control. Jesus had no such illusions. He knew that what he was doing was risky, and the outcome uncertain. Pilate’s message was might is right. Jesus’ message was that there was a better way for humans to live together. Jesus was the one who had real courage.

The next day, Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, went to the temple to teach. And he witnessed some unscrupulous priests (which there have always been and always will be) cheating the poor peasants who had journeyed to the city for Passover, requiring that they exchange their money for the official shekel to pay their temple tax, charging them extraordinary sums and keeping the difference for themselves, and overcharging them for birds that were required for temple sacrifice. When he drove them out of the temple, Jesus knew it made him even more of a target for Pilate, who was looking for a reason to use military power against the Jews. But he was willing to take that risk in order to speak the truth, that, in the kindom of God, everyone is equal. There is no letting some in, while keeping others out, counting some worthy and others unworthy. Everyone is worthy.

Then on Thursday, while celebrating the Passover supper with his disciples, in a borrowed room, Jesus did something that Pilate and all those like him would never do.  He connected with his disciples in the purest, most loving way, by physically touching them as he washed their feet, allowing himself to be emotionally exposed in order to show them, not just tell them, how much they were loved and how worthy they were. Traditionally, guests at Passover would have their feet washed by servants, so Jesus was also showing them the importance of serving each other as a natural part of loving each other. Then he gave them a new commandment, “To love one another as I have loved you.” Shortly, his followers would be without Jesus, but he left them with everything they needed to know about how to live, and he implored them to keep sharing it. And they did. In the book of Acts, they carried to everyone they met the message that love, not hate, vulnerability, not power, connection and compassion are what the world needs. Acts, chapter 2, says, “They were all together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all who had any need. They spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home, and ate with glad and generous hearts.” The apostle Paul helped get Jesus’ message to his followers, through starting those early churches.

And here we are. Jesus isn’t physically present with us, but we too have his example, and his lessons on how to live and treat each other. May we continue to share that message in our time and place. Especially during these most difficult days, may our actions reveal just how much we love one another. Amen.



I have 4 readings today, because I want to talk about some of the major events of Holy Week.  So I edited them down to their core messages.

Mark 11: 1-10

When they were approaching Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Mark 11: 15-17

Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves, saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house should be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

From John 13

During the Passover supper, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel. After he washed their feet and returned to the table, he said to them, “As I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you should do as I have done to you.”

Then Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Our 4th reading is by Sociologist and author Brene’ Brown on the role of vulnerability in courage, connection, and compassion.

There is no example of courage that does not require uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. There is no courage without vulnerability. Courage is not doing something because you are fearless. The most vulnerable people I know are the toughest people I know, not posturing, blustery tough. They are real tough. Connection is why we are here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. To practice courage, connection, and compassion is to look at life and the people around us and say, ‘I am all in.’

New Vision and Progressive Christianity

 New Vision is a Progressive church. That doesn’t mean that you must be progressive to be a member here. It mainly means that your pastor an...