Friday, May 29, 2020

Pentecost - Sermon for week ending May 30, 2020

Scripture Reading - Acts 2: 1-17

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.


According to the liturgical calendar, today is the first Sunday of the season of Pentecost.
The scene from Acts 2 that Linda read took place during Shavuot, the Jewish Harvest Festival, which occurred 50 days after the Passover festival, and honored the giving of the law to Moses. As we heard, there is quite a lot of drama going on in these verses. A loud sound and a rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire falling down from the sky and landing on people. There’s an eloquent sermon given by Peter, who was barely literate just 50 days before, and everyone hears it in their own language. The scene is a theophany, like we saw in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and in Moses’ shining face whenever he met with Yahweh. This time, God is revealed in the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus promised to send to the disciples just before he ascended into heaven. Most interpretations of the passage focus on this supernatural event of holy fire that inspired the disciples to continue the ministry that Jesus started. And in most mainline churches, Pentecost is the birthday of the Christian church.

I like to look underneath the obvious interpretations, to see if there isn’t something relevant for our time and place and experience. One that spoke to me is from The Social Justice Lectionary, by Bruce Sweet, a retired pastor in the United Church of Canada. He notes that everyone gathered there that day were members of the underclass, including the disciples. Many of them were from the Jewish diaspora, and had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost as they had for Passover. They spoke their languages and dialects. But here, they all heard what the disciples were saying in their own languages, the message being that Pentecost recognizes and honors diversity. Sweet says, “In the revolutionary community politics inaugurated by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the cultural and political differences signified by the notion of ‘different languages’ is broken down. The impetus comes from those who are seen as insignificant and valueless. The Advocate gives voice to the voiceless.” 

In our world, it is too often the voices of black and brown people and poor people that are seen as insignificant and valueless. And not just their voices; their very lives. Just this week another black person, George Floyd, was killed for being black by those who are sworn to protect and serve all citizens. Video shows that George did not resist when police forced him to the ground, handcuffed him face down, and held him there with a knee in his neck and the full weight of an officer on him. He said, “I can’t breathe!”  But they didn’t consider his voice, his even his life, to have equal value with theirs. They murdered him and lied about it in their report. We have heard that with Covid 19, we are all in the same boat. The virus doesn’t discriminate. But people and systems do discriminate, and we are seeing every day that some in our  society are considered worthy of protection and treatment, while others are not.

In South Georgia, Latino farm workers have no protection against the virus, as they are loaded onto buses and taken out to the fields, then returned to crowded dormitories. With language and cultural barriers, many don’t know how contagious the virus is or what the symptoms are. And no one is telling them because they are providing the food on our plates. The front line low-wage workers who live in the River Park Towers in the Bronx, where 90 percent of the population are people of color, contract Corona virus at 3 times the rate of the wealthy residents of Manhattan. There are no hand sanitizer stations by their elevators. And these ‘essential’ workers don’t have healthcare or paid sick leave. What can we do? We can educate ourselves and others. And engage in conversations that look for solutions. Susan posted a book on Facebook from the UU’s, entitled Equipping Anti-Racism Allies, that I’m going to check into for us. We can keep sharing stories on social media, so that people actually know what is happening. We can write letters and emails to those who have the power to make change. We can talk back to our racist Facebook friends and our family members. We can remember that we are allies, following the lead of those who are impacted by racism and classism in our society. If we do nothing, nothing will change.  If we remain silent, we are complicit. So let’s commit to doing whatever we can to ensure justice and equality for everyone.

Friday, May 22, 2020

State Of Pride - Sermon for week ending May 23, 2020


Our reading for this week is from journalist Raymond Braun, host of the 2019 documentary, State of Pride, in which he travels around the country to Gay Pride festivals, interviewing members of the LGBTQ community, asking them to share their stories.

I can’t even articulate how terrified I was to come out, even though pretty much everyone knew. I used to rehearse trying to come out to my family, and it was really scary for me because I couldn’t even start getting the words out without starting to cry. My idea was, ‘Let me write them this letter that is bulletproof.’

It was 16 pages, single spaced, and the 15 hours from me sending the Fedex to my parents receiving it were the most agonizing of my life. I got a call, maybe 20, 25 minutes after the letter had arrived, and the first thing that my mom said was, “I love you. I just want you to know that I love you so much. Come home, and we’ll talk everything through. You’re my son and I will always love you.”

And that was all I needed to hear in that moment. And it was the biggest weight off my shoulders because I had at that point 17 years of shame and fear and self-hatred and self-disgust. 

Sermon - State of Pride 

We are finishing up our documentary sermon series this week with The State of Pride, available on YouTube.  As we heard in the reading, the documentary follows journalist Raymond Braun as he travels across America, visiting Gay Pride Festivals, 50 years after Stonewall, asking the folks there to share their stories. His first stop is DC Pride. When he asks the people there what Pride means to them, they answer, “It feels so good to be round people who are like me, and who have the same struggles as me.” “You can shed your shame and just be yourself!“ “There is a spirit of community and connectedness. You don’t feel alone in the world.” But the trans women of color that he interviews tell a different story, because 50 years after Stonewall, they are still not accepted as equals. And they were the ones who started the Stonewall uprising by finally saying “Enough!” after being arrested and humiliated again and again, yet they are still ostracized. Raymond also visits San Francisco Pride where over a million people gather each year.  In 2005, Cathy and I happened to be in Berkley, where I was taking some courses at the Pacific School of Religion, during San Francisco Pride. And, Wow! I’ve never seen anything like it. They capture better than anyone the spirit that Pride is both a march for equality and a celebration of life and love. But an African-American woman Raymond interviewed expressed a sentiment similar to the trans women in DC., noting that 50 years after Stonewall, in the diverse city of San Francisco, the leadership of Pride is still white, male, and privileged.

They visit Salt Lake City, where we meet a gay man from a Mormon family, who, when he came out, left the church. He says he loves his family and they love him, but it’s hard for him to reconcile that with their devotion to the Mormon Church, which has such anti-gay belief.  He started a support group for gay Mormons and ex-Mormons. The film shows one of their meetings, where a young teenager speaks through tears about being depressed and suicidal because she was taught that being gay was an abomination, which is what all gay people who grew up in fundamentalist churches were taught. And it is where most of our internalized shame and self-hatred come from. My favorite part of the documentary was the visit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we learned they held their first Pride festival in 2014 with about 50 people in attendance, in a part of the country where, as one attendee says, “There is terror in even walking out the door and being who you are.” One of the older people Raymond interviewed said that Pride festivals in small towns, especially in the South, are a lot like the original Pride festivals in big cities, visibility at any cost. And that people who live in big cities sometimes don’t realize how hard it is to be gay in a small town. Tuscaloosa Pride reminded me so much of our first Fernandina Pride last year. It was held in a big green field in the center of town, folks came decked out in rainbows, and laughed and hugged and danced in a safe space where they were accepted for who they are.
50 years, 51 now, seems like a long time for the amount of progress that has been made, when trans people are still murdered for being who they are. But we are 55 years from Bloody Sunday, and black people are still murdered for being black. As Dr. King said, “The road to freedom is a hard road. Two years ago, our church’s community conversation on LGBTQ issues, which our mayor attended, was the starting point of what became Fernandina Pride. And for this small town in Florageorgia, that is major progress. At New Vision, we believe that all God’s children are worthy and deserving of justice and equality. We live Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, without exceptions. Our presence and leadership have opened hearts and minds here.  And I am so proud of us. Jane’s postlude, which we are about to hear, embodies this same message. The song is “Help us Accept Each Other.” Here are the lyrics:

“Help us accept each other, as Christ accepted us.
Teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace.
Be present God among us, and teach us to believe,
we are ourselves accepted and meant to love and live.

Teach us, O God, your lessons, as in our daily life,
we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith.
Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some.
To love them as we find them or as they may become.
God, for today’s encounters, with all who are in need,
Who hunger for acceptance, for righteousness, and bread,
Bring us new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on,
Renew us with your spirit, God. Free us, make us one.”

God bless you. Stay safe. Amen.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Becoming - Sermon for Week ending May 16, 2020

Reading from Michelle Obama's "Becoming": 

Our reading is from the book, Becoming, by Michelle Obama.

I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood and how the word, “ghetto” got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it, I understand now, caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. “Ghetto” signaled that a place was both black and hopeless. It was a label that foretold failure and then hastened its arrival. It closed grocery stores and gas stations and undermined schools and educators trying to instill self-worth in neighborhood kids. It was a word everyone tried to run from, but it could rear up on a community quickly.



Our documentary for this week is Becoming, on Netflix, which follows former first lady Michelle Obama on her 40-city tour of her book, Becoming, alternating between her on-stage interviews and stories and more intimate gatherings. One of its themes is the power of getting together with others and sharing our stories. At one point, She and her brother and her mother get out the family photo albums and go through them, sharing memories. She strikes up conversations with everyone in line to get their books autographed.  She asks people in the small group settings to think about who they are, what they care about, and what brings them joy. And she shares her answers to those questions with them, saying ,“This is how I relate to people. It helps me stay connected.”

She especially likes talking and listening to young people, whom she mentored during her entire time at the White House and continues to do so. Her final speech as First Lady was at a White House celebration of school counselors, where she said to young people everywhere,  “Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter. Because you do.  Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education
to build a country worthy of your boundless promise.”    In almost every city on her book tour, she visited high schools and met with small groups of girls of every color and background, sharing her stories about growing up on Chicago’s South side in a neighborhood of working class families. About her dad, who had MS, but still worked every day at the city water plant so that she and her brother could get a college education. And about the sense of self-worth that her parents instilled in her, which gave her the confidence to ignore her high school guidance counselor’s judgment  that she wasn’t “Princeton material.”  And she advises them to ignore anyone who says,  “These things are not for you,” because of their race or gender or background.

What I found most moving, in the book and the documentary, were her stories about being black in America. She talks about white flight, which we heard in the reading, showing her kindergarten class picture, with an equal number of black and white children and then her 8th grade class picture, where all the children were black, because all the white people had moved away. She speaks about her trepidation over entering the presidential campaign, and how her worse nightmares came true. Every gesture was analyzed. A fist bump between her and Barack became “a terrorist fist jab” in the media. White Americans called her “an angry black woman who hated America,  Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.” They said, “She doesn’t look like a First lady,” “She’s not classy enough,”  “She weighs too much to care about health,” “She is an ape in heels.” She talks candidly about racism in America, saying, “People have been taught to believe in the ultimate inferiority of people because of the color of their skin. When folks are so afraid of kid in a hoodie that they ended his life, how were these people dealing with the fact that a black family was in what they perceived as their White House?” Jane’s sermon response for today is “You’ve got to be carefully taught” from the musical, South Pacific. It echoes that message with the lyrics, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be taught to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

Too many of us were taught that. Some of us came to our senses at we grew and
experienced the world outside our small, segregated towns. But others became more entrenched in and defensive of their racist views, and they are teaching them to their children. This is the America that we live in, an America that not only discriminates against black Americans in housing, jobs, education, and healthcare, but also values black lives less than it does white lives. So Aumaud Aubery was murdered while jogging. And Breonna Taylor was murdered while she slept during an illegal drug raid at the wrong house. That’s the America that we live in. Two years ago, our church opened a conversation on race in our community. I looked back at the minutes and noted some of the comments: -In Fernandina, there is a lot of separation of the races in our schools and at sporting events. -Black people are harassed when they go downtown. -My son gets stopped by the police for everything. I am worried that he will be killed just for speaking up for himself. -White people need to listen more and talk less. And Jennet closed with, -It is up to us to make the change.  That’s why we are here.  Ask yourself, “What difference can I make?” There is always more that we can do. What we can’t do is pretend that this isn’t happening. Please reach out with suggestions you have for expanding our conversation and our mission to do everything we can to fight racism in our community and beyond, as we strive to make our country and our world a just place for all people.  Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Heroin(e) - Sermon for week ending May 9, 2020

Gospel Reading

Our gospel reading is Mark 5: 1-14.
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.

Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged Jesus, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.

The 2017 Oscar nominated documentary Heroin(e) on Netflix, follows three women, a fire chief, a judge, and a street minister as they battle the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia, which has been called the overdose capital of the United States. The street minister is single mother and real-estate agent Necia Freeman, who, when she read that a young prostitute and drug addict was murdered in her town, decided to try to do something to help.  So she drove down to where the girls work,  took them food and hygiene kits, talked to and listened to them. Then made it her mission to help them get off and stay off drugs, which also meant they could get out of this very dangerous occupation. We see Necia well into her ministry with the girls on the street.  For those that have relapsed, she finds space in treatment centers. Girls who have gotten clean go with her to give hope to those who are still being controlled by their addiction. She loves these girls. She never shames them when they relapse.  She encourages them to try again, saying to one, “You were clean for 7 months. I know you can do it again.”

Judge Patricia Keller started and runs the county drug court, an alternative to jail.
giving them structure and direction so that they can focus on their recovery. And she never gives up on them. She holds graduations from drug court where graduates bring their mothers and their children to witness what they have achieved and hear them speak with gratitude and hope for their lives.

The documentary spends the most time following Jan Rader, deputy chief of the Fire Department. A Huntington native who worked her way up through the ranks, Jan cares about her town and especially about those who lives are being destroyed by heroin addiction. She talks about West Virginia being a blue collar state where people work hard for a living doing physical labor. There are a lot of injuries, and many get hooked on the opioids described by their doctors. When they can’t get any more pills, they turn to heroin, which is readily available. She says, “Add to that unemployment, a lack of education, and a sense of hopelessness, and you have a recipe for disaster.” We follow Jan as she goes from overdose to overdose, administering Naloxone, brand name Narcan, which reverses the respiratory distress that an overdose of opioids produces. 

Huntington has 5-7 overdoses a day. And Jan admits that too many first responders
treat drug addicts like they are subhuman. She is trying to change that. She personally delivers Narcan to her firefighters and instructs them on when and how to use it to save lives. Jan treats victims of overdose like she would her own children, asking them, “Have you tried to get clean, honey?” Do you have anyone who can help you get into recovery?” Experience has taught her that addiction is a demon with overwhelming power. It has nothing to do with a flaw in character or lack of willpower.

Her response to a question in a community meeting reveals the belief system that has led to her commitment to do everything she can to help. The question asked was: “Alot of people believe that by having Narcan available, that it’s just empowering the addicts. How do you respond to that?” Her answer: “The only qualification for getting into long-term recovery is to be alive. I don’t care if I have to save somebody 50 times, that’s 50 chances to get into long term recovery. Death is final. So, how can I judge somebody and say, ‘No, you've had enough Narcan, and you don't deserve anymore?’ I can't even fathom that.” In an interview after the documentary came out, she added,  “We don’t treat people poorly for eating a whole cake, and having a diabetic emergency because of it, so why are we treating people poorly who relapsed and overdosed? It just doesn’t make sense. We as a society need to change the way we look at this. We need to lift people up. Kindness has fallen by the wayside.”

Our gospel lesson is about someone with a demon that overpowered and controlled him, and the attitude and actions of the town folks, who treated him like a wild animal, who shackled and chained him and banished him to live among the tombs alone, constantly tormented. But Jesus treated him with kindness. And when the man was finally rid of the demon, he was able to return to his community and once again become a productive citizen.

Chief Jan Rader, Judge Keller, and Necia Freeman exemplify Jesus in their treatment of
those whose lives are controlled by the demon of drug addiction. They are loving and kind. They believe in them and lift them up. They help them to heal, instead of punishing them or leaving them to die an agonizing death.

In the United States, there are over 100 deaths per day from opioids. Parents are losing their children and children are losing their parents. The commitment of all those trying to help addicts, saving their lives and getting them into long-term recovery, again and again if that is what it takes, is a noble one. And that commitment comes from their belief that every person is worthy and deserving of help.  As followers of the way of Jesus, that is our belief too. May we make the commitment to do all that we can to bring freedom to everyone who is in bondage to this demon. Amen.                      

Friday, May 1, 2020

The White Helmets - Sermon for week ending May 2, 2020

Our documentary for today is The White Helmets, on Netflix, about a group of volunteers in Syria, in areas out of regime control, who are dedicated to saving lives.  As daily airstrikes target civilians, the white helmets run toward the explosions and try to rescue people. Abu Omar, one of the white helmets interviewed, voices their commitment, saying, “Any human being no matter who they are or which side they are on if they need our help, it is our duty to help them. I try as hard as I can to save every person under the rubble. I consider them all to be my family.” One of the first scenes shows a group of them eating dinner when they hear planes overhead. They leave it and go, driving through streets crowded with people running away from the explosions. That’s followed by a  them pulling a five-year-old girl from the rubble alive, while  bombs drop all around them.  Khalid Farrah, another volunteer, said, “The hardest thing is seeing the dead bodies. The bloodbath is not stopping. I believe that all lives are precious and valuable. A child, even if he is not my son, is like my son.”

My favorite scene shows them digging through the rubble after a barrel bomb was dropped onto a village of about 10 families. The buildings were leveled, and many were killed.  They worked for 16 hours, rescuing people and searching for the body of a one week old baby who lived in the village. Then they heard a tiny cry and pulled the baby out alive. And every one of them started to cry. While working after the biggest car bomb to ever hit Syria, Mohammed Farrah describes the danger, saying “Our job depends on speed and accuracy. There is ISIS on the ground and Russian planes above. There are cluster bombs and barrel bombs.  My 2-year-old son hears the planes fly over and says, ‘Daddy, a bomb.’ Our children are growing up with this” Most White Helmets have no prior rescue experience, so teams take turns spending a month in Turkey training.   They learn how to use listening devices to locate those trapped, saws to cut through the rock and ropes to lower themselves down and pull up those they rescue. They learn how to put out fires that keep them from their rescue missions. The documentary is scene after scene of the White Helmets risking their lives to rescue people from  bombed buildings. Near the end, they visit the baby they pulled out alive a year later. Abu says, “In the White Helmets, we have a motto: To save a life is to save all humanity.” Since 2013, they have saved over 58,000 lives.

When I first told Cathy about the documentary, she said it sounded like what
our first responders and health care workers are doing, running toward the explosions of Covid 19. There are hundreds, of stories of those on the front lines of this pandemic, making personal sacrifices so that they can help others survive.  Like James, an ICU nurse who has a wife, 4 children, and his wife’s elderly parents at home. He moved out of the house so that he could treat Covid 19 patients while protecting his family. Mary Beth, an RN, whose hospital is currently at Code Orange, meaning that the medical staff are mandated to stay over at the hospital for as long as they are deemed necessary. And Maxine, a critical care physician who decided to secure her will and power of attorney, adding, “I talked to my kids about who they will live with if I don’t survive this.”

There are so many interpretations of the parable of The Good Samaritan, our reading for today. It’s a polemic against Jewish purity laws or the priestly hierarchy or it shows there is one good Samaritan among all the bad ones. But I think the message is much simpler: If someone needs help, do everything you can to help them.  It doesn’t matter what race or religion or orientation or gender or gender identity they are. We are all God’s children, and it is our duty to help one another. The question that Jesus responded to with this parable was, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is, “Everybody.” As we pray for all those who sacrifice their health and safety to run toward those who need help ,may we continue to look for way that we can be of service to others.  Amen.


Gospel Reading - Luke 10:25-37 

Our gospel lesson for today is Luke 10: 25-37, the Good Samaritan.

A lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity and compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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...