Friday, July 31, 2020

The Zookeeper's Wife - Sermon for Week ending August 1, 2020


Reading: 


Our reading is from the Zookeeper’s Wife, describing the Nazis’ treatment of Polish Jews in the first months of the German occupation.

As warnings and humiliations increased day by day, Jews were forbidden restaurants, parks, public toilets, and city benches. Branded with a blue Star of David on a white arm band, they were barred from railways and trams. For sport, soldiers hoisted orthodox Jews onto barrels and scissored off their religious beards, taunted old men and women, ordering them to dance or be shot. Nazis seized all their cash, furniture, jewelry, books, clothing, and medical supplies. Over 100,000 people endured physical labor without pay, and Jewish women, as further humiliation, were forced to use their underwear as cleaning rags. Jews in Poland were publicly stigmatized, brutalized, denigrated, raped, and murdered.


Sermon


Our movie with a message for this week is The Zookeeper’s Wife, available on HBO and Amazon Prime, which tells the true story of Antonina and Jan (Yan) Zabinksi, who used their zoo as a way station to smuggle over 300 Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto. The movie focuses on Antonina, and her compassion, for her animals, whom she greets every morning with treats and kisses, and then, for the people she hides, that she refers to as her guests. When the Germans invaded Poland, the zoo was very close to an   artillery station and was bombed. Most of the animals were killed, and those that weren’t were shot by soldiers, as they decided to use the zoo as an armory. In town, the Nazis began their plan to reduce the poles, whom they considered racially inferior, to a leaderless population of peasants and laborers by eliminating the leadership class and anyone they thought could organize a resistance. Polish nobility, local officials, priests, and teachers were pulled from their homes and shot in the street. As we heard in the reading, and as we know, Polish Jews were treated much worse. When the Nazis began moving them into the ghetto, Antonina and Jan, who was working with the Polish resistance, sought a way to help. They came up with the idea to turn the zoo into a pig farm to feed the German soldiers. They got permission to go into the ghetto to get what few scraps were left to feed the pigs, and they smuggled people out and hid them in their basement and in the pens that once held animals. Antonina treated them like valued guests. She used piano playing to let them know when the guards left after midnight, and they all came into the house to eat and socialize and feel a little less afraid for a time. When Jan told her about the evacuation of the ghetto, Antonina begged him to get more people out, as many as he could. He did, and she kept them safe, under the nose of the guards who occupied the zoo, throughout the war. Some stayed only a few days; others stayed for years. Only 2 of those she sheltered were later captured and murdered. All the others survived. Antonina made many sacrifices in order to keep her guests safe, including pretending to be attracted to a Nazi Zoologist who was infatuated with her, that resulted in him attacking and almost killing her and her son when he found out what she was doing. She did what she did out of compassion and empathy, because her own father had been murdered during the Russian revolution. She shared her story with a young teenage girl that she was sheltering, who was so traumatized she could not speak after being raped by German guards while in the Ghetto. She said, “We were taken in by friends and strangers. We were running for so long. In a life in hiding, you never know who to trust. That’s why I love animals so much. You look into their eyes and know what is in their heart.” And she gained the trust of those she sheltered by showing them her heart. In addition to compassion and empathy and trust, another theme of the movie is human courage. Jan and Antonina’s and especially the Jews. And what gave them courage was their families, their traditions, and their faith. The Warsaw ghetto was burned during Passover, and there is a scene of everyone at the zoo celebrating, telling from memory the story of their ancestors’ faith that kept them going forward when they were in bondage and despair. They sang and prayed, as the ashes from the fires fell like snow. It brought them a sliver of the familiar and hope amid the hopelessness of their situation. You and I can honor victims and survivors of the holocaust by telling their stories, and by working to make sure that what happened to them never happens again. By seeing clearly the damage that white supremacy has done and continues to do. By calling out leaders who demonize people and sow seeds of divisiveness. And by promoting and electing leaders that seek to unify rather than divide, leaders who believe in their hearts that people of all races are equally valuable and worthy, and who work to bring about justice for everyone. Leaders who, in the last words that  Congressman John Lewis left for us,“by human compassion, lay down the burdens of division, and set aside race, class, age, language, and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.” Amen.


Friday, July 24, 2020

Good Trouble - Sermon for Week ending July 25, 2020


Reading:


Our reading is by the late John Lewis, from the documentary, Good Trouble. I would see those signs that said, ‘white men, colored men,’ ‘white waiting, colored waiting’ and I would ask my father and mother and my grandparents, “why?” And they would say, “Boy that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.” But at 15 years old, the actions of Rosa parks and Martin Luther King inspired me to get into trouble. What I call good trouble, necessary trouble. It is time for all good people to get in trouble. I got arrested a few times in the 60s, 40 times. And since I’ve been in Congress, another 5 times, and I’m probably going to get arrested again for something. But my philosophy is very simple: when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. We have to save our country. We have to save our democracy.



Sermon:


Our movie with a message this week is the 2020 documentary film John Lewis: Good Trouble, available on Amazon Prime. Watching it was a wonderful way to grieve the passing of this remarkable man and remember his life’s work for justice and equality.  As we heard in the reading, ‘Good Trouble’ became Congressman Lewis’ rallying cry, reminding us that silence in the face of injustice is not acceptable. If we see something wrong going on, we must say something and do something about it. One of my favorite parts of the film is the interview with his brothers and sisters. Congressman Lewis often talked about growing up poor in a family of share-croppers in Troy, Alabama, and here we get to hear from his brothers and sisters about those times. His brother said that even when John was a young boy, they all knew that he had bigger things in mind. He would sneak off to school instead of picking cotton with the rest of the family. Finally, his brother said he would do his work and John’s, and his father agreed to let John go to school. His sisters talked about him preaching to the chickens and them, and their neighbors, and said that every day of high school, he dressed up, wearing a tie and carrying his bible. In college, he met a group of like-minded people, and they joined together to learn and practice non-violent resistance. In February of 1961, they held a sit in at McClellan’s lunch counter in Nashville. They were arrested, and when they were given the choice of paying a 50 dollar fine or spending a month in jail, each of them chose jail. They gained enough attention that Nashville became the first major city in the Southern United States where black and white people could eat together in public places. He was a Freedom Rider that same year, which led to the desegregation of public transportation across the South. And two years later, he helped organize the March on Washington to advocate for civil and economic rights for Black Americans, which led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act. There, 23 year old John Lewis told the crowd, “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in the streets and stay in the streets of every city, every village, and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes.” What John Lewis is most remembered for is his unceasing work to ensure that black Americans could participate in democracy by exercising their right to vote, culminating in Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he was beaten, almost to death, and the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.

His leadership in these events would have been more than enough for us to call  John Lewis a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. But he spent 55 more years doing the work of justice and equality, and would have done even more, if cancer had not taken his life. In 1986, he was elected to serve in the United States Congress, representing Georgia’s 5th district, and served there for 33 years. Called the conscience and the heart of Congress, he sponsored over 8000 bills of legislation. He worked for gay rights and same sex marriage, for universal healthcare and gun control and women’s rights, and law makers on both sides respected his moral clarity in his calls for justice for all. Just one month ago, he held a town hall with Barack Obama to discuss the murder of George Floyd by police and systemic racism in police departments all across our country, and he praised the efforts of a new generation of young people standing up for freedom and equality. As we know, the voting rights that John Lewis fought so hard for are disappearing. 17 million voters were purged from the rolls between 2016 and 2018. Electoral districts are artificially manipulated through partisan gerrymandering. Polling places in  predominantly black neighborhoods are being eliminated, and early voting is being curtailed. You might have seen the recent political cartoon that shows Congressman Lewis as a bridge over a great chasm to the voting booth. It is a call to action for us to continue the fight in his honor. The film, Good Trouble, which tells so much more about our hero, John Lewis, ends, as it began, with his words: “We will create the beloved community. We will redeem the soul of America. There may be some setbacks, some delays, but as a nation and as a people, we will get there. I still believe that we shall overcome.” Let us do all we can to help make his words reality.


Friday, July 17, 2020

Music Of The Heart - Sermon for week ending July 18, 2020


Reading: 

Our reading for this week is from Roberta Guaspari, who first brought violin instruction to East Harlem elementary schools in 1981, and in 1991, founded the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, which brings quality music education to children in New York City public schools.

I’m convinced that a classroom situation turns the children on in a special way. They are a part of a group. They are stimulated by one another. I think all children are excited by playing with other children. With their friends there, there is moral support.  Sometimes when all of the children are playing, I’m able to help one child without interrupting the class. And the other children hear what I’m doing and make corrections themselves. And they help each other.

Sermon: 

Our movie with a message this week is Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep,  and available on Amazon Prime. As we heard in the reading, it tells the true story of Roberta Guaspari, who brought violin instruction to East Harlem elementary schools, beginning in 1981. There is also a documentary about her called Small Wonders. When the film opens, Roberta is a newly divorced single mother of 2 in need of a job. She had previously lived in Greece, where her ex-husband was stationed, and took $5000 dollars from her savings, bought 50 child-sized violins and begged the headmaster of one of the schools to hire her to teach, which he did. While subletting a small apartment in Harlem,  she went to one of its public elementary schools and begged the principal to hire her to teach violin, which she eventually did. Roberta was an immediate hit with the students because they could see the love and passion she had for playing the violin, and she convinced them that, although it was hard work to learn to play, they could do it if they were disciplined. It was the adults she had problems with. Many of the teachers thought that violin in school was a waste of time. The head of the music department told her he knew these kids better than she did, and that they couldn’t go past do, re, mi. Her reply was, “I think you are underestimating them. Any child can learn to play the violin.” Some of the parents thought she was too harsh. For example, anyone who forgot their violin had to leave practice. Anyone who wanted to leave class early  for soccer practice had to choose between the two. And if their playing was bad, she told them so. In one scene, the principal asked her to  soften her comments to the students, so she did.  She said, “Well, just do your best.” and “That sounds ok.” A 10- year-old raised his hand and said, “Roberta, what is wrong with you? Why are you being nice? She said, “Well don’t you want a nice teacher?” And he replied, “I already got nice teachers. I count on you to add some variety.  And we stunk just now.” The children learned to play the violin, and they learned patience and discipline, which helped them with sports and school work. Soon, Roberta got so popular, that she was teaching 150 students at three Harlem elementary schools, and there was a lottery to get into her classes. Even so, 10 years in, the school board cut the music budget and violin was axed.  She got a friend who was a New York Times reporter to attend their last concert of the year, where she said, afterword, “This beautiful concert that you just heard could be the very last concert of the East Harlem violin program. The board of Ed and the district superintendent don’t think that music is important for our kids. But they are wrong, and they are gonna get a big fight.”The article came out in 5 different papers, and people began calling for the program’s reinstatement. Since there was no money in the budget, Roberta and the parents decided to raise the funds themselves, with a benefit concert at the 92nd street YMCA. Violinist Arnold Steinhardt and his wife Dorothea got involved, and they got Itzhak Perlman to agree to play.  When a water leak made the Y unavailable, Itzack Perlman got in touch with Isaac Stern, and they moved the concert to Carnegie Hall. Fiddlefest, as it was called, was a great success. For the finale, 14 of the world’s greatest violinists each shared a music stand with one of Roberta’s students.The money raised funded her program for three more years. She also founded the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, which gives New York public school children access to quality music education and performance. Roberta has taught thousands of children to play the violin, expanding the vision of what is possible in their lives.


We here have our own Roberta Guaspari. And her name is Jane Lindberg, founder of Arts Alive Nassau. I talked with Jane about her journey from the Amelia Arts Academy, which gave private music lessons to children, to the transition to a non-profit, which gave access to music to children who couldn’t afford to pay for it.  Arts Alive Nassau began providing free instruction in our public schools in 2012. It now teaches dulcimer, ukulele, guitar, violin and viola, piano, flute, clarinet, drums, dance, visual arts, and musical theater, and includes The First Coast singers and The Nassau youth orchestra. Jane says that music makes kids want to come to school, teaches them to be less judgmental and to work together with others, and builds poise and self-confidence. Check out their new website for all the programs that will be up and running as soon as it is safe to do so. There are also volunteer opportunities. Music in schools is so beneficial to children, yet it is almost always the first to be cut when funds run low. We are so grateful to people like Roberta Guaspari and Jane Lindberg for all that they do to expand the vision of what is possible in the lives of our children.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Florida Project - Sermon for Week ending July 11, 2020


Reading: 


Our reading for this week is from “Homeless Children Living on the Highway to Disney World.”

12-year-old Melissa was always on the move, wondering in and out of people’s rooms and climbing the trees by the parking lot. She moved into the hotel two years ago with her dad and her brother. There room is one of thousands on Highway 192, one of the main arteries leading to the throbbing heart of Central Florida economy that is Disney world. Her dad had lost his job in a wine shop and couldn’t afford the $1200 to put down a security deposit for an apartment. He said he moved into the hotel thinking it would just be a quick fix, which is how a long term stay usually begins. He applied to 167 restaurants and heard back from only one, but he didn’t get the job. Melissa said she has her whole life planned out. She wants to go to college, then live on a farm with her dad and lots of animals. But two years later, she is still living in the hotel, this time with her mom and her brother, and because they couldn’t pay even that rent, they live on the floor of one of their neighbor’s rooms.


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Sermon: 


Our movie with a message for this week is The Florida Project, on Netflix, a 2017 independent film that brings into the open some of America’s hidden homeless, who live in what were once budget hotels for tourists in Kissimmee, Florida, in the shadow of Disney World. The title, The Florida Project, was what Walt Disney called Disney World when he was just beginning to make plans for it.The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was critically acclaimed, but was snubbed at the Oscars, except for a nomination for Willem Defoe, because as many critics pointed out, America does not want to see its own abject poverty, especially women and children, who make up a disproportionate share. It was filmed at the hotel it portrays, The Magic Castle, off highway 192, which is surrounded by strip clubs and knock-off souvenir shops. And, except for Defoe, the director hired first time actors for the primary roles, and children who actually lived in the hotel for secondary roles and extras. It tells the story of Halley and her 6-year-old daughter Moonie, as they struggle to make ends meet. When Halley loses her job in a strip club, she is no longer eligible for temporary assistance for needy families. Unskilled, unkempt, and unruly, she is not the type of girl that Disney would hire. No one else will either. She watches one of the other children living in the hotel in exchange for a daily free meal the boy’s mother sneaks from her job in a waffle joint. But Halley doesn’t really watch either of the children. She doesn’t know how to parent Moonie. She is so young, they are more like siblings. All day, the children roam the hotel grounds and stray too far away from home. They beg for money from tourists to buy ice cream. And they engage in dangerous activities, including burning down an abandoned condo when they stuff a pillow in the fire place and light it with a lighter they found. But Halley does love Moonie. And she tries as well as she knows how to make sure she doesn’t go hungry. She buys cheap perfume at the gas station and they try to sell it at the nicer hotels. When no one buys it, they ask for money. When there is no longer enough money to pay the rent, Halley turns to prostitution, locking Moonie in the bathroom with loud music when she has a customer. She is found out, and Child Protective Services comes to remove Moonie. Moonie goes to say goodbye to her friend  who lives in another hotel, and in desperation, they run, down a long road and across the highway. Two 6-year-olds. In the last scene, they have made it into Disney world and are running toward Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom.

The movie shows the desperate lives of children and their parents who have nowhere else to live and no one to depend on. As we heard in the reading, even the cheapest apartments require a deposit, and poor people, even if they are working, don’t make enough money to save up for that when their children are hungry. So they live hand to mouth in these hotels, paying by the week.

One of the major themes in the Florida Project is the irony of these places being right  next to Disney World, billed as the happiest place on earth, but these children will never be able to afford to visit. It highlights the two Americas, the ruling class and the underclass, side by side. In one scene, Halley steals from a customer 4 magic bands he had bought for his family’s trip to the Magic Kingdom, which cost him $1700 dollars.  Halley and Moonie live in a non-magical kingdom, which serves up despair and desperation instead of the pleasure and diversion of the magic one. And the final scene tells us that, although these little girls are running with all their might to the Magic Kingdom for rescue, there is no magic coming their way, and no rescue. This is their life.  According to the U.S. Department of education, over 2000 children live in hotels in central Florida, and that’s not counting those that are too young for school, or who have escaped notice by the authorities. Right here. And we either don’t know about it or don’t know what to do about it. Although Moonie and her friends are sometimes too mischievous for their own or others good, they are able to find adventure while hanging out all day in the hot sun around run-down hotels, with no money and little food. But they shouldn’t have to. They are children! They should be able to experience all of what life has to offer. They should have the same opportunities and benefits as our children do. I hope you will watch this movie. It does have strong language, but it is realistic for the characters. If it had won the academy award, the director says, many more people would know about these families and, hopefully, would be moved to help. May we at New Vision, who are always looking for ways to help our neighbors, search for concrete ways to help these children and their families. Because in the ‘Land of the Free,’ they are not free. Amen.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind - Sermon for week ending July 4, 2020

Readings: 

Our first reading is from The Boy who harnessed the Wind by William KamKwamba, about the 2001 famine in Malawi.

By late January, the real starvation began. Famine arrived in Malawi. It fell upon us like the great plagues of Egypt I’d read about, swiftly and without rest. As if overnight, people’s bodies began changing into horrible shapes. They were now scattered across the land by the thousands, scavenging the soil like animals. Far from home and away from their families, they began to die. They stumbled past in a daze, their eyes swimming in their sockets. Some people wasted away until they looked like walking skeletons. Women with thin, ashen faces sat alone, quietly pleading with God. Everywhere the anguish was silent, because no one had the energy to cry.

Our second reading is also by William KamKwamba, who at age 14, built a windmill out of scraps, saving his village from starvation. This is William in a Ted Talk 18 years later.

I try to share my story with people around the world who might be in the same  situation I was in when I was doing my work, to help them get inspired to do some project to solve problems in their communities. My dream is to continue to find ways to solve the problems people are facing throughout the world.

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Sermon: 

Our movie with a message for this week is The Boy who harnessed the Wind, available on Netflix, which tells the true story of how 14-year-old William KamKwamba saved his family and his village from starvation during the 2001 famine in Malawi. 

The story opens before the famine, when life in William’s rural village was difficult, but survivable. All the farmers grew corn, and the whole family worked to till the soil, plant, fertilize, and harvest the crop that would hopefully provide them with enough food for the year.  William’s parents saved enough money the year before to send him to primary school, and with his curiosity and a natural aptitude, he learned to repair radios and CD players for the villagers. He said, “Although most people were content to enjoy these inventions without explanation, questions constantly filled my mind.” 

Normally, the rainy season in Malawi started the first week of December and continued through March. But in December 2000, the rains were late and much too heavy.  Deforestation caused severe flooding, which destroyed crops and homes. And, as we heard in our first reading, soon famine came to Malawi. William’s family was eating only one small meal a day, and they began to suffer the effects of hunger. 

In the past, the government had stored grain to subsidize the farmers, but that year, they had sold their reserves to surrounding countries to pay off debt. People began eating corn husks, which they usually gave to their animals. William counted his family’s supply of food and found that it would serve them one meal for 24 days, but it would be 210 days before the next harvest. People sold their farm animals, then their possessions in order to buy food.

Although William had to drop out of school, he started visiting the library to try to catch up with the few students who were still there. He was drawn to science books. One book, Explaining Physics, used illustrations to answer some of the questions he had. He learned how electro magnets could power motors and how a wind turbine could produce electricity
to rotate a pump for irrigation. If he could build a windmill, they wouldn’t have to depend on the rains, and the dry season wouldn’t scorch the plants. He said, “With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger.In Malawi, the wind was one of the few consistent things given to us by God, blowing in the treetops day and night. A windmill was more than just power. It was freedom.”

William visited scrap yards to get the materials he needed. When he had gathered and assembled everything, he asked his father to give him his bicycle, which was the family’s only means of transportation, to power the generator. But the people of Malawi, including his father, did not know about or trust science. Their culture was one of magic and witch doctors. At first, he said, No, but eventually, William convinced him that the windmill would mean that they could have an extra harvest. Everyone in the village pitched in to cut birch trees and build the tower. When everything was ready, William climbed up and touched wires together, and the windmill began to spin. It supplied his home with electricity, and water pumping from the well, irrigated the crops year round.

This story lays bare economic inequality and government corruption. Malawi today, almost 20 years later, is still one of the poorest countries in the world. But this is also a tale of hope, hope through human ingenuity and tenacity. William didn’t stop at his village. He built a windmill for the school, so that students could get news and music. 

And he taught anyone who was interested how to make electricity with wind. William ended up graduating from Dartmouth, and now works with WiderNet a non-profit that provides digital education for communities across the globe. He also runs the Moving Windmills project, which he created, equipping schools in Malawi with solar panels and a digital library so that students don’t have to be online to access academic material. 

As we heard in the second reading, William said he wanted to be an inspiration to others searching for ways to solve problems in their communities. And his story can inspire us to put our brains and hearts and resources to work to provide opportunities for education and research and innovation in our own community. Amen.

Jesus Walks on Water - Sermon for week ending May 8, 2021

Gospel Reading   John 6: 16-21 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to...