Archive for November, 2011

Why Should We Care?

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Rev. Barbara Brecht

November 14, 2010

Scripture: Luke 21: 5-19

In this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem, foretelling its destruction.   He predicts that some disciples will be given to the synagogues and prisons and be unjustly accused. Jesus, himself, will soon be turned over to the authorities and unjustly accused.  The criminal justice system probably has not changed that much in 2,000 years.  Those who threaten and want to disrupt the social or economic order are removed from the general population and hidden away in prison.  

Jesus talks about prisons at other times in his ministry, doesn’t he?  He tells his disciples that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus.  Why does Jesus emphasize visiting people in prison? It’s easy to understand Jesus’s instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking in the homeless.  But why visiting people in prison? It’s so difficult to visit someone in prison. May I tell you about some of the difficulties?

Prisons are traditionally built in remote places not served by public transportation or easy to get to.  It’s very difficult to make arrangements with someone you would like to visit.  To communicate with a person in prison, that person has to call you, the call has to be collect and the rates are much higher than normal rates, placing a very real economic burden on poor families who want to be in touch with loved ones.  In some states you have to be on a list of approved “call receivers” and who knows who is looking at that list. Additionally, there are few phones available in prisons.  When you plan a visit, you don’t know if the prison is going to be in “lock-down” and receive no visitors.  There are rules about what you can wear as a visitor—especially for women, these rules can be humiliating.  For example, at Attica prison in New York State, when our prison ministry went in to worship with the men, any woman with an underwire bra had to remove the bra before going in.  I guess because the metal could be used to make a weapon.  Of course, many more rules apply to what you can bring and how long you can stay. 

In New York State where I was involved in the system, I could not correspond or be on an approved call list with any incarcerated person in any prison in the state and still visit a prison with my church group for a worship service.  Why was this rule created?  Who knows?  One person involved in the admissions procedure told me that “little old church ladies” could be manipulated by men in prison to fall in love with them through letter writing. Then the men would take advantage of them when they were released from prison.  So to prevent this sad scene, “little old church ladies” could not write to any person in prison and still worship with their church group.

Another time our prison ministry group drove five hours to a prison, only to be told that there were no papers at the front desk giving us permission to hold a worship service.  Why bother at all?

 Very few people know these rules or are aware of what organization makes these rules about prison visitation.  The Department of Corrections is a system unto itself.  There is virtually no oversight from elected officials. People are appointed to the parole boards as well as positions of power in the correctional system.  There is a total lack of transparency and accountability. A few years ago, a woman came to us in tears.  After months of not hearing from her incarcerated son, this mother was finally told he had died months ago and his body was buried in a prison grave.  They could not tell her where, but if she wanted the body she would have to pay thousands of dollars to have it dug up and transported to another site.  The prison officials claimed that they had sent her several letters informing her of his death but the letters had been returned “addressee unknown.” The story has a bitter-sweet ending: our church was able to interest some New York City media in her story and the woman could prove that she had never changed her address.  The prison officials were made to be accountable—apologized and returned the body to her at no charge.  We held a lovely memorial service at the church.  But how many people have the will, fortitude, and resources to penetrate this system?  Sunlight is the best disinfectant but the walls are practically impenetrable.  And how many people really care?  Dr. King writes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  Any system that is clothed in secrecy and mystery and is not accountable to the people it serves is bound to become corrupt.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit people in prison.

What part does society play in the social justice system?  William Sloan Coffin writes that “Ninety-eight percent of people in prison in the United States lived in poverty most of their lives.”  Are poor people more likely to be criminals?  Dr. Coffin goes on:  “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals.  Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons.  Some of us are guilty but all of us are responsible.  We stress the guilty to exonerate the others also responsible for a soaring crime rate.”

Most of us have committed deeds we are not proud of.  Some of us go to prison for them.  A white boy’s prank (he’s just feeling his oats) is a black boy’s crime. I need not tell you that the population in prison is overwhelmingly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities.  Women in prison are often there because they have killed or attempted to kill their abusers.  A program in the maximum security prison in New York is geared for the women who are deaf—many more deaf women than in the normal population.  Why are they deaf?  Because they were knocked on the head so many times by violent people.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

During the last thirty years the prison population has sextupled.  Today one in one hundred adults in the country are behind bars.  By far the highest ratio of imprisoned people in any democracy. The population is disproportionately young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minorities. 

Prisons create profits for corporations and jobs for communities that have few jobs to offer otherwise.  Can you just imagine the profit for whichever company provides paper products for a state prison?  And who is giving out those contracts?  Few people know.  Of course in recent years the decision to turn the incarceration of people over to profit making corporations is mind-blowing.  Imagine having a daughter in a prison where her medical care is based on how little can be done for her so that stockholders can have a good return on their investment.  I know there is supposed to be strict oversight.  The New York Times uncovered horrendous medical care in facilities run by for-profit companies.

Jesus wants us to visit those in prison because of the inherent worth of humankind as created by God in God’s own image.  Our God is the God of everyone. We believe there is the possibility of repentance and salvation for each cherished individual.  Examples ranging from the prodigal son to the lost sheep abound in Jesus’s teachings. Each person is precious in God’s eyes.  Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther and tireless advocate for those in prison, talks about the importance of language in referencing those in prison.  Never say prisoner, convict, inmate, ex-con or any generic word indicating a prison status.  These are people—people in prison.  Look at the prophets (different spelling) who have been in prison—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Angela Davis.  All people who wanted to disturb the status quo.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, his words were written on the other side of the note-pad on which the contents of food parcels had to be listed—in the first weeks of his imprisonment, the only writing material he had.  “Separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from marriage, from God, impatience, longing, boredom, sick—profoundly alone, suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because basically I am already dead.  Total. Overcoming in prayer.”  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

By visiting those in prison, we can be present with people in their extreme alienation.  We can become the incarnate presence of God.  Our presence—particularly our listening to their stories–enables the giving and receiving of forgiveness.  We are able to walk some of the diverse paths humans take in their walk toward and with God.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison. 

In this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem, foretelling its destruction. He predicts that some disciples will be given to the synagogues and prisons and be unjustly accused. Jesus, himself, will soon be turned over to the authorities and unjustly accused. The criminal justice system probably has not changed that much in 2,000 years. Those who threaten and want to disrupt the social or economic order are removed from the general population and hidden away in prison.

Jesus talks about prisons at other times in his ministry, doesn’t he? He tells his disciples that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus. Why does Jesus emphasize visiting people in prison? It’s easy to understand Jesus’s instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking in the homeless. But why visiting people in prison? It’s so difficult to visit someone in prison. May I tell you about some of the difficulties.

Prisons are traditionally built in remote places not served by public transportation nor easy to get to. It’s very difficult to make arrangements with someone you would like to visit. To communicate with a person in prison, that person has to call you, the call has to be collect and the rates are much higher than normal rates, placing a very real economic burden on poor families who want to be in touch with loved ones. In some states you have to be on a list of approved “call receivers” and who knows who is looking at that list. Additionally, there are few phones available in prisons. When you plan a visit, you don’t know if the prison is going to be in “lock-down” and receive no visitors. There are rules about what you can wear as a visitor—especially for women, these rules can be humiliating. For example, at Attica prison in New York State, when our prison ministry went in to worship with the men, any woman with an underwired bra had to remove the bra before going in. I guess because the metal could be used to make a weapon. Of course, many more rules apply to what you can bring and how long you can stay.

In New York State where I was involved in the system, I could not correspond or be on an approved call list with any incarcerated person in any prison in the state and still visit a prison with my church group for a worship service. Why was this rule created? Who knows? One person involved in the admissions procedure told me that “little old church ladies” could be manipulated by men in prison to fall in love with them through letter writing. Then the men would take advantage of them when they were released from prison. So to prevent this sad scene, “little old church ladies” could not write to any person in prison and still worship with their church group.

Another time our prison ministry group drove five hours to a prison, only to be told that there were no papers at the front desk giving us permission to hold a worship service. Why bother at all?

Very few people know these rules or are aware of what organization makes these rules about prison visitation. The Department of Corrections is a system unto itself. There is virtually no oversight from elected officials. People are appointed to the parole boards as well as positions of power in the correctional system. There is a total lack of transparency and accountability. A few years ago, a woman came to us in tears. After months of not hearing from her incarcerated son, this mother was finally told he had died months ago and his body was buried in a prison grave. They could not tell her where, but if she wanted the body she would have to pay thousands of dollars to have it dug up and transported to another site. The prison officials claimed that they had sent her several letters informing her of his death but the letters had been returned “addressee unknown.” The story has a bitter-sweet ending: our church was able to interest some New York City media in her story and the woman could prove that she had never changed her address. The prison officials were made to be accountable—apologized and returned the body to her at no charge. We held a lovely memorial service at the church. But how many people have the will, fortitude, and resources to penetrate this system? Sunlight is the best disinfectant but the walls are practically impenetrable. And how many people really care? Dr. King writes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Any system that is clothed in secrecy and mystery and is not accountable to the people it serves is bound to become corrupt. Of course Jesus wants us to visit people in prison.

What part does society play in the social justice system? William Sloan Coffin writes that “Ninety-eight percent of people in prison in the United States lived in poverty most of their lives.” Are poor people more likely to be criminals? Dr. Coffin goes on: “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals. Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons. Some of us are guilty but all of us are responsible. We stress the guilty to exonerate the others also responsible for a soaring crime rate.”

Most of us have committed deeds we are not proud of. Some of us go to prison for them. A white boy’s prank (he’s just feeling his oats) is a black boy’s crime. I need not tell you that the population in prison is overwhelmingly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities. Women in prison are often there because they have killed or attempted to kill their abusers. A program in the maximum security prison in New York is geared for the women who are deaf—many more deaf women than in the normal population. Why are they deaf? Because they were knocked on the head so many times by violent people. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

During the last thirty years the prison population has sextupled. Today one in one hundred adults in the country are behind bars. By far the highest ratio of imprisoned people in any democracy. The population is disproportionately young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minorities.

Prisons create profits for corporations and jobs for communities that have few jobs to offer otherwise. Can you just imagine the profit for whichever company provides paper products for a state prison? And who is giving out those contracts? Few people know. Of course in recent years the decision to turn the incarceration of people over to profit making corporations is mind-blowing. Imagine having a daughter in a prison where her medical care is based on how little can be done for her so that stockholders can have a good return on their investment. I know there is supposed to be strict oversight. The NEW YORK TIMES uncovered horrendous medical care in facilities run by for-profit companies.

Jesus wants us to visit those in prison because of the inherent worth of humankind as created by God in God’s own image. Our God is the God of everyone. We believe there is the possibility of repentance and salvation for each cherished individual. Examples ranging from the prodigal son to the lost sheep abound in Jesus’s teachings. Each person is precious in God’s eyes. Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther and tireless advocate for those in prison, talks about the importance of language in referencing those in prison. Never say prisoner, convict, inmate, ex-con or any generic word indicating a prison status. These are people—people in prison. Look at the prophets (different spelling) who have been in prison—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Paul, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Angela Davis. All people who wanted to disturb the status quo. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, his words were written on the other side of the note-pad on which the contents of food parcels had to be listed—in the first weeks of his imprisonment, the only writing material he had. “Separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from marriage, from God, impatience, longing, boredom, sick—profoundly alone, suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because basically I am already dead. Total. Overcoming in prayer.” Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

By visiting those in prison, we can be present with people in their extreme alienation. We can become the incarnate presence of God. Our presence—particularly our listening to their stories–enables the giving and receiving of forgiveness. We are able to walk some of the diverse paths humans take in their walk toward and with God. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

Diversity – Accessibility Awareness

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Susan Scofield

October 10, 2010

Twice recently I’ve had friends ask, “Don’t you hate it when you are in a chair and folks speak louder to you like you’re deaf? “ Huh? My disabilities clash at times. I want to be where you can see me, but I will try to stay where you can hear me, too . . .

Pat told me I couldn’t use this time to fuss about not having an elevator . . .

I was asked to attend a cultural diversity seminar two weeks ago at MHS to find more ways to be culturally inclusive in the classroom, and to help quell the ethnocentric pull on today’s American middle school minds. I do NOT feel I honor other cultures as I could, due to my ignorance of other religions and traditions. I showed up at the conference to find the room ‘terraced’ with sections of the floor 10 inches lower than the section before it. All the tables had been set up in the lower quadrants, so I glanced around the room, looking for a ramp to join the other participants. I saw a lift at the other entrance, and I started to move toward it when someone apologized that the lift wasn’t working. So this was to be a cultural diversity seminar that was not accessible—one more faux pas in a list too disappointing to count.

Of course my colleagues helped me out—they recognize my worth. They grabbed breakfast lunch and coffee for me, they lifted my chair up a step so I could access the bathrooms, and they moved their table up so we could be a working unit. But somehow, the seminar had lost its luster for me. There must have not been ANY thought as to who they might draw to this conference. They had not thought of me, therefore, I did not truly feel that I was wanted or valued. Do my Hispanic, Asian, and African American kids think the same thing when they are in my classroom? She doesn’t think about me—she doesn’t know about me, so she doesn’t care about me? I can’t make connections with what I don’t know to connect. The seminar as well as daily life reminds me again and again to take the time to find that connection. I think diversity is much like humility—if you think you have attained your goal, then you’ve missed the boat. You can always employ more diversity. How many gay teens killed themselves last week?

It’s important to talk about being okay with being different. Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man, said, “You don’t have to be handicapped to be different. Everyone is different!”

Supporting uniqueness and respecting individualism is important for people to see demonstrated, not just spoken about. We are NOT the same. We should celebrate each person for who they are and where they are, with no judgments. Yes, this requires educating teachers, kids, and the general public. Folks—young and old—learn by watching what we do.

Diversity embraces so much more than culture: socio-economic status, physical abilities, mental abilities, sexuality, gender, neighborhoods, family units, and living arrangements. I start talking about only one type of diversity—and then end up on another note—trying to get people to open their minds and hearts to other diverse groups—those with physical limitations, GLBT folks, those currently unemployed, struggling readers, people with other cultures, other religions, folks of different sizes, roller derby girls—we are all human—we all carry a bit of God within us—we are all on this old earth for reasons we may not fully understand.

Disability awareness? I’m not sold on this term. I don’t think we should be focusing on the disability. I think we are already too aware of others’ shortcomings. I’d like to think we are focusing on the individual—on the intrinsic value of each of us as human beings—despite how much or how little we have been given—or even what we’ve done with what we’ve been given. I’d settle for an awareness and a mindfulness that none of us are exactly the same, and yet we are all Sojourners in the same lifetime, with the potential to profoundly impact each other for better or for worse. Perceptions are much more handicapping than any disability.

Helen Keller is my hero. She wrote:

The calamity of the blind is immense, irreparable. But it does not take away our share of the things that count–service, friendship, humor, imagination, wisdom. It is the secret inner will that controls one’s fate. We are capable of willing to be good, of loving and being loved, of thinking to the end that we may be wiser. We possess these spirit-born forces equally with all God’s children.

I think she battled people’s mindsets her entire life, and I’m fairly certain things are not any different for me now. We are not battling ourselves, or our limitations, but the limiting beliefs of others—the boxes that others put the disabled into. I chafe against the ignorance and insensitivity of folks every day, and Helen handled all of this with much more grace and wisdom than I ever could. My friends are so important to me. They act as a buffer from the carelessness of the world. They remind me that I am valuable. I matter. I am capable of all the meaningful things that set us apart as human beings. I have the will to do good, to love, and yes, to even think I’m the wiser one in the end.

A Kingdom Not Postponed

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Rev. David Gallup

July 10, 2011

Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9.

Three titles for this sermon suggested themselves to me: “The Prodigal Sower,” “The Optimism of Jesus” and “A Kingdom Not Postponed.” They all relate to the Parable of the Sower as reported in Matthew’s gospel, as we may eventually see. But first, let me approach the subject tangentially.

Are we in America losing concern for “the common good”? This is the question raised in a recent article in the Christian Century by Gary Dorrian of Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University.¹ Can we judge the health of a society by how it deals with those of its members who are less well off?

Dorrian echoes the concerns of previous sociologists.² As many as two or three decades ago some were noticing an erosion of certain moral assumptions that had hitherto under-girded the audacious American republican experiment in self-government. (I hasten to say that the term, “republican,” is used here to mean a government by the people, without a monarch or autocratic leader.) Dorian claims that these underlying assumptions have come to us from Aristotle and biblical sources. It has been assumed that a free society, such as ours has attempted to be, could survive only if there were “an approximate equality of opportunity and condition among citizens.” Rampant American individualism has from the beginning also been a defining characteristic of our society. But biblical religion and civic republicanism has from the beginning worked somewhat to restrain that.

Now I know we are treading on treacherous ground. All sorts of movements, political and otherwise, like to cite our “Judeo-Christian roots” as the source of their ideologies. We know how badly the concept can be abused. But let us carry on.

What the sociologists were claiming was that young people “no longer knew or cared about the biblical sources of the American experiment, or the social gospel dream of a co-operative commonwealth.

Ironically, while this seemed to be happening in the United States, a counter-movement called “liberation theology” was developing in South America and was even enthusing young people in India (some of whom were our seminary students). In India it produced attempts to articulate something called “dalit theology,” that is, a theology addressing the condition of the traditionally oppressed out-castes.

What seems to be replacing the idea of the common good is an emphasis on an “individualistic pursuit of success or emotional satisfaction.” Character-shaping communities seem to be being replaced by a kind of personal self-centeredness in a world that has little meaning. Of course, when we talk about character-shaping communities we are not talking about ideological straitjacketing. Some communities have been shaped by some excellent characters. Some have not. Some communities have shaped reprehensible characters. However, in the context of this sermon, in this assembly, I would like, in a biased way, to think with you about a character-shaping Christian congregation. A congregation that is part of a large, historical, peculiarly sensitive community. A fellowship sharing particularly with its youths and young adults, the challenge of such prophets as Micah who lists the expectations of God that we will “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). And further, a congregation reflecting the encouragement we have received through the Grace of Jesus. That is the kind of character-shaping community that I trust Sojourners UCC will always be.

Dare we think about the realm of God in relation to the ambiguous society in which we live? Dare we suppose that those assumptions, those ideals about the viability of a democratic republic should make us question how our society deals with its less fortunate members? Dare we claim that there are ways, imperfect, flawed, hampered by willfulness and ennui, that can, nevertheless, somehow, hint of the Kingdom of God, can, somehow, reflect the compelling grace of God, can, somehow, counter selfishness, cynicism, and ignorance? I think we can; in fact, I think we do; and that, at least in part, is why I think we are here.

This brings me to the scripture readings for today: Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9.

In Isaiah, we have heard part of a hymn of joy and promise. God’s WORD will not return empty, but shall accomplish what God purposes. It will succeed in that thing for which God sent it. For Isaiah, the assurance was that God would deliver Israel from exile and establish a new Jerusalem. God’s concern for Israel would be unwavering and everlasting.

In today’s verses from the gospel according to Matthew, we again encounter God’s WORD, this time very loaded with meaning, especially if you recall these words from the gospel according to John:

In the beginning was the Word (logo) and

the Word was with God, the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God. All things

came into being through him, and without him

not one thing came into being. What has come

into being in him was life,

and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness did not overcome i t. . . .

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

and we have seen the glory, the glory of a father’s only son,

full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5, 14 NRSV

Now, in Matthew’s telling of the Parable of the Sower we are invited to hear the Word Incarnate telling a parable about the Word! (Are you still with me?)

Who is the sower? Is this not Incarnate Grace and Truth? Jesus himself?

What is being sowed? Is it not the promise of the Kingdom of God?

What is that promise? That the kingdom will prevail. The “seed” is prodigiously scattered. It is not measured out carefully. The sower knows there always will be enough, fall where it may. And when the seeds that do take root and grow, they will yield a wonderful harvest– some thirty fold, some sixty fold, some even one hundred fold! The Sower is generous, prodigal, nonjudgmental, and optimistic! Jesus is talking about that for which we pray, that God’s will be done, here and now and forever.

On those occasions when we pray, using the words of The Lord’s Prayer, do you mentally cross your fingers, or cynically recite the words, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? Or, do you pray in gratitude for the signs of the Kingdom where folks have opened their hearts to it and acted upon it? And then do you add, “Dear Lord, help me to act upon it”? And do you, sometimes, here, in this loving character-building community, realize that your prayers are being answered?

I wonder if it would be all right to pray impatiently; acknowledging that there are signs of the Kingdom for which we are grateful, but wishing that there were more in all the violent, sad and troubled places in our world. The words of the hymn which were read as our call to worship this morning resonate with me:

Enter in the realm of God, It has come, and yet will be.

It is known, and yet unknown. Christ revealed its mystery.

In communities that serve, and among the saints who care,

There is justice for the poor,

and new freedom from despair.

Come again, O Christ to rule in that realm that has no end.

May your children everywhere hear your greeting:

“Welcome, friend!”

¹ Dorrien, Gary, “Moral Community = No Common Good?”

Christian Century, April 29, 2011, pp 22-25

² Bellah, Robert, et al, “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life”, 1985

Sandel, Michael , “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice” 1982

Pride

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Jeremy Andreatta

June 26, 2011

Scripture: Romans 15:5-7

First, welcome, welcome EVERYONE.

I’d like to start by addressing a couple of the items in my bio. in the bulletin. “Whoop” as it is written, is what Aggies say pretty much anytime we are excited about something which includes graduation, such as “I’m a proud member of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Class of 2009! WHOOP!” and, Inorganic Chemistry is not a term I made up to make myself feel better about spending 5 years in graduate school. There are books written about the topic and I have even published a scientific article in the journal named “Inorganic Chemistry.”

With that being said, I’m not really sure why I was asked to speak today, but here I am and here we go. I guess, as often happens, this is what one gets when you give a simple “yes” answer and agree to attend a committee meeting after service. But make no mistake, I am both honored and humbled that I have been asked to speak today on Pride Sunday.

The theme for today is acceptance. I must admit that this topic is somewhat of a challenge for me since it is a relatively abstract idea. I’m very much used to and comfortable discussing the nuances of chemical reactivity and conclusions supported by experimental evidence, but this topic has presented me with a new challenge and I only hope I don’t disappoint.

So, as my Texas A&M brethren would say, I got a story for ya Ags. Imagine a phone call home, “Hey Mom, how’s it goin’?” kicks the conversation. You exchange a few stories about various aspects of your week. Then you say, “Hey Mom, I want you to know that I’ve been dating someone for a little over a year now and that I’m really happy” …Silence…It seems as maybe you said it in your head only and didn’t actually verbalize it, because the conversation that follows seems to not have changed from what has happened that week. So you repeat it, making sure you actually verbalize it, “Mom, I want you to know that I’ve been dating someone for over a year and that I’m really happy.” Silence…and finally a response…”I wish I would have hung up on you after you said it the first time”… that is followed with “I just don’t think you know what you want. You never said anything about this (‘this’ meaning you being gay) until you lived with a gay roommate. I was raised Catholic and just don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept ‘IT.’ Heaven forbid anyone in town finds out!” The reply is relatively simple, “Mom, this started long before that. I’ve always known there was something different about me. I started to figure it out and question my sexuality years ago. Now, you might think this is the type of conversation a young college student had with his or her mother as a coming out or soon thereafter. But, I was 29 at the time this phone call occurred last summer and I had been out to my family for over 2 years.

Even to this day, my mom, along with other friends, can’t bring themselves to acknowledge, much less accept, that I am gay. This is an all too common occurrence in families, friendships, etc. across our community and our nation. Also, one might think that only the older generation is unaccepting of the LGBTQ and ally community, but that is also not true.

Growing up in a small Texas town where diversity meant Caucasian or Hispanic and heterosexual, ONLY, I always knew that I felt different. I knew what gay was, just never thought that I might have “caught it,” as some say. My family was considered outside the norm because we were Catholic and as far as I knew the only such family in Santo, Texas. Other races etc. were not welcomed with open arms in Santo. I, however, was very fortunate to be the son of parents that taught and demonstrated a love and respect for all of God’s children regardless of who they are and for that I am truly thankful.

I started to think that I might, just might, be bisexual when I was in college. I had convinced myself that the feelings/curiosities that I was having were just a phase and normal. Later in college I started to try to deal with some of the feelings I was having, but mainly just keep them hidden deep down inside. In graduate school these feelings grew and I even made a last ditch effort to be straight but, not surprisingly, it didn’t work out! I will report though, that the last woman I ever dated is now my best friend and I can’t imagine her not being a huge part of my life. There were some very dark hours during this time, as I’m sure many of you here today gay, straight, male, and female, etc. can relate to. I came out to my family, which didn’t go so well (mostly my fault). It is definitely true what they say about good intentions! However, this was the time in my life when my faith pulled me through. I finally realized that I was not a mistake and I but needed the courage to accept myself. With help from family, some amazing friends, a little bit of therapy, and a lot prayer, I stand here today.

Thinking back to about a year and a half ago, I can easily remember the warm welcome that I got when I first came to Sojourners. Pastor Jim sought me out, I’m pretty sure it was obvious that I was a first timer, and welcomed me and told me that there would be a time for me to introduce myself, if I felt comfortable. Well, I did feel comfortable, introduced myself, and am proud to be on this journey through life with all of you here. I still feel my heart jump and almost tear up every Sunday when I hear Pastor Pat recite the words “whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” and to know that every member of this church believes in this statement. This simple statement means the world to me. Immediately, I felt accepted and even welcomed at Sojourners, not in spite of who I am, but because of who I am and I consider that truly special.

A simple definition says that acceptance is “the act of taking or receiving something offered or favorable reception; approval, favor.” Seems simple right? But, I think this is one of the most difficult actions that we can undertake. We accept things every day though for a variety of reasons. Barring some miracle, I accept that I am going to be this height or shorter the rest of my life based on genetics and science. As a Christian, I accept that Jesus suffered, died for my sins and ascended in to heaven on the 3rd day based on faith. This faith, what some may consider a blind faith, is what helped me through some of my darkest hours. It took me years to accept that God did not make a mistake when he made me who I am. That is probably one of the hardest battles I have fought in my life. It is sometimes hard for me to be sympathetic to and patient with those who cannot “accept” homosexuality, and I know that I’m not alone in feeling that way. It’s a choice, or the gay lifestyle, they will say. It’s hard for some people to realize that the LGBTQ community merely wants the same things as everyone else.

This statement reminds me of the moment that really helped my dad to truly understand and accept his youngest son as a Gay man. He, with several other members of my family, hase said on many occasions that, being gay is personal and it should stay that way, you don’t need to march in a parade or fly a flag. Just live your life and be happy. After a trip to visit me here in Virginia, my dad and I were talking on the phone as we do each and every week and he had repeated this statement to me. “It’s Personal,” he says, “It has no place outside of your home.” I reminded him that he and my mom, held hands and actually shared a kiss while we walked around our nation’s capital during their visit. I asked him how his partnership was different, was the fact that he was heterosexual not personal and; therefore, had no place in public. His response was, “We’ve been married for 40+ (42 now to be exact). I told him, that I, as a gay man, wanted nothing less than to be able to do exactly what he did with his partner. That I, and all LGBTQ couples, had to think before we acted like that in public regardless of how long we’d been together. Silence on the other end of the line and an “I’m sorry, I never thought of it that way.”

I think this serves as a really good example of the types of conversations that we, as a community, need to be having with those who do not accept us. It is not a lifestyle, it is not a choice, it is simply who we are and at its core, we are the same. Love is love!

In preparation for today and being a child of the computer age, I, of course, Googled Bible verses/references for acceptance. Being a scientist, I did as my training instructed and asked the advice of those with more knowledge of the subject area than I possessed. So I like to thank Pat for all her help and guidance in my preparation for today. I found several references to “acceptance’ and this was one that stuck out to me -(Romans 15:5-7)- I truly believe that all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, are God’s children and should love and be loved as God has loved us. As we heard in the reading today, “God is not one to show partiality.” If we are to embrace and live the gospel, we must also not be partial in our love for others.

So, in scientific presentations, I always end on a slide with some conclusions and some future goals and/or challenges (usually people’s favorite because it signals the end of the talk), and I see no reason to change my style here. I want to congratulate those who founded Sojourners UCC and pledged to not only “accept” people “no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey,” but to take it to the next level and embrace them. As I said before, I accept my height (or lack thereof), but I also embrace it. I cannot remember a time that I’ve had to duck to go through a doorway. Also, I stated earlier that I accepted that Jesus loved us so much that he willingly suffered and died for us, but I try to embrace it and carry it with me everywhere I go. It took years, but I finally was able to accept that I was gay, but the battle didn’t end there. I had to learn to embrace it and love myself not in spite of it, but because of it. Being gay is part of me, just like being a chemist is, both of which I am very proud of. I’ve been lucky that many of my family, friends, and coworkers have accepted their son, brother, friend, lab mate as an out, proud, openly gay man. I have drawn on my upbringing, and the courage of those around me.

So now for my challenge, my “future goals,” if you will. We must embrace that which makes us both different and the same. Embrace those within and outside of our community (both our faith and the LGBTQ and ally communities). I want everyone, myself included, to really think about whether you simply accept yourself and those around, or if we are brave enough to try to understand, accept, embrace them. Then maybe just maybe we can genuinely celebrate, as we are today!

What Is It About Money?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Rev. Barbara Brecht

November 20, 2011

Scripture: 2Corinthians 9:10-15

When I first volunteered to lead the worship service this morning, back in August, I had no inkling of what a joyful Sunday this was going to be. I also did not know that it was “Pledge Sunday,” a Sunday on which many ministers do not look forward to preaching. (And many congregations do not look forward to hearing!) I think Allison has done wonderful presentations on the budget and our pledging. I would like to add my thoughts this morning to the subject of money.

What is it about money that makes us so uneasy about mentioning it? Do you think you have a healthy relationship with money? I don’t think many of us do. Part of the unease is our society’s judgment that our net worth financially is the same as our net worth… period. For most people I know, their money is a very well-kept secret. When people really know about our money situation, they know something very personal about us, don’t they? A good friend of mine is a tax accountant. She told me that over the years when a client came to her office with a tax return, often he or she would use my friend as a confessor. She would hear the most terribly intimate details of their lives because—why not—she already knows the secret of secrets—how much money they have.

I remember a story about the founding minister of The Riverside Church in New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick. And by the way when Warren and I were members, the church had an endowment of around $175 million. Each year the chair of the pastoral relations committee met with Dr. Fosdick for his annual salary review and asked what kind of salary he was wanting for next year. Dr. Fosdick would write the number on a piece of paper, turn the paper over, and pass it over the surface of the desk to the chairman. Putting the paper in his pocket, the chairman did not even look at the figure. No word was spoken! Their lips and minds did not have to be dirtied with the sounds of dollars being discussed.

Our lifestyle choices are often ways to signify our attitudes about the money we have to our friends and neighbors. People in New England with “old money” often drive old cars and wear clothes which obviously have been in their closets for decades. They are very thrifty in all their habits and look with disdain on any open display of wealth. While wealthy people in Florida build enormous “McMansions” on the ocean or lakes with a swimming pool between their house and the body of water they are on. Go figure.

The Bible does not have much good to say about money. Often misquoted is Paul’s writing in First Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil,” not “money is the root of all evil.” I like Mark Twain’s misquote of this quote: “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” He probably was as close to the truth as Paul was. Paul expands on his statement by saying “and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

It is painful to love money. Loving money increases fear and anger. We have many literary examples of this. Two which come to mind are the characters of Silas Marner and Ebenezer Scrooge. Both very unhappy men. We have present day examples of this fear and anger. The Tea Party diatribes are one example. Don’t tax the rich people: let them keep their money or else they won’t create any new companies and new jobs. Come to think of it, how much news would be in the papers or on TV newscasts if the topic of money was magically erased? Local, national, international debt crises—riots all over the world. World leaders flying here and there to try to come up with some solutions. The Super Committee getting nowhere with compromising. Everyone is furious about money. What would the remaining 10 per cent of news be concerned with? All that would be left is terrorism.

Is there a way we could lose our embarrassment about money? Could we ever envision money as a neutral commodity? After all, it’s really just a medium of exchange. Could we convince ourselves that God has blessed us abundantly? What if on our name tags we also put our annual pledge or how much we give weekly? After all, it’s just a number. Who would do it? Not me.

If there were a way to transform money from a fearfully-kept secret to a topic we are at ease with, we could live more peacefully and easily. Money gives the illusion of safety. And as many of us know who have lost loved ones or been given a life threatening prognosis, it is only an illusion. If we could lose our fear of being without money or of having our money revealed, we would have more space inside to grow spiritually. A lot of psychological energy is used up in keeping secrets. Can we design a way we can speak a little more openly about our money?

I can think of money as an addiction. How do we live more easily with our addictions? We have to recognize their power. And we often have to recognize our anger over that power. As peace-seeking people, we try to be compassionate to ourselves and others. We need to take our anger and figure out how to transform that anger into a positive motivator for ourselves.

One way to do this is with our contributions to our church. If we really value what our church is doing, we have to put Sojourners in the real world. And in the real world it costs money to do good works. People of spiritual callings are often thought not to be capitalists. However, they have to live in the real world, not a spiritual one. We should not think of Millie or Melanie or Shelli as needing or wanting less than the rest of us. They have to pay the same mortgages, rents, taxes, grocery bills, etc. etc. And we are talking about a lot of education invested in our staff here, and education is by no means free.

Instead of thinking of our pledge as “sacrificial giving” (I’ve always hated the word sacrifice.) we should think of our pledge as sowing. Our scripture reading indicated that we harvest in proportion to our planting, or to use a contemporary maxim, “We get as good as we give.” God, “[t]he one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food[,] will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your benevolence.” As the farmer casts his seed abundantly to reap a plentiful harvest, let us in this time of Thanksgiving also to sow to enrich our spiritual home. Remember, although it is the time of harvest in the contemporary world, for Sojourners it is the beginning of spring.

It’s All About Relationships

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Rev. Dr. Melanie Miller
September 4, 2011

Scripture:  Mark 12:28-34

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.”
—Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, in book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 843-844

In today’s ancient testimony from the gospel of Mark, we find a scribe, part of a growing group of Pharisees, who are scared of the power Jesus is gathering with the crowd. They are scared of what his message of love will eventually do to the control and power they so gladly grab. In this increasingly conflict-charged atmosphere leading to the cross Jesus is challenged. Over and over again in the gospels we find the Pharisees and Sadducees, trying to trap Jesus with difficult questions. They try to trip him up by asked about paying taxes to Caesar. There’s a creative assault from the Sadducees, who devise an elaborate query intended to discredit the possibility of resurrection. And on and on. This morning we find this test, which appears relatively straightforward. “Teacher, which commandment is first of all?” Other gospels have the questioner ask, which law is the greatest? (22:36). Jesus’ answer to this question, this riddle, is not original. Jesus is in fact quoting scripture, two sacred texts, one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (22:37-39). By quoting Scripture back at the religious leaders Jesus’ seems to be saying that the issue is not so much finding the right answer—the right answer has been there all along—the issue seems to be living the commandment. It’s less a question of information than formation, less a matter of knowledge than action.
This conflict resonates with me. I grew up with Pharisees and Sadducees looking for right answers. And somehow Jesus’ message broke through – it’s not about right answers it about relationships. Rather than trying to change people into what you think they should be, love them. Simply love them and you will be the one that is changed. A right answer can’t pick up a frightened child, a right answer has never stayed up all night with a parent in ICU. A right answer has never written a check to Heifer Project, a right answer has never stayed up all night giggling at a junior high lock in. A right answer has never taken to the streets in peaceful protest. It kind of makes you wonder why religious people spend so much time vetting each other on right answers, when the truth is that a right answer alone never created an ounce of love.  Stop peddling right answers, Jesus says. Right answers become a religion of their own.  And in the midst of the quest for right answers, Jesus says, “Love. Love, my friends.” It’s all about the kind of love that changes the world. Do love. Think love, say love, have faith in love, believe that God is love. Give up the idea that your right answers alone can save you. If you know the right words, then bring those words to life by giving them your own flesh. Put them into practice. Do love, and you will live.

It’s surprising sometime where you find this kind of love! I found this kind of love in the Harry Potter books. Anybody else here a fan? I love a book that I hate to end. A book in which you fall in love with the characters. Characters that you miss when you return the book to the library. Harry Potter is full of those characters. Characters we watch grow up. Characters we watch navigate the tricky decisions of life. Characters who learn to choose the right over the easy. Characters who learn the lessons of today’s ancient testimony. Characters who love their neighbors in sacrificial ways.

Outside of books, in the world, where Pharisees and Sadducees still want right answers, I look for love. For me, loving God and loving my neighbor most tangibly translates into developing and nurturing relationships. In fact, when your search committee questioned me about ministry I replied, “Its all about relationships.” It’s all about relationships. It’s all about loving god and loving my neighbor and finding ways to invite folks into those places of love and care.  For me, no one better tells the story of love than a young man named Paul Seham. I called Paul last week and asked him if I could tell our story.  I first met Paul when I arrived at the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua, NY, as their minister for families in October of 1998.  Paul was one year old. Cute! He was so cute, but he did not like me. No matter how hard I tried, Paul wanted nothing to do with me. So, of course I set out to win him over. Paul loved animals and at 2 years old he was particularly fond, of crocodiles. Not alligators, crocodiles. Crocodiles became my tool to win Paul over. If I cared about Crocs, maybe Paul would come to learn that I cared about him. Didn’t work. At all. And it seemed like the harder I tried, the more suspicious Paul became.

By 5 years old, Paul had moved on from Crocodiles to Wolves. Paul still did not like me. So, I learned some interesting facts about wolves, but to no avail. Paul wanted nothing to do with me.  And then one day, when Paul was about 8, something shifted and shifted dramatically. Paul wanted to talk to me. Paul sought me out. Paul became my shadow. He followed me all over the church building and told me about volcanoes and earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates. Paul told me about obscure eco-systems and other planets and universes. Paul followed me around on Sunday mornings. He talked to me so much, his mother apologized one day. She said, “I’m so sorry. If he’s wasting too much of your time, feel free to let me know. I’ll call him off!” To which I replied, “Areyou kidding me! I worked so hard for this. I love it. I love him. I’m thrilled!”

I share a love of Harry Potter with Paul and his older brother Sam. We were all on the Amazon waiting list. With each new release we waited by the mail box. Each Sunday we’d check in with each other, “Where are you? What page?”  Shortly after book 5 came out, I was at the Seham’s house. Paul, Sam and I were excitedly talking about the book. At one point I got so excited I asked Paul to go get the book so I could read him my favorite part. He ran upstairs and reappeared in seconds. I opened the book to the back and read aloud today contemporary testimony. “There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. It was your heart that saved you.”
I shut the book, looked at the boys just in time to see Paul roll his eyes and say, “You just like that cause it’s churchy!” “You just like that cause it’s churchy!” I almost burst with joy. “YES!” I said, “Yes! Paul you get it!”

And get it, he did. Get it, he does. Last August Paul and his whole family traveled with me to Kenya where we worked on a school in the slum outside of Nairobi.  Kibera, the slum in which we worked, was a difficult place for the adults on the trip, let alone Paul and his brother Sam. We were surrounded by disturbing levels of poverty and unemployment. One million people living on a parcel of land that’s about 2.5 square miles. There is no infrastructure, no sewage system, no road maintenance, few schools, no law enforcement. Every day we walked into the slum, about 20 minutes, to the school. We walked through raw sewage and piles of garbage. We walked past children playing, parroting their hellos. We walked past markets with leg of lamb, skin and hair still attached, roasting over open fires. We walked through the daily lives of the children we were about to meet at the school that was giving them a chance at life. As we looked into the smiling faces of the children of Kibera it was a blessing to embrace our basic calling as human beings – to love our neighbor as ourselves, to find in our hearts that wonderful and powerful force that resides in the heart.

Every morning I wondered about my friend Paul. What he was feeling about all that he saw. He was silent most mornings. I missed the chatty shadow from years gone.  During that week we all feel in love. In love with the kids, their individual stories. Their joy at the stories we read to them, stories from our childhood, Where the Wild Things Are, Stella Luna, Strega Nona. Paul and Sam taught the boys the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” cementing for all of us how far apart our worlds were. The fourth day we were there we went with the kids to a local park. We played games and had a picnic, cementing for all of us similar our worlds were.
On the last day as we walked through the slum to the school, tears streamed down Paul’s cheeks. I couldn’t bring myself to question his tears but I know they were for love. Paul would be saying good-bye to his new friends. Returning to a life and world that will be forever changed by these relationships, by this love.

But not because we had loved them. But because they had loved us.
Let the Pharisees and Sadducees have their right answers. I’ll take love. That wonderful and powerful force of the heart that saves us.
Amen.