Monday, June 20, 2016

Chains and Shackles

This is a weekend for celebrating milestones.
Many of us had some type of graduation party to go to this weekend.
Many of us had children, grandchildren that were moving up a grade.
I had my week wrapped around my daughter Phoebe having her last day of elementary school.
Next year she will go to the middle school here in Concord.
On Thursday we went to a small ceremony at her school for the fifth grade.
The principle of the school got up and gave a speech celebrating all the great things that have happened to the students since starting elementary school.
They learned to read, to do math and science, to write, to make friends, to run, to sing, to draw.
Indeed much of my daughter’s time at elementary school was really great.
But I was also thinking about all the unpleasant things that happened to her, the things that we don’t talk about at graduations.
I thought about the times that other students treated her meanly.
I thought about those nights when she would sit at the dining room table crying because someone did something that was insensitive.
How she would come in last every year at the mile run.
How she never got selected to sing a solo at the chorus concert.
How hard it was for her to learn to read.
I thought about how hard it was for us as parents to know when to comfort her and when to push her.
My wife put up these pictures of Phoebe’s first day of kindergarten and her last day of fifth grade.
I love the picture of me walking Phoebe to school on her first day as a kindergarten student.
I think about that picture of me walking her to school and all the excitement of that moment, but also of all the worry of the moment.
Would she be ok?
Would others love her the way that I do as her father?
I wonder if other parents thought that this weekend as they watched their children graduate.
How hard it was.
How worried we were and are for our children as they go off into the world?
I was thinking that this is just the start of it for us.
My kids still have to go to middle school and high school.
They still have to go to college and get jobs.
And I am excited for the ways they will learn and grow, but I am also worried for them, and the evil they will experience in the world.

And that is why I would like to be able to take all the bad things in the world and keep it away from them.
I would like to put it someplace that won’t hurt them.
That is what is happening in our Gospel this morning.
And it is happening on multiple levels.
First, the very idea that Jesus would cross the sea of Galilee and go to the country of Gerasenes is crazy.
Jesus is going to gentile country.
The place is unholy, unclean; no Jewish person would ever go there.
In that place there are demonic spirits and herds of swine.
There are people who are unfit to come in contact with the people of God.
Jesus is risking life and limb to even step foot in that country.
People had done a good job of separating themselves from those they deemed bad.
And then there is the man possessed by demons.
He too is separated from the community.
He is off in the cemetery naked and out of his mind.
He is unsettling to the good folks of Gerasene.
And so in order to contain him they keep him under guard and bound with chains and shackles.
That is exactly what I want to do with evil I want to bind it with chains and shackles.
I want to put it someplace I can see it, and some place I can contain it.
I want to keep it with “those people”.
It is over there, and I don’t have to worry about it.

We once again were confronted this week with evil.
I feel that this is happening more and more.
We are confronted with someone not in their right mind.
Someone filled with hate, filled with self loathing that kills and injures lots of people.

I spent lots of this week thinking about what happened in a nightclub in Orlando.
I participated in a vigil with the Greater Concord Interfaith Council.
And I heard testimony of the pain that this shooting caused so many people.
Pain because it brings up what happens when we hate each other.
I have to tell you this is the third such vigil I have been at since becoming your pastor 7 years ago.
I am tired of going to vigils and reading names of people being killed by guns.
I am tired of going to vigils and reading names of people who are killed because someone doesn’t like the color of someone’s skin, or their sexual orientation, or whatever.

I know that we all want it to stop.
But the answer for me is not to retreat.
It is not to stop trying to be engaged in the world.
It is not to separate out “those people”.

Jesus has gone to Gerasene.
Jesus has confronted the demons, which are many and powerful.
And Jesus has defeated them.
Jesus is not afraid of what he will find among the tombs.
He is not afraid of a man that others have to chain and shackle.
Jesus knows that something else is better for them.

I am afraid for my children.
Because I read the names of the victims this Tuesday and the people killed where young.
They had their whole lives ahead of them.
They had parents who now have to grieve because their child was senselessly killed by someone filled with enough hate to do this.
I am afraid for my children on days like that.
I want to take them and keep them safe.
I want to try and keep the evil of the world in the tombs guarded and chained and shackled.
But I know that is not possible.
I’ve learned that in those six years that Phoebe was in elementary school.
I know that I can’t always protect them.

What I can do as their father is tell them about Jesus.
I can give them something that the world cannot, Jesus.
I can tell them that it is Jesus that goes into the scary places and makes them safe again.
Because we all know that even within ourselves we too have demons.
We have demons that we don’t talk about, or want other to know about.
We all here in this room today have someone we hate, if that word is too much for you, then someone we dislike.
We all have demons.
My children have them because their father passed on his insecurities to them.
And the only way I know to fight those demons is through Jesus.
I can’t keep them out.
I can’t lock them up.
They always come out.
But I know Jesus can do what I cannot.

And the best thing I can do for my kids, and for the world, is to declare how much God has done for me.
How God has helped me time and again fight my demons.
How God has helped me to work my way through the demons of others to find the good in them.
How God has given me the strength to see love even through the hate.
God has helped me have hope when everything seems hopeless.
How God has given me everything I have ever needed to overcome the powers of this world.

Today may Jesus fight your demons.
May Jesus help us all find our way to love and away from hate.
May we be in our right mind, like the man from Gerasene at the end of our Gospel this morning, so we can declare how much God has done for us!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

This Time I Have to Say Something

The shooting at an Orlando Nightclub that killed 49 people and injured 53 more has it all. It has radicalized hate filled religion, LGBT community, guns. It was a mass shooting, hate crime, and a terrorist attack all rolled into one. It has all the social things that we are fighting with each other over for a long time. Just like all the other tragedies of this year and last year. Just like Newton, Aurora, Columbine, and Oklahoma City our politics is what drives our reaction. If you are liberal you will see this as an assault by a crazy person who hated gays. You will call for gun laws. If you are conservative you will blame Islam and say that maybe they deserved it. But what will be lost for all of us is our humanity. We will all struggle to find a way forward that helps to get rid of hatred and violence.
            Because of this I am always trying to find a way to speak out that encourages us to love each other through horrible times of crises. I am trying to build bridges with people who do not share my world view.  I have believed that our politics have been driving our hatred and dislike for each other. I want peace. I want us to get along. I want us to talk to each other, and to listen. I want us to read and listen to those who have done their homework. I want us to use reason, science, and facts to make well thought out reasoned arguments as to why we believe certain things. However, this time I have to speak out. I have been silent for too long.
            Because despite all the evidence that having more guns is making us less safe we will still resist and say that people kill people and not guns. Despite the fact that the United States has a murder rate 15 times higher than that of other wealthy countries, which have tougher gun laws. Some will still argue that we need more guns. Some will still believe that there right to own a rifle designed to kill people in combat is more important than my right to live. No one is talking about taking your hunting rifle. We are talking about making laws to keep guns away from bad people that use those guns to kill people. We are talking about restricting what types of guns you can own. There is no reason to have a military grade gun except if you plan at some point to kill someone.
            As a person who follows Jesus Christ I cannot condone violence. I can see that violence is part of our sinful fallen world. I know that there are times when our country in extreme circumstances needs to go to war. But even in those times I cannot condone it. I cannot say it is OK to do. Jesus Christ told us that “if we live by the sword we will die by the sword”. Jesus refused to use violence to save his own life. Because, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and loose his soul?” Jesus showed us what living in God’s kingdom looks like on this earth. And that kingdom does not include guns or weapons of any kind. Jesus lived a life of inclusion, he lived a life of peace, and as a person who attempts to follow that example I cannot condone using or owning a gun. Especially a gun like the one used in the shooting in Orlando.
            I have been quiet about this issue for a long time. I believed it was one of those issues that was just lost in the mud. I was surprised that even after children were shot and killed in Newton that we didn’t do anything to stop people from buying the kinds of guns that kill a lot of people. If the person in Orlando had a knife do you think he would have killed as many people as he did?
            I know that many people are going to blame the Islamic faith for what happened. We hear all around the world as radicalized Islamic groups kill people. I am not. I have known Muslims who are in no way shape or form murders or killers. I know them as people who seek peace. I know them to be thoughtful caring people. The problem is not Islam. It is religion. It is when we cling to the idea that our religion is the only one. The problem is when we believe that we know all the answers, and everyone else is wrong or bad. It is when we use that religion to make ourselves feel more important. For me as a Christian the end result of my faith is to try and make the world a better place. It is to take this life that I am blessed to live and use it to make others lives better. My faith is what gives me courage to seek peace and love. Religion is a powerful thing. It is why politicians use it to make us vote for them, or so we will go to war believing that we have done the right thing.
            More than this it is the twisting and perverting of religion to make God into a vindictive killer. True religion honors God. And God is love. God is creation. God is hope. God is the one who desires for all of us to “have life and have it in abundance”. God wants life for gays, lesbians, transgendered, no gender, or whatever other groups we can think to name. If you believe that your religion wants you to kill other people. No matter your religion you are doing it wrong. God does not desire that of any of us. All the religions I know are about caring for others, finding compassion, and honoring God by loving the world God created. To say otherwise is to pervert and twist religion to serve our own selfish need to feel superior.
            The thing that I struggle with is that even the people who will hate what I am saying here. Even the people who have totally different views than I have, the people who think that it is normal for someone to have a military grade assault rifle, the people who think that Jesus hates any group or people. The people who have twisted Christianity into something that is anti Biblical. Even those people I care about. I love them. I want to have a dialogue about the issues. I want us to build a relationship. I love them, because Jesus has told me to love my neighbor as he loves me. I know that Jesus loves me through all of my craziness and all of my backward thinking. I can’t just ignore those that disagree with me, or write them off as “Crazy people”. No they are much more than that. They are children of God.
            And that is what has kept me from speaking out in the past my love for those who will read this and hate me for it. I want you to know I still love you. I want us to talk in a way that does not call names. But I also cannot be silent any longer. I have to speak my truth just as you have to speak yours. I can’t sit around and wait for the next mass shooting. I cannot sit and listen to a presidential candidate call for surveillance of all Muslims, or for the US to deport millions of people. I can't listen to another religious person talk about how God hates people who are LGBT. I can’t listen to it anymore and not say something. I have to say this is not what Jesus wanted! This is not how Jesus would act!
            Love is the only answers to these acts of evil! Not more guns. Not finger pointing. Not blaming each other. Love. I rest on that. Because that is the way that Jesus taught us, showed us, and encouraged us to live. Even then our love is always humanly imperfect. However, if we want to stop the killing, and if we want to come together love is the only answer I know. We have to see the best in our neighbor. We have to stop talking bad about each other and start talking to each other. We have to find our way back to our shared humanity. And we have to have laws that stop people from buying military grade weapons!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Cincinnati Zoo and Jesus!

On my day off I was at the Nissan dealer getting some work done on our car that had a recall.
In the waiting room a couple where on their phone and commenting on things they saw.
They started talking about the incident that happened at the Zoo in Cincinnati.
They were talking about the mother of the child who fell into the gorilla cage.
“She is a horrible mother.”
“I would never let me kids out of my sight.”
They were morally outraged by what had happened.
I heard other people this week on Facebook, and in general conversation say something similar.
So it goes in our day.
Something happens and our reaction right off the bat is to be outraged.
To find fault and to criticize what someone else did.
To say, “I would never to do that!”

What struck me about this particular incident at the zoo is that few people had any sympathy, or compassion for the mother.
What was she feeling?
How was this for her?
I don’t know all the details of this case, but I am sure of one thing.
She didn’t go to the zoo that day thinking, “I hope one of my four kids falls into the one of the exhibits.”

Some of you may remember that about 3 years ago my son Charlie fell out of a second story window.
We were at a wedding rehearsal and we were waiting for dinner.
Charlie and I were playing a game.
He was backing up to get a running start and leaned against a window that had a screen in it and fell through.
I fell to the ground.
Thankfully nothing serious happened to him, besides scaring himself, me and everyone else to death.
But you know nobody, that I know of, was blaming me for being a bad father because Charlie falling out of the window.
I think everyone realized it was an accident.
I know that I felt horrible.
I have replayed that moment many times, wishing that I had told him to stop backing up.
Wishing I had done something different.
But that is the thing about accidents they happen in a blink of an eye.
I thought of that this week as people attacked this mother of four.
I thought of what she must be going through.
And I wondered why our first reactions when these things happen are not more towards compassion than judgment.

We know from our Gospel this morning that Jesus when seeing a mother in pain, from losing her son, was moved to compassion.
Jesus didn’t know everything about this woman.
Maybe she was a bad mother?
Maybe the death of her son was her fault?
Maybe she didn’t deserve having a second chance with her son?
All we know is that she was a widow.
She was someone who would have been in bad shape without a husband or a son.
In Jesus day women were completely reliant on the men for their needs.
Jesus sees her and has compassion.
It is his first instinct.
And it is not the only time in the Gospels that Jesus is moved to compassion for someone.
It happens all the time.
Even when the person is guilty of a sin Jesus is moved to compassion.
Even when they deserve to ridiculed and scorned.
Even when the appropriate action is to have righteous indignation Jesus is moved to compassion.
Jesus is often moved to compassion for people.
It is really unfortunate that we don’t always have that same first reaction.

This was the sermon I was going to give most of the week.
I was going to encourage us all to be more compassionate.
But then God intervened yesterday to give me a second thought.
Because I was in the mall of New Hampshire, in Manchester, yesterday with my kids, I was sitting on a chair in the middle of the mall taking a break and having a cup of coffee while one of my kids went into a store.
This woman came and sat a chair on the other side of me.
And I am not making this up.
She had a tattoo of a naked woman on her calf.
I thought, “What the hell was that woman thinking!”
Why would anyone, but especially a woman get a tattoo of a naked person on their body.
And why would they get it in a place that in the summer is often exposed.
I was outraged and disgusted.
And then I thought about the irony.
I was going to give a sermon about not judging and having compassion, and here I was doing the opposite.
I didn’t know this person.
I didn’t know her story.
I don’t know why she had that tattoo.
My first thought wasn’t about how she was the product of a system that degrades woman and reduces them to sex symbols.
How she was the product of a society that over sexualizes everything.
You can’t watch television with your kids without being embarrassed for what is on.
As a father of a girl who is growing into a woman, I feel it necessary all the time to combat the messages she receives about how her worth is more about what is on the inside than on the outside.
Maybe this woman with the tattoo didn’t have a father who told her that she was wonderful and loved?
Maybe she didn’t have a mother who modeled for her what it was to be a self assured woman?

But my first reaction was not compassion it was judgment.
And maybe for all of us that is simply going to be our reaction.
Maybe as human beings we are simply built to judge others.
Because we want to make ourselves feel better.
We want to feel superior to others.
We want to believe that it will never happen to us, because we are too noble, too good.
We want to believe in our own ability to make everything around us perfect and good.
So we will judge.
And we will fail to be compassionate.
And my message for you this morning is not to be more compassionate, even though I hope to God we all can be.
My message this morning is I don’t know what we will do the next time a kid falls down and his mother wasn’t looking.
Or what we will say when a woman with a tattoo of a naked woman sits next to us in the mall.
What I do know.
What I want to say this morning is that Jesus will be walking towards that person with compassion.
Jesus will be heading over to lay a hand upon them and offering a blessing, a word of encouragement, a healing touch.
Jesus will bring out of death new life to whatever they are facing.
What I want to say to all of us this morning is I hope that is also part of our thought process.
Maybe after our moral outrage we will be able to see Jesus walk towards the person we have scorned.
And in that moment we too might find compassion.
The Good News is that because we believe that Jesus is compassionate we know that Jesus also has compassion for us when we mess up, when our lives are not perfect.
I know that left to our own devises it is hard, maybe even impossible, for us to do.
But what is impossible for us is God’s very business.

I hope for you this week to know of the compassion that Jesus has for you.
That in your sin, in your mistakes, in your shame, in what is broken in your life, Jesus is walking towards you in compassion, to lay his hands upon you and heal you.
And because of that truth I hope you can find that compassion for others.