Guest Blogger — Rev. Todd Farnworth on Guns and Us

Editor’s note: This is probably the third time I have had a guest blogger whose ideas I wanted to share. The first was Joe Roberts and Cathi Chapin-Bishop on saving energy. The second was Liz Solomon Wright’s story about a Veteran who couldn’t get aid due to a policy. This is the third.

Rev. Todd Farnsworth is the pastor at Hamden (Mass.) Federated Church, UCC. One of the most kind and friendly people I have ever met, his preaching style is –and always has been — experimental. While I try to be serious and loving in my writing, Todd just tries to be well, Todd. He just loves his people, and his message here shows that. I am posting this sermon — preached last Sunday at his church for two reasons: 1) It’s a different take on the subject than mine and 2) to point out that great preaching happens in just “regular old” UCC churches all the time. I don’t know anybody at a BIG church like Riverside in New York. Generally — though there are some jerks among us — if you go to UCC church, you can find preaching like this.  OK, not like Todd’s preaching, but of similar quality. May you be fed by this sermon, and may you consider any UCC church where you can be fed…  [The sermon is printed in its entirety here, as it should be].

Title: Perks of Faith

Mark 10:17-31

The parallels are Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30. [ NOAB]

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

I’d like to begin with vs 21 of today’s text. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

It’s important for you to know that the rich man in today’s story was not a bad man. He wasn’t a haughty man. He wasn’t a man trying to make a name for himself. He was a good guy. Tried to be faithful to the Law of Moses. Tried to follow the rules of his day. He was a decent guy. Even his repartee with Jesus was sincere. It was the kind of conversation that students and teachers had all the time. A little give and take discussion to clarify, to crystallize one’s thoughts. Probably similar to the questions and answers you would hear at a Bible study or during a children’s message. Perhaps a little bit of cheekiness thrown in on either side to keep things lively…but all done with respect and a desire to learn…to grow in one’s awareness of faith stuff.

So this beloved man runs up to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” He sincerely wants to draw closer to God. He really desires to “make the grade.” Jesus parries with a teasing comment about only God being good, and the young man replies that he has done his best to keep the law…keep the rules….do what is right!

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

What happens next is remarkable.

Jesus invites the rich man to “draw closer.”

Jesus offers the rich man a way into the “perks of faith.”

Jesus says, “do this, and you will receive:

peace of mind, healthy respectful relationships,curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, hope, healing, compassion, joy, a sense of safety,  a leaning toward justice, and love.

Not a bad list. Notice, it’s not things that can be purchased; it’s not things that can be forcibly taken; it is the stuff of heaven, it is the inheritance of those who follow Jesus…and this guy seems like a good candidate.

Jesus does all this by giving the rich man a directive designed to set him free so that he can really experience what it means to be part of the realm of God.

Now, I’ll confess that I am not a rich man…young, old or somewhere in the middle. I know that probably comes as a shock! But the point of Jesus’ words are not targeted at wealth or age, so in light of recent events in our country, I’m going to paraphrase Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I could have said, “Go, sell your cell phones…or Go, sell your tablets….or Go, sell your Hummel collection….but I’d like to stick with “guns” for the moment.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had many guns.

We have many guns in our culture. We have come to treasure them. To stockpile them. To rely on them to keep us safe and secure. To protect us. To do our talking for us. To resolve our differences. To make our statements of dissent. They have become, like cell phones, tablets, or Hummels…our treasure; a distraction to our faith…and when I say, “distraction” I mean, “they stand between us and the realm of God.”

When we keep guns to do the work that God is capable of doing, we lose focus on the Holy and become obsessed with the mini god at hand.

I believe that happens in situations where people are killing each other with guns on college campuses. I believe that happens in situations where people are killing each other in the streets of our community or in local homes. I believe that happens where people are going into schools and movie theaters and claiming a godlike power over people who may or may not have done them wrong in the past. I believe that happens when we fool ourselves into believing that if we wake up in the middle of the night and find someone stealing our stuff, we will have the presence of mind to shoot the invader before he or she shoots us…or, before he or she wrestles the gun from our sleepy, frightened hands, and then shoots us.

These uses of guns do not point us toward Heaven. They lead us toward fear, and anxiety, and distrust, and anger, and retribution, and hatred.

This is different from the gun owner who uses guns to hunt their dinner, or practices a steady hand shooting targets. That mental and physical challenge can give us an awe of the power and the responsibility inherent in gun ownership. It can lead us to a life of discipline; a life that points us toward the realm of God; a study that leads us closer to the stuff of healthy respectful relationships, curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, and hope.

Please hear me clearly: Guns are not inherently evil...but a reliance on them that surpasses our reliance on God, can be a distraction…and Jesus understood that…and Jesus knew that rich man was a good man…and Jesus believed that rich man really wanted to get closer to God…and Jesus loved that man who was coming to him seeking a deeper relationship with the Holy…and Jesus advised that man to “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had many guns.

We have many guns. We have many cell phones. We have many tablets. We have many Hummels. We have lots of  stuff that is drawing our attention away from the remarkable perks of faith God has in store for us!

And we can go away sad. Or we can go away mad, claiming that Jesus just doesn’t understand!  Or we can go away and later, change our minds and come back.

At the end of the day, no matter how far we go, no matter what we decide, we need to remember, that Jesus loved that man. He was not trying to hurt him. He was not trying to deny him something important. He was not putting the man in jeopardy…in harm’s way. He didn’t chastise or begrudge  the man for the decision he made or the decision he couldn’t make at that moment.

At the end of the day, the truth is, Jesus loved that man….like he loves little Madison and little Wesley. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to experience all the perks God has to offer. He wants us to know: peace of mind, healthy respectful relationships, curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, hope, healing, compassion, joy, a sense of safety, a leaning toward justice, and love, without distraction. He wants us to experience the kingdom of heaven…the realm of God…In this moment. like Jesus experiences those things in this moment.

The choice is ours. To hold onto what we have, or let go and receive something far more valuable.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record, that  As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What will we do? In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”

Editor’s note: Every once in awhile, I have a sermon that expresses an important (to me) theological point. This is one of those. The beginning piece is from the morning’s news about Tamir Rice.

Sermon given at Center Congregational Church, Torrington, CT 10/11/2015

“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”

            Ask my friends. I’m generally a very loving guy, generally calm, generally peaceful, opinionated, but kind, for the most part. But I have my pet peeves, things that just set me off. Dead kids is one of them. Racism is another. Unhealthy systems is another, which is why I do the work I do — whether for families or churches. This morning I was awoken to the news that all my buttons were set off at the same time. I am so upset, I could spit. Tamir Rice and his family were hurt again this morning. According to the New York Times this morning, “2 Outside Reviews Say Cleveland Officer Acted Reasonably in Shooting Tamir Rice, 12”

            One of the reviewers said “The question is not whether every officer would have reacted the same way,” Kimberly A. Crawford, the retired F.B.I. agent, which noted that Officer Loehmann had no way of knowing Tamir’s gun was fake. “Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.” What she is saying is that the police system has policies that, under the same circumstances, with the same report/ call to the police, would have left open the door to using deadly force.

            A 10 year old Black child is dead at the hands of a white police officer, without discussion, without attempts at de-escalation, because the officer shot “was in fear for his life” from a 10 year old sitting openly in a gazebo, while he was inside a metal automobile? Really? Under those circumstances, deadly force is “reasonable”? If that’s the view of the wider law enforcement community, there is a problem with the law enforcement community’s system. From a Christian perspective, it is wrong.

            Now, there are some you who will point out that racism isn’t an issue here, and that the dispatcher didn’t mention that the child was African-American. The fact of the matter, though, is the officers responded quickly to the situation and had to rely on their “intuition” or “instincts” and their instincts told them that that 12 year old was dangerous when any child of 12 like the ones who were just in the children’s time probably wouldn’t. It’s society’s racism that poses for the cop’s “instinct” or “intuition” that led to this shooting.

************************************

Last Week, at the beginning of the sermon, I talked about the recent shooting at a community college in Oregon. This past week, in my “other life” as a therapist, I had a client who was — with her brothers and her mother — smacked across the knuckles by her drunken father and told not to cry because he was trying to toughen up the kids. In the next few weeks, members of the Connecticut Conference will make decisions about various things. All of these things, though quite different, have something in common — they each require an ethical response, and — for us as Christians — they require a Christian ethical response.

There are those who would offer a Republican ethical response or a Democratic ethical response or a capitalist ethical response or a socialist ethical response. There are those who would offer a philosophical ethical response and those who would offer a military response, or an American response. None of those are the same as a Christian ethical response.         There are lots of competing ideas and choices out there on which to make our ethical decisions, and it’s easy to find some idea to hang our hat on and be loyal to.

As Christians, though, we can’t be Americans, or Republicans or Democrats first. We are not socialists or survivalists before anything else. We are Christians — who live in this country, who belong to a party or like a philosophy or whatever, but we are Christians first, because as Christians, we know that if we go mixing loyalty to the country with Christianity, you get “Deutschland Uber Alles” — Germany above everything — being preached from the pulpits, and that doesn’t work. God doesn’t like it when we split our loyalties or worship things that aren’t God, because they inevitable lead to… well, unholy results.

So how do we make difficult decisions — or easy ones — in life? How do we live? How do we know what’s good and what’s bad? And how can we trust others to make good decisions that resemble our goals?

Let me start with an odd source. …Years ago, in private practice, I had a client who was a recovering alcoholic and cocaine user and, well, she had been messed up by every drug she had tried and she had tried a lot of drugs. Early in her recovery, though, she had learned something I had never heard of before: “Do the next right thing”. If you want to live life and you’re not sure what to do, do the next right thing”. It’s as simple as that.

In therapy, we do a thing called “treatment planning”. If a client comes in, and they want my help, I first listen to who they are and what they think is the problem. Then I ask where they want to go with their lives. Between point A (where they are) and point B (where they want to be) are all of these dots that need to be filled in, all of these days to be lived before they get “there”, wherever “there” is for them.

Christians and Christian churches can be like my former client — spun around so many times mentally by all of the different choices and temptations out there that they no longer know what they think or what they feel. Treatment planning in that case looks a lot like interim work. While they first recover, I focus them back on listening to themselves, and feeling what they feel, just to get their bearings.

What do we do in the meantime? I point them in a healthy direction and — using their own senses and intuition — they do the next right thing. Then the next right thing, and the next, then they’re on the yellow brick road until they can click their heels and get “there”. As I like to say, “if you put your ducks in a row, one day they’ll start walking”.

But here’s the real question: How do we know what the right direction is? The early church talked, as I said last week, about “the way of life and the way of death”. We can start by taking Jesus at his word, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we want to follow the way of life, we could do worse than ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?”. Along with that, what did God do? What does “of God” mean?

In this morning’s texts we see what it means to act in a Godly way. It’s “godly” because, by definition, it’s like God.

1) God creates and likes what God sees. God rests and sits in awe.

2) God creates new things.

2) God, in Jesus, resurrects people.

So, this is the basic character of God: give life to things. Angry people with guns — or mentally ill people with guns or however you understand that whole thing — take life from things. That’s not Good, and that’s not God’s will. What gives life is “of God”, what doesn’t…isn’t.

The woman who was abused as a child? Her father deadened her soul. That’s not God’s will. His acts didn’t inspire her, he didn’t make her more alive. They didn’t make her be in awe of the universe. They didn’t help her to rest and appreciate life. They didn’t resurrect her spirit. That’s how we know they are wrong. God is the founder, and fountain of, what some theologians call “life-givingness”. Anything that doesn’t make you feel more alive, or doesn’t leave the person you’re trying to help feeling more alive isn’t “of God”. It is as simple as that. Anything that does — anything that makes you more hopeful, more alive, more creative, more forgiving, is “of God”. “God” does not equal “hurt”, and if somebody tells you it does, they’re lying. OK, I know I said “it’s as simple as that” and — generally , it’s true. As a starting point, if you ask yourself, “will I feel more alive?” when thinking about your choices, you’re generally going to be on the right track. If you ask yourself “at the end of this, will the other person feel more alive or less alive?” you can figure out the “next right thing” and go that way, building strength on top of strength.

In a few weeks, the CT Conference will vote on some things. In this church, on every committee, people will vote on things. Each of us — individually and together — will make decisions. If you start with the right question, and listen honestly for the answer, you’ll be doing the next right thing.

Having worked with addicts, though, I have to tell you it’s not that clear in the short term. It’s still very clear in the long term, but right now, at this moment, feeling “good” will hurt and feeling “bad” will lead toward healing. This is why addiction is a lie. People who use cocaine, for instance, I understand, feel better-than-great for some period of time — perhaps 20 minutes or so — but — and this is a big “but” — then they feel horrible and broke and mad at themselves for days, weeks, even years.

But what happens when we non-addicts — do a version of this ourselves? What happens when we — trying to do the right thing — do something with unforeseen consequences? What if — while trying to do the right thing, we do the wrong thing? What if our lives have been turned so upside-down that we don’t know what feeling good looks like anymore and we act out of the lies which have led us there?

Nothing is over til God says it’s over. Richard Bach, in his book “Illusions” says “here’s a test to see if your mission in life is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t”. As long as we’re alive, we can resurrect our souls, and regain our sense of truth and reality. After we’re dead, God does it because only God can. During life, as Robert MacAfee Brown noted in our Bible Study last week, people can feel resurrected (alive again) when they bring their mistakes to God and repent.

Now, by “repent”, I don’t mean say “I’m sorry”. The Biblical Hebrew word for what we would now call “repent”, is the word “shoov”. It means “turn around”, “go back”, do the opposite of what you were doing and return… to yourself — to the truth and the way that leads to life. In the story of the “Prodigal Son”, it says “he came to himself” and returned home. God wants that for you. So again, the goal for our decisions, if they are to be godly, is fuller life for everyone involved.

If you, or your corporation, or your denomination, or your church, is planning something that will hurt someone — take over their land, destroy the earth, shoot them, whatever — if, at the end of your actions, you will see sad faces, or people in pain — it’s not the right thing to do. Don’t do it.

If people will, or do, have new hope, then it is the right thing. If it allows for forgiveness with repentance, it’s holy. If it doesn’t, there is no hope, there is no resurrection, and God is not there.

To illustrate “the way of life vs. the way of death” My friend Dave used to tell a story of a man with a peaceful lion and an angry one in front of him. When he asks a wise man, “which one will live?”, the man answers “whichever one you feed“.

We need, as Christians, to be about the feeding of the good things in life and starving those things which would feed into evil. Which brings me to my final point. This is the first of four sermons with a stewardship theme in them.

If you believe that this church has enriched your life, and fed your soul, brought you closer to God’s creation and awe or helped you turn your life around, then you want to feed it. If you have hope for it, then it’s doing the right things, and you should feed it.

If, on the other hand, you feel abused by this church or by its members, don’t feed it. You know what your experience is. I don’t. We should never expect you to feed our coffers if we don’t feed your soul or bring joy into your life.

If you’re one of those people that hurts others, and you want this church to succeed, then you want to stop hurting others, you want to repent — both by saying you’re sorry and by not doing those things again. You can get more bees with honey than vinegar. If all you’re putting out is vinegar, then you need to stop. Or if you think that honey must always be “flavored” with vinegar, you need to re-think your plans. We are each responsible for our actions and God offers us new choices and new lives if we do — the way of life and the way of death. This church should be about “life”.

But back to the larger picture: as long as I am here as your pastor, I will do everything I can to feed and protect the best parts of who you are. If you see that happening in this church, feed this church. If you see it elsewhere, then feed that other one. If you feel hopeful about this church and enjoy the people you meet here, if you feel renewed by the sermons or the music or the children or whatever, then support it. We’re doing good things for the world. And if this past week has shown us anything, it is that the world needs more good things — things on the way of life, not the things which lead to death.

Amen.

This S— Has Got To Stop. It Just Does.

Today, more people died in a school massacre. I don’t need to publish the date, because — unless we do something NOW that first sentence will still be appropriate.

Apparently, there have been  142 (One Hundred and Forty-Two!!!!) School shootings since Sandy Hook.  This doesn’t include Columbine or the Colorado movie shooter!
This has got to stop.

“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America — next week, or a couple months from now,” said President Obama. The President has been trying to do something since Sandy Hook. When a problem of this magnitude can’t be solved by the “leader of the free world”, there’s something wrong — seriously wrong — with our society.

Apparently, the NRA has more power to govern (at least regarding gun laws) than our government does. I don’t know how many members the NRA has, but as a percentage of the US population, it shouldn’t be enough to overcome majority rule. It’s not. That’s a problem. Money in our political system has made things this way. We need to get money out of our electoral process. Overturn “Citizen’s United”? If it’ll help, let’s do it.

Gun control is next up. Clearly, we can’t agree on anything regarding guns in this country, but we need to take the health crisis of “lead projectile enters body and causes death” seriously. I’m not making this up. The CDC has said this for a long time. For whatever political reasons there may be, no one can justify the sale of assault rifles, machine guns, gattling guns or anything like them to a civilian population. They are weapons of war. Unless we want to live in a war zone, we need to stop selling them, period. Another means to control this here would be to stop selling bullets that go in those type of guns. This is not a solution to gun violence, but it is solution to mass gun violence.

To those who say that the Constitution says that people need guns to overthrow corrupt governments, I will even give them that. Yes, the Constitution seems to say that. The Revolution that started all this — the American one that those people are so in love with — was fought with single shot rifles and their leaders told them to wait “until they see the whites of [the British Army’s] eyes”. If you can’t have your modern revolution with single shot rifles, maybe you shouldn’t be considering it at all. If that’s all it took the first time, that’s all it should take now. The idea that one weapon can get off more shots  in a shorter time than all the guns at Lexington and Concord suggests we don’t need it. Enough is enough. Ban Assault weapons now. Ban the bullets that fill assault weapons now. Either one of them will work. I’m for both.

For those who say, “those shooters are mentally ill”, you’re probably right. Either that, or they’re simply evil. I’ll get to the “evil” option next. If they are mentally ill, then cutting services to the mentally ill as part of our plan to build a safe nation is not going to work. Stopping Obamacare will mean that the mentally will have less chance at services than they have now. Insurance rates increasing or not covering mental health services also isn’t going to work. We have a Mental Health Parity Act in place but the desire to enforce it isn’t always there. Besides that, therapists need to understand that poverty (or simply the inability to pay bills) is one of the greatest stressors I know of. The AAMFT used to have a rule that said we couldn’t turn away people for the inability to pay. I don’t know if we still have that rule, but there are a lot of folks in my profession who don’t deal with the issue because they would like to make a good living, rather than simply making a living. Mental Health Care in this society MUST become a priority. Making it less of a priority makes it more likely these shootings will go on.

If these school shooters are simply evil, then there are more evil people in our society than we ever had before Sandy Hook. When you add in Church shootings, theater shootings, gang shootings, terrorist shootings, native-born terrorist groups like White Supremacists carrying out shootings, that’s an awful lot of evil out there. We have to figure out why this is. In addition to long-term biological studies which we will need, we need to do something now. At the very least, let’s stop teaching hate. Let’s affirm that every life matters. Let’s stop having flame wars about poor people vs. rich people, Black people vs. White People vs. Korean, Japanese, or Chinese people. Let’s stop dividing ourselves into the deserving and the “not deserving”. Let’s teach our children (maybe even at a church,  synagogue or mosque) to have the values that give life rather than the ones that lead to death. Let’s actually raise our children. All of us. All of them.  Let’s teach them right from wrong. In addition to looking for outside causes for evil, lets look for inward causes of it.

If we do all of these things, these school shootings won’t happen. If we do some of them, it’s a start, but not enough, I suspect. However we get there, this s— has got to to stop. It just does.

Peace,

John