Opening Remarks After Charlottesville To Be Given Tomorrow at a Connecticut Church

Editor’s note: this is the real opening of my sermon tomorrow, August 13, 2017 at the church where I work. I hope it brings a little hope to your part of the world.

I am not at all sure what you’re expecting to hear today. I have planned to speak on the journey of faith from freedom and I’m still going to because the message of the gospel needs to be heard, so that you know that God’s love hasn’t changed – and because I have a funny sermon, and I hate to waste the jokes.

That said, while the gospel hasn’t changed, the world outside these walls has. The sermon will address North Korea from a Biblical perspective, oddly enough. Charlottesville, wasn’t even on my radar earlier in the week when I started this sermon. As a preacher, and a pastor, it is my job to respond to the events there.

Quoting from their own writing: “Join Azzmador and The Daily Stormer to end Jewish influence in America. “You may have heard that the City of Charlottesville cancelled the permit, This is true. It is being challenged in court, but we’re showing up, permit or not, and now we need you more than ever! It is not illegal to protest without a permit anyway, and rumor has it, the copas are siding with us over the evil Jew Mayor Michael Singer and his Negroid Deputy Wes Bellamy. We have it on good authority that the chief of police is going to ensure that the protest goes on as planned, regardless of what the ruling Kike/Negroid powers are attempting”.

They are disgusting words to be used in a church. I know that. I use them here because I want you to be under no illusions about how disgusting their hatred is. I’ll bet none of you thought Charlottesville was about hatred of Jews. I certainly didn’t. But it is about Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and atheists, and anyone who is not them.

This church struggles, as much of this country does, with what it means to be diverse and Christian. America is not the only country that does, and we are not the only church that does. The neo-Nazis that put on this march yesterday hate every one of you in this room because you’re not them. Some of you are women. Some of you are Black. Some of you, I assume, but have no way of knowing, are gay or lesbian. Some of you are Hispanic or Asian. We’ve actually had a Jewish woman in worship here. All of those people are under siege by the neo-Nazi cause, because all of them obviously aren’t them. But all of you are Yankees, from one of those elitist New England States. And if you’re a member here, you belong to “that liberal denomination” the UCC. It doesn’t matter what you actually believe, because they don’t care. Facts and reason are not their strong suit. They have prejudice, and that’s all they need.  It’s them versus you. All of you. All of us.

I know that this church voted recently to be Open and Affirming in whatever ways you understand that. I know that some of you are still not convinced in your hearts that it was a great idea, but I want to bring you a gift from the gay community, whether you’re gay or not and I want to tie it into Christianity… where it came from. One of the things that has come about during all of the controversy is that teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, some clergy, have put a little triangle on their door, and it simply says “safe space” inside the rainbow triangle.

Years ago, when some event like this happened, and I was leading a prayer group at seminary, I had a book called “Stories of God”. The book said, in part, “in times like this, we do what we have always done. We gather together for comfort. We gather together and tell stories of God”.

I want every single one of you in this room to know that this building is “safe space”. No matter who you are, or what you have going on in your life, or what people think you have going on, you are safe here. No one here will ever do to you what those people want to do. This is a place where we practice love. No one will ever hurt you physically or with hate here, under my watch. Ever.

We hear a lot these days about sanctuary cities. And they are controversial. I get it. But Christian churches have always been sanctuaries, since the day Paul was blinded and the Christian church took him in. The idea of “safe space” that’s been used by allies of the gay community comes from Christianity. They got it from us. And now they give it back to us, in our time of need. We need their ideas as much as they need our safe space.

In order for this space to stay that way, though, we – all of us – must practice love–  and loving each other. Today, we have baptized a baby – the symbol of all that is innocent. Every baby starts that way. No one is born hating. They must be taught to hate. Hate is a choice. A lousy choice to be sure, but a choice, nonetheless.  Here, though, we teach love to protect the innocent from becoming hateful, and in doing so, we create safe space. We expand the sanctuary of God’s love every time we raise a child in this environment. You are safe here because love is what we do hereEveryone is safe here if love is what we do here. So, in times like these, let’s gather together and tell stories of God.

 

Resisting with peace,

 

John

When Did Life Become So Cheap?

“Superman: Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of millions of innocent people?Lex Luthor: No. By causing the death of millions of innocent people.” — Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, from Superman: The Movie

The quote above is one of my favorite movie quotes of all-time because it shows the silliness of evil. Said with a straight face, by the embodiment of comic’s evil genius, it is what badness would say in its purest form. Because nobody in real life would actually do it without being called evil, the line gained its comedic value in about 1980. 

Twice now, in the last 6 months or so, politicians have planned or contemplated doing the very thing that comics’ evil genius could never manage to do: cause the death of millions of innocent people. 

For months and months, Congress has tried to make millions of people lose their insurance, and therefore their healthcare and then their death. Yesterday, President Trump — perhaps off the cuff, perhaps not — talked about “fire and fury the likes of which the world has ever known” when confronting the North Koreans. 

Though the reality seems otherwise, these leaders are supposed to be the good guys — the people we respect and follow because they represent the best in us. To be fair, Kim Jong Il is saying the same thing, as did Boko Haram, as did Isis. Yes, there are crazy or evil people in the world. When did our leaders get to be them and why? It’s an intellectual thing. People believe in an ideology, and believe that it justifies violence, murder, and mayhem. But here’s the thing: unless you’re a comic book character, if your ideology makes you think it’s okay to kill people on a large scale, it’s a bad ideology.  Let’s try to find another one. This one’s not working.

Resisting with Peace,
John

Gordon Sherman, RIP

There’s a reason that news outlets archive footage of famous people — because when they pass on, no one will have the right words or any sort of a brain to say what that person meant. I’m writing this on February 9, 2016 because, should Gordon pass to the next life, I don’t expect I will have anything creative or decent to say at all. Words will not come.  And yet, if there’s was anyone who deserves accolades in the course of my life, Gordon is that person.

Gordon Sherman is, without a doubt in my mind or my heart or my experience, the best human being I have ever known. There will be none to replace him. My friend Todd has as much of a connection to God as Gordon. Peter Wells will be as compassionate, warm and caring as Gordon. Bob Kyte, my Youth Minister and mentor as I was growing up, is as stable as Gordon. Rev. Charlie Hartman, the last member of that great trilogy, is probably as funny and caring as Gordon at times, but … no, not Gordon either. Harry Chapin probably did more with his life than Gordon, but in the old self-help terms, there were “human beings” and “human doings“.  Harry was probably the greatest human doing I’ve ever actually met, which made his “being” extraordinary, but Harry and I weren’t friends like Gordon and I were.

Gordon on the other hand, was the greatest human “being” I have ever known and he was my friend, which made all of the things he did incredible. For my part, I’d like to be as human as Gordon was. Anything beyond that, if I leave a legacy, will be all God.

Gordon is (or was) in one person Todd and Peter and Charlie and Bob and Dave and Harry. All he had to was  just stand there and be him. The closest words I can get to describe the Gordon I knew are “warm wisdom”.  Gordon was as human and yet as spiritual as anyone I have ever met.  One can catch a glimpse of how Jesus might have been thought of as both human and divine in one person, without any contradiction at all, if you have experienced Gordon. I don’t mean that in some heretical way. I just mean that’s my experience.

I first met Gordon in 1975, at the Deering Conference Center, at the end of my freshman year of high school. In all the incredible comings and goings of the week, I don’t know that I would have seen his individual worth, but it was definitely part of the experience and everyone there would have loved working with Gordon. By the next year, my heart would have melted enough that I would be able to see Gordon as Gordon, aka “Pa” or “Pa Kettle” as camp staff called him — a father figure to hundreds who gave out hugs without needing to be asked, shared advice and stories if you had time or need, a man with a flannel shirt and jeans who carried a plastic orange-juice can for his coffee and coughed when he laughed.

When I graduated from college and moved back East to attend seminary, Gordon was one of those who kept me in seminary — not with money, but with advice and a clear head, and an appearance out of nowhere, when I was overwhelmed with working three jobs and trying to keep my head above water.  This happened two or three times in seminary and Gordon would just “appear” because he had a conference or something at the seminary. I was always clear that he was there because God sent him. To this day, in planning and when overwhelmed, I do what Gordon taught me — do one thing at a time, finish it, then move on to the next part and do that, then the next part, and so on. It still works to this day.

When any of my Youth Groups in seminary met him, they “got” him immediately, after getting over the initial shock that he put his cigarette ashes in his palms when he talked. He left the room and my Lynnfield kids went, “Did you see that guy? He put his ashes in his hand and it didn’t seem to hurt him!” I had long since stopped noticing the little magical things that made him who he was, having seen all the large magical ones, but it was great to re-notice as a new generation came to see him and the place.

After graduation, and before my ordination, I took my worldly belongings and took Gordon up on an old offer: “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”, he said. I needed a place to live and so I asked him (and Cy, his wife). Without begrudging me anything, they gave me a place to sleep and to stay. To this day, I can find myself in similar situations — with clients, parishioners, colleagues, and friends and (hopefully without too much grumbling) following through with that same promise. It makes me a better person.

Gordon had two great passions that the world will know about — PFlag and Spiritual groups that he belonged to or welcomed. Gordon has a son that is gay, now happily married and a minister in Canada. Instead of reviling in horror, or giggling about the whole thing, as most people would have done at the time, Gordon and Cy prayed and thought and loved their son. Because they did, they also spent years loving anyone who was like him. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays gave support even when it was controversial, because they thought it was the Christian thing to do. Gordon and Cy knew and cared for “trans” people before the rest of the world believed they had a right to be themselves. That’s the measuring stick of Christ and Christianity that I use today, even if I don’t always get there as quickly as the Shermans do. Gordon and Cy were prophetic without even trying — something my seminary peers were working up to as an intellectual pursuit they had read about. Gordon and Cy just did it was because they thought it was right. Years later, I think my children first met them at a UCC Synod when Gordon and Cy were working on something regarding gay and/or trans rights. Their name had come up in California when members of a church I was attending, John and Janet Sage, asked if I knew them. Again, no matter how far I traveled, Gordon came into my life.

Gordon, Cy, Patty Kennedy (“PK”) and others who lived at Deering before it closed were into all sorts of spiritual things brought on by books Gordon had read and recommended, including “astral projection” after Gordon read a third or fourth book by Richard Bach. Gordon read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, then Illusions, then an0ther book about Bach and his wife’s experience of spiritual projection. Gordon also recommended a little known book of very few pages written by a fairly unknown mystic — Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection’s Practice of the Presence of God and it changed the way Camp Family set tables for years. The idea that all life is prayer (or could be) including the way you set forks on the table was another example of the wisdom Gordon passed on to the people under him.

I never got the astral projection thing, but I know others who do and it seems to make spiritual sense of quantum mechanics. Gordon has, it seems to me, always been light-years away from anyone else I know, (except maybe Todd, who also “gets” the astral projection thing). Recently (a few years ago), Gordon and I got talking about something that was bothering parishioners, but I didn’t have an answer to — salvation, heaven, hell, and why God does anything along those lines. Gordon didn’t answer until I realized that he thought I was asking the wrong questions — he had long ago realized that these questions ran into a dead end, and the only answer is “love”. God loves. God is love. We should love. We should try to become loving through practice and prayer. Once we realize that, the rest of things seem to fall into place. There’s some sort of Eastern mindfulness that psychology and religion is starting to “get” that Gordon’s already “got”.  I can’t quite conceive of it yet, but I can see signs of it here and there. I just stand in awe of it.

Years ago, there was a Deering reunion at his place (the complex, not his apartment) in New Hampshire and it was a treasure to see all the incredible things we had become (see my blog post “Five and Ten and a Hundred Fold” to get a sense of it). Two years ago, at another reunion, I got to work with Gordon in worship and it was a real “bucket list” moment — so many of which have had Gordon there. I still dream of/feel called to create a camp like Deering which celebrates all of who Gordon was, with Cy) I have been blessed and I want the rest of the world to be so blessed.

Two final points about Gordon: Don’t be thinking he was “all spiritual”. He was more human than most, because he was more alive than nearly anyone I have ever met. When I told him I’d be on camp family in 1988, he was joyous and said things that cannot be repeated here in his joy. I still remember pictures of him roofing cabins with nothing on but an apron to hold nails with — showing his little butt and the twinkling smile that only he could pull off. More fun, alive, and wise all at the same time! That was Gordon.

The other: You know that scene in the original Star Wars, where Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “It’s like a million screaming people” when the Death Star blows up Datooine? I finally got a sense of that today, when I thought about Gordon’s heart attack and potential death and funeral. First off, I can’t imagine a church in New Hampshire big enough to hold all the people who will come to celebrate his life and his meaning to them. Secondly, New Hampshire will be thirsty before the service and flood after it, with all the tears that will be shed. There will be a big hole left behind in the Universe when Gordon leaves.

It will take all of us who knew him to fill it. He would tell us we’re up to the challenge. We know it’ll be hard.

Peace,

John