An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor

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Source: An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor


Beyoncé is Not Racist or ‘Anti-Cop’/ And Neither were the Black Panthers

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Source: Beyoncé is Not Racist or ‘Anti-Cop’/ And Neither were the Black Panthers

“A Reasonable Threat”

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A Word About the Verdict of Michael Brelo and the Deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams

by the Rev. Allen V. Harris

May 24, 2015

[Note: the sections in brackets were not able to be read in worship due to time constraints.]


I cannot in good conscience preach today without also saying a word about the events that took place yesterday here in Cleveland in the announcement of the verdict of Michael Brelo in regards to the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in November of 2012. It is poignant that I came to you 14 years ago still with the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 39 times by the police in New York City, on my heart. I leave you with Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, and Malissa Williams on my heart, a black man, woman, and child shot collectively with 141 shots, here in my beloved Cleveland.


On the street yesterday I chatted with a lawyer friend of mine who said it was fairly well known in the legal community that there could have been no other verdict given, certainly one that would have withstood legal appeals, than the verdict given announcing Officer Brelo as not guilty on all counts. The ability to prove out of 139 gunshots to the car that the ones fired from Officer Brelo’s gun were the very ones that killed the victims would have been impossible. This observation came from an African American lawyer.


As a caring person who wishes to be engaged in the world around me, I have reflected deeply on what has happened, as I suspect have most of you. I am not a lawyer and I was not present for any of the testimony given thus I cannot and should not attempt to make a legal judgment on something I am not qualified to do so. What I have done is to take a step back and look at some of the larger, more societal issues that I believe led us to deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, and, I would add, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, and many others. Likewise I have on my heart and mind the many police officers who died in the line of duty, including Brian Moore, Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu. I do think I have some wisdom to share from this perspective, particularly as a pastor of a diverse urban congregation.


As I listened to the entire hour of Judge O’Donnell’s verdict, several things went through my mind that I think we, as a country and as a culture, should consider seriously and certainly we, as people of faith, need to address more seriously. One of the things we need to consider is the conversation about what is a “reasonable threat” in moments that are tense and moments that are even dangerous. Clearly, this was a significant line of reasoning in the judge’s decision, insisting that there was a “reasonable threat” to Officer Brelo’s life, and to the life of the other police officers’ lives, which he believed therefore warranted their actions.


And this concern, that is what is a “reasonable threat,” runs through almost every story we have heard recentlly regarding the shooting of unarmed suspects and the accusations of police brutality that have occurred recently, and really for many years, even decades. “Reasonableness” is a hard point to argue because we understand instinctively that police officers are put, by the very nature of their job to fight crime and catch criminals, in the most tense and dangerous of spots. It is almost impossible to ask people to consider what constitutes a “reasonable threat” when we know we would never want to second guess what is dangerous or what might kill us were we in that position.


So my concern isn’t each individual officer’s decision-making, but, rather, how our society came to the place where the level of a “reasonable threat” seems both so incredibly elevated AND which seems so very different when we are approached by some people compared to other people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke a great truth when he said, in reference to war, the only thing we had to fear is fear itself. Fears, left unchecked, can rule our lives and reshape our society.


We must come to grips once and for all with what it is that engages our fear, fear to the point of killing someone. Here is one thing that has become absolutely clear to me: we have an inordinate fear of blackness. I can only speak of this country and the western culture in which I leave and breath, but it is obvious that somehow a mindset has been shaped within us that those whose skin colors are darker than our own are to be feared more than those who the same tone as ours or that are lighter than our own, and, consequently, we are primed to distrust more those who are blacker than we. And let us be clear, this disproportionate fear of people blacker than ourselves crosses racial lines, as the “brown bag” test of our African American sisters and brothers revealed in the earlier part of the last century.


This fear of darkness is not a new phenomenon, and perhaps even goes back to the dawn of humanity with things in the daylight being easier to see and things in the darkness being harder to see. But we have carried what may have been a generally useful fear for survival and magnified it, transferred it, and undergirded it in multiple and horrendous ways that have brought us to the place where we cannot but help ourselves in perceiving blackness as that which is to be feared more than lightness. A dark night is very different a black woman.


We live in a culture that reinforces this daily. Ever single time we dress our kids up at Halloween in “scary outfits” that are more black than white we reinforce this horrible idea. Every time we talk about frightful things, like zombies and vampires, coming from “the dark side,” we instill and strengthen this terrible image. When we use black to illustrate negative concepts – even “evil” – and white to portray positive concepts – even “sacred,” – we not-so-subtly emphasize this unhealthy way of thinking. Conversely, when we dress our children up to be christened in all white or our brides to be married in white, or go to Easter Sunday in white outfits or put our clergy in white albs we reinforce that white is the purer color and thus better, holier, more trusted color.


But let me press this even further: we don’t just fear blackness, we fear black rage. And, more pointedly, black men represent to us white Americans the epitome of black rage. And while Judge O’Donnell couldn’t mention “American’s Original Sin,” slavery and the racism born of it, I will. I believe every single one of us, whether we admit to it or not, understands on some conscious or unconscious level that because most of the people in our midst whose skin is brown have ancestors who were enslaved in this country they have a certain inalienable right to be angry about that horrendous fact. Our African American citizens, many sitting within these pews, have ancestors, who can be traced back only a generation or two on their family trees, who were transported to this country against their will, in unspeakable conditions, treated as chattel and property to be branded and sold, and who may or may not have been the lucky ones to survive. We therefore know our African American sisters and brothers have every right to have a burning coal of rage red hot within them. This possibility and probability of this rage is inescapable.


And then to add to it the unconscionable history of Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynching, “urban renewal,” unequal criminal sentencing laws, and mass incarceration, we walk the streets wondering why on earth there isn’t complete (perhaps even rightful) chaos all of the time!!! The last series of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement agents has simply become the straw that broke the camel’s back.   And we question why this rage has turned into protests, violent and non-violent? It should be of no surprise to any of us.


So of course when a police chase ensues a car for 12 miles and suspects are ramming police cruisers, then the “reasonable threat” becomes, I believe, even more intense, more volatile, when the suspects are black than if they were white, and at least one of them was a man. And one has to wonder whether or not the erratic behavior of the suspects themselves was also a result of their own understanding that their blackness represented a heightened sense of “reasonable threat” in this society that would most likely cause them more harm and more repercussions if they were caught. Who knows, and again I cannot second guess this particular case, but I do know that there is a systemic cultural fear of blackness and black rage that makes wise and thoughtful instantaneous decisions about what is a “reasonable threat” almost impossible.


[And on top of this concern about racism, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that we also live in a heightened militarized culture. I am the first to tell you how proud I am of my father, a career army man, for risking his life in World War 2 and in the Korean Conflict in order to make this nation more secure and stronger. But we have allowed our respect for the military to get so out of hand that everything from the budget of the United States government to the way our police react on our city streets is completely out of proportion and focused more on exacerbating our fears than calming them, and then demand us as a society to pay mightily to respond to those heightened fears. Living in a post-9-11 world has only intensified exponentially!


Because, you see, as proud of my father, the Army Lt. Colonel, as I am, I am also equally proud of my mother, the nurse. I think my mother did as much to make our world safe and the nation secure as did my father, when she gave her all in the Operating Room, the Emergency Room, or the nursing home. As proud of my father as I am, I am equally as proud of my sister, the teacher. I think my sister did as much to make our world safe and our nation secure as did my father, when she gave her all in the classroom, especially on the dangerous and poverty stricken part of town where she served most of her career.


But if we have an understanding that the highest calling, the most noble career, is always the military, and we spend a huge amount of our nation’s and city’s resources for undergirding the military and the police, and many of our police officers come from military backgrounds, then are we not also setting ourselves up to be a war-oriented society? A warrior is taught to kill the enemy, no questions asked. A police-officer is charged to keep the peace, with discernment and negotiation always an option. Can we truly see those as separate in America? I don’t think so, and the anger at the decision yesterday is a sad result of the mixing of those two very different philosophies of life.]


So, as a pastor, I always ask: “what can we do to be the change we wish to see in the world?” Let me offer a few possibilities, and these are just a beginning:

  1. Change your language and retrain your viewpoint away from the dichotomy of white and black, good and evil. Stop dressing your kids in black on Halloween. Dress them up as characters from history or literature. Buy a beautiful yellow dress for your niece for her christening or a fun green outfit for your nephew for his baptism. Imagine brides with colorful dresses and pastor’s with non-traditionally colored albs!
  2. Get to know someone of a different race on a deeper, more personal level and for the long term. And not just one person, several persons, for we are all diverse. Invite a co-worker who has a darker skin color than yours out for coffee or tea this week and talk about the Brelo verdict. Go out for dinner with people from church of a different race and ask them if they have relatives who were slaves and what the family history is about that.

[3. Stop glamorizing war. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a toy gun for your child. Make sure you and your children have conversations, if not training, in gun safety. Celebrate Teachers Day and Nurses Day and Artists Day and, and… as much as you do Veteran’s Day. Give money to organizations that work to help integrate our veteran’s back into culture and write to congress to make sure money is available for veteran’s health care, especially counseling and therapy.

  1. Honor mediation, conflict reduction and resolution, discernment, dialogue, as well as being at peace with ambiguity and uncertainty. Give money to organizations that do mediation and those that celebrate peace and justice.]


These are just a few thoughts on what happened in Cleveland yesterday, as well as a few positive suggestions for trying to reshape our culture so that what happened to Tamir and Timothy and Malissa never happen again. I welcome your responses after worship, but also this week, via e-mail or a phone call.





“Community: A Communion Of Unity” ~ May 17, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 17, 2015 ~ “Celebrating Community”

Romans 12 ( )

“Community: A Communion Of Unity”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

A video of this sermon can be found online at:

IntrovertExtrovertHow many of you have ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory? It is a pretty standard questionnaire that seeks to determine a person’s basic psychological and social type. The first of the four scales that it references is whether or not someone is more of an introvert or an extrovert, whether they are more comfortable alone or in groups. I have taken the assessment several times and every single time I fall right in the middle, only a notch or two one way or the other. This feels so true to my own experience, for I am both an introvert and an extrovert... and everything in-between! To look at this positively, it means that I am as comfortable in a crowded community, addressing large assemblies, as I am in speaking with someone one-on-one or even in being completely alone with myself. I attribute any success I may have had as a pastor to this ability to balance these two worlds.

Of course, those of you who are astute will have figured out already that the opposite can sometimes be true: there are moments I am painfully uncomfortable in crowds and times when my skin crawls when I am alone. At my most brazenly honest moments, I see myself as a painfully shy introvert trapped in a chronically exposed extrovert’s life. But, thankfully, these have been few and far between, or at least I have been able to adapt to the dilemma in a socially acceptable way. When I have failed to manage this well, I ask your forgiveness.

ChristInCommunityAnd while both skill sets are helpful, and needed, in being a fully functioning pastor, it is the ability to be comfortable in, to nurture and sustain, and to promote community that I think is the more important ability in the 21st century, and an especially-needed trait in the Church. I say this for all those reasons social commentators and church pundits have been exploring and explaining ad naseum these last few decades, but also because I believe the ability to create and celebrate community is at the core of the Judeo-Christian faith and the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Commentators and pundits have pointed out that due to a variety of reasons, modern American/western civilization’s social skills have become less and less actualized and we have become a far more individualized culture. Robert Putnam’s ground-breaking social commentary from 1997, Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival Of American Community, highlighted how our human capital has become more and more focused on private good rather than public good, and how our sense of membership has become more focused on online philanthropy and cyber-activism and less on joining civic-minded groups and long-term participation in them. Added to this is the social media phenomenon where groups of friends, colleagues, even family members are focused, sometimes exclusively, on the small screen in front of them, seemingly to the exclusion of the people physically gathered around them, all the while connecting to others near and far via posts and tweets.


Small Group of Franklin Circle Christian Church serving together at the Cleveland Christian Home.

Small Group of Franklin Circle Christian Church serving together at the Cleveland Christian Home.

o one of the places where community is still in vogue, is still de riguer, is still common is church. Our faith communities are just that, communities, and while drive-in worship services and sermons posted on YouTube get some press, the idea of showing up to church remains the norm, and when we don’t do it there is still a sense of guilt, even if only passing. So my premise has been these last fourteen years of this congregation’s 173-year history, to focus on building community, nurturing community, sustaining community, and celebrating community. And these last five weeks I have tried to share with you how I have been doing that.

We first considered honoring diversity and focused on Isaiah 56:1-8. We then explored what it meant to liberate laughter, and used 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 as our guide. Next we focused on ensuring justice, and heard Jesus’ speech in the synagogue from Luke 4:14-30 as our own clarion call. Last week we discussed the need to nurture love, with Paul’s case for God’s love in Romans 8:31-39 central to the conversation. These four facets of healthy group life make it possible to truly celebrate community, and I have chosen my favorite scripture from when I began to be a part of the church community as a teenager, Romans 12, as my text today. Let me remind you a little of what I said in these past few weeks.

Watch Night Fun at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Watch Night Fun at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Creation is naturally diverse, and God was richly creative in the way in which humanity has been shaped. But given our human inclinations, we gravitate toward the familiar, the comfortable, and the easy – those just like us. This is not what God wants. Period. God created us diverse for a reason, because we learn and grow best when we are around those who are different from us. When we are reminded, cajoled, and invited to look out for those who are most different from us – even when we are accused of being “politically correct” by doing so – then we are better for it. Franklin Circle Christian Church was diverse when I arrived, but no one can deny that we are far more integrated and empowered as a diverse community today, in not only those who come to our programs and sit in our pews, but those who sit on our church boards and teams and those who envision our future.


Holy Humor Sunday at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Humor and laughter provide the lubrication and release valve (to create a weirdly mixed metaphor) for community life… but not just any humor and not just any laughter. Jesus made it quite clear that the foolishness in which God engages is never at the expense of someone else and always looks for the joy that can only come in building people up. Holy humor is humor that understands the true absurdity of life – where amoebas and giraffes, long division and black holes, Laverne and Shirley, Ponce de Leon, and Queen Latifa can all exist in the same universe. God-made-real-in-Jesus knew that if the divine being shouldn’t take her/him/itself too seriously, then we ought not to, either. Franklin Circle Christian Church is such an incredibly important and necessary community of faith, on the Near West Side of Cleveland, in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and in the warp and woof of humanity that we simply must laugh at ourselves and enjoy the ride!

GodBeforeGunsMarchAnd then there is justice, which just doesn’t happen, but must be ensured that it will happen. It takes hard work, sweat, and sometimes even tears to make sure that the compassion God had for humanity, the love Jesus had for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, is made real. We will be confident and unapologetic engaging in acts of charity and benevolence that cares for the least amongst us today, as we seek to empower people to be their own change agents and their own best advocates, AND as we seek to address the systemic causes of racism, poverty, ableism, disease, ageism, illiteracy, sexism, homophobia, and heterosexism. Franklin Circle Christian Church has long been on that arc of the moral universe focused on justice, but we must be vigilant lest we be torn apart by those who use false dichotomies and pit justice against compassion or advocacy against evangelism. We know that to do the will of God, follow Jesus, and build the Beloved Community requires doing justice AND loving kindness AND walking humbly with our God.

Ted & Mary Brogan celebrate their wedding anniversary

Ted & Mary Brogan celebrate their wedding anniversary

Fourthly, whatever we do, whether it be honoring diversity, liberating laughter, or ensuring justice… we must do it with love. Love is the very essence of God and is the ultimate charge Jesus has given to us, his followers. And this has been both the easiest task and the hardest challenge in this congregation. When one gathers folks together, particularly those who have been hurt by loved ones, disregarded by society, and ridiculed by the whims of the world, it is hard not to take out those injuries and offences on those closest to you, those who have opened their arms and hearts to you. But we cannot shoot the wounded! So communities like Franklin Circle Christian Church must love one another and the world around us all the more fully, passionately, even sacrificially. We must love those who are most unlovable, at least by the world’s standards, for that is what Jesus did. We must love humbly, knowing both the majesty of our place in creation and the minuteness of our place in the universe. Our love must be wrapped up with abundant forgiveness, of ourselves and one another, and we must ask for forgiveness as if our lives depend upon it… because they do.

Franklin Circle Christian Church Elders

Franklin Circle Christian Church Elders

And a community that is able to do these things, honor diversity, liberate laughter, ensure justice, and nurture love, as Franklin Circle Christian Church does and will continue to do, is a community that must be celebrated! This church is Good News to a world hell-bent on bad news. This church is a sign of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and will, if you let it, bring new life to those who are all but dead to themselves and to the world around them. This church is a city on a hill that cannot be hid, it is salt that brings flavor to a painfully boring existence for many, it is a candle that cannot, should not, will not be hidden. No! Proclaim it from the mountaintops! Run or roll or hobble or dance down the streets and avenues and proclaim God is alive and well and living in this community called Franklin Circle Christian Church to friend and neighbor and stranger alike! Celebrate Community, for you are a damn fine community to be celebrated!


“Nurturing Love” ~ May 10, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 10, 2015 ~ “Nurturing Love”

Romans 8:31-39 ( )

“A Love For all Occasions”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

A video of this sermon can be found at:

I love you. I say that not so much as an introduction to my sermon as a statement of fact. I love you. I am also well aware that even as I say those three simple words they will be heard in a multitude of ways, perhaps even in as many ways as there are people in this room. For some of you the phrase will take on a decidedly romantic quality, and for others perhaps a more spiritual quality. For a few, you will hear it with some suspicion, wondering how I could say that when I don’t know you well enough to do so. Others will be miffed for how could I say that when I haven’t done this for you or that for you.  I understand all of this.  I say it nonetheless because it is as true as is the fact that I am standing before you here and now. I love you.

baby-loveLove is a complex human emotion, and it is imbued with all of our memories from the first imprinting after birth to the most recent encounter or even thought we had this day. But even as multifaceted and complicated as it is, it is clearly one of the words and concepts scripture uses to define the fundamental relationship God has with us and we are to have with God and one another. 1 John 4:7-8 says it in unmistakable language: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.


For the love of God, could it be any clearer? And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s love as the next few verses makes plain, tells us in no uncertain terms the fulfillment of all the requirements of God is to love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

loveGod“There is no other commandment that is greater than these,” Jesus says, without a hint of irony or sarcasm and without wincing a bit in that all-knowing sort of way you’d think messiahs would do. How can Jesus say love and all of scripture point towards love knowing that as human nature would have it we would cause each other, even those of our own faith and family, irreparable harm through wars, lynching, beatings, ostracism, name calling, gossip, parking lot conversations, and hate texting?   Does it not make a mockery of faith to read these words in church knowing there will be little evidence of them lived out in the world around us or in our very own lives, or at least seemingly so?

And yet God, even more surely and profoundly than I can possibly muster, says it to us again, more firmly and more often: I love you. I love you. I love you.

This section of the book of Romans, Paul’s love letter to the church and his epic theological treatise, builds a case for faith, especially a faith that is not beholden to the whims and incertitude of the human condition. Paul proposes that since all of us, every last blessed one of us human beings, sins and falls short of the glory of God, we need God. The apostle also builds the argument that if we rely only on human means for dealing with this sin or covenant-breaking – first and foremost using the law to address sin – we will never, ever come out right. Law has its uses in order to address grievances. But there is one thing the law simply cannot speak to and it is the very essence of God: love. So how do we have a faith that honors the law but moves beyond it in order to live into love? Well, we put our faith in God’s wily, wonder-filled, unpredictable Holy Spirit and we follow the ways of the very incarnation of God, Jesus Christ.

And here is the very best way to put our faith in the Spirit more fully and follow Jesus more closely: believe with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength that God is for us, loves us, and will never let anything come between us! So then the essence of all faith is to trust that the very author of life, the very creator of the universe, the very savior of the world loves each and every one of us and will never, ever, ever stop loving us! Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and as I made it clear before, love is the most important thing we can do, feel, think, believe, imagine!

But this trust is hard. Trust remains one of the most difficult things we humans so, especially when it’s wrapped around love. We’ve been hurt so many times before. We’ve loved and lost. We’ve squandered our love on silly things and thoughtless people, and we’ve ached for love that never came, that never even knew our name.

My young friend, Jackson Cobb, shows his love for his grandmother by helping her with her computer skills.

My young friend, Jackson Cobb, shows his love for his grandmother by helping her with her computer skills.

I would offer three thoughts on both trust and love, which is to say faith and love, which is to say our relationship with God and one another. How do we move beyond the law and live into this love? We specialize in those who are either the hardest to love are those who are the least loved. We must love those who are most unlovable, at least by the world’s standards, For that is what Jesus did. That is why congregations such as Franklin Circle Christian Church are so incredibly important, because we proclaim and live out this kind of love. We understand that there are those who society has kicked to the curb who need our love the most. I spoke of this last week when I shared the biblical mandate to love the poor, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, the quartet of the vulnerable. I have tried to focus on two: our children and those who are in abject poverty. They lead us to the deep core of the love of God. One would think that serving them would be depressing, but, in fact, serving them inspires us and empowers them.

YouAreHereThe second notion is that a profound understanding of humility allows us to trust more deeply and love more fully. Humility is knowing our rightful place in the scheme of things, thinking neither too highly nor too lowly of ourselves. In the Quaker tradition, it is the sense of being in the place just right: Here is where I am, let me live fully into my place in the world. To love humbly is to stand at the dark edge of the chasm and to throw your heart into the darkness, and never, ever expect it to come back. God is in that darkness. Somehow, how I do not understand and cannot expect, that love comes back to me.

A young couple at once close and far apart, together in a feeling of loss and sadness, but each trapped inside their own memory.

A young couple at once close and far apart, together in a feeling of loss and sadness, but each trapped inside their own memory.

And the third awareness I offer you in our attempts to trust and love more is that forgiveness transforms everything. We must know that no loving will be perfect. The ability to step back, take assessment of a situation or relationship, and either ask for or offer sincere forgiveness changes the chemistry of both trust and love. Now, the forgiveness I’m talking about is not one that lets injustice off the hook. Nor am I talking about an easy nor cheap forgiveness where someone always gives in just because it is easier, of less complicated, or quicker. I am talking about a prayerful, discerning, honest forgiveness that truly transforms the heart, thus transforming the persons involved. It is not mechanical, you cannot “put the coin in” and “get the forgiveness out.” It is organic, and must come from within. But when forgiveness flows, it releases you and frees us all.

Love, the kind that is able to overcome all things that might separate us from God and one another, is offered first and foremost to those the world finds hardest to love, it is shaped by authentic humility and genuine forgiveness. May every “I Love You” be shaped by inclusiveness, humility and forgiveness. Then we will truly know God and be like God. Amen.

“Ham Sandwiches, Hashtags, And Handshakes” ~ May 3, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 3, 2015 ~ “Engaging Justice”

Luke 4:14-30 ( )

“Ham Sandwiches, Hashtags, And Handshakes”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

More and more in my life I have become extremely suspicious of dichotomies.  A dichotomy is a contrast between two things that are or are being portrayed as being One waycompletely different from one another.  Melanie Morrison, United Church of Christ minister, in her wonderful book, The Grace Of Coming Home, uses the phrase “mutually exclusive opposites” to capture this.  Classic dichotomies are: black and white, rich and poor, man and woman, body and soul.  I am not just hesitant to use them, but am downright cynical of them because quite often they are presented as undeniable fact or unquestionable truth when they are in fact thinly veiled attempts to promote a particular political, theological, or social position.  Sadly, quite often folks who make a habit of using such polarities condemn honest intellectual inquiry and ridicule anyone who might have an opinion or state a truth different from their perspective or that doesn’t fit one or the other opposing position or contrasting label.

OnlyOneWayConversations around justice, righteousness, and equality are rife with dichotomies, and they are perpetuated by people on all sides of the issues.  I have committed my life not only to casting doubt on the trustworthiness of mutually exclusive opposites, but to work diligently empowering others to think critically about important issues.  My call is for us all to disregard the many voices trying to convince us that it is this way or that way, that it is all or nothing, up or down, red or blue, right or wrong, my way or the highway.  I believe this not because of some innate rebel spirit – although I do have a bit of that blood in me – but because it is how I see God works, especially God made real in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  My life is committed to helping folks see that ambiguity, mystery, exploration, evolution, and change are all grace-filled possibilities, and that the Divine actually specializes in leading us through such non-hierarchical, non-dichotomous places.

There are two misunderstandings and two particular false dichotomies that are perpetuated about justice issues that I think are extremely harmful to living life fully and which put our faith in danger.  One misunderstanding is seeing benevolence as the same thing as justice AND the corollary false dichotomy is thinking that you can have one without the other.  The second misunderstanding is that justice is purely political and not faithful, and the offshoot false polarity is to see work and advocacy for justice as being antithetical to evangelism and witness for the gospel.  Let me take these one at a time.

GoodDeedFirst, the misperception that benevolence and justice are the same thing.  Benevolence, also known as charity, philanthropy, and compassion, are the acts of kindness and service that help a person in the moment.  We have many such programs here at Franklin Circle Christian Church, from our Benevolence Fund to our Disciples Clothing Closet, weekend Community Youth Program, our Third Sunday Community Meal, and our end of the month Food Bag Ministry.  All of these are powerful and wonderful programs that help real people in real need.  But we must not confuse them with justice.  Justice asks the questions behind the service: why are so many people in need of clothing, a hot meal, groceries, something for kids to do on the weekend?  It’s running up the river to find out why there are so many babies falling into the river, to reference an old and much used story.

Senior Minister Dr. Jacqueline Lewis at a special service for Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City

Senior Minister Dr. Jacqueline Lewis at a special service for Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City

But the tendency is for people, and many congregations do this, to pit one of these against the other.  Some congregations, like ours, focus on benevolence and meeting the human needs of the moment.  Others focus on advocacy, learning about the larger issues of poverty, violence, sustainability, food-scarcity and waste, racism, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism, especially by talking with, working alongside, and empowering those who are most affected by the injustices and exploitation.  These congregations translate what they learn into letter-writing, lobbying, marching for justice, and even non-violent protest.  Our Anti-Racism Team does some of this important work.  What would it mean for a congregation to be comfortable with both service and advocacy, benevolence and justice?

The shame is that we – for reasons of ego and hubris or just plain limitations on time, energy, and vision – pit benevolence and justice against one another, rather than celebrate both of them.  A classic false dichotomy is perpetuated in the old saw, “give a person a fish and she can eat for a day, teach a person to fish and she can eat for a lifetime!”  I like to say, “Well, if you haven’t fed them for today they’ll never live long enough learn to fish!  You have to do both: give and teach!  Plus, if they don’t have access to a fishing pole or the water isn’t clean enough for the fish to live in it, teaching them to fish is pointless!  So it’s gotta be give, teach, advocate!”

bothandWe need to have a Benevolence Fund to get people in great need through the day, but we also have to be asking tough questions about the predatory tactics of Payday Lending companies, or what are the policies and fee-scales of local banks that might keep our low-income neighbors from ever having the chance to save up money, or why there are so few living-wage jobs in our city.  We need to have a healthy hot meal and bags of “lovingly prepared groceries” so that families don’t go hungry night after night, but we also have to ask what city laws and regulations say about having gardens in our front or backyards or that make it harder for smaller, ethnic grocery stores to easily open near the people they might serve, or why there are so few living-wage jobs in our city.  We need to have a place where our young people can come and be safe, and have a professional basketball coach teach them skills in the sport and in life and to get good food and loving guidance, but we also have to be asking the tough questions about whether or not all of our children are equally getting a quality education, about why we live in a society where our young Black and Hispanic youth feel celebrated when they look to a future in sports but ignored when they look to a future in science, or business, or health care, or about whether all of our youth, no matter what tone of color there skin is, are equally safe on our streets.  And we should ask why there aren’t more living-wage jobs available.

helder_camaraWhich leads me to the second misconception and false dichotomy.  The misconception is the accusation that justice is not faithful, but political.  Bishop Hélder Câmara is famously quoted as saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”  The moment that a preacher like me starts to ask the “why?” question, we get labeled a “radical” or a “trouble maker.”  The moment we start talking about gender issues we are labeled a “feminazi.”  When we describe people as Black, Brown, White, Hispanic, Asian we are told we’re playing the “race card.”  And God forbid we talk about realtime real life economics, for then we are promulgating “class warfare!”  I maintain that if I do so, then I stand in the grand tradition of most of scripture and the essence of who Jesus of Nazareth was!

There are two Hebrew words that are used to describe what it means to “do justice.”  One is mishpat and occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.  It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.  But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights.  Author and pastor Tim Keller notes, “Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.  This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the [Hebrew Scriptures,] several classes of persons continually come up.  Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’” (1)

But the second word used in the Hebrew Scriptures for justice fills this out even better.  Keller says it well, “The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.  When most modern people see the word ‘righteousness’ in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study.  But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity.  It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.  These two words roughly correspond to what some have called ‘primary’ and ‘rectifying justice.’  Rectifying justice is mishpat.  It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment.  Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.  Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.” (2)  That’s justice!

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community and magazine, often tells the story that he once took two old Bibles and in the first one he cut out all the verses that dealt with the “sins” on which most churches of our day spend their time, energy, and money: homosexuality, abortion, etc.  He said you could flip through it and never notice the missing passages.  He took the other old Bible and cut out all the texts dealing with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant… and said it barely held together so many verses were applicable!

Jesus began his ministry making it crystal clear that justice, in all it’s forms, was going to be fundamental to his work of salvation.  Today’s text of Jesus’ proclamation in the synagogue, only days after his wilderness sojourn which began his ministry, is almost exclusively about justice:  good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the acceptable year of God’s favor!  His words should sound familiar, in that Mary’s magnificat, sung upon learning of her pregnancy with him, speaks also of justice for the oppressed and a righting of wronged relationships.

And note, Jesus has little time for exploring what people did to get into the condition in which he found them.  When he found the woman caught in adultery about to be stoned, he spent no time examining her past, but pointed her to the future.  When people discussed who had sinned to cause the man to be born blind, Jesus ignored their finger-pointing, healed him, and sent him off into a new future of possibility!  Oh that we would spend less time blaming victims for their situation and more time righting the wrongs that got them there and empowering them to new life!

revolutionary-jesus2So the second false dichotomy is that we ought not be about the work of justice because it works against the primary call of the gospel to “go and make disciples.”  I cannot tell you how many times the work of justice and the work of evangelism are pitted against each other in mortal combat.  I tell you now this is a lie and no such conflict nor schism exists.  In fact, I believe with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength – and  is illustrated by everything that I’ve done in this congregation for the past 14 years –  the belief that a community of faith that is serious about benevolence and justice is a congregation that will grow and, more importantly, will “empower disciples to serve and glorify God!”  I don’t want to “make disciples of all nations” if those disciples don’t have a heart and a spine and a voice!  I don’t want to grow the church if it means the sanctuary is filled with a bunch of “know-nothings” who have no interest in their faith transforming the way they live in the world nor in taking their faith to the streets and changing the lives of those around them, even if they never darken the door of the church!

It blows my mind that anyone would think this radical and revolutionary Jesus, who called both everyday laborers and tax collectors into his inner circle, who treated women as equals, who acknowledged the faithfulness of eunuchs in the community, who listened to and healed foreigners, who refused to treat children as property, and who saw that God was calling all of creation to faithfulness and not just those who were the “in crowd…” it blows my mind that anyone would think this Jesus I follow would insist we never talk about changing the systems that keep people in subjugation and instead portray the faith as simply a personal, private, spiritual activity.

No!  Jesus wants us to make the ham sandwiches and feed the people!!!  Jesus wants us to Tweet the hashtags and get people out on the street in an uprising against injustices!!!  Jesus wants us to offer the seeker our hand in Christian companionship!!!  And justice means all of the above!  Ham sandwiches, hashtags, and handshakes!  May it be so!  Make it so.  Amen.

(1) Tim Keller, “What Is Biblical Justice,” in Relevant magazine,  (2) Ibid———-


“Following A PC Jesus” ~ April 19, 2015 Sermon


Sermon For April 19, 2015 ~ “Honoring Diversity”

Isaiah 56:1-8 ( )

“Following A PC Jesus”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

To watch the video of this sermon, go online to:


When the end of my short-lived marriage to my college best friend, Barbara, had been announced and word of my divorce because I had come out as gay began to work its way through our network of friends and family, I received a phone call one evening from the pastor of my home church. Ostensibly he was calling to check up on me, however by the end of the call it felt neither pastoral nor helpful. In it he would tell me that my news had caused my mother to have a “nervous breakdown” from which he had to help her recover. That report devastated me, and would haunt me for a long time. But the second thing I remember him telling me at first confused me, then angered me. This anger has lasted a lifetime.


bleeding-heart-liberalsIn that call the good pastor had not just insinuated, but had actually accused me of saying that I was gay because I had a “soft heart” and was always trying to take the side of those who were “down on their luck.” I was perplexed because this burning secret, this facet of who I am as a human being and with which I had struggled for almost all my young life he implied was a tactic, at best, or at worse a weakness that I had. He suggested that somehow I had the penchant for taking the side of the underdog, and the proclamation of my being gay and the subsequent complete capsizing of my relationships, my life, and quite potentially my future livelihood was a frailty of personality over which I, apparently, had no control.


It would be months, even years, before I realized the full import of his words. Of course, it was audacious to think that my decision to be honest about myself and the ensuing pain I knew this would cause my wife, my mother, and all my closest friends, classmates, and relatives, was the result of some young adult whim I had pass through my silly little head. I presume he was basing this on the conversations we had had the summer before when I was youth intern at my home church. In the middle of that summer, on July 4th weekend to be exact, I had preached a sermon that was, to be fair, less than well thought out on the evils of the Cold War and the need for America and Russia to get their collective acts together, forgive each other, and come back to the world table reconciled. I must presume that sermon – for which there was an expected fallout and public chastising – and the multiple conversations about my involvement in organizations such as the Disciples Peace Fellowship, Handgun Control, Inc., and several environmental groups was the basis for his evaluation of my “personality flaw.”


Of course, another way of looking at this was: I was gay. Thoroughly, consistently, constitutionally, completely gay, and my divorce and the reordering of my life was a difficult and woefully delayed but absolutely necessary response to the honesty I had come to acknowledge for myself and my world. It was the evils of a world of homophobia and heterosexism that had caused me to pretend to be other than who God truly created me to be and to try to build around me a false identity to be “just like all the other boys.” And the Church universal was complacent in that evil! I am who I am, and who God made me!


But here’s the thing that really angers me: there was also the implication that these social, political, and I would say spiritual commitments were passing fads, and also not part of who I am as a human being. This discounting of my deeply held religious beliefs and well-researched, prayerfully held, and thoughtfully lived-out values happens repeatedly and often. And it doesn’t just happen to me,Politically-Correct it happens all the time to people with similar commitments. One of the most frequent ways it is articulated, and I do not know where or by whom this catchy phrase was first coined, is by calling such values “politically correct,” or “PC” for short. “Oh that’s so PC!” or “You’re just being PC,” or “Well I guess I better be PC!”


I stand here this day to say that my commitments to diversity, to inclusivity, to hospitality, to equality, to fairness, and to justice have absolutely nothing at all to do with seeking to be politically correct, whatever that means! I call the world to cease and desist in using this phrase in order to belittle, discount, and seek to destroy the very real responsibilities I believe we all have to those who are oppressed, marginalized, and largely forgotten by society. I demand this because it is not some personality flaw by which I come to these, it is because my Jesus calls me to do it, and the moral arc of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures makes it a mandate for my life.


El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

What if that good pastor had instead implied or even asked me, “Allen, are you doing this because Jesus is making you do it?” I would have to reply, “Well, yes!” Jesus calls me to be honest about who God made me to be! Jesus calls me to love my neighbor as I love myself! Jesus calls me to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and thus proclaim the acceptable year of our God!


So I say to you today, if it is politically correct to sit at table with prostitutes and tax collectors and treat them with the dignity God imparts them, just like Jesus, then I am PC!


The logo for the All Peoples Christian Church, Los Angeles, CA.  Find them on Facebook:

The logo for the All Peoples Christian Church, Los Angeles, CA. Find them on Facebook:

If it is politically correct to believe that foreigners and sexual minorities are capable of faithfulness and can be counted amongst God’s favored people, just like Isaiah, then I am PC!


If it is politically correct to know neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free but all can be one in the faith of Jesus, with no human distinction defining them, just like the Apostle Paul, then I am PC!


If it is politically correct to turn the other cheek, give someone my coat, go the extra mile, give to those who beg, just like Jesus preached, then I am PC!


If it is politically correct to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me, just like Jesus preached and lived, then I am PC!


If it is politically correct to look out and care for those who society sees as the very dregs of society, the orphan, the widow, the stranger from another land, the poor just like it says in the law of Deuteronomy, then I am PC!


If it is politically correct to let justice roll down like waters, to be a restorer of the breech and a repairer of streets, to seek the welfare of the city in which we live, to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God just like the ancient prophets preached, then so be it, I AM POLITICALLY CORRECT!


There is a rich diversity with which God has permeated all of creation. Thanks be to God for our differences! But way back in that first Garden, as our eyes and hearts were opened just like the divine eyes and heart, we began to know this diversity is also complexity, and there are forces within each and every one of us if, left unchecked, cause us to treat this diversity with disrespect, even violence. We must be reminded again and again that we are only stewards of this creation, and never owners. And one of the most precious gifts we are charged with, throughout Holy Scripture and culminating in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, is to love, and to make love real by caring for creation, for our neighbors, especially those neighbors in need.


One of the guiding scriptures of my life is Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Whether we like to admit it or not, this calls those of us who live a life of privilege, any privilege and no matter how much privilege, to be accountable for it to God. If this is not a mandate to care for those for whom the world determines is the least, the lost, the unloved, the lonely, and the less I do not know what is.


And if being responsible for the care of the world and loving my neighbor is PC, so be it. Me? I’m just following Jesus.



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