“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.

 

Blessings,

Allen

 

“Nurturing Love” ~ May 10, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 10, 2015 ~ “Nurturing Love”

Romans 8:31-39 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=298220900 )

“A Love For all Occasions”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

A video of this sermon can be found at: https://youtu.be/OxNIqcgISvY

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.

“Recognizing Resurrection Through The Tears And The Fears” ~ April 5, 2015 Easter Sermontags social

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Sermon For April 5, 2015 ~ Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=295230253 )

“Recognizing Resurrection Through The Tears And The Fears”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To watch this sermon on video, go online to: https://youtu.be/9yAlXojg9do

 

Alexander Ivanov (1806 - 1858) (Russian) (Painter,   Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection 1835 oil on canvas

Alexander Ivanov (1806 – 1858) (Russian) (Painter,
Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection
1835
oil on canvas

I love this version of the resurrection story, from John. It is such a beautiful look at this faithful woman, Mary Magdalene, so maligned by super simplistic misinterpretations of scripture, not to mention a long history of misogyny. Mary exquisitely comes to recognize the risen Christ as her beloved mentor. But even as much as I adore this scripture, I have to ask the question, “Why did Mary not recognize Jesus immediately?” Why did it take so much time before she realized this one standing before her was none other than the one for whom she had been mourning these past three days?

 

You can find this button, and many other wonderful and empowering items to inspire you, at https://www.syracuseculturalworkers.com/products/button-girls-can-do-anything

You can find this button, and many other wonderful and empowering items to inspire you, at https://www.syracuseculturalworkers.com/products/button-girls-can-do-anything

Well perhaps she doubted herself, questioned her own ability to know what was truth and what wasn’t. When Mary rushed back to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple, she might have been acting in the way we tend to train too many of our young girls to behave, to doubt themselves and always go to men as a higher authority. It may just be this Easter story is calling us to empower girls, as well as boys, women, and men, to have confidence in themselves and rely on what they hear, see, and observe.

 

Or maybe Mary’s inability to see the resurrected Christ right away was due toGardener her own prejudices and biases. The text says she “supposed him to be a gardener.” What about him made her think he was a worker in the cemetery? What if Jesus came back looking differently than she had seen him when alive, with a different accent, darker skin color, or dissimilar in some other human attribute? We humans have a tendency to make snap judgments about the reliability of information based on completely irrelevant factors. It may just be this Easter story is calling us to look for truth from persons we might otherwise have discounted or avoided completely.

 

Arnold Böcklin's Mary Magdalene Weeping Over the Dead Christ.

Arnold Böcklin’s Mary Magdalene Weeping Over the Dead Christ.

I also wonder if Mary had become so enraptured in her sorrow that she, quite literally, couldn’t see clearly through her tears or hear clearly because of her weeping. Surely she had every reason to be desolate, having witnessed the torturing crucifixion of her liberator and redeemer, and now finding the humiliation of his body removed from its tomb. But isn’t it true that sometimes we find ourselves in patterns of grief that become so familiar, so engrained, that they pull our attention away from the present, and we miss the life that is happening around us? It may just be this Easter story is calling us, not to avoid nor truncate our grief, but to seek an awareness through the tears of what is going on around us, so that we might not miss the life God offers beyond the sorrow, perhaps even because of the sorrow.

 

Jason Puccinelli's "The Shape of Sound" is an acrylic mural that adorns the free zone area of the Seattle Art Museum.

Jason Puccinelli’s “The Shape of Sound” is an acrylic mural that adorns the free zone area of the Seattle Art Museum.

Could it also be possible that Mary was fearful about the future, wondering how she and the other disciples could possibly go on without the one who had taught and healed and loved them through so much? She may have also been apprehensive about how this diverse and scrappy band of disciples were going to continue such important ministries beyond the one who seemed to keep them focused and mediated their disputes. It is such a risk to be beholden to one person to keep a community sustained and healthy, but if the leader has done his or her job of empowerment well, the followers will discover the abilities were always there within them, and the importance of the mission will ensure their success. It may just be this Easter story is calling us to not be overwhelmed by our fears, but to trust the wisdom, skill, and grace that is within us to carry on.

 

We don’t really know why Mary took so long to recognize her risen friend, the resurrected Christ. What we do know is that, eventually, she did. And what a moment that was! In fact, that recognition propelled her to go, and tell the good news: “I have seen the Lord!” Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”

 

Amen.

 

 

“Preparing For The Journey” ~ February 22, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For February 22, 2015 ~ First Sunday Of Lent

Mark 1:9-15http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=291606349

“Preparing For The Journey”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

 

There’s nothing novel about the imagery of life as a journey. There’s certainly nothing original about interpreting the season of Lent as a journey. It’s a well-worn metaphor, and rightfully so. And each year the lectionary dispatches us off on our journey with one of the three biblical texts describing Jesus’ trek in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry. What’s different about this year in the lectionary readings (and we are in Year B by the way) is that Mark’s gospel, in it’s all-too-familiar way, condenses a great deal of the story of Jesus into almost painfully too few words. In a mere seven verses we go from Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, through his wilderness excursion and the arrest of John, to Jesus proclaiming the good news! Whew! That’s a fast romp if I’ve ever read one!

 

A scene from Homer's epic tale, The Odyssey

A scene from Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey

But as minimal as it is, we still understand that Jesus’ life journey began in a wilderness first and foremost. This is a recognizable aspect of life that we all know so well. It’s so endemic to the human condition that it has become the mainstay of literature and stories, from Homer’s epic The Odyssey to Jack Kerouac’s One The Road, from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to Hollywood’s The Wizard Of Oz and Finding Nemo! Scripture is no less interested in such roaming, from Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, to Abraham and Sarah’s leave-taking from their homeland of Ur, to the freed Hebrew slaves wandering in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. Later we will find Paul on the road to Damascus and the apostles trekking across the known world to share the gospel.

 

And, most noticeably, each and every one of these tales of travel have as a central component a period and/or place of struggle and strain, confrontation and

Jankel Adler No Man's Land 1943 Gallery, London, 1943, and later exchanged for another work); the artist; C.R. Churchill, Lower Chicksgrove, Wilts., 1946 or 1947, The Tate

Jankel Adler
No Man’s Land 1943
Gallery, London, 1943, and later exchanged for another work); the artist; C.R. Churchill, Lower Chicksgrove, Wilts., 1946 or 1947, The Tate

opposition, and deep and often life-changing transformation for the protagonist and intrepid traveler. This is what we are invited to embrace as we begin our Lenten journey. Life involves movement from point A, to point B, to point C, and beyond. This might be an inward journey within our own souls and psyches, or an outward journey, that involves new geographies and peoples. However it happens, all of us if we are on this planet for any time at all we will be travelers on a journey, and that journey will include at least one wilderness.

 

So journeys and the wilderness places that so often make up those travels are part and parcel to our lives. The question becomes, “Is this realization prescriptive or descriptive?” In other words, does it have to happen, or do we simply notice that it usually happens? In faith language, and this is where it gets really sticky: “Does God somehow make us, or urge us, or compel us to go into the wilderness, or does God simply know we will go into the wilderness and wants us to know that the presence of the divine is with us wherever we go.” Well… a careful reading of today’s scripture tells us… both!

Textually, the reading for today is not very exciting. That is to say there are not a lot of interesting or controversial words or images. Except for two. And they are two very compelling points of interest. The first one is in verse ten when, in the NRSV, it reads, “he saw the heavens torn apart,” and in The Message, “he saw the sky split open.” The Greek word for what happened is schizein, which is a fairly violent word. It will be used again, most notably, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross when the veil in the Temple is “torn open.” It is in this forceful and intense moment when the heavens are rent asunder, split wide open, that God’s Holy Spirit, and – in an odd juxtaposition of metaphors, “like a dove” – comes down upon Jesus. In this moment God says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (1)

 

Baptism of Jesus 1987 Lorenzo Scott Born: West Point, Georgia 1934 oil on canvas 48 1/8 x 48 1/8 in. (122.3 x 122.3 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Jane and Bert Hunecke 1994.52 Smithsonian American Art Museum Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, 23A

Baptism of Jesus
1987
Lorenzo Scott
Born: West Point, Georgia 1934
oil on canvas
48 1/8 x 48 1/8 in. (122.3 x 122.3 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Jane and Bert Hunecke
1994.52
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, 23A

This is why we offer the ritual of Baby and Child Dedications. This is why we choose to be baptized. This is why the Church is so very, very important in people’s lives because it is here, in a public and beautiful way, that we remind each other that, like Jesus, we, too, are God’s beloved, and it is our life-long hope to live into the blessing that God is likewise “well pleased” with us. Which is to say, getting back to our central image of journey-taking, God is with us every step, or roll, or hobble, or skip of the way!

 

And the second textual point of note is likewise fierce and furious, almost in an uncomfortable way. In verse 12 the NRSV reads, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The Message interprets, “At once, the same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild.” In Greek the word is ekballein, which has the sense of the Spirit violently hurling, throwing, or ejecting Jesus into the wilderness. Commentator Scott Hoezee makes the comparison that this is the language we would use when a bouncer heaves an unwanted patron from a bar out onto the street. This is quite different from Matthew and Luke’s version, which uses the word we translate to “led” by the Spirit. (2) In this moment, if we take this scripture seriously, God tosses us into the wilderness.

 

And we feel this sometimes, don’t we? In the “dark night of the soul” we so often go into, in the “rough patches” of life or the “lonesome valley’s” we traverse, it feels as if God is the one doing this to us. If God is truly the God of all creation, then this divine one somehow, someway has to have had something instrumental to do with our being there! Now, I still maintain the fervent belief that God never does evil to us nor afflicts us. But what I do hear in this text is that God recognizes that when evil and hardship and difficult times happen, as they do in the natural course of a post-Eden life, then we will be compelled by God to go through them, for God, wise and wonderful God, knows that there really never is any successful way of getting around our problems, jumping over our adversities, nor pretending our wilderness places don’t exist. The only way to survive the wilderness is to go through it!

 

But here is where we have to hold these two textual notes together, in our backpack or luggage or picnic basket, as it were. Yes, God compels us, drives us, and tosses us on our keister to go into our wilderness places on the journey of life… BUT! But only after we have been blessed, only after we have been reminded in an equally forceful and passionate way that we are God’s beloved! The exquisite beauty of the simple and short gospel of Mark is that these two promises are jammed together side-by-side: “’You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Blessing and bouncing inextricably bound together. Now that is a combination that is both honest and life-giving.

 

And this, too, is why we need the Church and why we need to be in church!!!! It is so very easy to get mixed up and think that it is God who does evil to us, that it is God who is the author of all that is bad in our lives. We need a place of beauty and truth and righteousness and love to be reminded that God des not do these things to us, but, like the best parent we can imagine, God reminds us we will have to go through these things, and that there is a light, a divine light, on the other side of the wilderness. It is also so very easy to forget that we are blessed in a world of doubt, evil, and negativity. Because in the Church we receive the Word of God that forcefully reminds us that the ONLY way we can survive this hard journeying is because we know we are blessed by God, through Jesus Christ, as we go into, as we wander around, as we are tested in, and as we eventually leave the wilderness. The Church, at it’s best, is the place where we hear and remind one another that together, we are God’s beloved and we shall get through anything and everything with God’s help and the prayers of one another.

 

This is Good News for any and every wilderness journey we may be tossed into!

 

Amen

 

(1) Sermon Starters Of The Week, Mark 1:9-15, Lent 1B, Calvin Theological Seminary, Center For Excellence In Preaching, found online at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-1b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

(2) Ibid.

 

“Surprised By The Compassion” ~ January 25, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For January 25, 2015 ~ The Season Of Epiphany

Mark 1:16-20 & Jonah 3:1-5, 10

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Sermon #4 “Surprised By The Compassion”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

I think by most standards, we can all agree that I am pretty much a softhearted guy.  I cry at the drop of a hat.  Who knows when I’ll tear up and get all mushy on you.  But there are a few things that will quite predictably determine that I will bawl, blubber, and get all snotty-nosed.  One of the most certain triggers for this schmaltzy behavior is from the now-ancient

Col. Sherman T. Potter on MASH, played by Harry Morgan

Col. Sherman T. Potter on MASH, played by Harry Morgan

television show, MASH.  In it there was a certain military officer, Col. Sherman T. Potter, played by the fantastic Harry Morgan.  He was a gruff, frustrated, eternally longsuffering man who put up with the antics of his unit better than you might imagine someone of his stature and background.  And while he was mostly portrayed as a bit crusty, the writers would occasionally show his sensitive side.  And every now and then they would even have Col. Potter shed a tear.  Now, you want me to start bawling?  Show me a clip of the strong, crotchety Col. Sherman T. Potter crying.  Makes me a blubbering idiot!

The English noun compassion, meaning “to love or suffer together with,” comes from Latin. Its prefix com- comes directly from com, an archaic version of the Latin preposition “with.” Affix “com” with –passion, derived from passus, past participle of the deponent verb patior, patī, passus sum and you get compassion.  Compassion is thus related in origin, form and meaning to the English noun patient (= one who suffers), from patiens, present participle of the same patior, and is akin to the Greek verb πάσχειν (= paskhein, to suffer).   Ranked a great virtue in numerous philosophies, compassion is considered in almost all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues. (1)

Jonah awaiting God's wrath on Ninevah

Jonah awaiting God’s wrath on Ninevah

I chose this theme word “Compassion” for today based most primarily upon the Hebrew Scripture selection in the lectionary.  It is the famous story of Jonah traveling to the city of Nineveh to preach to them a word from God of repentance, which they promptly did, and from which God forgave their sins.   But Jonah was in for a huge surprise.  Jonah got intensely angry because he had come for the epic fireworks of God’s hellfire and brimstone, and they weren’t happening because of God’s softheartedness, or compassion.  I think it’s fair to say Jonah was flabbergasted and then pissed off by God’s patience with the Ninevites.

So that was the easy connection, but then I got stuck on the Gospel passage for the day: the calling by Jesus of Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  Somehow it felt like I was forcing this theme of compassion upon the gospel passage.  But then God, in the Divine’s infinite mercy, reminded me of a song about this very passage that comes from our Hispanic sisters and brothers, “Lord, You Have Come To The Lakeshore,” by Cesáreo Gabaráin, Number 342 in the Chalice Hymnal.  This song exudes a deep sense of compassion and care: (to hear and see a video of this song, go online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xVskCCWtUk)

Lord, you have come to the lakeshore

looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones;

you only asked me to follow humbly.

O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,

and while smiling have spoken my name;

now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;

by your side I will seek other seas.

You  need my hands full of caring,

through my labors to give others rest,

and constant love that keeps on loving. (2)

Jesus Summons Matthew to Leave the Tax Office, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, 1536. Olga's Gallery.

Jesus Summons Matthew to Leave the Tax Office, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, 1536. Olga’s Gallery.

Then I looked back at the passage from Mark and saw the overwhelming compassion that comes in Jesus’ call to his disciples.  He called them not based on their status in life, not based on their looks or even their talents and abilities, or faithfulness.  Jesus called them – and us – based only on our willingness to respond to the call.  Jesus doesn’t want nor need us to be fully equipped, good-looking, wealthy or even – and hear me clearly – God doesn’t even need us repentant.  He just needs us ready.  If that isn’t surprising, I don’t know what is!

And this fits so well with the Jonah passage, other than the fact that I come off looking pretty bad, just like Jonah did.  In the same way that Jonah wasn’t ready for the city of Nineveh to repent and change their ways and follow God – that is he did not have the compassionate heart needed to believe that people can change, transformation can happen, lives can be turned around… Neither was I willing to see the compassion needed for God to call this rag-tag, diverse, unqualified group of disciples to follow him and change the world.  God has compassion on us and calls us to ministry – all of us – and then expects us to have the very same kind of compassion for those to whom we minister and with whom we share the good news.

My beloved, let us both be ready for and then surprised by compassion in this world.  God calls each and every one of us to full-time ministry – most likely in the places you already are.  This might surprise you, but don’t let it stop you.  Likewise, God calls you to be ready for the people around you to whom you witness the love of God and the grace of Christ and the winsomeness of the Holy Spirit to change.  You must not be surprised when they do, nor in the way in which they turn-around.  It most likely won’t be in the way in which you expect faith to be lived out, nor even want.  But God receives that change, and will forgive and love them just the same as God forgives and loves you, us.  Surprising or not, that is good news indeed.

Amen.

Please watch this Week Of Compassion video https://vimeo.com/119960478 and contribute to our Week Of Compassion offering: http://www.weekofcompassion.org/give/

(1) Wikipedia “Compassion,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

(2) For a beautiful discussion of the writer/writing of this hymn, go online to: http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-lord-you-have-come-to-the-lakeshore

“Surprised By The Persistence” ~ January 18, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For January 18, 2015 ~ The Season Of Epiphany

Luke 18:1-8 & 1 Samuel 3:1-10

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Sermon #3 “Surprised By The Persistence”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

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

http://youtu.be/0itLA1i-m2U

 

The-Imitation-Game-Quad-poster-Benedict-Cumberbatch1This past weekend I have seen two amazing films in the theater, each had as primary themes both persistence and surprise at their heart. Both were fictionalized accounts of real people and historical events. On Friday I saw The Imitation Game at our local Capitol Theater about the work of Alan Turing and a team of world-class mathematicians in England who worked to crack the Nazi codes during World War II and who not only ended that horrific war far earlier than it would have otherwise, but who, almost as an afterthought, happened to create the world’s very first computer. The second movie, which I saw last evening, Selma Movie Posterwas Selma, which was about the work of civil rights leaders, especially the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to end the entrenched and violent system of abuses and practices that kept African American citizens from voting and, therefore, having democracy fully represent them, also.

The role of persistence, patience, determination, and resolve are apparent in both stories. In The Imitation Game there was little precedence, and even less appreciation, for the possibility that a machine could sort through the enormous amount of data that was required to break codes and stop the slaughter of innocent lives. A great deal of tenacity was needed by everyone to both trust the wisdom of this brilliant but as yet untested young man from Cambridge as well as to put up with his quirky behaviors and off-putting temperament. In Selma the protagonist’s skills were well known, but even then the stubbornness of racism and the doggedness of segregation seemed stronger than the non-violent tactics of King and the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, especially, to the passionate leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. An enormous amount of persistence and endurance were required to not let the circumstances devolve into a bloodbath and fulfill the fear Dr. King of who warned, “An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”

But what were the surprises in these stories? The surprises are what make these stories so very exciting and powerful. The colleagues of Alan Turing were surprised by his unwavering passion and crafty management in his work and dedication to creating a solution that would not simply solve one problem – huge as it may have been – but be able to solve an infinite number of problems! Turing was surprised by the gradual but real care and appreciation his colleagues developed for him even though for his entire life before, and sadly, after, the Enigma project he was labeled and treated as abnormal, unusual, and an outcast.

In Selma we are shown the surprise of President Johnson at the staunch persistence of the civil rights leaders in focusing on justice at the polls as the key to their liberation. King, too, has his own surprises. In one particularly poignant scene, King is shown conversing with the young John Lewis, later a long term representative to the United States Congress, who surprised the Civil Rights leader with his own words about not losing heart and never growing weary in the fight for justice and equality.

Parable of Persistent WidowAnd this brings us to our scripture today, one of two parables in the gospel of Luke. Both are introduced as stories that undergird Jesus’ call to “always pray and not lose heart.” In this, the first parable, a widow – whose title alone would give those hearing the story the image of an outcast, a lowlife, one who is powerless – a widow petitions an “unjust” judge for justice for her petition, and so insistently so that she is granted her vindication. The persistence of the widow, in and of itself a bit of a surprise given how miniscule her authority and influence was in society, instigates a second astonishment in the positive ruling from a judge “who feared neither God nor people!”

Respected Disciples of Christ preacher and scholar, the Rev. Fred Craddock, urges us not to look at this parable alone, but in tandem with the parable that immediately follows in chapter 8. In it a Pharisee is contrasted with a tax collector, especially in the manner in which they pray. The tax collector approaches God with extreme humility and even self-effacement while the Pharisee offers prayers that are grandiose and arrogant. Craddock also reminds us not to make any of the characters in either parable one-dimensional or caricatures, reminding us that context and culture define us more than we may want to admit. The surprise Craddock uncovers is that while both parables are about vindication, the first illustrates the vindication of someone righteous, he says a “saint,” and the second exemplifies the vindication of someone who commonly is understood to be shady, or in his words “a sinner.” This both/and approach to God’s truth is absolutely something of which the gospel of Luke frequently brings to light!

CourageDoesNotAlwaysRoarOne of my all-time favorite quotes is by artist and author Mary Anne Radmacher “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”(1) Pastorally I understand this so deeply. Personally I understand this so passionately. And prayer is the common denominator to both. In prayer we must always be persistent but never presumptuous. In prayer we must always be passionate but never petty. Just as the widow pounds on the door to the unjust judge for her personal grievance, so the tax collector bows meekly before the divine with no thought of himself. Just as the widow seems completely oblivious to the general understanding of her place in society, so the tax collector remains painfully aware of what everyone thinks of him. Just as the widow takes what she deserves, so the tax collector gives up everything he has to God.

But both of my movie references, and my interpretation of both of these parables, might lead us to a false premise that the only actor in the drama of our faith that must be patient, persistent, and ready for surprises is we, ourselves. This could not be further from the truth. I believe God, the one in whose image we are created, is also eternally patient and ever eager to be surprised with delight.

Another scripture is one of my favorite stories of God’s surprising persistence, the story of the call of Samuel found in the Hebrew Scriptures in 1 Samuel 3:1-10. In this text the young boy Samuel is serving the elderly Eli, one of God’s prophets. In this delightful and dramatic account on three occasions while Samuel is sleeping, God comes to the boy quietly but persistently in a dream in the night, and calls him to sacred service. Upon hearing of this the older man urges the boy to not discount the divine voice, but to respond, “Yes, YHWH, I am listening.” Upon replying in this manner, God then proceeds to instruct Samuel on his mission in God’s name.

But the ultimate story of God’s surprising persistence dwells in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus we see God’s eternal patience with all of humanity, through the horrors of what we do to ourselves and each other in bloody wars fought and in ancient prejudices that make their terrible presence known in oppression, abuse, inequality, and murder. And, using the wonderful line from one of my favorite songs, “I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry” whose last verse reads “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.” The promise of resurrection, a gift of grace in the light of faith, remains as surprising to me today as the first time I learned of Jesus and his embodiment of God’s persistent love.

So, my beloved, God is a God of surprising persistence and persistent surprises. And as God is, so we are called to be also: tenacious in prayer and determined in our actions to overcome evil with good. Likewise, we are invited to be prepared to be surprised, for both the divine will is crafty and the human spirit is clever, and when those two things join together, who knows what kind of resurrections will be made manifest!

Amen.

(1) Find out more about Mary Anne at her website: http://www.maryanneradmacher.net

“While Shepherds Watched: The Bethlehem Shepherds” ~ December 21, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For December 21, 2014 ~ Advent 4 ~ Love

Micah 5:2-5a & Luke 2:8-12

“While Shepherds Watched: The Bethlehem Shepherds”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To see a video of this sermon, go online to: http://youtu.be/Or7tZrbMthM

 

Where do you find love? Well, this week this one is easy… especially when you ask dear friends and devoted colleagues for help. After bumbling through hope, scouring for peace, and begging for joy… love, the theme of the fourth Sunday of Advent, comes pouring forth.

 

Love is found when a dozen church faithful weather the blistering cold and slick sidewalks to photo 3-1take packages of hot chocolate, dog treats, bubbles, and holiday invitations out into the neighborhood door by door, both learning about the world in our backyard and showing a real presence in the midst of the people we serve.

 

photo 5Love is found when someone from the congregation, who isn’t currently serving as an Elder this year, still chooses to cook food and take it to a grieving member and spend hours sharing stories and tears and laughter and love.

 

Love is found when a teacher rushes to a hospital emergency room to be with a student from her school who has been shot and waits well into the wee hours of the morning anxiously and hopefully with a family in shock, even when that student was not in her class, and then grieves with the family and community when the news is shared that the young man has died.

 

photo 4Love is found when members of the congregation gather to make beautiful a sanctuary and a church building of which they have grown so fond, so that others can celebrate with us the beauty of the season, and when new and creative ideas about how to draw attention to this dynamic urban community of faith are offered and carried out, to bring light to the night and hope to the seeker.

 

Love is found when a delightful and diverse group of folks gather weekly for hours at a time to pour over musical scores, follow the lead of the section leader, and hone their vocal skills, and who laugh with and love each other like their lives depended upon it, in order to give glory to God and share the gift of music that has transformed their own lives and spiritual journeys.

 

Love is found when a devoted daughter and a committed partner visit their loved one day in and day out, no matter what health care institution she is staying in, and who oversees dozens and dozens of details for her care and medical needs even when there seems to be no hope in site.

 

Love is found when cards are written to dozens and dozens of folks related to this congregation, from longtime members who we haven’t seen in years, to folks we’ve just been missing for a while, to others who are ill or injured, to people who’ve just visited us recently… stacks of cards from youth group members and from individual deacons and from so many other caring individuals.

 

Love is found when a senior member of the congregation goes into hospice and visits come from young and old alike, cards are sent and calls are made, and his beloved family, his church buddies, and of course his girlfriend remain dedicated to caring for him, hearing his latest plans and schemes for the future, and praying for him madly, regardless of what the future may hold.

 

photo 1 Love is found when we gather to mourn the death of someone we loved so dearly while at the very same time celebrating the existence of one who’s life was well lived, whether it be through stories told and memories shared, or the magical mixture of mariachi music and organ playing!

 

Love is found when one of our hardest working members has to pull back in order to focus on her photo 3own health and healing, and so many people step forward to ensure the vital ministries of this congregation continue, from adding days to their regular work schedule to adding hours to their volunteer duties, to calling her to ensure her it will be done exactly – exactly as she planned!

photo 2

Love is found when my musician friends choose to again spend enormous time, energy, and passion to bring almost a hundred young people across the boundaries of city, county, and society to sing with our own choir and play music that unites us and shows the very best of what our world can be.

 

Love is found when people respond to the call to cook food or bake cookies, and hearts are poured into the task, love made real in stuffed cabbage, savory meatballs, pounds of shortbread, brownies, and chocolate chip cookies.

 

Love is everywhere my beloved congregation. And this list – culled only from the last month of this congregation’s life – doesn’t even begin to do justice to all the love that pours from this church, and from you as individuals serving God and caring for God’s people out in the world where you live and sleep and work and serve.

 

Here is the truth I’ve learned this Christmas: Christ came into our lives not so that hope would be easy, not so that peace would be plain and simple, not so that joy would be made obvious, and certainly not so that love would be cheap or common. Jesus Christ came into our world so that hope, peace, joy, and love would be made real: real in all their gritty, honest, day-in-and-day-out truth.

 

All too often I get waylaid by the glitz and glamour of the holiday traditions and begin to think that the faith that I follow should be as easy to find as the sentiment on a greeting card on the store shelf or the muzak playing in the mall. Faith is never that easy. However, faith is always simple… it just requires our all. Everything we are and all that we have. That’s why we celebrate the season with a savior who became one of us, lived and laughed, taught, listened, and healed, walked, prayed, and fell to his knees, loved and died just like one of us. If the shepherds of the faith taught us anything, it is that when God comes to us, life gets much more complicated, much more real, much more amazing, much more transforming. But we will have to watch for it!

 

Love is found when we stop looking for Christmas in a package, and simply begin to live it. Love made real in the acts of service, devotion, dedication, compassion, solidarity, and love you offer to one another, to the world around us, and to God. And for that love, I am eternally grateful.

 

Amen

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