Truth and Freedom

On Sunday, November 13, after the election of Donald Trump, I preached a sermon. That Sunday was a throwback Sunday using an old liturgy of The Plymouth Church in Framingham from 1910. I used the same scripture passage and sermon title as the Rev. Newcomb had 106 years prior.

The sermon generated a strong response. Read the story Church looks to heal after politics, faith collide in The Boston Globe on Christmas Day, 2016.

And explore Resources for further conversation and awakening. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016
Luke 8:23-47
We do not ignore the anguish of one part of the body for the comfort of another. We do not sacrifice one group for the security of another. Why do you think Jesus was willing to die? (Continue reading or listen to the audio.)

The sermon sparked controversy. 

A few people left during the sermon itself; some expressed their displeasure immediately following. I wrote the following that afternoon and sent the text to the whole congregation:

I prayed long and hard over my sermon this Sunday. After worship some of you expressed appreciation and others anger. Thank you. To all of you who care deeply enough to respond, I thank you. This is what I hoped for. This is waking up. Not that we would all agree; not that I or any of us will be perfect, but that we will take the events of each day with conviction and devotion and apply the wisdom of our faith. Not that we would avoid controversy or shame our opponents, but hold one another in love through difficult conversations.

With that in mind, I want to be clear: Every person in our church is a child of God. Every candidate on the ballot is a child of God. If you voted for Donald Trump or for Hillary Clinton, for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or wrote in your own candidate, you are a beloved child of God. And you have a voice in this conversation. I want you to know that I honor your vote and celebrate your presence in our church. All of you. Each and every one.

Whether you lean left or lean right or hold fiercely the middle, I love you. Whether you are rejoicing or dismayed or just not all that worried either way, I love you. Whether you agree or disagree with me or wish I'd said nothing at all, I love you.

Sermons by their nature and human architecture are not declarations of truth, but ongoing searches for God's Word. And we do that search best when we do it together.

I am eager to remain with you in the fellowship of our Lord. For those who missed the sermon, for those who did not hear all of it, for those wish to read it again more closely, I include the full text for you to read.

Then I went on Study Leave, briefly

From Governing Council

As congregationalists we believe that God is discerned by many voices joined in sacred conversation. A sermon or a children's message can never represent the fullness of God in our midst because they come only from one voice; they are monologue, not dialogue. This past Sunday's Sermon was challenging. Some of us felt unfairly singled out, and some of us felt supported.

Governing Council met for our regular monthly meeting on Monday night, and we spent much time in deep conversation and contemplation about Sunday's worship service and, in particular, the Sermon and Children's Message. As your Governing Council, we hold many different opinions and points of view. Our conversation was richer, and our discernment more true, because we were not of one mind. Our time in conversation was holy and caused us all to grow.

We think it is important that each of you also has the same opportunity to be heard, to reflect, to share your pain, and to express your joy. We have asked, and Greg has agreed, to return from study leave a day early to participate in a conversation this Sunday, November 20, following worship. Rev. Will Tanner will lead worship and will also join in the conversation. We will gather in the Parish Hall and reflect together on the sermon and children's message, so that we might all be heard, healed, and brought closer to God.

Please join us. Bring all your feelings. We need you and your voice at the table. Our view of the Holy One will be less without you. 

Yours in Christ,
The Governing Council of Plymouth Church
Al Rapoza, Moderator

And the church showed up.

On Sunday, November 20, over 60 people gathered after worship in the Parish Hall to discuss the previous week's worship. The dialogue was honest, open, direct, respectful, kind, and even joyful. Thank you! This is a glimpse of what we can accomplish when we come together at Christ's Table, claim our seat, and work toward building the kingdom of God.

That said, as good as Sunday was, if that's all we do, we won't have accomplished much. The lessons of our faith are not easily learned, nor their application to our public witness simple. We need each other. And we proved a willingness to stay together in the face of real and important disagreement and pain. The work is only beginning. For those who appreciated the sermon and children's message: did you leave the room with any better understanding of why others were so offended? Did those of you who were upset leave with a sense of why some are so scared? We need more conversations like these: full of honest dialogue and compassionate curiosity. We've proven ourselves capable to this important task. 

The discussion did offer some specific and pointed feedback. We also heard a call for more specific steps we can take as a congregation. That, too, will take some work to research and report back.

Advent is upon us - a season of waiting, a season of repentance, a season of expectation. We hope to see you in worship, at the Advent Spiral, Caroling, the Pageant, and on Christmas Eve where our worship services have been reshaped to invite you more fully into the quiet joy and mystery of God's incarnation.

What have I learned?

Many people called out the tone of my message, such as the use of the word “deplorable” to describe Mr. Trump and the lumping of all Trump supporters into a single… ugh… basket. I see it now. I am embarrassed now that such crude and incendiary language was not edited out. Of course there is as much diversity within the 62.9 million people who voted for Trump as there are in the 65.7 million people who voted for Clinton. And I promise to look closely at the reasons within my own heart that it was ever in the first draft.

For all the faults of my sermon — both its content and delivery — I believe there is still an important message that needs to be faced. We live in a divided country. And the cause of that division rests, at least in part, with white Christians. If not in our active promotion of division, then in not more aggressively making unity and compassion an urgent priority. Said another way: white Christians have the power to do this better in the future. And I count myself among the indicted, among the ready.

There were several specific responses that I found helpful for the future.

1. “It sounded like you wrote it Wednesday morning after the results came in. You should have written it on Friday afternoon.” And, in a similar vein:  “I don’t think anyone is faulting you both for being angry. I think they’re faulting you, however, with preaching angry.” One of the hallmark pieces of wisdom given to preachers reminds us to “preach from your scars, not your wounds.” When I speak from a place of unchecked, unexamined emotion, I fail to leave room for others who have differing experiences.

2. “Sermons are one-sided and do not give the congregation a chance to dialogue with the message.” It's not always possible to provide immediate space for church members to talk back, but whenever possible it should be an option. And the fact that listeners can't immediately dialogue with a controversial should give some caution to the preacher. Or at least humility.

3. “The Plymouth Church has been a place where people of different religious and political perspectives could worship and work side-by-side. Was this sermon advocating a change from that approach?" No. Quite the opposite, in fact.

[Our] differences matter. We are “one nation,” yes, but we are not. We are not one people. Our states may be united, but our tribes are not. And it’s killing us. 

When I preach, I need to be mindful of the many perspectives in the audience and the limited nature of the format. A sermon on a difficult topic should encourage pluralistic, open, curious dialogue not shut it down.

4. Careful when talking about they; use we instead.

5. It's important to remember the humanity of each person regardless of the pain inflicted by their actions. This is the hallmark wisdom of non-violent action. In a sermon, I need to be careful to differentiate between actions and human worth. We all wrestle in a complex world with choices that are rarely morally or ethically pure.

5. If anything, I am more hopeful and more convicted that, as the Body of Christ, we have both the obligation and the capacity to investigate our faith and our public life and bring the two into conversation. How does our faith inform our vote? What would Jesus do? And not just in terms of a candidate or a political platform, but every time there is a ballot question or a high-profile court case. What does it mean to enact our faith and put our theology into action?

Published in the The Messenger, December 2016

On Sunday, November 20, over 60 people gathered to discuss the prior week’s worship service.  I am humbled by and so profoundly grateful to those who spoke — especially those who offered criticism and rebuke. We proved that this church is capable of honest, holy conversation.

Not that we have yet, but that we can. We can share our positions and perspectives without fear of recrimination or ridicule. We can hold one another in genuine love and loyalty even when we disagree. 

Just a few weeks prior, Will and I asked you what the church might offer that we aren’t presently; and we asked you to name your concerns. We are still going over the responses, but we are already seeing themes emerge. We were looking for the “irresistible issue.” Might there also an unavoidable one?

How do we apply the lessons of our faith to our choices in the public domain? Could that be a collective discernment and not an individual one? Are any of us truly ready for our convictions to be questioned? If we are... how do we do that with genuine, honest love?

The most helpful critique of my sermon came in a couple of different forms. “It’s OK for you to be angry,” wrote one person. “It’s not OK for you to preach angry.” As preachers, we are taught to preach from our scars, not our wounds. In this, I veered off course, preaching an issue on which I’m not yet resolved. The truth is, though, I’m not angry; I’m scared.

While the Bible has plenty of examples of righteous anger, it is firmly against fear. (Isaiah 41:10, Proverbs 29:25, 2 Timothy 1:7, 1 John 4:18.) We are told “be not afraid,” not because everything will magically work out in the end. We are told “be not afraid,” so that we make sure it will. Faith demands that fear be set aside in favor of love. Because only in love can we achieve the kingdom.

I remain convinced and will continue to call out the politics of division as bad theology. But I must also and promise to examine and repent of my fear, for it too is a misunderstanding of the God who is coming to the most vulnerable place on earth. 

Posted to Facebook, December 16, 2016

In response to an article: Why We Can’t Be ‘Friends’ Any Longer After You Voted For Donald Trump. While I honor the experience of the author, I cannot agree with the conclusion.

If you would unfriend me for this, then we were never really friends. I am terrified of the world Trump is setting up. Every cabinet pick seems opposed to the very reasons their department exists. The real-life risks for women, people of color, veterans, lgtbq, and the poor. And now Palestinians. If you're horrified by Aleppo (you should be horrified), just think how much worse it will be when Trump allies himself with Putin? Real people are going to die. That's how I see it.

But, our relationship was never conditional on you being a good person or being right. (I sure hope it wasn't conditional upon my being a good person, because I mess up all the time.) If you voted for Trump, I still love you. You probably see things differently. And as passionately as I want you to see my side, I assume you want me to see your side. So I must be willing to see things differently.

This is the very first step I will take, the foundational commitment I make to bring nearer the kingdom of God. I will never say to another, "I have no need of you."