Following the God of Liberation

Preached by Rev.Kelly Jane Caesar on July 19, 2020

Would you raise your hand if you have heard of the “Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the [N.] Slaves, in the British West-India Islands.”?  

It was a “Slave Bible” published in 1807 by British Missionaries who went to the Caribbean to convert slaves to Christianity. The “Slave Bible” left out a good portion of the standard Bible – 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. Here is one story that was left out and I’ll let you guess what common thread governed the removal of 90% of the OT and 50% of the NT.  

[References:  https://www.history.com/news/slave-bible-redacted-old-testament 

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/09/674995075/slave-bible-from-the-1800s-omitted-key-passages-that-could-incite-rebellion]

SCRIPTURE READING: Exodus 1:8-22 [Slides 9-10]  

HYMN [Slides 11-13] 

Immediately after this scripture we hear the story of the mother of Moses,  

Let us sing it now along with the stories of two other mothers acting courageously for their child and nation. 

A Mother Lined a Basket  (Jerry sings verse 1; verse 2 repeat each phrase after Jerry; verse 3 sing together) (Liberated individuals: Jochebed, Hannah and Mary)  

(Jerry only)  

A mother lined a basket 
to keep her baby dry, 
then rocked him on a river, 
lest he awake and cry. 
She let a princess name him 
her son that he might live. 
God’s people had a leader. 
She had such hope to give. 
(Repeat each phrase after Jerry)  

A mother sewed a jacket, 
lined in the softest wool, 
then dressed her little boy-child, 
her cup of blessing full. 
She brought him to the temple 
where he would serve and live. 
God’s people had a prophet. 
She had such faith to give. 

(All together) 

A mother laid her baby 
in manger lined with straw; 
then, in the shepherds’ story, 
his call from God foresaw. 
She nurtured him and taught him 
the way that he must live. 
God’s people had a savior. 
She had such love to give. 

SERMON  

The story of the midwives Pam read, the story of Moses being placed in the basket and lifted out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter we just sang are parts of what was omitted in the “Slave Bible”. Can anyone guess the common thread that removed 90% of the OT and 50% of the NT for the “Slave Bible”? 

Anything that could incite rebellion of the oppressed and enslaved people of color.  

This tells us that a HUGE overarching theme to the Bible – the whole Bible – it is that God stands with those on the margins – not only stands with, but actively works with and for the liberation of the oppressed.  Just now we sang about three such mothers and sons whom the God of Liberation works with to bring about freedom and justice for many.   

We see the God of Liberation in the story of the Exodus  

God delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt  

and bringing them to the Promised Land. 

We see the God of Liberation in the prophets of ancient Israel, 

Constantly calling for the people to care for the widows, the orphans, the refugees, the strangers, those down and out.  

We see the God of Liberation in Jesus preaching release of the captives, food for the hungry, and healing for the outcast. 

We see the God of Liberation in Jesus the Christ, crucified on a cross by state-sanction powers, 

But resurrected by the God of Liberation to prove that love overcomes hate – 

Even state-sanctioned hate.  

It is no surprise then that many slaveholders in the Caribbean and the United States sought to limit the exposure of slaves to the Bible. They might start to believe the God of liberation was on their side.  

As we consider how to follow the God of Liberation today in our everyday lives, a deeper look at how the Holy has worked through history from the biblical exodus to today will help us to see our place in the story today.  

On Tuesday night at the Ministry for Racial Justice Meeting, guest speaker and innovative principal and educator, Rodney Powell, spoke about racism as a system of power that privileges whites over people of color. Racism is not just bias or dislike of another group, but the system of power that oppresses people of color. So, we see this system of power at work when… 

Slaveholders would hire preachers to preach a specific message to the slaves – obey your master, do not steal, etc. No mention of Exodus or liberation or a God who works with the oppressed to overturn injustice was preached by the slaveholding preacher. 

In order to keep slaves from reading the whole Bible, laws across slave states in the union were enacted to forbid the education of slaves. Slaveholders would cut off fingers and toes of slaves caught reading or writing. 

An example of such a law is the 1833 Alabama law asserting that “any person or persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall upon conviction thereof of indictment be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars.” (The fine would be the equivalent of about $7,600 in today’s dollars.) [Citation] Not just dislike of another, but laws and structures to hold people of color down,  

Those in places of power and privilege feared that literate slaves would write their own travel passes or, worse, organize a rebellion.  

[References: https://www.history.com/news/nat-turner-rebellion-literacy-slavery and https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-33/secret-religion-of-slaves.html]  

The fear of rebellion was real because it had already happened.  

The Haitian Rebellion had succeeded in overthrowing French colonial control and abolishing slavery, allowing for Haiti to be formed in 1804. It was so successful that it depleted France, making Napoleon eager to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States in order to fund his military pursuits in Europe. [Citation] The Haitian Rebellion also put US slaveholders on alert: the oppressed had succeeded in overthrowing their captors. Their fears materialized in the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 in Virginia which left 55 blacks killed and 55 whites killed. [Citation] 

In the wake of these rebellions strict laws were passed to further suppress slaves, restricting their ability to read and write was first and foremost.  

This cycle of increased oppression after resistance was not new and continues today. 

In the Bible, the death sentence laid on Hebrew boys in Exodus came out of fear of the growing numbers of Hebrews in Egypt. Fear of the power of the “other”. 

In this century, many social scientists point to an increase in overt racist attacks and slander as a “backlash” against the first African-American president in the USA. [Citation] When an oppressed people rise in power and honor, those who benefited from the exclusive hold of power can grow fearful. Sadly, insecure people can see the equality of others as a threat and seek ways to suppress through scare tactics, unjust laws, and limiting truth.  

The attempt to limit truth has not gone away either.  

While the “Slave Bible” is no longer in circulation and very few copies still exist, 

The attempt to edit out stories of resistance and sanitize scripture continues. 

  • Many churches stay out of “politics” and limit religion to the personal, spiritual realm, even though the Bible speaks of God acting in history, in community, in concrete, material ways that impact the social structures and economic realities of people, in particular people on the margins.  
  • Children’s Books feature a plethora of white, often male, characters leading the way. In fact, in 2018, 50% of children’s books featured white characters, 27% animals and 10% black characters. Asians and Native Americans even less. [Citation] Teachers and parents must be conscious and intentional in choosing books that feature a variety of main characters. [Some options here
  • West Hartford elementary school required the students to do a report on an important person in Connecticut history. Of the list of people to choose from, none were people of color and there were very few women. When a colleague of mine inquired about this, the teacher said they simply did not have children books of important people of color in Connecticut history.  
  • This is harmful on multiple levels – children of color fail to see people from their culture and background lifted up as heroes or important. The history that is shared all too often is one in which African were slaves. Period. This is also harmful to white children who, when it comes to history of racism, only see whites as the evil slaveholders. When resistance to racial injustice only shows whites as bad, white children grow up to avoid conversation on racism out of fear of being seen as evil or bad. Avoiding the conversation doesn’t make them good nor does it do anything to help racial justice along.  

Imagine the liberation that can be had if children and adults learned more about the resistance both blacks and whites took to overcome slavery and racism through the centuries. Children of color see themselves as strong and brave. White children see that they can have a place of love and compassion in the fight for racial equity. All are inspired to act for justice and real, deep, everlasting peace.  

To reach such a place of peace requires us first to stop and acknowledge the sin of racism and oppression of the past and its echoes today. So let us take a moment to pause and confess the ways racism and oppression continue to infect our world near and far.  

TIME OF CONFESSION 

UNISON PRAYER OF CONFESSION [Slide 14] 

Pastor: God of all our ancestors,  

PAM: we are truly broken by the sins of the past and present, sins personal and political, sins we have personally committed, sins we watched happen, and sins we passed on.  Grant us faith enough to remove racism and all forms of oppression from this world.  

Pastor: May each one be free to worship you. May each one be free to love with a whole heart. May each one know the peace that is found in you.  

SILENT CONFESSION 

SUNG RESPONSE: “Know Justice, Know Peace” [Slide 15] 

Sung Response (composed and sung by Jerry)  

No justice, no peace,  

Know justice, know peace.  

No Jesus, no peace,  

Know Jesus, know peace. 

WORDS OF ASSURANCE/SERMON CONCLUSION 

After the confession I usually offer words of assurance and indeed I will, for there is hope. Indeed, at least 90% of the OT and 50% of the NT offers hope for liberation and freedom from systems of oppression that harm everyone.  

Today’s story is just one of many. The story from Exodus today points to the ingenuity of the midwives in resisting Pharaoh’s unjust laws. The midwives could be Hebrew themselves or Egyptians serving the Hebrews – the text is ambiguous and allows us to wonder. The very next story in Exodus lifts up Pharaoh’s daughter blatant resistance of Pharaohs’ edict to kill the baby boys and Moses’s mother and sister great courage to act for life. Later in Exodus 3:21 we read of Egyptian women giving the Hebrew women goods before they flee from slavery. We see that liberation in Exodus was not only through the hands of Moses or even the plagues issued by God. Liberation was enacting by a number of women working together across class and ethnic divisions to literally save lives and provide concrete resources for new lives in freedom. [Lapsley & Fentress-Williams] 

As Pharaoh failed to suppress the Israelites, slaveholders failed to suppress Africans. Despite the efforts of slaveholders, the sacred story of the God of liberation was known to the African slaves and sympathetic whites. The God of Liberation cannot be tied down, edited out, crucified or ignored.  

The God of Liberation inspired whites to provide places of safety and blacks to risk their lives on the Underground railroad, sometimes led by the famous Harriet Tubman – not coincidentally dubbed “Moses” by her community.  

The God of Liberation fueled the building of schools for black children after the Emancipation Proclamation. Schools taught by whites who sought liberation instead of subjugation of black children and black teachers who had risked their lives to learn when it was illegal. [Citation] 

The God of Liberation delighted in the centrality of Black Churches during reconstruction and the civil rights era of the 1960s, providing space for leadership and self-governance long before white society was, “ready”. The prophetic leadership continues today in Hartford as clergy of the historically black African Methodist Episcopal church across the state speak out with wisdom and prophetic clarity on the need for police reform – not defunding, but a refocus that weeds out racial injustice and offers liberation. They call for all departments to do what East Hartford police have done for years or are beginning to do now. [citation] 

The God of Liberation inspired my colleague in West Hartford to organize the writing of children’s books of black and female CT historical figures so children could learn a fuller picture of history.  

The God of Liberation shined with love on a little lemonade stand set up to raise money to buy more racial equity and diversity book for public schools in Farmington. The lemonade stand set up in front of a fellow UCC church raised over $3,000. [Citation] 

The God of Liberation has worked throughout history and still today.  

As people of the Bible we are followers of the God of Liberation. We all have a part to play in the story. Whether you were born into privilege as Pharaoh’s daughter or born into a system of oppression like Moses’ mother or born somewhere in between like the midwives, you have a holy part to play in God’s story of liberation and equity.  

On Tuesday night at the Ministry for Racial Justice meeting, Guest Speaker and innovative principal and educator, Rodney Powell said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that people can choose to be “white” – they can choose to take on the role of oppressor and continue the legacy of racism – this, I argue, is the default that those born with light skin will unconsciously do – unless they, we, consciously choose differently. The Good News is that we can choose differently. The midwives could have followed Pharaoh, but they “feared God” more. That word fear in this context means awe or wonder. [Nowell] 

May we be so in awe of God, so in awe of God’s liberation, so in awe of God’s goodness, so in awe of God’s creation, that we resist the systems of power that place people of color as less. May we be so in awe of the God of Liberation that we resist systems of power by reading and sharing stories of people of color and whites who worked courageously for equity and justice in times past and today. May we be so in awe of the God of Liberation that we resist racism and oppression in our world by working together – as the women in exodus do – to bring about the liberation of all of God’s beloved people. Amen.  

[Theological References: 

Fentress-Williams, Judy. “Exodus”. The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora. Hugh Page Ed. Fortress Press. 2010.  

Lapsley, Jacqueline E. “Saving Women”. Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament. Westminster John Knox Press. 2005. 

Nowell, Irene. “Women of Israel’s Passover”. Women in the Old Testament. The Liturgical Press. 1997.] 

Right Sacrifice

A Special Sermon for GLBT Pride Sunday

June 28, 2020

by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar

For a rainbow to be beautiful requires each strip to only take up so much space. If any one color takes over, well then, it is no longer a rainbow. As a people we create a rainbow that requires that each person sacrifice so that all can be blessed to be a part. I invite you this morning to consider how much space and time your color takes up. Do people hardly see the color you add? (hold up tiny balloon) If so, how might you share your gifts and experiences more boldly? Or, does your color dominate so that others are overtaken? (hold up huge balloon) If so, how might you step back and invite others to shine? 

To maintain a stunning rainbow community requires sacrifice. Perhaps you are called to sacrifice shyness or fear in order to bring your color to the mix. Perhaps you are called to sacrifice pride or control in order to makes space for other colors to shine.   

Our scripture this morning calls for a great sacrifice in order for the nations to be blessed. Today’s story can help us discern what and how to make right sacrifices in our own lives.  

Today’s story asks for the sacrifice of Isaac, the much-awaited promised son of Sarah, a son whom would continue Abraham’s name and bless the world with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Let us listen, for this story has an important message for us today as we discern the sacrifices we are called to make.  

SCRIPTURE Genesis 22:1-14 

God asks a great sacrifice of Abraham: his long awaited-for son Isaac. Why would God ask for such a sacrifice? More importantly, how could a loving God demand such a traumatizing act? What sort of test is this that Abraham somehow succeeds because he is willing to follow through and kill his son? 

The answer to these questions can help us discern what sacrifices are required of us in our lives today. So, how could a loving God command such a devastating sacrifice? 

Traditionally the answer is that God wants to know if Abraham trusts that God will provide. The text indicates that both Abraham and Isaac have such trust.  

In verse 5, Abraham tells his servants that we, himself and Isaac, will return from the mountain after the sacrifice – indicating that Abraham trusted God to provide.  

 This is confirmed a few verses later when Isaac asks where the sacrificial animal is, and Abraham responds that God will provide. The fact that Isaac asks shows he is old enough to know some of what is going on.  

The text does not indicate that Isaac struggles when being tied down on the wood. This leads many biblical interpretations to believe Isaac was willing and trusting in the sacrifice.  

The popular interpretation is that God asks for such a sacrifice because God wants to know that Abraham trusts in God.  

When considering whether a sacrifice is right in our lives, we can examine if our hesitancy is a lack of trust or something else. Are we scared to take the step because we do not believe God will work for our good? Are we scared to take the step because we do not trust God loves us?  

Sometimes people stay in unhealthy or harmful relationship, mistakenly believing they are making a right sacrifice, but in reality, on some level they do not trust that God loves them and that they are worthy enough of love to leave for something better.   

Sometimes people say yes to too many demands, thinking that the sacrifice of their time is good – yet too often saying yes to every request can actually be a sign of distrust and fear that one is only lovable because of what one does for others.  

Right sacrifices are made in the full trust of God’s love, not out of fear or guilt.  

The second lesson this scripture teaches us about sacrifice has to do with the outcome and the way this story is echoed through holy time. The command to sacrifice Isaac is a HUGE trust fall for Abraham and Isaac. Seeing the trust is there, God proceeds with the promise to use them to bless the nations.   

This story of unfathomable trust, sacrifice and God providing reverberates through history.  

In the artwork of Marc Chagall you can see how the sacrifice of Isaac is echoed through both the story of Hagar and Ishmael and Jesus on the cross.  

Hagar and Ishmael are sacrificed into the wilderness and likely death only a few chapters earlier. In that story, as we heard last week, God provides. So in Chagall’s painting in the lower left there is a woman crying out as Hagar did.  

Thousands of years after Abraham, Jesus will trust and become a sacrifice so that God can provide proof that God’s love and power overcome death. Isaac’s apparent obedience echoes in the obedience and trust God’s own son Jesus would exhibit in the garden of Gethsemane and by going to the cross.  This popular Christian interpretation is depicted in Jesus carrying the cross in the upper right corner of Chagall’s painting.  

In all three cases the great sacrifice and great provision of the Divine enables widespread blessing for countless people. For Ishmael, he becomes the patriarch of Islam. For Abraham and Isaac, the patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity. For Jesus, the salvation of all people; the lived proof of God’s everlasting love for all. [KJ] 

Yet, the command for such a gruesome sacrifice can seem cruel, unnecessary and beyond comprehension to our modern ears – especially in light of the trauma inflicted on too many victims of domestic or child abuse in the false name of sacrificial love.  

However, there are times when we make great sacrifices for a greater love and lasting righteousness. Sons and daughters go off to war to fight atrocious dictatorships – risking their lives for a lasting peace. Children marched with Rev. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement and just last weekend children, teens and young adults lead the way in Hartford, East Hartford, and West Hartford and indeed across the nation for racial justice – in each case risking their lives for true peace and equity. During our prelude we saw images of many people who made great sacrifices for the advancement of GLBT rights in America – some even murdered for their advocacy. 

We do makes sacrifices, even life-threatening sacrifices, in the hope of “blessing the nations”, to use the language of the promise given Abraham. In the case of Abraham, Isaac, Jesus and disciples of social justice after them, the sacrifice is right for it is made for love for a great many people over generations. When we consider what sacrifices we ought to make in our own lives, we must consider if our actions will aid in the blessing of nations, generations, or many beyond ourselves.   

Great change, especially social change, is often born out of sacrifice. There are the heroes – the people on the front lines working for change. But widespread social change requires the majority of society to make some sacrifice as well, perhaps not life-risking sacrifice, but certainly a release of what wasFor some it is a welcome and desired sacrifice, perhaps more of a willing release than a sacrifice. However, for others it is a heart-wrenching sacrifice, especially for those who benefit from the way things are. Either way requires a loss of what was, the familiar, and a learning of something new.  

The GLBT community has invited the wider society to sacrifice strict gender roles and re-think cultural expectations. When two women go out on a first date, there is no wide-spread social expectation on who pays. When two men raise a child together, there is no wide-spread social expectation on who, quote, “brings home the bacon.” Transgender people have challenged the idea of that physical bodies determine gender. Intersex people challenge the binary male/female divide.  

This disruption of strict gender roles is cause for celebration and a gift the GLBT community has given to the wider society, but even good changes that are ultimately blessings require sacrifice. 

When laws and policies support GLBT persons – whether by prohibiting workplace discrimination or making it illegal for a doctor to deny coverage to a transgender person – it forces society to sacrifice the strict gender roles and expectations and instead accept a broader rainbow of possibilities. A sacrifice, perhaps, for those with fond memories of dressing their daughters up in dresses. On the other hand, a welcome freedom to those daughters who hated wearing dresses. Disrupting strict gender roles and expectations liberates people to pursue passions and interests they naturally have, instead of what society forces upon them – allowing for more fulfilling lives.  

On an even deeper level, letting go of strict gender roles and expectations allows for healthier individuals and more fruitful relationships. Men can cry and have emotions and exhibit strength in compassion for others instead of dominance. Such men are far better partners, leaders, and parents – but to do so such men will have to sacrifice the stereotypical image of a strong man. Women can finish a sentence, be heard in the board room, and even get angry without be dismissed or demeaned. In such situations the group benefits from an important perspective – but the men in the room must sacrifice their privilege of being the first and last to speak and the women must sacrifice the accolades of following stereotypical gender norms. When such sacrifices are made, relationships in offices and at home become more egalitarian and embracive of the whole person.  

The sacrifice of strict gender roles bestows blessings upon the nation as we all – gay, straight, male, female, and everything in between- become free to be who God made, to express ourselves fully and be heard, to be seen and loved as we are or may become. But it requires society to change and sacrifice what was.  

Much change has already occurred as we celebrate the legalization of marriage unrestricted by gender and new anti-discrimination laws affirmed by the supreme court. Much change continues to be needed as transgender people face a disproportionate amount of violence and hate, with at least 27 murders in 2019, majority of whom were black transgender women. Workplaces may not be able to discriminate in hiring, but they can still write parental leave policies that leave two dads in a tough place to figure out how to care for their newborn.   

What if we could trust as Abraham and Isaac, that God will provide a better way? Could we trust enough to really let go of strict gender roles? Could we trust enough to speak up, especially when silence feels more comfortable? Could we trust enough to listen and step back to allow space for others to contribute?  

When confronted with decisions about what, when and how to sacrifice, we see from our scriptures that  

Right Sacrifices are made in deep trust in God’s love, not fear or guilt.  

Right Sacrifice are made for the blessing of nations,  

for the expansion of God’s love in the world.  

Sacrifices are necessary for change – personally and socially. 

Sacrifices are part of the work of social justice and making the world better.  

When we make such sacrifices,  

we indeed become a blessing to the nations and spread God’s love.   

May we trust God enough to make right sacrifices that advance the reign of God’s love for all.  Amen. 

Hagar and the God who Sees

Intro to Genesis 16:1-16

Last week we celebrated the incredible blessings of the Triune God – 

Even through disbelief and laughter,  

a child is born to Sarah and Abraham when they are far past child-bearing years.  

Like so many blessings,  

there is a shadow side to the blessing of Sarah and Abraham having a child in old age. 

In the story of Hagar we find a God who acts in the midst of injustice, 

Who meets us in our most challenging moments,  

And calls us to see anew.  

Today we delve into the story of Hagar, 

The mother of Ishmael, who would become a great nation. 

This story is also in the Muslim Koran,  

Although a bit different for Hagar and Ishmael are not side-stories in Islam, 

But matriarch and patriarch of the Islamic tradition.  

Let us listen to the Jewish and Christian version.   

Genesis 16:1-6a 

The blessing promised to Sarah and Abraham was so unbelievable  

that before the promise is fulfilled, 

they take matters into their own hands, 

And force Sarah’s slave to lay with Abraham. 

They are not the first to violate and force a person. 

Slavery was widespread in the ancient world. 

There were no social services or safety nets like today. 

So, if one slipped into poverty – 

Which was easy to do if there was a drought or war – 

One had little recourse but to sell themselves or their children. 

In ancient Israel there were laws that freed slaves every six years; 

In the Hammurabi Code the release of slaves was dictated after three years. 

It is not certain that the laws were followed, but that was the legal intention. 

The practice of men raping their female slaves was common, 

In ancient times and in this country.  

Although in the story of Hagar we see that she was made a wife – 

Which afforded her, in theory, more respect and honor.  

Once she has conceived, her position increases even more – 

For women’s primary role in the ancient world was to bear children. 

Now that she has been, supposedly lifted up,  

not equal to Sarah, but presumably more status than before,  

Hagar sees differently – 

She looks upon her mistress differently – 

The NRSV translates the phrase “contempt” 

However, a more accurate translation would be “slight”  

Sarah is dismissed in Hagar’s eyes. 

Perhaps because Hagar sees herself as worthy. 

Perhaps because Hagar is disgusted by Sarah’s actions.  

Sarah cannot tolerate Hagar’s new status and new view of her, 

So she afflicts her – in Hebrew it is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians afflict the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. 

Like many who are in places of privilege or power,  

When those with less rise,  

Those who benefit from higher status freak out and desperately seek to regain control – 

Either by condemning freedom tactics of the oppressed  

or enlisting new laws or policies to keep oppressed people down.  

Sarah, like many of privilege before and after her,  

chooses new harsh tactics to keep down Hagar 

and preserve her own status.  

However, those who believe in freedom will not rest – 

They are resilient and strong and rise up.  

Let us hear now how Hagar confronts the affliction brought upon her.  

Genesis 16: 6b – 16 [Slide 7 & Lay Leader] 

Hagar flees and God sees.  

God sees those cast aside, those in the midst of trouble.  

Hagar is the first person in the Bible to name God – 

The Hebrew “El-Roi” translates, “the God who sees” 

Indeed God sees –  

Like the best sort of Father or parent, God sees and protects his beloved.  

God saw the Israelites in bondage in Egypt and brings them to freedom. 

God in Jesus Christ sees the Samaritan woman at the well. He does not look upon her as an object, but sees her as a whole being. He talks with her – a sign of respect not usually afforded to a Samaritan woman whom Jews at the time regarded as other and less than. Jesus sees her and in doing so opens her eyes to see the Messiah. 

Lest we think God is the only one who needs to see, in Matthew 25 Jesus calls his disciples to see the the hungry and give food, to see the stranger and offer hospitality, to see the naked and bring clothes, to see the sick and bring healing, to see the prisoner and visit. To see.  

Seeing is a foundational piece of God’s call towards justice/God’s reign/to loving one another because to see first acknowledges the humanity of another – that another is indeed made in the image of God, as we read in the very first chapter of the Bible. To see is to give respect, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman at the well. To see is to have a clue as to how to love. We can’t heal the sick without first seeing the sickness. We can’t welcome the stranger we refuse to see. We can’t dismantle racism if we don’t believe it is in our world and in our own minds. To see gives us a clue as to how to love.  

Seeing is especially important for white people eager to jump into social justice work with what is commonly called a “white savior complex” – that “I can make it all better because I’m the hero” attitude makes racial justice work about lifting white people up, when, in fact, there are strong, resilient people of color who have a far better understanding of what is needed. So, to my white siblings, and anyone with privilege in our society, may we first see, instead of attempting to take the lead or correcting the experience of another.  

For people of color, and anyone who has suffered oppression, when the world turns away, know that God sees and will stand by you in the fight for justice. For those with the privilege to look away, do not look away, do not discredit, do not dismiss, but see the injustice rampant in the United States and in the world. Read. Watch. Learn. See. For white women or white people who may be oppressed for reasons other than the color of your skin, let us not use other forms of oppression as an excuse to look away, discredit, or minimize the plague of racism.  

What do you notice about these pictures of Hagar and Sarah?  

Sarah is white and Hagar is black.  

If you google search pictures of Hagar and Sarah, often Sarah is depicted as white and Hagar as black. Historically this does not make sense since both women lived in the same general region.  Sarah most certainly did not look like a white European. Yet, whites are accustomed to seeing themselves as “owners” of black and brown people, whether consciously or unconsciously. Furthermore, Europeans and white Americans view Sarah and Abraham as their ancestors and so depict these ancestors to look like themselves. So artwork by whites often continues this conscious or unconscious historically flawed racial depiction of Hagar and Sarah. And still, Sarah acts as many white women have over the centuries – scared by sexist pressures to have children she inflicts harm upon another woman she has deemed less than. Amy Cooper using the threat of police on a black man in Central Park is a prime example. Allowing one oppression to fuel another only divides us further.  The outcome is not kind. The outcome is terror and harm barely redeemed by God.  

So we hear the next part of Hagar’s story.  

Genesis 21:8 – 14a 

Abraham is not a stellar father here, nor a loving husband – the text does not even name Hagar in this chapter as Abraham’s wife.  

This scripture reminds us that human fathers are still human – fallible and far from perfect.  

This scripture reminds us not to worship human fathers or patriarchs,  

Even if they have done both good and evil, 

For humans are not God.  

While human fathers and husbands, and we can include mothers, wives, mentors and parents, may fail,  

We can count on God to see and hear our authentic cries.  

Let us see the last portion of Hagar’s story as told in our Christian scriptures.  

Genesis 21:14b – 21 

While Sarah and Abraham have afflicted pain and neglected their responsibilities, 

God steps in to save and redeem Hagar and Ishmael.  

When oppression and injustices bear down, 

We can find hope in the God who sees and saves. 

As God opened Hagar’s eyes to the well of water and life, 

God helps us to see hope and possibilities in our lives. 

God helps us see a way out of no way. 

God helps us see tools for justice, tools for blessing, tools for life.  

Sight comes when we take time to look around. 

Sight comes when we are humble enough to cry. 

Sight comes when we open our hearts in prayer.  

When we feel exiled,  

May we trust God sees and will help us to see. 

When we feel powerful or in control, 

May we see the Hagars supposedly under our control. 

When the weight of the world bears down, 

May we cry out and trust that we will be heard. 

When injustices tear apart families and community, 

May we trust that God sees and will redeem.  

May we see and be seen.  

Amen.  

Power of God and Humanity

Sermon on June 14, 2020

by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar 

Last week we talked about God as a gardener, nurturing a diverse creation, and creating us, humanity with our first call to nurture diversity in creation. Today we look at the power we have to answer God’s call.  

We all have power. God is gracious enough to share. 

 How we use our power matters. 

Today’s story, Genesis 18 and 21, another foundational story of our faith. It reveals a lot about God’s power and our own relationship with power. 

At a time when we may feel powerless, 

Whether we feel powerless in the face of: 

  • The novel Covid virus of which we don’t have a treatment or a vaccine. 
  • Centuries of racism in our country continuing to kill black and brown people 
  • Transgender rights and protections being rolled back 
  • Economic insecurity 
  • Illness or grief in our personal lives.  

At times when we may feel powerless,  

Understanding our power and God’s power is vital to living and moving forward as God’s people 

The first and perhaps most obvious truth we see in this scripture is that God is powerful and we are not God.  

God gives Sarah a child in her old age, even though Sarah laughs in disbelief. For the record, Abraham expressed his own disbelief just a few chapters prior. Even though they did not believe or even fully trust God, the Divine still acts for their good.  

This story counters the popular theology of “bad happened because I did not believe enough.” Too often a bad thing happens and we blame ourselves or others for not having enough faith…my loved one would not have died if I had prayed more…I didn’t get the job because I didn’t trust God enough.  

God’s action in the story of Abraham and Sarah shows the opposite: 

We do not have such power that our thoughts can dictate the universe.  

stepping on a crack does not break your mother’s back, 

And doubting God does not prevent goodness. 

After all, even when we do it all right, there is suffering and injustice. 

A man, Ahmaud Arbery, goes for a jog and is shot. 

A woman, Breonna Taylor, is asleep at home and is killed.  

A woman goes on a date and is raped instead.  

Suffering happens to the innocent. 

The sins of racism and sexism have injured millions for centuries, 

Not because of the thoughts or actions of black people or women.  

Clearly we do not have the absolute power of God.  

We are individual humans. 

Our innocent actions are not shields to unjust suffering.  

Our disbelief and doubts are not obstacles to God’s blessings. 

It is important to remember that we do not have the absolute power of God- 

Otherwise we may blame ourselves for suffering that is outside our control.  

Numerous stories in our sacred text go to great lengths to point out that humans are not all-powerful. 

God has a habit of working miracles when it is clear that it is God and not humanity at work.  

Sarah bearing a child at 100 years old. Rachel bearing a child after years of barrenness.  

In the great Exodus from Egypt God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that the people were not freed the first time Moses demands, but after great plagues took over the Egyptians. The exodus took place after many plagues in order for the power of God to be known and the people would not take credit themselves.  

These sacred stories show us that God has great power and we are not God; we do not have the power to change the course of stars or individually dictate what will be.  

However, just because we are not God does not mean we are powerless.  

 Alongside the mighty God of miraculous power, we also have a decidedly relational God who practices power with. 

In this story of angels visiting Abraham with a prophecy of Isaac’s birth, we see that God’s Power is Relational. 

The visitors who come to Abraham’s tent are at times called angels, other times called Lord – a name for God. The pronouns in this text jump back and forth between singular and plural, sometimes in the same sentence.  

Some say this is because one of the three is the Lord God and the other two are angels. Some point to different writers of the Bible. 

For many centuries Christians have seen the three visitors as the Holy Trinity: 

The three in one: Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.  

Thus the use of both plural and singular pronouns.  

The belief that the Trinity visited Abraham is so widespread, that an Russian icon from the 1400s depicts the scene as such. 

(Show picture of Trinity) 

Andrei Rublev painted this famous icon in the 15th century. 

On the far left is God the Father or Creator. 

In the middle is Jesus – his robe blue for divinity and brown for humanity,  

Signaling his position as fully human and fully divine. 

Notice how his hand reaches for the cup, symbol of sacrifice. 

The tree behind him is both the tree Abraham was sitting under, 

And also echoed the tree of Christ’s sacrificial crucifixion.  

On the right is the Holy Spirit – robe of blue for divinity and green for spiritual growth, shown in front of a mountain symbolizing spiritual growth. 

Together the three form a nearly perfect circle in 2D. 

As I spoke about last week, the Triune God is unity in diversity. 

In other words, the Triune God is inherently relational, 

 for God is the relation of three persons as one.  

God practices relational power within God’s self.  

God not only practices relational power in God’s self, between creator,Christ and Holy Spirit, but 

God also practices relational power with us.  

 Notice how the icon leaves space at the table for the viewer to draw near. 

There is literally space at the table for us to join the conversation.  

This makes sense because following today’s scripture the Lord invites Abraham into the Divine conversation among the Trinity. They discuss the fate of the city of Sodom and how many righteous people could save the city. The Lord listens to Abraham, Abraham is part of the conversation – although God certainly has the final word.  

This is representative of how God uses power and our human power – 

We have power, we have power to be in conversation, 

But we do not have the power to dictate or dominate. 

God models for us how to use power – 

God’s power is relational, shared equally among the three persons on the trinity. 

What’s more is God shares some power with us – 

We call it free will. 

God decisively releases power in order to be in relationship with us.  

After all, forced love, forced obedience is not love nor respect.  

 We have power to make decisions, to act, to think and even argue with God. 

It is power with; not power over.  

It is a Relational power, not power in domination.  

Let’s look at an example of how to live out this Divinely-inspired and given relational power.  

You can apply the concept of relational power in nearly every personal situation or societal issue.   

Our community, our nation, indeed our world, is crying out for racial justice. 

So let look at how to use our relational power for racial justice.  

How do we exercise power with? 

Again, our scripture provides inspiration: 

Abraham’s hospitality is a model;  

he runs to give good food and rest to the visitors. 

As Abraham literally gave material goods,  

we too can exercise power with by giving of concrete resources.  

If we want to use our power for racial justice,  

we can literally give our resources to the cause. 

This may mean making a donation to an organization working for racial justice – Color of Change, Moral Mondays, Equal Justice Initiative. 

It can also mean buying from businesses and corporations that promote racial equity or seeking out black-owned businesses to counter centuries of discrimination against black businesses.  

After Abraham has shared his material resources, he steps aside so his guests can eat in the shade. However, the Lord continues to talk to Abraham – so Abraham doesn’t retreat into the tent, he is still present, but has simply made space for the guests.  

Exercising “power with” involves making space for others. God does this with us and we see Abraham doing the same in order that they may share in a dialogue.  

In the situation of racial justice making space means taking an honest look at how much space you take up in conversations. Often in multi-racial settings the voices of black and brown people are cut off or pushed to the side. To exercise power with necessarily requires listening to others and also speaking.  

Exercising power with not only involves sharing space in conversations, it also involves sharing physical space. There is a long history of white people overseeing or “protecting” “their” space – starting with Europeans overtaking the lands of black and brown people around the globe, continuing through self-proclaimed watchdogs, which we saw on full display in both the Amy Cooper incident and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. White people taking it upon themselves to “protect” “their space”. In both cases we see white people using power over.  

In contrast, we see Abraham practicing hospitality, welcome and the sharing of space. “Power with” looks like an equal sharing of physical space.  

Notice in the picture of the Trinity, the persons are united, yet distinct. When practicing power with we do not need to eliminate the differences. The Triune God is so powerful precisely because the distinct attributes of God help each other out. God the Father lifts Jesus from the depths of hell into the resurrection. The Holy Spirit breathes over the water and into humanity, dancing with the Creator at the time of creation. Jesus as the incarnation of the Divine is our bridge to the holy. Three distinct, yet intimately connected parts of a whole God. The differences matter.  

So when practicing power with, we ought not to wash away the differences. Rather, we need to honor and commemorate the unique gifts and place of others. This is why “being colorblind” is not a virtue. To say you are “colorblind” is to ignore the very different experiences people have in the world.  

To practice power with is not easy, especially if you are accustomed to having power over.  

However, when we exercise power with, new life emerges. 

In our scripture story, Isaac is born – literally new life. 

Jesus is resurrected through the power of the Trinity – an inherently relational God. There are many depictions in art of God the Father lifting Jesus up from the cross, surrounded by the Holy Spirit.   

Today when we exercise power with, new life emerges as well. 

When diverse groups organize and have conversations together,  

new laws, new understandings,  

and ultimately new life is found. 

On the last slide you will see such an example –  

It was also on the front page of the Hartford Courant on Saturday.  

It is a photo of over a hundred clergy from over 38 congregations in the greater Hartford area coming together to demand action on racial justice. The action was organized by the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance who include faith communities in suburban and urban areas, wealthy and poor, large and small. They had conversations between themselves to identify real problems and then they speak with people in leadership to make the necessary changes. Their work together is an example of exercising power with. It has resulted in anti-racism training for all adults working in schools in some of the area’s school districts, a promise to strengthen the citizens review board of the Hartford police department, and the symbolic yet powerful promise for a Black Lives Matter sign to grace Hartford city hall.  

When we exercise “power with”, we allow the Holy to breathe new life into the world.  

May we dare to join God at the table – 

Not attempting to dictate what will be, 

Nor trying to control what we cannot control,  

But to be in conversation, in relationship with. 

That through the power of the Triune God we may usher new life into the world. Amen. 

Gardeners of a Diverse Creation

Sermon preached by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on June 7, 2020

A number of people have asked me this week, “What can I do? What can we do?” 

As peaceful protests continue to rage and a pandemic continues to lurk, 

We wonder how on earth we are to be.  

In this first chapter of the Bible we learn a lot about our first call as Beloved humans created by God, created in God’s own image.  

While the rest of creation is deemed good by God, 

Humanity alone is made in the Divine image. 

So then, what do we know about the Divine at this point in the Bible? 

As Rev. Brooks proclaims in his book, “Cathedral on Fire,” 

The very first verses of Genesis show us that in the beginning,  

God is a gardener – 

A gardener tending to creation, nurturing life in all its diversity.  

Then if we are made in the image of God, 

We too are called to be gardeners, nurturing life in all its diversity.  

In fact, in both verse 26 and 28 God explicitly calls humanity to care for creation. 

Made in the image of God, 

We are called to be gardeners, 

Tending to creation, nurturing life in all its diversity.  

On a literal level this means caring for our environment – 

Recycling, reducing our use of single-use products, avoiding plastics and fossil fuel use, 

Divesting our money from environmentally unsustainable companies,  

especially fossil fuel companies. 

However, being God’s gardeners tending creation, nurturing life in all its diversity, 

Involves a commitment to social diversity as well as ecological.  

In the 27th verse of the first chapter we hear, “Male and female, God created them.” 

This is not just the New Revised Standard Version or Common English Translation of the Bible being gender inclusive. The original Hebrew text also makes a point of including male and female. Distinct variations of humanity.  

We are not to read this as restricting humanity to two genders though. 

When we read God separating water from dry land, we understand that God created not just the oceans and the dry plains, but marshes and beaches and everything in between.  

So too we understand God created humanity in a rainbow of genders and sexualities, 

Just as God created birds, fish and animals in a variety of types – 

Forever evolving into greater diversity and intricate beauty. 

Our call to be God’s gardeners of this diverse creation includes nurture of both ecological diversity as well as social diversity.  

On an ecological level we can support local farmers, water the church’s community garden, plant a variety of plants or simply try different foods to support a rich array of plants in creation.  

Those gardeners among us know that nurturing ecological diversity in the garden means weeding or thinning out plants – excuse me if I don’t get this metaphor exactly right – but I know that some plants will take over a garden – like mint. Which is fine if all you want is mint. But, God’s creation is intentionally diverse. So sometimes we weed out the fast growing mint so that the tomatoes have space to breathe.  

When we think of social diversity we may look at how certain groups are over represented or given extra space to spread, while reducing the space available for others. For example, media has improved over the years, but wealthy whites still get the majority of the limelight. Likewise, politicians, those who make laws, are overwhelmingly white men.  

If we are to answer the first call upon humanity to be God’s gardeners of the diverse creation, we must examine how we nurture diversity in the environment and in our society.  

For example, nurturing the social diversity of God’s creation means proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and working for racial justice until black and brown people are respected and treated with the same dignity as white people in America. That they have the space and security to breathe.  

Nurturing the social diversity of God’s creation means celebrating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Pride month, using the pronouns a person identifies with, not assuming families only look one way, and advocating for protections for transgender people disproportionately targeted for violence. 

There are many ways to nurture the diversity of God’s creation in humanity

– 

But I caution us to not jump to generalizations such as, “just be nice to everyone.” 

Obviously be nice to people, but how we show compassion and solidarity is going to differ depending the history and background of the person we are trying to be kind to.  

A cis-gender man who looks male does not need legal protections to use the bathroom, he already has that basic right. However, a transgender man does need legal protections when in comes to bathrooms because transgender men are often targeted and harassed, even killed, for using “the wrong bathroom.” So advocating for legal protections around bathroom use is a concrete way to show love to transgender people and nurture the beautiful diversity of God’s creation.   

A white person can safely assume a sales clerk isn’t going to follow them around a store, whereas centuries of stereotyping often leaves a black person wondering if the sales clerk is trying to help or is following them around watching for shoplifting. A sales clerk who knows this history will monitor their actions so as not to inadvertently cause undo stress.  

To answer our first call as humans to be God’s gardeners, nurturing the diversity of creation towards greater life, we must be attentive to the history specific community have experienced and practice compassion and advocacy based on rectifying the injustices experienced.  

—- 

After humanity was created,  

“God blessed them and said, “be fruitful and multiply.” (V. 28)  

As Louise so eloquently spoke about, God’s creation is intended to last and continue on. 

Some people are “fruitful and multiply” by having children, 

Others care for children or teach others a particular skill. 

Some multiply love in the world through social justice or charity work. 

Some are fruitful in their generosity of resources, time, and gifts. 

To be human is to pass on and multiply the blessings we have received.  

If you grew some great tomatoes, share them. 

If you have some privilege, whether it is white privileged, heterosexual privilege or male privilege, work on ways to release some of the privilege so there is space for others to breathe. In the meantime, use your privilege to speak up when a marginalized group is put down. After all, it should not always fall to those marginalized to educate those with privilege.  

—- 

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the conversation God has before creating humans. 

V.26 “ Then God said, “let us make humanity in our image…” 

Notice the plural pronouns for God.  

God could be talking to angels in heaven, some commentators claim. 

God could be trying to use a gender-neutral pronoun, 

Similar to how my sibling Florence uses they and them pronouns. 

Or God could be using the plural pronouns because God is triune- 

That is God is three persons in one: 

Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit 

The Trinity.  

In fact today is Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar.  

So if humans are created in the image of God- 

The triune God, 

Then we are created to be in this intimate community- 

United in diversity, 

As God is united as one in the diversity of Creator, Christ and Spirit.  

Indeed, if we are to be God’s gardeners, nurturing diversity in creation, 

Then we can only do so by being united in diversity ourselves, 

As God is united as three in one. 

This is why I found the images of protesters and police kneeling together and praying together so very moving. United in a repulsion over the murder of George Floyd; United in a desire for racial justice. This has not been the scene across the nation, and is not meant to imply our work is done, but the communities in which those with great power and privilege-the police- knelt down with protestors who are feeling so very fed up with racism – those communities have seen peace and courage-willing will see the most peace.  

Such peace and unity comes when those with privilege and power kneel down and allow space for those once marginalized to breathe. Let me emphasize this point, unity and peace is not what happens when the disenfranchised are quieted and cease protesting. That’s just oppression put back into place. Unity and peace is what happens when those with power kneel down and allow space for those once marginalized to breathe.  

Police kneeling with protesters is symbolic and merely a first step towards real, concrete action, but still, when I first heard of it, I immediately thought, ”communion.” That is what Jesus showed us how to do. Jesus, a man who bowed down to wash the feet of his disciples. Jesus, a man who died a shameful death of a criminal in order to be with the least of these.  

Jesus showed us over and over again that peace and God’s justice comes in the uniting in diversity.  Jesus gathered a diverse group of people together and regularly ate with them. 

This group did not always agree. 

This group did not come from the same social status, 

Nor did they all have the same access to wealth, 

Nor did they all have the same physical abilities. 

Jesus gathered a rag-tag bunch of people together and ate with them. 

The act of eating together was so important, 

That on the eve of his death he commanded his disciples to continue the practice in his memory. And so we do so this morning…

service continues with the holy sacrament of Communion…to read the entire service click here.

To view the slideshow of hymns and scriptures, click here.

Solid as a Rock?

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:2-10 

Sermon: “Solid as a Rock?” by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on May 10, 2020

Rocks and Minerals on Pastor’s home altar

There is a lot rocks can teach us about being grounded during this uncertain time. 

Could you raise your hand if you are familiar with the idea that Christ is our cornerstone? 

Jesus Christ is the capstone or cornerstone – the who connects us, guides us and grounds us. 

As a cornerstone or capstone in a building or bridge might do,  

Jesus is key to who we are as a people. 

As Christians we look to Jesus for guidance and comfort in our lives.  

Jesus strong like a rock – strong enough to overcome death and despair, resurrected on the 3rd day. 

Jesus sturdy and dependable like a rock – always present, always there to hear our cries. 

Indeed, during these uncertain times, leaning on Jesus, our rock, can ground us. 

Specifically, offering to Jesus our burdens and fears in prayer can be grounding and freeing.  

If Jesus can carry the cross and descend into hell and still come back to life, 

Then surely Jesus can hold whatever worry we carry.  

Talking to Jesus, our rock, can calm us and ground us in God’s eternal promise of love. 

In today’s scripture we read that Jesus is not the only one to be compared to a stone.  

If Jesus is the cornerstone, we are the stones that make up the walls of God’s temple. 

In v. 5:  

“You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple”  

We are living stones. 

Living stones intended to build up the spiritual temple. 

the realm of God; the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Living stones for the building a better world – 

A world where all have enough, 

A world where all know they are loved.  

Living stones for the building of life-giving community, 

Especially in this day of social distancing. 

To build up the spiritual temple we must be living stones – adaptable, moving. 

We have a role to play – an active role. 

Indeed taking action to help can ground us in community and meaning.  

We can be building blocks in a larger story – a better world for all.  

“You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple.” 

We often think about rocks as static, rigid, never changing – 

Yet rocks change like everything else. 

Rocks in house foundations can shift and crack over time. 

Ocean waves smooth rough rocks.  

Planet Earth is essentially a huge rock that has been transforming over millions of years. 

Plates shift to form mountains and valleys.  

Lava cools on the surface into rocks, 

Water and air and wind sand down stones into new forms. 

Sand over time with water and wind becomes sandstone. 

Limestone recrystallizes upon metamorphism into marble. 

Rocks that seem never-changing actual have and will change.  

Solid but not static; even rocks transform. 

We are called to be living stones –  

living means moving, continual transformation. 

Solid, but not static. 

During this pandemic time, striving to be solid like a rock – that is sold, but not static – 

Can ground us.  

When the world around us is spinning, 

It can be tempting to stick firmly to the familiar.  

When quarantine first started internet articles urged people to keep a familiar routine. 

Routines can certainly soothe and help – 

CJ can tell you I’m all for routines, especially my morning breakfast routine. 

While I’ve kept to some routines – I still have my morning devotional time with God, 

Other routines have changed – I switched to writing my sermon on Friday instead of Monday – as Monday felt too early in this rapidly changing world.  

I’ve found that this quarantine time is not helped by rigidity – 

This is a time that calls for some flexibility and grace. 

The stress of a pandemic can pop up at unexpected times or in unexpected things – 

Some days may just feel blah for no specific reason. 

To be grounded during this time may take a degree of flexibility – 

A willingness to let go and be transformed. 

Perhaps practices that once were grounding no longer are – or even possible – 

We are called to be living stones, finding strength anew. 

In my introductory study of rocks it seemed to me a number of changes originated in the context of extreme heat and pressure transforming minerals into new forms. 

Now is certainly a time of extreme heat – our society is under extreme pressure to transform quickly.  

Businesses, organizations and churches that survive this time will be those that adapt, 

That transform into something else in this new world.  

Personally, we have each needed to adapt in order to have strength in this time. 

Our spiritual practices may have adapted too.  

Jerry was telling me about a rock garden up in Maine.

It is a community rock garden filled with beautifully painted stones, 

Many with motivational words or images. 

The practice of this garden is that you bring a stone to add, 

And take a different stone when you leave.  

So too is it with our spiritual practices – 

Perhaps there is a practice we put down for now  

And pick up a new practice that fits for us in this time.  

In fact, research has shown that pursuing a new activity right now can give us energy and hope – a sense of moving forward, instead of being stuck. 

As such, CJ and I took up an online zumba class.  

We may find the spiritual strength in this time has more to do with our ability to transform – to pick up a new rock – than it does is remaining rigid.  

“You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple” v.5 

Strong, but not rigid. 

Like a skyscraper that is built to sway in the wind – for if it was too static it would break. 

So, may we adapt and bend as needed, that we might be as strong as a rock, leaning on the cornerstone, Jesus Christ. Amen.  

Easter 2020

Sermon Preached by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar

Photos provided by Pat Sirois and Megan Gaul

In a time of emptiness and grief, the women at the tomb are amazed by an unexpected surprise. 

 We’ve heard this story before, so we tend to focus on the joy of the surprise – Christ is Risen! 

Yet our scriptures tell us that the women were afraid. 

They were not sure what to make of the empty tomb and the angel – 

They were a bit overwhelmed. 

We remember too that while the women went to the tomb, 

Most of the men were locked away in an upper room,  

Terrified that those who had killed Jesus would come for them next. 

The first Easter took place when the disciples were locked away and scared. 

While we are not literally locked away, perhaps this year, more than most, we can relate to the scared and shut away experience of the disciples on that first Easter. 

Some congregations decided to celebrate Easter when everyone could return to the sanctuary together. 

On some level I understand the desire to celebrate the return with great fanfare – 

And Easter at home feels quite different than Easter in the Lilly-filled, people-filled sanctuary.  

And yet, the Risen Christ did not first appear to a crowded sanctuary. 

He did not appear in the middle of the Roman marketplace. 

According to Matthew he appeared to the women at the tomb, 

According to John and the longer ending of Mark he appeared to Mary Magdalene alone, 

According to Luke he appeared first to two disciples on the road to Emmaus 

Whichever Gospel account you read, Jesus first appears to a very few bewildered and amazed disciples – 

Some alone, some in pairs, some in very small groups.  

So while I respect the decision of some churches to “hold off” on the celebration of Easter, 

I am glad we are celebrating Easter this day – 

It is a reminder and testament that Christ Arose during a confusing and scary time. 

Even when we are locked away at home, Christ is Risen. 

Even when fears of the pandemic swirl about, Christ is Risen. 

Even when miss what was, Christ is Risen. 

Cross outside First Church East Hartford

To proclaim that Christ is Risen even now is a proclamation of faith that God is at work in this world. 

Indeed, I’ve been amazed by all God is doing: 

Neighbors checking in on neighbors 

Masks being made from novice and expert sewers alike 

Food banks and soup kitchens continuing to work to make sure people have basic needs. 

Creativity and ingenuity on the part of my colleagues, teachers, and people of nearly every profession. 

The support, guidance and abundant resources from the SNE Conference of the UCC 

And each of you, showing up and tuning every week – staying connected.  

Perseverance and patience so many of you have had in learning a new technology.  

God is indeed doing some amazing things.

  

We have been sharing God-sightings over the last few weeks and there have been a lot. 

What has struck me about them is that many are simple, even small gestures of kindness – 

A smile from a stranger has taken on a deeper meaning. 

A call from a neighbor has lifted our spirits to a new degree. 

The gift of a roll of toilet paper has never been so valuable.  

The small has taken on miraculous dimensions.  

While small gestures have taken on deeper meaning, 

I have found that everyday objects have taken on a deeper sacredness. 

Pastor Kelly Jane’s Home Altar

A living room will never quite have the expansive and embracing sacredness of a large sanctuary,  

Yet this time of leading worship from home has sharpened my eyes to see the sacred in everyday objects. 

Ordinary vases are now symbols of Jesus’s nourishment in the desert. 

A tan table cloth and sand are symbols of the desert.  

I have watched as some of you have taken a look at your own spaces and rearranged with creativity 

And sought out ordinary objects to craft a space that feels a bit more sacred.  

Decorating the space each week has encouraged me to think anew about the sacred meaning and symbolize of everyday objects.  

As small gestures and everyday objects are viewed in a different light at this time, 

So too can we look upon the empty tomb or even this desert time in a new way.  

Throughout Lent we have talked about this time being like a desert time – 

Barren and open.  

As the empty tomb looks different depending on your perspective, 

The desert can look different depending on what we focus on.  

The empty tomb can signal loss, but we have come to see it as a sign of new life and the Risen Christ. 

The desert can symbolize desolation and wandering,  

but if we look closely we also see in the desert hardy life.  

We see cactus and creatures who have adapted to the harsh conditions – 

Life that sticks with it. 

Usually we have Easter Lillies to symbolize Christ’s resurrection. 

This year I have these little cacti – 

They are resilient and strong, able to survive without water for weeks 

And according to the internet novice gardeners like myself are less able to kill them. 

I think the cactus is a very fitting plant to symbolize Christ’s resurrection,  

For Christ persevered through desolation and desertion and horrible trials. 

Christ survived. Christ lives. Christ is Risen.  

This is the whole point of the Easter Story – the Christian faith – 

Christ not only perseveres, but blossoms. 

Christ brings life – 

In the desert places in our lives 

Christ brings life – 

Amid trials and suffering – when we are scared and locked away – 

Christ bring life – 

Beautiful, everlasting, hardy, life.

As the governor declares schools and non-essential businesses closed through most of May, 

We are not quite out of the desert. 

May we rejoice in the hardy life growing in this desert time. 

May we rejoice in a God who insists on surprising us with simple amazements. 

May we rejoice in the Risen Christ who promises us everlasting life and love. Amen.  

All Desert Pictures Compliments of Megan Gaul, the First Church Woodward House Resident, currently staying safe back home in Arizona with her family.

Virtual Easter Egg Hunt

We will miss not having an Easter Egg Hunt at church on Easter morning with you, so we decided to be a little creative and have a virtual Easter Egg Hunt.

That means our fun will be on the computer screen instead. 😊

When you are on Zoom for Easter Sunday Worship,

look for the answers to these questions. Happy Hunting!

1. How many people are wearing an Easter bonnet (hat)?

2. Who has Easter Eggs in their house?

3. How many Easter Eggs do you see altogether?

4. What are the different color eggs that you see?

5. How many children do you count?

6. Who has a duck?

7. What are two things you see in Rev. Kelly Jane’s picture?

8. How many people have plants?

9. Describe a picture, on the wall, from anyone’s background.

10. What are 3 things on the Easter Tree? (write them down after the Children’s Moment)

Spiritual Sacrifice in a Pandemic

Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on April 5, 2020

Pastor Kelly Jane’s At-Home Altar Space where she leads us in weekly worship

It is out of sacrifice that love grows in the desert.  

So you see that our altar space has evolved. 

At the beginning of Lent it was rather bare – vases filled with sand and brown cloth everywhere 

Each week we saw how Jesus can bring nourishment in our desert times – 

And vases were filed with water. 

Jesus’s nourishment not only gets us through the desert time, 

But allows love and life to grow.  

Today, the water of Jesus’s nourishment,  

has provided the nutrients for the palm branches to live. 

As we begin our Holy Week journey, we remember the great sacrifice Jesus would make – 

And how that sacrifice allowed love and life to grow in the desert.  

(add palms to one vase) 

On Palm Sunday the people offered – sacrificed – what they had to bring glory, laud and honor to Jesus. 

They offered what they had out of love for Jesus – and out of hope for the salvation he would bring. 

We have been asked to sacrifice much this Lent – far more than most years. 

We aren’t just sacrificing chocolate, we are sacrificing the joy and pleasures of going out and about – 

To the movies, to restaurants, to concerts, to worship, to parties, to game nights, to the barber shop.  

Some of us on the front lines are sacrificing our health by serving the basic needs of others.  

As I studied more deeply the Palm Sunday scriptures, 

I saw some spiritual tips for this unprecedented time of sacrifice in our collective lives.  

On the first Palm Sunday, people sacrificed what they had.  

They took the cloaks off their backs and broke branches from the trees nearby.  

We do the same this day with our homemade palms and offerings. 

Sacrificing what we have takes on new meaning in our current context. 

We have been called – or forced- to be more resourceful. 

One person remarked to me,  

“I need some spinach, but I’ll wait to go out. I’ll make do without.” 

Sacrificing what we have has forced us to become more creative and more innovative – 

Whether it’s in the kitchen, making palms from newspapers, or sewing homemade masks. 

As we make sacrifices during this time it is important to remember that God beckons us to look at what we already have and to give what we can. 

Jesus was pleased by the offerings of the people on that first Palm Sunday. 

He did not chide them for not bringing him a velvet carpet or neglecting the trumpets. 

He was honored by the humble and resourceful gifts they gave. 

As we make sacrifices during this time,  

May we give what we can – not more, not less 

And trust that our simple gifts are more than enough.  

When we give what we can – not so much that we deplete ourselves,  

But not so little that we hoard and deprive others – 

When we give what we can,  

We are in fact helping our community live in this desert time, 

Spreading resources so all have enough to live.  

(add palm branches to vase) 

Palms added to the vases as symbols of life growing from the nourishment and sacrifice of Jesus.

On the first Palm Sunday, people sacrificed in hope of salvation.  

They sang out “Hosanna!” which means “save us” – but in this context it is paired with  

“blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” – 

So the Palm Sunday Hosanna is both a plea for salvation and a belief salvation is coming. 

The people offered their sacrifice of coats and branches, 

in hope and trust that Jesus was bringing salvation.  

When we make sacrifices today we are doing so in hope and trust that salvation is coming. 

We stay home and wash our hands, 

because we believe it will save us from the worse of this pandemic.  

Nurses, drivers, and grocery store clerks are working, 

In hope of bringing healing to our world.  

Keeping an eye on the hope can help us when the sacrifice weighs heavy. 

Whether you are out on the front lines or  

At home in quarantine, 

Everyone is making sacrifices that are difficult emotionally, mentally and physically.  

When we make these sacrifices with our eyes on the hope of salvation, 

We can be strengthened in our efforts. 

We have learned this in the sacrifices we have made in other ways – 

Perhaps trudging through homework in order to graduate and get a good job; 

Perhaps by caring for a child or grandchild in order to love deeper; 

Perhaps by sweating through a hard workout in order to stay physically healthy.  

Now many of us are called to sacrifice as never before – 

May we do so in hope and in trust of the salvation Jesus has showed us. 

When we can keep our eyes on the hope of salvation, 

We are helping our community live in this desert time,  

By lifting the spirits and perseverance of all.  

(add palm branches to vase)  

Jesus shows us salvation in a way that was unexpected and still may make us uncomfortable. 

Jesus shows us salvation not through a mighty warrior king, 

But through a humble servant on a donkey. 

On the first Palm Sunday, people sacrificed for a humble king, a carpenter riding on a donkey.  

The humility of Jesus reminds us that our sacrifices today may not garner the great praise and fanfare we would like. While some in the crowd praised Jesus, we remember that many stood in the wings, asking who this man was, and plotting his death.  

Jesus did not need empty praise and worldly glory –  

after all, when Jesus was tempted in the desert, 

 he rejected the devil’s offer to rule the earthly kingdoms.  

Jesus trusted God and in doing so eventually became the eternal king of all.  

Given the chaos of this time,  

our sacrifices today may not be given the attention or publicity they deserve.  

This is part of the reason I am asking people to share God-sightings.  

My hope is that in sharing the ways God is working we will be lifted up in hope. 

Even so, the fear and uncertainty of this time will leave many of our sacrifices unnoticed. 

Too often check-out cashiers are subject to the overwhelmed anxiety of shoppers. 

Too often deliver people, nurses, and doctors are asked to work overtime amid supply shortages.  

Jesus’s humility shows us that our sacrifices are made not for our own glory,  

But to show the power of love and community – the power of God – during this time.  

Whatever sacrifices we are each called to make, 

May they be made humbly, for indeed all of us are sacrificing.  

When we give out of compassion and care, not out of pride or desire for a reward, 

Our sacrifices are met with the sacrifices of others, 

Together bringing healing, salvation, and life in this desert time. 

(add palms to vase) 

May we sacrifice what we have in humble praise of a humble king, 

For in doing so we can allow love and life to grow.  

Paper palms were made by church members this year.

When You Feel Like Crying


Pastoral Reflection 

by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar delivered on March 29, 2020

Jesus Wept. 

Read: John 11: 7- 44 

Even though he knows a miracle is to happen,  

even though he knows goodness is going to come,  

Jesus weeps. 

He doesn’t brush off the suffering and fix it right away, 

He pauses to be with us in the midst of our trials. 

In previous weeks I spoke about this time as a Desert Time – 

Void of normal comforts. 

A desert time of wandering towards the Promised Land of healing and wholeness. 

So we have this altar space with sand and desert colors. 

In previous weeks we spoke about ways God nourishes us in the desert – 

Through the water of grace and healing spit – each week filling a vase of water. 

This week our nourishment in the desert comes from the tears of Jesus.  

[pour water] 

When we are in a time of trial, a desert time before we have reached the Promised Land, 

Nourishment can come with tears.  

A good cry can provide the heart with a cleanse, a release of pain for a time. 

A good cry can help us acknowledge the difficulty of the time. 

Sometimes during trials we are told to “be strong” or “you’re so strong” – 

Yet, it is often at the very moment we don’t feel strong at all. 

A good cry is an acknowledgement that we don’t have it all together, that we are not in control, 

That we may not be as strong as others think or say we are. 

A good cry is, in essence, an act of submission to a powerful God – 

A good cry is a way of saying,  

“God, I don’t got this – please, help.” 

In this scripture we see a God who comes down from heaven, embodied in Jesus, and sits with us in our tears.  

While our hearts maybe breaking or scared or weak,  

Jesus is there to comfort us, to cry with us,  

and eventually show us the miraculous glory of God.  

So let us pause to share with Jesus our trials, our fears, our losses at this time.  

Prayer:

Jesus weep with me. I am upset about ______. Lord hold me and help me feel your presence. Amen.