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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.] 

The “Curse of Ham” and the Dangers of the Racist Blame Game

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on July 12, 2020

SCRIPTURE INTRO 

Today is a scripture not often read on Sunday mornings in today’s day and age. 

It is a scripture passage probably glossed over by many reading the Bible straight through – one of those with a long list of hard names.  

Yet, it is a scripture that was used to lay the foundation of racism in the world, 

Our scripture is from Genesis – the first book of the Bible that explains the origins of where God’s Chosen People of Israel come from and the special Divine Promise given to them. From the Chosen People of Israel comes the Messiah, Jesus, who is destined to save the world, and so Christians generally read themselves to inherit the special Divine Promise of God’s chosen people, thus the Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of the Christian Bible. In Genesis family stories explain the future layout and relations of God’s chosen nation. For example, we have the story of the 12 sons of Jacob who will become the 12 tribes of Israel. Today we have the story of Noah and his sons – a story of where various nations originated from and their relation to Israel.  

Like many other stories in Genesis, this one was written down centuries after it supposedly occurred. It was recorded once Israel was already a nation and was trying to justify why it could conquer certain people and partner with others. Chapter 10 provides a list of patriarchs and the nations which came from them. Chapter 9 involves a family story to explain why some nations listed can – and even ought- to be subjected to slavery. Listen closely for this text echoes even today in 2020.  

SCRIPTURE READING: Genesis 9:18-27 & Genesis 10  

SERMON  

Chapter 10 lists the patriarchs of each of these nations and they are grouped in such a way that later scholars show that the apparent divisions have little to do with language, culture, geography or racial divides. In fact, the concept of race as we know it today did not exist in biblical times. After-all, all the people of the nations outlined in chapter 10 were closely related in terms of skin tone and generally in the Mideast.  

Yet, European and colonial slave holders pointed to this text as justification for the enslavement of Africans, people of dark skin tone. Part of the reasoning is that Cush, a son of Ham, was later identified as being in Northern Africa and Europeans of colonial time simply said, well the curse of Ham continues for Africans. Never mind that the curse was actually on Canaan- which, also doesn’t make sense since Canaan is only one son of Ham, and Ham was the one who did wrong. Why Canaan and not the other sons of Ham? Well, Canaan lived in the promised land of the Israelites. This story provided justification for the enslavement of the Canaanites when Israel conquered their land. That story is later in the Bible and we will get to that later in the summer. Suffice it to say, this story of the so-called “curse of ham” has been used throughout history to justify the enslavement of another people.  

[Some resources:  

https://time.com/5171819/christianity-slavery-book-excerpt/

https://youtu.be/C1-6_FyUmDA]

White wealthy slaveholders in America used this text, among others, to enforce chattel slavery of Africans in the United States. It should be noted that chattel slavery in America differed from slavery in the ancient world – but that’s another sermon.  

The underlining logic of this text is that certain people deserve to be enslaved because they or their ancestors did wrong. Ham dishonored his father and thus deserves his punishmentToday we can agree that such a punishment seems to far outweigh the crimeYet, the ideology of this text has echoed throughout time.  

If Ham had not dishonored his father, his son Canaan would not be subjected to slavery. (the Israelites argued)  

If Africans were not descendants of Ham, they would not be subjected to slavery. (the whites argued) 

If the African slave had not run away, he would not have been whipped.  

If Emmett Till had not flirted with a white woman in 1955, he would not have been murdered.  

If you don’t know the story of Emmett Till, go look that up. He is probably the most well-known case of a black man, actually in this case a teenager, who was brutally murdered for supposedly flirting or looking at a white woman. (read more here) 

The logic from this scripture –  

that a certain people deserve excessive force because of a past wrong – 

echoed into the 21st century.  

If Trayvon Martin wasn’t wearing a hoodie, he might still be alive.  

If Eric Garner wasn’t selling loose cigarettes, he might still be alive.  

If Sandra Bland didn’t have a taillight out, she might still be alive.  

If Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t running, he might still be alive.  

If Mr. Douglas hadn’t pulled over to take a phone call, in the Bloomfield neighborhood he works in, he wouldn’t have been threatened with a gun. (citation)  

If the black teenagers in Manchester weren’t out in the middle of the night, they wouldn’t be harassed, hunted and had their bike mangled. (citation)  

If Tamir Rice wasn’t playing with a toy gun, maybe he wouldn’t have been shot in seconds.  

If Rayshard Brooks hadn’t taken the taser being used on him, he would not have been shot.  

If Breonna Taylor wasn’t asleep in her bed, she would not have been shot.  

As late-night tv show host, Trevor Noah so poignantly said,  

The “ifs” keep changing, but there is a common thread here.  

If you weren’t black, you would still be alive.  [Citation] 

Too often after a shooting or harassment of a black person, people seek justification or excuses, reasons for the excessive force. Perhaps crimes are found, but rarely does such a crime justify their murder. In almost no case is their death without a fair trial warranted.  

The desire to justify the excessive force used against people of color is the same today as it was in colonial America: those not blatantly victimized want to be free from responsibility and guilt. If a reason or cause can be found for the violence, than those with power need not do anything to stop the violence from happening again.  

If the Canaanites deserve to be enslaved, the Israelites are not guilty for the harm done. 

If Africans are destined for slavery, whites, whether slave-owning or not, need not heed their humanity. 

If any excuse or crime is justification to shoot a black person, then polite, reasonable people can sit back, shake their heads, say, “what a shame” and do nothing to change the statistics.  

If we can blame the victim, then we are free of sin – and the responsibility to change.  

It is a sin to excuse excessive force and murder because of some perceived or real minor crime. 

The fact that such blame is more prevalent when it is a black person who is killed is one of the many ways society proclaim that black lives do not matter. For if black lives did matter, there would be no petty excuses for the excessive force and murder of black and brown people at the hands of vigilantes or police without trial. It is a sin to dismiss such cases by blaming the victim and ignoring the statistics.  

As Christians we have a spiritual practice for dealing with sin: confession. Confession is the act of naming and unmasking the harm sin has in our lives and world. Confession is the opposite of seeking to deflect responsibility and place blame on others. Confession names the harm sin has in our lives and world. It is the first step towards reconciliation and peace. This is heavy stuff, so let us pause in this sermon to join together in moment of confession.  

TIME OF CONFESSION 

UNISON PRAYER OF CONFESSION [Slide 11] 

PASTOR: God of all our ancestors,  

PEOPLE: 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 12] 

WORDS OF ASSURANCE/SERMON CONCLUSION 

After the confession I usually offer words of assurance and indeed I will, for there is hope. In fact, hope lies in the very text used for harm.  

Another justification for slavery in colonial times was that Africans were an entirely different species from Europeans, closer to apes (which is in part why calling a person of color a monkey is so hurtful). So called scientists made charts and diagrams attesting to the “biological fact”. Later scientists would find their theories based solely on conjunction and almost no actual scientific processes. In fact, later scientists would come to find that there is actually no biological difference between black and brown and white people – DNA cannot be easily categorized by race.  

[https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human/Scientific-classifications-of-race]  

The biblical witness sands in clear opposition to the thinking of Africans as a different species…all those long genealogies of the Bible do more than just challenge scripture readers. They served as explanation that humanity is all related. The table of nations ought to not be seen as divisive, but as testament to the unity of humanity. The awkward splicing of Genesis 9 and 10 suggest that the curse on Canaan was indeed inserted later – likely for the political aims of the nation of Israel. The unity of humanity was likely the original aim of the story.  

The unity of humanity is, of course, at the core of the Jesus movement. Jesus who would bless the Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15) and speak with love to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 21), Jesus reminded humanity that we are connected by one Holy Spirit AND will be together in the kingdom of Heaven.  

Furthermore, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of heaven is near, and he does so a lot. A kingdom with enough room for all the birds of the air (mustard seed parable). A kingdom where the least of these are welcomed with honor at the feast. A kingdom of rest for the weary, food for the hungry, and peace everlasting.  

Coupled with his proclamations of the coming kingdom are calls to repent – repent for in the end the goats and the sheep will be separated and those who did not care for the least of these will not see the kingdom of heaven (Matt 25). Repent or entering the kingdom will be like trying to get a camel through the head of needle. Repent and be ready for you know not when the bridegroom will come. Repent means to turn-around, change your ways. In doing so we draw near to the kingdom of heaven.  

In Jesus we see a way and a means to embody the kingdom of heaven on earth. We need not be held captive by self-serving mis-guided interpretations of scripture. We need not hold fast to division, for there is enough room in this world for all to prosper. We need not revert to blame, for we have the power to transform this world and draw near to the kingdom of God. We are one people, united through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we seek first the kingdom of God, where poor and rich sit together, where women and men each have places of honor, where justice and equity is the rule, and excessive force and blaming are left at the door. May we seek the kingdom of God where love is the rule and justice reigns. Amen.  

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.  

Christ is With Us

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar 

April 26, 2020

When two disciples are fleeing from the chaos and pain and fear of Jerusalem, 

Christ shows up. 

So too is Christ is with us in our grief, in our shock, in our fleeing from pain. 

In the cleansing comfort of tears, 

In the kind listening of a friend, 

In the new understanding gleamed, 

Christ is with us in our pain. 

When the two disciples are on the road Christ shows up even though they don’t realize it is him. 

So too is Christ with us when we don’t even realize it until after the fact. 

When a heartache somehow clears the way for a deeper love, 

When a lost opportunity leaves space for a better one, 

When deep growth and love emerges out of brokenness, 

Christ is with us when we look back and see he has been alongside – or carrying- us all the time. 

When the two disciples sit for a meal together,  

Practicing hospitality, blessing bread and giving thanks, 

They see that the stranger is indeed Christ. 

So too is Christ with us when we extend hospitality, break bread together, give thanks for what we have. 

When we offer what we have to help others, 

Be it time, toilet paper, money, masks or groceries.  

When we connect with one another  

Be it over zoom or telephone or email or FB or handwritten note 

When we give thanks and practice gratitude, 

Be it with a simple prayer or gratitude journal 

When we extend hospitality, connect and give thanks,  

We are bound to something greater, our hearts are filled,  

and we see that Christ is with us in the small great everyday connections. 

When the two disciples return to Jerusalem to tell the others the Good News, 

They learn they are not the only ones who have witnessed the Risen Christ. 

The other disciples quickly tell them,  

“The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon.” 

Now, you might be wondering – 

Wait, I thought it was the women who went to the tomb. 

You are right.  

All four gospels report that the women are the first to the empty tomb. 

Jesus appears to Mary and the women on that first Easter Sunday morning. 

Simon Peter sees the empty tomb after the women’s report –  

But the only Gospel account of Simon Peter encountering the Risen Christ takes place days after the first appearances.  

It occurs up in Galilee and includes other disciples too… 

So that doesn’t quite line up with today’s scripture in which the disciples say, 

On that first Easter Sunday, 

“Jesus appeared to Simon” 

However, there does appear to be a tradition that Jesus did appear to Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday. In the letter to the Corinthians (1 Cort. 15:3-7) Paul states that Simon Peter (called Cepheus by Paul) does see the resurrected Christ – but Paul gives us no details on the encounter other than it came before Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples – which was the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The tradition that Jesus appeared to Simon Peter makes sense because Simon Peter became the leader of the early church.  

So, if it is true that Jesus appeared to Simon Peter on Easter Sunday – 

As the disciples report in today’s scripture and Paul later points to – 

Then the Resurrected Jesus was doing some serious traveling on that first Easter Sunday. 

First at the tomb and then with the women, 

then with Simon Peter, then with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, 

Then back in Jerusalem in the locked upper room where he shows his wounds to all but Thomas. 

Given the number of reports, 

It is possible the Risen Christ was in multiple locations at the same.  

After all, when the two disciples started their journey to Emmaus,  

They had not heard the account of Jesus appearing to Simon Peter – 

They had only heard of the women. 

This leads me to believe the appearance of Simon Peter was at the same time as Christ was walking with the two disciples on the road.  Perhaps Christ was in two places at once.  

In any case, these resurrection stories highlight that 

Christ’s presence is not limited by time or space – 

Christ is not limited by the time restraints us humans deal with.  

Sometimes people worry that their needs or concerns or joys are too small to  

“take up God’s time.” 

Sometimes people hold back on sharing their joys or concerns with God, 

Thinking they are not as important as others, 

Especially when others are suffering greatly. 

Yet we see in these resurrection stories that the Risen Christ is not bound by earthly rules of time or space…Christ is with us, beyond time, beyond space… 

Christ can hear our little prayers and big heartaches with full attention. 

Christ is eager to hear our prayers – 

Whether they are shared before a meal, 

In the shower, 

Or spoken only in our minds. 

The Resurrection itself shows us that Christ is always with us –  nothing can separate us from Christ – 

Not death, nor life, nor heights, nor depths,  

Nor a cross, nor a government, nor a virus, 

Nor denial, nor fear, nor guilt,  

nor anything else in all creation 

Can separate us from Christ. 

Christ is always with us, always available to listen and sit with us through whatever we are going through 

So let us take comfort, share with Jesus all the ups and downs, all the feelings, big and small. 

Christ will walk with us and help us see. Amen. 

Returning as Resurrection People

Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on April 19, 2020

Denial or doubt is belief in lies; faith in falsehoods.  

Doubt is a form of despair in which we believe the crucifixion is the end – as Thomas originally did.  

Denial a refusal to hope in Easter.  

The question is what do we have faith in. 

Do we have faith in death or life? Despair or hope? Crucifixion or resurrection? 

What we have faith in determines where and how we work, where and how we spend our lives, 

Where and how we move through this “quarantine time”. 

As Christians we are called to be “Resurrection People” – 

People who believe and practice life in the face of death,  

hope in the face of despair,  

new possibilities when everything as we know it has changed.  

There is a temptation to believe this time is temporary. 

At first it was just two weeks, now it’s been a month,  

and at least another month is ahead of us, probably more. 

While I do believe in-person worship and business with return, 

There is no doubt that this time not only will,  

but already has transformed our world.  

To live as a “Resurrection People” is not about believing this will be over soon and  

It is not about believing life will return as we remember it. 

Afterall, Jesus was resurrected, not resuscitated – 

When Jesus rose again on Easter, he was different than he was before. 

He had wounds, but he also passed through walls. 

To be “Resurrection People” is to believe that after this “Good Friday” time, 

We will arise as different, renewed people.  

A Resurrection People.  

So the question is how will we arise? 

Where will we put our faith?  

Where we put our faith determines our actions and how we emerge as individuals,  

as a community,  

as a global society.  

On a very concrete level, I hope we will arise into a physical building. (hold up wooden church) 

I believe our building is a sacred space to gather as a community larger than ourselves.  

It is a shared space – not my living room or Jerry’s den – 

But a space for us all to gather regardless of economic or social status. 

It is a space shared not just in the present, but with the ancestors of our faith. 

Some of your grandparents even worshiped at First Church! 

While most of us don’t have a direct tie – 

to be in a space that has held the faith of people for generations has a power beyond words. 

 I believe our building is a sacred space to gather, 

 and I hope that we will arise into that shared sacred space, 

So I am so very glad that the trustees have continued to not only maintain the building, 

But improve it. 

This past week Valley Restorations finished their work on the front doors

Repainting and repairing this historic and majestic entry-points off main St. 

They also repaired windows and repainted the balcony ceiling where paint had chipped from water damage. 

They accidentally did more work than agreed upon – and donated their extra work to the church.  

The Trustees and Finance committee graciously paid a little more while also receiving the donation of work and supplies. There was good will all around and a God-sighting for sure! 

But I hope that we arise not only into a building,  

I hope we will arise as a more connected people.  

I believe and have faith that technology can connect us through walls and barriers that once divided.  

On that first Easter the Resurrected Christ passed through walls to connect to the disciples.  

Today an awe-inspiring number of church members have overcome fears and technological trials 

In order to stay connected even while walls and social distancing keep us physically apart.  

On Thursday night one person commented that there is more communication now than ever before. 

I believe that is due in large part to each of you taking the initiative to call one another, 

To read emails, attend church meetings, and otherwise keep in touch. Bravo! 

While technology at times can feel like a barrier to overcome, 

At other times it can be a bridge to connection that would otherwise not happen. 

Those who are homebound recovering from surgery are able to join in and be seen and see others. 

Young adults who have moved away are able to tune in. 

Parents with young children are able to join in without the extra stress of corralling energetic young ones.  

Anyone who is home sick can turn over in their bed and listen to the comfort of their faith family worshipping together.  

For many technologies can be a bridge to connect to their faith community, 

 But technology is also a bridge for curious seekers to try out a church family.  

It is easier for people to click a button to log into a worship experience – 

Much easier than getting dressed and entering a place where you don’t know anyone 

 And are unsure about what to expect.  

In fact, research shows that churches with online presence over the last decade found that most new members joined in worship online first. 

I believe and have faith that technology can connect us through walls and barriers that once divided. 

So during this time I hope we will develop these technological tools  

As individuals and as a congregation – 

so that we will arise a more connected people.  

I hope we will not only be more connected to those we already know, 

But during this time connect to other church members we don’t know as well 

And visitors who may log on to check out what an affirming church is like, 

In doing so we will arise more connected in more than one way.  

Not only do I hope we will arise as a more connected people, 

I hope we will arise as a people more connected to our environment.  

I hope we will arise as a more creation conscious people. 

I believe the interconnected environment is God’s sacred way of sustaining life 

“Just as Jesus appeared before his disciples in his resurrected form still bearing the scars of the crucifixion— this world is wounded, deeply, yet at the same time, there is resurrection and transformation. We are called to care for creation in its beauty and in its wounded-ness. The resurrection of Jesus offers hope of new life, for all of creation, and for generations to come.” (UCC Fierce Urgency of Now Environmental Sunday Worship Materials) 

Many of us are going for walks and soaking in spring like never before, 

Embracing the beauty of nature on a personal level.  

On a global scale, this pandemic has allowed the Earth to breathe again. 

Electricity usage has gone down. 

We are tapping less oil and driving less. 

Factories are blowing less chemicals into our waterways and air.  

As a result the air has literally cleared. 

You have probably seen the startling photo of New Delhi, India 

One side is a normal day in the fall of 2019; 

The clear side is in recent weeks. 

Clear air to breathe is not only better for the environment,  

But better for human health – during a pandemic or not. 

As a global or national society we have an opportunity now to choose how we reinvest in the future – 

Do we return to our environment destroying ways –  

excessive driving and travel, excessive meat eating,  

excessive plastics and consumer purchases of disposable goods-  

Or do we reinvest in a more sustainable, greener future? 

As we rebuild our economy, will we invest in jobs that destroy the life-giving earth? 

Or will we invest in green jobs that build a sustainable future for generations? 

Will we invest in wasteful products or quality products that can be reused for years? 

On a personal level we might take this time to look anew at our personal practices in terms of shopping, travel and activities to reassess what is truly needed and how we could cut back on driving, cut back on packaged foods, cut back on plastics, cut back on one-time use products – all of which contribute to the destruction of our natural resources. We might look to how we can re-use products and purchase quality items that won’t end up in a landfill in a short amount of time.  

On a global or national level, we might follow closely where stimulus money goes – and let our representatives know what we think. We might choose to invest our own money in sustainable businesses or encourage our workplaces to do so. For those with any sort of investment accounts – say for retirement – you can request your investments be placed in environmentally conscious companies.  

I invite you to take this time to look at a long view – 

Towards a future you may not see. 

For the changes we make as a society during this time will ripple through the generations – 

Long after all of us have left this earth. 

What do we want to witness when we are in heaven? 

We are a “resurrection people” that will arise different – transformed – from this quarantined time. 

I hope we arise into a physical building  

for I believe in the power of gathering in a shared sacred space. 

I hope we arise a more connected people  

for I believe technology can be a bridge for many to participate in our faith community,  

no matter who they are or where they are. 

I hope we arise more connected to our earth,  

for I believe God’s sacred earth must be treated sustainability, 

 so generations of humans have clean air to breathe and water to drink.  

We are a “resurrection people”, 

Called to believe in and act towards life amid death, 

Hope amid despair, 

Love beyond self. 

May we live boldly into our calling. Amen.  

I would like now to share a prayer I heard from a colleague in the Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska Conference. Let us listen together.  

Pastoral Prayer for this time: We Are Prophets of a Future Not Our Own (VIDEO from the Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska Conference: https://vimeo.com/405885820

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. 3 We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. 

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.