Sermons

  • Binding the Strong Man: A Sermon for Memorial Day 2021

    REBECCA: We have six legacies for you: stories for you about six veterans of First Church, Black and White veterans who died this year. We are the anti-racism task force here at First Church, we have been reading Ibram Kendi, and Ched Myer, Michelle Alexander, and we would like to tell you about overlapping images of heroism, in the context of one of the wildest parables Jesus ever told: the parable about binding the strong man.

    The first legacy is that we change public safety so that it truly is public and safe. If public safety is not bringing comfort, shelter, protection to all the citizens, then we must change it.

    I would like to start with the story of Leon Dorr, a veteran who died this year, who was a radio operator in World War II in the Navy, and one of the most courageous people I have ever known. He was so eager to use his skills for communication and connection, at 14 he forged his father’s signature to get into the Civil Defense Reserves. He ended up in the middle of World War two, in the Navy, doing radio communication.

    His vision was always public safety as a way of working for the people, for their protection, making sure they could network with each other.

    This vision of Leon’s for public safety makes a model for us as we think about how we might defend each other in the police and fire department today. And so I have a story of a firefighter who Leon would have loved, who saved the day in New Mexico this year. A man had headed into the grocery store to grab some groceries, and came back to his car to find out that it was holding 15,000 bees, honey bees, who had swarmed in the back open window while he was shopping.

    The good news is that he called the Fire department, and the fire department had an off-duty firefighter who loves bees. Jesse Johnson, 38, firefighter, paramedic, and father of two, hustled to the parking lot and brought an empty beehive, a bucket, a bee suit, and some lemon grass, which apparently smells like a queen bee. Johnson had the 15,000 bees out of the car and safely into the hive in a half hour. He said he could have done it in 10 minutes, but he really wanted to get it right.

    I love this story, and I love to think that Leon would have loved firefighter Johnson, because Leon also loved bees. Leon would have given anything to bring his skills and experience to help someone – whether it was a grocery shopper or 15,000 bees. 

    I also love this story because it helps me think about public safety: that we need to support every public defense department to have staff on every shift who are un-armed, who are skilled with mental health, animal health, and compassion. Some on our team want to de-fund the police. Others want to raise up the skilled staff so that their gifts shine so bright that you don’t need weapons. In the case of this grocery store in New Mexico, a gun would have been a lot less useful than the bucket and the lemongrass!

    In the Gospel, we read this wild parable, that a thief cannot enter a strong man’s house unless he tie up the strong man. It is Jesus, the comedian, quoting Isaiah, the comedian. Isaiah uses the metaphor of being a sneaky thief as a way to change things. Jesus’ parable here is so strange and funny that we find ourselves scratching our heads. But the question rises up, what strong man do we need to bind up, as we make the changes that the world so badly needs? I would say the first strong man to bind is the way we think about public safety. We need more beekeepers, fewer pistols. We need fire-fighters, mental health workers, paramedics, midwives, in every town and city in the country.

    EUNICE:  And then there is a second legacy: that we sacrifice ourselves for each other. This is a legacy of knowing suffering, telling the truth about it, living in gratitude for others’ love and sacrifice for you, and seeing God’s love in the presence of suffering.

    Jim Teele was a veteran who died this year. He served his country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, two years in active duty and four years in reserve duty, and relished discussion of his army experiences in later life. He was the first Black Sociology Department Chairman at Boston University. He used to ask: Why does God allow suffering to happen on earth?

    My Daddy weighed this question in his preaching, and he tried to come up with an answer, but I never really liked his answer.  But here is what I see. White people did a lot to secure Black freedom. You see all the graves up in Maine, all the White boys who died in the Civil War from Maine. And you know it then. None of us gets any place without an awful lot of help. There are a lot more decent people than devilish.

    This is an important legacy that Jim Teele knew: that we stand up for each other. Dr. Teele would have said this: more Memorial Days, but no more wars. Because we serve each other, and sacrifice for each other. This is our greatest calling.

    The second strong man that we must bind is the strong man of individualism. Because we are social beings, in a world of social creatures of all forms. We need each other, and Jim Teele knew this better than anybody.

    LYNN: There is a third legacy: that we make sure everybody can participate. Richard Smith offered a legacy of making sure everyone is included: ushering folks into church, making sure everybody could hear, welcoming everybody without exception. He served as the usher captain of First Church Ipswich, and he died during the Covid quarantine. 

    When he was a young man, Richard Smith enlisted in the National Guard, then the United States Army. There he served as sergeant first class in the Airborne in Korea. His work as a veteran was always so moving to our church. He was always making sure the church was a place where everybody could understand what was being talked about, and everybody had a place. As an usher, he would welcome you into the sanctuary, bring you to your seat. He always made sure you knew how glad he was that you were here. He would turn up the volume of the microphones if he thought you couldn’t hear. And he did this for decades.

    This legacy of inclusion was valuable to our church, and is valuable to our world, as we think about a truly anti-racist society. We need to make sure everybody has a welcome seat, a hearing aid if they need one, a warm kind smile when they stand in the doorway. This is what Richard would have wanted us to remember.

    The third strong man we must bind is the strong man of closed doors or exclusion. We must wrestle this devil to the ground and tie it up! 

    SHANNON:. This is the fourth and fifth legacy: a legacy of making sure that everybody has enough. 

    Let me talk to you about Ed and Eddie Paquin, two veterans who died in First Church this year.  Ed and Eddie left a legacy of searching for ways to make sure other people had beauty and good food and plenty. Even though they did not have a lot of resources themselves, they believed in equality and sustainability so fiercely, they did all that they could to make sure people with less than them had enough.  

    Ed Paquin left school at the age of 17 to serve an enlistment in Alaska with the U.S. Air Force in 1946. He was always so creative, with beautiful painting, cooking, so many generous offerings.  When he wanted to make sure people had enough money, though he did not have many extra resources himself, he took up his metal detector and went coin collecting at the beach, so he could give money away. 

    Eddy Paquin was his son. He died of Covid-19 this year, and yet he left a legacy to the church, so somebody hungry could have enough food. He was a part of the National Guard, in the 1970’s, here in Massachusetts.  

    This is the fourth strong man that we must bind:  the strong man who has commandeered most of the goods and wealth in this land. And who is to bind this strong man? And what shall be done about all the wealth stolen, lives taken, lives demeaned? It is up to us, to right the wrongs done by one set of people against another set of human beings. 

    It is especially important because slave owners were given reparations at the end of the Civil War, and yet that formerly enslaved persons, meant to receive 40 acres and a mule, were instead often tricked by former slave owners into working as sharecroppers. Now is a high time for reparations.

    BETH:  The sixth legacy is this: That we fix broken things, broken laws, broken assumptions.  

    There are broken parts of the nation: that prisons are so unequally populated with Black and Brown and Indigenous people, even though the crime rates of the diverse races are equal. That the legal system cracks down unequally on Black and Indigenous and People of Color. That the life spans of Brown and Black people are shorter than life spans of White people in this country. That we have only offered unequal access to good neighborhoods, good schools, good food.  

    Donald Sawyer died this year. He was a veteran of the Navy. He learned a skill in the Navy, and then brought it home to his life here in Massachusetts: to be able to fix anything at all, with a few tools, a roll of duct tape, and some creativity. What we need now is the tools, a little duct tape, and a lot of creativity to mend the broken parts of the country. Because at Donald’s funeral, the Navy was there:  Katrina and Keisha, two Black women in their beautiful Navy uniforms with their crisp white caps, folding the flag for him. And now as his legacy, we need to mend this country and make it a safe and fair place for them and their families. Donald had a pair of pliers on his funeral urn, as his family and community laughed about his ability to fix things. It is a good legacy for us.

    The sixth strong man that we must bind is the strong man of our own superiority. We wondered: how do we overcome this idea that we are better than other people? We wondered: Is the strong man separation? What separates us? 

    Let us get out our tools, and our duct tape, and our pliers, and bind up that strong man, tape up that strong man, fasten down that strong man, bind him up right now. Let us mend the world.

  • Understanding – May 23, 2021

    by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh

    Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

    I have a sermon about understanding.

    My friend Jan, who was born and raised in Belgium, is a part of my Circle 12 study group with the Franciscans, out of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. He told us of a time when he met God. He was on an adventure with his brother, when he was a teenager. He and his brother bought tickets for a month-long train ride, and they rode all over Europe, back when you could do that when you bought the one ticket. As Jan says it, they were two men coming of age, with hair out to here (Jan talks with his hands). He describes how he and his brother ended up in Greece; his brother went on an adventure in one direction, and Jan went in another direction. Jan was walking, in the gloaming, hungry, big backpack, without plans, and he went down a dark road, not sure why his intuition led him there. His heart was open. He came to a gate in a fence, and some instinct he had told him to turn in the gate. 

    What he found down the road was a hotel, with fancy new construction. He knocked. Nobody came for the longest time. Finally, the gardener came, startled to see him there, and just stood there, taking in his pack, his hair, his quiet. 

    Jan explains what happened next, in a way that sounds like he still can’t believe it. The gardener did not speak English, and Jan did not speak much English either then, and Jan spoke even less Greek, and the gardener did not speak any of the Dutch, French, and German that they speak in Belgium, so these two men did not have a common language. The gardener brought Jan into the empty hotel kitchen. And then he started to cook him supper. The way Jan remembers it, he began to prepare all of these Greek foods. The Imam Bayildi, the Spanakopita, the falafel, the grape leaves, the Avgolemono. Jan could not have imagined that they could have had such an evening together, tasting foods, laughing, so overcome by joy to cook and eat together. The gardener cooked for Jan all night. 

    When Luke writes in the Book of Acts that they had gathered at Pentecost, they were there, ready to celebrate the festival of wheat and barley in Shavuot (feast of weeks, because it is seven weeks after Passover), and to bring the first fruits to the temple in Jerusalem (wheat, barley, figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and olives), to celebrate the gift of Torah—they were all there ready to do that, when the leaders suddenly got filled with the rush of wind and the tongues of fire and started speaking other languages, languages which all the people who had come to the center of the city to give thanks for Pentecost could understand. And they were stunned with this feast of understanding. Peter said it was exactly as the prophet had said, that there would be a day when we would understand each other, when all the groups would speak, and all would understand: when women and men, young and old and middle aged, slaves and free, would all speak and be understood, and the boundaries between us would fall away. 

    I love this generous religious holiday from the book of Acts and how it overlaps with Jan’s feast in the absence of a common language. In Scripture, the leaders spoke and everybody understood in their own languages. And in Jan’s story, the language was food, and Jan understood it perfectly. Truly, each of us could tell a story of when we got to welcome a stranger, or a stranger welcomed us, and how easy the language was. Paul writes that the spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, when we ourselves can find the words for a prayer. 

    The word in Hebrew for spirit is the same word as the word for wind. I like to think that this means that they are in the same corner of your brain when you hear them. The word is Ruach, this concept of the breath of God and the breath of us. We breathe in the wind, we breathe in the breath, we breathe in the Spirit of God. Beatrice Bruteau would say God is hidden in these ordinary things like wind, that we might not even know were God’s. And this holiness, blowing around us and being breathed in by all of us, is holy understanding.

    My neighbors Jill and Allison are working on their sidewalk this week, on Mineral Street: Allison is building cairns and digging in their tiny garden, planting so many sweet plants, and Jill is making a tiny museum out of a doll house, complete with gardens and glass balls and Buddhas and Modigliani paintings, cut out of catalogues and lovingly wrapped about tiny boxes. They are sitting outside their house, welcoming the folks who walk by, and inviting them to sit on an upturned bucket with a rug spread on top, like a royal chair, to enjoy the art and the garden. Jill offered to give some of it away, but not all of it. I was so happy even just to be there, I thought I would just take it in. I didn’t need any words. I could understand it perfectly. And it was a gift, offered in all of the languages of the world. Art is like food: you don’t need words. Gardens are like that too. Really, the planet is, if you stop for a year and pay attention to it. You don’t need words. You can just understand it if you listen.

    When Jan finished the story, he said that the sun was rising, after all that food, and Jan wanted to sleep a little. The gardener said Jan couldn’t stay in a room or the gardener would get fired. So instead the gardener showed him a bench outside the front door, in the morning sunlight, where he could take a nap. Jan lay down and napped, and the gardener went back into the kitchen. And you know what happened next? The gardener cooked breakfast.

    Often, when people are speaking languages we think we don’t know, we actually do know how to understand them. And then there is the mystical speaking in tongues too, that sometimes goes with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Because understanding is a gift – a sacred gift – and it is beyond all the ordinary kinds of intelligence. It is its own holy gift. And today is its feast.

    In conclusion, I would like to sing you Peter Mayer’s Blue Boat Home, this new set of folk words about the understanding which Walt Whitman said was “Seeking the spheres to connect them”.  It is to the lovely old Welsh tune which Rowland Hugh Pritchard wrote when he was 19: Hyfrydol, which means lovely, pleasant, tuneful, delightful, pleasant, agreeable, harmonious. May our understanding grow in holiness, and may we be delighted by it, and may we find ourselves ever in communion, with each other, the land, the sea, and the sky. 

    Though below me, I feel no motion
    Standing on these mountains and plains
    Far away from the rolling ocean
    Still my dry land heart can say
    I’ve been sailing all my life now
    Never harbor or port have I known
    The wide universe is the ocean I travel
    And the earth is my blue boat home

  • Peace, and the sons of Korach – May 16, 2021

    Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh, Clergy

    Jill Bryant is a friend of our church member Charlotte Lindgren. She lives in Dorchester, Dorset, England, and she came to visit us at church with Charlotte two years ago. Last year, she noticed that her church was going through staggering losses, and she decided to collect people’s stories and make a little book. She saw also how people were making do, coping, helping each other.

    In this booklet, she herself tells the story about a time, during the quarantine, when she walked to a local park, and she saw an elder Frenchman there taking care of his grandson. They stopped in silence for the longest time. And then they spoke together about how they both were longing for peace. Then there was a long silence again. And then Jill said to him, because it was just that kind of a day and she wasn’t trying to impress anyone, rather, just to say the first thing that came to her mind, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” It was kind of like a Rorschach test, a hundred years to the year after it was invented, as she looked at the world, its conflicts, its intense suffering, and her longing.

    The Frenchman loved hearing her say that. It was as if he had never heard it before. He asked her all about it. He was surprised when she answered that it was a hymn that they sang at her church. He wanted to learn it. So she sang it to him. And taught it to him. And they sang it together, through their masks in the wind in the windy park while the little boy played. 

    This year has been a year of desperation and loneliness, of violence and suffering due to Covid and unjust policing and violence in cities around the globe. And it has also been a year when strangers have come together in the isolation and the quiet and the protest, and helped each other. I am so fascinated by this exquisite insight and kindness, rising up out of the suffering, and this is what I want to speak about today. 

    The psalm of the day is psalm 47, one of the 11 psalms of the sons of Korach. What happened to the Sons of Korach is important as we think about this psalm. Their story is this, and it comes from the Book of Numbers. Korach and his people got into a huge battle with Moses, perhaps because they were resentful of him. And a giant earthquake rose up, cracked the earth, and swallowed them whole. Dr. Avivah Zornberg, who is my teacher, and a Hebrew Scholar in Israel, asks the question, If they went down into the earth, how can their descendants sing in the temple? Could these songs be an expression of their experience? She has written a beautiful book about it, called Bewilderments, digging into what could have happened and how to understand it. 

    She writes so many beautiful things about it, and for today I want to consider this: this battle with Moses, who was their cousin, resulted in terrible suffering for them. They made fun of him, and ended up in literal hell. And yet somehow the Talmud describes them singing, from the bottom of the earth, as they repented of their fighting. 

    I am so interested in this: that the cracks from our worst humiliations and actions give us the option for growing spiritually, often the greatest growth we ever will have. It is when we look at our own brokenness, all the times we ourselves might have mocked Moses or back-bitten each other, and ask forgiveness and make amends, it leads us to a chance to be grateful for every scrap of this world, which of course then leads us to want to vigil for its integrity, work for its wholeness.

    So here’s the thing about Psalm 47, this song from the Sons of Korach.  It has several layers in it. On the one hand, there is a line in the psalm where the Sons of Korach say that God helped us trample our enemies under our feet. And yet then, there is a line that God holds together all the nations, and gathers the nobles of all the nations. It is as if the Sons of Korach get wiser even when they look on their own experience. They may have initially wanted triumph and victory, and then realize how wrong they were to want to trample these enemies. They realize the nations are all held by God, cherished and loved by God, and that all the guardians of the earth are God’s.

    Indeed, Korach’s close relationship with his first cousin Moses makes it both easier and harder for the two of them to be in the conflict that has such disastrous ends. Because the brokenness of Korach’s fall is a brilliant sharp edge for the light to get in. Dr. Zornberg says it this way:  that an uncontainable awareness came to them and they burst forth in their song that their descendants would sing in the temple

    So for the French man and the English woman in the park in Dorchester Dorset? 250 years ago they were mortal enemies. Last year they were side by side, overwhelmed with the racism, sickness, and suffering of the world, praying for peace. And the gift of a song came to them then, as the gift of a song came to the Sons of Korach in their looking at their mortal enemies again through another lens. And truly, all of the psalms are songs, gifts from human hands and instruments and harmonies. 

    Because songs come to us, and psalms, in our most brutal suffering, and they bring us close to each other and to God and that pure and perfect stillness. My friend Pamela just gave me this song, which I would like to sing you: a song of peace again, as the world draws us together, as God helps us synthesize our suffering and make it into transformation. 

    It is from Mark Miller.

    Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.

    No one stands alone, we’ll walk side by side. Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.

  • Mother’s Day, May 9, 2021

    –Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh

    John 15:15:  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends. 

    Today I will speak about equality.

    I want to start with a story about my tenth grandmother Ots-Toch. She was born in 1600, was a keeper of the Longhouse, and enjoyed the leadership that the Iroquois women held along the Mohawk River where many villages were located. She lived in a town called Canajoharie, in what is now New York, at the base of a large waterfall, where the water had carved a large circular hollow out of the stone. I visited it, and the hollow is about 25 feet across, and this was how her home town got its name: the pot that is carved by the water moving in circles is called Canajogolegue in Haudenoshonee.  

    According to the records saved by oral historians and her children, Ots-Toch was “Wild and savage like her mother,” which I have always been proud to know about her. Because, you see, she was there in her village at the start of colonialism in this land. And she did not think much of colonialism.

    It is the wildness and savageness of Ots-Toch that I am grateful to preach about today. I think of all our mothers, some of them well-behaved, some of them wild. I think of how the wild ones got criticized for it, and how the well-behaved ones got celebrated but also ignored. And I think about how all of them, wild and sweet, were endangered by this same colonialism. I think of what they went through, to guard themselves and us against the hardships of the world. This is important to me this Mothers’ Day, especially as I reflect on our Scripture for the day, this passage about equality from Jesus’ farewell discourse.

    Ots-Toch, like her mother, likely had two batches of children: the pure blood ones of the village, with her local husband, and the mixed-race ones, with her Dutch husband Cornelius. Cornelius joined the Iroquois clan in about 1630, moved in, and they invited him to stay for the rest of his life.

    It is so fascinating to me that this grandmother of mine held fast to the spiritual tenet of independence, against the huge pressure of Dutch colonialism. She welcomed her husband, but refused to change her ways for him. And it is fascinating to me that she was a part of the Iroquois women’s teachings which inspired the founding of Democracy in America, by her leadership in the Longhouse. The Longhouse’s work, led by Iroquois women, was to discuss the political and civil matters of the community, deliberate on how best to govern, to choose leaders, and to encourage the community to vote. A study of the Longhouse egalitarianism gave influence to the early drafters of the US constitution. American Democracy was born, as well as with its Platonic and Biblical influences, with its strong Iroquois influences. And it was a political system that spoke to the high ideal of equality.

    In the scripture passage that churches are reading aloud all over the world this week, Jesus describes equality. The Mohawks would not have known about this Christ-wisdom when Ots-Toch was a leader of their matriarchal society. But two streams of thought, in two different parts of the world, came up with the same idea. I love it when this happens.

    Equality was not the first thing the Christian evangelists thought of when they came to what they named the New World. Not to mention that what they named the New World was not a new world; the Iroquois culture was some 15,000 years old by then. 

    Yet the message that Jesus put forth to the early church here in John 15:15 was a very compelling one: no longer servants but friends. The colonialists, however, were even more interested in their business interests than they were in equality. They were caught up in trapping and trading. They found it to be so lucrative, they could hardly remember that Jesus had preached about human rights in his last sermon before he died. Their hope for land was so full of their hope for wealth, that they forgot the true message of the Gospel. 

    Jesus says he is not going to call us servants any longer, but friends now. In other words, Jesus dissolves the old names of servant and slave, decries them forever, and instead, declares that people are equal, all of us, in our relationships with each other and in our relationships with the land. 

     I am struck by the realization of what this means as I reflect on my Iroquois grandmother Ots-Toch. A lot of Christian religion has been about people trying to submit, to surrender, to sublimate. But it is clear as we read this Scripture that that model of religion, For Jesus in 33 AD, and for John who wrote it down in 110 AD, was not the only one. The Bible has two very strong rivers in it, and they are running perpendicular to each other.

    The submitting your will model of religion, which has served some people so well, in recovering from addiction, committing to a community, living not for ourselves but for a greater power: that model of surrender has been amazing for people who needed help with overcoming an alien force that had a grip on them, like a deep grief or post-traumatic stress or alcoholism. We are a lot better off, surrendering to God who gives us spiritual power to live a clean life, if we need help with that.

    But there is this powerful equality model of religion which is also in the Bible, and it stands in contrast to submission. It is about not being a servant but a friend. Jesus taught equality, having learned it in his travels in Egypt and in his studies of Second Isaiah. He offered people the chance to live, freed of servanthood. 

    Ots-Toch always refused to surrender. She always insisted that people were equal. She was so concerned about people’s equality that, when the Dutch invited her to get Baptized, she only could see the surrendering model of Christianity, and refused. She never did renounce her traditional ways. All she could see of Christianity was that it was taking land, taking up guns, taking over rivers, trapping animals for their fur.

    But here we are on Mothers’ Day with this theology of not servants but friends. People are reading this verse in churches all over the world today. Friends, not servants. Equality, not hierarchy. 

    In my studies, I find that the Christian church was only ever completely good at this in its first 300 years. And then we were good at it in small pockets, like the churches in Assisi under Francis and Claire, and the churches in Manhattan under Dorothy Day, and the churches in Georgia under Fannie Lou Hamer, and the churches in Alabama under Martin Luther King, and the churches in Nicaragua under the Theologia de la Liberacion. But the big picture of the churches for the last 1700 years, has been about taking land, taking prisoners, taking slaves, trapping animals. 

    This church in Ipswich is on land that we never had a deed to.  The First Church in Ipswich took this land without negotiating it as far as I can tell in my research, in 1636. We built a fort here, together with a church in one same building. A fort in a church! Cannons beside church pews! We have come here to worship, whether it was the God of equality, or the God of land-grabbing, ever since. Ironically, the forebears of the First Church in Ipswich took this land because we justified it with Scripture, not because we believed Jesus’ words about equality.

    It started with the first covenant. God promised to Abraham that he would have many children, and that he could occupy the lands of Palestine as his homeland. That proved to be a disaster for the Palestinians, and the use of that theology, which became the 19th century manifest destiny, is a disaster for tribal peoples still. This was a terrible problem for the village of Canajoharie where my 10th grandmother Ots-Toch lived. And it was the same here on this land.

    In Ipswich, it was a disaster for the Pawtucket people, who the settlers called Agawam. The Pawtucket were banished further and further away from the river.  Agawam means “On the other side of the marsh”.  It was theirs, their hunting grounds. This land was their spring planting grounds, watered faithfully from the lands above us here, which we still call Spring Street. 

    The local people would move from spring home to summer cottage to autumn camp to winter sheltered resting place, based on hunting and fishing and farming needs. So when the colonialists got here and saw empty villages, they wrongly assumed the people had abandoned them. They had found people’s summer cottages in winter time, or people’s harvest fields in the summertime when they were away fishing at castle hill. There also were two deadly diseases introduced by Europeans, which became a kind of biological warfare for the colonialists and in some cases decimated some 90% of the local inhabitants.

    It is devastating how colonialism got mixed up with Christianity. Because Jesus said that people would not be servants, but friends. But for 6/7th of Christianity, the greed has been a lot more powerful than the equality. 

    Which is a sacrilege, given how hard Jesus tried to leave us with peace. It was after Palm Sunday, and Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, welcomed as this brand-new kind of leader, not based on taking, but on giving. Jesus had blessed all the people of the city: Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, and everybody else. The rulers were starting to get worried because they didn’t much like equality; they were counting on usurious taxes to pay for their wars. They wanted to keep expanding their territories. Then Jesus washed people’s feet. Tom Lenhart preached for us about how counter-cultural that was, to take people’s filthy feet into his hands, a true friend, not a master with servants or slaves. Then he said he likely would be killed soon. Well, they were getting dependent on all that love! All that wisdom! All that equality! They did not want him to go. So he gave them a mandate on his way. He said something to the effect of: “You can do this for each other! I don’t call you servants! I call you friends!” 

    I would say this is one of the secret passages in the Bible, and one that the colonialists would have hoped that Ots-Toch never would have heard about.

    It is the true passage on equality, which Jesus told the people hurriedly because he knew he was likely to get executed by the Romans that same week. 

    It is this secret passage that did not get studied by the people who went confiscate the land of my 10th grandmother Ots-Toch. They wanted to take the land and the resources, and it seemed like a good idea to take them in the name of the Bible. So they said they had come to Christianize. But they had really come to capitalize. Some of them had pure hearts. But a lot of them had pure greed. 

    But today churches all over the world are reading this passage: friends, not servants, on the US Mothers Day. Mothers’ Day began in 1870, as a declaration by our Boston Feminist leader Julia Ward Howe. Though she was an imperfect peacemaker herself (not believing in equality among races, though she worked much of her life for the abolition of slavery) she called for change from her place of deep pain. 

    Imperfect in her voice, she somehow wrote a treatise declaring we had to stop war, once and for all, given how much suffering it caused, and how it hurt everybody equally. She was looking at the Franco-Prussian war, and the US Civil war, and how much people had lost lives, siblings, children. 

    She believed women across the globe could get together and resist men’s impulses to land-grabbing and death. In some ways, she was a modern Ots-Toch, calling her own longhouse gathering to change the society, in the middle of Boston common.

    I hope today that Julia would have understood equality in more expansive ways than she did in her day. I am still grateful that she did it.

    For my 10th grandmother Ots-Toch, she herself called a gathering of the longhouse to work for peace two hundred years earlier. I will be thankful to her for that forever.  I am also thankful to her for her willingness to embrace a multi-cultural family, because that is how I got here. I am one of those children from Ots-Toch and Cornelius.

    But the Bible is complex. It has the most beautiful peace. It has the most difficult covenants. It teaches equality so perfectly. It has been used to take people’s land. I used to think I could explain all of this, and all the homophobia and misogyny and racism and violence in the Bible, by studying the history of it, and putting it in context. But the Palestinians in Exodus 12 are still furious, the same way modern Iroquois are today. There is no true historical study that would allow me to justify the colonialism and racism of the Bible. 

    Because the Bible is like a series of layers of bedrock. It has equality in it, but not in every place. It also has land-grabbing, as it was used on this Pawtucket land, and as it was used at my 10th Grandmother’s land in the Mohawk River valley, as it was used for Abraham against Palestine.

    All of that is true. However, I think that this passage: I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what the master is doing, but I call you friends: gives us one good lens for looking at the rest of the Bible. It tells us we can see each other as equals, and that that should always be our first step. 

    With that lens, we can ask God and ourselves what some of the other parts of the Bible are doing, and if they are working for equality or inequality. Because if they are working for equality, that is great, and that is in the spirit of the goodness of God. If they are working for inequality, we have to turn away, and for the Christians among us, we must keep seeking this hurried message Jesus gave before he died. 

    For the indigenous among us, we keep seeking the message of the Longhouse, that people can come together in silence and song, and contemplate the village’s troubles and needs, listen to the women directing us, and follow them with our votes, as best and as faithfully as we can.

    In conclusion, I would like to offer the song from the Arapaho, from the plains of Colorado and Wyoming. It is a vision of holiness all around us, the Great Spirit calling us, encircling us, blessings us as equal children of Creation: to cherish each other, not that anybody is better, but that we are all equal. 

    I circle around. I circle around. The boundaries of the earth. 

    The boundaries of the sky. Wearing my long wing feathers as I fly. 

  • Nourishment and Care – April 18, 2021

    A sermon for Earth Day

    Rebecca Pugh, clergy

    Luke 24: 36:  “Peace be with you.” … 42:  he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”.  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

    Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke have written a 2014 book called The Living Landscape, and in it, Tallamy tells the story of his 10 acre homestead in Southeast Pennsylvania. When he and his wife Cindy bought it, it had once been a hayfield, but hadn’t been mowed for three years. It was full of stuff that had grown up over those three years.  

    I always have thought, since they taught it to me in Sunday School 50 years ago, that it is better to leave things growing. But Cindy and Doug discovered something different. They saw two different kinds of trees growing side by side: ones that were from other parts of the world, but that had seeded into his hayfield and were growing vigorously there, and ones that were native to the region where he lived, that were in some cases being choked out by the ones that were non-native. Because Doug is an entomologist, with a particular expertise in lepidoctera (that is, butterflies, skippers, and moths), he could recognize the particular caterpillars on the different trees, and see how they were doing. The local trees, and his favorite are the oaks, were full of caterpillars. The foreign trees and bushes had almost no caterpillars growing on them. Then he looked to see where the birds were. The local trees and bushes were full of warblers, thrushes, finches. The invasive trees had hardly any birds. 

    Doug and Cindy realized something that had not yet been studied. They realized that local plants support local insects, which then support local birds, amphibians, reptiles.  And foreign trees do not support the same caterpillar buffet for birds, and so the birds will keep looking for local trees rather than search in vain for food in invasive trees. 96% of birds rear their young on caterpillars. And so if your yard is full of trees that don’t have any caterpillars in them, the birds can’t feed their babies. And the babies don’t eat. 

    So the Tallamys got a pocket full of acorns, and planted oak trees. The oak tree supports 542 types of caterpillars, and it also sequesters carbon better than almost any other tree. They planted three kinds of dogwood. They planted birch trees. And viburnums. And black cherries. And beeches, and chestnuts, and elms. They were able to save the seeds for a lot of these from neighboring land, and were surprised how fast they grew. It took a lot of supervising, because invasive species kept self-seeding on the Tallamy’s property from the neighbors’, but by paying attention, they  could keep it at bay. 

    With the local plants flourishing, first the butterflies moved back. The Tallamys watched them coming: the monarchs in the lead. And because Tallamy is an entomologist, he knows that the monarch is 95 percent extinct. To see them coming back to his yard (with the help of some self-scattered milkweeds) gladdened his heart. But then, shortly thereafter, the birds came back. And when the Tallamys woke to hear them singing, they set up chairs outside. 

    One day they noticed a Blue Grosbeak singing in the ironwood tree. Doug Tallamy said he thought for a moment that it was an Indigo Bunting, but it had a different song, and a red stripe on its wing. Soon, a chocolate brown female Blue Grosbeak stopped by, and started to construct a nest in the alternate-leaf dogwood tree nearby. The thing about the Blue Grosbeaks is that they like to build their nest out of a snakeskin. Usually they hunt for one not too far from where they will build their nest, so they don’t have to carry it very far. And the Tallamys held their breath and watched. 

    Not too long later, they saw the male Blue Grosbeak carrying a four-foot snakeskin from a black rat snake. The snake had shed near a groundhog hole in the meadow pretty close to where the birds were singing. Soon, the two Blue Grosbeaks had woven the snakeskin together with grass blades and sticks, and laid three eggs in it. 

    The eggs hatched, the parent birds fed them from among the 1000 varieties of caterpillars that were prominent in the local trees that the Tallamys had planted seeds for. The babies hatched and the Blue Grosbeak family of 5 enjoyed the whole summer in the Tallamy yard, until they left for Mexico in the early autumn. Tallamy says that the male Blue Grosbeak sang every morning at seven sharp. 

    In Luke 24, we read about how Jesus shows up hungry, after the resurrection, and asks the church if they have anything to eat. We get to ponder our connections to the hunger of God, and the chance to be a part of the nourishment of the planet.  

    Jesus came back from the grave, and one of the first things he asked for is food. And not only that, but that he asked for a meal with them. He ate this food in their presence. It reminded them of all the meals they had shared, with all kinds of strangers and strange folks, from when the church was first born.

    Not only that, but when we pray “Give us this day our Daily Bread,” there are several nuances of this that we have missed, when we focus on the King James translation from the Greek into the English, which is the one we tend to say because we have memorized it. In the Aramaic version of this, which would have been the language Jesus would have spoken to the church in, it says more like, “Thank you for all you do give us, and hear us today gratefully receiving both the bread and the wisdom you offer us.” Beginning with gratitude, rather than just “Give it to us,” and continuing with sustenance and also wisdom, we have this broad version of nurture that we don’t get a sense of when we stick with the Greek and the King James English. I love that, and how it offers insight for the well-being of all creatures. 

    Today, on earth day, we get to hear the living God asking from the land for something to eat, and we get to think how we can be a part of the YES that the disciples also were a part of.

    This holy opportunity to feed God incarnate is a broad concept that calls to us on Earth Day, and calls to us in the Easter season. that Doug and Cindy Tallamy took the feeding of nature to heart. They went through their land, and looked at where it was barren, and then began to take out the barren plants, and to put in ones, instead, that were full of food. 

    They might have just put up a birdfeeder, but here’s the thing. Parent birds like the seeds in the bird feeder, in some cases. But baby birds like caterpillars. Baby birds put up a huge fight if they can’t eat what they want, and then they go on a hunger strike. You all know as well as I do what it’s like to try to feed a baby who doesn’t like what you are offering it. The Tallamys realized that all the bird feeders in the world weren’t as useful as planting a few acorns, because the babies couldn’t eat the seeds, they wanted the caterpillars who live in local trees. 

    Tallamys fed the earth, and the earth grew trees, which fed the birds, which is a beautiful way of feeding God. And then the earth broke out in song.

    So I would like to sing you the song of the Blue Grosbeak.

    Too wheet too drew Too wheet too drew Too wheet too drew : Too wheat wheat wheat!

%d bloggers like this: