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Still In Bud – 6/15/2014

Today is the third Sunday in June, which is the same day on which the vote was held to call me as your minister, four years ago. That was one of the peak experiences of my life, so it is a day I remember with vivid intensity. It was hot, damn hot, to begin with. The air was thick and wet, like it had already done the sweating for you before it hit your skin. Despite the weather, and the fact that we were just discovering how effective the new insulation in these walls was at holding the heat in, a great many of you came out to worship that day.

After the service you held a meeting to debate and decide: were you going to take a chance on this long-haired kid or not. My family and I – we were only three then, my daughter the same age that my son is now – went to the coffee shop down the street to wait on the decision. It was just a hint of something I would come to realize later on: that the Atomic Café is an unofficial annex of our building, and that there is no hour of its operation during which a member of this congregation is not either inside it or on their way there. We had enough time to get there, and sit down, and think about ordering something out of respect to the proprietors before one of you came with the news: the meeting was over, the vote had been taken, I was to be your next minister. The meeting had taken almost no time at all, either because it was completely uncontroversial, or because you were all very ready to get out of an over-heated sanctuary. I wonder if you remember this, Martha and Julia and Madeline – you were the first people to greet me outside of the church before I went in to say, “Yes! I accept! Hooray!”

On that day, I had already some sense of the things that needed doing, that we could and would do together. And after four years I am very proud of the things that we have done, that you have accomplished. We stood by our commitment to feed people who are hungry in this town, to grow the free supper program even as it has required more time, more energy, more volunteers and more money. We made a commitment to open this building and this sanctuary to house people who have no houses of their own and we kept and pursued that promise no matter how many roadblocks got in the way. We’ve found some creative ways to expand the spaces we use for doing church: to the park in the summertime, to our wonderful neighbor, Montserrat College of Art who’ve let us barter with them for Sunday School and committee space. And I am very proud that in less than a week we will be marching alongside many other people and organizations in the North Shore Gay Pride parade. More and more these last four years, we have become the visible force in our community for the generosity, compassion, and love which are at the heart of our faith.

Today’s blossoms were only half-promised and uncertain when I first joined you, so now four years later I want to look ahead, to what great things still wait for you to do them. What possibilities lie still in bud for First Parish, waiting to bloom? Your great strength as a congregation is in your hospitality – I take no particularly credit for that, you were like this when I met you. The joyous and needed work that I see ahead for us is just a natural expansion of this great strength: To refine and renew, again and again, the work of welcoming and including others as a spiritual practice. To weave a way of being together where everyone acts as though this is their home, and everyone else a guest in it. To reach out to each other, to new faces and old, from a place of curiosity, and genuine interest and concern.

But let me get a little more specific here. These are some of the challenges I believe we will be facing in the next ten years or so: Coffee hour is going to keep getting more and more crowded, and we’re going to need more space for the greater variety and higher attendance of congregational events and activities. That’ll mean making the most use possible of the building we have, which means making all of it fully accessible, which means someway somehow, we’re going to need an elevator. At the same time, we’ll be needing more space for more and more children and youth in the Sunday School. So we’re going to have to use some of that creativity and hopeful dedication that we try so hard to instill in our young people. Whether it means renting or buying or building, we will need to find more space for our Sunday School – and I know that we will find it, because I know that you understand how essential our ministry to and with children and youth is to who we are as a spiritual community.

But all of that is inward focused and the even greater unopened blossom I see for us is our place in the community of Beverly and in the larger world. You have begun from a place of open-heartedness, of interest in and care for the lot of those within and beyond our immediate circle, and you’ve let that lead you to try to fill some of the basic holes in our society. The next step is to add to the service of offering food and shelter a determination to strike at the root of that need. To ask why there are hungry people in a nation with too much food. To ask why there are homeless people in a nation full of empty houses. To put the same full hearts, clear eyes, and fierce wills that drive our service of charity to work in the service of activism. To start challenging the structures and the collective evils in our world that make people poor, and keep them poor, and make all of us who are not poor deathly afraid of becoming so.

The final half-open bud that I see is the place of this congregation within Beverly itself. It lies ahead for us to grow and regrow our role in this neighborhood, this town, and this region. To celebrate the 350th anniversary of this congregation’s founding – our 7th jubilee – in a way that honors our history and the responsibility that comes with it. To be a place of art, culture, learning, debate, and reflection for the people we live among – and not just the folks we think might one day sign up for our team. To put this great hall to work, more and more, in the service of the common good, and to take up our responsibility as stewards of the public space – Ellis Square – just beyond that wall. To help foster meetings between and across those invisible lines that too often divide us as a city and as a nation.

This is the season, in our movement, when new ministries most often begin. Folks are being called to new pulpits, embarking on new and exciting efforts, discovering for the first time what good work lies for them in store. There is so much excitement, so much promise, so much possibility in a new congregation, and a new call, like the one you extended to me, so recently and yet so long ago. Today, four years later, I do not have quite that same giddy energy, like a child unwrapping a new and coveted gift.

What I feel is something deeper, something clearer, and something far, far better. I feel the hope that comes from knowing you, of seeing what you are capable of and coming to believe that you have even finer things within you. My sense of what lies ahead as I stand in your pulpit comes not just from that one whirlwind week we spent getting acquainted over almost-daily potlucks, but from years spent with the privilege of being your minister. I hope for many more. So much of what this congregation can do, and can be, waits to be realized. I want to realize it, together, with you.

The Prophet Unwilling – 6/1/2014

The centerpiece of our music service this year is an oratorio entitled “Prophet Unwilling,” composed by David Wehr. The subject of the piece is the story of Jonah, from the Hebrew bible as we’ll hear when the music begins in just a few minutes. There was a moment this week when I was decidedly not working – I was doing the exact opposite, which is to say, I was reading Facebook. And entirely by coincidence, I came across a little story about the story of Jonah. Never one to turn down homiletical assistance from circumstance of serendipity, I’ll share it with you now:

Two children were talking on the playground. One of them had just been learning about whales in school and wanted to share this new information with the other. “Whales have huge mouths, but very small throats, so they can only eat very small animals.” The second child pointed out that that can’t be right, because Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The first child insisted that this was anatomically impossible, they argued back and forth for some time. Finally, the second child declared, “When I get to heaven, I’ll just ask Jonah myself.”

“What if Jonah went to hell?” the first child asked.

“Well then, you can ask him yourself.”

Now, I can spot at least three crucial mistakes in this joke – any guesses as to which? The first one is a gimme – the idea of hell as a future place of torment where bad people go when they die is just bad theology that imagines God as the universe’s torturer-in-chief. The second mistake is the whole argument about whales. In the book of Jonah, he isn’t swallowed by a whale at all: he’s swallowed by a giant fish. But the third mistake is even larger than this: it is the mistake of assuming that the bible can only be read as a history, as an account of things that actually happened. This is a really common mistake. It’s argued for by biblical-literalists, who say that every story and event contained in the bible has to have happened just as it says, but it’s also argued just as strongly by people who are anti-religious. They still argue that the bible is a history, just a bad one, full of things that didn’t actually happen – so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, the bible is a complex anthology of a lot of different genres or types of writing. The Psalms, for instance, are a hymnal: they’re collections of religious poetry which are meant to be sung by groups of people as an act of worship. The Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon is a piece of sensual and even erotic poetry, expressing the love and longing between two people. Over time, it has been reinterpreted into an expression of love and longing between human beings and the Divine. The many books of the Hebrew bible that are collectively called the prophets or Nevi’im are a genre unto themselves. There’s a certain familiar pattern that almost all of the stories follow. Think about a western – when you pick up a western novel, there are some things you expect. There’s trouble and injustice on the edge of civilization. Then, a stranger comes to town. There’s a gunfight. And the hero rides off into the sunset. You can have a western that’s entirely fictional or you can have one that’s based on historical figures, but it still tends to take on this same rough shape.

It’s the same thing with the prophets. They receive a call from God. They’re sent on a mission – for most of its history ancient Israel was divided into two kingdoms, and most of the prophets are sent from the northern kingdom to the southern kingdom, or vice versa. They deliver a message of warning, that the people should mend their ways to avoid a terrible fate. And usually, their audience doesn’t heed that warning, but we, in reading the book, become the new audience and have a new chance to change our ways and correct our own errors. The story of Jonah is considered one of the prophetic books, but it is actually a satire of the prophetic genre. It’s a joke. I’ll refresh you on the story if it’s a little fuzzy for you:

Jonah receives the call from God, but unlike the other prophets, his mission lies outside of ancient Israel. He’s sent to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the neighboring super-power, where they speak a different language and worship different gods and have vast armies that constantly threaten his own country. Jonah here’s this command to go east to the city of Nineveh – in present-day Iraq, and immediately flees to the west, gets on a boat, and sets off for Tarshish, in current-day Spain. He runs away from his calling, but he can’t escape it. A storm seizes the boat, Jonah admits it must because he is refusing his mission, and he is flung overboard by the crew, and swallowed by a giant fish. Around the time when the story is set, Nineveh was the largest city in the world; its name probably means something like, “the place of the fish”: running from one giant fish, Jonah is swallowed by another.

The real comedy, though, comes when he relents, and is vomited back up onto dry land, and goes to complete his mission to Nineveh. He warns them to repent of their injustice, lest they be destroyed – something he does not want to do. They are his enemies, and he wants them to continue their iniquity so that they will be wiped off of the map. The response is spectacular, and completely different from the expected outcome in a prophetic story. As one, the whole city hears Jonah’s message and resolves to follow it. The entire population dresses in a state of mourning, refusing to eat, and praying ceaselessly for mercy. Not only the humans, but even the animals. Picture a dog – I’m going to go with a Jack Russell terrier for mine – dressed in a black cloak, with a pillbox hat, and a gauzy black veil over its eyes. That is roughly as ridiculous as the image that is painted at the conclusion of Jonah’s story.

          Now, just because it is a joke, does not mean that it does not also have something serious and meaningful to say. Jonah is a story about knowing what is right and refusing to do it, not even out of fear, but out of selfishness and prejudice and a lack of loving-kindness. It is about the truth that when the heart knows what justice looks like, but the will cannot stir the hands to work for it, the soul grows as tormented as if we had been swallowed up by a sea monster. Yet, in every moment, we have the opportunity to turn back in the right direction, and march on towards Nineveh.

Herbert Richards, the lyricist of this piece, provided an introduction to it. I’ll read it now with some slight adjustments towards inclusive language:

Jonah, a prophet of torment, a soul of doubt, a messenger of change and now a harbinger of hope, reflects the importance of character revealed in indecision, a weakness so characteristic of modern [humans]. Jonah proved himself selfish but honest; fearful but sincere. Jonah wanted his God, but without paying the price required in the Discipleship of God. Jonah wanted peace without paying the price of peace. In fact, his life is the record of what Jonah wanted…versus what God needed…

          Modern [humanity] hears the same words: “ON TO NINEVEH, ON TO NINEVEH”. Will [we] say: “Yes, [I come]!”? Or will [we] cry out: “NAY, NAY, I STAY.”? Tarshish City represents middle-of-the-road comfort. Nineveh represents a tragic need, the kind of need no true servant of [the Good] dare ignore, lest [we] commit a sin of omission.

The Intersectionality of Evil

It is June, the threshold of summer, and I would very much like to be writing to you about something frivolous or inoffensive. Instead I have that heavy word evil up there in the title, and I am writing in the wake of yet another mass killing. This particular atrocity – words falter and fail in describing something both profoundly, cosmically wrong and yet almost common-place – has flared up the now familiar frenzy: the rush to explain. The stampede of voices running hard towards a false finish line; to name the one and singular reason why this terrible thing has happened.

It is tempting in the face of grief and death, to want a single, simple explanation for it. For someone to say, “here is what is wrong – only fix this, and such a terrible thing will never happen again.” And indeed, we have to grapple with the causes of our world’s great wrongs, to confront them, to change what is into what can be. But yearning for just one isolated cause is like when, as I child, I would tell my mother I was hungry but only for ice cream: it satisfies a craving, but it does not answer a need.

There is always more to the story than one simple reason. It’s about the crisis of mental health care and the stigma around it in our society, but it’s not just about that. It’s about the omnipresence of deadly weapons and a culture that fetishizes them, all consequences be damned, but it’s never just about that either. It’s about ingrained misogyny and violence against women as a way of life and a source of identity for too many men on our planet, but it’s not just that either. It’s about racial hatred, and a white-supremacist ideology and pattern of oppression that can make people hate the color of their own skin, but even that is not the whole story. Evil is never so simple as we want it to be; it is always intersectional.

By intersectional I mean that every evil impulse or action – on the 10 o’clock news, or in our own hearts – is formed of over-lapping, interlocking feelings, thoughts, and circumstances. Hatred leads to all manner of injustice, but it does not spring discreet and fully-formed into the soul: it is built and shaped by a thousand, thousand stories and experiences and lies. Greed may be the sovereign sin of our era, but even greed is not only greed alone: it is fear of losing, it is complacency, it is the shame of powerlessness, and a numbness to every pleasure but the thrill of acquisition. Evil – just like good, just like every human being who has ever lived – is a many-faceted, many-layered thing. Racism wraps an arm around the waist of sexism, which holds hands with homophobia, which plays footsie with transphobia, which leans on ableism for support. Every horror and injustice in our world is woven from an uncountable number of strands.

There are two ways to view this: the first is that the evil that afflicts our species and haunts our hearts is strong, and adaptable, and

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in cutting one strand we only find ourselves bound as tightly by dozens more. But here is the second outlook: because it is formed of so many different factors, stretching around and across the globe, reaching into every person and every community, evil is vulnerable. Every act of justice diminishes it, every word of truth undermines it, every expression of compassion disrupts it. Shocked and alarmed about yet-another manifestation of evil in our world, we can accept fatalistically the fine-woven pall of injustice flung over all of our shoulders, or we can seek to unravel it. We can grab hold of whichever threads we can reach, and start pulling. I know which of these choices my faith and my conscience call me to make, and I am glad to have each of you to make that choice with, and to pursue it together.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915

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