Interfaith Encounters

14_Mark_s_Gospel_D._Jesus_confronts_uncleanness_image_4_of_7._the_Syro-Phoenician_woman._Jan_LuykenThis meditation was delivered at the closing worship service of the Hawai’i Conference Clergy Retreat on Wednesday, March 8, in Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i Island, Hawai’i.

Scriptures:
Matthew 15:21-28
Acts 17:22-23

A few weeks ago, the Rev. Linda Petrucelli called me to say that Hawai’i Island Association, as hosts of this Hawai’i Conference Clergy Retreat, had responsibility for the worship and some of the program, and would I be part of the planning team. I said yes, and we went on to talk over the schedule.

We started with the opening worship, and she asked me if I’d deliver the message. I said, “No, I don’t think I should. I’ll have just given a keynote at the Church Leaders Event the week before, and I think that’s as much as anyone needs or wants to hear from me.” She thought that sounded reasonable, so we went on through the rest of the time.

When we got to the closing service, she asked if I’d deliver the message. And here’s where a key personality quirk of mine kicked in.

Is this a safe place to share this?

I can say, “No,” when somebody asks me to do something.

But only once.

And here I am.

I grew up in a Christian town. A mostly white Christian town. It was a mostly Roman Catholic Christian town, but I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know that the Catholicism of the Irish heritage at Saint Bernard’s Church was different from that of the Polish heritage at Saint Joseph’s Church.

So here I am to share my ignorance.

Each of these these two Scriptures describes an interfaith encounter. The first one didn’t go so well, did it?

“Kind and gentle” Jesus displays neither kindness nor gentleness here. He calls the Syro-Phoenicians (or as Matthew calls the woman here, Canaanites) “dogs.” That’s harsh. In fact, that way beyond harsh. They’re animals. Domesticated beasts – but their domestication is fragile, isn’t it? There’s a fearsome wolf within.

She comes back at Jesus with a challenge: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” And her challenge brings her child healing.

In contrast, we have Paul’s address to the crowd in Athens – which isn’t Christian Athens, or Jewish Athens. It’s the Athens of Zeus and Hera, of Apollo and Artemis. Specifically, it’s the Athens of Pallas Athena (whose symbol, appropriately for our speaker, was a pueo – an owl).

And Paul, who displayed his forthright tactlessness so eloquently in Second Corinthians, here reaches out very tactfully indeed to a local touchstone: the altar to an “unknown god.”

These are very different interfaith encounters.

There was a reason why I could be ignorant of the other faiths around me (and I was profoundly ignorant). Imagine my surprise to learn, over the years, that some of my school friends were Jewish. One, in fact, was the son of the local rabbi, and I didn’t know that until I’d known him for at least a couple of years.

The reason was power. It was privilege. My church – not the synagogue, and not the Irish Catholic, or the Polish Catholic Church, but my church – represented the dominant culture of the town. Its imposing granite blocks had been mostly paid for by the family whose mansion stood literally across the street. That family owned the woolen mills in town, which had employed the grandparents of my Roman Catholic and Jewish friends. I had no idea.

Ignorance of a privilege of the privileged.

That’s a critical distinction between these two interfaith exchanges: the distinction of power and privilege. Who has it, and who does not. Most of his life, Jesus would have been considered relatively power-less. He was not born to wealth, or the nobility of Israel. He was not acknowledged as a member of the ruling royal family. He certainly wasn’t a citizen of the empire that occupied his nation.

But in this circumstance, he had a power that the Syro-Phoenician woman lacked, and which she desperately needed. He had power he refused to use. And she shocked him out of his privilege. She held a mirror up to him so he could see it. Seeing it, he changed his way.

In contrast, Paul came to Athens without power. He had to persuade; he could not enforce. So he brought a humility to this encounter with these other faiths, and dared to celebrate the altar to an unknown god.

By college, I’d been through the loss and rediscovery of my Christian faith, and had come to believe that I was, in fact, called by God to Christian pastoral ministry. And it still boggles my mind.

Among my friends was a young Jewish woman (she was a year younger than I, which was enough to make her “young” in my eyes at the time) who had come to love a young Methodist.

His family did not approve. It broke their hearts.

So she asked me one day how I could become part of an organization that did such things, that caused such unhappiness. And I replied, “So that these things will never happen again.”

I was plenty arrogant to believe that I could accomplish it.

I was absolutely right to commit to it.

We come from different places in our histories and our cultures. We bring different theologies of grace and redemption. We live in different places on that damnable hierarchy of privilege and power.

But I think the testament of the altar to an “unknown god” has something for most of us. Can we bring an honest humility to interfaith conversation, encounter, and relationship? Can we set aside the privileges of power, and even of just “being right?”

Can we be honest enough to realize that, human beings that we are, we worship an unknown God, that there is more light in the light than we can know? Can we celebrate all the aloha God has shown throughout the world?

Let me be clear: There are gods not worth worshiping.

The god of racism. The god of self-aggrandizement. The god of sexism.

The god of greed. The god of love of raw power – these are the gods of American capitalism.

But these are not the gods of interfaith encounter. There we may be humble and learn.

My brother Buddhist has much to teach me about compassion.

My sister who looks to Pele – sorry, Tutu Pele – has much to teach me about how the whole world is sacred.

My non-binary sibling who prays daily toward Mecca has much to teach me about faithfulness, discipline, and courage in a community that is hostile to their faith.

In my privilege, I could stay ignorant.

But what a blessing if I take on humility and learn.

“Rising Up in Hard to Do” – Sermon for April 17, 2016

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Church of the Holy Cross UCC

Preached at
Church of the Holy Cross UCC
Hilo, Hawai’i
April 17, 2016

Text: Acts 9:36-43

In 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer died. On television, that is. The show had been cancelled, and she got a bravely dramatic death to end the series.

But in the fall of 2001, she was raised from the dead in a couple of ways:

First, the show was picked up by another network, something that rarely happens, and there were two more seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Second, the character was literally revived in her grave. Resurrected. Called back to life.

In the plot, Buffy’s friends feared that when she died, she’d been imprisoned in some dreadful dimension. It turned out that she hadn’t. She’d been someplace restful and healing; we might even call it heaven. Back in the world, she had to take up her calling again, to go fight monsters. It was actually quite a bit of a shock to her.

So when I read the story of Tabitha, I wonder. Was this woman, whose life was devoted to good works, to giving of herself to her neighbors: How did she feel about being recalled to life? Was she eager to resume her service? Or was she ready to lay down her life and rest in the hands of the loving God she’d served?

The Apostle Paul wrote: “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” Of course, he followed the sharing with, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, and I do not know which I prefer.”

In his vision, the author of the Revelation is told that those who die in Christ are blessed, for they may rest from their labors, and their deeds follow them.

Living takes work. Living makes work. Living is work.

Rising up is hard to do.

Yet there is so much rising to do.

I wonder how we will rise up again from this political season. This campaign has been littered with racism and sexism, with personal attacks, with distortions and evasions, with outright unrepentant repeated lies. How will the country revive from this? I don’t know how – and yet we must, if we are to have the country we want to have.

I wonder how those released from prison will rise up. Incarceration doesn’t prepare anyone to live. A criminal record sets people up; they face a huge obstacle to getting a job, let alone a good job, and crime starts to look like the only viable option. Just two months ago, I heard Connecticut’s Commissioner of Corrections (I’m sorry, a lot of my stories will refer to Connecticut for a while) urge a crowd to support “Ban the Box,” which would prevent employers from asking about a criminal record on an application form. What else needs doing so that newly released citizens can truly be citizens, so that they can rise up into a new life?

This church is bustling and lively. I hear the children arriving at E Maka’ala and singing as I’m drinking my coffee at the parsonage in the mornings. We have warmly welcomed other congregations to share our space and celebrate their expression of faith here. We support those in need through our gifts, our leadership, and our participation with helping agencies like Habitat for Humanity. We care for those who are homebound and hospitalized. We honor the lives of those who have, like Kay Yamauchi this week, gone from our care to God’s. Our people are sought for leadership in the wider church. Other UCC congregations look to us for leadership and for energy.

So we are not dead, or even close to it. But there are signs that we could use a little rising up, now aren’t there?

I’ve sent a letter back to Connecticut, asking to transfer my church membership here. When I join, the average age of members at Church of the Holy Cross will actually go down. Slightly. And I’m 52.

By the way, this is a trait we share with the United Church of Christ as a whole. This chart shows American denominations on a graph that links average member age with years of education. On average, we’ve been to school a lot. But we’re also among the oldest churches in the US.

I’d like to make it clear that it’s not a problem that so many of you have been blessed with long lives. I thank God for that. It’s not a problem that you’ve been loyal to the church. I bless you for that! Further, I think it’s wonderful that your spirits have been fed in, with, and by this community of Christians.

My concern is that we haven’t served other generations as well. Hunger of the spirit, I think, is nearly universal, so there are hungry people out there, who need to have their spirits raised. But they haven’t found that nourishment for the soul in what we’ve been doing, at least, not enough, or they’d be here. They may still be hungry.

Let me take you back a few years to my college days. I didn’t go to church my freshman year, not at all. But at the beginning of my second year, I sought one out, and I was lucky to find one that was walking distance away. Why did I look, and why did I go?

I was tired of spending all my time with 18 to 22 year olds. I wanted to see a wider range of the human family. I wanted to see babies, and I wanted to see grandparents. And, I liked to stand there in the pew and sing the hymns.

I got all of that. What I hadn’t expected was to be completely gathered in by the pastoral prayer. That became the center of the service for me. I still can’t really tell you why. The Rev. Doug Green, the senior pastor, was a wonderful preacher, but I was there waiting for the prayer.

That’s probably unique to me – people who have known me for a long time will cheerfully tell you how different I am. It does show how different people can be fed in different ways.

We need to make sure that your spirits continue to find refreshment and healing here. I do not believe we need to trade the needs of one generation for another. But to serve those who are younger, or come from different cultures or spiritual backgrounds, we will need to try some things. To start, here’s my plan:

Step One: I plan to ask many people many questions.

Step Two: I plan to be quiet and listen to the answers.

By the way, Step Two is a personal challenge. If you ask a New Englander a question, they’ll start talking immediately, and think while they’re talking. I gather that here, people are more likely to think first, and let the silence stretch. So I plan to be quiet and wait.

Out of all that asking and listening, we’ll work together to choose some things to try, things that seem like they’d have a good chance of benefiting people. Sometimes we’ll be right, and things will go well. Sometimes we’ll be wrong, and it just won’t work. That’s OK. We need to know what doesn’t help nearly as much as what does. It just means we’ll have to try something else.

We do not occupy the place of Tabitha, or Dorcas, in this story. We have not died. We do stand in the place of Tabitha’s friends and companions, the ones who summoned Peter. Rising up is hard to do, but it’s also hard to persuade someone else to rise up. It’s a curious question, when you think about it. Why did these faithful women have to call for Peter? As I was reading this week, that question jumped off a page and stuck in my mind, and I haven’t been able to find the reference to give the person who asked it credit.

It didn’t have to be Peter, did it, who asked Tabitha to rise. The women she’d known all her life, the ones who wore the tunics she gave them, the ones who wept for her and washed her and honored her: they could have said those words, “Tabitha, get up.” They didn’t need an outsider. They didn’t need a man.

It didn’t have to be Peter. It could have been them. It could be us.

For those whose hearts are low, for those in whom the wellsprings of the spirit run dry, for those who hunger for justice, or rice, or opportunity, or wisdom: it doesn’t have to be the women of Joppa who summon them to rise. It doesn’t have to be Peter. It can be us.

Friends: Let it be us.

“Breakfast” – Sermon for Apr. 10, 2016

Preached at
Church of the Holy Cross UCC
Hilo, Hawai’i
April 10, 2016

Text: John 21:1-19

Some of you have, I suspect, had a question on your mind for half hour or so:

Is he really going to wear a tie every Sunday?

Some of you may have followed this question with another, more personal one:

Is he going to expect me to wear a tie every Sunday?

I can answer the second question immediately: No. I have no intention of introducing a new dress code for worship at Church of the Holy Cross. That’s a mistake the early missionaries to Hawai’i made, and I don’t care to repeat it. The important thing is to worship God, and clothes should not be a barrier to that. Wear what makes you worshipful. That might be what makes you comfortable, but it might not. Wear what helps you focus on the love of God.

As for myself: that’s one of the things I’ll be learning as time goes on. I’ve worshiped wearing a jacket and tie, or a pastor’s robe and tie, for over forty years. I’m pretty sure that’s going to change now, but I’ll be frank: I don’t know what I’m going to look like in worship next week, let alone next year.

Which brings us to the disciples. Jesus had been crucified, which left them terrified and paralyzed. Then Jesus had been raised, which left them exalted and amazed. They hardly knew what to believe.

This week finds them not knowing what to do. When Jesus appeared to all his disciples, including Thomas, who must really have regretted missing that earlier gathering, he’s startlingly vague about what they’re to do next. They’re joyful, they’re exultant, they’ve renewed their courage – but they’re not committed to any particular direction. So they return to Galilee, which had been home for many of them, and the fishermen among them take up fishing again, with no great success until Jesus appears. This time he’s got a commission, and they won’t use nets to fish ever again.

Gathered for Thanksgiving in 2014

Gathered for Thanksgiving in 2014

They’re on the road to change.

So are we. You and I, the faith community of the Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo, and Eric Anderson born in Middletown, Connecticut. We have met, and we have committed to follow the leadership of Christ together. Christ will change us, and we will change each other. Just what we will look like, and how it will all happen, is still ahead. God knows, but I do not.

I do know that there are more of you than there are of me, and that means I’ll change more than you.

But this is where I come from:

Shirley Anderson

Rev. Shirley Anderson

Lynn Anderson

Rev. Lynn Anderson

This is my family gathered for Thanksgiving a couple years ago at my brother’s house in New Haven. My father, Lynn Anderson, worked as a public school educator for over 30 years, retired early, and entered the ministry. My mother died quite some time ago, and around twenty years ago, while in seminary, my father met and married Shirley Anderson. Both of them have served churches in New England, and they’ve both reached their second retirement. So there are three ordained ministers in my immediate family. I’m the youngest, and I’ve also been ordained the longest.

Rebekah and Brendan Anderson

Rebekah and Brendan Anderson

It was my cousins who bought this tie for me, in celebration of my call to Hawai’i. They made the selection for the bright colors, of course, which can be found in the aloha style, but I don’t think that a large paisley pattern is really Hawaiian – and, of course, it’s a tie. We don’t really know a great deal about Hawai’i back east. I come to this ministry aware that I have a lot to learn!

Incidentally, one of those things is how often to water the plants in the parsonage. They’re all new varieties to me, and I’d value some pointers!

These are my adult children. Brendan on the right is twenty-three, a graduate of the University of Vermont, and has been volunteering in a 3rd grade classroom in Boston this school year. Rebekah is in her third year at Hampshire College, and she wants to be a writer. They are simply two of the most wonderful people I know.

Glastonbury Choir

The choir at First Church in Glastonbury

Rev. Kate VanDerzee-Glidden and Rev. David Taylor

Rev. Kate VanDerzee-Glidden and Rev. David Taylor

David Taylor and Kate VanDerzee-Glidden are the pastors of First Church of Christ Congregational UCC in Glastonbury, Connecticut, where I’ve worshiped for the last ten years or so. They gathered people together to present me with this stole, which celebrates both New England and Hawai’i. On the back, church members and friends wrote their blessings and best wishes for me, and I’ve been reading them with tears in my eyes.

This is the choir at First Church in Glastonbury singing at the service the Connecticut Conference held to celebrate my ministry. You’ll notice that they all donned leis for the occasion – and had one for me. What you can’t see in the photo is the gift certificate they gave me for a music shop here in Hilo, to purchase an ukulele and start to learn to play it.

And I’ve even gone out to buy it!

Eric and Paul Bryant-Smith

Eric and Paul Bryant-Smith

And this is my friend Paul Bryant-Smith. He’s pastor of a church in Danbury, Connecticut, and also a hospital chaplain. The two of us have made music together for twenty years. In this picture, also from that farewell service, I’m playing him wearing heavy winter clothing, and he’s being me, playing ukulele. We are, of course, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

And then there’s this photo. I took it at the Hilo airport. Because my flight was early, which I gather isn’t common, some of you who came to greet me hadn’t arrived yet when I took this picture. I think I was also wearing at least two more leis when I left the airport.

This picture has been liked 235 times on Facebook. I’m pretty sure that’s the most affection any photo has ever received on my Facebook account.

I’m showing you all this to make sure you know something very important about me: I know what it is to be loved. I have been blessed to live among loving people. In these smiles and waves and leis, I know that I am blessed to live among loving people again.

Church of the Holy Cross members welcome Eric Anderson to Hilo.

Church of the Holy Cross members welcome Eric Anderson to Hilo.

Jesus asked the impulsive, jump-into-the-water Peter this question: “Do you love me?”

It’s a tough question for him, and in fact Peter does some linguistic gymnastics with words for “love” that don’t translate from Greek to English.

That’s for another time. It doesn’t matter what kind of love Jesus asks about, and it doesn’t matter what kind of love Peter declares, because every time Jesus insists: “Feed my sheep.”

“Do you love me? You do? Feed my sheep.”

Or he might have put it this way: “Do you love me? You do? Love those around you.”

Feed my sheep.

There are a lot of ways to be hungry in the world: the hunger of the stomach, the hunger of the mind, the hunger of the soul.

The hunger of the stomach seems simple, doesn’t it? I get hungry. I eat. Problem solved. But the hunger of the stomach is not so simple, not by half. For one thing, food alone won’t do. I need to drink water as well, and my officemates back at the Connecticut Conference are still telling stories about my need for coffee.

Yet there’s another important question to ask: When people are hungry, why are they hungry? Why don’t they have access to food, or water, or work, or support? How can we prevent today’s hunger from becoming a pattern, or an apparently permanent condition?

Feed my sheep.

The hunger of the mind, likewise, may not be satisfied by the delivery of books or the establishment of schools. People learn differently, and techniques that work well for vast numbers of people may be utter failures with some others. You can see the frustration build when someone’s trying to learn in a way that doesn’t work well for them. If you’re trying to learn something from me, and it’s not working, let’s try it again, but this time, let’s try something different. And if I’m trying to learn something from you, and it’s not working, let’s try it again, and this time, we’ll try something different.

Pastor Eric in his tie and stole - and first Sunday lei.

Pastor Eric in his tie and stole – and first Sunday lei.

And there’s the hunger of the soul. When it comes right down to it, confronting this human need is my calling. My place among you is to help you satisfy the hungers of your soul.

Most of the time, I will not be able to meet that need myself. It would be lovely if I could do it in a sermon, but no. Not in one sermon, and most likely not in twenty years of sermons either. If I’m doing well, from time to time I’ll say something that feeds you just a little, and on the days when I don’t, hopefully I’ve said something to feed someone else.

The sermon isn’t the only source of spiritual food, however, and it’s my role to help you try things that might feed you. There are many different approaches to prayer, and some might bring you closer to God than others. Music has astonishing power to fill the soul. I’ll do my best, and work with the leadership, to lead worship that is authentic and engaged. We can study the Bible and other spiritual works. We can take retreats. We can engage in public service and public witness. We can sit together and talk about baseball, or your grandchildren, or your job. If your soul hungers, let’s work together, and find ways to fill your spirit.

The risk of having a satisfied soul is that Jesus summons them. He says, “Feed my sheep.” We’re not the only ones who hunger in body, mind, or spirit. There are others, near and far.

Our work together as the Church of the Holy Cross United Church of Christ in Hilo, Hawai’i, is to answer the call of Jesus, and labor to see that those who hunger – in body, mind, or spirit – are fed.