Sermon – January 18, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyFollow Me

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“The next day, after Jesus had decided to go to Galilee, Jesus met Philip and said this: ‘Follow me.’” — John 1:43.

With the recent attack, the violence in Paris, many have connected religion to violence. Pope Francis, at an interfaith meeting attended by Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian leaders in Sri Lanka, addressed this idea that religion and violence are, in fact, connected.

(Quote:) “For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.” [1]

That’s a wonderful statement. And certainly one with which it’s easy to agree. But violence does exist and is, in fact, often attributed to, even connected with religion.

Further, to be clear and at least in terms of facts, we Christians should not absolve ourselves from the violence connected with religion in our history. To use a pair of obvious examples, we have embraced vestiges of violence in numerous ways from the Crusades all the way to the present in the still active Klu Klux Klan.

Incredibly, this statement is on the web site of the Klan (quote:) “Bringing a Message of Hope and Deliverance to White Christian America!”— White Christian America!— huh? (Slight pause.) What I am trying to suggest is that not only making the connection between religion and violence is an easy but shallow exercise but also absolving the connection between religion and violence as if it did not exist or did not matter is an equally easy but shallow exercise.

Scholar of religion Karen Armstrong in her work Fields of Blood lays out a history of religion and its connection with violence beginning in Sumer, a division of ancient Babylon and follows that history all the way into the 21st Century. She suggests when people in the West dismiss violence as a byproduct of religion we are being lazy and self-serving.

Blaming religion allows members of Western civilization, especially we in the Greco-Roman culture and heritage, to ignore the essential role violence played in the formation of our own societies. And indeed, our societies have played a pivotal role in seeding violence elsewhere.

“A lot of violence of our world,” Armstrong says— and this is a quote— “is violence of the state. But without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended on massive structural violence. In every single pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated serfs, peasants and kept them at subsistence level.” [2]

Put another way— and I have made this point before from the pulpit— in New Testament times ninety percent of the population lived in what you and I would call slavery. The economic system in place at that time then can only be called one of domination.

What made that economic system work was enslavement, oppression. And that, my friends, is violence not connected to any religious tradition. It is violence perpetrated for economic reasons and stands aside from how religion works in the mix.

Armstrong goes on to say (quote:), “…historians tell us without this iniquitous system we probably wouldn’t have progressed beyond subsistence level. Therefore, we are all implicated in this violence….”

“So when people say religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history this is a massive oversimplification. Violence is at the heart of our lives, in some form or another” — Karen Armstrong, scholar of religions. (Slight pause.)

I need to strongly note neither Armstrong nor I are condoning violence nor are we absolving religion in its participation with violence. We are, however, both pointing to something very few are willing to voice— violence is an integral part of human history. This is often, conveniently and in a self-serving way, ignored. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as the Gospel according to the School of John: “The next day, after Jesus had decided to go to Galilee, Jesus met Philip and said this: ‘Follow me.’” (Slight pause.)

Right after the Boston Marathon bombings I shared from this pulpit the concept that it is a futile, self-serving exercise to segregate violence into categories such as religious violence, terrorism, etc., etc., etc. Violence is violence is violence is violence.

Further, as Armstrong suggests, to exonerate ourselves from the existence of violence as if we had no role is at best massive oversimplification. But let me bring the interactions of humanity with violence from the societal level, all of these big ideas which we might be willing to dismiss those ideas as individuals, let me bring those big ideas down to a very personal level. (Slight pause.)

We all pepper our speech with metaphors. At one point I often used the phrase “rule of thumb”— a metaphor indicating a guideline.

When I found out what that phrase really means I stopped using it. What does it mean? At least since the mid-sixteen hundreds British Common Law said a husband can beat his wife with a switch no larger than the circumference of his thumb. (Slight pause.)

In short, every time I used the phrase “rule of thumb” I was unknowingly participating in, if not an act of violence, certainly a verbalization which supported violence.

And my knowledge or lack thereof did not mean I failed to participate. I said it. And violence is violence is violence is violence, even verbal violence. (Slight pause.)

Now, this weekend, as you know, we celebrate the holiday which honors the memory and work of Dr. King. We, having elected our first African-American President, sometimes lay claim to a post-racial era, devoid of racial discrimination, preference, prejudice. Is that true?

Clearly one of the pivotal episodes in striving to acquire the vote for all people in the 1960s was the March to Selma. In order to get to Selma demonstrators had to walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the place at which those who marched were attacked.

For a moment, lets ignore that obvious violent act and ignore even the clear violence which denied people the right to vote. Let me reiterate, denying people the right to vote is violence. So, like using the metaphor “rule of thumb,” which I unknowingly did, here’s a piece of violence in that story no one even notices that story of marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Who was Edmund Pettus? Pettus was elected to the United State Senate twice in the early 1900s. So, of course, you might name a bridge after him, right? Pettus had been a Confederate General— well, he got elected to the Senate, you know.

Edmund Pettus was also one of the founders of and the first Grand Dragon of the Alabama branch of the Klu Klux Klan. And still today that bridge to Selma bears the name Edmund Pettus.

If you are an African-American how do you think that would make you feel that the bridge still bears the name Pettus today? Even if you have the vote and have voted, do you think the very name of the bridge would help you feel like we live in a post-racial society, devoid of racial discrimination, preference, prejudice? (Pause.)

So, what does all this have to do with following Jesus? Jesus, you see, does not just invite us to follow. Jesus invites us to follow knowing we live in a broken world, a world filled with shattered relationships, a world wracked with violence of all kinds.

Rumor to the contrary, Christianity is not about believing a set of rules or a group of beliefs. Christianity is not about believing the right things and allowing only right thinking people in. Christianity is about learning how to be a follower of Jesus and then transforming that education into action.

In the words of theologian Kevin Vanhoozer the church exists not to guard or preserve dogma, cognitive beliefs. The Christian faith is known, shared, validated, embodied in performance. Christian life is an effort to be seriously joyful, as we strive to live blessedly with others, before God, in Christ, through the Spirit. [3] (Slight pause.)

To say the world is broken is an understatement. And just like Samuel, we need to learn to listen to the voice of God, listen for the voice of God. And the voice of God, as illuminated in Jesus, clearly says, “follow me.”

So, if we follow, perhaps we can change our own lives in small, personal ways— like changing the way we speak, the words we use. And, if we follow, surely we can reach out to one another in the love to which God invites us: covenant love, unconditional love. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Let me add this: yes, we live in a broken, violent world. If we follow Christ, we cannot let any fear of that world overtake us. When that happens, when fear overtakes us, our natural reaction tends to be fight or flee. Either one of those represents, in an of itself, an act of violence. Following Christ means living with the violence around us while embracing non-violence, as Dr. King did.”

BENEDICTION: We do not always know where the voice of God will lead us. But when we hear the call we need to follow. May the voice of God be open and clear. May our sense of God’s purpose be keen and true. May we be aware of God’s promise to be with us in our journey. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, and the presence of the Spirit of Christ which is real and available, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge, love and companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.



[3] Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine; Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

[4] This litany was used at the time of the Prayers of the People.

A Litany Honoring the Observance Of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

LITURGIST: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’” — (Psalm 137:1, 3)

PASTOR: “I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” It is not just a song; it is a resolve…. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.” (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — Why We Can’t Wait)

ALL: For the power of songs and songs of power, we give you thanks, O God.

LITURGIST: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” — (Matthew 5:43–44 [ILV])

PASTOR: “Let us therefore not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved country to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.” — (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here?)

ALL: For your realm, which stands beyond and against all nations, and your justice, which judges all people, we give you thanks, O God.

LITURGIST: “Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then God said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And God said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’” — (Genesis 4:8–10)

PASTOR: “The person who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as the one who helps perpetrate it. The person who accepts evil without protesting against it, is really cooperating with it.”
(The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adapted from the speech, Stride toward Freedom.)

ALL: For the continuing witness of the life and ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to us, we give you thanks, O God.

(The following is adapted from Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech.)

PASTOR: “Even though we must face difficulties today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed— for we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons and daughters of former slaves and sons and daughters of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at table together.”

“I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning— ‘my country, ’tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of the I sing;… from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’”

“When we allow freedom to ring from every town and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children— black… and white… Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant— will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual”:

ALL: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Amen!

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