31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
February 11, 2024
Matthew 7:12, 25:34-40
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
If you don’t know his story, you definitely know his name. Johnny Appleseed was a real person. He was born John Chapman in Massachusetts in 1774. Many a camper knows the Johnny Appleseed grace “O the Lord is good to me…” And perhaps that brings to mind the image of a man walking along and spreading apple seeds wherever he traveled.
In truth, Johnny Appleseed didn’t plant random apple seeds. He planted nurseries of apple trees, fenced them in and left them in care of a neighbor before moving on to plant another nursery. Known for his kind and generous ways, Johnny planted apple trees to provide food for others and to care for the earth.
Planting orchards wasn’t the only reason Johnny was on the move though. Johnny Appleseed was also a church missionary, traveling throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio, sharing the good news of God’s love, as he also shared the goodness of God’s creation.
Through his words, through his actions, through his care of the earth, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman lived the golden rule “Do to others [as] you would like them to do to you.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)
You don’t know her name. You don’t know her story; however we should. Anna Harlow Birge was a Christian missionary. She served in the Ottoman Empire with both her brother and her husband, working with the International College, which was for young men, as well as with the American Collegiate Institute, a school for girls.
I might never have known her name if not for a large bronze tablet the church has come to inherit that says, “In loving and grateful memory of Anna Harlow Birge a missionary in Smyrna from 1914 to 1922 placed here by ‘her boys’ to whom she was a protector and friend in the hours of peril.”
Turns out, according to a New York Times article from 1927, the bronze tablet was given by forty boys, forty Armenian youth than Anna saved from the Armenian Genocide.
I did not even know much about the Armenian Genocide until a member of the Birge family told me about this horrific time in our world’s history. Without going into too much detail, there came a time, which seems to come too often in every country’s history, when the Ottoman Empire declared that “Turkey should be for the Turks”, ending generations of a multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.
This was just about the time of WWI and the Christian Armenians were targeted as a threat. ‘They would side against Turkey and its German ally.’ ‘They had caused Turkey to lose a previous war and would do so again’. And so the atrocities began. Forced deportations. Forced marches to concentration camps. Destruction of Armenian settlements, like the city of Smyrna, where Anna and her family lived.
The years given for the Armenian Genocide are 1915-1916; however persecution of the Armenians continued into 1922 when the Turks entered Smyrna and burned almost the entire city to the ground, including the girls’ school.
As it was told to me, Anna and her family, as Americans, were being evacuated and brought to safety. Anna would not leave her students behind though. She brought as many as she could with her, and when the authorities tried to stop her, when they told her she could only bring her own children, she boldly declared – well, this is Mahmoud Birge, and this is Mikal Birge and on and on she went, claiming them all as her “boys”.
Through her teaching, through her service, through her heroic act that saved forty young men’s lives, Anna Harlow Birge lived the golden rule “Do to others [as] you would like them to do to you.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)
He works with Doctors without Borders. Ze works locally, making meals at the local soup kitchen. She donates books to the library and money to Heifer Project International. They volunteers playing bingo at a local nursing home. Through their church or school community, they donate fruits and vegetables and healthy cereals to food pantries and weekend backpack programs.
Their names are known and unknown to you. They are your neighbor or your family member. They are the person you walk past in the grocery store, the library, the Senior Center. They are the cub scouts from Pack 6 and Pack 425 making valentines for others. They are the Sunshine card ladies creating little bits of joy to send out to those in the world. They are our school staffs in Bristol and beyond, every day sharing compassion and kindness with the youngest members of our society.
Every day, people all over Bristol, all over New England, all over the United States and the world, are taking care of others, sharing God’s love with others. It might be with people we know. It might be with people whose names we will never know.
Every day, those of the Christian faith, those of every faith and belief, are acting upon Jesus’ words to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to visit those in prison, to clothe those in need and care for those who are sick.
Every day, you and me and countless others are sharing our gifts through acts of service, caring for the “least of these”, caring for those who might otherwise be overlooked, forgotten, pushed aside. Those acts of service might take quite an investment of time or those acts of service might be as simple as holding the door open for someone, returning a shopping cart, or smiling.
Every day, with your acts of kindness, with your acts of service, with your acts of compassion, you are living the golden rule, doing “to others [as] you would like them to do to you.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)
Many choose a life of service. For those of us who have decided to follow Jesus, a life of service is the only way. Jesus calls us to care for others as we want others to care for us. Jesus wants us to be kind. Jesus calls us to be compassionate. Jesus invites us to love, to unconditionally love. After all “This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)