Missed Church? Pastor’s Sermons

DID YOU MISS CHURCH?

Rev. Betsy A. Garland

Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland

SERMONS

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Timing Is Everything

Matthew 25:1-13

November 12, 2017

The bridegroom was running late.  He had gone to his beloved’s home to pick her up and perhaps had been waylaid by her parents, with last minute negotiations about the dowry with his father-in-law to be, or by a mother, fusing with her dress, a father, hesitant to let his little girl go.

In this story, guests have assembled at the home of the bride to wait for the bridegroom.  When he comes, the family and their guests, and the bridesmaids, will form a festive procession, and the entire party will walk together to the home of the bridegroom where his parents are waiting for the ceremony and the extended banquet that will continue for several days.

Weddings in Jesus’ day were as emotionally-laden as weddings can be today.  There would, of course, be near-disasters, just as we experience them today:  The florist never arrives with the flowers; the best man loses the ring; the groom forgets the license.  The older sister resents that she is still unmarried and is rude; the uncle gets drunk and embarrasses the family; the wine runs out as it did at Cana – when Jesus was called upon to turn water into wine, his first miracle.

Jesus deliberately has chosen a wedding – with all the emotional commotion that such an event can bring – to explain what the God’s realm will be like:  “The kingdom of heaven will be like this,” he tells them.  We can expect a mixture of tears and profound hope for the couple – but also sometimes, anger, frustration, and resentment.  The kingdom of heaven will be like thisOur spiritual lives can be messy!

Writing his gospel about 50 years after the resurrection, Matthew chooses this parable from among all the stories which are circulating in the early church.  He is the only one of the gospel-writers to do so; Mark, Luke and John don’t include this story in their narratives.  But Matthew incorporates this parable as part of what are called “farewell discourses” as Jesus prepares his disciples for his leaving.  Why does he include it for his listeners in the early church?

We know that the members of the early church were waiting for Jesus’ return.  Although some scholars believe that Jesus’ return already had happened in Jerusalem soon after the resurrection.  You will remember the stories of his appearing to the disciples who were in hiding and breaking bread with them; and later Thomas’ need to put his hands in Jesus side in order to believe.

But the early church was expecting something more, and the faithful are getting tired of waiting!  Scholars call this waiting and hoping period by the Greek word parousia, meaning “second coming.”  And, as we know, many Christians are still waiting!

And so we have a parable about waiting and being prepared.  Ten bridesmaids (sometimes translated “virgins” or “maidens”) are waiting for the bridegroom to come.  Half of them had anticipated that they might need an extra supply of oil if he were delayed – those who are called “wise” – and some left home without thinking they might need to refuel and were caught short – those who are called “foolish.”

And so the foolish have to make a hasty trip at midnight to a 24-hour convenience store that stocks lamp oil – and they miss the arrival of the bridegroom.  When they return, the door is locked, and they miss the party.  As they say, timing is everything!

The bridegroom, of course, is Jesus – who has come later than they expected.  The wedding banquet is the kingdom of heaven.        And the maidens are the members of the church, and some are prepared for his arrival with an extra supply of oil – and others are not ready.

So Matthew writes to urge his readers (you and me) to prepare to wait – and not to assume that we have enough oil – that is, enough knowledge, faith and love – in our lamps right now.  Faith, hope and love are tools for living in this time, before eternity,not tools to gain entrance into it.  We are called to let our light shine in the here and now!

Another way to look at this parable focuses on the closed door and the illusion of endless opportunity.  We presume we have all the time in the world to rebuild a broken relationship, to offer a needed word of gratitude or forgiveness, to tell our family and friends we love them, to save for retirement, to make out a will, even to replace a bad habit with a good one.

We put off for today what we presume can be done tomorrow.  But in this parable, there is a note of finality.  When the bridesmaids return from their shopping trip, the door is closed.  It is too late.  There is a timeliness of faith and love.

In Matthew, the wise are those who know and tend to this.  With good works and acts of faith in God, they prepare for an unknown but secure future.  The foolish assume a bright future but do little to prepare for it.”  “Now is the time to sense the clicking of the clock … or the closing of certain doors,” writes theologian Lindsay Armstrong.  “One of the secrets taught by [Jesus and recorded by] Matthew is that faithful action done now prepares us to weather the unexpected timing of God.  The Messiah comes at the right time – which is altogether better than coming at the convenient time or on our time – and brings a party with him.”[1]

A third way to look at this parable is to take the focus off the oil and focus on the bridegroom.  Of course he’s late, with his proclivity for enlarging his circle of connections.  He would have stopped along the way to dine with sinners, talk with a foreigner, or heal a person with leprosy.  One time, he even stopped on a hillside to assure people of God’s blessing, despite the world’s insistence otherwise.  The mourners, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, the peace makers, the poor in spirit, together with all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

If the wise had really been wise, they would not have horded the oil, they would have shared it with those whose supplies were running low.  They would have known the bridegroom would have preferred that everyone be at the party, even if some of their lamps were not too bright.

Are we wise or foolish?  The truth, of course, is that we are both.  Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference.  As they say, timing is everything.  But it’s never too late to remember who our host is and to whose celebration we are invited.

May it be so!

Amen.

[1] These ideas about time and the quote are attributable to Lindsay P. Armstrong writing in Feasting in the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4.  P. 289.

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Mount Vernon Larger Parish

Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed Are You

November 5, 2017 – All Saints Day

The writer Matthew begins his gospel with the account of the birth of the baby Jesus, with his baptism as an adult by his cousin John, then with his calling of the disciples, and now, in this Sunday’s text, with the beginning of his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee.

The crowds are enthralled by the arrival in their midst of this new prophet who has just been baptized in the Jordan River and whom God has just proclaimed, “This is my Son, my beloved, my chosen one, with whom I am well pleased.”  John the Baptist has raised expectations.  Has the Messiah, for whom they have waited for generations upon generations, come to overthrow the Roman occupation?  Matthew has set the stage so that his listeners might expect that “heads will roll” as Jesus comes to power.

We are watching the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – and he surprises the crowd.  We know that Jesus was always surprising someone because we are privy to the rest of the gospel.  But the people who have gathered on the hillside around Jesus, at the beginning of the story, do not.  Jesus begins to teach.  Even non-church, Biblically- illiterate people know these are the kinds of words we can expect from Jesus:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit…, blessed are those who mourn…, blessed are the meek…”.  What kind of a savior is this?  Jesus’ message was revolutionary – but not the kind of “revolutionary” the crowds expected.

This Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved passages in our scriptures.  It’s also one of the few scripture passages that are part of our lectionary every year on All Saints Day.  The word “saints” comes from the Hebrew and means “holy” or “set apart for God’s use” or “consecrated as possessions of God.”  A “saint” is someone special for God.

The Hebrew people understood themselves as God’s covenant people, and the early Christians understood themselves as the continuation of that heritage.  The people in the early church thought of themselves as “saints.”  Remember how the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, urging them “to equip the saints for ministry?”  The Christians were God’s ecclesia people, God’s church people, the saints of God.

In the Roman Catholic Church, saints are a select few who pass a strict examination and have chalked up a miracle or two to their credit.  But in the Reformed tradition, the Protestant tradition, all members of the covenantal community are saints.  Now we may not be “saintly” and pure, in the popular sense.  All ten commandments – and a bunch that are not on that list – have been broken by one or more of us gathered here, broken by those for whom we will light a candle.  To pretend we are all holy and righteous is to deny the truth.

But we are set apart, sinners though we are, for God’s service.  You and me, all of us, called by God.  And so, this morning, we recognize our saints who have gone before us.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the saints:  Blessed are you, he says to the saints listening to him on the hillside.  Blessed are you, he says to the saints among us this morning.  What do we hear?  Not a military message, surely.  This is what I hear in Jesus’ words on this All Saints Day:

Blessed are you . . .  who mourn the death of a spouse, a parent, a friend, for you will be comforted by this community of faith.

Blessed are you . . .  who have left the church because of our hypocrisy, for God hears the hunger of your heart and welcomes you home.

Blessed are you . . .  who are hungry or homeless, who are unemployed or who work three jobs to make ends meet – for you will be filled with good things.

Blessed are you . . . who speak up for health care for all, stand up for a living wage and a fair distribution of wealth, lobby for legislative policies to help the poor – for you will receive mercy.

Blessed are you . . .  who are persecuted because you have been foreclosed and are living in your car, or are a refugee or an immigrant, or are lesbian or gay or trans – for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you . . .  when your classmates pick on you because you’re a nerd, or are laughed at when you protect someone being bullied, or are teased if you speak up for the values of the gospel – for you stand in a long line of prophets.

Blessed are you . . .  when you defuse hostility, build understanding, and bring reconciliation to the church, the community and the world – for you will be called the children of God.

Rejoice and be glad, Jesus says.  Blessed are you, Jesus says.  Blessed are you, saints of God, who show the work and ways of a God who is full of surprises!  Blessed are you!

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

For the Love of God

Matthew 22:34-46

October 29, 2017
A Pharisee stands up in the midst of the crowd and asks Jesus a question:  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  We don’t know whether this lawyer is trying to outwit and discredit this young rabbi – or whether he is seeking an answer to his own questions of faith – even in this unlikely place and from this unlikely source.

 

In Matthew’s gospel, this passage appears in a series of rapid-fire questions from the religious authorities who are grilling Jesus in the temple.  The Pharisees maintained huge libraries of commentaries about the Torah.  They believed themselves to be the experts in the law, not this country bumpkin from Galilee who came without a Torah scroll or a filing system.  And so they seek to trap him.

 

There were, of course, a lot of commandments to choose from.  The rabbis of Jesus’ day counted 613 commands in the law – 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of parts of the body, and 365 negative commands, corresponding to the days of the year.  Their view was that all the commandments were equal, with any ranking of them seen as the height of human arrogance.  The lawyer thinks that if he can get Jesus to make a statement that chooses one part of the law over another part of the law – for example, declaring the moral laws as being more important than the ceremonial laws – then they can discredit him.  Jesus already interprets some of the laws differently from the Pharisees, such as laws about healing on the Sabbath, and we remember they were not happy with him!

 

Jesus must know that he playing with fire, endangering himself and his disciples.  It is no coincidence that the word Matthew uses for “test” is the same word “test” he uses to describe what Satan is doing to Jesus in the wilderness in chapter 4.  This is a set-up.

 

You know what Jesus answers.  He honors the lawyer’s question with two grand texts from the Torah:  The first is from Deuteronomy (6:5) in the Old Testament, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  This is the great, “Hear, O Israel” Shema text that opens every worship in a synagogue, words that would be familiar to every Jew in the crowd, words that pious Jews still recite morning and evening as a prayer, words that are attached to door posts in little containers called mezuzahs, words that some wear on their foreheads in leather boxes called phylacteries. This is a command to be carried, worn and touched.

 

But even more than that, this is a command to be lived.  The words on a scroll are unnecessary because they were recited daily.  The irony is that those Pharisees standing in front of Jesus in their phylacteries had the text in paper and ink, but in their desire for religious correctness, they didn’t practice it.

 

All his hearers there in the temple – Pharisees and lay people alike – would be familiar with these words. And they would have understood what Jesus tells them a few verses later:  listen to the teachings of the Pharisees but do not do what they do, “. . . for they do not practice what they teach” (vs. 23:2).  Of all the commandments, this is the first and the greatest, not just to be taught but to be lived.

 

And then Jesus expands on this commandment in Deuteronomy by raising a commandment from Leviticus (19:18), “And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This commandment is not just to be worn on the forehead, but it is also to be kept in the heart and obeyed through the hands.  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” If you put these two commandments together, says Jesus, you will boil down all the words of “the law and the prophets.”

 

The lawyer may or may not have been sincere in his question, but he has asked the one question that gets at what really matters in life – to love God and your neighbor as yourself.  This is the heart of the gospel; this is the heart of Jesus’ ministry.

 

These commandments are more easily proclaimed than lived, however!  What does it mean to love God?  Have you thought about that?  How does one love God, the mysterious and elusive one?  Can you and I even understand who or what God is?  In Jesus’ day, his listeners would have understood that loving God meant worshipping in the synagogue, sacrificing in the temple, following the commandments – in other words, not worshipping the Emperor and pagan idols.

 

And Jesus must have meant that caring for each other to be one of the ways one loves God, when he adds the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

But let’s not collapse the loves – because there are really three loves here, aren’t there? Love for God, love for self, and love for neighbor.  Now, it’s tempting to skip to neighbor love.  The gospels are full of Jesus’ teachings about caring “for the least of these.”  Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example:  “Who was the good neighbor?” “The one who showed him mercy.”

 

But let’s not avoid the commandment to love God.  Jesus commands us to love God.  So, does he show us how?  Can we learn from watching Jesus?  We know Jesus was in love with God; he spent time with God in prayer; he asked for God’s guidance; he cried aloud to God when he felt abandoned.  Jesus was in love with God.  “God” was not an intellectual exercise for Jesus, something that existed in his mind only.  Yes, Jesus urges us to love God with our mind, but he also loved God first in his heart, in his very being, in his soul.

 

We modern folks might ask, who or what is God in a world that is orbited by satellites which bring minute by minute news to our cellphones?  Where is God in a world of natural disaster, human sin, sickness and death?  And how do we love such a God with our heart, soul and mind?  With everything we’ve got?

 

The mystics have not been shy about loving God with passion. In the 16th century, John of the Cross wrote a poem, “On a Dark Night” which begins with the poet “kindled in love with yearnings” and moves on to images of being entwined with God.[1]  Are these images too erotic for us Protestants?  And a Jesuit student of Ignatius has hoped to be “seized so completely by the love of God” he writes, “that all desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God.”[2]

 

And what of us?  Can our limited minds even fathom the height and breadth and depth of God – let alone how to love God?  A few years ago, when I was in chaplaincy training, we were charged to write a paper on the question, “Who is God for Me?”  I spent a week struggling with the question.  Anything I wrote about God seemed to confine God, to box God in, to take away the mystery.  Perhaps that’s why orthodox Jews do not say the word “God” but only write G-d as a symbol of what is too holy to be named.  Any attempt on my part to describe God reduces God to my words and my understanding.  In naming God, and in applying characteristics to God, we make God a particular thing, less than God, less than mystery.

 

Yet we are called to try:  And finally I wrote in part, this poetry:

 

God is the Something-There-Is…

 

the idea encoded, the Word,

which defies boxes:  language, doctrine, institutions,

and overflows any vessel we create to contain It.

which supersedes maleness – and femaleness –

and begs to be called and clothed in a language which has relevance

in an age of reason.

 

who is everything-ness and nothingness,

sufferable and suffering in a wounded world, un-controllable and out-of-control.

divinity found in all of the great traditions – and in none of them,

in the furthest cosmic galaxies and in the nearest computer chip.

 

and, when described, dissolves into poetry, de-structs into the un-nameable,

and is no longer God.

 

I resonate with the mystery of God, with the “Something-There-Is.”  Yet, how does one know such a God?  Love such a God, as Jesus commands us?  Perhaps, if our hearts go out to everyone and everything, we are living as Jesus did – and then we are loving God . . ..  What do you think?  Or, suppose we were to wake each day, breathless with the expectation that God will become known to us, this very minute, this very hour?

 

Jesus certainly invited God to accompany him day by day.  Could we do that?  Invite God in?  Would we then be loving God?

 

Perhaps we all spend too much time in the busyness of our little lives.  Perhaps, if we spent more time, taking time, to care for ourselves, in meditation and study and reflection, if we loved ourselves more in this way, we might find our way to God and to each other.

 

And just maybe, if we are open to experiencing the Spirit like the mystics, we will experience God near us, just there . . ..  Can you sense the light on the other side of a thin veil?  Then, then are we loving God?

 

We have learned from Jesus that God loves each and every one of us with a love we cannot even begin to imagine.  And God is reaching out right now, inviting us to love – waiting for us to love God back.

 

May it be so.

Amen.
[1] Allen Hilton, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, page 216.
[2] James W. Skehan, op. cit., ibid, page 217.

 

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Today’s text is a tall order!  This letter is about love and harmony.  What, do you suppose, prompted the Apostle Paul to write it to his little house church in Rome?  What stories must have gotten back to him from the mission field?

These little churches, which were spread all across the empire, were very different from the world around them.  They were made up of people from all walks of life and all stations in society – rich and poor, free and slave, men and women.  They were full of diversity.  And that makes getting along difficult.  Imagine the chaos and conflict!  Who is in charge?  How to make decisions?  As you can expect, there was considerable quarreling, and there were lots of church fights.

Somehow, they must have lost touch with – or never really understood and internalized – an essential teaching of Jesus, one at the core of the Gospel.  What is the greatest commandment, according to Jesus?  “Love the Lord your God.”  And the second?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  How do we do that?  What does it mean?

Paul takes steps to make neighbor-love more explicit, and he counsels his little house church on what it means to be Christian disciples, on the right way of being and acting in a faith community, on establishing life-giving values, attitudes and behaviors, on getting along, on what makes for peace.  He urges them to love one another – not in the romantic sense but in the way that God loves – by caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for the least of these . . . .

Those early Christians must have been puzzled, confused, upset, resistant.  Life was full of trouble enough.  Now they are asked to give up their grudges, their prejudices, their places in the world’s pecking order, and their old hurts and to act as if they love each other!  I imagine they weren’t always happy when the mail arrived from whatever city (or jail) Paul was writing from!

I suspect the list of qualities and behaviors that emerged in the early church, the values that made the church so different from the society around it, didn’t come from Paul alone.  I suspect they were thought about and argued about and agreed to by the members of the little house churches who knew they were going to survive only if they treated each other the way Jesus had treated them.

I suspect that the values that guided the early church were developed in community, by the community, for the community.  Very few people come to know something without collaborating with others, without talking it over, without watching what works and what doesn’t.  Moral decisions, more often than not, are group decisions.

Which brings me to “conscience.”  The word conscience, from the Latin conscientia, is formed from two words:  con, meaning together, and science, meaning knowing.  The true meaning of “conscience” is knowing together.

So “conscience” is not really the little imp on your shoulder who just whispered, “You’ll get into trouble if you steal it!” or “Don’t speak to your mother like that!” or “You’ll feel guilty if you take that piece of cake!”  Conscience in the most original sense is not one’s own inner voice but the our ability to think and act with each other’s help about what is good and loving and true, about what is right and what is wrong.  One of the benefits of coming to church is to reset our moral compass – to remind each other – of the life-giving values of Jesus, of the core values that make for community.

This love that Paul writes about has little to do with emotion.  Instead, the love Paul writes about has to do with behavior rather than feelings.  How do our families, the members of our churches, our neighbors, the clerk at the store, the kids in the classroom know they are loved?  Not by how we feel about them!  But by how we treat them!  Loving, respecting, honoring each other – as Paul says – that is what transforms a community.

Genuine love is hard work.  Being patient in suffering asks a lot of us.  Living in harmony with one another can be challenging.  Overcoming evil with good takes courage and perseverance.  Extending hospitality to strangers takes us out of our comfort zone.  But it is in these ways that the Apostle Paul encourages us “to outdo one another in showing honor.”

This is good news for our little churches in the country.  When the “role is called up yonder” as the old hymn says, we will be judged not by the height of our steeples,             the number of our members, the size of our budgets, the voice of our preachers, or the sophistication of our programs.

We will be judged only on how well we love each other and on how well we serve the One whom we call the Christ.

May it be so!

Amen.

 

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OUR SERMON POSTINGS WILL CONTINUE !!

Moosup Valley Church

Our Mission Is Reflecting the Light

Matthew 5:14-16

August 20, 2017

On the Island of Crete, next to the mass graves of Germans and Cretans, who fought each other so bitterly in World War II, there is an Institute for Peace which has become a source of bridge-building between the two countries.  It was founded by Alexander Papaderos, a teacher of Greek culture, politician, doctor of philosophy and a remarkably complete human being. What kind of vision motivates a man like Papaderos to transcend the focus on the individual self and dedicate his life to compassion and peace?

 

“When I was a small child,” he said, “during the war we were poor and lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I kept one, the largest piece. … By scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

 

“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became [mature], I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life.  I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light.  But light, truth, understanding, knowledge – is there, and it will shine in many dark places only if I reflect it.”[1]

 

Jesus said, “I am the Light of the Word.”  Our role, as disciples, is to reflect that Light into all the dark places – in our families, in our community, in the larger world.  Essentially that is the mission of every church.            And if we change some things in some people, perhaps others may see and do likewise.

 

May it be so!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The Papaderos quotes were taken from an online article from Homiletics published on August 16.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

August 6, 2017

 

This week’s parable about wheat and weeds appears only in Matthew, probably remembered because the writer of Matthew was reflecting on what his church was experiencing toward the end of the first century.  As the early church spread beyond Jerusalem into the wider world and became more diverse, welcoming Gentiles as well as Jews, it was hard to tell which missionaries had the best interests of the churches at heart, which theologies were in line with Jesus’ teaching, which leaders to trust and which to ignore.  In the parable, the field represents the world, in which two kinds of seeds have been sown:  good seed and bad seed, wheat and weeds, or “tares,” to use the King James translation.

 

Wheat and weeds.  Several years ago, Kim bought a bag of wild flowers from Amazon and scattered them at our house in Oakland Beach – outside the picket fence and along the stone wall.  In the beginning, the flowers have attracted finches and butterflies and honey bees, but now it has become something of a tangled mess.  On my evening walk, I stop to observe the garden and think I should weed.  But which is the flower and which is the weed?  Should I pull this one?  Our neighbor, a master gardener, offers advice.  “That’s a weed,” she will point out.  “Yes, but it has pretty blue flowers,” I’ll say!

 

Who decides what is a flower and what is a nuisance needing to be plucked?  What is wheat?  And what is weed?  What’s the difference?  Homiletics magazine suggests that Wheat is always in the row where you planted it, whereas weeds will be scattered all over, especially between the rows.  Wheat follows the rules, obeys the farmer’s commands, grows where the farmer has planted it.

 

Weeds on the other hand, according to Homiletics, are renegades, exist all over, obey no ‘rules’ and grow wherever they want” – which prompts me to say, “Good for those weeds!”  If nobody questioned authority, pushed the boundaries, stepped out of line, where would we be?  Back in the Dark Ages?  And sometimes weeds turn into valuable sources of cancer-fighting drugs, or high protein food sources that can feed the world.  Problem children turn into successful entrepreneurs because they see the world differently from those who toe the proverbial line.  So, let’s be careful about whom we call a weed!

 

The field of psychology tells us that every person contains good seed and bad seed, good impulses and evil impulses.  The Apostle Paul certainly knew that when he wrote to the Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15).  In the ancient world, one was either good or bad – wheat or weed – but today we recognize that we’re all a mixed bag of both good seed and bad seed. Shakespeare knew evil was always mixed with good when he wrote in Act IV of “Henry V” – “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, Would men observingly distil it out.”

 

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, writing a century ago, wrote about our unconscious, an interest he shared with Freud.  We all have a shadow side, a dark side.  So, part of our life journey, our human development, is mining the shadow.  There is understanding to be found there.

What is wheat and what is weed?

 

Of course, good and evil are not that simple.  People and issues are complex.  Today, we recognize that we are shaped by our genes, our childhoods, our experiences.  Some of us grew up in a stable family, were wanted and loved and supported, and guided by nurturing adults.  Some of us were abused as children, were shamed in the classroom, and got in with a bad crowd in the neighborhood.

But regardless of how we grew up, life is hard for all of us at one time or another.  Just getting up in the morning and going to work can be a challenge.  Keeping our temper in check can take a lot of self-control.  Dispelling the demons can be all-consuming – and not just for one who battles mental illness.

 

Jesus knew this.  And he called forth everyone’s goodness, built on their strengths.  He ate with tax collectors.  Healed those with infirmities.  Forgave the woman caught in adultery.

 

Wheat and weeds.  The slaves saw the weeds mixed in with the wheat and responded by asking the householder:  Master, shall we gather them up?  They were told to let them grow together until the harvest when it would be easier to separate them.  Why did they need to wait?  The weeds in this parable referred to darnel, a semi-poisonous weed that closely resembles wheat in the early development stages.  Because the wheat and darnel plants resemble each other so closely, hand weeding is next to impossible.  Further complicating the problem is the fact that, as the wheat and darnel plants mature, their roots intertwine.”[1]  And so it is with us.

 

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray.  Each of us is some mixture of wheat and weed, of holy and unholy, of loving and unloving actions, of potentially fruitful and potentially destructive behaviors.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other in our complex world.  In today’s story, Jesus cautions against rushing to judgment.  And yet sometimes we must.

 

Now, a sermon needs to be relevant – not just a little Bible study or a few thoughts for the week.  What does this text mean to us today?  How might we apply it to today’s issues?

 

A news story this week makes my point about the complexity of our lives and the difficulty in judging each other.  Michelle Carter, 17, urges/goads her boyfriend to kill himself.  Conrad Roy, 18, gets back in the truck and dies of CO poisoning.  The judge sentences Michelle to 15 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

 

What would you have done if you were the judge?  Does this parable shed any light?  Open discussion ….  [No one right answer, but is there a better answer based on today’s parable?] 

 

[1] Homiletics, July – August 2011, page 34.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Ordinary Treasures

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

July 23, 2017

 

Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven – that is, what God is like – is like five ordinary things used in ordinary ways – a tiny mustard seed sown in a field, a batch of yeast in a woman’s kitchen, a treasure hidden in a field, a fine pearl in a merchants wares, a net full of fish – common things to those he taught.

 

Common to those who lived two thousand years ago.  Most of us don’t make our living by farming or fishing or baking.  So we have to stretch our imaginations to understand what Jesus is preaching; we have to “think outside the boxes” we live in.

 

It’s interesting to note that Jesus is not talking about a God who is up there in a seventh-story heaven, or out there in the universe somewhere, but about a God who is right here, in our midst.  Jesus is not talking about God as “Lord” and “King,” but about God-the-farmer working the heavenly field or a woman baking bread for her community.  Jesus is not talking about a God who is beyond our reach but about a God who lives in our midst when we are working in the garden, baking a blueberry pie for our friends, making financial decisions for our family.

 

The Gospel of Matthew paints a picture of a down-to-earth God, a God who identifies with ordinary people doing ordinary things – a tenant farmer, a housewife, a fisherman – going about their business.  In these ordinary treasures, we find the kingdom of heaven.  What a revelation!

 

We have been taught to imagine heaven as pearly gates and golden streets, fluffy white clouds, angels singing glorias, and not a spec of the ordinary to be found.  But no, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus teaches has to do with getting our hands dirty bringing forth ordinary treasures – like working in the garden to feed not only our family but also needy people in Foster, or kneading three measures of flour into dough, enough to bring communion to everyone in the Larger Parish.

 

As Christians, we are taught to believe in the incarnation, God with us, the mystery of the divine and human coming together in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son, literally, God embodied in Jesus.

In his parables, Jesus provides a different understanding from that of the orthodox theologians:  Jesus points to the divine beyond himself and onto the world around him – and onto ordinary people like us who find treasures in the ordinary stuff of life, and in fact, who are the ordinary treasure.

 

In other words, let’s not wait to get to heaven; let’s make our heaven, find our treasure, be the treasure right here where we are, in the midst of our ordinary lives.  “The kingdom of heaven is like” the most common things in human life.  Like Jesus himself, in our ordinary, everyday world we find the sacred connection of the divine and the human, if only we have “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

 

This is not a new theme in Matthew.  Remember when Jesus came out of the wilderness, after his 40 days apart, he proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2), and he demonstrates that nearness every time he heals someone, reaches out to outcasts like tax collectors, respects the personhood of women, and cares for the poor.

 

The kingdom of heaven that Jesus preaches is one in which God is also incarnate in us, you and me, in our ordinary lives.  If God can turn a mustard seed into a tree of life for the birds, and yeast into food for the neighborhood, just think what God can do with you and me!

After the parables about the mustard seed and the leaven in the flour, Jesus tells two more “the-kingdom-of-heaven-is-like” parables about a treasure in a field and a pearl of great value that the seekers desired so much that they were willing to give up everything else to have these.

 

We might wonder, then, how our churches are like small treasures in our communities. And what would you and I be willing to give up to have us be fully-realized as the kingdom of heaven on earth?

And he tells a parable about bringing in the nets full of all kinds of fish and separating the good fish from the bad fish, the life-giving behaviors from the unloving behaviors.  And Jesus ends with a reminder that, a truly wise person recognizes that there is good to be found in the old treasure, but also good to be found in the new treasure.

 

This is a reminder of John Robinson’s Farewell Sermon to the Pilgrims – our church forefathers and mothers – as they were about to set sail from Plymouth, England:  “. . . [God] has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”

 

Two weeks ago, I quoted a theologian who observed that the purpose of parables is “to tease the mind into active thought.”  We could say the same of poets.

 

UCC minister and poet Maren Tirabassi writes,

 

 

Come to me bulldozing God,

and treasure my field,

full of artifacts and potatoes.

Dig the hidden

holiness

in the ordinary soil.

 

Come to me bird-watching God,

you will find the branches

for nesting.

A mustard seed of faith

grows to a place

of many wings.

 

Come to me fish-netting God,

cast your wide love which

draws in without judgment.

All fish written

in the dirt

are a sign for Christ.

 

Come to me bread-baking God,

give yeast for my rising.

knead the warm dough.

Bake the sweet smell

that always sings

the end of hunger.

 

 

 

Come to me pearl-hunting God,

dive my depths,

open my shell.

Find the place of past intrusion

where translucent beauty forms layers

around sharp pain.

 

Come to me parable-telling God,

metaphor-lavish

with images to say you love me,

until your word-palette

paints new meaning

into my life.[1]

 

 

May it be so.

Amen!

 

[1] Maren Tirabassi, An Improbable Gift of Blessing (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1998), page 161.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Sowing the Seeds of Abundance

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

July 16, 2014

This beloved story about the sower gives a preacher a lot to think about:  Who is the sower?  Is it Jesus, and by extension, God?  Or is the sower one of Jesus’ disciples?  Could the sower be you – or me?  And what kinds of seeds are being thrown?  Are they seeds of the gospel of love?   Or are they the seeds of discord and strife?  And what do we make of the four kinds of soils – hardened, shallow, thorny and good – and the difference in the yields?

 

Jesus taught in parables, the purpose of which, as theologian C.H. Dodd observed, is to “tease the mind into active thought.”  So, how is Jesus “teasing the mind” of his hearers beside the lake then, and how is he teasing our minds now?

 

This parable – which also appears in the gospels of mark and Luke – is known by different names:  the parable of the Four Soils, and the parable of the Miraculous Yields.  Matthew sandwiches it in between stories of opposition and misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry.  Is that a clue?  On the surface, this parable is about the free-handedness of the sower and the fate of the seeds, depending on where they fall.  Jesus notes that, the kind of soil determines the success of the farmer’s crop.

 

His listeners, of course, would have understood this story.  They were an agricultural people, like some of you; they, too, went out to sow.  But how do we interpret it?  Why is Jesus telling this story?  Moreover, why does the gospel find hospitable space – good soil – to grow among some people but not among others?  And the flip side?  What are the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship?  How do we grow God’s love in the world?   With what understanding and perseverance?  With what soil?

 

In first century Palestine, farmers would throw the seed first and then plow it in.  Farmers today would see that as wasteful.  We plow first and then drop the seed into the prepared ground where it has a good chance of sprouting.  Then we water and fertilize and weed to ensure success, and in the next year or two, we rotate crops so as not to deplete the soil.  Today’s farmers often are business men and women; they plan for the plentiful outcomes.  They choose the best seed carefully, and they don’t waste it on poor soil.

 

Not so in ancient Palestine – nor, I realize, in our lives in the 21st century:  Jesus knew the hard soil of his hometown as the people of Nazareth reject him.  We see the hopelessness of the homeless who can’t find a decent place to live, and the fear of parents with a sick child and no health insurance, and the frustration of those who want to work and can’t find a decent job with living wages, because their cries for help have fallen on the path            of hard soil at the legislature.

 

Just so, every business owner who produces a quality product and pays employees a living wage knows the shallow ground of customers who go where things are cheaper.  We all know the heartbreak of raising teenagers who get pregnant, or experiment with drugs, or drive too fast and kill someone, and our words of warning have been choked by the weeds of cockiness, or fallen on the rocky soil of peer pressure.

 

And every preacher casts the seeds of her sermon, with no guarantee of what kind of soil they will find, and where they will take root and where they will wither.  We know that our odds are no better than the sower’s.  And surely you and I know that, even in the best of soils in our collective lives, there are disappointment and heartbreak and tragedy.

 

So perhaps we might entertain the possibility that this story is bigger than just good business practices, or the nature of the various soils, or the quality of the discipleship.  These are important, yes!  But perhaps we can learn something this morning from watching the sower:  He throws the seed “willy nilly,” on rocky, barren soil and good soil alike.  Might this suggest that anywhere and everywhere is within the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity – yes, even in our broken lives and estranged families?

 

One commentator that I read in preparation for this morning told about his experience visiting a detention center for wayward youth with a group of civic leaders – lawyers, politicians, journalists – as they were learning about the criminal justice system.  He writes of the landscape marked by wire-mesh gates and padlocks, and razor wire and electrified fences, of the door which clanged shut behind them, the same door that would shut with finality behind adolescents – children – when they were escorted there!  He notes that they were led through the facility, floor by floor, to see classrooms where teaching was attempted, holding cells where new inmates were processed, courtrooms where trials were held.

 

At the end of the tour, late in the afternoon, they were shown down one bleak hall where young offenders lived in cells with steel doors and narrow slots about two-third of the way up.  Behind each of the doors eyes were watching.  Some of these children had been accused of major crimes; some of them were repeat offenders.  Most of them had had no nurture in their young lives, no family who cared about them, no adult, no neighborhood, no church to offer guidance.  It was hard not to notice the eyes.  He lingered at one door and whispered, “God loves you.”  What happened next, he would never know.  Did the news fall on the path to get eaten by birds?  Did it get choked by thorns?

 

Finally, toward the end of the tour, the brokenness got to one member of the group who stopped in the hall and began to cry.  When the young judge who was leading the tour noticed, she stopped her commentary and went back and put her arms around that person, and with tears in her own eyes, said, “I know.  I understand.”  It was then that the religious leader thought to himself, “If I am ever to be judged, I want a judge like that.”  And then it dawned on him, that, like a seed thrown onto his path, he has a judge like that, and he caught a glimpse of God’s mercy.

 

The Holy One, the Sower, is like the judge in today’s text.  The parable of the Sower is a riddle that tells us as much about God as it hides from us.  This parable is not so much about good soil as it is about a good Sower.  The Sower whom we seek this morning is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed only in those places where the chances for growth are best.  No, this Sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in throwing seed everywhere, as if it were potentially all good soil.

 

We see examples of God’s abundant life all around us:  Dandelions push up through cracks in the sidewalk and a tree sprouts in a crevice and spreads its roots over the boulder.  Seed thrown on the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, even in a jail.

 

“Which [might] leads us [this morning] to wonder if there is any place or any circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root,”[1] yes, even in our midst!

 

May it be so!  Amen.

[1] As told in Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Theodore J. Wardlaw (Year A, Volume 3), page 240-241.

 

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

A Cup of Cold Water

Matthew 10:40-42

July 2, 2017

 

Our scripture for today is about compassionate welcome – hospitality – as a form of service to Christ. Matthew, the writer of this gospel, is remembering how Jesus taught the importance of welcoming the stranger.  It sounds familiar to us because we remember the passage in Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry, bringing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and, when we have done so, we have tended to Jesus.  Remember, “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink?”  And Jesus’ answer was, “When you did it unto the least of these, you did it to me.”

 

This story would have been important to the early church as it spread out across the empire.  Missionaries were traveling from city to city and from one little house church to another.  Providing hospitality was essential, whether they were a prophet, or a righteous missionary, or even a simple person, a “little one,” who comes in the name of Christ.

 

Hospitality in the ancient world meant more than what we commonly think of when we talk about hospitality today.  When we have a visitor to our church, we assume we are offering a “holy welcome” if we greet him or her with “Good Morning” and a handshake.  But hospitality in Jesus time, meant taking someone in, washing his feet, putting a robe across his shoulders, and sharing a meal.  And he probably was going to stay for a few weeks or months at a time.  Hospitality was a commitment – a sign of discipleship.

 

Notice, further, that Jesus asks us to offer a “cup of cold water,” not just a cup of water.  Not a cup of water from the earthenware jar that had been sitting gathering dust from the road all day, warming up as the sun grows higher in the sky.  No, Jesus wants the water to be cold.  That means the woman has to walk to the well, perhaps a mile down the road, let down the bucket for the second time that day, and walk back to the house with it balanced on her head.  In other words, Jesus knows that hospitality may mean going out of our way, doing extra work,

 

So what does this text mean for us here at Moosup Valley?  A century ago, this Meeting House was the center of the community, a place for people to gather, to learn, and to socialize.  According to Churches of Foster: A History of Religious Life in Rural Rhode Island, the building “reflected the desire of the community to erect a suitable place ‘as we need [it] for divine services, Lectures, Sabbath schools, Singing schools, [to be] near the Vestry [school].”  “Sixty-five subscribers pledged contributions of money, materials, and labor.”

 

The history continues, “Although the Meeting House was separate from any organized church, the Moosup Valley Association specified in its constitution that the Christian denomination ‘Shall have the use of the House two Sabbaths in each month . . .  the remaining Sabbaths in each month shall be open for worship, or lectures, to any denomination.’”  So this Meeting House has always been more than a church and always more than a church for just the Christians.  It was a place of hospitality for everyone.  It was a neighborhood center.

 

Times change.  People no longer need a community center they can walk to.  Cars race down Moosup Valley Road at speeds unimaginable in days when people travelled by buggy.  And instead of one central meeting place, neighbors far and near meet on the internet.  Yet we know that people are hungry for community, for connection, for meaning in our fast-paced world.  How might Moosup Valley Church offer “a cup of cold water” to that world?

 

Jesus insists that “holy welcome” – hospitality – is what makes us disciples.  Sometimes that holy welcome is provided to people that we like and who also like us.  And sometimes that holy welcome needs to be provided to people who are needy, or who are very different from us, or alienated from us, people whom we might not even like – or who don’t like us.  And sometimes to people who think church is irrelevant.  We all like to play it safe, to spend time with people who are like us, to stay in our comfort zone.

 

And then Jesus arrives and says, “Take that love for family, that love for your closest community, and extend it, extend it further and further still.  Welcome in the stranger.  Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand.  Not to change them, but simply because they, too, are God’s.”[1]

 

Our work is to reach out and to welcome, to give a cup of cool water on a hot summer day.  Our reward, Jesus says, will be full indeed!

May it be so.

Amen.

 

 

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