Missed Church? Pastor’s Sermons

DID YOU MISS CHURCH?

Rev. Betsy A. Garland

Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland

SERMONS

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Practicing Love

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

August 12, 2018

 How do you win a gold medal at the Olympics?  You practice!  How do you play at the Newport Music Festival?  You practice!  How do you become good at doing the crosswords?  You practice!  In his best-selling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that people who are fabulously successful have almost always put in more than 10,000 hours of practice time in activities related to their success. 

 What’s the key to success?  Did they do it on their own?  Gladwell wanted to uncover the secret to successful people – how intelligent they are, what kind of personalities they have, the special talents they’re born with.  He discovered that successful people don’t come from nothing:  They benefit from their parentage, when and where they grew up, their education, the opportunities that came their way.

 So, the age-old question:  Are successful people born or made?  The truth is, they’re both.  They are the product of timing, talent, and tenacity, but timing and talent are meaningless without tenacity – without practice.  We’ve heard it said, “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”  And so it is.  Practice is what undergirds success.

 What about the followers of the Way of Jesus?  How do we get to be successful at loving?

 We come to church and settle ourselves down on our deacons’ benches, and we assume we’re saved.  We have been baptized, after all, and that’s the end of the journey, or so we think.  Well, apparently not, according to the Apostle Paul.  Baptism is the beginning of the journey, not the end.  Even Christians need to practice at being Christian, being loving, even if we might not feel like it at the time.

The early church in the Greek city of Ephesus is filled with new Christians, both Jews and Greeks.  They have been baptized like us, they have “put on Christ,” as we have.  They are members of the body of Christ.  But they are anything but Christ-like.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice….” Paul writes, of their behavior.

 He urges them to be “…kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Lying, spreading false information and deceiving each other has created a cloud of suspicion and secrecy in their church, and so he urges them to “speak the truth” to each other, because truth-telling is necessary for trust, the foundation upon which all community is built. 

 Members are angry at each other, and so he warns about a simmering resentment which endangers the stability of community.  He chastises them for loose and evil talk, often the norm in our communities, and in our families, as well as in our society as a whole.  Just listen to the hate spewing from radio talk shows and watch political candidates’ TV ads with their half-true sound bites.  There is nothing new under the sun, is there.

 Like any fledging organization, the Ephesians are vulnerable to the damaging effects of discord.  What do they need to do?  Paul gives them a check-list:  First, they need to practice telling the truth to one another, and after 10,000 hours of doing so, you’ll have a healthy community.  And practice dealing honestly with anger, and after 10,000 hours, you’ll have a greater sense of self-control and be more forgiving – which will lead to restoration of community. 

 Also, practice seeing your work not as just a pay check but also as an opportunity to serve those in need and as a means of advancing God’s kingdom.  And, especially, practice making your speech more kind, so that your words build others up rather than tearing them down, saying nothing but “words that give grace to those who hear.”  Practice that for 10,000 hours, which equals 416 days, more than a year.

Paul warns about grieving the Holy Spirit, which is another way of saying we violate our baptism and our role of building up the community in holiness.  Our conduct and thoughts should reflect the Spirit’s mark on us, the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  All these things make for peace in a family, in the workplace, in a congregation. 

 It takes practice to be loving.  “Jesus spent 30 years or so practicing on his own before he launched his public ministry of healing and teaching and saving, which is far more than 10,000 hours.  Yes, he had the privilege of being God’s own Son, and was born with a divine nature, but even the Son of God knew that the success of his earthly ministry depended on years of practice!”

 A pastor tells this story:

          “When I was 10, I took piano lessons from my church choir director. 

She recognized natural ability in me for music and tried to help develop my talent

in keyboarding.  I, however, didn’t like to practice.  I would do it, but never

consistently and often begrudgingly.  And at each week’s lesson, she could tell

within my first few measures whether or not I had practiced a full 30 minutes

a day and with what attitude I had done it.

 “I dare say that people around us will also be able to tell by our performance during the week whether we spent time ‘practicing’ the faith lessons we studied on Sunday, and with what kind of attitude we practice our faith.  Practice may not make us perfect, but it will certainly make us better and more authentic followers of the Christ we claim….”

 And what about practicing love in the age of the internet?  UCC pastor and writer Quinn Caldwell had this to say in the Daily Devotional this morning.  He calls it “Unanticipated.” 

 Paul did not do a good job of anticipating the Internet. Like, I’m not blaming him or

anything, but let’s just be honest that he really failed to see Facebook coming. All his advice is given to people who are looking each other in the eye. What would he say about how to engage on Facebook, or Twitter, where you can easily be in electronic relationship with thousands upon thousands of people you will never meet in person?

“Speak the truth”—OK, that’s pretty clear, I guess, maybe. But “speak the truth in love“? What does love look like in the middle of a Twitter flame war or Facebook showdown? Is it always patient, kind, understanding—or is it sometimes a smackdown? Does it ever silence people, banish them from its newsfeed? Should you be loving in the same ways to someone you know well in person, someone you interact with a lot but only online, and to a troll you’ve never met before and who might be a Russian hacker?

“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”—but anyone who’s ever been engaged in a heated conversation online knows that sometimes sleeping on it is a way better strategy than responding immediately.

And what’s at stake in an online interaction, anyway? In person, what’s at stake might be families, churches, relationships. But how much rides on a Twitter battle? Do minds ever actually get changed in one, or do we just find out who we already agree with and who we (think we) ought to hate? Maybe even more is at stake in such conversations than in private ones, because so many more people witness them. I dunno.

Paul did not do a good job of anticipating the Internet, but I bet God did. And since God doesn’t seem to have spoken very clearly through Paul on the Christian ethics of Facebook, maybe God will speak through you. [Think, this week, about what you think God’s guidelines for being Christian online are and pray this prayer]:  Holy One, let me show your love everywhere I go…and please tell me how to do it. Amen.”

 I suggest that people who love are not just born but also made with years of practice.  And often we have to figure out how to be loving in new circumstances and in new environments and with new and different people like Paul did, writing to the church in Ephesus. Sometimes we have to learn how to be loving and we have to practice being loving because it may not always come easy in an unpredictable and tragic and polarized world.  But this is our journey of faith.

May it be so for us! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Are You Hungry For?

John 6:1-21

August 5, 2018

“What are you hungry for?”  We have come home from work, too tired to cook – or maybe there’s nothing appealing in the “frig” – and the question we ask each other is, “What are you hungry for?”  We Rhode Islanders have multiple choices:  What will it be?  Italian, Mexican, Portuguese, Thai – or what?  How about just plain American tonight? There’s always Shady Acres.

Statistics tell us that we Americans eat a lot of fast food.  In his best seller, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser notes that “[we] spend more money on fast food than on higher education, computers, computer software or new cars. In fact . . . we spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers and recorded music – combined.”[1]  In spite of health warnings about trans fats and salt and junk food!

What are you hungry for?

Food might have been better for us in the ancient world – if one could get it – locally grown, made with love, not over-processed.  Who said, “If it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it isn’t food today?”  Too many people in Palestine were hungry, however.  The Roman occupation bore down hard on the common people, sucking up resources in the form of taxes for Caesar’s building campaign on the Mediterranean.  And so, when they hear this rabbi-turned-miracle-worker is in the area, thousands come to see for themselves.  And they are famished for justice and mercy.

There were no picnic baskets, coolers or fried clam shacks on the beach.  The disciples are unprepared and unnerved.  But one little boy had brought his lunch – 5 barley loaves and 2 fish – and he is willing to share with Jesus.  Jesus breaks the bread and shares it with the crowd.  And there is enough for everyone and – amazingly – some left over.

Jesus feeds their hunger – and now he is in real trouble!  They have heard stories about his healings, about his bringing the dead back to life, about his concern for the common people.  The people-turned-mob press forward:  Jesus is the king they have been looking for!  This is the messiah that will put down the Romans and restore Israel.  All our worldly troubles will melt away in his presence!  Or so they think!  Jesus has a different agenda.

What are you hungry for?  I suspect we crave some of the same bounty from Jesus – financial security, a satisfying job, a happier marriage, a picture-perfect family, better health, you fill in the blank.  What’s on your hunger shopping list?  We busy and harried people have a tendency to look for quick solutions, immediate gratification.  And we consume more and more “stuff” – snack foods – to feed our hungers.

What are we really hungry for?  When I was the volunteer chaplain at the Women’s Center of Rhode Island, the staff had posted a sign on the refrigerator, “HALT.”  Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  If you are hungry, help yourself to a snack.  But if you are angry, lonely, or tired, food is not what you are hungry for!

Some Rhode Islanders are really hungry for food.  According to the RI Community Food Bank, one in eight households doesn’t have enough.  It’s especially hard for children during the summer when they aren’t getting subsidized breakfasts or lunches at school.  And hunger is growing across the developing world as agriculture cannot keep up with the growing demands.

But, what else are we hungry for?  Attention?  Recognition?  Love?  Life?  Vengeance?  Justice?

It’s easy for us to misunderstand John’s story about the feeding of the multitudes.  We get caught up in analyzing the miracle:  How did he do it? we wonder.  Perhaps when the boy shared his lunch, everyone else did as well – potluck on the hillside – and there was enough hidden under everyone’s cloak to feed 5,000.  Maybe so.

But when we try to explain the miracle, we miss the real miracle.  Homiletics magazine proposes that, “Jesus didn’t come to help people get what they want.  No, he came to be what we want.  He didn’t come to be a sort of “short-order savior,” there to simply crank out whatever it is that will satisfy our earthly needs.  He came to be the food that we feast on.”[2]

If we want Jesus to solve all our problems, we’ve got the wrong Jesus.  “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” Jesus says later in John’s gospel (6: 35).  Jesus is the bread of life.  When we follow Jesus, no matter what happens to us, we will never be empty, we will never be hungry!  We will have plenty – and with leftovers – to share with those who are physically hungry, here at home and abroad, and the willingness to do so!

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:6).  Those who are in a “right relationship” with God.  But the miracle about feeding the 5,000 is less about generosity than it is about Jesus’ authority and the power of God to care for our needs.

What are we hungry for?  In our materialistic society, we are not only hungry but starving for God, for a taste of the divine, for a spiritual meal.  Why else would books on spirituality fly off the shelves in record numbers?  Scripture gives us a promise:  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” Jesus says, according to Luke (6:21).  This is the promise:  God in Jesus comes to us in powerful ways to give us what we need – food, faith, grace, salvation, abundance to overflowing – and God’s abiding presence.

What are you hungry for?  Jesus invites us to sit and eat, to be filled with an unbelievable feast, to live with hope and trust in God, to practice an attitude of abundance, to be faithful stewards of God’s creation, and to live with generosity.

May it be so!  Amen.

[1] Homiletics July / August 2009, page 27.

[2] Ibid, page 28.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Building Plans

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

July 22, 2018

Is God in the market for a house . . .?  King David seems to think so. David has moved into Jerusalem, settled down in a new house.  But – where is the ark?  It’s still in a tent!  So David decides he wants to build a house for God – but God says “no!”  Instead, God will build a house for David.  Are you confused yet?  Who will build a house for whom?

What we have here is a play on words:  The Hebrew word “báyit” is used 15 times in this chapter.  “Báyit” can be translated house – or palace, temple, dynasty, nation.  Our New RSV translates them all as “house.”  When we understand the Hebrew words, we realize that David wants to build a house, i.e., a temple, for God.  God wants to build a dynasty for David.  (Remember the Christmas scriptures that “Jesus is of the house and lineage of David”?)

Is God in the market for a cedar house, like David’s?  No!  It appears that God is quite content to live in a tent – God likes being mobile!  “I have been with you wherever you went . . . ,” we read in today’s text.  Yes, God is in the market for a house, but not a building; God is interested in a different kind of houseWe often refer to the church as “a house of God” but the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “assembly of the people” of God, not the building.  In Sunday School, you may have sung, “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”  Our buildings have value; they are a resource for the community, yes, but I don’t think God cares about the building for itself.  God doesn’t want to be tied down to a piece of real estate.

So then, what kind of a “house” is God looking for?  God is looking for your heart and my heart!  So the real question is not what kind of a building God is looking for but what kind of a heart God is looking for.  In what kind of a heart will God will feel at home?

From our scriptures, we know God is looking for a big heart, lots of them.  It will take big, old, fat, merciful, compassionate hearts to help this broken-hearted world of ours.  “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” we sing.  Jesus was all about compassion – with his feeding and healing and encouraging us to love our neighbors as ourselves, wasn’t he?  And this story in the Gospel of Matthew, “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink” is pretty clear when Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”

And we know that God is in the market for just hearts, lots of them, to overcome oppression and to set this world aright.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus says right up front at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke, “to preach good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free,” he reads from Isaiah.  “O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways, where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise,” is another hymn we sing.

And we also know God is in the market for peaceful hearts, lots of them, not only hearts like ours that can breathe deeply of God’s spirit but also hearts that will work for peace in the world, as in such a hymn as, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me….”

These are the hearts God wants us to be building – we sing about them – the kinds of hearts God is watching for to come online in the housing market, the kinds of hearts God is hoping to inhabit:  compassionate hearts, just hearts, peaceful hearts.

Why is it so hard for us to be hearts that are compassionate, just, and peaceful?  Perhaps because every one of our hearts has been broken!  The almost weekly gunning down of young, unarmed black men by police, acting out of fear, I believe, the frequent mass shootings in our communities by discontent young white men, including the massacre of church members at Bible Study and worship, reminds us that we live in a broken-hearted world.

Tragedy surrounds us:  abuse as children, unhappy marriages, illness and injury, loss of jobs or unfulfilling work, lack of acceptance because of our sexuality, death of loved ones, physical and mental crippling from wars.  Poet Mary Oliver, who was abused as a child, writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

We are not helped when we deny our own tragedies.  Some of us here this morning – or our neighbors – were sexually abused as children.  Some of us here were beaten by our fathers.  Some of us were terrorized by our teachers, or told we were lazy or dumb.

Some of us were bullied because we are gay.  The more we can be in touch with our own broken hearts, our own anger, our own disappointments in life, our own low self-esteem and resentment, the more we are able to overcome them, to move beyond them.

And the more we can accept ourselves with all our warts, the more we will be able to be compassionate toward others.  It has been said that “Tragedy hollows out our hearts to make room for God” – the compassionate, just, peaceful heart of God.

Yes, there is tragedy in our lives; tragedy in our churches, tragedy in the world.  There is a limit about what we can do about tragedy in the world, but we can recognize that our church is one place where we can help each other by being a safe place to tell the truth about ourselves, and find acceptance and love and the courage to move on.

Jesus is the role model for the compassionate, just, and peaceful hearts God wants us to build, and our scriptures are the blueprints for the building plans for the hearts God is waiting to inhabit.  Come into our hearts, Lord Jesus; come into our hearts today!

May it be so!

Amen.

 

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Herod’s Moral Crisis

Mark 6:14-29

July 15, 2018

 

Herod has a problem.  He has married his half-brother Philip’s wife, and John the Baptizer is giving him grief about it.  And his wife Herodias is giving him grief about John.  She has climbed the social ladder by marrying King Herod of the Herod dynasty, pulled herself up in the world to hob nob with the elite.  But all was not cool in the King’s palace!

Why doesn’t that Baptizer mind his own business?  Stick to baptizing the common people, more his type!  But John’s call to repent is addressed to everyone.  He’s an equal opportunity prophet, and Herod and Herodias have violated the Jewish law about adultery.  John is a pain in her aspirations, and she wants him dead.

Herod is Jewish, although how much attention he pays to matters of religion, is anyone’s guess.  He’s a leading Jew, one the Romans have appointed to rule this remote Palestinian outpost on behalf of Rome, like his father and grandfather before him.  We know of them, especially his father, Herod the Great, the one who was responsible for killing all the boy babies under the age of two, the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” the artists have dubbed it.   That Herod, the one who heard from the Magi that a king had been born in Bethlehem.  He had to kill the children, of course, to protect his power, to protect his position.  He couldn’t let down his guard; there were plots and assassins behind every door and wall.

And now this Herod Antipas, the son, has a problem, and it comes to a head.  At his wife’s urging, he has had John arrested and put into prison where he can keep an eye on him. And wander down to the dank dungeon to pick his brains, see what the prophet is up to, listen to his ethical nonsense.  He has to hand it to John, however:  He is “a righteous and holy man,” at least in stark contrast to Herod himself.  Although Herod Antipas is not all bad; like his father, he has been working on sprucing up the temple – sort of a modern messiah, in league with the High Priest.  John has taken issue with that, too, and is preaching the coming of the real Messiah.

Now Herod’s birthday rolls around, and he decides to throw a birthday bash to celebrate himself for all the leaders of Galilee, the important people who keep him in power.  This is not just a cake and ice cream affair and not just an afternoon tea party.  The gospel-writer Mark tells it as a flashback – in great, gory detail.

The new wife sees her opportunity to get rid of that annoying prophet.  Herodias has her daughter by her “ex,” Philip, dance for new step-father and his friends, and Herod is charmed.  But we know he has an eye for young women – first her mother, then the daughter.  He promises to give her anything she wants, even half of his kingdom.

Too much partying in the punch bowl leads to foolish promises!  Herodias runs to ask her mother what she should ask for – and the rest is history, gospel, that is.

Herod is confronted with a moral crisis.  Should he behead this holy man?  While he doesn’t understand John, he fears him.  But how can he not?  The room goes quiet.  Waiting to see what he will do.  Is he a man of his word, or not?  His court, his “base,” watches.  I wonder if the High Priest is there, the Pharisees, religious leaders, the supposed “keepers of Israel,”and the commandments about taking innocent life.  Where do they stand?  They probably want John out of the way, too, and that Jesus of Nazareth as well, charming the masses with acts of mercy.

John’s head is delivered on a platter.  I wonder if conversation started up again as a slave refilled the punch bowl.  If people leaned back on their couches while another brought in a platter of exotic meats to mask the stench of death.  I wonder if the late afternoon sun glanced into the room and then faded, leaving the corners in shadows.  Evil masquerading as normal day-to day business.  John’s disciples come for his body.  Naked power and manipulation over the weak and innocent have won, at least for now.

Immediately, Mark’s gospel tells another story; this one of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with a few fish and biscuits.  The contrast is stunning.  Now it’s goodness and respect for people’s needs that carries the day.

Scripture is full of moral crises, choices between love and fear, choices that bring life – and choices that take life away.  The choice to bind up the wounds of one lying on the side of the road, or to pass by on the other side; the choice to cheer Pontius Pilate as he rides into Jerusalem on his war horse, or to spread our garments before Jesus as he rides in on a donkey as a counter protest. Choices to care for the common good, broad choices that benefit everyone, including the “least of these” that Jesus calls for – or narrow choices to protect one’s personal position, satisfy one’s constituency, advance one’s special interests.

Evil is as likely found in the seats of religion and politics as in the demonic, and none of our favorite institutions are immune.  The strong – often driven by the power of sex, money, and position – like to “lord it over” those who are weak.  And so John and Herod stand in direct opposition, like Jesus in increasing tension with the religious and political establishment. Goodness and grace strain against chaos and self-interest.  Speaking truth to power often ends in death.

And in our lives?

Moral crises come along on a regular basis for us as well as Herod, though perhaps not those of life and death – at least not so close to home.  We can offer a cup of cool water to the thirsty, a hand-up to the oppressed, a word of comfort to the grieving.  We can speak up for justice.

And for those of us who have the time and the means, we can put ourselves on the line in a bigger way.      I have colleagues who have visited immigration courts in Arizona, stood at Standing Rock to protest the pipeline, tended to children in detention in Texas.  Remember the vows made at our baptism – whether we made them ourselves or a parent made them for us – when we promised “to resist oppression and evil.”

Ancient wisdom offers the promise that, while we may “walk in the valley of the shadow of death,” that God is with us, and that “justice and mercy shall follow [us]all the days of [our] lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

May it be so!

Amen.

 

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Healing Powers

Mark 5:21-43

July 1, 2018

The gospels abound with stories of Jesus’ healing all sorts of people of all sorts of illnesses and conditions.  It seems that Jesus was always ready and willing to heal.  He was always healing someone – or on his way to heal someone – or just returning from a healing.  In fact, the gospels contain 58 references to healing.

Do you believe in the power to heal?  For the early followers of Jesus, this was a new development, this healing, a sign that Jesus was the Messiah, the one for whom they had been waiting for generations.  For them, the healings are “Proof Positive” that Jesus is the Son of God!  When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah, Jesus said to them, “Go back and tell John what you have seen . . . the blind see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them (Luke 7:22).

This is a change from how our Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, understands illness.  Although the ancient Israelites had the Law of Moses to keep them healthy – laws about maintaining personal hygiene, eating clean foods, getting enough rest on the Sabbath, and so on – the Hebrew Bible approaches illness and disease as the result of disobedience (and, of course, some Christians still do so today, although probably not you or me).

Ancient people tried to make sense of world they lived in; we see this reflected in wisdom literature where illness is the result of one’s not being wise enough to understand how the universe works.  You may have heard someone say, “Why me?”  “What did I do to deserve this?” as if he or she is being punished.  I’ll bet you’ve even said this yourself, once or twice!

In the New Testament, the New Covenant that God makes with us, sickness and disease are not seen as punishment for sin and rebellion and disobedience.  Jesus says so himself; a new idea:  Remember the story of Jesus encountering a blind man (John 9:2-3)?  The disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents . . . .”, assuming that someone is to blame.  “Neither this man nor his parents,” Jesus replies, and then he mixes saliva with dirt and puts it on the blind man’s eyes and tells him to wash, and the man is healed.

God wants us to be well, to be whole.  In fact, the words “health,” “whole,” and “holy” all come from the same ancient root in Old English, to make sound or to restore, to make a person spiritually whole, to make a person holy.

 Do you believe that God can heal us?  We know that God heals through the skilled care of doctors and nurses.  But does God heal beyond the ministrations of the professionals?  Can we help the doctors heal us?  We live in a modern age.  The meditation I chose this morning makes that point, “Science and religion meet naturally, if uneasily, in healing.”[1]

We don’t know why some people are healed when we pray – and others are not.  We don’t know why some tumors shrink and disappear when we go though chemo and radiation – and others do not.  We don’t know why some people experience critical brain damage and come out of a coma and recover fully – and others do not.  We do know treatment is more effective

in those who take advantage of guided imagery and meditation, massage and Reiki.  We do know the one who is secure in the love of family and friends recovers faster.  We do know that prayer and meditation change the stress response and give healthy cells a boost to fight the rogue cells.

But – when healing does not occur, it does not mean that we are bad or unworthy or lacking in faith.  It may mean that one’s soul is so damaged by some tragedy that healing cannot occur until the memories are healed.  It may mean that one harbors a private grief or guilt or resentment that has hold of his or her soul and that needs to be confessed so healing can take place.  Or, it may mean simply that – more often than not – that one’s immune system is overwhelmed and / or that the body is too sick to take advantage of healing strategies.

 

Does God wish us to be well?  Of course!  Our scripture this morning focuses on two healing stories – one in which a young girl is restored to life and one in which a woman is healed of her incessant hemorrhages.  UCC pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi reflects on the complexity of illness as it affects our bodies, our minds, and our souls:

“Was it a tumor in her uterus that made her bleed so long?

Was it an abortion she regretted that would never go away?

Was she beaten every day, or did she hurt herself? I do not know, gentle God,

what made this woman so desperate she would touch a strange man in the street –

But I feel my own reaching . . . .Was it anorexia that killed the teenage girl? Was it self-doubt, pregnancy, or fear of growing up too soon?

Was it loneliness, responsibility, or did she hate her body? I do not know, gentle God,

what laid this girl so still that a death-raiser had to come to her –But I feel my own powerlessness . . . .Desperate or powerless – sometimes I reach out for the fabric of your garment, silent, furtive with hope, choking the words I dare not say. sometimes another must intercede for me, entreat and bring your presence to the bed where I am paralyzed.

When I am desperate, Savior, offer me peace. When I am powerless, teach those I love to feed me.

Amen.[2]

[Talk back time with the congregation.]

 UCC professor and writer Rev. Mary Luti shared this online meditation this week:

The truth about human beings is that we’re broken. The larger truth is that we heal. The even larger truth is that we heal each other. We have the power, often by the simplest of acts, to help each other heal.

The gospels’ most vivid stories are about healing. We call them ‘miracles,’ and they are, but not just because the lame walk, the blind see, and the deaf hear. It’s the way those things happen, so close, so human. Jesus lifts people to their feet, applies salve to their eyes, touches their ears.

The miracle isn’t the healing. The miracle is that one person decides not to stand aloof from another person’s pain. The wonder isn’t that people are healed, it’s that they’re loved like that. The greatest need we have is to be treated with care, treated like human beings, but because that’s so rare, when it happens it seems miraculous.

We say, “If you have your health, you have everything.” That’s not true. Some people aren’t healthy, but they have something many healthy people would gladly trade for—people who pray for them, accompany them, don’t forget them, a circle of care. In such circles even people facing death may experience a kind of healing, even the dying find the blessing of life.

Jesus didn’t heal everyone, but he showed us a new kind of life that can be ours when we don’t retreat into one-person worlds. He gathered the church as a circle of care to give that new life away, hand to hand, heart to heart, suffering body to suffering body.  It’s how we heal—by the company we keep.

Prayer
Encircle us with care, merciful Jesus, and make the church a healer, good company for the world.

[1] Laurie Zoloth, Living Under the Fallen Sky, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring 2008, p. 36.

[2] Maren Tirabassi, An Improbable Gift of Blessing: Prayers to Nurture the Spirit, Cleveland, Ohio, United Church Press, 1998, p. 149.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Still in One Peace

Mark 4: 35-41

June 24, 2018

I am often at my computer when a thunder storm bears down on East Greenwich Bay.  The sky will be black in the north, and strong winds will pummel the geraniums in my flower boxes and turn over the rockers on the deck.  The water will run against the tide and pour over the dunes into the street.  And then it will be over.  Sparrows will take up their chirping.

Such was the Sea of Galilee – prone to storms like this with many shipwrecks to its credit – when Jesus and his disciples were attempting to cross over to the far shore.  The disciples were frightened, of course.  Even these tough fishermen were worried as the waves started rolling in over the rails.  Where is Jesus when they need him?  Asleep in the stern of the boat!

This is a familiar and beloved story.  Even Matthew and Luke include it in their gospels.  Jesus wakes and sensing the fear around him chides both the men and the sea:  “Peace!  Be still!”  The disciples are filled with great awe.  Who is this Jesus? they ask each other.

But bringing calm over the sea may not be Jesus’ most important deed.  In his book “Quantum Spirituality” theologian Lenard Sweet proposes that “The miracle Jesus wanted to show them was not the miracle of calming the storm but the miracle of calming them in the storm.”  And, of course, there is a difference.

Methodist founder John Wesley was no “scaredy cat” – he a minister in the Church of England who took to the streets and the rough-and-tumble countryside to preach the gospel to the masses in the 18th century.  But on one of his crossings of the Atlantic to bring his message to America,     he lost his nerve.  He and other passengers clung to their bunks and hid their heads while the ship was tossed about like a bathtub rubber duck.  All except the community of Moravian travelers on the ship.  They gathered for their daily worship service and sang praises to God.  Wesley writes later that he is witnessing a truly   “waterproof” faith, these Moravians, unperturbed by howling winds and crashing waves.

We, too, experience storms – and not only on the water.  Loved ones get cancer and have heart attacks.  Loved ones are shot down in our cities.  Loved ones are separated from their families.  Loved ones die in conflicts and accidents.  Loved ones lose their jobs and their homes and their savings.  Loved ones are persecuted for their sexuality and gender expression.  There’s no end to the storms of life that people like you and me experience on a daily basis.

Note that the storm doesn’t blow around the boat because Jesus is on board. No, it hits them full force.  The disciples lived through a real storm, a real threat, even onto death.  Nowhere does Jesus promise them anything different.  And nowhere does Jesus promise us anything different.  Faith doesn’t make these problems go away.

A way for us to understand this story is to imagine a child having a bad dream and crying out for mommy and daddy in the night.  The parent rushes in a takes up the child from the crib.  “Hush, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” we imagine the mother or father saying.  Yet, as adults, we know there is a lot to be afraid of!  A better way for us to respond is to reassure the child – and to reassure each other – that you will be there, that they will not be alone.

I remember being little and having a bad dream about a fire.  My mother came and sat on the side of my bed.  “It’s all right,” she said.  “Daddy will come and get you. You don’t need to be afraid.”

There was no storm too fierce, no opponent too great, no crisis too complete for Jesus and for those faithful who have an unquenchable faith to carry them through the storms of life.  Yet, even Jesus’ followers who had been specially chosen missed the boat when it came to trusting.  They had not yet experienced Christ’s death and resurrection to buoy up their faith.

But we have.  Perhaps a lesson of the resurrection is that we no longer need fear anything, not even death itself.  Too often, you and I are like the timid disciples who want to remain spiritually anchored in safe, snug harbors – and if we do happen to venture out, at the least little bit of bad weather, we want to return to port.

But throughout his ministry, Jesus is always pushing the disciples along to the next town or taking a boat to a new shore.  And Jesus doesn’t want the church to keep only to the “tried and true.”  He calls us to go everywhere, to be everywhere, to hit the road and sail the seven seas.  He gives us courage to ride the waves in the face of the storm.

Faith doesn’t make our personal problems go away or solve our national and international problems.  Jesus never promised us smooth sailing, a trip without consequences.  He only promised that he would sail with us, that we are not alone.  Because Jesus will be on-board the boat the journey will be peace-filled.

All well and good for you to promise, you might say, but how can Jesus, long dead, bring us peace in the midst of the storms of life?  Here’s how:  The Body of Christ – the church – lives, and it gathers around the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We are the community he gathered, then in the first century, and now in the 21st.

At the center is Jesus – who was and is and shall ever be – his values, his mission, his ministry.  We reach out for Jesus when we reach out for each other.  As Mother Teresa said, “Jesus has no hands but ours . . . .”  Jesus is present in us when we bring peace to each other by our kindness, love and concern, in our voice for justice for all, through our work for reconciliation in the wider world.

“Jesus Christ’s promise is not to sail us around every storm but to bring us through all storms – still in one peace,” and he does it through you and through me.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Sabbath and the Rules

Mark 2:23-3:6

June 3, 2018

We are barely into the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus is already in trouble.  In the first two chapters alone, he has healed Simon’s mother-in-law – and others who were sick or possessed by demons.  He has cleansed a leper and healed a paralytic.  He has eaten with tax collectors and sinners, and people have gathered around him, wherever he went.  The Pharisees have taken notice:  Who does he think he is?

In today’s text, Jesus challenges the practices around the Sabbath – striking a blow at one of the Ten Commandments:

Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,

but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work,…

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them

but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

(Exodus 20:8-11)

We are to remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy, which in Hebrew means “set apart.”

The Sabbath is indeed a blessing to humankind, a blessing to us, if only we would be more observant, a day of rest for body and soul, and one sorely needed in our fast-paced world.  We need a day “set apart” for balance in our lives.  We need the Sabbath.  Jesus does not dispute that.

But Jesus has broken the rules around the Sabbath – at least the rules that the Pharisees have set – by letting his hungry disciples pick grain as they pass through a field and healing a man with a withered hand.  He knows that they are watching him, looking for a pretense to arrest him.  “Why is he doing what is not lawful…?” they ask.  And we, too, might wonder why Jesus deliberately gives them an excuse.  He could have waited until sundown to heal the man, so why look for trouble?  Non-threatening diseases had to wait, according to the rules.

But Jesus seems bent on making a point.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  The Pharisees are obsessed with their religious authority

and the observance of their traditional customs.  They are threatened by Jesus who is breaking the rules.  And now they have the evidence they need to silence him.  They run to conspire with Herod’s men, the political rulers.

However, Jesus is not attacking the Sabbath – but it’s purpose.  “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he has reminded them – and us.  Let’s get our priorities straight, he seems to be saying!  Compassion overrides the law.  Yes, Jesus could have waited until sundown, but he seizes this teachable moment.  Relieving human suffering is more important than obeying the rules.

This is difficult for us good Christian, law-abiding citizens to hear.  Basic observances of our religious customs are good and helpful for our spiritual health.  And our nation is built on personal responsibility and the rule of law.  These two tracts keep our faith strong and our democracy strong.

But in Jesus’ world, neither is more important than compassion.  The latest example of this principle in our day is the Sanctuary Movement splashed across our nation’s newspapers.  Churches and synagogues are opening their doors to undocumented persons –  often those who were brought here as children –   to keep them from being deported and families from being separated.  A recent example of why churches are stepping up is the situation of Lilian Calderon, a Guatemalan native brought to RI as a three-year old, now married to an American citizen and a mother of two youngsters.  She was following the rules to apply for citizenship – not skirting them – when she was picked up by ICE

(Immigration & Customs Enforcement) and detained for a month last winter.  No chance to say goodbye to her husband, no opportunity to make arrangements for her children, no explanation of why she was detained.  ICE held her for a month until outraged protestors and the ACLU were able to obtain her release.  You read the story in the papers and saw it played out on the news.

Our Unitarian Universalist colleagues hang yellow banners and wear shirts with the words, “Standing on the Side of Love.”  It’s the UU equivalent of our UCC, “No matter who you are … you are welcome here” banner.  It’s their way of saying, compassion always overrides the law.  And this week a Unitarian church in Rhode Island will dedicate their Sanctuary, which has met all the building codes and safety requirements required by law, in order to open to a refugee.  Nearby churches and synagogues will help with supplies and costs to sustain the endeavor for as long as needed.

This is happening all across the country, in every state in the nation, as churches, some of them UCC, step up with Jesus to say, “Compassion overrides the rules.”  Yes, religious practices and a nation’s rules are important, but they are made for us, to keep us faithful and safe, to do us good, not to do us harm.  Jesus reminds us that God’s ultimate “rule” is compassion.  He heals a broken man, and in doing so, he breaks human rules.  And for this, he was led to the cross.  People who do God’s will often run afoul of those who are invested in empty piety, nationalistic fervor, racial bigotry, or greed.

And through this action of compassion, Jesus heals us today as we seek to bring about peace in our communities – God’s peace with justice, known as shalom – until all of life, for everyone, is an eternal sabbath.

 

May it be so!  Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Getting a Life

John 3:1-17

May 27, 2018

It’s that magic time of the evening when the sun has set but the light lingers.  Twilight.  A man walks cautiously down the narrow street, glancing behind him from time to time.  He’s rather well-dressed for that neighborhood, out of place.  Wary eyes look from a window.  A mother in a doorway, crooning to a fussy baby, watches him pass by.  A cat darts on padded paws in front of him.  The man stops and asks a boy for directions, then turns down an alley.  When he finds the door he is looking for, he reaches up and knocks – just as the first star shows up in the sky.

It’s Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, making his way to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Nicodemus in the night.  He is a leader of the Jews, a keeper of the laws of Moses.  What does he want with Jesus?  What has brought him out on this dark night when he should be home in bed?  What troubles him that he should take the trouble?

All of his colleagues are upset with this know-it-all from Galilee who is stirring up the people – turning water into wine, healing the sick, creating a ruckus in the temple.

But Nicodemus is intrigued.  Perhaps his life of privilege and respectability is not enough.  Perhaps his insistence and reliance on observing the laws has left him unfilled.  Perhaps he is hungry for more, soul-hungry for more meaning than he has experienced as a keeper of Israel.  His unrest must have been deep for him to make this journey across town, out of his comfort zone.

Do any of us ever know what drives us – to pick up the phone, to make the call, to get in the car, to attend the event?   Some deep need, perhaps one we are not even in touch with, drives us.  So it must be with Nicodemus.  What does Jesus have that Nicodemus wants?  There must be more to life than rules.  Jesus seems to have a life, a purpose, a mission. So he steals away to Jesus.  With his questions.  In search of a life with meaning.

In spite of the subtle attacks on Jesus by his colleagues, the Pharisees, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus carries authority and has some special power.  He calls him “rabbi” and “a teacher from God,” based on the “signs.”  He shows Jesus respect – but Jesus doesn’t want his respect.  He wants his soul.  So he’s not prepared for what Jesus says to him:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus is mystified.  These two leaders of Israel – one wealthy, the other with no place to lay his head – lean toward each other in earnest dialogue well into the night, while the lamp sputters and grows dim.   Nicodemus struggles to understand.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

We, like Nicodemus, miss the double meaning of anōthen, from the Greek, meaning “from above,” “again,” or “anew.”  There is no word in English that captures the complexity of the Greek word anōthen.  Jesus is not talking about physical birth.  Jesus pushes him further:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. . . .   “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus is baffled:  “How can these things be?”  Jesus challenges him to move beyond the surface meaning to something deeper, a radical new birth in God’s kingdom, a birth brought by the Spirit at Pentecost.

Have you been “born again?”  Some branches of the Christian community have trivialized the phrase “born again,” making it into a personal slogan. Beware!  The new birth that Jesus is talking about is grounded in the cross, in a willingness to suffer for the gospel, a trusting in the Spirit to lead us outside our comfort zone.

Nicodemus doesn’t understand – and most of the time, neither do we.  We like clear, concrete ideas that we can stand on.  We want proof, safety, something solid to sink our teeth into.  How can we trust ourselves to something as ill-defined and wind-like as the Spirit?  Are we brave enough to trust God to lead us?

“God loves the world; God desires that all of us ‘have a life;’ God gives God’s Son that all may believe; God has acted in Christ not to condemn but to save.  To trust in this is to have life anew, life eternal,”[1] argues one theologian.  But the way we demonstrate this life anew is to love the world the way God does.  Getting a life may be harder than we thought.  It may take us where we never expected to go:  to overcome the prevailing social barriers of race and class,           culture and gender; to speak for the marginalized who have barely any life at all; to bring God’s kingdom of love and compassion to earth.

Nicodemus stumbles out, heading for home in the pitch dark; a donkey raises her head and watches him pass, on his way to his warm bed in his comfortable home.  He went looking for a new life, risking the unknown, risking his position, risking his reputation. Did he find it?

And, even more important, will we?  We, too, are invited to steal away to Jesus in the dark nights of our soul and to ask our questions.  Why am I here?  What does God have in store for me?  Am I living my life – my one and only precious life that only I can live – as I should?  Where is the wind of the Spirit blowing in my life?  To what new possibility am I giving birth?  Into what new life am I being called?

Jesus didn’t demand that Nicodemus give up his life, only that he become a new creature in the life he already has, only that his life be transformed through God’s grace and love.

May it be so.

Amen.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, p. 291 (adapted).

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