DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Up a Tree
November 10, 2019
Today we have this charming little story of Zacchaeus, up-a-tree to get a better view of Jesus as he passes by. As always, we need to see this text in the larger context of Luke’s gospel, the themes that Luke stresses – welcome to outsiders, the right use of money and possessions, the character of faith and repentance, and the presence of God’s salvation in the world.
The gospel presents Zacchaeus as short of stature, but that may have less to do with his height than with his occupation. As the chief tax collector, he is despised by his own people not only for colluding with Rome but also for taking advantage of them for his own benefit – think corrupt subprime mortgage agents in our day who sell houses to people they know can’t afford them so they can foreclose on the property, or bankers who open up accounts in your name without your knowledge to earn bonuses and promotions. We don’t know why Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus; perhaps he’s heard that Jesus is a friend to sinners and tax collectors, and he wants a word with him. But the crowd is an obstacle, too many heads blocking his view, so he scampers ahead and climbs a tree to watch for him.
A characteristic of this text is how physical it is, all those verbs: Zacchaeus stretches to see, runs ahead, climbs a tree, hurries down, stands in front of Jesus. I’m out of breath just reading all these action words! And it occurs to me that we are all out of breath today, given the complexity and pace of modern society, the stress of the nightly news, the expectations weighing on us. Looking around, I see too many of us choked with fear for ourselves and our world, choked with guilt for what we have done – or not done – or that we aren’t doing more to make the world a better place. Where is the time to think, to be, to reflect, to rest and recharge? To get perspective?
Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get perspective. Perhaps we need to climb a tree, too, at least metaphorically. The classic example of how one’s life is changed by getting perspective is Charles Dickens’ play, “A Christmas Carol,” soon to be staged by Trinity Rep. and theaters all over the country. Set on Christmas Eve, 1843, miser Ebenezer Scrooge gets perspective when his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, now a chained and tormented ghost, visits him with visions of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. And George Bailey gets perspective on his life in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the angel Clarence shows him the difference he has made in others’ lives. And, of course, there’s Dorothy in Wizard of Oz who discovers that there’s “No place like home,” even when nothing has changed but her perspective.
But our gaining perspective need not be so dramatic. Nor do we need to climb a tree to see clearly. My cousin’s husband Larry takes a five-mile walk every day to clear his head. I’ve begun to walk the track at Woody Lowden’s at least twice a week and welcome you to join me. We can take a walk in the fresh air and enjoy the fall colors without our cell phones glued to our ears. Nature is very healing and restorative. Being out-of-doors gives us perspective.
Now that I’ve moved to Foster, I have been reading more. Our Yellow Book Project this summer prompted me to invite all of us to read or watch or visit places that enlighten us and make us a more understanding and compassionate people. Reading or listening to stories is one of the ways that we gain perspective. When Sarah and I went to Vermont two weeks ago, we listened to Sue Monk Kidd’s magnificent novel, “The Invention of Wings,” a part true, part fiction account of the life of abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimke, her sister Nina, and their family slave named Handful. We were reminded about the cruelty of slavery and the narrow life of women in pre-Civil War America. We also learned that hope springs eternal and love eventually conquers evil. You have heard it said that we are what we eat. It’s also true that we are what we read (or see, or listen to, or watch). Humans beings are people of stories, told since the beginning of recorded time around the campfire. We can immerse ourselves in those that give us perspective.
In the same way, we are people who learn from each other. When was the last time you engaged with someone whose life is different from yours? Whose faith is different from yours? Years ago, when I was taking Clinical Pastoral Education at the Chaplaincy Center, we were given the MLK holiday to hang out at Kennedy Plaza in Providence and talk with people. I soon discovered that I knew who was just passing through on the way to somewhere and who was homeless – the difference between someone who has a purpose and someone whose purpose is trying to stay warm, passing the time until she could go back to the shelter. Over the years, I’ve learned from talking with people, understanding what their lives are like, their struggles and their hopes and dreams. I’ve learned the truth of “There but for the grace of God go I,” to use evangelical preacher John Bradford’s words in the 1500s, as he watched a criminal being led to the scaffold. We gain perspective when we get outside of our own limited experience.
In the same way, we gain perspective when we get away or try something new. Kim came back from Italy in October less bothered by petty annoyances at work. I’ve joined the Fellowship of the Ringers (along with Lee) under Dorothy Shippee’s leadership at Foster Center Church to open my life to something completely new – and a new appreciation of how hard it really is to ring on the right note at the right time with a bell in each hand!
It’s good for us, every so often, to climb a tree for a new perspective. Zacchaeus climbs the Sycamore, and he sees what Jesus sees: the poor and the sick, the lame and the blind, the lonely and the outcast. Perhaps he sees that his cheating on taxes has caused some of their suffering, and he climbs down from his safe haven in the tree, with a new attitude toward his fellow human beings, ready to make amends, a changed man to stand with Jesus who came “to seek out and to save the lost.”
We may not have to climb a tree, literally, to see Jesus above the crowd. We can find perspective in stories, in relationships, in new experiences. Jesus comes to us in and through these activities of daily life, and invites us to come and follow him. And it is there that Zacchaeus becomes a “happy saint” of the church. He is in relationship with the One who knows when we are up a tree or out on a limb. The One who doesn’t wait to be invited, the One who finds us even when we hide, the One who lavishes us – even us – with extravagant love.
Jesus is the “real deal” and Zacchaeus knows it. Immediately, he becomes part of Jesus’ mission to distribute his money and possessions – half of all he has – so that all will have enough. And in doing so, he becomes joyful and generous. He has discovered the secret to a happy life, to a life without fear and guilt: to live and to share and to love as best we can. And it will be enough!
May it be so! Amen.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Challenge to Holy Living
November 3, 2019
On this All Saints Day, this is the gospel lesson we have been given. Why this text that speaks of blessings and woes? Why this text that speaks of a reversal of fortunes, when today we are celebrating loved ones who have gone before us? What can this mean to us?
We heard these same words in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, the one we call the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God; blessed are those who mourn, for the will be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Matthew has offered us a more sanitized version, one without the “woes.” Luke, however, in his text, in what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Plain, uses the same source material, but he is more literal. And consistent. The life of holiness is challenging and difficult. All this talk about the poor, and hungry, and grief-stricken: Are we poor? Or are we rich?
From the very beginning, Luke’s gospel opens with the birth narrative – and if you think I’m jumping the season, let me remind us all that we will be in the season of Advent and our tree will be lit in four weeks. And in his very first chapter, Luke tells the story of the Angel Gabriel and his visit to the young Mary in Nazareth, the virgin who is engaged to Joseph and who, even so, says “yes” to God’s claim on her life. She does this with a remarkable poem, perhaps the most revolutionary, political passage in our Bibles, that we have come to call Mary’s Song of Praise, the “Magnificat”: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Luke forces us to take seriously the voice of the oppressed from beginning to end, from the shepherds who lived on the margins of society – poor, unwashed ruffians, up in the hilltops tending sheep, a dirty job. Remember, the shepherds were the first to greet the Christ child – not the kings and nobility.
Yes, Luke is consistent. But what of our saints? If we believe that blessings are a declaration of holiness and goodness, then we also must accept the idea that curses, or woes, are an announcement of the evil and injustice in a person or thing or situation.
In our lesson this morning, Jesus is teaching the crowds that have been following him through the countryside. He surely has witnessed suffering “up close and personal” in his travels, and his heart has gone out to the “least of these.” I picture hundreds of people lined up in the third world, waiting for the hospital ship to pull into port, the villagers helping Doctors Without Borders set up temporary operating rooms after an earthquake. I imagine the crippled, feverish, mentally ill crowding around Jesus, mothers holding children too sick to smile, fathers carried in on rush blankets. And Jesus curses those whose wealth, comfort, and prestige are built upon this same suffering.
Jesus continually looks for reversals: a change of heart in the tax collector who will stop cheating, an openness of the Pharisee to a truth beyond the law, a willingness of the faithful to follow the One who has picked up the prophet Isaiah’s mantel, the One who has come “…to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
This is the gospel lesson that is set aside for us on All Saints Day. The saints are those whose lives bear witness to suffering and real struggle and the challenge to holy living – whether one is a church-goer or not – that is grounded in the real suffering and struggle of real people who seek to be good neighbors, who work for the common good, and who want to be faithful to the old fashioned values of moderation and respect and courtesy.
Right now, is our beloved country, as we are caught in the tension between blessings and curses, between rewards and woes, let us remember that there are no easy answers – and no one answer to solve our nation’s woes – although some are more helpful than others.
Jesus calls for a reversal of fortunes, yes, but not that the poor become rich and the rich, poor, but that we overthrow social norms, and patterns, and relationships that depend on the suffering of many to support the advantages of a few.
In Jesus’ ethical code, with which he ends this lesson, we are to listen, to love, to do good, to bless, to pray, to make peace, to be generous. I lie in bed at night, thinking what I can say that will help, that will inspire, that will make a difference in our lives, and the words of Saint Francis come to me:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
This is the work of the saints. This is our work, saints-in-the-making all. It is in this hope that the true celebration of All Saints’ Day lies.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Saints and Sinners
October 20, 2019
There is no more important question than the one asked of Jesus by the rich young ruler in just four verses beyond this one, the one we are discussing in today’s text: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The gospel writer Luke is preparing us to hear that question with this story of the self-righteous religious leader who obeys all the rules in contrast with the repentant tax collector who has cheated people to feather his own nest, and Jesus’ talk of righteousness: “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, we are to trust not in our own goodness but in God’s mercy to us.
When we hear this parable, we are too often quick to place ourselves in one role or the other. Am I more like a Pharisee or more like a tax collector? For those of sitting here in church this morning, it’s perhaps too easy to align ourselves with the “good guys,” and to look down our noses at those who sleep in on Sunday morning or are out on the golf course. Or with its opposite of over-contrition: God, I am such a loser, so bad, so worthless. I don’t deserve to walk into a church, to ask for your love and forgiveness.
But Jesus, in typical fashion, reminds us that appearances can be deceiving: The one called “holy” by society walks away from the temple trusting in his own self-importance and lifting up his own ego, while the one whom everyone loves to hate casts himself on God’s mercy. As usual Jesus turns the tables on the established order of things in first century Palestine, and redefines who ranks higher in God’s kingdom.
So, are you a Pharisee or a tax collector? The truth, of course, is that we are both. We are all saints – and we are all sinners who have fallen far short of the goals God has for us. We have two testaments full of prophets – the Old Testament and the New – to remind us how life should be lived and cared for and to reprimand us for falling short of God’s will for humankind.
Theologians in the past have attempted to explain wickedness. In his “Church Dogmatics,” Karl Barth, a Swiss Reformed Theologian thought to be the greatest Protestant theologian of all time, draws a distinction between the goodness of God the Creator and the sinfulness of the creature. Jesus seems to be making such a point to his audience: The Pharisee thinks he is saved by his own prideful actions, the good that he is doing by following the religious codes. The tax collector is ashamed by what he has done. Both, according to Jesus, are sinners in God’s eyes, but the first is not aware of his sin. He justifies himself by his own actions. Jesus, however, teaches that they both should put on the cloak of humility, they both should rely on God’s mercy, that both need to rely on God and not on themselves – as should we.
Before Barth, another of our spiritual ancestors, John Calvin, a French pastor and theologian in the 1500s who was a key player in the Protestant Reformation, preached about the total depravity of humankind, tracing back to Adam and Eve and their “original sin” in the garden of Eden. It is this brand of Calvinist Baptist theology that Richard Waterman wanted to see preached from the pulpits in the Larger Parish and that he funded with his bank stocks in 1838.
With all due respect and apologies to Richard Waterman, I don’t believe in the theological concept of original sin, total depravity. Those are attempts by our forebears to understand human behavior, to explain evil. When I hold a brand new baby, caress his softness and heft and marvel at her tiny toes and fingers, and look into the eyes of wonder and amazement and see them looking back at me, I find it hard to believe that we are born sinful. Maybe when we reach the Terrible Twos, the age of “me” and “mine” and “no,” perhaps, but not the newborn!
Today we know more about human development, and we don’t try to lay all behavior at eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of goodness and evil, to lay the blame at the foot of an apple tree. We have greater understanding of nature and nurture and life experience in shaping us. But the teaching does help us to grasp our mortality, our human propensity to prideful thinking, our feeble attempts to make ourselves more than God, to be God.
The psalmist, centuries ago, sees the truth that we are both saint and sinner when he writes, “Who are humans that you, God, are mindful of us,” and yet you created us “a little lower than the angels.” (Ps. 8) Another theologian, Jewish mystic Martin Buber, observed that our spiritual nature has “two pockets.” When we reach into one pocket, we pull out smallness, that is, “We are nothing but dust and ashes.” But when we reach into our other pocket, we extract greatness: “For our sake the universe was created,” and for our sake, God sent Jesus that we might have eternal life.
So perhaps we ought not think too highly of ourselves like the Pharisee, that we are God’s gift to the world, to hold too optimistic a view of ourselves and humankind, that we are perfect as we are, that nothing needs to change. Yet perhaps we ought not think too poorly of ourselves, either, that we have nothing to offer, to hold too pessimistic a view of ourselves, because that lets us off the hook of taking responsibility. I vote for balance, and not just for ourselves as individuals but also as a nation. We tend to look at scripture as pertaining to individual persons, and we look for personal meaning in the stories. What do they mean to you and me?
But Jesus is also talking to representatives of groups of people in ancient Israel, parts of the larger society. The Pharisee represents the religious establishment which was in cahoots with the ruling class, and the tax collector, a class of government workers, Jews employed by the Romans and who often cheated their own people.
We see the Pharisee today in the Religious Right’s claim that their view of the world is the only one, their reading of the Bible is the only true reading, their brand of Christian faith is the only real faith – and all others are illegitimate. We see the Pharisee today in the Religious Right’s view that government should be under their thumb, that there should be no separation of church and state, that secular government must be reformed – that only their Christian worldview should shape society. It’s worth noting that not everyone who claims to be Christian is very Christ-like!
And the tax collector, who is he in today’s worldview? Perhaps he is all of us who lose sight of our responsibility to care for each other, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Perhaps he is all of us who allow institutional racism, under-education of the poor, people to die for lack of health care, corporate greed. So we, too, need to hold up a moral mirror and look at ourselves, beat our chests, and ask for mercy.
I fear for our collective future. I repent of the dissatisfaction and fear – that have given rise to polarization and hate in our beloved country. Surely, we all bear some measure of responsibility for the fix we are in. Let us not gloat in our goodness, boast of our righteousness like the Pharisee, but cry out for mercy, admit our sin like the tax collector, that we have fallen short of our American principles and values, of our decency and respect for each other, of the Way of Jesus, and the best that we can be.
Let us renew ourselves as a nation that we may be filled with new life. Let us humble ourselves that we may be justified.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
October 13, 2019
This story is known as the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge which is unique to the Gospel of Luke. It must have been an “outlier” story that Luke picks up, although Matthew, Mark, and John do not.
We have grown accustomed to Jesus as healer, teacher, and a man of prayer. Who knew he was also a comedian? Imagine his disciples hearing this story! They must have been elbowing each other, tears running down their cheeks as they double over with laughter. They know these people: the woman who is getting a raw deal because she has nothing – no husband, no inheritance, no social standing; the politician who cares only for himself, the smarmy guy everyone loves to hate. We know them, too. And we all love it when the underdog ends up on top! It doesn’t happen often enough!
Luke doesn’t reveal the specifics of the widow’s complaint, only that she has been treated unjustly. An Evangelical Lutheran pastor in my October 9th Christian Century magazine suggests: “Perhaps her son has been wrongly imprisoned or her sister abruptly fired. Maybe she herself has suffered age discrimination. It might be that her brother is being detained at the border or her deceased husband’s lawyer is dragging his heels in settling the estate. Perhaps she has been driven into bankruptcy by exorbitant medical bills.” We do not know the nature of the injustice done her, but it’s clear that she is outraged and indignant and persistent in her complaining!
How can we understand this parable? What is it about? Who is the widow? Who is the judge? Is it about God, who God is and how God acts? Or about us and our call to faithful life? Or about persistent prayer? Or about all of these?
We know that our prayers are not always answered – at least not in the way we would like. We pray without ceasing at the bedside of a child who is dying of cancer. We hammer away at God’s door, for any number of things, but to no apparent avail. Sometimes we are worn out by praying. We wish we were as successful as the widow in the parable.
Yet, in verse one, as he introduces the story, Luke writes, the disciples need “to pray always and not to lose heart.” We are confused, perhaps, because we read in scripture, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). And it worked for the poor widow! But not always for us….
Perhaps we don’t understand prayer. We think it is a matter of putting in our order to God who will then, if we pray hard enough, grant us our every desire. Out of our mouths into God’s ears. We 21st century Christians think that God has unclaimed blessings to bestow upon us and that God wants us to be selfish in our prayers, that it is appropriate for us to ask for God to increase the value of our stock portfolio, to find us a new job, to cure us of diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
That’s not what the parable is about. From the start, Jesus sets out, not to resolve the mystery of answered and unanswered prayer, but to teach his disciples the value of persistence – persistence in seeking justice, persistence in prayer for justice. And it’s hard work, keeping hope alive in our seemingly hopeless world.
The early church for whom Luke was writing, certainly prayed for many things it did not receive: safety and protection from persecution, for example. Yet it did receive what it needed most: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness and the strength and resilience that it needed to survive.
The parable also teaches us that we can count on God to come down on the side of justice, to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. We can’t count on God always to grant our requests, but we can count on God to hear the persistent prayers of our hearts.
There are critical issues worthy of our persistent prayer today. On the top of my list is the need for political parties to work together to advance public policies that uplift our deepest sacred values – values of love, justice, and mercy.
French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831 to study our prisons and returned with a wealth of broader observations that he collected in his book, “Democracy in America,” published in 1835, one of the most influential books of the 19th century. He wrote,
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors
and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless
prairies, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America
and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret
of her genius and power. America is great because she is good,
and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Our country is in need of a moral revolution. Across the country, poverty and inequality are rampant; voting rights and democracy are being undermined by dark money in campaigns; millions of people still lack the health care, living wage jobs, and quality education; and racism, hatred, and bigotry are eating into our democracy.
We have a lot of work to do as a country to live up to our highest ideals. To come together as a nation for the common good. And that’s going to take a lot of persistence! Like the widow who never gave up! So how can we, here at Moosup Valley, be persistent in praying for justice? What can we do to champion the sacred values of love, justice, and mercy?
The writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés – maybe you read her book a few years ago, “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” – is a post-trauma recovery specialist, and it is comforting to read her advice:
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale… When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.
So, let us persist in bothering God, a sign that our faith is active and our hope is alive, so that we can sing, even if our voices falter, from time to time, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”
May it be so!
 JoAnn A. Post, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, October 9, 2019, p. 18.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Faith Is a Verb
October 2, 2019
Scholars have trouble with this little periscope – these verses that are clustered together for this Sunday’s gospel reading. There’s a lot more about the mustard seed in other places in Luke and in Matthew, and how does the “faith” question fit with the parable about the slaves? And why is the slave called “worthless” when he or she is being dutiful? Working day and night? Why isn’t the slave called faithful? What is Jesus point?
And, who among us, does not wish for more faith? Especially when life is most difficult! The disciples have just heard from Jesus, in the preceding verses, that discipleship is going to be more demanding than they had thought. Not only are they are accountable to each other, they have just learned that it would be better to drown in the sea than to lead a sister or brother astray. And if they are wronged, Jesus says, and the offender repents, they are to draw from a bottomless well of forgiveness. It is no wonder that they cry to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
Jesus responds with two stories: The first has to do with a tiny mustard seed. “If only you had this much faith,” we can imagine Jesus saying, as he holds up thumb and forefinger, “you could pluck up this tree,” like Harry Potter with his wand….” We read the text thinking that Jesus is blaming them, heaping guilt upon them, and, indeed, we often read scripture thinking we have fallen short. But Jesus knows his disciples – how confused they must be from his teachings, how overwhelmed they must feel from the travel, how uncertain about where they will lay their heads that night – so perhaps he is answering them with kindness and love, with a twinkle in his eye, teasing them…. After all, they have given up everything for Jesus, uprooted their very lives to follow him; isn’t that faith enough?
Besides, what are they asking for, when they ask for more faith? If I were to ask each of you what “faith” is, I’d get a different answer from each one of you, and there is no correct definition. The dictionary would tell us that faith is a noun – a person, place, thing, and, if we make it into a gerund, a quality, or act – but “faith” is not any of those, is it? We can’t see it, touch it, hear it, taste it, smell it. The writer of James makes faith tangible by linking faith to behavior toward the poor when he says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18).
I suspect that we confuse “faith” with a set of “beliefs,” like a doctrine or a creed, a religious teaching we have adopted along the way, something we say we might believe – or no longer believe – and, therefore, think we are being unfaithful. Give me more faith, we might ask, along with the disciples.
Let me suggest three ideas about faith: The first is that, just as we change over our lives by becoming older and wiser, and the world around us is changing, becoming more complex politically and economically, and science unlocks the genome, advancing medicine, and everything runs on computers these days, why is it is not only okay that our faith change, but it also is a measure of our maturity that it change. Our faith needs to grow with us.
As children we might have swallowed without question particular readings of scripture – think myths and miracles and conflicting accounts of so-called history – or such religious tenets as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or the Atonement, but as adults we have trouble believing them in the same way and worry that we have “lost” our faith. I grew up a Methodist and learned that our faith is a matter of holding scripture, tradition, reason, and experience together. So, I propose that, as adults, our faith should change; our faith needs to grow with us to give us meaning for our lives.
Second, I suggest that each of our faiths is unique to each one of us. My faith is a unique blend of my being – my background, my development of body, mind, personality, and social setting, everything that makes me unique and different from everyone else. Just as your faith is unique to you. I don’t mean to imply that the doctrines and traditions of the many different religions and denominations are not important – they are a statement of commonly held or agreed upon ideas – but they only can be a starting point for each of us as we develop our own meaningful faith.
Ultimately, my faith must be owned by me, just as your faith must be owned by you. And we help each other grow spiritually by studying and questioning and sharing our faith with each other. This is one of the benefits of participating in a local church, where people talk with each other and learn from each other, where people are not afraid to challenge old ideas, where people are open to the Spirit in our midst. It’s not helpful to one’s faith development to worship by turning on the TV on Sunday mornings – if that’s all you do, because you miss the diversity of ideas and experience! We need to interact with each other!
And third, I propose that a more helpful way to think about “faith” is not as a noun but as a verb – or not only as a noun but also as a verb – something that is dynamic and action-oriented. The original meaning of the word “belief” in medieval English – the word is “byleue” – had to do with holding in high esteem, cherishing. “To believe” was the verb form of the noun “faith,” and it meant “to hold dear,” “to prize,” “to give allegiance,” “to be-love.” To believe, then, to have faith, is to have a feeling, not a set of ideas to which we must subscribe. It is something that we love, something that we are drawn towards, something that gives our lives meaning. We might think of these as “faithing,” a new word. Ultimately, faith is what we love, not the ideas we hold.
And the disciples want more of it! And we probably do, too, in this brokenhearted world of ours. I wonder if Jesus was laughing at his beloved disciples; how much more faith do they need? They have given him their all, and it will prove sufficient for the establishment of the Christian church.
And us, what do we believe? Or, a better question might be, What do we love? Faith has more to do with the quality of our lives than in the ideas that we hold or the creeds that we recite, with that which we ultimately trust rather than in any theological formulas. The old hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” reminds us that there is no need for guilt, for fear, for distrust, for sorrow. There is only the need for love, to sense God’s love for us and to return that love, a cup full and running over with God’s grace.
My prayer is that it might be so for each of us!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
September 29, 2019
Psalm 91 is known as a “psalm of trust,” one that promises that those who abide in the shelter of God’s wings will be delivered from danger, difficulty, and disappointment. Scholars propose that it might have been a prayer of thanksgiving by someone who recovered from a long illness, or a testimony by one who found refuge from persecutors in the temple, or even a liturgy by a king going into battle. Surely, it speaks to the terrors of our lives – the terrors of war, disease, storms, sexual violence, homelessness – the feelings of fear, anxiety, pain – all the challenges of our lives.
In the midst of these, the writer of the psalm affirms God’s willingness to protect the faithful:
“The Most High will deliver us, overshadow us
with wings like a mother bird and shield us in battle.
No epidemic shall come near us;
angels will bear us up, and we will be untouched by monsters.”
So then, we have a right to ask, don’t we, where was God when a mosquito bite sends a little girl to the hospital with encephalitis, a beloved father is killed in a plane crash, a routine heath exam reveals bad news? And where is God in conflicts around the world, migrants fleeing for their lives, hurricanes devastating communities? Living is risky business – even when we eat our veggies, get enough sleep, quit smoking, move to higher ground, and stay within the posted speed limits. Why does a good God allow suffering? Can God be all powerful and all good at the same time?
In the ancient world, misfortune was thought to be a sign that one had sinned. Job’s friends accuse him of such in spite of his protests. Why do bad things happen to good people? People wiser than I have struggled with this question for thousands of years. Theologians have tied themselves up in knots, developed dogmas and doctrines, postulated God’s will in all kinds of ways to answer that question.
We want answers where there are none. We want explanations, and so we develop clichés: “Everything happens for a reason,” we hear. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” we tell the grieving. “Only the good die young,” Billy Joel sings. If one doesn’t believe in God, he or she can lay the cause of evil on the immoral nature of the universe, but if one does believe in God, where is the comfort?
Historically, Christians claim that God is Sovereign of the Universe, the Ruler of all things. Is God, then, responsible for everything that happens? Take the Holocaust, for example. Did God stand by and watch the murder of six million Jews? The lead poisoning of children in Flint? Fires in California? Why does God let suffering and evil happen? The will of God? How can we possibly know? Yet, when we read the gospel, we know what the will of God is: health and wholeness, peace and justice, love and goodwill. Jesus tells us, over and over. All we have to do is read our Bibles.
So, then, why do bad things happen to good people? If God doesn’t cause tragedy, who does? Why does God allow it? We have to blame somebody, don’t we? Perhaps we are to blame. God has given us free will, and therein lies the rub. We’re to blame, or so we think. Yes, and sometimes we are. Bad choices. Recklessness. Greed. Selfishness. We are moral creatures, aren’t we? But that doesn’t explain why the innocent suffer.
I’m often reminded of an old cartoon in which Pontius Puddle shakes his fist at God. “Why do you allow war and hunger and destruction?” And a deep voice from the cloud responds, “I was going to ask you the same thing!” And when there is suffering, where will God be? The psalmist writes:
14 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. 15When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them. 16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Are these false promises? When we read our English word “love,” we have the impression that, if God loves me, God will protect me from harm. We read the psalm as if we have a deal with God: I will be a good girl and you will keep me safe. I will be rewarded if I love God. Only good will happen to me. It’s a fair trade, isn’t it? So why does tragedy strike the faithful? Why do bad things happen to good people? To innocent children? To worshippers in synagogues, mosques, and churches?
A close look at the text may be helpful: “The Hebrew verb, which has been translated ‘
“love” in English, but more accurately in the Hebrew conveys not love but a sense of ‘being connected with’ God intimately.” It’s not about making a “deal” with God (love for protection); it’s about a relationship with God. The Hebrew word translated “love” suggests that “relationship with God is deliverance – it is life.” Our relationship with God is what matters most; God is with us in the tragedy.
It further suggests that “the point of seeking God is not to avoid suffering or hardship; rather, it is to know that God is constantly available, sustaining those who will discern God’s presence.” God is with us in the suffering, doubled over by the nerve gas, sitting beside the hospital bed, binding up wounds on the battlefield, hovering over the son on the cross. “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” writes the psalmist, “will say … ‘My refuge and fortress; my God in whom I trust.’” God is with us no matter what happens to us, and that’s what counts.
Over the centuries, people have imagined God in different ways – God up there, God out there, God in here – but one theologian, Matthew Fox, offers an image that is helpful to me. He suggests that God is like the ocean, and we are the fish that are swimming in the ocean. God is all around us and in us and through us, the One in whom we are immersed. Imagine yourself at the ocean, how the salt water holds you up, how the water flows over you, lifts you up and down with the swells. Image that this is God – all around you, over you, and under you. And, because our bodies are mostly water – we are, on average, 60 percent salt water – in you. Imagine that you are immersed in God – not up there or out there – but surrounding us and holding us up, the One, as the Apostle Paul says in the Book of Acts (17:18), “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Think “abiding” in….
Psalm 91 invites us to “abide” with God in this way, to feel God sustaining us, holding us up as all the waves of life – the tragedy of our lives – the suffering and the broken-heartedness, crash in around us.
Out of the suffering of her life, Maxine Kumin, U.S. Poet Laureate and author of 25 books for children, wrote Morning Swim:
Into my empty head there come / a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom
I set out, oily and nude / through mist, in chilly solitude.
There was no line, no roof or floor / to tell the water from the air.
Night fog thick as terry cloth / closed me in its fuzzy growth.
I hung my bathrobe on two pegs. / I took the lake between my legs.
Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky.
Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame. / In their green zone they sang my name
and in the rhythm of the swim / I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.
I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat / rose in the fine thrash of my feet,
rose in the bubbles I put out / slantwise, trailing through my mouth.
My bones drank water; water fell / through all my doors. I was the well
that fed the lake that met my sea / in which I sang “Abide With Me.”
May it be so!
 Maxine Kumin Selected Poems: 1960-1990, © 1997.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
God’s Nature Is Love
September 22, 2019
The writer of the Gospel of Luke is fond of “lost and found” allegories, stories that tell us what God’s love is like. In this chapter alone, we have three familiar ones – the parable about the shepherd who has 99 sheep safely in the pen and goes to find the one who is lost; the parable about the woman who sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin; and the parable about the prodigal son. Our lectionary text for this morning deals only with the first two.
You and I know about losing and looking. Perhaps not about sheep, but we know about losing our keys, our eyeglasses, our checkbooks, the word on the tip of our tongues, and the relief and rejoicing when they are found! And we know about losing a beloved pet who slipped out when the door was ajar, and the relief and rejoicing when someone calls and reports that he is safe. Yes, we know about losing and looking – and rejoicing.
In these first two stories it’s clear what is lost and what is found – a sheep and a coin. Both have to do with economics and value: Even the loss of one sheep affects the bottom line, so a shepherd will go looking in all the places where a lamb might be hiding, too fearful to make a bleat to help the shepherd find her in the thicket or the ditch. God treasures every sheep.
Jesus tells these stories to remind the religious leaders who are criticizing him for eating with “sinners” – those they consider unwashed and unworthy (like tax collectors and prostitutes, and drunkards), all those who live on the fringes of society, who don’t belong anywhere – that no one is lost to God, that everyone has value and is worth saving.
So this is a Sunday School lesson about whom God loves – and that is everyone, everyone, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. Whether we are “insiders” in the church or in the larger society, or those who don’t think they are welcome anywhere, especially in the church, “outsiders,” God loves us one and all.
But I believe the commentators who analyze these tests – who picked them apart to figure out who wrote them and for whom they are intended and what they meant to the people who first heard them – miss something important. These lost and found stories are more than about business matters – the monetary value of every lamb and the necessary coin to feed a hungry family. The scholars miss the intimacy; they miss the love!
Imagine you are the shepherd. You have counted the sheep a couple of times to make sure. Somebody’s missing. Who is it? And then you realize it’s the little one, the one who likes to prance through the flowers in the field. The one who comes running when you call. Where is she? Has she nibbled herself lost, following her nose from clover to clover, over the hill and out of sight of the flock? You can’t have her out there by herself, not with the wolves howling like they did last night.
And so you strike out in the direction you last saw her. There was that ravine you passed earlier. Maybe she lost her footing and …. Who knows? She must be afraid, lonely, stuck. And then, you see her. Yes, she’s tangled in some bushes and grown tired from the struggle to get loose. You sense her relief when you pick her up and put her across your shoulders. And now there’s a spring in your step as you head back to camp. You can feel the lamb’s warmth on your back, the sweet smell of grass in her wool, her muzzle in your neck, in your ear. Yes, this is an intimate moment, shepherd and sheep.
Tuesday, I took my beloved cat, Kamikazi, to the vet for surgery, and as they carried him away, tears welled up in my eyes, and when I brought him home at the end of the day, I lifted him up to my face and nuzzled my nose in his fur, listening for his purr. Yes, I know he’s only a cat. But you know, because you, too, have loved and lost, then knew the joy of finding – or the grief of not finding.
And sometimes it’s death that takes them away. My son’s Golden Retriever was dying of cancer, and I drove to Hew Hampshire, even when I had cancer, and lay down on the floor with him and stroked his paws, and told him what a great dog he had been and how I would miss him.
Jesus, who loves everyone, saints and sinners alike, tells us this “good shepherd” story to tell us what God is like. And God loves us like we love, at least as much as we love. And not only us, but also all of creation, the docile animals that share our homes and the wild ones that forage in our woods and fields.
God is not only an intellectual idea or an experience of the mystery of the cosmos, but God is also a feeling. And our beloved pets with their unconditional love teach us how God loves. And to this love we are called, to bless and to be blessed, now and forever more!
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
September 8, 2019
When I read a text like this, I’m glad I’m not a biblical literalist. I am not one to say that God reached down from heaven and wrote this passage with his finger like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I don’t believe that God whispered it into the ear of a faithful scribe and then edited the translations of the monks over the centuries. Biblical material is a product of its time. It reflects the truth of the community in the 1st century which gave these stories their life and meaning. But it is the task of each generation to discover that truth for itself. So what then, might this text mean for you and me in the 21st century?
The cost of discipleship is a difficult one for contemporary audiences like us. It confronts us with hard choices and jars any notion that being a Christian is easy. While there are texts that comfort the afflicted, this one afflicts the comfortable. Luke has constructed this passage very carefully. He starts with Jesus’ introductory verse to the crowds followed by three statements about the nature of discipleship. These are: First, whoever does not hate mother and father, spouse and children – and even life itself – cannot be a disciple. Second, one who does not carry the cross, cannot be my disciple, and Third, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
And in between, there are two analogies, two comparisons to help us understand about discipleship, (building a tower and waging a war). These raise the question of whether would-be disciples can follow through on their initial commitments. In other words, don’t start something you can’t finish.
This discipleship talk is tough stuff. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd. Is he trying to sort out who is really serious about following him? Is he trying to winnow – cut down on – the circle of people who have become attached to him and his cause, warning away those who cannot bear the heat?
Now, I don’t believe that Jesus wants us to leave our families. Everything Jesus stands for is about relationships: caring for children, letting them come to him, blessing them. And caring for elderly and widowed women and orphans. He would not want us to abandon them. Nor do I believe Jesus wants us to give away everything we have. Then we would add to the ranks of the poor, and we know Jesus cares about the poor. At the same time, I don’t believe Jesus wants us to turn our back on our neighbors and the needy, or turn a blind eye to social injustice or environmental degradation, even if it might mean “carrying a cross.”
So what do we make of this Gospel lesson? Today’s passage is in the travel section of Luke’s gospel. Jesus already has turned his face toward Jerusalem to confront the authorities and to speak truth to power. So his call to discipleship may be a call to follow him into the city and to face the danger to be found there, to separate the curious from the committed.
As I studied the passage, I wondered, too, if Jesus is reflecting on the choices he is making: First, leaving family must have been painful. Remember on the cross, he provides for his mother in the care of a disciple. And he knows he will be carrying a cross, the Roman’s method of executing criminals. And the two analogies about building the tower and waging war? Jesus is finishing what he has started, standing up for what he believes, giving up all that he has, even onto death. Jesus is a man of principle.
And to us? Perhaps the call is to follow Jesus’ way – the way of self-offering love, the way of mercy, the way of compassion. Following Jesus means to be Christ-like, to live a principled life – that is, a moral, ethical, honest, righteous life in keeping with Jesus Way – no matter the cost.
Lest we think that such a life is beyond us, let’s look at some of the ways we are already doing this. This summer, some of us spent time with children and grandchildren, building memories during vacations. Families and friends are important and deserve our time and attention. And sometimes we create new families, weaving together lonely and isolated strangers who become as family to each other. Kim’s friend Robin did this when she fostered two severely abused little girls for two years. One of them, who is now being adopted, still has a picture of Robin on her dresser.
Some of us move beyond our comfort zone and advocate for our neighbors. A Foster resident spoke up for a person on food stamps last week when she overheard the clerk at the grocery store ask loudly to the customer ahead of her in line, “Is that an EBT card you’re using?” The Electronic Benefits Transfer cards are designed to look like ordinary debit cards to protect a poor person’s privacy. Instead the clerk called her out and embarrassed this shopper. And the advocate, someone you know, who could have been you or me, spoke up and vowed to take it all the way to management. Jesus never belittled people because they were poor!
Sometimes people take bold public stands, like those who “take the knee” during the National Anthem, to raise attention to injustice and oppression. Even if it causes them harm in some way, they know they have done what is right, regardless of the cost.
Corporations, too, are called to principled living. I think of CVS who decided no longer to sell cigarettes, a known cause of cancer, because they could not justify doing so as a health care provider. And recently, businesses like Walmart have decided not to sell some kinds of guns and ammunition to take a principled stand on the proliferation of guns. Last year, the RI Conference UCC took a principled stand to require all clergy to take White Privilege training to keep our credentials, our “standing” as a UCC minister.
We have all have stood on principle from time to time. We have taken time to care for an elderly parent or a disabled child ourselves rather than putting them into an institution. We have turned down a great job because we didn’t want to move our family. We have stood up for someone who was being bullied and gotten pushed around. We have given up our time and used our skills to rebuild a community after a disaster. We have raised questions about church teachings and risked being called a sinner – or challenged our school system’s policies or our employer’s business practices and been called a trouble-maker.
Today’s text is about “principled living,” having beliefs and acting on them, making the most loving choices. Principled living means facing suffering with courage, standing up to injustice, and balancing our own needs with the needs of others. Discipleship is costly, but those who live principled lives and live to tell their stories, tell us that standing on principle, being clear about values and acting on them, has transformed their lives.
This is the life that Jesus of Nazareth invites us to pursue, a life where priorities are examined and decisions made, a life in tune with love and mercy and peace. You and I are called to choose this life, this leader, these principles.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
God’s Dinner Party
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2019
When I was a little girl, my father took up photography. More often than not, his pictures were of family picnics with someone flipping burgers, an uncle carving the Turkey at thanksgiving, or my mother proudly carrying a cake with blazing candles to the table. Food, it seems, was at the center of our lives.
And so it is in the Gospel of Luke. There are more references to eating in Luke than in any of the other gospels. In fact, Luke’s Jesus is certainly more preoccupied with banquets, tables, and reclining at tables than are Matthew, Mark or John. In today’s lesson, Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee for a wedding banquet, a surprising move since he was under surveillance by the Pharisees who were threatened by his constant reinterpretation of their rules. However, this host is intrigued by Jesus and invites him home for dinner.
At Palestinian wedding feasts, it was common for guests to recline on couches around the room, with the center couch being the place of honor for those with the most wealth, power, or office. If a more prominent man arrives fashionably late, a guest who had assumed the center couch, might be asked to move to a less prestigious location. How humbling and embarrassing!
Jesus was never one to miss a teachable moment. He watches as guests crowd in and head for the best seats, and then he offers some practical advice for such social occasions: “…sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” And as if Jesus were Miss Manners, he offers the principle – based on the Wise Saying of Solomon in Proverbs (25:6-7) about how to live the good life, lessons passed from generation to generation – “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Over and over again, we hear Jesus saying that humility is a virtue, that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
And then Jesus takes his teaching to the next level by likening the banquet to the Kingdom of God. When you throw a dinner party, he says, don’t invite your family and friends and others of your social status who will then be obligated to return the favor…. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed,…”
Status was an issue in Jesus’ day just as it is in ours. We move to gated communities to keep the rabble out. We hang with friends who are of the same social and racial groups. We are most comfortable with people who are like us. With this lesson, Jesus is asking us to mix it up! But not everyone is willing to broaden their circle of friends and acquaintances. At a fancy fundraiser dinner party a couple of years ago – this is a true story – 200 wealthy people were invited to the home of the president of the board of a nonprofit.
A conversation was overheard between two of these moneyed people. An older man was complaining about the difficulty he and his wife were having when they traveled to their million dollar summer home on the coast of Maine because they had to travel by ferry to get to their private island. A wealthy woman responded, “But don’t you think you can suffer a little inconvenience in order to separate yourself from the masses?”
Separate yourself from the masses? The gospel today reminds us that the masses are invited to God’s dinner party. God cares as much for the poor as God does for the wealthy. God cares as much for the homeless person on the corner holding a sign, “Please help!” as God does for the woman in the new car who drives by without making eye contact. God cares as much for the immigrants who have fled to this country to make a better life for their children, even to save their lives, as God cares about the corporate executive who counts on their low-cost labor. God cares as much about the young black men who fill our prisons at a disproportionate rate as God cares about law enforcement officers who stop and frisk people of color indiscriminately – and maybe even more so.
In Bible Study we are reading Diana Butler Bass’ book, A People’s History of Christianity. On Tuesday, we started the chapter on “Ethics: The Love of Neighbor,” and in just a few pages, we found the missing link connecting the early Jesus Movement with us today.
How did we get from there to here? How did the followers of Jesus, the son of a carpenter, a rabbi from a backwater village in Galilee, lay the groundwork for this new faith, Christianity, to blossom into the official religion of the Roman Empire?
We might think it was because our ancestors were willing to die for their beliefs, willing to be thrown into jail, sacrificed to the lions, that people were drawn to this new cult. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t Jesus’ teachings, the philosophical ideas in themselves, that caused people to convert to Christianity. It was the living of Jesus’ teachings, the practicing of hospitality that attracted the Romans.
Remember Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Matthew that lays out the practice of welcoming the “least of these” into the heart of the community?
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.
The early Christians did these things.
In the second century, a plague struck which gave the Christians a chance to showcase these teachings. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the streets. The pagan religions had no answer. Ordinary Romans fled from the cities. Christians, however, who didn’t fear death, stayed behind and tended to the sick and the suffering with acts of mercy regardless of class, tribe, or religion. They did “risky, compelling, and good things that helped people,” on the basis of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor.
Today, the talk across the Christian community seems to be about sexual morality, but this is a relatively new conversation. Biblical morality in both the Old and New Testaments had to do with hospitality, welcoming the stranger, caring for the common good. So “[f]rom what historians can gather, hospitality—not martyrdom—served as the main motivator for conversions,” to Christianity.
This country has a long history of rejecting immigrants. Benjamin Franklyn wanted to shut out German refugees because their customs were different from “ours,” that is, the English. Our grandparents remember signs, “Irish need not apply.” Roosevelt’s administration turned back ships with Jewish children to their death under Hitler. Today, it’s Central Americans and Mexicans.
Perhaps, remembering our Biblical roots and the ethic of hospitality can be a foundation for pressing for Immigration Reform in the years ahead. How else can we call ourselves Christians? How else can we represent what church is all about to our children and grandchildren? How else can we guide our nation?
We make judgments about people, about classes of people, without knowing them, without walking in their shoes, without hearing their stories. We isolate ourselves from those who are different. Jesus wants to educate us. God’s dinner party must include “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And not just because it’s good for them – but because it’s good for us. Jesus is not recommending the practice of charity as much as he is recommending that we grow more Christ-like, more understanding, more loving, more just.
And at Moosup Valley Church we want this, too! Two years ago we adopted this new mission:
Gathered in 1868, Moosup Valley Church is a community growing in our knowledge of Jesus. Led by the Spirit, we reach out to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We are a country church welcoming EVERYONE, respecting individual personal beliefs, and spreading peace in our world.
At God’s table, all are welcome; no seat is more honorable than another. And it is in passing the potato salad and pouring the lemonade that we become humble and develop the capacity to love, liberate, and empower each other.
May it be so!