Missed Church? Pastor’s Sermons

DID YOU MISS CHURCH?

Rev. Betsy A. Garland

Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland

SERMONS

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Make Ready

Luke 1:68-79; 3:1-6

December 9, 2018

These two passages from Luke’s gospel this morning are about pregnancy and childbirth, fear and joy, blessing and prophecy.  Two women carrying the gift of life; two babies destined for amazing lives; two appearances by the angel Gabriel.

Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, has conceived in her old age. Mary, her cousin, has conceived in a way we don’t understand.  Even Mary herself asks, “How can this be?”  It’s surprising, given the low status of these Judean women – nobodies in that culture really – that Elizabeth and Mary have been written into history, that we know their names, that God is using them to bring salvation to the world.

Now, we know about bearing and birthing babies, whether we have been the one to carry them close to our hearts, experiencing the changing miracle as our bodies prepare, feeling life stir and then grow strong within us – or the one who accompanies us, puts up with our growing awkwardness, and coaches us on this amazing journey.

How does one “make ready?”  Elizabeth and Zachariah make ready for this baby the way we all do:  They give thanks; they share the news with the relatives; they decide on a name; they dream what this baby will become; they care for this fragile creature once born; they raise him or her up as best they are able.

Today’s first lesson, in Luke’s first chapter, opens with a canticle known as the Benedictus:  Zachariah is blessing his infant son, John, a name which means, “God’s gift” or “God is gracious.”  Two emotions, fear and anxiety, and joy and gratitude, compete for our attention in this text, and in his song, Zachariah hopes that we might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness….”  Zachariah announces John’s role in the redemption of Israel, that he will prepare the way for the Most High “to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

This business of peace is not just the absence of violence, but peace that passes all understanding, peace that heals and makes whole, peace that allows the wolf to live with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, peace that allows a little child to lead the people and bring them back into full communion with God, peace that ensures there will be no more hurting or destruction on God’s holy mountain because the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of God (Isaiah 11:6-9).

We deeply desire peace in this season of Advent, do we not?  We long for peace in this broken-hearted world of ours, when we are witnessing violence around the country and around the world.  We hope for peace in our homes and workplaces, when we struggle to put food on the table, find a new job or deal with mental illness.  We pray for peace in this church and community as we live through transitions and deaths, when we are caught between the already and the not yet.  Zachariah’s song that we “serve God without fear” is a good reminder for us church folks in a toxic, high-anxiety time like today.

In the second passage in Luke chapter 3, John, now grown, is preaching in the wilderness a baptism of repentance, a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy “to prepare the way of the Lord.”  Advent is a season of preparation:  Last weekend, we lit the tree and listened to Christmas music.  Last night, Rice City had its party. This afternoon, Mt. Vernon will sing carols.

But into our Advent busy-ness enters John the Baptist who demands a different kind of preparation from us – a preparation of self-examination, a time to evaluate our lives, our values, our priorities – our readiness to welcome God into our lives.  John’s challengeto repent and to prepare.  True repentance means, literally, to change one’s mind, to turn around, to reorient oneself.

So in the midst of trimming the tree, or mixing the cookies, or wrapping the gifts – STOP for a moment – or two.  Take time to remember the “reason for the season.”  Seek God’s forgiveness and blessing in your life.  Advent should make us a little uncomfortable.  It’s too soon to be merry.  Our repentance, our turning around, will likely involve our looking at the structures and the systems and the people of the world around us in new and different ways.[1]

And remember that in Luke, the word of God comes neither to the Emperor nor to the governors, and not even to the high priests, but to an ordinary guy like John who lives out in the middle of nowhere, a scary and confusing place.[2]  And remember that the Holy Spirit comes and inhabits Elizabeth long after her childbearing years, and the Child of God takes root in Mary’s womb.  Two uneducated women:  one too old and one too young.  And they bear two baby boys, born into poverty, yet destined to fulfill a mission prophesied centuries earlier.

God works through the likes of us, just plain folks, ordinary people who birth our babies and raise our families and go to work every day and pay the bills and come to church and study hard and help our neighbors.  Ordinary people like you and I, born to make ready, to make the crooked straight and the rough ways smooth, and to bring God’s salvation to all people.

Ordinary people like you and I…

May it be so!

Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, page 49.

[2] Ibid, page 49.

*******************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Days Are Surely Coming

Jeremiah 33:14-16

December 2, 2018

Advent sneaks up on us every year.  We have barely cleaned up the fall leaves, eaten our Thanksgiving leftovers, and pulled out winter hats and gloves, and here we are!

Advent is not Christmas, although our society – with decorations in the stores, and carols on the radio, and gifts in the catalogues, as early as September – has blurred the distinction. In Advent, there are no shepherds on the hillsides, no star in the east, no angel choirs in the heavens, no baby in a stable.

The church lectionary rejects the too-early, Christmas merriment for the doomsday prophets who take the long view, and adopts instead a time of waiting and anticipation, a gradual awakening of hope, peace, joy and love.

And so this Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, we have the prophet Jeremiah who writes as Jerusalem is being sacked and the temple is being burned, as the royal court and upper classes are being marched into exile in Babylon.  The devastation is so severe, the destruction so much more than they had anticipated, that even God’s voice, through the prophet, wails in lamentation.  Theologian Kathleen O’Connor writes, “The people . . . are taken captive, dragged from their land, and deprived of their Temple.  They are beaten, imprisoned, and face death as a people, and, like Jeremiah, they cry out to God in anger and despair.”

Yet, during one of the darkest days of the Hebrew people, Jeremiah writes, “The days are surely coming…;” even though he is generally a prophet of gloom and doom, he writes to bring hope in the midst of human despair.  In spite of Judah’s present distress, he promises, God will keep God’s promise.  “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).

Every year we begin Advent with the prophets, and the picture is not always pretty.  “The stories of Advent,” one commentator noted, “are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams.”[1]

We experience this truth in our own times:  Food insecurity increases in Rhode Island.

Drug overdoses continue to take young lives.  Worshippers and students alike fear the sounds of gun shots.  Refugees fleeing for their lives gather at our border.  Public discourse grows more violent.  Advent always comes in the midst of human despair and fear.  And across the centuries, Jeremiah’s words ring out, “The days are surely coming….”  We long for peace and security.  Who will deliver us?  How shall we respond to terror?

With terror of our own?  Or shall we meet terror with decency, with civility, by opening our hearts and homes to those in need? By insisting that the internet be brought under control in order to curb hate and extremism?  By urging our government develop progressive foreign policies to beat extremism and keep us safe?

I’m told that, when German children learn of the Holocaust, they often ask their elderly grandparents, “But grandma, what did you do?” “The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah advises us – but they don’t come by themselves, without good people taking action.

“The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah would say to us, when the homeless will not sleep under bridges or on floors in churches, retirees will not use up their savings for rising health care premiums, soldiers will not come home in body bags, our communities will no longer be torn asunder by racism and homophobia and violence.

Advent is a call for righteousness – that is, right-doing as opposed to wrong-doing, conduct in keeping with God’s purposes, doing the good thing and the God thing. We are signs of God’s presence and promise to others when we fill Thanksgiving baskets for hungry people, when we buy Christmas gifts for needy children, when we assist our neighbors with rent and fuel, when we urge our elected officials to welcome refugees, when we work for health care for everyone.

Advent is a time of waiting with confident hope and expectation for the fulfillment of the messianic promise, for the coming of the Christ who will bring redemption – for God to bring wholeness in a world gone wrong.  Advent is a time to remember that we are not called to save the world by ourselves, that Jesus, Emmanuel, is coming to walk that journey with us.

The days are surely coming, God says, when I will fulfill the promise I made to Moosup Valley Church years ago, that you will be saved, that you will live in safety, that you will help to usher in a better world.

May it be so.

Amen.

[1] Gary W. Charles, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 7

**************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Is Truth?

John 18:33-37

November 25, 2018

Today – Christ the King Sunday – is the last day of the Christian year.  Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, when the church begins again to wait for the coming of the Christ child into the world.

 Today’s text opens with the trial of Jesus before Pilate, Rome’s governor in Judea. It’s Pilate’s responsibility to keep order during the Passover in Jerusalem, his job to keep the peace. For the past three years, Jesus has challenged the religious establishment – and his challenge has brought him to this place. The high priest has turned him over.  Pilate, a gentile, isn’t interested in the religious issues or Jewish traditions.

But Pilate is in a bind.  He knows Jesus is not guilty of overthrowing Rome and setting himself up as king of the Jews.  He hears no shouting or running feet in the courtyard, no swords being raised or a rescue underway.  Yet he can’t have word getting back to Caesar and his people that he has let things get out of control in Jerusalem.  It would be bad for his reputation.  An uprising – which these fanatical Jews might be capable of, if stirred up by the temple leaders – will be his political undoing.

Pilate is trapped.  The most powerful person in Jerusalem has lost control.  He looks for a way out.  “What have you done?” he asks Jesus, wanting to know the facts, perhaps a reason to have him crucified. So, is it Jesus who is on trial?  Or Pilate?  How will Pilate handle this, caught in the middle?  “Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.  “My kingdom is not from here,” replies Jesus.  “So you are a king?” Pilate asks, trying to get it straight.  “You say that I am,” says Jesus, leaving Pilate – and us, too – wondering if this was a “yes” or a “no.”

Pilate isn’t listening.  He who has likely compromised his integrity for ambition many times responds sarcastically, “What is truth?”  So is this passage about Jesus before Pilate – or perhaps Pilate before Jesus?  Is it about unholy alliances?  Between religious authorities and governmental authorities?  Or the tension between the two?  Is it about two kinds of power – political power and moral power – and the intersection of the two?  Is it about truth and two kinds of kingdoms – a kingdom of the worldly realm and a kingdom of God’s realm – and their conflicting allegiances?  Perhaps it is all of these . . . .

What is truth?  Pilate asks our question, two centuries later. It’s hard to know these days with accusations of fake news and alternative facts and political “spin.”  The Providence Journal ran a big article last Monday to explain how easy it is for clever people to use the internet to invent a story, with absolutely no foundation, to mislead the public:  “How lies become truth in online America,” on page A4.

They cite the case of one Christopher Blair who sits down at his computer every morning in Maine as his wife heads out to work and his children, to school and makes up stories out of thin air that he passes off as news.  His blog is titled “America’s Last Line of Defense,” and he began it as a joke – surely nobody would believe these he thought – and made up those stories we heard about, about sharia law in California, former President Bill Clinton as a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mt. Rushmore, and former President Barack Obama evading the draft when he was nine years old.

“Share if you are outraged!” Blair’s posts will often read.  And people do by the thousands, not realizing that his posts are satire.  “Nothing on this page is real,” he would write, wondering, “How could any thinking person believe this stuff?”  But his stories reinforced people’s biases, confirmed their fears, and they spread like wildfire.  Blair has an audience of six million visitors each month, and he earns up to $15,000 in advertising revenue.  “We live in an Idiocracy,” says a sign on his desk, and he takes full advantage of it.

Half a continent away in Nevada, Shirley Chapian, who once lived and worked in Rhode Island, logs onto her computer and looks for BREAKING NEWS on her news feeds.  She lives alone, her main contact with the outside world the internet.  While she doesn’t believe everything she reads online, she is distrustful and confused about what is real and what is not.  And so she clicks “like” on Facebook and forwards Blair’s stories.

Pilate asked [Jesus], ‘What is truth?’”  How do we know what to believe, what to trust?

People who come to Bible Study learn to be critical thinkers and to ask:  Who wrote it – and for whom – and why?  What did it mean, then, to the people at the time?  What does it mean to us today?  When I read the newspaper or a magazine article, I look to see who wrote it and consider that person’s potential bias.  And I learned a long time ago to read the entire article, not just to rely on the headline.  And, of course, we need to talk with people, especially those who have a different point of view.  And we need to listen.  Together, perhaps, we have a better chance of discerning the truth.

At the end of John’s gospel, in his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus hangs between heaven and earth, about to be lifted up on the cross, between the power of the world and the power of God.  And two centuries later, we, too, hang between the power of influence, money, and position, and the power of God, in whose name the church preaches and heals and teaches and casts out demons.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” Jesus reminds us.  This is the Jesus that the United Church of Christ claims in our Statement of Faith is the sole head of the Church.  This Jesus, this truth – and to his deeds we testify, to truth lived in speaking truth to power, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the least of these.  This truth, embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  This Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, who comes to us – you and me – when we are afraid, out of control, trapped by life’s circumstances.  This Jesus, of whom angels will sing “glorias” and before whose crib shepherds will kneel in just a few short weeks.  This Jesus whom we pray will be born in our midst.

This Jesus, who welcomes us, whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey. This Jesus.  Amen.

*****************************************************

Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Asking for It

I Samuel 1:4-20

November 18, 2018

In our lesson from the I Book of Samuel, Hannah was married to a man who loved her but she was barren – a humiliation in that society and a recipe for impoverishment in old age, with no sons to take care of her.  Elkanah’s other wife, her rival, had born him many sons, and she taunted Hannah unmercifully.  On the family’s annual trip to Shiloh, one of the religious sites in ancient Israel, Hannah can’t eat of the sacrificial meal:  She is so choked up with need.

So Hannah goes into the temple and pours out her soul.  Watching her, Eli the priest thinks she is drunk, so desperate and passionate is her appeal to God.  She asks for what she needs – and she gets it!  Sometimes we do get what we need – whether we ask for it or not – our parents accept us, our loved one recovers, we meet the person of our dreams – and sometimes we don’t.  But getting what we need means asking for it, and asking for it, means believing we are worthy of it.

So, let me ask:  Do you know how precious you are?  That you are a beloved child of God?  Do you believe your needs are worthy of being met?  In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens has Oliver take his bowl back to the food line and ask of his keepers – who were starving the orphans to save money for themselves – “Please, sir, can I have some more?”  He was punished, of course, but Oliver believed he was worthy of adequate food.
In 1955 Rosa Parks’ feet hurt, and she needed to sit down on the bus – so she did.  When she refused to give up her seat to a white man, she was arrested and jailed.  Parks challenged segregation because she believed she was worthy of equal treatment under the law.

A few years ago at a housing rally, I met a young man who received a foreclosure notice because the building he had lived in on the East Side of Providence for five years was being foreclosed by an out-of-town bank.  John had always been on time with his rent and had even put a lot of his own money into fixing up the property.  He believed responsible, hard-working citizens should not be forced from their homes, and he “poured out his soul” all the way up the line of authority until he got a reprieve.  He asked for justice.

When have you poured out your soul?  Asked for what you needed?  When a beloved spouse was near death?  When your son was facing prison?  When the mortgage was being foreclosed?  Hannah goes to the temple in loneliness, isolation, and despair and pours out her soul.  She trusts that God will not find her worthless.  In her brokenness, she is drawn to God and believes in God’s mercy.  She asks for what she needs – her “womb to be opened” so that she can bear a male child.  Although not every prayer is answered – at least not in the way we would like – this prayer is answered, and Hannah gives birth to Samuel, one of the most significant figures in the history of the people of Israel.

And then, in the second chapter of today’s text, we have “The Song of Hannah,” her song of Thanksgiving, her prayer of exultation in eight verses, including:  “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” And “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.”  Hannah’s song is much like Mary’s song of praise when she realizes she is to bear Jesus:  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52) – a reminder that we are about ready to enter the season of Advent.  And a reminder that God often turns the world upside down.

When have you poured out your soul?  Surely God knows what we need – but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask for measures to combat climate change, like renewal energy, and coastal flood control, and forest management to discourage fires.  Surely God knows what we need – but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask for aid to Central America to improve conditions to stop the fleeing from violence and compassionate immigration policy in the U.S.  Surely God knows what we need.  But sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask for reasonable gun control and affordable health care, safe shelter for the homeless and decent food for the hungry, for living work for the unemployed, for peace in the world.

This country need us to pour out our souls, to ask for what we need, for what the community needs, for what our nation needs, for what the world needs.  Jesus says, “Ask and it shall be given to you, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find.”  Surely, God rewards those who are proactive!  God answers prayers – through teachers, doctors and nurses, social workers, friends and neighbors, and, yes, through political leaders – often in unexpected ways, although not always in the way we might like:  Remember the portrait of Jesus in the Garden, praying before his arrest, tears on his face, drops of blood like sweat pouring off him, arms outstretched, “If it be your will, take this cup from me.”  Not every prayer is answered.

But Hannah’s prayer is answered when she pours out her soul, when she asks, and immediately she moves from sadness to joy, from barrenness to pregnancy, from prayer to praise and thanksgiving.  The pattern is this:  We believe we are worthy; we ask for help; we respond with praise – and action.  So, Hannah, model of faithfulness, gives her only son, Samuel, for whom she prayed out her soul, to Eli at the Shiloh temple to be a holy child.  As a mother and grandmother, it was hard for me to read that Hannah, who had longed for this child, gave him to God for the future of Israel.  But great blessings call for great sacrifice.  And Hannah, “paid it forward” for her nation.

And so this morning, in this ancient text from the Book of Samuel, we learn some important lessons:  First, in your heart of hearts, know with certainty that you are loved by God, worthy in God’s eyes.  God wants fulfillment for you.  In truth, it’s God who really wants you to “be all you can be,” not the United States Army.  They only want you to sign up!

Second, do not be afraid to pour out your soul, to ask for what you need; you may indeed get it!  And even if you don’t, know that God is interested in a relationship with us.  As one old hymn advises, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Finally, take action.  Ask for what you need, what our community needs, what our neighbors need, what our churches need – and work for it!  And out of thanksgiving for God’s blessings, “pay it forward,” as Hannah did, for the next generation and all the generations to come, for the salvation of the world.  For these lessons – in this season of Thanksgiving – let us give thanks!

May it be so!

Amen.

*****************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Clean Hands, Pure Heart

Psalm 24

November 4, 2018

Psalm 24 has three inter-related parts.  The first two verses tell of God’s creation and God’s salvation.  “The earth is the Lord’s” we read, affirming that “He’s got the whole world in his hands….”  The second section tells of entering God’s presence.  “Who shall ascend?” we read.  Climbing up the temple mount was serious business in ancient times, never mind its legal requirements.  Clean thoughts and actions were required!  And the psalm ends with “Who is the King of Glory?”  This is praise music of that day, made famous for us by Handel’s Messiah.

What mean clean hands and pure hearts in the 21st century?  This psalm is not about about hygiene, about fatty plaques in our arteries.  No, it’s about righteousness or “right living.”  It’s what Jesus means when, in the Beatitudes in the gospel of Matthew, he says,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”  Pure hearts are about having integrity, humility, and honesty.  The key idea is to “Love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6) and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19), both ideas imbedded in our Old Testament.  We can’t have one without the other.

Why this text on All Saints Day?  Stories about “right living.”  I have presided at the memorial services for some remarkable people here in Moosup Valley.  People true to the gifts God has given them.  Here are some stories I have culled:

Brad Gorham – taught his children to be aware of the blessings of education and resources and to remember that not everyone has grown up with those advantages….  Keep in mind the common good….

Nick Gorham – not just a veterinarian but also a priest and friend to all God’s creatures, especially to the four-legged ones as well as their owners who turned to him for help….

Roger Hawes – father figure to all the kids in Foster and servant to the entire Foster community, truly a righteous man, a “rock” for Foster ….

 Lillian Hollis – knew the answer to my question, where find the words, “You may have been born for such a time as this,” and “If I die, I die.”  Esther

 Barbara Hues – most irreverent person in Foster, loved her stories about country life, lover of outdoor work and her tractor! …

Carol Kennedy – one of 11 children who learned the lessons of cooperation, industry, sharing, helpfulness, and frugality growing up on the farm ….

Carolyn Kerttula – Queen of Moosup Valley, known for her integrity and common sense, no-nonsense point-of-view and her heart of gold….

 Mary Knowlton – who loved organizational life and was the treasurer of everything and had a reputation for accuracy, honesty and accountability, as well as her love of the old hymns….

 Bob Knowlton – love of nature and ability to restore and make clocks….

Beryl Livingston – full of doing for others at Rice City and Mt. Vernon and with great courage in the face of adversity….

David Mutton, my son-in-law great love of family and friends – and adventure – and with a wicked sense of humor….

Priscilla Nordennatural gift for music, play any tune she heard and was the organist here since childhood.  Philosophy was to “stop looking at all that is going wrong and ask yourself how you can make things right.”

 Skip Pendegraph – big, bear-hug of a man who loved his family and was always helping out in the community….

Bob Safstrom[Martha’s husband / Carl and Pam’s dad] — theological study / well-read biblical scholar (the “professor”) and faithful moderator of this church for many years, a deeply loved and a deeply loving man….

 Dorothy Salisbury [Bob’s wife/Fred’s mother] – described as a great mother and a great friend, full of fun and able to laugh at herself….

These are some of the qualities we admire in our saints!  On this day each year, we celebrate them, acknowledge their faithfulness and their contributions to the common good.  They lived their lives for others.  They are models for us, teaching us how to live our lives.

And they point to the Creator, as those who have clean hands and a pure heart do.  They are our saints, reminding us of God’s goodness to those who love – when our time passes into God’s time, and God’s eternal love comes home to us.

May it be so!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

*********************************************************

 

Moosup Valley Church UCC

How to Be Great

Mark 10:35-45

October 28, 2018

James and John, like so many of us, want to be great – without doing any of the work to earn the honor.  So they try to trick Jesus into granting them a wish, a ploy to make them “great” in the eyes of the world.  We can understand these sons of Zebedee, can’t we?  We, too, covet a lot of things that we never admit out loud:  the ideal family, the best job with the biggest salary, the classiest car, a secure pension, a life without fear – of bankruptcy, or terrorism, or illness.  We, too, want to be great!

The disciples have observed what theologian Walter Wink refers to as the Domination System – top down, male-dominated, ruled by the elite, focused on power and control, built on the backs of the poor who are losing their land and much of their production to support Caesar’s building campaign and wars.  Fear keeps tyrants in power, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Martin Luther could have been burned at the stake for his challenge to the Roman church, modeled after the Domination System.  Think how he must have been afraid!  Would you and I have that kind of courage?  Although we don’t burn people at the stake anymore, the domination model is still visible.  Even in our day, we see that wealth equals power, and power equals position.  And once one has position, nobody wants to give it up voluntarily – not the religious right, nor the banks, nor the insurance industry, nor the NRA, nor the politicians, nor you, nor I.

Everyone understands that this is how the world works.  They all assume Jesus will sweep into Jerusalem and take over.  The only difference is that Jesus will be on the throne, rather than Caesar, and all his followers will be rewarded with positions of authority.  It’s the same model, only the names and the faces will change.  It’s still about power and control, a top-down system.  James and John have no experience or the imagination to think otherwise.

For them, and for too many of us, it’s the way the world works.  The other ten disciples are angry, probably because they didn’t think of it first.

Again and again, Jesus critiques the way things are.  “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”  But here comes a different vision:  “But it is not so among you;…”  In his book, Journey to the East, published in 1932, Hermann Hesse tells the story of a band of men on a mythical journey.  The central character is a man named Leo who accompanies the men as their servant.  He tends to their menial tasks and, when the work is done, sustains them with his spirit and his song.  We can imagine them sitting around the fire as the stars come out over the desert, with Leo strumming on his instrument.

Everything goes well on the journey until Leo disappears.  Without him, the men cannot function and the group falls apart.  Years later the narrator of the journey finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the mythical journey.  Much to his amazement, he discovers that Leo, whom he had known as servant, is actually the head of the Order, a great and noble leader.

Great leaders are great servants first.  Long before Hesse wrote his story, Jesus gives the same lesson to the disciples:  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  We can imagine such a teaching not sitting well with the disciples.  James and John have misunderstood what this Messiah is all about.

Jesus treats them gently, but one might imagine his frustration.  It’s hard to change hearts and minds:  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” he asks.  “We are able.” they say, not knowing what they are saying.  Jesus doesn’t chide them for wanting greatness – but the greatness that Jesus wants for them comes not from being served – but from serving – just as Jesus did when he healed and fed the people.  Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom has to do with sharing a way of life that embraces sacrifice, generosity, and love as the way.  Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom has to do with loving God and one’s neighbor as oneself, the heart of his ministry.

Martin Luther was willing to confront the domination system of the Roman Catholic Church in the middle ages by challenging its practices of selling indulgences to line its own pockets by instilling fear and intimidation through the fires of hell.  And there are others, some we see in the headlines and many others, just ordinary people like you and me who are committed to the community, to the welfare of the people, not to one’s own position and prestige.

Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu but a close follower of Jesus, brought freedom to India through a leadership of nonviolence, humility and service.  And there is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led this nation in the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s.  And Nelson Mandela in South Africa.  And Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt and, the more I read about him, Robert F. Kennedy.  Who would be on your list?

And just plain folks like us – teachers, doctors and nurses and medical technicians, small business owners, social service workers, and public leaders who have taken positions to serve – not their own interests – but the public good.  I think of Dr. Michael Fine in Scituate who is seeking a medical model that promotes wellness without bankrupting the patients and their families.

Servant leaders listen well, understand their people and what they long for.  They are able to envision a preferred future and persuade people to move toward it.  Like Leo, they sustain people with their spirit and their song.  The Chinese Tao Te Ching captures this idea in this familiar saying, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists….”  And the people “will say: We did it ourselves.”

Servant leaders are able to do this because they have come to terms with their own insecurities that drive one to greed and coveting and needing to lord it over others.  Servant leaders are on a journey toward wholeness – holiness – and are willing to serve as well as to be served.  This is the kind of leader we all are called to be in our homes, and in our schools, and in our churches, and in our workplaces, and in our governments.

This is the kind of leader I’m looking for when I vote.  I ask myself:  Who will put the common good first, not special interests?  Who will build bridges between constituencies?  Who will be the best servant?  As we prepare to go to the polls on November 6, these are questions for all of us.  Great leaders depend on great voters, so now is the time to do our homework.  Perhaps we can instill some stability in our communities that are so divided and fearful.

Through God’s grace, may it be so!

Amen.

************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Take Heart!

Mark 10:46-52

October 21, 2018

This morning’s text is an interesting little passage that lends itself to being read in four parts.  If we were casting it as a play, we would need a narrator who is telling the story, a beggar who calls out to Jesus, a crowd who doesn’t want this aggravation – and Jesus who is stopped in his tracks.  The narrator sets the scene, provides the stage directions, and gives the actors their cues.  He tells us that Jesus has just left Jericho and is working his way toward Jerusalem – where Jesus, at least, is aware of what will happen to him.

But right now, Jesus is at the peak of his popularity, and he is surrounded not only by his disciples but by many others who have joined the trip.  They want to witness the restoration of Israel when, they expect, Jesus will take over city.  Bartimaeus, which means the “son of Timeaus,” a blind beggar, hears them coming.  He has heard about Jesus and knows something about his lineage.  So when he calls out to Jesus, he refers to him as “Son of David.”  Perhaps, before he went blind, he studied at the synagogue, and he knew about the ancient prophecies.  And now he hears the commotion and someone tells him that Jesus is passing nearby.

This is an opportunity too good to miss.  And Bartimaeus calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Think of this beggar’s courage and audacity.  Bartimaeus doesn’t even have a name of his own.  He lives on the edge of society, a nobody, reduced to begging for his livelihood, sitting on the sidelines, listening to the world go by.  Who does he think he is, to bother Jesus!  We know about Bartimaeus.  He is every one of us who is marginalized because of the color of our skin, or our sexual preference, or our disability, or our mental illness.  Because we have lost our job, or have cancer, or are homeless, or in prison.  He is every one of us who is tired of being overlooked, discounted, ignored.  He is an “outsider” in this crowd of “insiders.”  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The crowd turns on him:  “Be quiet!”  They do not need this interruption.  They and the disciples have their own agenda.  They are hurrying to Jerusalem, to what they think will be a triumphal entry.  This is the Jesus team – on the way to the party!  They do not need to be delayed by one more beggar.  They’ve seen enough poverty already.  We know about this crowd.  They look a lot like us, good Christian folk.  We are busy with our families and our jobs, more than we can manage most of the time.  We don’t need interruptions and surprises; our plates are full enough.  We don’t want to know about poverty and war and the refugees.  We have enough to worry about, thank you!

Did you tell me that a caravan of Central American refugees is working its way to the United States to escape poverty and violence in their homeland?  Why do I have to see the pictures of parents trudging along with children on their shoulders every night on the news?”  Never mind what the scripture says about welcoming the stranger.  Those refugees need to “Be quiet!”

Did you tell me that climate change threatens the poorest of the poor across the world?  Yes, the earth temperatures are cyclical – Our planet has always gone through periods of warming and cooling – but fossil fuels and carbon emissions are exacerbating the warming.  A new United Nations report paints a dire future for life on earth – worsening food shortages, wildfires, heat waves, coastal flooding, and poverty.  Never mind what scripture says about caring for creation.  Those complainers need to “Be quiet!”

Did you tell me how many homicides in Rhode Island this month?  Did you tell me how any suicides from guns each year?  Did you tell me about resistance to sensible gun regulations?  Never mind what the scripture says about loving our neighbor.   Those families who have lost loved ones to gun violence need to “Be quiet!”  We don’t want to know these things.  We would like them to go away – or “Be quiet!”  We want to sit around our kitchen tables in peace.

Jesus hears Bartimaeus calling.  It stops him in his tracks.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  “Call him here,” Jesus says to the crowd.  I wonder if Jesus had noticed Bartimaeus by the side of the road, sitting there with a few coins tossed into his lap.  I wonder why he stopped for this man when there must have been so many….

“Take heart; get up, he is calling you,” the crowd says.  Bartimaeus springs up, throws off his cloak, and finds his way to Jesus.  “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.  “My teacher, let me see again.”  But Bartimaeus, though he is blind, is the one who already sees – while the disciples see – but are yet spiritually blind to the truth about Jesus.  “Go, your faith has made you well,” Jesus says to Bartimaeus who immediately regains his sight and leaves behind all he has to follow this Jesus – this Jesus – the compassionate Christ who has come to heal the physical brokenness of the world, our brokenness.

Take heart!  God is working in our world.  We do not have to respond by ourselves to cries for mercy.  Consider the restoring of Bartimaeus’ sight – a miracle!  And what is a miracle?  Miracles are those events that bring people from darkness into the light, that turn our attention to what really matters in life and in death.  Miracles point to the One who made us for love’s sake.  Too often, family members and friends are lost to cancer or accidents in spite of our prayers.  Those miracles were not to be.  But the real miracle is all the love that surrounds us when death comes.  The real miracle is when each one of us stops to pay attention to what is happening in our world.

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus asks us.  While conflicts rage across the world, and guns are raised in schools, and drug trafficking ruins lives, “. . . teacher, let [us] see again.”  Expect a miracle!  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus asks us.  When we lose our jobs or have our hours cut, when our marriage disintegrates or our children get into trouble, when we lose our zest for life or health care is denied, “. . .        teacher, let [us] see again.”  Expect a miracle!

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus asks us.  Jesus tells us, take heart, have faith – and believe!

May it be so!

Amen.

*************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Defines Us?

Mark 10:17-31

October 14, 2018

When I was born, my parents named me after one of my great, great, great  grandmothers.  Her name was Betsy Sanborn, and she was the daughter of a colonel in the Revolutionary War.  As the story goes, Betsy was given a cherry-ized maple highboy on her wedding day.  It was passed down in the family, and eventually it came to me.  I had it for a number of years, and, then, about 25 years ago, I sold it at Christies Auction House in New York City.  I needed the money for college for my children.  I’ve always been a little sad that I did that.  Couldn’t I have made ends meet another way?  My head tells me selling the antique was the right thing to do, but my heart tells me that I lost a little bit of my history, my family origins, my story.

What is it about our stuff?  In Mark’s gospel, a “rich young ruler” comes and kneels before Jesus with a question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He has followed the commandments all his life, he says, but something is still missing.  Obeying the rules is no substitute for a relationship with God.  He is wealthy, but his possessions are not satisfying.  Surely there is more to life than this.  And then Jesus looks at him, looks intently at him, sees him for who he really is, and Jesus loves him. What was it that Jesus saw?  Was there an emptiness?  A deep-seated hunger?  Loneliness?

Jesus knows the nature of his longing, and he offers a profound solution:  “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Jesus holds out just what the young man longs for – a meaningful relationship with God, not simply a rote following of the commandments.  Jesus holds out a life worth living.  Will he take it?

But Jesus asked him to do the one thing he could not do – to give up all of his stuff.   Mark tells us that the young man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  The rich young ruler had asked Jesus a big question – a profound question – and Jesus gives him a big answer – and a big choice.  The rich young ruler could go and sell and come back to Jesus – or he could go back to the life he had left, to business as usual.  Meanwhile, the disciples are dumbfounded!  They had left everything for Jesus – but they didn’t have much to lose: a few fishing nets perhaps, a boat or two, some friends.

In the ancient world wealth was an indication of God’s blessings; now Jesus is telling the young man to sell everything!  Even today, in our world, owning a McMansion in the right neighborhood, driving a classy car, or sending our children to the best schools, is taken as a sign that one has “made it,” that one is blessed, isn’t it?  And money is playing havoc with our democracy where the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allows billionaires and their companies to buy ads … to sway public opinion … to control elections … to get the candidates that favor their financial positions.  As they say, money talks!

What is it about our stuff?  Jesus looked around and said to the disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are perplexed, so Jesus paints a word picture for the disciples who have seen the gate in Jerusalem that is so narrow that a heavily-loaded camel cannot get through, even on its knees:  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So, how shall we, in the modern world, 2000 years later, understand this text?  If we sell everything we have and give it to the poor, then we become hungry and homeless, too, and we have too many people eating in soup kitchens and living in shelters and tents as it is.  How would we clothe and educate our children?  And get to work?  Surely Jesus doesn’t expect us to sell all and give to the poor, does he?  Is this an impossible demand?  Surely it’s a simplistic one for the complex society in which we live!  Money makes the world go round!  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in England in the 1700s, knew this when he urged his followers to “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.”

But wait; maybe this text isn’t about money at all.  Jesus doesn’t criticize the man for having money, or that the money is evil.  He loves the rich young man; he’s conscientious and devout and would be a real asset to any undertaking.  Jesus invites him to join his inner circle of followers.  But Jesus knows that sometimes we are most afraid of what we most need.  Will the young man accept the offer?  Or has Jesus asked too much?  What is it about our stuff?

Perhaps it’s not about the money per se.  It is about whatever stands in the way of our discipleship.  For some of us, it may be money or possessions.  For others, a title, or a position, or an attitude, or an achievement, or anger, or disappointment, or an unhealthy relationship – you name it!

The rich young ruler’s entire life has been defined by wealth – and then Jesus comes along and challenges him to re-define himself.  Jesus invites him to seek a new self-understanding, to imagine himself as a disciple.  But in order to do that, he must put money, and all his stuff, and all his relationships in their rightful place.  The young man must turn his whole world upside down.  How could he sell the new house he had just built?  Who would manage his businesses?  What would his employees do without their jobs?

So this passage is about whatever weighs us down, ties us up, prevents us from accepting Jesus’ invitation to discipleship.  You’ve heard the story about the elderly woman who refused to move into assisted living because she had 10 rooms of furniture that wouldn’t fit in the small apartment, haven’t you?  What is it about our stuff?  Do we own it?  Or does it own us?

It’s clear that our stuff is more than just stuff.   It’s our history, our identity, our security, our level of comfort.  And it’s next to impossible to give it away, to change our self-image, to risk making changes, to try something new and scary.

Many, many years ago, I attended a meeting in the home of a woman who had been told by her doctor that she had only months to live.  She invited us to look around and take anything we would like – a piece of furniture, a lamp, whatever.  She wasn’t going to need it much longer.  A couple of years ago, I ran into her at a concert at Grace Church, downtown Providence.  She looked great!  “Weren’t you dying?” I said!  The doctor was wrong.  They misdiagnosed me.”  She was certainly no worse for having given away her worldly possessions. She had discovered what really mattered – life itself!

Jesus holds out a relationship with God.  We put up excuses.   Not now!  Wait until I get the mortgage paid off, or the kids through college, or find a better-paying job.  Maybe when I retire, I’ll think about being a disciple.  We hang onto our material stuff – and our emotional stuff – that holds us back.  Well, we’d like to be disciples, but right now we need that big screen TV.  Well, we’d like to be disciples, but right now we need to work on our marriage.  Well, we’d like to be disciples, but maybe after we get the new addition.  Discipleship is about letting go of anything and everything that clutters our lives and keeps us from finding the way to God’s door.

And God wants all of us – not just a glimpse of us on Sunday, some Sundays, or a dollar bill in the offering plate, or our left-over time, if we have any.  Being a disciple doesn’t mean that we have to give up what we have – but that we give everything we have to God, that we use who we are and what we have for God’s work in the world.  It means we become disciples right where we are, doing what we are doing, but understanding and redefining our work as discipleship to the glory of God.

We can do that by creating loving families that grow loving people, by choosing work to exercise our gifts and give us fullness of life, by contributing to our community and tending to the least of these.  We can use our intellect to speak truth to power and to work for justice.  And yes, we can spend our money wisely, and we can be generous with those who have not.

What defines each of us as individuals and families?  What defines us as a congregation?  The Jesus who looked lovingly at the young man, and saw what he needed to do to have eternal life, holds out his hand to us and invites us to “come and follow.”

Let’s not keep him waiting!

Amen.

***********************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Courage for Community

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

September 30, 2018

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a country far away, lived a very brave queen.  She was very beautiful, and the king had taken her to be one of his many wives.  Such was the fate of one young and vulnerable and poor.  We know about her because it so happened that her people were in trouble.  You see, they were Jewish exiles hiding out in one of the far corners of the Persian Empire.

This is the Book of Esther, a strange little novel in our Bibles, right before Job and the Psalms.  You may never even have read it – but it contains one of the best known lines in the Bible:  “Perhaps you have come … for such a time as this.”

Here’s the story:  King Ahasuerus, leader of the known world, has thrown a party and, after a week of merriment, has ordered his beautiful queen Vashti to come so he can show her off to all his friends.  Vashti refuses – perhaps she’s the first feminist – and, to set an example for other women who might think about disobeying their husbands, Ahasuerus deposes her as queen and issues a decree that every man is to be master in his own house.

When Ahasuerus sobers up, he realizes he is queen-less.  Now what should he do?  His advisors propose that they round up all the beautiful young virgins in the land for his harem, and Esther is among them.  To make a long story short, Ahasuerus loves Esther more than all the other girls, and he puts a crown on her head.

Now the plot thickens:  Because of political intrigue in the kingdom, a decree goes out to destroy, kill, and annihilate the Jews.  Esther doesn’t know this, of course, because she is back in the harem.  And the king doesn’t know his favorite wife is a Jew.  But her cousin Mordecai does and has uncovered the plot, and he alerts her.  What to do?  Esther cannot go in to the king without being called, an offense punishable by death.  One has to be invited and can’t just show up on a king’s doorstep.  Nor can she admit to being a Jew.  But Mordecai encourages Esther to take action and says to her:

“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more

than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this,

relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter,

but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows?

Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

In reply, Esther tells Mordecai to ask all the Jews to fast – and she too will fast for three days while deciding what to do.  Then, she will go to the king, though it is against the law; and, she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”  Esther succeeds in winning the king’s favor, and when he grants her any wish, she asks for salvation for her people, and he grants it.  The Jews are spared and given a place of peace and privilege.

“You were born for such a time as this!”  Esther could sit tight and save her own skin – or she could choose to act and save her people.  Here is one of those pivotal times in history when one is faced with a choice:  one road leads to life, and the other, to death.  Esther had courage.  She chose the way to life, for herself and for her people.

I had planned to preach on this text, long before I watched the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford on Thursday, accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual abuse when they were in high school.  I hadn’t planned to watch the testimony, but I went to pick up my 91 year-old-friend for our weekly lunch and found her riveted to her TV – and then pulled up a chair.  I hadn’t planned to address sexual abuse this morning until I heard Dr. Ford admit she was terrified – then and now.         And I thought about Queen Esther.  She must have been terrified, too!

We live in a highly sexualized society – we talk about sex, we read about sex, we fanaticize about sex, we glorify sex – probably a lot more than we actually engage in it.  But rape and sexual abuse is not about sex, it’s about power and control.        The statistics are one out of every three women, one out of every four boys.  And it changes their lives.

Abuse affects their marriages and their parenting skills, their ability to trust relationships, their ability to hold down a job and concentrate at work, their ability to understand why they get so angry over so little without apparent reason.  And many never speak up, never confront their abusers, never come out of the closet as someone sexually abused.  Why?  Because they feel guilty, that somehow it’s their fault.  Because they are ashamed.  Because they think no one would believe them.   Because they don’t know what to say.  And so they bury the memories.

In our society, women are accused of “asking for it” by the way they are dressed.  They are pressured to give special favors to bosses to get promotions or to get legislation out of committees at the State House.  Or they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time – and alone – and run afoul of a predator – who might be a relative or a family friend, or a neighbor.

Are men sometimes accused falsely?  Of course!  But until we start to listen to women and value their experiences, until we have conversations about what is acceptable behavior and teach the importance of respecting each other, until we examine the messages that are sent to our sons and the “boys will be boys” excuses for aggressive behaviors, we will not solve this problem.

The first woman who told me the story about being raped was a volunteer in the organization where I worked.  Her mother was widowed, and they were poor.    She had to sleep in the bed with her two brothers, and the older one raped her nightly when she was five.  She never recovered from that damage.  I might have been the only one she told.

And now, of course, I know many women – and men – who have been sexually abused. My partner Kim, my son, my daughter-in-law, my granddaughters, countless friends and colleagues, church members who have confided.  And you know them, too.  Some of them live in Foster.  But you may not know this about them.

The #MeToo Movement has brought many victims out of the closet.  And regardless of whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, Dr. Ford’s story – and the honest and passionate way she delivered it – has paved the way for other women (and men) to claim their stories, share their pain and their shame, and begin to heal.

What does it mean “in such a time as this” for us to have courage, to tell the truth, to “choose life”?  From time to time, brave leaders have been raised up.  In biblical times, not only Esther, but also Isaiah and all the prophets; Jesus of Nazareth who preached a different consciousness in the face of Roman occupation and the collusion of the religious establishment, the patriarchy.

What’s the worst that can happen?  Esther said it:  “If I perish, I perish!”  Yes, perhaps all of us were born “for just such a time as this!”

 

May it be so!

Amen.

************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Whoever Welcomes One . . . Welcomes Me

Mark 9:30-37

September 23, 2018
Another Sunday, another hard teaching from Jesus.  Last week, the scripture was about losing one’s life in order to save one’s life.  And now this, about being last in order to be first!  Who can understand this Jesus!  The gospel-writer Mark is trying to help his community understand who Jesus is and what that means for them and their lives in the first century.  And we’d like to know, too, in the 21st century!

This morning I’d like to reflect on the second part of the lesson, the argument the disciples had on the road about who was the greatest.   In Mark’s story, the disciples have absorbed the values of the culture around them, the competition for power, wealth, and prestige – those worldly values, then and now.   But we know, that our Jesus is an upside-down hospitality kind of a guy, a Messiah who turns the world upside down – who preaches God’s values.  Who cares for the least of these – the poor, the sick, the hungry and homeless, the immigrant, the prisoners, those lowest on the social pyramid.

So this morning I’d like to think about what being welcoming means for us as a church – not so much around justice issues as around membership and participation issues in churches in general.  Think about what we might learn for ourselves.

Now, Moosup Valley is one of the most welcoming churches I’ve ever seen, so my reflections come not as a criticism but as a way of broadening the discussion and giving us something to think about as we move together as pastor and people.  We say, “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”                But what does that mean as a practical matter?  Because we’ve had some new people come, and we want them to want to come again.  Attendance seems to be up, not every Sunday, but more often.

So some general observations first about churches:  People come – and people go.  That’s the way it is in churches.  Sometimes they’re just passing through on their way to somewhere else, not looking for a place to connect, and there’s no long-term expectation on either side.  They’re just visiting.  Other times we work hard to provide a warm welcome to bring people in the front door – but completely overlook that we lose others out the back door.  Sometimes we don’t even notice until someone says,                                “Whatever happened to so and so?  I haven’t seen them in months!”

So retention is important – for those who are not just visiting.  One of the ways we do this is by inviting new people to work with us on this or that until they get connected                and invested in the life of the church – like Bob and Priscilla did.  Keeping people has to do with friendship, meaningful work together, and of course, fun!

But sometimes people who are connected also disappear.  They move away to go to college and make new lives for themselves.  Or they move away to be near family, like Laila and Clive, or for warmer, drier weather like Alicia and Rikki, or the drive gets to be too much if their health is declining.  Often people drift away because they get interested in something else and then they’ve missed a Sunday or two, or three, and then they are too embarrassed to walk in –and so they don’t!

Churches are like families and our expectations are high for getting our needs met.  I know what crosses people’s minds, such things as . . .  Do they appreciate that I went out of my way to volunteer?  Is my contribution acceptable?  Why didn’t anyone send me a card when I was sick?  Why hasn’t anyone been to visit me lately?  Or . . . I’ve been away from church for months; how come nobody called to ask if I’m all right?                              That has happened to me, too, over the years, before I was a pastor!

When we come to church, we bring helpfulness and joyfulness and gratefulness – and a lot of trepidation – when we walk through the door, as well as unmet needs and wounds from our families of origin; anger at life’s unfairness and grief for its losses.        If you were snubbed at the store, you’d shrug it off as someone’s poor manners, but if  you were snubbed at church, you’d feel the insult and quip that, “They think they’re so holy and self-righteous!  And they call themselves Christians!”

If you volunteered to sing in the civic chorale and they said, “Thank you, but we’re not accepting any more singers this year,” you’d say, “Well, maybe I’ll apply next year.”            But if you volunteered to sing in the church choir or to help at the turkey supper and nobody called to tell you when rehearsal was or what time to show up with an apron on, you might feel unwanted and unworthy.  And you’d likely walk away, feeling rejected.

Churches are more to us than just another organization.  We come, trailing life’s hopes and hurts, looking for a place to heal.  We come hoping to be seen and heard and valued.  We come needing to be found and loved and saved.  Often, thank goodness, that happens in our churches!  Other times, our needs are not met.  Yes, it’s true, sometimes we have unrealistic needs.  Sometimes our hurts may be overwhelming or inappropriate.  And sometimes, we’re just all sinner doing the best we can!  And people leave – and you know what?  We let them go without a fuss!  This is the amazing thing!  Are we too wrapped up in ourselves?  Are we afraid of being rebuffed?  Are we glad to see them gone?

But we’re family, right?  Families may not always agree, but healthy families stick together and work thing s out.  Let me put it this way:  If your cat didn’t come home, you would be talking with the neighbors about coyote sightings and nailing up posters:

“Beloved cat lost.  Mittens.  Black with white paws.  Torn right ear.                                      Loving and gentle.  Comes when you open a can of tuna.                                                         $100 reward for any information.  Please call day or night.”

Or if your dog were lost, you would run ads in the local papers:                                        “Lost brown and white spaniel.  Answers to the name of Millie.  Reward.”   You would call the vet and visit the animal shelters and check every cage with hope – and leave in tears if Millie was not to be found.  And heaven knows, people are more precious than our pets!

People leave our churches all the time.  Some leave because they never connected.            Some leave because they are angry or grieving.  Some leave because they don’t feel heard.  Some leave because of theological or political differences.  And we let them go with barely a notice or a whimper.

Somehow we have the mistaken idea that churches should be wonderful places of peace and harmony, where there is no disagreement and no unkind word is ever spoken.  In Mark’s gospel lesson for today, Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who is the greatest, and he says to them, “Whoever wants to be first   must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus was always turning the world upside down, making the “least of these” more important in God’s order of things than those who had power and status.  And when we read the Apostle Paul‘s letters to the little house churches in the first century,                      we realize that much of what he writes has to do with resolving church fights – over personalities, over behaviors, over social and cultural issues, over responsibilities.

But being welcoming is more than a friendly hello; it’s reaching out to the Valley and offering people who live nearby what we all want:  a place to bring our hopes and hurts, a place to heal from the wounds of life, a place where we can be seen and heard and valued, a place where we can be found and loved and saved – and where, all together, we work to bring God’s grace to the larger world, to reach out beyond ourselves.

Our scripture today reminds us that Jesus treasured everyone – especially the most vulnerable and powerless – and at one point or another, that’s every one of us, is it not?

And Jesus calls for us to welcome them into our circle.  “Whoever welcomes one . . .  in my name . . .  welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me” . . . welcomes God.

Let us reach out to those who might have drifted away over the years, and those who might have moved into the Valley over the years, and those who don’t think a church would want them anyway, and those who had a bad experience with a church years ago and vowed never to go back.  Let us reach out to those who need to know that God loves them – and show them that we do, too!  Let us begin today.

 

May it be so!

Amen.

Moosup Valley Church UCC

 

Another Sunday, another hard teaching from Jesus.  Last week, the scripture was about losing one’s life in order to save one’s life.  And now this, about being last in order to be first!  Who can understand this Jesus!  The gospel-writer Mark is trying to help his community understand who Jesus is and what that means for them and their lives in the first century.  And we’d like to know, too, in the 21st century!

 

This morning I’d like to reflect on the second part of the lesson, the argument the disciples had on the road about who was the greatest.   In Mark’s story, the disciples have absorbed the values of the culture around them, the competition for power, wealth, and prestige – those worldly values, then and now.   But we know, that our Jesus is an upside-down hospitality kind of a guy, a Messiah who turns the world upside down – who preaches God’s values.  Who cares for the least of these – the poor, the sick, the hungry and homeless, the immigrant, the prisoners, those lowest on the social pyramid.

 

So this morning I’d like to think about what being welcoming means for us as a church – not so much around justice issues as around membership and participation issues in churches in general.  Think about what we might learn for ourselves.

 

Now, Moosup Valley is one of the most welcoming churches I’ve ever seen, so my reflections come not as a criticism but as a way of broadening the discussion and giving us something to think about as we move together as pastor and people.  We say, “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”                                      But what does that mean as a practical matter?  Because we’ve had some new people come, and we want them to want to come again.  Attendance seems to be up, not every Sunday, but more often.

 

So some general observations first about churches:  People come – and people go.  That’s the way it is in churches.  Sometimes they’re just passing through on their way to somewhere else, not looking for a place to connect, and there’s no long-term expectation on either side.  They’re just visiting.  Other times we work hard to provide a warm welcome to bring people in the front door – but completely overlook that we lose others out the back door.  Sometimes we don’t even notice until someone says,                                             “Whatever happened to so and so?  I haven’t seen them in months!”

So retention is important – for those who are not just visiting.  One of the ways we do this is by inviting new people to work with us on this or that until they get connected                         and invested in the life of the church – like Bob and Priscilla did.  Keeping people has to do with friendship, meaningful work together, and of course, fun!

 

But sometimes people who are connected also disappear.  They move away to go to college and make new lives for themselves.  Or they move away to be near family, like Laila and Clive, or for warmer, drier weather like Alicia and Rikki, or the drive gets to be too much if their health is declining.  Often people drift away because they get interested in something else and then they’ve missed a Sunday or two, or three, and then they are too embarrassed to walk in –and so they don’t!

 

Churches are like families and our expectations are high for getting our needs met.  I know what crosses people’s minds, such things as . . .  Do they appreciate that I went out of my way to volunteer?  Is my contribution acceptable?  Why didn’t anyone send me a card when I was sick?  Why hasn’t anyone been to visit me lately?  Or . . . I’ve been away from church for months; how come nobody called to ask if I’m all right?                                             That has happened to me, too, over the years, before I was a pastor!

 

When we come to church, we bring helpfulness and joyfulness and gratefulness – and a lot of trepidation – when we walk through the door, as well as unmet needs and wounds from our families of origin; anger at life’s unfairness and grief for its losses.        If you were snubbed at the store, you’d shrug it off as someone’s poor manners, but if  you were snubbed at church, you’d feel the insult and quip that, “They think they’re so holy and self-righteous!  And they call themselves Christians!”

 

If you volunteered to sing in the civic chorale and they said, “Thank you, but we’re not accepting any more singers this year,” you’d say, “Well, maybe I’ll apply next year.”                           But if you volunteered to sing in the church choir or to help at the turkey supper and nobody called to tell you when rehearsal was or what time to show up with an apron on, you might feel unwanted and unworthy.  And you’d likely walk away, feeling rejected.

 

Churches are more to us than just another organization.  We come, trailing life’s hopes and hurts, looking for a place to heal.  We come hoping to be seen and heard and valued.  We come needing to be found and loved and saved.  Often, thank goodness, that happens in our churches!  Other times, our needs are not met.  Yes, it’s true, sometimes we have unrealistic needs.  Sometimes our hurts may be overwhelming or inappropriate.  And sometimes, we’re just all sinner doing the best we can!  And people leave – and you know what?  We let them go without a fuss!  This is the amazing thing!  Are we too wrapped up in ourselves?  Are we afraid of being rebuffed?  Are we glad to see them gone?

 

But we’re family, right?  Families may not always agree, but healthy families stick together and work thing s out.  Let me put it this way:  If your cat didn’t come home, you would be talking with the neighbors about coyote sightings and nailing up posters:

 

“Beloved cat lost.  Mittens.  Black with white paws.  Torn right ear.

Loving and gentle.  Comes when you open a can of tuna.

$100 reward for any information.  Please call day or night.”

 

Or if your dog were lost, you would run ads in the local papers:

 

“Lost brown and white spaniel.  Answers to the name of Millie.  Reward.”                 You would call the vet and visit the animal shelters and check every cage with hope – and leave in tears if Millie was not to be found.  And heaven knows, people are more precious than our pets!

 

People leave our churches all the time.  Some leave because they never connected.                Some leave because they are angry or grieving.  Some leave because they don’t feel heard.  Some leave because of theological or political differences.  And we let them go with barely a notice or a whimper.

 

Somehow we have the mistaken idea that churches should be wonderful places of peace and harmony, where there is no disagreement and no unkind word is ever spoken.  In Mark’s gospel lesson for today, Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who is the greatest, and he says to them, “Whoever wants to be first                                                    must be last of all and servant of all.”

 

Jesus was always turning the world upside down, making the “least of these” more important in God’s order of things than those who had power and status.  And when we read the Apostle Paul‘s letters to the little house churches in the first century,                                             we realize that much of what he writes has to do with resolving church fights – over personalities, over behaviors, over social and cultural issues, over responsibilities.

 

But being welcoming is more than a friendly hello; it’s reaching out to the Valley and offering people who live nearby what we all want:  a place to bring our hopes and hurts, a place to heal from the wounds of life, a place where we can be seen and heard and valued, a place where we can be found and loved and saved – and where, all together, we work to bring God’s grace to the larger world, to reach out beyond ourselves.

 

Our scripture today reminds us that Jesus treasured everyone – especially the most vulnerable and powerless – and at one point or another, that’s every one of us, is it not?

And Jesus calls for us to welcome them into our circle.  “Whoever welcomes one . . .  in my name . . .  welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me” . . . welcomes God.

 

Let us reach out to those who might have drifted away over the years, and those who might have moved into the Valley over the years, and those who don’t think a church would want them anyway, and those who had a bad experience with a church years ago and vowed never to go back.  Let us reach out to those who need to know that God loves them – and show them that we do, too!  Let us begin today.

 

May it be so!

Amen.

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Whoever Welcomes One . . . Welcomes Me

Mark 9:30-37

September 23, 2018

Another Sunday, another hard teaching from Jesus.  Last week, the scripture was about losing one’s life in order to save one’s life.  And now this, about being last in order to be first!  Who can understand this Jesus!  The gospel-writer Mark is trying to help his community understand who Jesus is and what that means for them and their lives in the first century.  And we’d like to know, too, in the 21st century!

This morning I’d like to reflect on the second part of the lesson, the argument the disciples had on the road about who was the greatest.   In Mark’s story, the disciples have absorbed the values of the culture around them, the competition for power, wealth, and prestige – those worldly values, then and now.   But we know, that our Jesus is an upside-down hospitality kind of a guy, a Messiah who turns the world upside down – who preaches God’s values.  Who cares for the least of these – the poor, the sick, the hungry and homeless, the immigrant, the prisoners, those lowest on the social pyramid.

So this morning I’d like to think about what being welcoming means for us as a church – not so much around justice issues as around membership and participation issues in churches in general.  Think about what we might learn for ourselves.

Now, Moosup Valley is one of the most welcoming churches I’ve ever seen, so my reflections come not as a criticism but as a way of broadening the discussion and giving us something to think about as we move together as pastor and people.  We say, “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”                But what does that mean as a practical matter?  Because we’ve had some new people come, and we want them to want to come again.  Attendance seems to be up, not every Sunday, but more often.

So some general observations first about churches:  People come – and people go.  That’s the way it is in churches.  Sometimes they’re just passing through on their way to somewhere else, not looking for a place to connect, and there’s no long-term expectation on either side.  They’re just visiting.  Other times we work hard to provide a warm welcome to bring people in the front door – but completely overlook that we lose others out the back door.  Sometimes we don’t even notice until someone says,                                            “Whatever happened to so and so?  I haven’t seen them in months!”

So retention is important – for those who are not just visiting.  One of the ways we do this is by inviting new people to work with us on this or that until they get connected                         and invested in the life of the church – like Bob and Priscilla did.  Keeping people has to do with friendship, meaningful work together, and of course, fun!

But sometimes people who are connected also disappear.  They move away to go to college and make new lives for themselves.  Or they move away to be near family, like Laila and Clive, or for warmer, drier weather like Alicia and Rikki, or the drive gets to be too much if their health is declining.  Often people drift away because they get interested in something else and then they’ve missed a Sunday or two, or three, and then they are too embarrassed to walk in –and so they don’t!

Churches are like families and our expectations are high for getting our needs met.  I know what crosses people’s minds, such things as . . .  Do they appreciate that I went out of my way to volunteer?  Is my contribution acceptable?  Why didn’t anyone send me a card when I was sick?  Why hasn’t anyone been to visit me lately?  Or . . . I’ve been away from church for months; how come nobody called to ask if I’m all right?

That has happened to me, too, over the years, before I was a pastor!

When we come to church, we bring helpfulness and joyfulness and gratefulness – and a lot of trepidation – when we walk through the door, as well as unmet needs and wounds from our families of origin; anger at life’s unfairness and grief for its losses.        If you were snubbed at the store, you’d shrug it off as someone’s poor manners, but if  you were snubbed at church, you’d feel the insult and quip that, “They think they’re so holy and self-righteous!  And they call themselves Christians!”

If you volunteered to sing in the civic chorale and they said, “Thank you, but we’re not accepting any more singers this year,” you’d say, “Well, maybe I’ll apply next year.”            But if you volunteered to sing in the church choir or to help at the turkey supper and nobody called to tell you when rehearsal was or what time to show up with an apron on, you might feel unwanted and unworthy.  And you’d likely walk away, feeling rejected.

Churches are more to us than just another organization.  We come, trailing life’s hopes and hurts, looking for a place to heal.  We come hoping to be seen and heard and valued.  We come needing to be found and loved and saved.  Often, thank goodness, that happens in our churches!  Other times, our needs are not met.  Yes, it’s true, sometimes we have unrealistic needs.  Sometimes our hurts may be overwhelming or inappropriate.  And sometimes, we’re just all sinner doing the best we can!  And people leave – and you know what?  We let them go without a fuss!  This is the amazing thing!  Are we too wrapped up in ourselves?  Are we afraid of being rebuffed?  Are we glad to see them gone?

But we’re family, right?  Families may not always agree, but healthy families stick together and work thing s out.  Let me put it this way:  If your cat didn’t come home, you would be talking with the neighbors about coyote sightings and nailing up posters:

 

“Beloved cat lost.  Mittens.  Black with white paws.  Torn right ear.

Loving and gentle.  Comes when you open a can of tuna.

$100 reward for any information.  Please call day or night.”

 

Or if your dog were lost, you would run ads in the local papers:

 

“Lost brown and white spaniel.  Answers to the name of Millie.  Reward.”                 You would call the vet and visit the animal shelters and check every cage with hope – and leave in tears if Millie was not to be found.  And heaven knows, people are more precious than our pets!

 

People leave our churches all the time.  Some leave because they never connected.                Some leave because they are angry or grieving.  Some leave because they don’t feel heard.  Some leave because of theological or political differences.  And we let them go with barely a notice or a whimper.

 

Somehow we have the mistaken idea that churches should be wonderful places of peace and harmony, where there is no disagreement and no unkind word is ever spoken.  In Mark’s gospel lesson for today, Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who is the greatest, and he says to them, “Whoever wants to be first                                                    must be last of all and servant of all.”

 

Jesus was always turning the world upside down, making the “least of these” more important in God’s order of things than those who had power and status.  And when we read the Apostle Paul‘s letters to the little house churches in the first century,                                             we realize that much of what he writes has to do with resolving church fights – over personalities, over behaviors, over social and cultural issues, over responsibilities.

 

But being welcoming is more than a friendly hello; it’s reaching out to the Valley and offering people who live nearby what we all want:  a place to bring our hopes and hurts, a place to heal from the wounds of life, a place where we can be seen and heard and valued, a place where we can be found and loved and saved – and where, all together, we work to bring God’s grace to the larger world, to reach out beyond ourselves.

 

Our scripture today reminds us that Jesus treasured everyone – especially the most vulnerable and powerless – and at one point or another, that’s every one of us, is it not?

And Jesus calls for us to welcome them into our circle.  “Whoever welcomes one . . .  in my name . . .  welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me” . . . welcomes God.

 

Let us reach out to those who might have drifted away over the years, and those who might have moved into the Valley over the years, and those who don’t think a church would want them anyway, and those who had a bad experience with a church years ago and vowed never to go back.  Let us reach out to those who need to know that God loves them – and show them that we do, too!  Let us begin today.

 

May it be so!

Amen.

**********************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Who Are You, Jesus?

Mark 8:27-38

September 16, 2018

For some time now Jesus and his disciples have been traveling all over Galilee and even into Gentile territories.  It’s been an amazing journey:  People have been healed and fed.  Stories have been told that have enlightened and confounded.  Great crowds have gathered and miracles have been experienced.  Yes, it’s been an amazing journey.

Imagine what it must have been like to be a disciple – in love with Jesus, enthralled by Jesus, confused by Jesus, frustrated by Jesus, trying to understand what this rabbi-prophet man is all about.  They had left everything to follow him; he is their hope for any kind of a future.  Imagine the conversations on the road during the day and the whispering around the campfire at night.  Proud to be his disciples – but unsure of what will come next.  And waiting patiently for him to show Rome a thing or two.  Waiting for him to overthrow the oppressors.  Who are you, Jesus?

Jesus brings the question to a head:  “Who do people say that I am?”  They respond with the usual suspects – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets . . ..  Then Jesus brings the question home:  “But who do you say that I am?”  They can no longer drift along, wondering the same thing.  Time to declare themselves – what they have suspected, hoped for, all along – that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.  Peter admits it.  Jesus doesn’t deny it.  This must have been a high moment for the Jesus movement, filled with possibilities for a glorious future:  someone in King David’s line is coming into power.

But then Jesus begins to teach his disciples what being the Messiah really means, what the “glorious future” looks like.  But suffering and death is not what Peter had in mind.  Naming the Messiah is one thing.  Suffering with the Messiah is another.  It’s our problem, too, is it not?  Picture Peter – big and burly – rebuking Jesus.  He expects a military Messiah to overthrow Roman rule and take back control of their land.  So Peter seizes Jesus and rebukes him – literally, turns him around, confronts him forcefully, with the intent of changing his mind.  We can picture Peter grabbing Jesus by the shoulders and trying to shake some sense into him!  What are you thinking, man?  No! No! No!

It is inconceivable to Peter that Jesus should be humiliated and killed.  In all this time, he has not understood what this Jesus is all about.  Now it’s Jesus’ turn to rebuke Peter, and he does so with passion:  “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  What is Jesus feeling?  Misunderstood?  All alone?  Temptation to walk away from his mission?  A powerful passage, a turning point. Jesus knows where he is going – to Jerusalem and certain, painful death.  For Jesus, so in love with life, there must be grief in this realization!

And so he gathers the crowd together with his disciples and clarifies not only what it means to be a Messiah – but also what it means to be a disciple: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Is he opening up the ranks of the disciples to any and all who choose to follow?  He must be frustrated with Peter, preparing for vacancies in the tight knit group.

Then Jesus goes even further.  He names the risks involved – and the rewards:  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

“Follow me,” Jesus says.  An invitation to be a disciple. Can we assume that we’re disciples – you and I are disciples – because we’re sitting here on these deacons’ benches?  Coming to church is a good thing to do.  I’m glad we’re all here.  Worship lifts us up, takes us out of ourselves, connects us with a divine reality beyond ourselves, points us toward and supports us in discipleship.  In fact, worship is the way we love God back . . ..  But, is it enough?

Can we assume we’re disciples because we call ourselves Christians?  Wear crosses around our necks?  Listen to Christian music?  Does doing these things make us disciples?  Naming Jesus as our Savior is a good thing to do:  It provides us with a moral compass in a confusing world of good and evil, helps us identify life-giving and life-destroying choices.

And reading the scriptures and spending time in prayer are good things to do, too.  These activities connect us with the Spirit, build our understanding of God’s world and our place in it, and give us an anchor in a crisis.  Don’t stop doing these things!  They are good things to do, important steps to discipleship.

But know this:  Jesus didn’t ask us to do these things, any of these thing!  And Jesus didn’t ask us to worship him:  What Jesus asked us to do was to follow him.  Jesus asks us to travel with him on an amazing journey.  Jesus asks us to help him feed the hungry and heal the sick and clothe the naked and visit the lonely and set the prisoners free.  He asks us to raise up the children and teach the adults in the ways of wisdom.  He asks us to reach out to the poor and to put right systems in place and to restore the world to righteousness – tikkun olam, to repair the world, our Jewish friends and neighbors would say as they celebrate Yom Kippur this week, their Day of Atonement.

Jesus asks us to get behind him, to assume our rightful place as his followers, to be disciples, and he will be in our midst, leading, challenging, and blessing us – and saving our lives.

May it be so!

Amen.

*************************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC
Unlocking Grace
Mark 7:24-37
September 9, 2018
_______________________________________________________

This morning we have two stories about secrecy,
about things hidden,

Moosup Valley Church UCC
Unlocking Grace
Mark 7:24-37
September 9, 2018
_______________________________________________________

This morning we have two stories about secrecy,
about things hidden,
about that which is locked being opened.
The stories take place in pagan country:
the first in the region of Tyre
and the second near the Decapolis.

Both of the stories, then, are about Jesus and Gentiles,
i.e., foreigners, not Jews.

The first story is about a Syrophoenician woman with three strikes against her:
She is a Gentile, an outsider.
She is a woman, and, therefore, a second class person.
And, third, she harbors a demon
who has possessed her little girl,
a sign, in ancient times, of God’s punishment.

But she had heard about this Jesus, and here she comes,
this wealthy woman – desperate –
walking right up to this scruffy itinerant rabbi,
and kneeling at his feet.
We know this kind of desperation!

And Jesus doesn’t want to hear it, at least not at first.
He’s on vacation, of sorts, and he’s turned off his cell phone,
shut down his laptop,
told his disciples to cancel his appointments.

His response seems out of character:
“Let the children be fed first,
for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,”
he tells her – for that is what Jews called Gentiles, “dogs.”
We listeners in the 21st century expect Jesus to embrace everyone
and are shocked and offended that our loving Jesus is being so rude!
On the other hand, Jesus’ followers in the 1st century
are shocked that he does heal her!
Cultural norms and expectations change over generations.
And these early Christian forebears of ours
were having a hard time making the transition
from a proscribed law watered down to “shall” and “shall nots” –
think the Ten Commandments –
to the heart of the law of compassion and love.

This Syrophoenician mother will not be put off.
She is desperate to save her little girl
from whatever demon has hold of her –
perhaps epilepsy, or schizophrenia –
and so she is bold enough, and quick enough,
to talk back to Jesus:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
She accepts his priority that he is here for the children of Israel,
yet she wants a few of the crumbs for her child
from the banquet that is Jesus’ himself,
so she challenges him.

And then our loving Jesus is back in character.
Jesus’ earlier prejudice was very human –
yes, he was called to reform Judaism, to save Jews,
not Gentiles – but his insight soon becomes divine.
His mission will no longer be restricted to the Jews.

What opened Jesus’ eyes in this story?
Perhaps the woman’s honesty
about the resident evil that lurks in her home
in the very flesh and blood of her daughter.
She might have been hiding her from the neighbors,
but she is quick to share this family secret shame with Jesus.
And in her humility, she puts aside all the social protocols,
bows down to a stranger, and admits she is powerless.

Certainly, her sure faith that this rabbi can heal her little girl,
if he chooses, is transformative for Jesus.
It’s not that long ago since his own home town turned against him –
and yet this foreign woman embraces him!

Jesus instantly understands about “crumbs” and “abundance.”
The woman has honesty, humility, and faith,
and all these graces have unlocked God’s grace.
Instead of scolding her, Jesus says,
“For saying that, you may go …
the demon has left your daughter.”
God’s love, we learn,
expands beyond all barriers.

The second story also is about an outsider,
a man who is deaf and unable to speak.
An outcast, and a disabled one at that,
living on the margins of society,
perhaps as a beggar.

No disability pension for him in ancient times!
But for some reason, the friends have taken up his cause,
and they bring him to Jesus, begging Jesus to heal him.
Or perhaps they want to see this Jesus “do his stuff,”
see for themselves the rumors.

Jesus is moved to respond
but doesn’t want the crowd’s attention,
so he takes the man aside, to a private place.
And there he does what healers did
in the days before modern medicine,
he uses his spittle to open up the man’s ears
and release his tongue.

Mark makes clear for his readers
that the healing comes from God
by reporting that Jesus looks up to heaven when he commands,
“Be opened.”

Jesus is no ordinary healer; he has God’s ear,
and he invites the very grace of God
to bring this man back to the fold.
With his hearing restored,
the man’s life is now restored,
and he is an outcast no longer.
Jesus not only healed him physically
but he also healed him socially.

When compiling his Gospel,
Mark had lots of stories he could choose from.
But he chose these two and put them side by side.
He was writing to a growing community of Christians
about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And Mark is seeking, among other things,
to confront attitudes and to instill values
in his fledging Christian community
that is embracing Gentiles
as well as Jews.

And these stories serve to confront attitudes and instill values in us as well!
What do these stories mean to us?
What is being revealed to us? Here are some possible “take aways.”

All people of faith are worthy of God’s love – whether they are Jews or Gentiles, Christians or Muslims, Sikhs or Buddhists. God’s love is not confined to one religious group.

In God’s kingdom, there are no outcasts. One may be an immigrant, a homeless person, a drug addict, blind or deaf, mentally ill or disabled, but he/she belongs to God, part of God’s family.

Persons who are healed do not approach Jesus alone. We are called to advocate for others.

Honesty is the best policy. The foreign woman is honest about the evil in her daughter which makes it possible for Jesus to heal her.

Abundance is meant to be shared. Jesus can’t keep God’s love just for the Jews.

Faithfulness means confronting attitudes. Jesus had to change his attitude about his ministry; the woman had to change hers to ask for help; the deaf man’s family had to confront society’s attitudes by bringing him out of the closet.

We are meant to share the glimpses of God’s love and truth with others.

Your thoughts?

May it be so!
Amen.

*********************************************************

Mossup Valley Church UCC

Doers of the Word

James 1:17-27

September 2, 2018

The letter of James was written relatively late as the Biblical letters go, probably about 30 years after Jesus was crucified, and directed primarily to Jewish Christians who were dispersed across the known world.  The letter weaves together two strands of thought:  Greek cosmology – a Greek view of God and the universe in which God is referred to as the Father of lights – with a Jewish view of the law, the teachings of the Torah.

About some things, James agrees with the Apostle Paul, who had written earlier.  Both see faith primarily as trust in God, and both agree that faith should produce a response in one’s life, both personal and communal, that is, faith should bring about a change in a person or a church, in the way they live in the world.  It’s less clear that they agree on other things, such as the relationship of faith and works.   Paul teaches that justification was “by faith, apart from works,” while James stresses that “religion that is pure … is to care for [the vulnerable].”

James’ letter is a general letter, written to the church at-large and not to any one particular church, like the Corinthians, for example.  And it was circulated by missionaries and read widely, apparently because it struck a common cord. This letter was an important resource for the church.

The early churches were rife with conflict due to the diversity of their membership – Greeks and Jews, men and women, slaves and free, people from all walks of life and religious backgrounds.  So the members of these little house churches had to learn how to get along with each other and adapt to different cultures.

And at the same time as they were figuring out how to live and work together, they had to figure out what they believed as they integrated the life-changing message of Jesus the Jewish Messiah into the Greek and Roman world view.  It’s amazing that the church survived and didn’t die out in the first century – long before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Now, James was a keen observer of human nature and what makes for community.  He knows how important words are and that personal morality – practices such as guarding one’s tongue, checking one’s anger, learning to listen – makes for healthy communication. And the letter indicates that he paid close attention to details of everyday living – generous acts of kindness, gestures and words that build each other up – creating what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.”

And, finally, James urges his listeners to be responsible for their behavior – not just for the ideas they hold, what they think.  No, for James, hearing the Word, the story about Jesus, is not enough.  One has to do the Word by showing mercy, striving for peace, helping the needy, loving their neighbors, and recognizing matters of social justice.  Actions speak louder than words, James says.

In one of the commentaries, I discovered an old sermon that illustrates his point:  Legend has it that a Christian believer who had been lost at sea washed up on the shore of a remote native village.  Half-dead from starvation, exposure and sea water, he was discovered unconscious by the people of the village and was slowly nursed back to full health.  He lived thereafter among the people for some 20 years.

During his time with them, he lived out his Christian faith. However, he uttered no sacred songs. He preached no pietistic sermons. He neither read nor recited Scripture in public. He made no personal faith claims whatsoever — except by his actions.  When people were sick, he visited them, sitting long hours into the night.  When people were hungry, he gave them of his own food.  When people were lonely, he kept them company.  He taught the children. He always took sides with those who had been wronged.  There were few, if any, human conditions with which he didn’t identify.

After 20 years passed, missionaries came from the sea to the village and began talking to the people about a man called “the Christ.”  After hearing of this “Jesus,” the natives insisted that he’d been living among them for the past 20 years.    “Come,” they demanded, “we’ll introduce you to the man about whom you’ve been speaking!”

So James, the writer of this open letter to the little house churches cropping up all across the known world, urges his listeners to be the church by doing the Word, not just hearing the Word, but by doing the Word, living their lives in the Way of Jesus – loving God and loving their neighbors.

The little house churches that sprang up in the decades after Jesus walked this earth were founded in troubled and troubling times – not unlike the times we are living in today – political turmoil, wars, poverty, mass migration, violence, persecution, hunger, growing disparity between the rich and the poor.  It’s amazing, isn’t it, that they not only survived, but thrived?  Perhaps we can give some credit to James and his letter for urging his listeners in that first century to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.”

And may the same be said of us as well, in our troubled and troubling time, that we were “doers of the Word” in this, the 21st century, that we may not only survive but thrive and become a strong current that helps to transform the world.

May it be so!

Amen.

*******************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Let the Children Laugh

Mark 10:13-16

August 26, 2018

Jesus is having a particularly busy day.  On the road, passing through Galilee, stopping in Capernaum where he incorporated a child in his teachings.  The disciples had been arguing on the road about which of them was the greatest, and Jesus uses this as a teachable moment.  Calling a little child over to them, he takes her in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

And then he moves to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.  Whenever he stops, crowds gather to listen and the Pharisees to test him, this time with questions about divorce.  These are practical matters, and Jesus shows his compassionate colors as usual.  A man could write a letter of dismissal for his wife for any reason and his wife would be out in the cold, homeless and destitute.  It was a matter of life and death.  It’s no wonder Jesus has a following among women.

And where there are women, there are children. And the mothers bring them close to Jesus so he can touch them, just like parents on the parade route who hold up their babies to be kissed by politicians.  The disciples are trying to keep order and shoo the children away, but Jesus protests.  “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Their innocence and openness to life and their pleasure in simple things is what God wants human community to look like.

Someone once made the observation that Jesus played with the children but taught the adults.  Yes, there are adults waiting with burning questions:  the rich young man who wants to know how to inherit eternal life, the disciples who have given up everything for Jesus and want to know what’s in this for them, the fearful who are concerned that they are on the Jerusalem road, heading toward danger, a blind beggar who asks for mercy.

Yes, it’s been a busy day on the road for Jesus, but note that he took time for the children.  He has made the children a priority.  And he made the children as example of what God wants the world to look like, how God intends life should be lived and cared for.

Mark give us just four little verses, almost lost in Jesus’ busy day, tending to matters of urgency for adults, questions of life and death and sacrifice and standing, influence and power.

Because women and children had no standing in that patriarchal society, were barely on the community radar, it’s telling that Mark includes them in the busy day’s account at all. Perhaps it’s telling that he does, that children made a big impression on the followers.  If Jesus makes children his priority, should we not also make children our priority?  In the midst of our busy days, in the midst of pressing matters and deadlines, in the midst of making decisions and adopting public policy, should we not ask what’s good for the children?

So on this baptismal Sunday as schools are about to open, I ask myself – and I ask you – what if we looked at every issue through such a filter, the welfare of children?  Close-to-home-things, like family life and parenting and minimum wage that allows parents to put food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads.  Societal things like health care legislation and immigration reform and tax policy.  What if we asked – and asked our legislators at every level – how will this decision affect the kids?

Early one morning a couple of weeks ago, I was stopped at a light on Warwick Avenue and saw a man walking up to all the cars and handing something to the drivers.  When it was my turn to pull forward, I realized it was Richard Corrente who is running for mayor on the campaign platform of cutting Warwick taxes.  The light changed and I didn’t get a chance to ask him, “Where are you going to cut?  I hear the Warwick schools are cutting programs!  Is cutting taxes good for the kids?”

Thursday night I saw a letter from the ACLU that four school districts in RI have not adopted the RIDE best practices guidelines for transgendered students that were due on July 1 – Woonsocket not at all, and Chariho, Coventry, and Foster-Glocester in a weak and cursory way.  Our kids – and, yes, we have “trans” kids in Foster – will not have state-of-the-art standards in place when they return to school.  How can this be good for our kids?  And even if we don’t have children in the school system, don’t we care about the common good?  And especially what’s good for Quinn?

And speaking of schools, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants to use federal funds to buy guns for teachers.  Are guns in schools going to make schools safer?  If we have federal money available for schools, why can’t the government allocate it for books and supplies so that the teachers don’t have to take money out of their own pockets to outfit their classes.  But the question here is, are guns in school good for kids?  Or just for the NRA’s bottom line?

Last week a deadly airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition hit a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children and leaving others maimed and charred.  It was reported on NPR with a warning for those listening.  I could hear children crying in the background, sounds of suffering and misery and fear.  The U.S. made the bomb; the U.S. led the coalition.  Is war good for children?  We know it is not!

Many years ago, a radio station that I listened to on my way to work ran an ad for Mac trucks.  The business was off Jefferson Boulevard, not too far from home.  And I loved that ad – although not for the trucks!  What got my attention was the little boy who talked about his daddy’s trucks with an infectious laugh that just seemed to bubble up out of him.  His laughter made me want to meet this little boy and to go look at those big shiny trucks!  How happy he sounded.  How loveable and loved he must be!

What would it take to create a world where the laughter of children drowns out the sounds of hunger and homelessness, drowns out the sounds of bullying in the hallways and the schoolyard, drowns out the sounds of children crying for their parents, drowns out the sounds of child sexual abuse in athletic programs and schools and churches, drowns out the sounds of gunfire on the next street.

What will it take to give our newly baptized Quinn a life of love and laughter?  What would happen if we all asked every day, “What is good for the children?”  Perhaps this is the way we welcome God.

May it be so!

Amen.

 

******************************************

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s