DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Sabbath and the Rules
June 3, 2018
We are barely into the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus is already in trouble. In the first two chapters alone, he has healed Simon’s mother-in-law – and others who were sick or possessed by demons. He has cleansed a leper and healed a paralytic. He has eaten with tax collectors and sinners, and people have gathered around him, wherever he went. The Pharisees have taken notice: Who does he think he is?
In today’s text, Jesus challenges the practices around the Sabbath – striking a blow at one of the Ten Commandments:
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work,…
For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them
but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
We are to remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy, which in Hebrew means “set apart.”
The Sabbath is indeed a blessing to humankind, a blessing to us, if only we would be more observant, a day of rest for body and soul, and one sorely needed in our fast-paced world. We need a day “set apart” for balance in our lives. We need the Sabbath. Jesus does not dispute that.
But Jesus has broken the rules around the Sabbath – at least the rules that the Pharisees have set – by letting his hungry disciples pick grain as they pass through a field and healing a man with a withered hand. He knows that they are watching him, looking for a pretense to arrest him. “Why is he doing what is not lawful…?” they ask. And we, too, might wonder why Jesus deliberately gives them an excuse. He could have waited until sundown to heal the man, so why look for trouble? Non-threatening diseases had to wait, according to the rules.
But Jesus seems bent on making a point. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees are obsessed with their religious authority
and the observance of their traditional customs. They are threatened by Jesus who is breaking the rules. And now they have the evidence they need to silence him. They run to conspire with Herod’s men, the political rulers.
However, Jesus is not attacking the Sabbath – but it’s purpose. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he has reminded them – and us. Let’s get our priorities straight, he seems to be saying! Compassion overrides the law. Yes, Jesus could have waited until sundown, but he seizes this teachable moment. Relieving human suffering is more important than obeying the rules.
This is difficult for us good Christian, law-abiding citizens to hear. Basic observances of our religious customs are good and helpful for our spiritual health. And our nation is built on personal responsibility and the rule of law. These two tracts keep our faith strong and our democracy strong.
But in Jesus’ world, neither is more important than compassion. The latest example of this principle in our day is the Sanctuary Movement splashed across our nation’s newspapers. Churches and synagogues are opening their doors to undocumented persons – often those who were brought here as children – to keep them from being deported and families from being separated. A recent example of why churches are stepping up is the situation of Lilian Calderon, a Guatemalan native brought to RI as a three-year old, now married to an American citizen and a mother of two youngsters. She was following the rules to apply for citizenship – not skirting them – when she was picked up by ICE
(Immigration & Customs Enforcement) and detained for a month last winter. No chance to say goodbye to her husband, no opportunity to make arrangements for her children, no explanation of why she was detained. ICE held her for a month until outraged protestors and the ACLU were able to obtain her release. You read the story in the papers and saw it played out on the news.
Our Unitarian Universalist colleagues hang yellow banners and wear shirts with the words, “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s the UU equivalent of our UCC, “No matter who you are … you are welcome here” banner. It’s their way of saying, compassion always overrides the law. And this week a Unitarian church in Rhode Island will dedicate their Sanctuary, which has met all the building codes and safety requirements required by law, in order to open to a refugee. Nearby churches and synagogues will help with supplies and costs to sustain the endeavor for as long as needed.
This is happening all across the country, in every state in the nation, as churches, some of them UCC, step up with Jesus to say, “Compassion overrides the rules.” Yes, religious practices and a nation’s rules are important, but they are made for us, to keep us faithful and safe, to do us good, not to do us harm. Jesus reminds us that God’s ultimate “rule” is compassion. He heals a broken man, and in doing so, he breaks human rules. And for this, he was led to the cross. People who do God’s will often run afoul of those who are invested in empty piety, nationalistic fervor, racial bigotry, or greed.
And through this action of compassion, Jesus heals us today as we seek to bring about peace in our communities – God’s peace with justice, known as shalom – until all of life, for everyone, is an eternal sabbath.
May it be so! Amen.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Getting a Life
May 27, 2018
It’s that magic time of the evening when the sun has set but the light lingers. Twilight. A man walks cautiously down the narrow street, glancing behind him from time to time. He’s rather well-dressed for that neighborhood, out of place. Wary eyes look from a window. A mother in a doorway, crooning to a fussy baby, watches him pass by. A cat darts on padded paws in front of him. The man stops and asks a boy for directions, then turns down an alley. When he finds the door he is looking for, he reaches up and knocks – just as the first star shows up in the sky.
It’s Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, making his way to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus in the night. He is a leader of the Jews, a keeper of the laws of Moses. What does he want with Jesus? What has brought him out on this dark night when he should be home in bed? What troubles him that he should take the trouble?
All of his colleagues are upset with this know-it-all from Galilee who is stirring up the people – turning water into wine, healing the sick, creating a ruckus in the temple.
But Nicodemus is intrigued. Perhaps his life of privilege and respectability is not enough. Perhaps his insistence and reliance on observing the laws has left him unfilled. Perhaps he is hungry for more, soul-hungry for more meaning than he has experienced as a keeper of Israel. His unrest must have been deep for him to make this journey across town, out of his comfort zone.
Do any of us ever know what drives us – to pick up the phone, to make the call, to get in the car, to attend the event? Some deep need, perhaps one we are not even in touch with, drives us. So it must be with Nicodemus. What does Jesus have that Nicodemus wants? There must be more to life than rules. Jesus seems to have a life, a purpose, a mission. So he steals away to Jesus. With his questions. In search of a life with meaning.
In spite of the subtle attacks on Jesus by his colleagues, the Pharisees, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus carries authority and has some special power. He calls him “rabbi” and “a teacher from God,” based on the “signs.” He shows Jesus respect – but Jesus doesn’t want his respect. He wants his soul. So he’s not prepared for what Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is mystified. These two leaders of Israel – one wealthy, the other with no place to lay his head – lean toward each other in earnest dialogue well into the night, while the lamp sputters and grows dim. Nicodemus struggles to understand. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
We, like Nicodemus, miss the double meaning of anōthen, from the Greek, meaning “from above,” “again,” or “anew.” There is no word in English that captures the complexity of the Greek word anōthen. Jesus is not talking about physical birth. Jesus pushes him further: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. . . . “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus is baffled: “How can these things be?” Jesus challenges him to move beyond the surface meaning to something deeper, a radical new birth in God’s kingdom, a birth brought by the Spirit at Pentecost.
Have you been “born again?” Some branches of the Christian community have trivialized the phrase “born again,” making it into a personal slogan. Beware! The new birth that Jesus is talking about is grounded in the cross, in a willingness to suffer for the gospel, a trusting in the Spirit to lead us outside our comfort zone.
Nicodemus doesn’t understand – and most of the time, neither do we. We like clear, concrete ideas that we can stand on. We want proof, safety, something solid to sink our teeth into. How can we trust ourselves to something as ill-defined and wind-like as the Spirit? Are we brave enough to trust God to lead us?
“God loves the world; God desires that all of us ‘have a life;’ God gives God’s Son that all may believe; God has acted in Christ not to condemn but to save. To trust in this is to have life anew, life eternal,” argues one theologian. But the way we demonstrate this life anew is to love the world the way God does. Getting a life may be harder than we thought. It may take us where we never expected to go: to overcome the prevailing social barriers of race and class, culture and gender; to speak for the marginalized who have barely any life at all; to bring God’s kingdom of love and compassion to earth.
Nicodemus stumbles out, heading for home in the pitch dark; a donkey raises her head and watches him pass, on his way to his warm bed in his comfortable home. He went looking for a new life, risking the unknown, risking his position, risking his reputation. Did he find it?
And, even more important, will we? We, too, are invited to steal away to Jesus in the dark nights of our soul and to ask our questions. Why am I here? What does God have in store for me? Am I living my life – my one and only precious life that only I can live – as I should? Where is the wind of the Spirit blowing in my life? To what new possibility am I giving birth? Into what new life am I being called?
Jesus didn’t demand that Nicodemus give up his life, only that he become a new creature in the life he already has, only that his life be transformed through God’s grace and love.
May it be so.
 Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, p. 291 (adapted).
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
May 20, 2018
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church – Pentecost – with the coming of the Holy Spirit to launch Christ’s mission to the world. God has been planning this party since the beginning of time. The poetry in the Genesis creation story describes God’s spirit blowing over the formless void and breathing life into the world. This is not the first time. God’s Spirit has been poured out again and again – accompanying the Israelites as they flee Egypt in the Exodus, as a cloud by day and a fire by night; accompanying them as they are led into exile in Babylon, the glory of the Lord streaming through the temple, and then, 50 years later, leading the way as they return to the land with a clear Jewish identity forged in suffering.
The Holy Spirit has been in their midst all along, but today it has come anew. This is what Jesus’ followers have been waiting for. This is the promised Advocate. God’s breath – ruah – has been poured into the messianic community, giving it legitimacy and power. The world will never be the same. The occasion is the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost which happens to be 50 days after Easter. People from all walks of life – but heavy on Galilean fishermen and carpenters – women in the inner circle who had traveled with Jesus, like Mary of Magdala – Visiting. Praying. Picture the scene. People coming and going. Food being prepared and shared. Jews from every nation, here in Jerusalem, the crossroads of the world. Poor Peter, trying to keep order.
They must have been loud, too, because bystanders thought they were drunk. Singing, perhaps, psalms of exultation, cries for help and thanksgiving for healing. And yes, prayer: sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting, rising and falling above the noise in the street. Everyone, praising God, in their own languages. They were out of order, of course, all these different people together, men and women interacting socially in public. What would the neighbors think!
And then an amazing thing happened! A rush of wind, the roar of sound, the appearance of tongues of fire resting on the gathered community, symbols of God’s presence. In Hebrew, ruah elohim, the creative wind of the Lord, has come, to bring life out of chaos, as at creation in the Genesis story. The Holy Spirit has come! Something happened that day that empowered these people, just plain folks, not so different from you and me, that they went out and turned the world upside down – in spite of persecution, in spite of imprisonment, in spite of torture, in spite of oppression and death. It all started at Pentecost – a time for knowing God’s presence and having the courage to name it.
Two images are lifted up in this text as symbols of power and signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. First, the tongues of fire resting on each person there. One cutting-edge New Testament scholar notes that Roman coins in first century Palestine showed divided tongues of fire appearing over the head of Caesar as a sign of royalty – even as a sign of his divinity. “Caesar is the Son of God,” the coins proclaimed.
But God has a different idea! Here, in the streets of Jerusalem, the tongues of fire rest on Jesus’ followers, not on Caesar. They rest on Peter and John and Mary Magdalene, and all the others, instead of … on the powers-that-be. Those who follow Jesus are identified with divine power, not the appointed and elected leaders. It’s no wonder they say, Jesus turned the world upside down!
And the second image? The languages being spoken and understood by Jews from every nation on earth, different languages but everyone knew what was being said. Luke (the gospel writer who also wrote Acts) describes the crowds as “bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed.” “We can imagine them milling around, stepping on each other’s toes, faces red, voices rising. We can imagine all these people, divided into different language groups as described in the story of Babel in Genesis (11:1-9), coming back together at Pentecost, a mending of the human family. Instead of widening confusion, there is dawning comprehension. Instead of separation between people, the Spirit comes with power to unite them.
That first generation, 2000 years ago when Jesus walked the earth, experienced darkness and distress in the world, just as we do today: the growing gap between the rich and the poor, growing poverty and unchecked disease, divisions between nations and within economies, and growing intolerance of any opinion or ideal other than our own. At Pentecost, our ancestors in the faith recognized God’s signs and wonders, and realized the Spirit was in their midst.
In our social and political time, we need Pentecost, do we not! Division, hatred, pain, doubt and fear mark our nation. Debates over immigration persist, even as we witness children torn from the arms of their parents. Disagreements over the proliferation of guns continue, even as we grapple with another school shooting. White and black communities experience policing and the criminal justice system differently, and our Muslim friends are afraid y the rhetoric they hear in the media that demonizes them.
Our political moment – not unlike the political moment when the followers of Jesus are gathered to celebrate Pentecost – is colored by a complete loss of mutual understanding and civility. Even churches, too often, even from the pulpit, demonize those who are different from them.
We need Pentecost today, do we not? Hearts must be transformed and attuned to the presence of divine love. We need the presence of the Spirit in our community to increase understanding of the issues, to heal division between people, to empower the leaders who profess Christ to act with divine inspiration.
Today, as we celebrate God’s Pentecostal party, let us remember our connection with the first generation, when the Spirit of God came to embed divine love and to increase understanding in just plain folks like you and me to bring life out of death and hope out of despair.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
We, too, need a miracle.
 Jana Childers, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 19.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
May 12, 2018 – Mother’s Day
For a number of years when my husband served there, I was a member of the Hillsgrove United Methodist Church over by the airport. A characteristic of that church – something I have seen in no other – was the presence of Mother Brown and Mother Place and Mother Ennis. They were older women in the church, all mothers, if I remember correctly, but their title had less to do with their having children and more to do with their being mothers of the church.
They were older women who, at one time or another, had been the leaders; now they carried “mother” as an honorary title for their wisdom, their service to the community, their continuity with the past and window into the future. They were the glue that had held the church together for generations.
Lydia was that kind of mother – although Luke, the writer of Acts as well as the gospel that carries his name – doesn’t tell us whether she was a mother or not. What he does tell us is that Lydia lived in Macedonia, in Greece, gateway to Europe. He calls her a “God-worshipper” which means she was likely a gentile who was attracted to Judaism – but not yet ready to take the plunge and convert.
He tells us that she was a business woman, a dealer in purple cloth, which means she was accustomed to trade with the elite class in Philippi, and he tells us that she was the head of her own household, a rarity in that patriarchal society. She must have been quite a woman!
Lydia shows up here in this story in Acts because she has gone to the river where Jewish people went to pray on the Sabbath if they were not able to go to the synagogue. This is where Lydia meets the apostle Paul who had had a vision that calls him to take the good news of Jesus Christ to Europe.
As she is walking along the river, she overhears Paul and his companions and stops to listen. She must be hungry for meaning in her life, open to listening to this man who talks of a God who reaches out to the marginalized – like women and children – and ex cons and immigrants, which is exactly what Paul and his companions are, given that they have recently been in prison and are now in a foreign country.
Lydia is so taken with their testimony that she asks to be baptized, an act signifying her conversion to this new Jewish sect – Christianity. She is open to sharing faith with these strange men, here at the river, of all places. She is ready to hear the good news she has been waiting for – Jesus the Messiah’s message of love and justice for everyone, not just the upper crust with whom she is used to dealing. She is willing to put everything she owns at Paul’s disposal and insists he and his missionary group stay at her home, changing her plans for the sake of the gospel in spite of her busy life. There at the riverside, Lydia found the God who was finding her.
Lydia seizes the day – and because of her boldness and generosity and willingness to put everything on the line, she becomes the “mother” of the church in Europe. Without Mother Lydia and her passion for Paul’s message, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning.
Today is Mothers’ Day. The cards and flowers and candy are being presented; some mothers are surprised by breakfast in bed or a day to put their feet up; others are waiting to be taken out to dinner by appreciative spouses or children. But Mothers’ Day celebrations need to go beyond the sentimental to recognize the mothers who build our society, including those who may not have children of their own but who “mother” the larger community.
This Mother’s Day weekend, clergy from various faith traditions challenge all of us to advocate for common sense gun laws. Some of you might have seen the editorial in the Providence Journal by the Rev. Liz Maclay of First Unitarian Church, Rev. Jamie Washam of First Baptist Church in America, Rev. Kurt Walker of Chapel Street UCC, Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Beth El, and Principal Hussein of the Islamic School. They don’t want to take your hunting rifles away or guns you feel you need for protection or your guns for target shooting, or your collection of colonial era muzzle loaders.
But these five religious leaders do want us to know that there were 33,000 gun-related deaths in our country in 2017. That there are more guns in our country than people. Why do clergy care? Because we’re the ones who do the funerals. We’re the ones who sit with the grieving mothers.
Why should mothers care? Because we’re the ones who bear and raise the children! The original vision for Mother’s Day was peace. After the carnage of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe urged the country to disarm:
“We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country,
to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated
earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!”
~Mother’s Day Proclamation of Peace, Julia Ward Howe, 1870
We have become a culture that places more importance on the right to bear arms than the children we bear. The prophet Isaiah’s cry to his people “to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” is embodied in three pieces of legislation now before the Rhode Island General Assembly: the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018, the Safe Schools Act of 2018, and the High Capacity Magazine Ban.
These clergy – and the RI Conference UCC in its promotion – is committed to this goal: “We will not be a state that provisions itself for mass murder, that preys upon any of our people, least of all our children, with assault weapons to empower the disgruntled, the vengeful, the mentally ill, or anyone at all. We do not want, and will not accept, armed educators, armed and armored classrooms in universities and colleges, armed student bodies, or any other proposal that further normalizes and enshrines a ubiquitous culture of guns. We believe in promoting and facilitating public health and safety through sensible gun safety measures.”
If we care, we are invited to write letters to our state legislators. We are encouraged to be mothers like Lydia, who play pivotal roles in history. We are encouraged to be mothers (and fathers) who build the community of love and justice in an unfair and tragic and broken-hearted world.
Lydia was a business woman who dealt in purple cloth for the elite of Philippi. She was a woman of means, a woman of independence, a woman who was pushing deeper for meaning. She found what she was looking for – but she had to go outside of her comfort zone to embrace it, and she had to involve everyone else in her household as they became home base for Paul’s missionary journey. It must not always have been pretty or without argument or safe for a single woman. But Lydia became “mother” to the budding Christian church.
And us? On this Mother’s Day let us respond to this moral imperative to enact sensible gun legislation in honor of all the parents and all the children lost to gun violence, so that everyone will not only feel safe, but be safe.
May it be so!
 Ronald Cole Turner, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 474.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
May 6, 2018
“All you need is love,” crooned the Beatles in the 1960s. “All you need is love.” Really? People reacted in two ways: What an oversimplification to solving the world’s problems. Or what a sweet, sentimental bit of trite! All we need is love? Yet, Jesus seems to think so! “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you,” We don’t know what the Beatles mean by “love.” In the ‘60s, they might have been talking about sex as the cure-all for everything – or perhaps a distraction from the things that matter most. We throw the word “love” around carelessly. I love ice cream. I love New York! I loooove you in that hat!
What kind of love is Jesus talking about? Not the Greek eros, the desire between lovers, as in “erotic.” Not philia, brotherly love, as in “Philadelphia.” In this passage, the word Jesus uses is agape, which comes into Latin as caritas and then into English as charity and the gradual shift to our English word “philanthropy,” which comes closer to agape – love for the other, the way God cares for us.
Jesus is talking about agape, the kind of love God has for Jesus and that Jesus then shares with his disciples. Agape is the love that Jesus has demonstrated that takes him to the cross, the kind of love he is urging upon his disciples – a “doing” love, not just a “feeling” love. Jesus commands them – and us – to love each other in the same way – even to giving up their lives, something we might be called on to do figuratively, if not literally. They are going to need it.
In our text today, Jesus is delivering these instructions as he prepares to leave his disciples, his closest friends – his “loved ones” – on his way to the cross. What kind of love will they need to survive his arrest and torture and crucifixion? Not the Beatles, “All you need is love” love. They need agape love that binds them together as a community that can carry on without their dearest friend. Jesus has set a high bar, literally giving up one’s life for one’s friends. To survive, they need to be “loved ones” to each other.
Those who came a few generations after Jesus walked this earth needed it too. Biblical scholars think that John was writing his gospel toward the end of the first century when the Christians were facing crises on two fronts: growing persecution by the Roman Empire and serious conflict with the Jewish synagogue. Remember, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, come to reform Judaism, and the first churches were synagogues. Different theological ideas were emerging, and Christians were being expelled from synagogues.
So not only did the disciples need to love one another the way Jesus loved them, but the members of the early church, several generations later, also needed agape love to survive in a hostile world, to bear fruit, to be “loved ones.” If they had not had that kind of selfless love for each other – a readiness to lay down their lives for each other – the community would not have been able to withstand the persecution on all sides – being thrown to the lions, literally and figuratively – and we would not be here today.
And what of us? Where do we find that kind of agape love today? Where do we find deep, fulfilling relationships, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about? Certainly we don’t expect to find agape on Facebook. In spite of the number of people one might “befriend,” we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness, a “hot” topic in the secular world right now. We know there is a difference between friends we accumulate with a click on “Accept” – and “loved ones” who will be there for us when we need a ride to chemo, a meal brought in, a deep conversation about things that matter.
So, where can we find agape? Can we find that kind of love in our families? We certainly celebrate the ideal that is Mother’s Day, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday. Families are sometimes loving, and sometimes not. One of Kim’s cousins married a woman over his mother’s objections, a woman who already had two children who have Downs Syndrome. I met these children, Sara and John, children so beautiful and soulful, and so sad that Kim’s mother died. And their parents are so devoted to providing them with a quality of life in spite of their disability. Surely there is agape in that home! But you know families: the disagreements and “put downs” and sharp words, the sisters who don’t speak to each other, the relative who thinks her way is the only way. Sometimes, loved ones are not very loving at all. How do we put the agape back into “loved ones,” that Jesus calls us to be to each other in our families?
There are many ways to give up our lives that don’t involve death, e.g., Giving up a good job to stay where our kids are happy. Taking care of an elderly parent when we’d rather be seeing the world. Choosing to care for handicapped children rather than institutionalizing them. Agape love is known as much, if not more so, by its deeds than by its feelings.
If nowhere else, now, certainly we can find agape love in our churches! If nowhere else, surely here! And I know many of us do care for each other that way – and care for our church community that way. I see it in the phone calls, the emails, the prayers, the rides, the suppers, the church cleanup days, the organization of concerts and campfires, the designing of concert stages and additions to our building.
Friends, “loved ones,” are companions on the journey of life – perhaps that’s a good way to understand what a congregation is called to be – to bear fruit that shall last: dwelling – abiding – in God’s love through the act of discipleship. But it’s not enough that we be good disciples alone; we are called to make new disciples, to grow our community, to welcome everyone, no matter who they are and wherever they are on the journey called life.
A week ago, remember, we reflected on Jesus, the vine, and we, the branches, staying connected with the divine source of our nourishment. Why? Because Jesus is depending on us to be his hands and feet in the world, to carry out his mission. And what is God’s mission? It’s bigger than we can understand, but suffice it to say, to live out God’s love for all of creation.
“All you need is love . . .” sing the Beatles. Nothing wrong with that kind of love, as far as it goes. But the love we need to change the world, the love that Jesus demonstrates as he feeds the hungry, heals the sick, advocates justice, is agape love, the love that lays down its life for the “loved ones.”
The Christian story is a big, divine, mind-blowing story. And our story at Moosup Valley Church is a little piece of God’s big story. All we need is love, God’s kind of love, to make it happen.
May it be so! Amen.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
April 29, 2018
If you have ever visited a vineyard, you would have noticed that the vines in the vineyard curl around each other, creating a tangled mass of vines and branches, stems and leaves. Some branches are bare, some with fruit. The gardener enters with knife in hand and cuts out the dead wood, then goes on to prune back the old growth – the secret to bearing fruit. Among vineyard keepers today that’s what’s called “canopy management.”
I tried some canopy management this week on the rose bush next to my driveway. Last year I didn’t think to take charge until it was too late, and so I would be hung up by thorns every time I got out of my car, whenever I walked by. The bush was a tangled mess, branches every which way, some trying to pry their way under the shingles of the house, some with bittersweet curled around the branches. It was hard work, and pretty soon I had blood seeping through my gloves.
More than roses, vineyards have always been an important part of our agricultural economy. In the ancient world, great care was taken to prepare the ground; strong walls and watchtowers were built to protect the vines from people and animals. A productive vineyard was a sign of God’s favor and that the vine-grower was obedient to God’s commands. Wine imagery is frequent in our Bible. Ancient Israel was often called “the vineyard of the Lord” (Isa.5:7). “To bear fruit” was a common image of the faithful community.
Jesus knows this, of course, when he talks with his disciples about his leaving them. He is the vine; they are the branches. The disciples understand his vine/branch metaphor and the importance of being connected to the vine in order to bear fruit. This is a “no brainer” for them – whether or not they understood what was about to happen. It must have been comforting for the disciples to hear Jesus’ talking about “abiding” in him, about being connected to him in order to bear fruit, just as it is for us.
There are three key ideas here in the vineyard metaphor: First, in order to bear fruit, there needs to be some cutting involved – and this sounds painful. Vines live out in the open air, subject to the elements, and some branches die. They are in the way, useless. Others may bear fruit but not as well as they might. Pruning a healthy plant – while it may seem cruel – stimulates more growth. Laurie told us this when we were putting out a plant table at our Concert in the Valley a couple of years ago. Divide your plants, she said. It’s good for them!
Now, the Greek word for “prune” also means “cleanse.” If we are being honest, “…we know there are aspects of our lives that need to be cleansed, cut away or redirected.” Pruning is healthy for a plant – just as cleansing our human lives of burdensome things, meaningless pursuits, and debilitating relationships can give rise to new life in us. Good can be nurtured; evil can be eliminated.
It’s important to note that the cutting is not to punish the plants but to make them more productive. And Jesus is not pulling up entire plants and throwing them into the fire, only the dead wood that gets in the way of a faithful life – attitudes and values and assumptions that don’t belong in a Christ-like vineyard.
The second key idea in this passage is that fruitfulness is communal, that is, we cannot do it alone: There are many branches on each vine, all drawing their nourishment from the same vine. All together, the plant produces fruit. One individual branch, one cluster of grapes, doesn’t mean much. Our Western civilization model of individuality – the Lone Ranger mentality – the de-valuing of community lives, works against us here. So the metaphor of the vineyard, has something to teach us about the common good. What affects one, affects all. We need to balance individual rights with the right of everyone to be healthy, prosperous, and safe.
For example, why should the wealthiest country in the world not provide health care for all its people? Why should those who can’t afford good treatment be left to die? We allow the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to amass wealth while we allow those who can’t afford comprehensive insurance and expensive medications to die. A bottle of insulin now costs $300. An epi pen for a bee sting, $600. Why? Because of greed!
And why can’t we have reasonable gun control? The second amendment was adopted in 1791 as a legislative compromise that allowed slave-holding states to arm a militia in the event of a slave revolt. No one could have anticipated that individual citizens would be able to buy military style weapons with scant oversight. Massachusetts has the strictest gun laws in the country and the fewest deaths from guns. Why can’t we learn from Massachusetts? We copied Obama care from Romney care. Too much politics and too little attention to the common good!
And why can’t we have quality schools? And decent housing? And tax laws that benefit everyone? And adequate income from honest work? Why don’t we provide ways for people to climb out of poverty? The vineyard metaphor reminds us that we are all in this together. What benefits one, benefits all of us. Acting out of self-interest, brings ruin to the vineyard. The productive vineyard is a community enterprise. We produce more quality fruit when we grow it together!
The third key idea is that we are to abide in Jesus. Jesus said that he is the vine, and the disciples – by that he means you and me – are the branches, and our task, if we are willing to accept it, is to bear fruit. So how do we do that? Not by accumulating wealth and fame and stuff! But only by abiding in Jesus the vine. What does this mean, to abide? Is it not to care about the things that Jesus cared about – the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable, the stranger, the immigrant? Weekly worship reminds us that we are held to a higher standard to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, to abide in love.
Out here in the Mt. Vernon Larger Parish, we bear fruit when we help each other put on suppers for the community, when we invite the neighborhood in for concerts and campfires, when we share our resources with the library and the grange. Not too long ago, there was tension and animosity between our three churches, but now we have been pruned, and we contribute to the reputation and the success of God’s vineyard by bearing fruit.
I ran across an interesting idea in one of the commentaries on this text, and I quote: “Churches that move through hardship to increase commitment to the mission have, indeed, been pruned. Those that pull back in concern for their own comfort and security have, indeed, been removed.” Through a relationship with Jesus, the true vine, the connection that brings meaning and life to us, we can bear the fruit of love in the world, witness to the gospel of justice in our lives, and God is willing to prune us to get it!
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Love of Creation
April 22, 2018, Earth Day
When Pat and Carl were in Baltimore for General Synod last July, the UCC adopted an emphasis on Three Great Loves – Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of the Earth. They are all interrelated, of course, but since today is Earth Day, I thought we might reflect on Creation.
Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe the Earth is warming with such a cold spring. We wonder if the scientists should take their eyes off the computer screen and poke their collective heads outside and sniff the air for frost. But climate change and weather are not the same thing. What is happening to us?
If you go to our UCC website, you will read, at least in part:
For as long as the earth has existed, the sun’s rays have provided warmth that gives us seasons, weather patterns, and a predictable climate. Periodically, the earth has warmed or cooled, but the global warming patterns experienced in the last 250 years are the result of human activity directly related to the burning of fossil fuels. Beginning with the industrial revolution in the late 1700’s, coal and oil have provided the energy to build the modern economy.
However, the side effects of burning fossil fuels have proven to be more harmful than we ever knew, because that process releases chemicals into the air we breathe and into the upper atmosphere. Those chemicals like carbon dioxide act like a blanket over the earth and prevent heat from escaping in a normal way. As the activities and energy consumption of an industrial civilization have increased, trapped heat has risen to the point where entire natural systems are changing.
The problems of climate change and global warming are confirmed and well-documented by the scientific community. Before the industrial revolution, the historic level of carbon dioxide was roughly 275 parts per million. We are currently raising that level at two parts per million annually to the level of approximately 390 parts per million in 2010. Even if we changed our fossil-fuel based economy immediately, the effects of current global warming will continue to heat the planet. In addition, there are feedback loops that may accelerate global warming. For instance, white ice reflects heat whereas darker ocean absorbs heat; as some ice melts, more ocean is exposed and the ice melts faster because the surrounding ocean is warmer.
The fact is that our planet and the natural systems that sustain life are changing due to global warming. With hotter weather, we get more evaporation and more moisture into the air. The consequence is that we have more extreme weather events; when it rains, it is more likely to flood. When a hurricane passes over warmer water, it is more likely to strengthen. Normal rainfall patterns are changing around the earth and humans and animals are having to adjust their behavior, their reproductive patterns, where they live, and their sources for food.
And we are affected by more than temperatures and sea levels. We are affected by pollution. I quoted Dr. Matthew Sleeth in the meditation at the top of the bulletin. “The world is dying.” But it’s not just that there are no longer Elm trees on Elm Street, or Chestnut trees on Chestnut Lane, or caribou in Caribou, Maine, he writes in the forward to The Green Bible. He notes how changes in the health of the planet are mirrored in humans. For example, when he began to practice medicine, one in 19 women in America got breast cancer. Now it is one in 7. He continues that currently we are in the midst of a pandemic of cancers, and the most dramatic increases have been in young people. There also have been increases in asthma, autoimmune diseases, autism, and other maladies, which … have direct environmental links.
We are poisoned by our own greed. Environmental disasters affect millions, disrupt local environments and economies. While the world’s attention turns to other pressing matters, but those affected still suffer long after the crisis. These come quickly to my mind, and you may have others: The Valdez oil spill in Alaska 25 years ago when the Exxon ship ran aground on a reef. The Deepwater Horizon drilling in the Gulf of Mexico 8 years ago when an explosion opened a hole on the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico that nobody knew how to plug.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the State tried to save money by drawing water from the polluted Flint River that corroded the old pipes that served the people of Flint.
And most recently, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation attempting to protect their water and the desecration of sacred lands, standing up against the building of fossil fuel infrastructure and the militarized response of law enforcement. They were opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline – which by the way, is already leaking! If anything can go wrong, it will.
And there’s a standoff in our own back yard. I asked Rev. Darin Collins, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Burrillville, what was happening with the proposed Invenergy Natural Gas Power Plant. I hadn’t heard too much or seen too many signs lately. He doesn’t know. But he knows the company comes in and offers money to the town and promises jobs. If it goes through, more pristine landscape in Northwestern RI will be lost and water supply will be threatened, and jobs will not materialize or last. We too quickly seize easy solutions for complex problems.
Why, the UCC asks, is global warming and climate change issues of faith? Because they are …
issues of environmental justice. For humans, those who are poor or unable to adjust will be the first to feel the effects of a warming planet; many will lose their homes to rising seas and be unable to grow food for their families. The scientific predictions are that as ice melts on Antarctica and Greenland, sea levels will rise as much as four feet, thus displacing millions of persons who live and work and grow food near the coasts. Low-lying countries such as Bangladesh will lose most of their land mass, islands in the Pacific will disappear, and coastal marshes such as The Everglades in South Florida will be under sea water. For plants and animals, global warming means that many will not adjust in time and will become extinct, thus reducing the diversity and beauty of God’s natural creation.
Developed countries such as the United States consume a disproportionate amount of the earth’s resources and produce a disproportionate amount of carbon. In the U.S., 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the earth’s resources, thus contributing a disproportionate amount to global warming. It is an issue of injustice between those who “have” and those who “have not.”
We hear these concerns expressed by Pope Francis who has a more global look than we do. In his prayer for the Earth, he begs God, “Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature ….”
Today is Earth Day. At noontime, local time, 100,000 people of all faiths will join in a prayer for climate healing. I will use that simple prayer during our prayer time. The introduction to the Earth Day Prayer notes, “The task of reversing global climate change is the great work of our generation, and we cannot do it alone. We need scientific minds, we need renewable technologies, we need policy action, but we also need spiritual power to create a paradigm shift in how we are related to Creation.”
This is what our UCC is doing with its Three Great Loves, awakening us to the moral peril of our time and calling us to Love Creation enough to do something about it, to save the Earth for our children and our neighbors.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
April 15, 2018
About 25 years ago, Norman Cousins, editor of the respected literary magazine Saturday Review in New York City, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable and fatal spinal column illness of unknown cause. He tired all sorts of alternative remedies, including vitamin B-17, large doses of vitamin C and others, with little or no effect on his condition.
So, one day, against the advice of his doctors, he left the hospital and closeted himself in his apartment for one month doing what he enjoyed most – reading humorous stories and jokes, watching comedy movies and reading his favorite comic books. He did nothing but laugh each day for one month. He also wrote original jokes which he would read aloud to himself, then laugh like crazy. He noticed that every time he laughed, his pain was eased.
At the end of one month, Cousins returned to the hospital for a checkup. To thee surprise of the medical staff who examined him, they found no trace of the dreaded disease. He was completely cured! So they asked Cousins what medicines he took that cured him. They would not believe him when he replied he had not taken any medicine since he was told his ailment was incurable.
They said, “You must have done something you never did before.” He finally replied,
“All I did was to laugh myself to health.” He became known as the man who cured himself through laughter, and was even appointed a faculty member of the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, although he was not a doctor. Cousins went on to write a number of books about illness and healing and recovery. And it’s possible to google “Laughter the Best Medicine” and find lots of options that advocate the power of laughter to heal ourselves.
The writer of Proverbs 17:22 knew this millennia ago when he wrote, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine.” Perhaps in our fast-paced, frantic world, we have forgotten this. Now, I’m not suggesting that laughter can heal everything, but it certainly helps. I know when I’ve been very busy and tied up in knots, and I spend time with friends laughing, my stress is relieved. I’ve been accused all my life of being too serious, but I found myself laughing as I put this service together!
Heaven knows the world could use some humor right now – and not just any humor – but holy humor, good clean fun that helps us to laugh at ourselves. Humor that doesn’t hurt anyone or put down a class of people. Humor that unites us rather than dividing us.
Here’s an example: “A guy goes to his barber and he’s all excited. He says, “I’m going to go to Rome. I’m flying Alitalia and staying at the Rome Hilton, and I’m going to see the pope” The barber says, “Ha! Alitalia is a terrible airline, the Rome Hilton is a dump, and when you see the pope you’ll probably be standing in back of 10,000 people.” So the guy goes to Rome and comes back. His barber asks, “How was it?” “Great,” he says, “Alitalia is a wonderful airline. The hotel was great. And I got to meet the pope!” “You met the pope?” “I bent down to kiss the pope’s ring.” “And what did he say?” “He said, ‘Where did you get that crummy haircut?’”
John Cleese, The Human Face, BBC Television (2001), writes, “I’m struck by how laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.”
Author Anne Lamott, in “Anne Lamott shares all that she knows: ‘Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared,’” writes about Grace as “Spiritual WD-40, Water wings:
“The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, “Help!” And then buckle up. Grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.”
Long before Anne Lamott, Mark Twain in his unfinished manuscripts, “The chronicle of young Satan,” 1897-1900, puts these words in Satan’s mouth: “Your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon – laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution – these can lift at a colossal humbug – push it a little – crowd it a little – weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laugher nothing can stand.”
And so we’ll continue to laugh and heal what we can in ourselves and in our world with the singing of our next hymn, “Take Time to Be Funny.” And we will sing in the spirit of Psalm 98:4, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.”
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
A Tangible God
April 8, 2018
It has been a busy day in Jerusalem. Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body – and found the tomb empty. The linen wrappings are just lying there where he had escaped them. She summons Peter and the beloved disciple who had come running, and they also found Jesus gone. Later, while Mary remains crying at the tomb, Jesus appears to her and instructs her to go to the disciples with the news that he is alive.
Now, it is Easter evening, later the same day. The disciples are huddled behind locked doors. They are scared and confused, afraid of the religious leaders. They have not grasped the message of Easter; they are not empowered by a new reality; they hide like cowards. Then suddenly, Jesus comes and stands in their midst, appearing miraculously in spite of the closed door. “Peace be with you,” he says to them.
But the peace that Jesus brings comes with a mission: “As the father has sent me, so I send you,” he tells them. The disciples are not only disciples now; they also are apostles, the ones who are sent to be witnesses to the love of God in all the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
All except for Thomas, who is not there. When the disciples share this unbelievable news with him, Thomas – of course – doesn’t believe it! The first, but not the last, “doubting Thomas.”
So, the disciples are commissioned. But do they go? To witness to the resurrection? To forgive sins? Apparently not, because they are still in hiding a week later.
Jesus appears again with the greeting, “Peace be with you” – and he challenges Thomas who is present this time. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A tangible God, one we can reach out and touch! Seeing is believing, as they say. Does it make a difference? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says.
Jesus intends that our “believing” will send us out into the world as agents of God’s reconciling love. Yet a chronic temptation of the church, then and now, is to stay behind closed doors. Yes, we take care of our own behind these doors. We visit, send cards, bring in meals, pray for each other.
But what about those on the other side of the closed door? The world is desperately in need of a tangible God – a God that people can touch on their side of the door. Rice City has its suppers and music nights; Moosup Valley has its campfires and concerts. What else does Greene and Foster need us to be and do? Where is the Spirit leading us now?
How can we make God tangible to our neighbors? Remember Gandhi’s teaching, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” So what are people hungry for in this community? And how can we be the bread of life for them?
We claim to be an Easter people, those who come out from behind closed doors to make God tangible. Remember what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” When we reach out in loving kindness to a needy world, we make God’s presence in the world real, we real-ize God’s presence, make God tangible in the community. We worship a God who breathes the Holy Spirit into us and who commissions us to make God’s love tangible in the world, in spite of our wounds.
This is important, because we think we need to have our house in order before we invite company, and we think we need to have our lives under control before we offer the hospitality of Christ to those around us.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says, even though our earth is suffering, our lives are not perfect, our communities are in conflict. Jesus comes into our midst, through the locked doors of our hearts, and says, “Reach out and touch me – and believe.”
May it be so.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Called by Name
April 1, 2018
All of our four gospels have a resurrection story – although they differ in how many women went to the tomb, the number of angels that greeted them, and other details. Mark, the earliest account, is the shortest and the most barren with its ragged ending: the women fleeing in terror and amazement, afraid to tell anyone what they had discovered.
John’s story is different. It’s the longest and the most dramatic, like a good book, full of description or a movie, full of suspense. It’s full of running feet, confusion, grief and longing – and an encounter with the risen Christ in the garden. John’s story is about love that survives death. Perhaps Easter is better understood by our hearts than by our minds.
In John’s gospel, Mary comes alone to the tomb, driven by her love for Jesus and not for her own safety, a woman alone in the darkness with soldiers roaming about. She finds the stone rolled away and runs to tell Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” (What does that mean? Didn’t Jesus love all the disciples?) The men race each other to the tomb to see for themselves Mary’s news. Is this good news? Where is Jesus’ body? Not in the tomb, that’s for sure! Has it been stolen?
Peter and the other disciple return home, satisfied that Jesus is not there, but Mary remains. Something holds her. Now she not only grieves Jesus’ violent death and the loss of his mesmerizing leadership for the followers and his compassion for the people, but she also grieves the loss of his mortal remains. She just can’t believe that he is gone, and so she bends down to take another look. Sometimes we find what we’re looking for when we look again. Persistence is rewarded. This time, two angels greet her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And then she turns around, and Jesus – although she doesn’t know it is Jesus – repeats the angels’ question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
We, like Mary, do not expect to see dead people rise from the grave and walk around and ask us questions, so she thinks he must be the gardener – until Jesus calls her by name: “Mary!” She turns and replies, “Rabbouni!” We can only imagine her intake of breath as she reaches for him. He is alive! How can this be? This is surely not a resuscitation, a return to things as they were before. This is not a mending of ripped hands and feet, a repairing of a pierced side, a rush of air into collapsed lungs. This is something different.
According to John, Mary looks Jesus in the eye, sees the turn of his lip in that garden smile, listens to him speak with the lilted voice of a trusted friend, hears the fall of his foot’s arch in wet grass at sunrise, and still doesn’t recognize him. Then, perhaps when her back is turned, he speaks her name, “Mary,” and the sound of his voice calling her name helps her to see him.
Who among us does not long for the voice of a loved one – a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, long since gone – calling our name just one more time? John portrays Mary’s recognition as turning on the fact that Jesus calls her by name. We long to be known by God, to matter to God, who loves us and cares for us individually, as he cared for Mary. We want to be seen and known in our most intimate places for who we are, in spite of ourselves. We want to be called by name.
Perhaps the resurrection is better understood as a feeling and not as an idea. We can engage the resurrection better through our senses than with our minds. And this morning, we engage the resurrection together, in the embrace of this beloved community, in the warmth of each other’s presence, in the solidness of this beloved building. We engage the resurrection in the laughter and greetings of friends, in the sound of our favorite hymns, in the taste of communion wine. And whenever we call each other by name.
Yes, Jesus is loose in the world, not trapped in a tomb. The world thought it had put love to death on a cross, but no, Jesus is risen. Jesus is risen indeed! And so we come here on this Easter morning, in spite of our personal tragedies, and the world’s pervasive social injustice, and the twin treacheries of violence and greed, as testimony to the faith that divine love – embodied in scripture and tradition and worship and in each other! – cannot be killed or locked away.
We encounter the resurrection better with our hearts than with our minds. And when we do, we can shout with Mary to all the world, “I have seen the Lord!”
May it be so! Amen.